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A comparison of internal, external and online study: A student's point of view

Maria Northcote
Kurongkurl Katitjin
Edith Cowan University


My name is Maria Northcote and I suppose you could call me a seasoned student who is admittedly addicted to the practices and procedures of studying, the idea of learning and the field of education. My dual base of operation as both a student and an educator has enabled me to directly sample the delights, difficulties and drawbacks offered by a range of Australian tertiary education institutions, as well as indirectly experiencing some features of international institutions via the wonders of online technology.

My academic and employment history in Australian higher education has fortunately provided me with a broad yet deep experience. Across two decades, my experience as an enrolled student in a range of universities and colleges has spanned many states, various modes of study and an assortment of education styles. In more recent years, I have been able to extend my perspective as a student through my work as a university teacher and curriculum designer. This development has placed me in situations where the two roles have coincided or corresponded. In such cases, I have been able to put ideas into practice, test out theories and collect genuine evidence for educational research.

My study trail has followed a path which began at the teaching diploma course level in the early 1980s, a qualification which was converted to degree standard after a qualifying period of teaching employment. This was followed by a period of ten years in which I enrolled and completed a variety of adult education, TAFE and interest based courses at the local community and institutional level while being employed full time. A decade later, I developed a desire to further extend my involvement in higher education, a yearning I satisfied in 1998 by commencing a Graduate Certificate in Interactive Multimedia Technologies. A year later, I converted my enrolment to the Master of Education course, majoring in interactive multimedia technologies. Today I stand at the brink between the end of a Masters degree and the beginning of a doctoral study, being driven by a general but continued interest in the deep value of learning and a specific interest in how online technologies can help learners to realise this experience.

The first chapter: The Diploma

As a college student enrolled in a Diploma of Teaching, my three years of education involved intense teacher training. My early encounters with face to face classes in a small teaching college in Sydney typified the traditional lecture-tutorial-workshop teaching and learning sequence. Ideas and theories were identified, analysed and internalised. Skills were demonstrated, practised and refined. Eventually, the skills and ideas were brought together in practice, "prac". We were provided with regular opportunities each semester to literally practise what we were taught in the form of practical teaching sessions. Skills learned in on campus lectures and tutorials were put to the test in authentic school environments for prolonged periods ranging from two to four weeks. Follow up on campus evaluation of these "pracs" involved sorting out the good from the bad experiences and working out how to adopt idealised theoretical frameworks within the very real context of a school where non-textbook examples of student behaviour, learning patterns and motivational backgrounds were evident. As college students our roles as students were clear and similar in that we were all working towards the same aim of completing a diploma course which would prepare and qualify us to teach.

This type of education was known for its collective intended outcomes of teacher training and practical assessment measures. Collaborative learning opportunities were provided through assigned group task preparation and presentation and supported "the social negotiation of meaning" (Fineman & Bootz, 1995, p. 2). Content was presented in a variety of ways but was primarily delivered via lectures, textbook reading and some practical demonstrations. Communication techniques employed by us college students and our lecturers included a mixture of face to face interactions (both one to one and one to many), some telephone communication and written correspondence. Personally, I was motivated by a general desire to teach and a specific awareness that I had better quickly develop a repertoire of useful skills to ensure that I survived the upcoming classroom experience.

Close of first chapter: The Degree

When my chance arrived to finally put my diploma education into practice, I experienced a year that many first year out teachers describe as having a "steep learning curve". The ideals that I had developed in theory were not always easy to practice, especially for extended periods such as those presented by school terms and years. When crises in the workplace eventuated, the lessons from my past in class tutorial discussions, on campus lectures and varied textbook readings did not always come quickly to mind. Instead, the experiences, painful though they were at the time, offered by the dreaded "prac" sessions were the "lessons" which were most readily recalled and subsequently applied. Additionally, advice from practising mentor teachers in the field, common experiences compared with peers after prac sessions and personal trial and error experiences as a practising teacher "in the field" were far more applicable to the authentic workplace than the theories of education expounded by our lecturers and classic education texts.

After the first year of teaching using a baptism of fire approach, I then converted my Diploma of Teaching to a Bachelor of Education. Now employed in a full time position in the hospitality industry that was not related to education, I began the search for a conversion course that fulfilled four main criteria. The course I was looking for needed to be one which didn't require me to attend any on campus sessions, one which didn't require me to be working in a school, one which I could study from home and, lastly, one which had a reasonable reputation. After repeated recommendations to do so, I enrolled in the Bachelor of Education at the Western Australian College of Advanced Education in 1986, and completed it over a two year period as an external part time student.

The study materials used in this course were delivered to my doorstop in tell tale yellow envelopes which typically enclosed printed study guides and books of readings, the quality of which directly influenced the quality of the learning I experienced (Naidu, 1994). Sometimes videos, pamphlets and audio tapes were also included. I usually only worked through the learning activities that were directly related to my assignments, read the essential readings, bought the textbook if I had spare cash and laboriously completed and posted assignment after assignment. To the course designer's credit, many of the activities and assessment tasks were community based and didn't solely rely on the use of textual resources. In relation to the communication techniques employed by me as an external student, besides library and mailing staff, I had no voice or face to face contact with my lecturers during this entire two year period. I had almost no opportunity to practise what I was learning, as the course content was fairly irrelevant to my work and interests at the time (through no fault of the course). My motivation was to obtain the final "piece of paper", an aim which I was intent on achieving with as little real academic effort as possible. My fairly disparate relationship with the course's outcomes meant that I was a student motivated by achievement who employed surface learning strategies (Biggs & Moore, 1993).

The non-institutional ten year "sabbatical"

For the following ten years, I was employed in the fields of youth work, personnel and teaching. Although I didn't enrol in any officially recognised course during this decade, my love of learning and enthusiasm for self education resulted in me enrolling in a variety of adult education courses: leadlighting, paper backing, interior design, watercolour painting, the list goes on. Various methods of teaching were employed in these courses and typically included demonstrations, skills practice sessions and direct hands on tasks. The central concepts and skills which made up these courses were commonly applied in contexts where the content was intended to be used, reflecting the principles of situated cognition:
Recent investigations of learning, however, challenge this separating of what is learned from how it is learned and used. The activity in which knowledge is developed and deployed, it is not argued, is not separable from or ancillary to learning or cognition. Nor is it neutral. Rather, it is an integral part of what is learned. Situations might be said to co-produce knowledge through activity. Learning and cognition, it is now possible to argue, are fundamentally situated. (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989, p. 1)
Although such courses were usually delivered in a face to face mode, the depth of feeling and devotion that many of these teachers possessed and shared for their subject matter seemed to transcend the boundaries of any face to face lesson, lecture hall, workshop, media or print based resource. From these courses, I not only learned about the value of skills centred, problem based, context dependent teaching techniques, I also learned about the power of passionate teaching by educators who are enthralled by their course's content. This quality that separates the committed educator from the less interested teacher, I believe, can be communicated through and inherent in all modes of study - online, face to face and external modes. It is a quality which is remembered by the learner long after the initial lesson has passed and one which is often integrated into the learner's psyche as part of their own personal motivation to learn. Numerous people have followed a life of work in one particular area, or developed a passion for a subject or topic which can be traced back to an inspirational teacher. In the past these teachers expressed their enthusiasm through face to face teaching. In more recent years, such subject passion was delivered through some well designed print based external units. Currently, online educators are working out ways to express their devotion and love of their discipline through Internet based courses, a process which clearly still requires a teacher's presence.

The second chapter: The Masters

In 1999 I enrolled in a Master of Education degree as an on campus student, although this entailed only attended one eighth of my course in on campus face to face lectures and tutorials. The remaining seven eighths of the course was completed through external study using online and print based materials at local and interstate universities. I began the Master of Education degree by studying a unit which involved learning about learning which changed my entire schema associated with learning, teaching and education. Via a well designed print based external unit of study, I experienced learning which involved no communication with other students, minimal and remote input throughout the semester by the unit lecturer and no face to face classes. However, it was one of the richest learning experiences I have ever encountered, so significant in fact that it is difficult for me to recall my understanding and opinion of pedagogical issues before I completed this unit of study. The unit guided me through an active, self directed process (Tam, 2000) in which I successfully and seamlessly integrated my newfound knowledge with my prior understandings. By reaching a "consensus" position I was able to internalise and integrate the new ideas (Tobin, cited in Etchberger & Shaw, 1992). Perhaps most importantly, from a motivational point of view, the lecturer's commitment and enthusiasm for the topic of learning was clearly evident throughout the unit. Thoughtful comments on assignments, the quality of the written correspondence I received and the obvious involvement of the lecturer in the development of the study materials all served to communicate this teacher's passion for the subject to us students.

Another component of my Master of Education course involved studying an online unit at a university in the eastern states. Through this experience, I was offered many perspectives on various topics. Students from a range of countries employed in all sorts of occupations discussed open learning and instructional design. Furthermore, this mode of study provided me with the valuable experience of viewing examples of other students' work, an experience which I have never previously experienced in any other mode of study. Lastly, the manner in which the online lecturer was able to meet and monitor individual student needs through the use of online communication tools was most impressive.

The on campus class within this Master of Education course was characterised by inspirational teachers using a combination of lectures, workshops and presentations to deliver some reasonably complex material. Although the flexibility of time and place for this class was limited, student choice was provided for within assessment structures and groupwork activities. Discussion, problem solving and stimulating tasks managed to maintain a challenging educational experience for me and my fellow students. As a result of my newfound enthusiasm for study and commitment to my academic success, my old surface learning strategies have been replaced by deep strategies driven by a more intrinsic level of motivation (Biggs & Moore, 1993). My approach is generally more that of a "reflective" student (Hart, Bowden & Watters, 1998).

The next chapter: The PhD

Now, just prior to my commencement of doctoral studies, I cannot help but reflect on the needs of the modern student and, more specifically, what needs, hopes and expectations I have of my next course of study. Worldwide educational trends reflect a situation in which students are more vocal about their needs and "are becoming more discerning consumers" (Hart, Bowden & Watters, 1998) . Flexible learning environments offer "an approach which creates a more empowered learner with many choices and decisions" (Oliver, Herrington & Omari, 1998). As students, we want courses which are easily accessible, affordable, educationally sound and clearly relevant to our fields of employment: "More fee paying students are sensibly seeking courses that develop the knowledge and skills that the information economy and employers need" (Litchfield, 1998, p. 1). As students with varied responsibilities, we especially value the flexible nature of courses delivered through the Internet and those which can be studied from our homes. Course designers must acknowledge these student demands as well as consider issues including learning theory, appropriate technology, target learner characteristics, motivational considerations (Braden, 1996), learning styles and individual differences (McLoughlin, 1999).

Finally, from a point of view which is representative of my experiences and perspectives as a learner and an educator, I propose that the most ideal course for many tertiary learners is one which combines the affordances offered by each of the three main modes of study explored in this paper: online, face to face and external. The socio cognitive benefits gained from contact with course lecturers and other students (Shulman, cited in Fetherston, 1998) can obviously be achieved through the traditional face to face on campus teaching mode. The external mode of study which has traditionally used printed materials offers advantages of flexibility in place, time and access (Nikolova & Collis, cited in Oliver, Herrington & Omari, 1998; Naidu, 1994). Finally, the benefits offered by online technologies (Bennett, Priest & Macpherson), especially those associated with interactivity (Lander, 1999), constructivist learning patterns (Harper, Hedberg & Wright, 2000), access to global resources and the flexibility of asynchronous communication, can also be incorporated into courses tailored for the contemporary student. This recommendation is acknowledged by Fox in his description of the situation at Deakin University:

The three dominant modes of teaching at Deakin are the traditional mode of on campus teaching, the mainly print based distance education mode and the recent Internet based teaching mode. While academic staff are struggling to integrate and rationalise these modes, the current tendency is to use them in an additive fashion, one of top of the other and without any real rationalisation. (Fox, 1999, p. 1)
A skilful amalgamation of the three main modes of course delivery based on sound instructional design principles will no doubt result in courses which are more flexible, content appropriate (Curoe, 1999) and student friendly compared to the traditional use of single mode course delivery. Educational resources will ideally be developed with the cross portability of course delivery modes in mind (Collis & De Diana, 1994). Course designers "need to re-examine the instructional design paradigms they are using" (Harper, Hedberg & Wright, 2000, p. 165) and select the delivery mode to suit the content, the learner and the teacher, not just the institution. It is partly the responsibility of the instructional designer to ensure the appropriateness of such courses:
Attention to instructional design is one of the most critical factors in successful learning networks, whether course activity is delivered totally or partially online or in adjunct mode. All education, on a network or in a face to face environment, involves the intervention by an expert (the instructor) to organise the content, sequence the instructional activities, structure task and group interaction and evaluate the process. (Harasim, 1995, p. 125).


So, how did I actually evaluate each mode of study? Each mode of course delivery was evaluated using evaluation and review tools suitable for evaluating higher education courses. Tom Reeves' from the University of Georgia has constructed a number of useful evaluation tools (1997). His Expert Review Checklist and Evaluation Questionnaire were used to evaluate the three modes of course delivery according to such criteria as instructional design, course content, course design, course instructor, course environment and self paced delivery. This evaluation was supported by the use of the CERT: A Courseware Evaluation and Review Tool, developed by Ailsa H. S. Nicholson (1997) from the University of East Anglia in Norwich. By using evaluation tools which are characterised by sound pedagogical foundations, the wide spectrum of course features including individual subject differences, educational contexts and theories can be taken into account (Mulholland, Au & White, 1998).

This conference paper will be presented in narrative format supported by visual and verbal examples from each of the three modes of study mentioned throughout this paper. Quantitative and qualitative results of the evaluation of each study mode will also be presented based on Reeves' and Nicholson's higher education courseware evaluation tools.


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Tam, M. (2000). Constructivism, instructional design and technology: Implications for transforming distance learning. Educational Technology and Society, 3(2), 50-60. http://ifets.ieee.org/periodical/vol_2_2000/tam.html

Please cite as: Northcote, M. (2001). A comparison of internal, external and online study: A student's point of view. In A. Herrmann and M. M. Kulski (Eds), Expanding Horizons in Teaching and Learning. Proceedings of the 10th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 7-9 February 2001. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2001/northcote2.html

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