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Learning interactions: A cross-institutional multi-disciplinary analysis of learner-learner and learner-teacher and learner-content interactions in online learning contexts
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Executive summary

Learning management systems are at the forefront of the online technologies making a serious impression on patterns of learning and teaching in higher education (Coates, 2006). Learning management systems (LMSs), often referred to as course management systems (CMSs) and as virtual learning environments (VLEs), are becoming ubiquitous at universities around the world (Coates, James, & Baldwin, 2005) and in a relatively short time have become perhaps the most widely used educational technology in higher education (West, Waddoups, & Graham, 2006). It has been argued that, despite the LMSs’ increasingly profound effects on learning and teaching (Coates et al., 2005), research into the educational effectiveness of LMSs is limited (Lopes, 2008) and is often based on assumptions about campus learning environments (Coates, 2006).

Distance education’s online environments offer an educational domain unique in their potential for interaction, participation and collaboration and have been acknowledged to represent one of the fastest growing contexts for adult learning. Although the question of how learners interact in computer-mediated environments has received increasing research attention, little is known about the dynamics and processes of learner interaction and how these relate to learning in online courses. This project drew from and built upon two different studies conducted by members of the project team (Beer, 2012; Rossi, 2012). In the study, researchers from Central Queensland University and the University of Southern Queensland engaged in an action research process that utilised a collective case study design to reach cross-institution, multidisciplinary understandings of the patterns, processes and consequences of learner-content, learner-learner and learner-teacher interaction in online courses.

Five cases were designed to investigate the phenomenon of learning interactions in online learning management systems. Two key questions were framed as a ‘way in’ to that investigation: How do learners interact in online courses? What are the patterns, processes and consequences of learner-learner, learner-teacher and learner-content interactions in these courses? For each case, data were collected from static course archives of two higher education institutions. Data analysis procedures consisted of: (a) learning management system data mining of user activities, student results and demographics; (b) content analysis of course profiles and other related course materials such as handbook entries and assessment marking criteria; (c) statistical analysis of LMS systems logs and course statistics; (d) categorical analysis according to the central tenets of grounded theory; and (e) thematic constructions of learner-learner, learner-teacher and learner-content interactions.

The conclusion from this project is that these LMS design features continue to favour learner-content interactions. Of most interest to the teaching academic is that over-emphasis on content creation and learner-content interaction to engage learners is misguided, and their time is better spent focusing on embedding in their course design interaction between learners, their peers and their teachers. Evidence from the project indicates that engagement with course content will naturally arise out of directed interaction between learners, their peers, and their teachers. However, the reverse is not necessarily the case because directed interaction with content does not engage learners with their peers, nor their teacher.

The project report findings are presented in the following chapters:

  • Chapter 2: a literature review (a focused account of interactions and the use of learning analytics in online environments as well as an audit of scholarly peer reviewed outputs in the field of online learning in higher education);
  • Chapter 3: an innovative research approach utilising mixed methods of data collection and analysis to construct cases within an action research process;
  • Chapters 4 and 5: a data set from which a conceptual model and a set of evidence-based curriculum development and delivery guidelines are proposed.

Based on the results of the research a model has been constructed to explain the relationships among course design, interaction and learning in online courses and the patterns, processes and consequences of different types of interaction in online learning contexts. A set of guidelines has also been developed which identify curriculum design and delivery conditions conducive to interaction and effective learning in online courses. Further details of these outcomes are provided in Chapter 5 of this report.

Summary of findings

The pedagogical and curriculum design implications of this study are subtle, yet profound.

  • The rate and nature of change in technology use in Australia’s tertiary sector will continue to be unrelenting with profound effects on the work of teachers, students, technologists and administrators.
  • Research in this area is dispersed among the disciplines and divisions of institutions; and is diversely different in its theoretical and methodological orientations.
  • Pedagogical design and practices that stimulate human interaction within virtual environments, corresponds with heightened student engagement with course content.
  • It is the focus on human interaction and less so on content that results in more rounded interactivity and engagement in the course itself.