A quick question, when was the last time you sat down, and asked your learners what they thought of your eLearning, and I don’t mean a quick smile sheet exercise, but some digging – identifying the opinions and feelings about what they experienced.

Well, Queen’s University Belfast have done just that with a group of students who are increasingly using eLearning during their 5 years of study.

In their report (see Content and discontent: a qualitative exploration of obstacles to elearning engagement in medical students), the Queens researchers tell us that eLearning is increasingly being used to replace group-wide traditional lectures to complement the clinical experience students gain in hospital placements. Anticipated advantages of this blended approach include ‘just in time learning’, the flexibility to link theory with clinical practice and better access to revision resources.

The study aimed to shed light on why eLearning might be challenging for learners and to explore perceived obstacles to engaging with the eLearning. The data was collected via semi-structured focus groups with 31 students taking part.

Three key themes emerged and it looks like the eLearning was not well received by the students. So can I suggest we read this report and then consider what results our offerings would get if we ran a similar exercise with learners. Here’s a summary of the main themes.

Theme 1 – A Sense of Injustice:
Students had come to the University thinking of education as a “face-to-face transaction” between lecturer and student delivered through traditional events such as lectures and tutorials. The students considered the eLearning to be of lower value than face-to-face teaching, and there was a cultural perception (reinforced by senior clinical staff) that elearning was not ‘real’ teaching. Students felt the eLearning represented medical education ‘on the cheap’.

eLA Comment - A lack of buy-in from learners and other stakeholders means you’re kicking off your project on the backfoot – identify the challenges early, and find multiple ways to overcome the issues. Different stakeholders can have different issues, so get views from across the organisation, and don’t restrict creative thinking to just the project group.

Theme 2 – Passivity:
Students viewed the eLearning as something to be ‘got through’. Although they could ‘tick off’ completed sections, ‘completion’ did not mean they were engaged in learning, or engaging in an active manner.

The students had been accustomed to attending mass lectures with social interactions with peers and faculty, but this was now lost as they were expected to work alone at a computer, and some found the physical isolation challenging.

The researchers found a sense that the eLearning was ‘washing over’ students. The students were aware of and were exposing themselves to the content, but they did not feel actively engaged.

eLA Comment - Stop building boring content. The tools we have available offer considerable scope for developing interesting materials that can engage our learners. We can achieve so much more than “read this text, click next”. Where significant reading is required, include an eBook and link it back to interactive course material that encourages learners to engage their thinking processes. Look to incorporate social media and forums to encouraging interaction & collaboration amongst learners and tutors.

Theme 3 – Lost at Sea:
The volume of material was perceived as an obstacle, with students describing being “overwhelmed and daunted”. The students also found a lack of signposting as an obstacle as it related to their assessment processes: they wanted to know what they needed to know in order to pass their exams. Taking the resource as a whole, students felt they didn’t know on which aspects to focus.

Variability in length, format and quality (of production and content) was also seen as an obstacle. This contributed further to a feeling of being lost in that they found structuring their learning and allocating study time challenging.

eLA Comment - Dumping content online may work for some, but probably not for the majority. Before developing any content, ensure consistent standards are agreed, especially if there are multiple developers and subject experts involved – include design, layout & structure, support mechanisms and language style. You want your students to focus on the learning, not to be distracted by design elements, poor structure or poor materials.

Words and phrases such as “lower value”, “on the cheap”, “passive”, “washing over”, “not real teaching” and “overwhelmed and daunted” are not those we want associated with eLearning. There are several lessons we can take from this report into how we design our eLearning.

Think about our structure, design & quality standards, clearer signposting of content and closer linking of content to learning objectives, whilst we should also consider how we can incorporate assessment (both summative and formative) and forums to helps students judge their understanding of content. eLearning is not about reading on-line, it’s about engaging with resources to effect learning.

However, no matter how good the end product, taking a top down approach to a major cultural change can create problems.

In this case, neither the lecturing staff nor the students look to have bought into the use of eLearning, whilst there appears little in the way of support mechanisms,either from the lecturers or course designers. A phased approach allows the benefits to be sold and the challenges identified earlier, with changes being implemented along the way before a wider roll-out of new materials and structure.

Dumping materials online is easy, but the successful use of eLearning is so much more than this. When you invest in eLearning, don’t just think about the tech side of things; take a step back and consider all stakeholders, as well as your organisations capability and readiness for what may be a major cultural change initiative. Time and resource invested upfront invariably reduces issues later on in the project.