Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]

Distance and Open Learning students' access to the Internet

Anna Boyd, Robert Fox and Allan Herrmann
Centre for Educational Advancement
Curtin University of Technology
    Currently, some 35% of Distance Education Units offered by Curtin University of Technology have some sort of Web presence. This may be in the form of an entire internet based unit, a unit containing an online discussion group or bulletin board, or perhaps a unit that is utilising a form of online assessment. Additionally, approximately three-quarters of distance education students responding to a questionnaire on Distance Education services noted that they had access to the internet. While males and females had equal access, there was a disparity between discipline areas, with 86% of business students and 71% of humanities students having internet access. Seventy-eight percent of respondents also had an email address. Significantly lower numbers of Open Learning Australia students had internet access (62%) and fewer still had an email address (56%). This paper will look at some of the impacts that student access to the internet has on the quality of their learning experiences.
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Introduction

Online technologies are becoming increasingly popular for the provision of flexible, open and distance teaching and learning materials. The reasons for the uptake of online materials is two-fold. There is the pervasive attitude that web based material is cheaper and more efficient than paper based materials, and there is the perception that material offered online is somehow superior to materials offered through the traditional technologies. Green (1999) and Geoghegan (1996) identify online technology as the largest area of growth in higher education and this trend is likely to continue. This move from print based teaching to the World Wide Web is changing how we teach and the culture of higher education in general (De Long, 1997).

Pressures to move online

There are a number of pressures that are influencing academic staff to offer their materials online. Some of these include: Issues that have not been adequately addressed such as equity and access, real costs, the need to transform teaching materials and the need to alter the way in which universities manage their resources and funding cannot be forgotten in any moves to take advantage of the challenges and opportunities offered by Communication and Information Technology (CIT) (Fox et al, 1999). In a national survey of Information Technology in Higher Education in the USA, Green (1999, p2) notes that ...'There is a growing campus awareness that the key IT challenges in higher education involve people not products'.

Access and equity

Surveys of Australian household's use of computer technology have found a significant rise in computer ownership and internet access in the last few years. Even in 1996, computer ownership stood at 30%, with 7% having internet access. Significantly, well over 1 million households indicated that they used educational products on their home computers (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1996). A Morgan Gallup poll in November 1997, noted that 42% of households had a computer with a further 13% indicating that they intended to buy a computer in the next year [http://www.roymorgan.com.au/pressreleases/19972/pc.html]. Children are becoming much more information literate, with changes in the learning culture flowing on to their adult life. With an increasing range of services such as online banking and shopping, email, electronic publishing and access to international resources, becoming available, the use of the Web can only flourish.

Access at Curtin

Currently, some 35% of distance education units offered by Curtin University of Technology have some sort of Web presence. This may be in the form of an entire internet based unit, a unit containing an online discussion group or bulletin board, or perhaps a unit that is utilising a form of online assessment. Additionally, approximately three-quarters of distance education students responding to a questionnaire on Distance Education services noted that they had access to the internet. While males and females had equal access, there was a disparity between subject areas, with 86% of business students and 71% of humanities students having internet access. Seventy-eight percent of respondents also had an email address. Significantly lower numbers of Open Learning Australia students had internet access (62%) and fewer still had an email address (56%) (Boyd, 1999).

While an internet access rate of 75% for Curtin's distance education students sounds impressive, and is a huge increase on the 3% of students with modem access in 1994 (Boyd et al, 1994), a number of factors must still be considered. Perhaps the most important is the 25% who have no access. Equally, those who do have access may still be limited in some way. In an earlier study of access and attitudes to technology (Boyd et al, 1994) it was found that students accessing the internet from home often had to compete for time with family members. Equally, older modems meant that the time to download learning materials may make the whole process infeasible. Those students who gained access from work, often felt conflict at using study time at work. Access for students in rural or remote areas or interstate has its own set of problems, including technological failures and restrictions, as well as issues of cost.

Different levels of access by different groups of students, will impact on the way that online materials are offered. Clearly students cannot be disadvantaged by a lack of access and thus in many units, that portion of the unit that is offered through online resources must be 'add-on' rather than 'instead of'. For this reason it will be difficult to 'break the grip of print in distance education' in the near future (Fox et al, 1999). On the other hand, an increasing number universities are mandating computer and modem use for their distance students (Open Learning Australia, http://www.ola.edu.au/providers/paper4.htm). In a number of units at Curtin, access to the internet is a prerequisite of enrolment in the unit. Indeed, one of the stated aims in Curtin's Strategic Plan is for 'graduates to demonstrate an understanding of and mastery of technology, including information technology (Curtin Teaching and Learning Plan, 1999). How this can be achieved without 100% student access to computers, is yet to be seen.

Conclusion

If the need for Computer Information Technology (CIT) is accepted as valid, then consideration must be given to the quality of teaching and learning materials. It is not sufficient to simply move print material onto the web by changing the written word into html. Indeed the practice of doing this has been termed 'shovelware' because print material is shovelled into the web environment without considering the values and principles of good teaching (IT Forum, 1999). Mainstreaming is a term used by Moore (1991) and Geoghegan (1996) to describe the 'thought through' process, where due consideration is given to the complex issues any move from print to digital technologies (Fox, 1999). The World Wide Web is a very powerful tool, but quality of the teaching and learning materials and the access of the students to those materials, must be the first considerations in any move to online flexible, open and distance education.

References

Australian Bureau of Statistics (1996). Household use of information technology.

Boyd, A., Fox, R. & Herrmann A. (1994). Student perceptions of technology in distance education - preliminary report. In L. Summers (Ed), Quality teaching and learning: Making it happen. Proceedings of the 3rd Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February, 1994. Perth: Edith Cowan University. pp30-34.

Boyd, A. (1999). Evaluation of students access to technology at Curtin. Internal report.

Curtin University (1999). Curtin University Strategic Plan and Teaching Learning Plan.
http://www.vc.curtin.edu/otl/tlplan.html

De Long, S.E. (1997). The shroud of lecturing. First Monday.
http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue2_5/delong/index.html

Fox, R., Herrmann, A. & Boyd, A. (1999). Breaking the grip of print in distance education. In Proceedings of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia Forum. Geelong, September, 1999. Deakin University: Geelong. pp153-157.

Geoghegan, W. H. (1996). Instructional technology and the mainstream: Risks of success. The Maytum Distinguished Lecture, SUNY College, Fredonia.

Green, K.C. (1999). The continuing challenge of instructional integration and user support. The Campus Computing Project. http://www.campuscomputing.net/summaries/1999/index.html

IT Forum (1999). IT Forum, Listserve discussions, ITForum@uga.cc.uga.edu

Moore, G.A. (1991). Crossing the chasm. Harper Collins, New York.

Open Learning Australia. The use of the World Wide Web for teaching -- Things to consider before putting materials online, by George Ivanoff and Justine Clarke. http://www.ola.edu.au/providers/paper4.html

Please cite as: Boyd, A., Fox, R. and Herrmann, A. (2000). Distance and Open Learning students' access to the Internet. In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/boyd.html


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