Volume 16 Numbers 1& 2, 2006
EFFECTS OF COURSE MATERIALS AVAILABLE ON THE WEB
Use of the Internet as a supplementary teaching tool has become increasingly popular among university professors. As a new medium of communication, the Internet is playing an important role in college student learning. Courses offered through the Internet are increasing, and more professors are putting materials on the Internet to facilitate student learning. Web-based teaching and learning are becoming an integrated part of higher education. As a new vehicle to disseminate knowledge and facilitate college students learning, the Web-based teaching and learning tools need a better understanding to be more effective. The purpose of this study is to look at how students use course materials made available on the Web by professors and what effects these Web course materials have on students’ class engagement and learning outcomes.
There has been widespread interest in using technologies to solve critical problems in higher education. Exploration of the Internet as a teaching and learning tool is expanding (Green & Gentemann, 2001). As the Internet becomes more integrated into college students’ lives, more professors begin to combine face-to-face and online instruction in hopes of exploring a new way of teaching that is the most effective and positively related to student performance. If the materials can be presented in a variety of formats, then students have a greater chance of success (Clark, 2002).
An easy-to-implement approach is to make course-related materials available on the Web. According to Boettcher, a "Web-enhanced course" uses the Web to distribute course materials and provides students with online resources (Boettcher, 1999). Such a course is considered "Web-enhanced" as class and lab attendance are still expected. Professors who have integrated the Internet into their teaching have been able to hold the attention of their students and direct them to interactive learning tools necessary for their total understanding of a concept discussed in class. Because of a wider range of online presentations, the approach has resulted in students’ increased attentiveness and motivation (Basile & D’Aquila, 2002).
Both cognitivist (Wertheimer, 1959) and constructivist perspectives (Piaget, 1977) of learning theories apply to Web-enhanced learning (Haseman et al., 2002). A primary goal of instruction from a cognitivist perspective is to transfer knowledge to learners in the most efficient and effective manner. Attention to motivation, attitude change, anxiety reduction, and easy/flexible access are some of the key mechanisms. Jonassen (1990) suggests that constructivist approaches to instructional technology need application tools such as database, hypertext, and expert systems that can be employed by learners as knowledge building tools to help learners think more productively. For instance, hypertext facilitates cognitive flexibility by allowing specific topics to be explored in multiple ways using a number of different concepts or themes (Spiro & Jehng, 1990). System flexibility and encouraging "active" user inputs and participation are some of the key mechanisms.
Research on the Internet as a vehicle in higher education focused more on comparing learning outcomes of Web-based and Web-enhanced learning with traditional face-to-face learning. However, results of these studies are often conflicting. Researchers found significant differences, positive or negative, in using different Internet-based approaches to facilitate teaching and learning (Beard, 2002; Carey & Lovelady , 2002).
Some studies found Web-based learning had a positive effect on students’ performance. Schutte (1996) conducted a study in a social statistics course at California State University, Northridge. Thirty-three students were randomly divided into two groups, one taught in a traditional classroom and the other taught virtually on the World Wide Web. Text, lectures and exams were standardized between the two groups. The results demonstrated the virtual class scored an average 20% higher than the traditional class on both examinations.
Studies also showed that Web-enhanced learning, with course materials available on the Web in addition to face-to-face instruction, was positively related to students’ learning outcomes. In his study of courses with a large mathematical component over three semesters, Clark (2002) found that grades increased in Web-enhanced courses compared to a previous semester when lecture notes were not available on the Web. Many students said that they liked being able to print the lecture notes and bring them to class so they could add their comments to the printed outline. In a study of a solid waste management course, McCreanor (2000) found the use of Web-enhancements had a positive effect. Some of the benefits observed were that students arrived at class better prepared for the material to be presented and that students focus could be directed to the important topics. Student comments indicated they had little preparation to do immediately prior to an exam and they knew which topics to review for the exam.
Web-based or enhanced learning was also found to be positively associated with involvement of learning activities. In a semester-long exploratory study that focused on the effects of Web-centric learning on student learning outcomes in an MBA program, Driver (2002) concluded that Web-centric learning environments had a positive effect on student’s social interaction, involvement with course content, technical skills, and overall learning experience. By examining the integration of computer-delivered listening comprehension exercises into the university-level foreign language curriculum, Despain (1997) found that students tended to learn more effectively or efficiently using the computer delivery system. Students in the computer group had a more positive attitude toward language learning in general. In a study on how Web-based materials enhanced teaching and learning in an introductory operations management course, Karuppan & Karuppan (1999) found that the Web site facilitated students' note-taking and studying, enhanced class discussion, and aided retention; it did not encourage students to miss class, as some faculty feared. Felix (2001) concluded in his study of Web-based learning that students were, on the whole, positively inclined to work with the Web and found it useful. Not only did the students involved in Web-based learning have high levels of enjoyment, their levels of enjoyment also increased over time.
Contrasting with these positive results, Robertson (1999) claimed that the Internet “masks the pitfalls, frustrations, and dangers of this technology for teachers and students.” The three main problems he noted here: the difficulty locating material relevant to the specific requirements, the lack of real quality control, and the undermining of academic integrity by the Web. He argued that students and educators no longer have control of the Internet.
Studies also abound demonstrating "no significant difference" in student performance due to medium of delivery instruction. In a study that compiled 50 years of research comparing different delivery methods of instruction, Russell (1999) found no significant differences in learning outcomes when looking only at the medium of delivering instruction. Based on a study of comparing outcomes of an online and face-to-face advanced English course, Green and Gentemann (2001) concluded there were no significant differences between students in the online courses compared to students in the face-to-face courses in terms of course retention or course grade. Fallah and Ubell (2000) also confirmed results from previous research showing that there was little or no difference in student learning outcomes when online learning was compared to on-campus classroom experiences.
AScribe Newswire (Stepanovich, 2002) reported that a study by Robert Carlisle at California State University, Bakersfield, found that 917 students made significant gains regardless of what resource they used. Carlisle concluded that it did not matter whether the class was online, face to face, or on television, all students made significant gains. This four-year study found that students using material and classes online produced slightly higher but not significantly different scores versus face-to-face learning.
When discussing the function of media in education, Clark (1983) pointed out that media were mere vehicles that delivered instruction but did not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivered groceries caused changes in nutrition. He argued that the choice of vehicle might influence the cost or extent of distributing instruction, but only the content of the vehicle could influence achievement. Another explanation for the "no significant difference" phenomena was that students who selected online courses did so because they were mature, responsible learners who expected to succeed in that environment, and hence, were not representative of the larger student population. These capable students would succeed regardless of the course format (Kennedy, 2000).
Clark’s argument found support from a study of news media use that demonstrated that regular viewers of TV news shared approximately the same average knowledge as regular users of other media (Robinson & Levy, 1996). However, a study comparing knowledge acquisition from print and online newspapers showed that which media carry the information does make a difference in knowledge acquisition about the media content (Tewksbury & Althaus, 2000).
Inconsistent as those findings may seem, the results are also far from being conclusive as several key drawbacks were found in the current research of effects of Web-enhanced learning on students’ performance. First, the studies tended to focus on student learning outcomes of a single course rather than on their overall college learning experience. The result in learning from one course may not be applicable to other courses. Second, few studies looked at learning outcomes based on students’ perceived learning process. Use of Web-enhanced course materials is a learning process. Effective use of instructional technology is related to the process of learning and the acquisition of knowledge (Seels & Richey, 1994). Previous studies tended to separate learning outcomes from students’ experience in a learning process. How a student perceives the learning process may affect his perceived learning outcomes. Third, the comparisons of online and offline learning were limited in scope. The studies were mostly based on two situations, online and offline. The learning environment and experience of college students are far beyond this black or white situation as Web enhanced learning becomes a mainstream practice in college learning. On-campus classroom teaching plus use of Web-enhanced learning make the college learning a remarkably different situation from either online or offline learning. Besides, many of the previous studies did not use randomly selected subjects, resulting in limited external validity.
Whether Web-based or enhanced learning has a positive effect on class engagement is a key concern of university instructors because student participation in classroom activities is the starting point of active learning. Class engagement is a concept that has been studied from a variety of perspectives in education research (Ahlfeldt, Mehta, & Sellnow, 2005; Greenwood, Horton, & Utley, 2002; Hughes & Kwok, 2006), and was found to be positively related to academic achievements (DiPerna & Elliott, 2002; Elliott & DiPerna, 2002), class engagement is defined in terms of behavioral engagement (working hard, participating in classroom activities, attending to instruction). Greenwood et al. (2002) defined academic engagement as a composite of specific classroom behaviors: writing, participating in tasks, reading aloud, and asking and answering questions. Class engagement behaviors were also categorized into global and specific behaviors (Cobb, 1972; Hoge, 1985). Participating in classroom activities and attending instruction were categorized as global behaviors of class engagement. Whereas several studies looked at the effect of Web-based or enhanced learning on involvement in class activities, none of them examined the effect of Web-based or enhanced learning on a composite of classroom behaviors under the concept of class engagement.
This study examines to what degree use of course materials on the Web affected students’ likelihood of class engagement. Class engagement in this study refers to students’ global behaviors in participating in learning activities in college education such as attending a class and taking notes in class. This study also examines how students used course materials made available on the Web by professors, to what degree use of course materials on the Web affected students’ perceived learning process and learning outcomes, and to what degree perceived learning process when using Web-enhanced course materials was related to learning outcomes.
Giving the inconsistent findings of effect of Web-based teaching on learning outcomes from previous research, this study adopts the position of positive relationship between Web-enhanced teaching and involvement in learning activities and learning outcomes for the following reasons: 1) Evidence of effects outweighed that of no effect. Studies showed positive effects of Web-enhanced teaching on involvement of learning activities and learning outcomes with specifics such as facilitating class preparation and engagement. This study tests the effect of Web-enhanced learning on similar class taking behaviors. 2) In general, the “no effect” studies only compared online and on-campus learning. With added benefits of Web-enhanced learning materials besides face-to-face instruction, the richer resources in facilitating learning are likely to produce positive results. Based on the literature review and discussions of previous findings, this study tests the following hypotheses:
H1. Use of Web-enhanced learning materials is positively related to likelihood of class engagement.
H2. Use of Web-enhanced learning materials is positively related to learning process.
H3. Use of Web-enhanced learning materials is positively related to learning outcomes.
H4. Perceived learning process in using Web-enhanced learning materials is positively related to perceived learning outcomes.
This study will also try to answer the following research questions:
RQ1. What Web-enhanced learning materials play the most important role in facilitating student learning?
RQ2. To what degree did course materials available on the Web change students’ likelihood of class engagement?
A survey was employed to test the hypotheses and answer the research questions. The population of interest of this study is college students. A college student is defined as a person who engages in studies in a higher education institution. This study chose the student body of a large university in the Southern U.S. as its population. While it is ideal to use college students nationwide as the population of study to increase external validity, the large number of students this study was based on and the random sample allow the study to be more manageable and produce meaningful results that have a certain level of explaining power.
The student directory of the university was used as the sampling frame. A total of 31,582 students were identified in the student directory in 2002. Four hundred students were selected from the sampling frame using systematic sampling, which was a little over one percent of the student body.
The survey was conducted using telephone interviews. Interviewers called the selected students using the telephone numbers listed in the student directory. If a student selected had graduated, the telephone number no longer worked or no phone number was listed, the next student on the directory was selected. A total of 346 telephone interviews out of 400 students were completed, which resulted in a response rate of 87%.
This study focuses on how Web-enhanced course materials affect students’ class engagement and learning outcomes. Web-enhanced course materials refer to study guides, course notes, FAQ’s, interactive learning tools and resources relevant to the course available on the Internet which enable active learners to use them at their ease (Simpson & Dallas, 2001). For this study, the following categories were used to identify course materials on the Web based on a pilot survey of 35 students at the university: lecture notes, assignments, readings, discussion forum and professor’s comments.
The one-page questionnaire contained 20 questions on how the students used course materials available on the Web and whether their likelihood of class engagement, perceived learning process and perceived learning outcomes were affected. If a student did not take any class that had course materials on the Web, they were asked a similar set of questions in future tense. For example, “Which of the following is the most helpful to your study?” was used for students with course materials available on the Web. “Which of the following will be the most helpful to your study?” was used for students without course materials available on the Web. Data collected on the students without course materials available on the Web reflected their views if they had access to course materials on the Web.
The key variables this study examined were defined and measured as follows:Independent variables
The items of each dependent variable were measured with a 5-point Likert scale, from strongly agree to strongly disagree. The original three statements measuring likelihood of class engagement all denoted negative positions. So a negative response to a statement represented a positive likelihood of class engagement. Strongly disagree was coded as 5 and strongly agree was coded as 1. For the other two dependent variables, perceived learning process and perceived learning outcomes, all statements denoted positive positions. Strongly agree indicated a positive response, and was coded as 5; Strongly disagree was coded as 1.
Principal component factor analysis was employed to identify the items to be used for indices. Items loading on the strongest factor were used to create additive indices for the dependent variables. For the three items measuring likelihood of class engagement, factor analysis extracted one factor with 64% variance explained. Reliability analysis yielded a coefficient of .71. Perceived learning process was measured with five items. Factor analysis extracted one factor with 55% variance explained. Reliability analysis yielded a coefficient of .79. Perceived learning outcomes was measured with three items. Factor analysis extracted one factor with 74% variance explained. Reliability analysis yielded a coefficient of .82. A composite index was created as a measure of each dependent variable.
Out of 346 respondents, 273 (79%) students reported that they had access to course materials available on the Web for at least one class they took. Of the students who had the course materials on the Web, 77% had access to assignments, 70% had lecture notes, 48% could obtain readings, 28% could read professor’s comments, and 19% had class forums. Two-thirds of the students used the course materials on the Web quite often, 25% sometimes, and 10% rarely. The number of classes taken was not found to be related to frequency of use of course materials on the Web (r = .04, p > .05). Whether a student cared more about grades was found to be weakly related to frequency of use of course materials on the Web (r = .13, p < .01) and likelihood of class engagement (r = .17, p < .01). Comfort in using a computer for learning was positively related to likelihood of class engagement (r = .24, p < .01), perceived learning process (r = .39, p < .01) and perceived learning outcomes (r = .30, p < .01).
H1, that use of Web-enhanced learning materials is positively related to likelihood of class engagement, was not supported. The hypothesis was tested by looking at the relationship between the two independent variables, whether course materials were available on the Web and frequency of use, and the dependent variable, likelihood of class engagement. Pearson’s correlation between frequency of use and likelihood of class engagement was not statistically significant (r = .05, p > .05). An independent sample t test showed that the mean difference of likelihood of class engagement between students with and without access to course materials on the Web was not statistically significant (mean difference = .38, t = 1.07, p > .05). The results indicated neither availability of course materials on the Web nor frequency of use was associated with likelihood of class engagement.
H2, that use of Web-enhanced learning materials is positively related to learning process, was moderately supported. Pearson’s correlation between frequency of use and perceived learning process was statistically significant (r = .34, p < .01). An independent sample t test showed that the mean difference of perceived learning process between the students with and without access to course materials on the Web was not statistically significant (mean difference = .68, t = 1.45, p > .05). The results indicated that frequency of use was associated with perceived learning process, but whether course materials were available on the Web was not associated with perceived learning process. Students with course materials on the Web saw Web-enhanced learning highly beneficial in their learning process, while the students without course materials on the Web delivered a similar view on their learning process provided course materials on the Web were available to them.
H3, that use of Web-enhanced learning materials is positively related to learning outcomes, was moderately supported. Pearson’s correlation between frequency of use and perceived learning outcomes was statistically significant (r = .36, p < .01). An independent sample t test showed that the mean difference of perceived learning outcomes between the students with and without access to course materials on the Web was not statistically significant (mean difference = .11, t = .35, p > .05). The results indicated that frequency of use was associated with perceived learning outcomes, but whether course materials were available on the Web was not associated with perceived learning outcomes. Students with course materials available perceived Web-enhanced learning highly helpful with their learning outcomes, while students without course materials on the Web perceived similar learning outcomes provided course materials on the Web were available to them.
H4, Perceived learning process in using Web-enhanced learning materials is positively related to learning outcomes, was strongly supported. Pearson’s correlation between perceived learning process and perceived learning outcomes was statistically significant (r = .64, p < .01).
The data analysis also produced answers to the research questions:
RQ1. What Web-enhanced learning materials play the most important role in facilitating student learning?
With all students included, out of the five major categories of course materials, lecture notes were wanted most by students (73%), followed by assignments (15%), readings (6%), professor’s comments (3.8%), and class forums (2.6%) (Figure 1). With students who had the course materials available on the Web, 70% got lecture notes, 44% got help for assignments, 44% picked up the readings, 35% tried to make up for missed classes, 25% read professor’s comments, 10% participated in class forums, and 14.5% did other things (Figure 2).
RQ2. To what degree did course materials available on the Web change students’ likelihood of class engagement?
With all students included, 35% of the students disagreed that they would skip classes if course materials were available on the Web, while 41% of the students said they would skip classes if course materials were available on the Web (Figure 3). Two-thirds of the students disagreed that they would skip taking notes in class if lecture notes were available on the Web, while 23% of the students said they would skip taking notes in class if lectures were available on the Web. The number of students who would not skip classes if lecture notes were available on the Web (43%) was close to the number of students who would skip the classes if lecture notes were available on the Web (39%).
According to the findings, the majority (79%) of the students had access to the course materials on the Web for the classes they took. A variety of materials were made available on the Web. Among them, assignments, lecture notes and readings were the most popular items. Availability of the course materials on the Web provided flexible ways to access class materials and enhance students’ learning. The finding that two-thirds of the students accessed the materials quite often showed that use of Web-enhanced learning materials has become a visible part of college learning.
Likelihood of class engagement is a major indicator of the effect of the Web course materials on student learning. It is one of the key concerns of professors in determining whether and in what way they will put course materials on the Web (Karuppan & Karuppan, 1999). The use of Web-enhanced learning materials was not found to be positively associated with likelihood of class engagement. The finding raised the questions: what factors play a more important role in affecting likelihood of class engagement of the students who access Web-enhanced learning materials? From the findings about what Web-enhanced learning materials were available and what students wanted and accessed the most, it seemed at the current stage, students still saw Web-enhanced learning materials as a convenience to pick up course related materials, not the materials that may arouse more interest while learning a subject and lead them to further exploration. The findings of H1 suggests that whether Web-enhanced learning materials will generate more class engagement depends on factors beyond frequency of use. Such factors may include the degree to which course materials on the Web meet students’ needs and the tasks the students fulfill when they access the course materials on the Web.
Support for H2, that use of Web-enhanced learning materials is positively related to learning process, is consistent with Felix’s (2001) finding that students involved in Web-based learning had high levels of enjoyment. All five aspects of the perceived learning process using course materials on the Web scored highly positive (agreement rate from 66% to 88%). However, test of relationship between use of Web-enhanced learning materials and perceived learning process revealed only 12% (r square = .12) of the variance in perceived learning process was explained by frequency of use. Other factors have to be taken into account when examining the effect on perceived learning process.
The effect of Web-enhanced learning materials on learning outcomes is the central issue in using the Internet to enhance teaching and facilitate learning. The findings of H3 reconfirms the positive effect of Web-enhanced learning on learning outcomes found in previous studies. Agreement rate for the three items of perceived learning outcomes ranged from 62% to 64% with learned materials better the highest. Despite a moderate relationship between use of Web-enhanced learning materials and perceived learning outcomes, frequent use of the course materials on the Web did affect perception of learning outcomes. However, the moderate effect may also imply that better learning outcomes could not be achieved by using Web-enhanced learning materials alone.
The findings showed that frequency of use was not a strong predictor of positive learning process and outcomes. The reasons could be due to what type of materials were available on the Web and what the students wanted the most in the current state of Web-enhanced learning. The answer to RQ1 showed that the most common course materials available on the Web were lecture notes, assignments and readings. The students wanted the lecture notes most. The results suggest the importance that the students placed on lecture notes in their learning. It also indicated even though the Internet had the potential to engage students in high-involvement learning, Web-enhanced learning materials were merely considered a convenience. While the new technology allows more high-involvement learning activities through the Internet, such as participating in class forums or other interactive projects, few students showed interest in getting involved in more active learning through the Internet. There is still a long way to go to introduce students to more interactive learning tools and activities, which require higher involvement and will enhance their learning experience to a much more rewarding extent.
Support of H4 has important implications for implementing Web-enhanced learning. Perceived learning process involving positive experiences in using Web-enhanced learning materials was found to be positively related to perceived learning outcomes. The finding suggests that a positive learning process played an important role in perceived learning outcomes. How students experience and think in the process of using the materials on the Web may affect how they perform in their studies. When designing and putting course materials on the Web, it is important to select appropriate content and format to create a positive learning experience. It is also important to assess carefully to what degree use of course materials on the Web may enhance a positive learning process.
The answer to RQ2 suggests that course materials, especially lecture notes available on the Web may change students’ class engagement behavior. The findings contradicted the conclusion of Karuppan & Karuppan (1999) that making lecture notes available on the Web did not encourage students to miss classes. While there was evidence that 35% of the students would not skip the classes even if course materials were available on the Web, 41% said they would skip classes if course materials were available on the Web. The findings showed the same tendency to skip class if lecture notes were available on the Web. The answer to RQ2 suggests that faculty’s concern about students skipping class due to course materials available on the Web is legitimate. The findings regarding lecture notes availability are consistent with the debate over the effect of lecture notes on students’ involvement in learning activities and learning outcomes.
Having looked at limited aspects of students’ class engagement behavior, this study did not provide a clear picture for a better solution to the issue regarding lecture notes. Caution needs to be taken while putting lecture notes on the Web. Examination of more factors is needed to find out under what situations lecture notes available on the Web may produce more class engagement and positive learning outcomes. It is also necessary to take into account other factors involved when one makes the decision of whether and how to put lecture notes on the Web, such as the kinds of notes offered, the timing to make the lecture notes available, and the presentation format of lecture notes.The findings also shed some light on implications of learning theories. The results supported the cognitive perspective that easy and flexible access to knowledge helps transfer knowledge to learners more efficiently and effectively (Wertheimer, 1959). However, the constructivist approach to learning theory has yet to be observed in the use of Web-enhanced materials. This study did not test whether Web-enhanced learning will make learners think more productively. But more interest in lecture notes and less interest in high-involvement learning tools such as discussion forum indicated there is a gap to be filled before the expectation of the constructivist perspective could be realized. The stage of using instructional technology and application tools might be an important factor in getting students into high involvement learning. Web-enhanced materials facilitated cognitive flexibility by allowing specific topics to be explored in multiple ways (Spiro & Jehng, 1990), but it may take several stages in technology application to get students to engage in more high-involvement learning through Web-enhanced materials, and to help learners think more productively and participate actively in the new learning environment.
This study looked at the effect of course materials available on the Web on students’ class engagement and learning outcomes. The findings based on overall college learning experience instead of a single course expand our understanding of how and to what degree course materials available on the Web affect class engagement, learning process and outcomes. Course materials on the Web were perceived positively as learning tools. Both students’ perceived learning process and learning outcomes scored high on the positive side. Frequency of use had moderate effect on perceived learning process and learning outcomes, but it did not affect likelihood of class engagement.
This study used a sample of students in a large university. Although the student body bears the common characteristics of the general college student population, there may be several factors which limit the generalizability of the results. One is the level of technology applications. Students in different colleges may learn in various technology environments. Students in colleges with more advanced technology applications may react to Web-enhanced learning in a different way from students in other schools. The second is the subjects the students learned using Web-enhanced materials. The practice of Web-enhanced learning was mostly implemented by professors of various disciplines and the applications to courses varied by departments and schools. Different content of the subjects may produce different perceived learning process and outcomes.
The focus of this study also limits the issues that one study can address. Only two independent variables, availability of course materials on the Web and frequency of use, were examined. Other factors, such as student motivation, area of study, and duration of interest play important roles in learning through course materials on the Web. Students’ involvement in learning activities is a construct with broad strata. This study only examined a narrow range of the construct, likelihood of class engagement. The perception of the learning process also has important implications for evaluation of Web-enhanced learning. This study only looked at a few aspects of the learning process associated with use of course materials available on the Web. Further research including more independent variables on an extended population will considerably expand our understanding of the effect of Web-enhanced learning and offer more insight on how to implement Web-enhanced teaching and learning more effectively.
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