Evaluation of Student Facing Web-Based Services: Studyit (CORE Education)
The document provides a final service report on the Studyit website as part of a larger evaluation of web-based learning services for children and young people in New Zealand. The report is complemented by similar reports relating to the AnyQuestions and WickED websites.
Author(s): Ann Trewern & Derek Wenmoth
Date Published: August 2008
Learning for Providers, Teachers and Schools
Impact on school and teacher practices
It is not the aim of the Studyit service currently to provide professional direction for schools or for teachers although this is a service and new direction that Studyit could explore in the future and still keep to its central aims of providing help and support for students working towards New Zealand NCEA qualifications. Its innovative and educative role is to provide personalised and individualised learning for students who may not be able to access this within their schools for a variety of reasons.
While the place for Studyit as a resource for the classroom is limited, there is no doubt a role for teachers to introduce the site, and particularly the forums, to students as a class activity. There is some evidence to suggest this sometimes happens but the main purpose of Studyit is to support students with individual and independent study, not to integrate the site into classroom activities.
Positioning as learning environments by teachers and schools
The key role of schools is to act as a recommender and reminder to students that the resource exists. Listing the resource on the school intranet or learning management system for those students who may stay to complete homework in the information technology or computer lab during lunchtimes and after school, and including information about Studyit and the web address in school newsletters that go home to parents should be widely encouraged.
The senior secondary school is rapidly developing a very different look for many students who are facing a range of teaching and learning options that are muddying the distinctions between schools and some tertiary institutions. Student involvement in Star and Gateway programmes, and the increasing take up of virtual teaching across groups of schools, mean that some schools are beginning to need to include learning and study facilities to support students who have flexible timetables and locations for study. Studyit has an obvious role to play in the context of more flexible senior school teaching and learning landscapes.
It is suggested that other teachers could learn a great deal from the Studyit site even if they only visit and look. Perusing the discussions reveals the kinds of questions that are being asked and just what students are encountering difficulties with.
This is also a programme where teachers could participate. There is nothing to stop other teachers from becoming involved from time to time in the discussions. More specialist expertise available to support students, would be ideal. One mentor suggested the need for including scientists involved in fieldwork. Another mentor suggested the idea that to begin to train student-mentors to help students on the site might be a worthwhile innovation.
Mentor teachers found they gained considerable benefit from their involvement with Studyit. Mentors indicated they enjoyed it when students clarified some knowledge demonstrating they had ‘got it’, getting to know these students with their aliases through their messages, and when students answer each others questions – something that is not seen in classrooms. One teacher mentor said,
This site is a lifeline for many kids in schools where there is a high turnover of staff– particularly teachers coming in from overseas half way through the year and don’t know anything about NCEA. (Mentor teacher interview)
Learning for front line service providers and the partnering organisations
Although the net of potential students that could be included in this site is quite large, involving about three – fifths of the current secondary school population, the site remains used by a relatively small group of committed and active users who are themselves only a small percentage, 14% (Ingrey & Marlow, 2006), of the total number who are registered1. This level of involvement in online text-based forums is not unusual.
Current website design and development, devised with input from student groups, aims for active student involvement in Studyit and is undoubtedly a successful one for the largely high achieving group that are currently involved. This can be clearly observed throughout the site and is highlighted in the earlier findings and analysis section of this report. The original Studyit focus on elements of interactivity, language, tone and design is mentioned in the literature review accompanying this suite of reports (Nielsen Gorman report, 2005 in Coogan, 2006, p35), as important factors that attract teen users who have a greater tendency to target particular sites for particular purposes than do younger children. The centrality of a website’s useful for schoolwork and communication with peers was among a list of attractants for teens that highlighted by the Nielsen Gorman report.
This research team believe that Studyit is one of the most successful online forum sites they have observed in terms of the frequency of interaction and depth of learning evident from contributors and the level of inquiry that is supported by the teacher mentors.
Teacher mentors were aware of the changed pedagogical approaches in Studyit and several mentioned that approaches were completely different from those they used in the classroom. They enjoyed working with students in co-constructing knowledge where they could concentrate on knowledge building rather than issues of management; and support and improve the quality of collaborative thinking for students through both explicit pedagogical processes (that is the way interactions in the forums are structured and encouraged) and through setting tasks for students to try out. Effective teaching could be observed in the forums with examples of reciprocal teaching, cooperation, negotiation, hints, feedback and prompting for questions and elaborations.
Effective teaching through task setting could also be observed with setting instructions, suggestion of domain specific formats of task representation particularly evident in many of the mathematics and physics problem transcripts, re-tailoring tasks so that students can co-perform them in slightly different ways, and modelling of strategies that scaffold student‘s domain knowledge construction, as well as developing understanding and acquiring skills.
This group of student users and teacher mentors are very happy with the service and see enormous value in it. There is clearly a level of customisation and personalisation in Studyit, which for many students, was unavailable in their instruction at school. Users tended to see possible improvement in terms of providing more of the same, for example more detailed notes, faster responses, more subjects covered and other refinements. At one level it would be recommended that new directions would involve a slow and gradual expansion of the Studyit service into a broader range of NCEA subject areas and also possibly a more specialised teacher area that would offer help and assistance to teachers needing to know or check up about NCEA rules and regulations for students but also as first level checking service for NCEA moderation issues and other concerns teachers may have around NCEA. On another level changes to the group size and composition, incentives for involvement and currently successful process and task structures may impact negatively on key success elements such as the support structures, dialogue and interaction and maintenance of the joint problem space. This is a successful but also extremely complex and fragile learning environment.
Currently, the reach of the service, and the breadth of involvement, appears to be limited. Several mentor-teachers commented on the fact that the site ‘was not widely known about’ and ‘needed more promotion’. To what extent Studyit had been previously marketed at the time of data gathering is not clear to this research team but it is recommended that more extensive marketing be considered. Lifting the profile of Studyit for specific target groups such as rural students and teachers, students who may be taking a non offered subject in the school by correspondence, and international students seems appropriate.
The group of students unable to be recognised in this report are those who are registered users and who visit the site to look and learn but who never participate openly. It is recognised that this non-participant group can, as is the case in most online text-based forums, be of significant size and that it cannot be assumed that no less learning is taking place for them than for those who are active. Key feedback ideally needs to be gathered from this group about what it would take to get these interested but non-active students involved. It may be that this group need more of those features which attract teenagers to websites generally especially, personalisation, careful use of visuals and interactivity whereby content is delivered through, for example, games and a greater social element. Any marketing of the service to a potentially larger group that is wider than the group currently engaged in Studyit needs to be carefully considered. It is recognised there is also the possibility that involving this group may be beyond what can be practically resourced. How to actively engage a greater number of users is one that is faced by online learning environments everywhere.
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