e-learner profiles: Identifying trends and diversity in student needs, orientations and aspirations Publications
This report was commissioned by the Ministry and undertaken by Massey University in collaboration with the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology, The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand and Otago Polytechnic. The report provides a framework of the diverse e-Learner profiles found throughout the tertiary sector, taking into account:
- Learning orientations (learning styles).
- Readiness for e-Learning, and;
- Experience of and attitudes to e-Learning.
It identified structural trends in the tertiary student body in recent years and changes in the students themselves in terms of attitudes, approaches to study, needs and aspirations.
Author(s): Lynn M Jeffrey, Massey University, Clare Atkins, Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology, Axel Laurs, The Open Polytechnic, Samuel Mann, Otago Polytechnic. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education.
Date Published: October 2006
Three significant trends have caused tertiary education organisations (TEO's) to rethink how they prepare graduates for their place in the community. These trends include: the changing face of the student body, rapid technology developments and new educational goals. Educational organisations must find appropriate ways of meeting the diverse needs of their diverse students; integrate new technology into the teaching process and up-date curriculum goals to address societal expectations of tertiary graduates.
The composition of the student body has altered dramatically in the last twenty years, largely as a result of Government policy to achieve greater open access to higher learning. Only about half the student body is in fulltime study, the average age is higher than in the past, there are more women than men and a wide range of ethnicities are represented in large numbers (NZ Ministry of Education, 2004). However, the retention statistics are not so encouraging, with many of the non-traditional students being the most vulnerable to failure or non-completion (Benseman, Coxon, Anderson, & Anae, 2006; McKenzie, 2005; Scott, 2005). Technology offers the promise of extending the role of lecturers and improving learning outcomes for these diverse students, but little work has been done to date on how this might be accomplished. While some students have welcomed technology into their learning experience, others have resisted its introduction. Finally, TEO's are moving from merely transmitting bodies of knowledge to developing independent knowledge workers who are able to think for themselves. These trends imply the need to understand and accommodate the diverse learning needs in teaching practice. Like Canute's tide, technology rolls relentlessly on and TEO's must harness its benefits to assist in meeting the varied needs of tertiary students whilst preparing them to take more responsibility for their own learning, become critical thinkers and life long learners.
This study took the first step in the process by specifying important learning related orientations and identifying differences in these orientations between groups of students. These differences may provide the basis for designing learning experiences that more closely match the diverse needs and preferences of students rather than the one-style-fits all approach that is the hallmark of traditional teaching. Implicit in this is the notion that traditional teaching modes may need to change. Consequently the study also looked at student attitudes to a range of teaching modes and the relationship between preferred teaching modes and learning orientations. Additionally, where students sourced most of their information for study, and what skills and knowledge they believe to be important were examined.
The sample size was 1811 and came from six universities, five polytechnics or institutes and six private training organisations. A combination of printed questionnaires and online questionnaires were used. The questions were identical in both formats.
The results produced eleven learning orientations. These included: a preference for learning by listening (18.2% of students were high on this and 4.3% low); learning visually rather than by text (14.3% high and 33.4% low); working collaboratively rather than alone (14.8% high, 38.9% low); time poorness (13.8% high, 7.4% low); achievement motivation (29.1% high, 1.3% low); intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation (39.9% high, 10.3% low); effort (18.2% high, 4.3% low); goal focus (46% high, 0.2% low); relativistic reasoning rather than factual (8.8% high, 28.7% low); dependent rather than independent learning (21.1% high, 22.8% low); and global rather than sequential learning (15.2% high, 24.4% low). These orientations were subjected to further principal components analysis which produced three super components, called here learner profiles: they are cognitive voyagers, strategic competitors and multimedia collaborators.
Strategic competitors characterise the largest group of students with about 34% of the student body being high on this learning profile. They have a driving ambition to succeed, are hard-working and disciplined in their study and approach learning strategically. Only about 12% of the tertiary population were high on the cognitive voyagers learning profile. These students understand learning to be a personal journey during which they engage in reflection and debate to socially construct knowledge that has meaning for them. About 20% of students are high on multimedia collaboration. These students prefer learning by listening to explanations, visually and in small text-bites. They have a dislike of reading long, academic passages. They also prefer to work collaboratively with other students.
Anovas and t-tests were used to measure differences between students. Students from the millennial generation (born after 1982) were different from older students on a range of characteristics including higher preferences for learning by listening, using visuals and working collaboratively. They were lower than older students on intrinsic motivation, independent learning and goal focus. Post graduate students were higher than others on relativistic reasoning, intrinsic motivation, independence and global learning. Maori and Polynesian students tended to be higher than other ethnic groups on a preference for listening and achievement motivation. European students were higher than others on independence, intrinsic motivation and a preference for working alone. Chinese students were higher than others on working collaboratively, a preference for learning visually and extrinsic motivation.
Of all the major subject areas fine arts students were the most different to others. They were highest on relativistic reasoning (abstract thinking), learning visually, intrinsic motivation and global learning. They were lowest on effort. Medicine and science students were the lowest on relativistic reasoning, and technology and engineering students were highest on working collaboratively. IT, information systems and library students were highest on effort.
Two large differences were found between international and domestic students. Domestic students were much higher than international on intrinsic motivation and a preference for working alone. They were also higher on independent learning and a preference for text (rather than visual) learning. Internationals students were higher on relativistic reasoning. A few moderate differences were found between the genders. Females were higher on intrinsic motivation and a preference for working collaboratively. Males had a stronger preference for visual learning.
While traditional modes of teaching (lectures, tutorials and printed study materials) were preferred above online learning modes, differences in age were apparent. Only 60% of students 23 years old or less liked traditional teaching modes, compared to 69% of students aged 24 – 41 and 72.3% of students 42 and above. Traditional modes were disliked by 10.7% of students under 23, 7% of students between 24-41 and 6.7% of older students. Lectures and tutorials were mainly associated with the learning orientations of listening, intrinsic motivation, effort, goal focus and visual learning in descending order of importance. Printed study materials were mainly associated with effort, listening (negatively), working alone and text.
Student-based modes such as group work and student presentations were the most disliked. Students 23 and under had slightly higher levels of liking (33.3%) and lower levels of dislike (29.9%) than other groups. Of the 24-41 age group 34.3% dislike this mode and 32% liked it. The trend continued with older students of whom 36% disliked it and only 29.5 liked it. Student-based teaching modes were associated with a preference for working collaboratively and relativistic reasoning (abstract thinking). Student presentations were also associated with listening, achievement motivation and effort.
Purely online courses were disliked by 28.2% of under 23 year olds, 20% of 24-41 years olds and 29.5% of older students. They were liked by 34.9% of younger students, 40.4% of 24-41 year olds and 39.4% of older students. Blended courses (a mixture of online and traditional modes) fared better: 13.9% of those under 23 disliked them but 51% liked them; 10.8% of 24-41 year olds disliked them but 51.8% liked them; and 17.1% of older students disliked them but 47.4% liked them.
Textbooks and study guides (used 'often' by 82.4% of students) were the most important source of information for study, but only marginally more so than the internet (used 'often' by 77.4%). Library resources, both printed materials, used 'often' by 54.2% and online resources, used 'often' by 44.9% were considerably less used. Students rated 'knowing how to get information' (rated important by 93.8% of students) and 'being able to evaluate the worth of information' (rated important by 88.7%) as the most important skills to have. Having a large body of knowledge was rated the least important (rated important by 76.7%). Word processing (used 'often' by 79.3 of students), email (used 'often' by 77%) and finding information (used 'often' by 66.8%) were the three most frequent uses of the computer by students.
This study identified differences in learning orientations and learner profiles between students along demographic lines which raises the question of how such differences should be addressed. Nobody yet has reached a definitive answer to that question. The main debate centres around whether student preferences should be accommodated (matched) or deliberately not accommodated (mismatched). The results of this study suggest that a judicious mix of both approaches is appropriate.
Students continue to show a strong preference for traditional teaching formats such as lectures. However, these are strongly associated with a dependency style in students. As TEO's move to other teaching formats, particularly online, students will make this transition more readily if teachers can find ways of restructuring the traditional format and give students a greater role to play.
A range of new educational goals have been articulated. Many of these include the need for students to be able to work independently and collaboratively, and to be life long learners (Candy, 2000; McCombs & Vakili, 2005). An integration of technology-based modes with student-based modes would seem to offer the best opportunity to develop these qualities. However, student attitudes to these approaches need to be improved. The evidence suggests that students dislike online learning because of inexperience on their part, an inability to cope with self directed learning, having a learning orientation that does not easily adjust to hypermedia, a lack of robustness in the technology systems causing frustration and a poor use of the technology to create truly interesting interactive learning. Addressing these issues is likely to bring about greater acceptance of technology-based learning.