Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

Do distance students get value for their HECS dollar?

Anna Boyd, Allan Herrmann and Bob Fox
Curtin University of Technology
Curtin University distance education students receive with their study materials an evaluation form requesting feedback on the management, administration, materials and services of individual units. This routine student feedback process has been conducted over the last two years and is based on an earlier and more detailed series of evaluation surveys initiated between 1991 and 1994.

The present form, the Distance Education Support Services Evaluation (DESSE), is on a single A4 sheet of the paper with questions and space for comments and for more open ended responses. Questions on the evaluation form eliciting student perceptions can be grouped into three categories; services, materials (technical and instructional) and student workload.

This paper will examine some of the perceptions of distance students about their studies and in particular - concerns regarding assignment turnaround, tutor availability, feelings of isolation, student workload and the use of technology in this learning environment. Feedback from distance students indicates a mismatch between certain expectations and services that the University can provide. Concern about this mismatch is heightened by the fact that with the increasing cost of HECS, distance students in particular feel that they may not be getting value for their dollar. This paper canvasses some of these mismatches, identifies common themes and postulates possible solutions.


Introduction

Distance education and open learning is under pressure from a wide number of sources to expand and diversify, at the same time as shaking off the image of being the 'poor-cousin' to face-to-face teaching (Marsden, 1996; Chambers, 1995). With cuts in funding for higher and further education, university hierarchy, business managers and some staff developers, are advocating the concept of 'teaching better with less' (Fox & Radloff, 1997). In addition, the advent of 'user-pays' education means there is a demand from the clients/students themselves for the production of quality courseware that is well administered and well taught. If an institution cannot cater to specific needs, students may go elsewhere. It is essential therefore, that distance education institutions provide courses of quality and more importantly, that they provide evidence that they are doing so (Chambers, 1995; Bates, 1997). This evidence can be provided through various evaluations of course materials, teaching, student support and administrative procedures. In institutions with a distance education profile, questionnaires on teaching effectiveness are provided alongside, or included in questionnaires on distance study materials and management and administrative support services. Curtin University is no exception and has provided routine student feedback mechanisms for the past two years, based on a series of evaluation trials initiated between 1991 and 1994.

Background

Distance Education at Curtin University has access to three evaluation tools: In addition, feedback is gained from exams, assignments, drop-out rates, pass rates and telephone calls to tutors, unit controllers and Distance Education (TLG) staff.. Currently the greatest information is collected from DESSE, where an evaluation form is generally returned with the final assignment for each unit of study. (The actual return rate is currently about 10-20%). Evaluation of the material gained from the DESSE will be the focus of this paper.

Monitoring these relatively simple evaluation forms has allowed Distance Education (TLG) to check its own management and administrative services, as well as gain insights into distance education students' perceptions of their study. Questions on the evaluation forms can be grouped into three categories :

In past years the data collected from the evaluations was processed in three ways. Firstly feedback concerning individual units were summarised and forwarded to Unit Controllers. Secondly a summarised report covering the main issues raised by the students was sent to the Head of the relevant Schools. Thirdly general information on support services, administrative, management and instructional design matters was distributed to relevant staff in TLG and the Off-Campus Library Service etc. Instructional design staff could then use the summarised data in discussions with staff from Schools and support services.

All of the processing was very time consuming and of questionable value, when sometimes only one or two evaluations were returned for each unit. In addition because of the fact that the anonymity of Unit Controllers needed to be protected, some Heads of School felt the reports sent to them were of questionable value. To overcome these problems a new process has been implemented to monitor DESSE returns. This process includes reviewing each completed form as soon as it is received and action is immediately taken to correct, if necessary, issues in question. Unit controllers, tutors or support services are contacted as appropriate to sort out any genuine grievances. Telephone complaints are treated in the same manner.

The problems

Having monitored the responses of students in the evaluation forms for the last four years, it is possible to come up with a number of common themes of concern. Students have expressed concern regarding: Some examples of student comments taken from the DEESE forms are included below.

Quotes

"The turnaround time and helpfulness of the tutor was extremely poor and when paying $705 to partake in this unit I feel it is very poor value for money. How do you know if you are on the right track if you've handed most of your assignments before you have received any back? Six weeks turnaround time is unfair to our academic progress!!! Also having to leave 3-4 messages on an answering machine before receiving a reply (if at all) is inappropriate. Wouldn't a designated phone be more helpful - because we are busy too!!!"

"If students can hand in their assignments through email, I think it will save a lot of trouble for us and it will be better."

"Should be a page limit to the amount of reading material that is examinable - for a 60% of subject exam we were to be examined on 77 articles with no guidance whatsoever - despite my requesting it - I think this was unreasonable."

"The staff are so rude - anything you ask of them is too much trouble!"

"Never assigned a tutor. The one time I rang was not helpful at all. We pay HECS the same as the internal students, yet was are classed as second class students."

"Staff are very supportive, yet there is still 'the isolation of the distance ed student' which will always be the 'down-side' of studying externally."

"When I first called the person named in the only letter that I had to do with the course, the person in question said why are you calling me? When I explained she said' Well that's not right S__T' and so I got the right name. Pleasant introduction. I have every faith that at $330 it will get better!"

"The hardest thing is not being able to speak to tutors when I needed to. But I know now and will give them plenty of time to get back to me."

"On several times I tried to contact the tutor and received no reply, ending with me not trying and 'battling on' myself."

"The tutor could not put me in touch with other students to complete areas of assignments. While the tutor was most helpful, this seems to policy. Very unusual considering it was a communications unit."

"Service was fine -package was average. None of the recommended readings, activities were relevant because the text-book had changed. Plan could have read 'Read book - decide what is relevant!"

"The workload was heavy - too heavy, compared to the internal students' load."

"Would have liked more contact with the academic staff that was initiated by them first - to keep my enthusiasm up."

What can we do?

By way of illustration we have included several case studies to show how problems raised by distance education students have been addressed.

A number of students from a particular unit were complaining that they had received no feedback on their assignments from their tutor for more than ten weeks. When the relevant tutor was contacted, it became apparent that he had been given responsibility for tutoring many units, and he simply did not have time to mark assignments amongst his other duties. Academic staff from TLG discussed the issue with the tutor and provided support, so that the tutor felt sufficiently confident to approach his Head of School to negotiate some extra funds to employ markers for the units under the tutors control.

A similar incidence in another school was treated in a different way. Students were complaining that the structure of their tests was not was they had anticipated or what they were used to, that different tutors were marking tests in a different way, that the tests were taking much too long to be returned. In this situation a member of the academic staff from the TLG initiated a series of meetings with the unit controller to determine what exactly he was trying to achieve with the tests and how this could best be done. After consultation, a World Wide Web component to the course was developed which tested the students in the way that the unit controller had anticipated, and in addition gave the students the immediate feedback that they were after.

A third problem identified from the DEESE forms did not have quite such a good outcome, and is generally a difficult issue to discuss with unit controllers. Students were concerned that they were expected to read upward of sixty readings in a particular unit. When the staff member was contacted she was reluctant to remove any of the articles from the Reader, because she felt that they were all critical. When it was pointed out to her that some of the readings were out of date, she agreed to remove them but promptly replaced them with more current readings. The problem remains unresolved with this particular unit, but with students gradually becoming more vocal about their courses, especially now as HECS contributions increase, unit controllers who are not prepared to listen to their students may find that they opt for courses at other universities. This will be particularly important in the area of post-graduate study where fees gathered for courses will be increasing relied upon in university budgets.

It is all very well providing web components for our distance education students, but do they have access to the necessary technology and if they do will they use it? An assessment of the 166 returns of the DESSE surveys in Semester 1, 1997 indicated that 48% of the total respondents (45% of the females and 63% of the males) had access to the internet. A number of other students had access to email only. This is a large increase in the modem access of 11% that we found in a 1994 survey of access to technology. Of the 166 returns in Semester 1 of this year, 139 were from females which is interesting in itself. We anticipated that only those students that were disgruntled about some issue would tend to return their surveys. However, figures showed that just under half the comments were negative, compared with 30% neutral and 20% positive. The same pattern of responses, applied to the males.

Curtin University, through Curtin Learning Link [http://www.curtin.edu.au/learn/] provides web components in 25 distance education units. Some units provide mainly instructional material, some provide tests and the majority also include 'discussion' groups. An analysis of student use of one particular online unit, suggests that while in this case there wasn't any obvious instructional benefits for the students , the communication aspects of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC), either with their tutor or with other students, increased the students' feeling of being part of a community - not an individual, it also gave some 'body' to the tutor and they could see issues from different points of view.

If CMC is not an option, which is quite reasonable given 50% of our population of students did not have access to it, then what other options are there to improve the learning experiences of our distance education students? In the first place senior managers should be reasonable when allocating workloads to unit controllers and tutors. It is also important that unit controllers do not overload their units with assignments and tests, or have pieces of assessment too close together so that there is no chance of marking and returning one assignment before the next is due. To reduce students' feelings of isolation, make use of 'low-end' technology such as the telephone, teleconferences and audiotapes for example - to introduce the tutor and for the students to reply with their own introduction. In some units it may be appropriate to use a 'buddy' system or use peer marking, which also could have the effect of reducing the load on the tutor.

Conclusion

With the increased costs of tertiary education, students are more critical of the service they receive. They are paying customers and if they are unhappy they will - quite reasonably - complain. In a time where distance education and open learning is opening up opportunities around Australia and around the globe it is important that institutions remain competitive by providing the subjects that students are interested in and providing a level of service that would be expected in the business sector. There are many ways that we can maintain or improve the standard of our distance education offerings - these include:

References

Bates, A. W. (1997). The impact of technological change on open and distance learning. Distance Education, 18(1), 93-109.

Chambers, E. (1995). Course evaluation and academic quality. In Lockwood, F. (Ed), Open and Distance Learning Today. London, Routledge.

Fox, R. and Radloff, A. (1997). How can we 'unstuff' the curriculum? In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p118-123. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf97/fox118.html

Marsden, R. (1996). Time, space and distance education. Distance Education, 17(2), 222-246.

Please cite as: Boyd, A., Herrmann, A. and Fox, B. (1998). Do distance students get value for their HECS dollar? In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 39-43. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/boyd.html


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