Students' Frustrations with a Web-Based Distance Education Course

Many advocates of computer-mediated distance education emphasize its positive aspects and understate the kind of work that it requires for students and faculty. This article presents a qualitative case study of a Web-based distance education course at a major U.S. university. The case data reveal a taboo topic: students’ persistent frustrations in Web-based distance education. First, this paper will analyze why these negative phenomena are not found in the literature. Second, this article will discuss whether students’ frustrations inhibit their educational opportunities. In this study, students’ frustrations were found in three interrelated sources: lack of prompt feedback, ambiguous instructions on the Web, and technical problems. It is concluded that these frustrations inhibited educational opportunities. This case study illustrates some student perspectives and calls attention to some fundamental issues that could make distance education a more satisfying learning experience. —Noriko Hara and Rob KlingStudents’ Frustrations with a Web-Based Distance Education Course (First Monday)

One of my upcoming projects is putting together an online course, “Computer Game Culture and Theory.” While I assume that students who opt to take that class will have a high level of technological aptitude, I’ll still need to be aware of, and compensate in advance for, the ways that my particular teaching style will have to change when transferred online.

I tend to over-prepare online handouts, adding to them year after year, adding ever more examples and explanations. One year when I filled out the syllabus in advance, with links to every handout and sample assignments to download, the students felt the website was confusing and overwhelming. The next year, I prepared all the handouts and supporting documents, but only added them to the online syllabus gradually, as the students felt a need for them. This caused a different problem, in that students felt a little frustrated that long detailed handouts appeared after they struggled with a much shorter set of instructions and produced a rough draft that, they felt, would have been better if they had known, in advance, the kind of document I “wanted” them to produce.

It’s human nature to ignore the instructions, so I’m not surprised when students don’t read the eight-page, densely hyperlinked handouts I sometimes foist upon them. In a face-to-face situation, I can very easily talk my way through any online instructions that are vague. I think I may have been depending too much on orally presenting information. Hmm… it’s ridiculously late, but I just had a thought. (See next blog entry.)