|Teaching and Learning Forum 2007 [ Refereed papers ]|
Discipline of English and Cultural Studies
Discipline of History
The University of Western Australia
With the increased emphasis that tertiary institutions are placing on online learning, there is an ongoing need to increase our understanding of how students perceive and use available resources and the effectiveness of such learning resources. The objective of this paper is to evaluate student perceptions and uses of one of the recent developments in online learning: Course Materials Online (CMO), an electronic reserve system developed for the University of Western Australia (UWA) Library. At its most basic level, CMO is an online document management system used by the UWA library to support the online provision of course reading materials. Because CMO offers greater accessibility and flexibility, there appears an assumption that student reaction to electronic reserves would naturally be favourable, and that greater access would translate into improved use of library resources. We decided, however, that more quantitative inquiry would be beneficial. The paper is concerned with how CMO is influencing students' research practices and attitudes, and with the practical issues that have shaped students uptake and use of CMO.
At its most basic level, CMO is an online document management system used by the UWA library to support the online provision of course reading materials. Introduced to academic staff and students in 2003, CMO offered students access to digitised readings via the Library catalogues Reserve Module. Today, however, the system employs an independent content manager, Harvest Road's Hive, which, through its development of the Resource List Management System (RLMS), not only allows items to be displayed in a "reading list" (from a bank of digitised articles from journals and chapters of books that have been recommended by teaching staff), but also allows university staff (academic and other) to "take control" of their unit's CMO lists, adding individual items at any given time and arranging items to suit the needs of their students (Poleykett & Benn, unpublished).
As more universities move towards online learning, and university libraries continue to digitise more and more material, a number of articles have been published on the how and why of digitised material, the advantages and disadvantages, and the technical processes and programs used to facilitate the delivery of such material. For a discussion of the implementation of Electronic Reserves and digitised reading lists see: Bell & Krasulski (2004 pp.75-85); Groenewegen (1998 pp.2-12); Laskowski & Ward (2001 pp.361-371); Peterson (1999 pp.45-59); Poleykett & Benn (forthcoming Educause 2007). For a discussion of the processes and programs used to implement digitised reading materials see Algenio (2002 pp.15-25); Groenewegen (1998 pp.2-12); Hapke (2005 pp.178-199); Laskowski and Ward (2001 pp.361-371); Poleykett & Benn (forthcoming Educause 2007). Little has been said, however, of student perceptions, reactions and uses of digitised materials. Moreover, there is a dearth of research into the relationship between student preferences and their research behaviour. Here at UWA, where most academic units employ CMO, there has yet to be an extensive investigation into students' uses of digitised reading materials, and the ways in which access to such material influences student research skills and attitudes. Because CMO offers greater accessibility and flexibility, there appears an assumption that student reaction to electronic reserves would naturally be favourable, and that greater access would translate into improved use of the resources. We decided, however, that more quantitative inquiry would be beneficial. The present study was therefore undertaken to gauge student perception and use of CMO.
The implementation of CMO at UWA was primarily driven by the Library. Their principal aim was to facilitate greater access to items in high demand, particularly texts that would normally be kept in the traditional reserve. CMO allows multiple simultaneous use of the same item, whereas under the traditional reserve system, each text was available for use by one student and only for a limited period. For this reason CMOs facilitation of accessibility was identified by the Library as its greatest benefit. On the CMO website, the Library introduces CMO to students by listing its benefits - 24/7 availability, sharing and remote access ("What Is Course Materials Online"). From a Library perspective, an electronic reserve also prevents the damage, loss and vandalism of books. Another benefit that the Library identifies is that CMO is free to access, and that course materials can be read online without the need to photocopy or print items, an issue to be discussed in further detail below. The Library's decision to move to electronic reserve was further driven by a desire to take advantage of new technologies. Groenewegen (1998) notes that "developments in information technology over the past five years, particularly in the areas of networking, imaging technology, optical character recognition and cheap digital storage devices" have contributed towards the shift towards electronic reserves. Furthermore, he argues, "using these technologies it is comparatively simple to digitise pages of text from reserve items and store the digitised pages in a computer storage medium." As an extension of the electronic reserve system, CMO makes full use of these technological advances. On a broader level, both the Library and a number of academic staff have identified accessibility as the primary benefit and motivation behind the adoption of CMO.
According to one academic staff member:
Students tend to actually do their reading in improved numbers in comparison with the old system of photocopies in Reserve. They no longer have the excuse that they couldn't find the text or someone else was copying it... Students can access the articles from home which they like and this makes them more prepared to do their reading for tutorial.This suggests that the accessibility of resources impacts directly upon the willingness and likelihood of students actually doing their required reading. The implication, therefore, is that accessibility, and by extension CMO, facilitates enhanced student engagement. This is also a dominant theme in the literature (Algenio, 2002, pp.15-25; Nixon & McBain, 2002; Peterson, 1999, pp.45-60). Critical analyses of electronic reserves have overwhelmingly concentrated on issues to do with implementation. Electronic reserves have been considered primarily from the perspective of the library and very few articles acknowledge, let alone investigate, the relevance of student responses to and uses of online materials. Despite the fact that student perspectives have not been taken into account, the overwhelming consensus of the available literature is that electronic reserves are desirable and that they represent an effective means of providing intellectual resources (See for example, Algenio (2002 pp.15-25); Groenewegen (1998 pp.2-12); Hapke (2005 pp.178-199); Laskowski and Ward (2001 pp.361-371); Poleykett & Benn (forthcoming Educause 2007)). The few articles that have examined student responses to electronic reserves have generally concluded that students embrace them with enthusiasm, provided that the system is user-friendly.
Positive student attitudes towards CMO and other related electronic reserve systems is clearly a significant factor in the extent to which these resources are taken advantage of. However, determining the real value of electronic reserves does not lie solely in the evidence of student use; the quality of that use and the attitudes motivating the utilisation of electronic reserves is also of considerable importance. Even when student attitudes are taken into account, analyses tend to reflect the assumption that there is a direct equation between accessibility, student use and student learning. For example, a recent paper by Anna Klump Pilston and Richard Hart sets out to validate the assumption that "because electronic reserves offer numerous new choices in terms of access, flexibility, and even saving money ... the student reaction to electronic reserves would be favourable" (Pilston and Hart 2002, p. 147). Their article concludes that electronic reserves are incredibly popular with students, quoting comments such as, "I love electronic reserves" and "Incredible! Absolutely fabulous!" (p.150). Their survey demonstrated students' enthusiasm for the flexibility of electronic reserves, particularly 24 hour access. The problems that their sample group identified were more to do with specific technical concerns, such as poorly copied PDFs, network slowness and difficulty in locating particular articles, rather than the actual concept of electronic reserves. For Pilston and Hart, student enthusiasm for electronic reserves confirms their importance and validity, but their article does not engage in an analysis of how well students were using the resources provided or where their enthusiasm stemmed from.
Our study set out with similar aims to Pilston and Hart. We wanted to gauge student perceptions and preferences around CMO and to determine whether students were embracing this new form of course material delivery. We determined that a substantial majority of students use CMO and are generally favourable towards it. The most interesting aspect of our results, however, is the way in which they challenge the idea that accessibility is leading to greater levels of reading or more positive attitudes towards studying. As the staff member quoted above indicates, an accessible and popular CMO system can work to encourage more students to do their required readings, and the importance of this should not be down played. Electronic reserves undoubtedly have an important and valuable role to play. Our results, however, provide a more complicated picture of the attitudes and preferences of students.
Written comments were requested in order to determine the reasons behind such preferences. Although CMO is employed across the university, our focus was on its use within the Faculty of Arts. We sought to quantify the use of CMO within a mixed learning environment and to evaluate whether students had different preferences for digitised reading materials or more traditional mediums (i.e. hard copies), and the reasons behind such preferences. We were interested in determining the extent to which CMO is used by students and for what purposes (i.e. for essential readings, suggested further readings or for essay use) and the extent to which the introduction of CMO has reduced physical library use. Within the Faculty of Arts "essential readings" constitute the readings required to complete the weekly tutorials. "Suggested further reading" are those readings recommended by the Lecturer/Tutor to supplement essential readings and to assist with essay preparation. We also surveyed a small sample of staff from English and Cultural Studies and History. We asked the 12 staff respondents for comments regarding their perception and use of CMO.
The most interesting results of our study came from the qualitative written responses, but the quantitative results are significant for the broad trends and attitudes they suggest. Out of the 96 students surveyed, 97% had used CMO at some point during the semester. 83% had responded to using CMO for essential reading purposes, 50% for suggested further reading and 64% for essay research (Graph 1), indicating that a clear majority of students used CMO. When queried as to their preferred format for reading materials, 83% of those surveyed said they would prefer hard copies (specifically a course reader) for their essential weekly tutorial readings. Only 18% preferred CMO over hard copies for their required reading. However, for non-essential reading there was a clear preference for CMO. 76% of students suggested CMO was preferable for suggested further readings (and only 20% preferred hard copies). When questioned about their preference for essay research 66% of students surveyed showed a preference for CMO, compared to only 35% who showed a preference for hardcopies (Graph 2). In terms of the impact of CMO on library use, of those students who used CMO, 26% suggested that their use of CMO had caused them to reduce the amount of time spent in the University Library. Of all students surveyed 74% said they would like to see more materials accessible via CMO.
Graph 1: Student uses of CMO
- Students were asked what, over the semester, they had used CMO for. Some students responded to using CMO for all the reading they had undertaken, and this is reflected in our results.
- Percentages are taken from those who had actually used CMO. The percentages for History and English and Cultural Studies (including Women's Studies) are representative of the proportion of student use from within each specific discipline, while the total figure is reflective of the overall preferences.
Graph 2: Student reading preferences
- These figures represent the preferences of all students surveyed within the Discipline of English and Cultural Studies and the Discipline of History.
Research essays in the humanities are generally the primary method of assessment and they require students to undertake independent research, to assess the quality of various sources and to engage critically with a variety of different arguments and perspectives. Proficiency in these areas, independent thought, research ability and critical analysis, are the key generic skills provided by an Arts degree. The Faculty of Arts at UWA promotes the Arts degree to prospective students by emphasising these generic skills:
Employers ... are seeking people who can research, develop, analyse and communicate ideas ...Arts graduates are ideally placed to take up this challenge with their ability to reason and communicate. They are also able to think creatively, have a great understanding of concepts, can communicate well and know a lot about problem-solving ("Careers in Arts").Given that CMO enables course coordinators to place source material online (and presumably therefore vetting the material in terms of quality and relevance), the desire of students to have all their essay research resources available through CMO can be read as an avoidance of the central skills, and indeed requirements, of an Arts degree. The comments of students reinforce this. Asked why they preferred a particular format, a number of students responded that CMO was easier and less time consuming, with the implication that they didn't have to work as hard for their essay research. Their comments convey a degree of impatience with the research process, in addition to a problematic sense of apathy. They wrote: "I prefer not to go into the library but I generally find that I have to for essays etc"; "Assignment research from home would save a lot of time"; "I hate searching for books, it takes me ages"; and "It would be great to reduce the time spent on finding relevant info for research essays." These comments suggest an expectation, or at least a desire, for appropriate essay research materials to be provided by the course coordinator, minimising the research element of essay preparation. If course coordinators made more essay research material available online, then it would reduce the time spent on finding relevant information, as the online material would already be vetted. Although it is partly the traditional, print-based research process that several of these students indicate an impatience with, the general theme is that essay research shouldn't take time. Their comments display a lack of awareness of the importance of research practices, the process of sourcing, evaluating and using academic sources - something that is necessary whether the materials be in online or print format. The students' focus remains on the actual writing of the essay and the gaining of marks, rather than the independent thought and critical analysis that precedes the writing stage, thus undermining the attainment of generic skills deemed central to an Arts degree.
In addition to this, some academic staff are also concerned that CMO diminishes students' research ability. They note that it allows students to stay out of the library, and prevents the serendipitous discovery of other useful or interesting resources. As suggested by one staff member, CMO:
(more-or-less) forecloses on the possibility of students discovering new and exciting ideas by browsing through other chapters in a book, or articles in a journal. Furthermore it doesn't foster familiarity with existing online article databases, which would help to develop students' research skills.There thus appears to be a perception that CMO restricts students' understandings of the different kinds of research materials available. This could account for the fact that of the staff surveyed, the majority of them put less than 50% of their course materials onto CMO. When asked about the concern that CMO reduced students' research ability, a Library staff member suggested that the problem was not CMO itself but the way in which it is employed by academic staff. Good course design, it is believed, can prevent the problems identified above and can work to increase the research skills of students. This is certainly a very important point. And indeed, one academic staff member wrote that CMO hadn't changed students research behaviour, "strategies or capacities." This particular staff member said that "we encourage them to conduct their own searches for research materials (using library catalogues & online databases) rather than just sticking to listed course materials online or otherwise." It is important to note, however, that not all staff are equally computer literate and it may be the case that staff require further training in how to design courses in order to optimise students' research skills. Furthermore, the Library has developed a number of information literacy initiatives which encourage better use of the Library's electronic resources, most notably IRIS (Introductory Research and Information Skills), a compulsory online unit for First Year Arts students. Stronger articulation of the importance and value of research within courses may also help to disrupt the complacency and apathy of students.
While our results do not illustrate that there has necessarily been a decrease in students' research capabilities, they do indicate that CMO is perhaps inculcating a sense of apathy and a student expectation that resources will be made readily available to them without any effort on their part. When asked about their preferences for essential reading, one student replied: "we shouldn't have to search for essential readings, they should be easily accessible." This statement reflects a sense of entitlement and obliviousness to the fact that the act of searching for resources is actually one of the course requirements. For this student, even searching CMO represents too much work.
Student preferences are clearly driven by expediency, but while such issues are of critical importance to the uptake and use of CMO by students, our results identified a number of more practical issues also shaping the use of digital course materials, including cost efficiency and the lingering tradition of a print culture.
Taking as our focus student preference for "essential readings", 83% of those surveyed expressed a clear preference for hard copies. There were a number of reasons given to account for this figure, covering a variety of issues, including personal study habits, physical comfort, user interface and time. While some students suggested that they "read more quickly when using a hard copy"; that, "in terms of personal enjoyment and retention of information, I am much more stimulated reading books ... Computers = sitting on a chair, very bored ..."; or, that they feel more comfortable "being able to highlight the key points", other students made comments concerning their physical well-being: "I can only read so much material on screen before I get a headache"; "reading computer screens makes my eyes tired". In terms of comments concerning time, many students surveyed suggested that CMO allowed greater time and flexibility to access materials and to complete readings, however, for those who preferred hard copies such arguments were refuted. For example, a number of students suggested that they "often had to wait 10-15 minutes just to get onto a library computer", while others said that they "can access their course readers while on the bus" - something they can't do with CMO.
Such findings give rise to a number of issues worth further consideration. In terms of complaints regarding eye strain and headaches, one wonders whether such problems could be overcome by better quality and layout control. Is it possible to increase the quality of the scanned documents, so that the font is large enough and clear enough to help overcome such problems? Monitor resolution may also be a factor: as suggested by Vernon (2006) "Cheap or aging cathode-ray tube monitors are harder to view than liquid crystal display screens" (p.425) and thus may be the cause of physical discomfort. Of greater interest to our research, however, was the number of students who argued for the importance of being able to highlight the text and make notes in the margins, which the use of digitised materials prevents.
There is a common assumption that students would become more comfortable with online texts through use, as Vernon (2006) argues "simply cutting and pasting text from the article to a word-processing program and highlighting it ... [is not] especially difficult" (p.425). However, this still does not overcome the fact that most students feel comfortable being able to annotate and highlight their documents by hand. While research into the comparisons between reading from computer-displayed text and reading from the printed page are extensive (see for example, Brown, 2001; Mercieca, 2004), there appears little discussion on students' wishes to annotate print material. It is possible to suggest, however, that this process of highlighting and annotating allows a physical interaction with the text that helps to assist content interpretation and a more sustained level of engagement. When staff set their weekly essential readings it is assumed and required that students will exhibit detailed engagement with the materials.
However, given that the reading process is 25% - 40% slower on screen than from the printed page, it has been suggested that students tend to skim read on screen textual material instead of reading the detailed textual content (Mercieca, 2004, p.2). Mercieca (2004) argues that such problems could be overcome if electronic distribution sites, such as CMO, were more fully integrated with online learning environments, such as WebCT (p.8). That is, making links between the academic theory, discussion and readings could provide added value to the material and thus provide a greater level of online engagement and a greater reason for reading the material from the screen. Yet although Brown (2001) argues that our reading styles may change as we interact with digital text, paper is embedded in our culture. Until such time as most people are comfortable reading articles or book chapters on screen, without needing to print the material, the reading of computer based texts, as encouraged by CMO, will remain problematic. As our results indicate, when it comes to essential course readings, there is a clear preference for the printed format.
While these are all important issues, they do not negate the undoubted utility of CMO. With greater consultation between the Library and academic staff, many of these concerns can perhaps be circumvented. Certainly issues regarding student research capabilities could be addressed through such consultation. As we have suggested, CMO is undoubtedly a useful and important resource, and with continued commitment to improving students' information literacy and encouraging strong research practices, it will be a valuable research tool. In terms of the practicalities, our research clearly indicates that the Library must, however, continue to cater for the large number of students who have articulated a preference for hard copies, as well as for those who are moving towards CMO. The scope of this study has been limited and further research into the use and preferences concerning CMO across a greater number of disciplines would be beneficial. Of particular use would be more concrete evidence of the impact of CMO on student research practices and how this inflects their grades.
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Brown, G. J. (2001). Beyond print: Reading digitally. Library Hi Tech, 19(4), 390-399.
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|Authors: Stacey Fox is a postgraduate student in the third year of her candidature at the University of Western Australia. Her thesis is (provisionally) titled "Writing the Unstable Self: Madness, Modernism and Femininity in the writing of Dorothy Richardson, Leonora Carrington, and Anaïs Nin." Her work focuses on the problematics of writing the unstable self, and on the ways in which women modernists negotiated discourses of madness in their constructions and expressions of subjectivity. She is currently undertaking a UWA Teaching Internship and has been teaching in English and Cultural Studies and Women's Studies for the past year. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sarah Brown is a PhD candidate with the Discipline of History at the University of Western Australia. Her doctoral thesis is an environmental history of Australia's post war suburban landscape, which seeks to trace the environmental imaginaries of those responsible for the suburban landscape and the extent to which such imaginaries were (or were not) translated into the actual built environment. Sarah is currently undertaking a UWA Teaching Internship and has been teaching in Australian History for the past year.
Please cite as: Fox, S. and Brown, S. (2007). Engaging students through CMO: Electronic reserves and student learning. In Student Engagement. Proceedings of the 16th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 30-31 January 2007. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2007/refereed/fox.html
Copyright 2007 Stacey Fox and Sarah Brown. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.