Barbour, M. K., & Hill, J. R. (2011). What are they doing and how are they doing it? Rural student experiences in virtual schooling. Journal of Distance Education, 25(1).


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This qualitative study examined a Canadian virtual school learning experience for students and the kinds of support and assistance most frequently used and valued by students learning in a virtual environment. Students were interviewed and observed
  4/24/2016What are they doing and how are they doing it? Rural student experiences in virtual schooling | Barbour | International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Educa… ISSN 2292-8588 (IJEDEOnline)1916-6818 (JDEOnline)0830-0445 (JDE Print) FONT SIZEUSER  UsernamePassword Remember me Login JOURNALCONTENT Search Search Scope All Search BrowseBy IssueBy AuthorBy Title   HOME   ABOUT   LOGIN   REGISTER    SEARCH   ARCHIVES   ANNOUNCEMENTSTHESIS ABSTRACT   S   JDE ARCHIVES Home > Vol 25, No 1 (2011) > Barbour What are They Doing and How are TheyDoing It? Rural Student Experiences inVirtual Schooling Michael K. Barbour and Janette Hill  VOL. 25, No. 1 Abstract This qualitative study examined a Canadian virtual school learning experience for students and thekinds of support and assistance most frequently used and valued by students learning in a virtualenvironment. Students were interviewed and observed during their virtual school classes. In-schoolteachers were also interviewed and online teachers were also observed. Data were analyzed usingthe constant comparative method. Findings indicated that during their scheduled asynchronousclass time students were often assigned seatwork or provided time to work on assignments,however, students rarely used this time to complete virtual schoolwork. It was during theirsynchronous class time that both the students and the online teachers were most productive.Students sought assistance from local classmates before turning to their online teacher or in-schoolteachers, and did not use the other support systems provided by the virtual school. Résumé Cette étude qualitative a porté sur une expérience canadienne d’apprentissage pour les élèves enécole virtuelle ainsi que les types de soutien et d’aide les plus couramment utilisés et prisés par lesétudiants qui font des apprentissages dans un environnement virtuel. Les étudiants ont étéinterviewés et observés pendant leur cours virtuels. Des enseignants travaillant à l’école ontégalement été interviewés et des enseignants travaillant en ligne ont aussi été observés. Lesdonnées recueillies ont été analysées à l’aide de la méthode comparative constante. Les résultatsdémontrent que pendant leur temps de class asynchrone déterminé, les étudiants se faisaientsouvent donner du travail individuel ou donner du temps pour travailler à leurs devoirs. Toutefois,les étudiants utilisaient rarement ce temps pour effectuer des travaux scolaires virtuels. C’étaitdurant leur temps de classe synchrone qu’à la fois les étudiants et les enseignants en ligne étaientles plus productifs. Les étudiants faisaient appel à l’aide de leurs pairs locaux avant de recourir àleur enseignant en ligne ou aux enseignants travaillant à l’école et ils n’utilisaient pas les autressystèmes de soutien fournis par l’école virtuelle. Introduction Rural areas have historically been undervalued in many parts of the world. Cosby and McDermott(1978) indicated there was a perception that those living in rural areas represented “a small andinsignificant segment of the population” of the United States (p. 6). The authors speculated this wasdue to the urban dominance in matters of politics and commerce, along with a general shift in thepopulation from rural to urban areas. These observations are particularly true of the Canadianprovince of Newfoundland and Labrador. In this sparsely populated province, 178 of the 279 schoolsin 2009-10 were located in rural areas (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, 2010) and 85were designated as necessarily existent. FN 1 As with other rural jurisdictions across North America, many of the schools in Newfoundland andLabrador do not have enough specialized teachers or are unable to provide sufficient variety in theircourse offerings required by the provincially mandated curriculum. In this environment, ruralschools are unable to offer their students the same level of educational opportunity as their larger,urban counterparts. Beginning in the late 1970s, a variety of government reports outlined theseproblems (e.g., Crocker & Riggs, 1979; House, 1986; Riggs, 1987). In response to therecommendations in these reports, the province began implementing distance education programsfor rural high school students in 1988. Since 2001 this program has been delivered through aprovince-wide virtual school known as the Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation (CDLI).  4/24/2016What are they doing and how are they doing it? Rural student experiences in virtual schooling | Barbour | International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Educa…  The purpose of this study was to investigate the virtual school learning experience for rural studentsin the CDLI and the kinds of support and assistance that were most highly used and valued bythese students. The importance of this study stemmed from the fact that while previous studieshave examined the types of secondary students attracted to virtual learning, and other studiesattempted to compare the performance of students in virtual schools with that of students intraditional schools, few, if any, researchers have undertaken a comprehensive investigation of students’ experiences in virtual schools. Literature Review Historically, many of the early examples of distance education programs in high schools acrossNorth America were primarily designed for students with higher aptitudes, higher achievement, andgreater aspirations for post-secondary education (Mulcahy, 2002). For example, in their second-year evaluation of the Virtual High School Global Consortium (VHS), Espinoza et al. (1999) statedthe “VHS was serving a fairly narrow range of students, those who were academically advanced andcollege bound” (p. 48). The courses developed by the VHS illustrate this trend. For example,courses such as Advanced Placement Statistics, Environmental Ethics, and Russian, Soviet, andPost-Soviet Studies were designed and implemented in such a way that they excluded all but themost talented and motivated.Research literature also substantiates this trend. Based upon a review of this literature, Roblyer andElbaum (2000) concluded, “only students with a high need to control and structure their ownlearning may choose distance formats freely” (p. 61). For example, in his analysis of 2,600 studentenrollments at a mid-Western virtual high school, Mills (2003) found the typical online student wasan A or B student. This is similar to findings by other scholars (e.g., Bigbie & McCarroll, 2000;Watkins, 2005) who found e-learning opportunities were open to high achievers. Other scholarshave also indicated that in distance programs where student selectivity is not maintained, retentionrates decrease significantly (Ballas & Belyk, 2000; Barker & Wendel, 2001; Kozma et al., 2000;Roblyer, 1999).These findings have led some to question whether online learning is suitable for all secondary-levelstudents (Mulcahy, 2002). Several comparative studies have found that K-12 students in onlinelearning environments perform as well or better than their classroom counterparts (Barbour & Mulcahy, 2008a, 2009; Cavanaugh et al., 2005; McLeod et al., 2005). In a meta-analysis of 19studies investigating the effectiveness of interactive distance education technologies in K-12education including over 900 participants from 1980 to 1998, Cavanaugh (2001) found there was “asmall positive effect in favor of distance education” (p. 73). Similarly, more recent meta-analyseshave reached similar conclusions (Bernard et al., 2004; Cavanaugh et al., 2004; Means et al.,2009). However, based upon the descriptions of the distance education student, difference inresults between distance education and traditional classroom students may be largely explained bythe selectivity of students registered in distance education programs. Based upon these examplesand the current literature in general, it seems plausible the students described in many of thedistance education studies were primarily the independent, self-motivated students who enrolled inthe earliest forms of distance education opportunities in Newfoundland and Labrador and elsewherein North America. It may also be that the students who would not have performed well in thedistance education environment had already elected to drop the course before the outcome datawere collected. For example, both Cavanaugh et al. (2005) and McLeod et al. (2005) speculatedthat their own positive results in favor of virtual school students were due to many of the low-achieving students dropping out prior to the assessment.There has been a tremendous growth in virtual school opportunities over the past two decades bothin numbers and in composition. Current estimates indicate there are 1,500,000 students enrolled inonline courses in the United States (Watson, Murin, Vashaw, Gemin & Rapp, 2010), up from anestimated 40,000 to 50,000 less than a decade ago (Clark, 2001). The greatest level of growth hasbeen with the full-time cyber schools (Watson, Gemin & Ryan, 2008), while Klein (2006) indicatesthat many cyber schools have a higher percentage of students classified as ‘at-risk’ – whichincreases the range of ability levels being served by virtual schooling. Barbour (2010a) speculatedsimilar trends have occurred in Canada. Given this continued growth, it seems imperative tocontinue exploration of the virtual school experience and to discover how best to support studentsin these learning environments. However, to date there has still been little systematic researchconducted into virtual schooling (Barbour & Reeves, 2009; Cavanaugh, Barbour & Clark, 2009;Rice, 2006) – and some of have even questioned the methodological reliability and validity of themuch of that research (Barbour, 2010b). Methodology The purpose of this study was to examine the nature of this virtual school learning in Newfoundlandand Labrador’s rural schools. Specifically, this study examined how students interacted with theirvirtual school courses and the process they undertook when they needed help. This general purposelent itself to three research questions:1. What are the students’ experiences during their synchronous time online?2. What are the students’ experiences during their asynchronous time online?3. When students require content-based assistance, where do they seek that assistance andwhy do they choose those sources?Qualitative research methods were appropriate tools to examine the proposed research questions   4/24/2016What are they doing and how are they doing it? Rural student experiences in virtual schooling | Barbour | International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Educa… an a case s u y approac was se ec e . a e escr e a case s u y as concen ra ng onone phenomenon, which possesses both “uniqueness and commonality” (p. 1).According to Merriam (1998) “any and all methods of gathering data, from testing to interviewing,can be used in a case study, although certain techniques are used more than others” (p. 28). Theuse of multiple sources of data and multiple data collection methods allows researchers totriangulate themes that may emerge from the data (Patton, 2002) and to provide the richdescription typically associated with qualitative inquiry. The data collection phase took place over a6-month period and included a semi-structured focus group with students in January, monthlyinterviews with students from February to June and single interviews with teachers andadministrators in May. The first author participated in 34 hours of observation of students duringtheir scheduled synchronous and asynchronous classes from March to June. In addition, 31 hours of recordings of synchronous classes and 13 different asynchronous course management systemclasses were captured, and surveys were administered in May (for a complete description seeBarbour, 2007).The data from the focus group and interviews were recorded and transcribed, while theobservations were captured using video recording and researcher’s field notes. Data were analyzedusing an inductive analysis approach, with the help of Microsoft Word  ® as a data analysis tool (seeRuona, 2005). Constant comparative method was used, an analysis technique that focuses onidentifying categories and generating statements of relationships. As Ezzy (2002) described, theprocess of constant comparison is developing and identifying codes that can then be comparedacross the data. This approach involves scanning the data for categories and relationships withinand between individual transcripts. Issues of validity and reliability were addressed using a varietyof methodological strategies, such as triangulation and member checking. For example, theresearchers were able to compare data provided during the student interviews with data givenduring the teacher interviews and with the video data captured during the observations of thestudents. The Case and Participants The CDLI offered its first courses during the 2001-02 school year with a limited number of enrollments in a pilot setting, and then opened access to any student in the province during the2002-03 school year. The CDLI also developed a number of courses (such as Art Technologies1201, Communications Technology 2104/3104 and World Geography 3202) that were popular ortypically catered to an average or below average ability student The student population of the CDLInow had the potential to include students of all ability levels instead of primarily focusing onadvanced-level courses, as previous distance education initiatives had done. In addition to theexpanded student population, the CDLI also used a delivery model that included both scheduledsynchronous and asynchronous sessions for each of the courses it offered.The rural school selected for this study was Beaches All Grade, FN 2  a school with a student body of 126 students and a teaching staff of 15, during the 2005-06 school year. Because of this smallenrollment, students at Beaches All Grade have accessed virtual school courses each year the CDLIhas been in operation (see Mulcahy, Dibbon & Norberg [2008] for a discussion of the necessity, asopposed to the option, of rural schools accessing the services of the CDLI). During the 2005-06school year, there were 12 students enrolled in eight different CDLI courses that formed apurposeful sample: one grade 10 student, five grade 11 students, and six grade 12 students. Eightof these students participated in the majority of the data collection; and data analysis focused ononly these eight students (see Table 1). Table 1: Student Participants Pseudonyms Gender Grade From Course Taken Jasmine Female 10 Cape Random Fine Arts FN 3 Justine Female 11 Beaches Language Arts FN 4 / Mathematics / ScienConstance Female 11 Beaches Language ArtsJason (D) Male 11 Clarke's Bay Language Arts / MathematicsMya Female 12 Beaches Language ArtsMax Male 12 Beaches Language Arts / Mathematics / ScienceKathy Female 12 Cape Random Language Arts / Mathematics / SciencePeter (PJ) Male 11 Beaches Mathematics / Science Some of these students were enrolled in the same courses, which formed a school-based or localgroup of classmates. However, as an online class, these students also had classmates in their onlinecourses from other schools throughout the province and their online teacher was also in at a remotelocation. The participating students were a diverse group of individuals – ranging from university- orcollege-bound to those heading into a trade or directly into the work force upon completing highschool. In addition to data from the eight students, interviews were also conducted with fourschool-based teachers and administrators at Beaches. Results and Discussion At the conclusion of the data collection, the researchers had conducted one semi-structured focusgroup with three students, four monthly semi-structured interviews with each student (total = 32),62 hours of video recorded participant observation, analysis from 13 asynchronous courses, and   4/24/2016What are they doing and how are they doing it? Rural student experiences in virtual schooling | Barbour | International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Educa… our surveys rom eac stu ent n - 32 ; n a t on to ata rom Beac es teac ers anadministrators. The findings and discussion are organized by the research questions. Research Question One: Students’ Synchronous Experiences A wide variety of instructional approaches are typically encountered if you observe ten classroomlessons face-to-face or online synchronously. The students’ synchronous time was also where mostof the instruction actually occurred; scheduled asynchronous “instruction” was similar to what onewould expect from an independent study environment (see Greenway & Vanourek, 2006 for anexample). There were also many similarities between how students described their synchronousclass time and how we might expect them to describe their experience in a traditional classroom.For example, most teachers have likely had a student who would describe their experiences in theirclass as “just sitting there and listening to the teacher” (JD). While not a very active form of participation, JD did describe in a later interview a more active participation, “if he [the teacher]says something important, I just flip back up to the screen and see what he is writing up and thenwrite up what he’s writing up or prints [ sic  ] it off.” In fact all eight of the students described someform of active participation, at least for a portion of their synchronous classes.The descriptions were consistent with what might be expected of activities in a traditionalclassroom. For example, it was common for teachers to use the electronic whiteboard in a mannersimilar to the way they would use a traditional whiteboard as a space to diagram new conceptsbeing introduced to students (see Figure 1). Figure 1. Example of a teacher introducing a new concept on the electronic whiteboard. In this example, notice that the students used the direct messaging area to ask the e-teacherquestions and he addressed these questions as he introduced the concept. Similarly, Jasminedescribed one of her synchronous fine arts classes as “he was teaching us stuff about balanced art,so he was getting us to answer some questions [on] which art was balanced and the differenttypes…. We had to find pictures that had, like different types of balance.” The synchronous sessions were also times when the students demonstrated the most engagement.For example, Max described the need for this strategy in the virtual environment as:There’s just not an actual teacher there to look at them [ sic  ] and, you know, to look atthem [ sic  ] sternly and now that they got to pay attention and they will, but in[Elluminate] Live all you got to do is a check mark every now and then to see if you arepaying attention.One of the reasons e-teachers and their students made effective use of their synchronous time mayhave been because of these similarities to the traditional classroom environment. According toSurrey and Ely (2007), a person is more likely to use something new if it “offers them a better wayto do something; is compatible with their values, beliefs and needs; is not too complex; can be triedout before adoption; and has observable benefits” (p. 106). The virtual classroom utilized by theCDLI in this study allowed teachers and students to interact in ways that were compatible with thetraditional classroom.However, the data indicate that students were not always actively participating. For example, fromthe beginning to the end of one observed synchronous class session three language arts studentstalked about the school’s graduation, the up-coming school trip to the capital city, what hadoccurred the previous weekend, what they were going to do this coming weekend, their plans forsummer break, the movie The Breakfast Club,  school spirit, and many other topics rather thananything to do with the course for most of the 60 minutes class. During this conversation all threestudents were logged into Elluminate Live  and one of the three students appeared to be responsiblefor paying closer attention, as she would periodically tell the other two to type this or click that.While this particular class may have been an outlier, at least based upon our observations, it wasan illustration of the difficulties of the virtual environment for students who are being “compelled toassume a degree of autonomy they are not ready to handle” (Moore, 1973, p. 84). Based onobservations of all 22 synchronous class recordings theamount of conversation between studentswas usually limited to 10-15 minutes out of a 60-minute class. Further, as indicated by data fromthe students themselves, they also felt that much of the conversation was focused upon the contentof the s nchronous class see Table 2 . FN 5  4/24/2016What are they doing and how are they doing it? Rural student experiences in virtual schooling | Barbour | International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Educa…   Table 2: Percentage of the conversation during synchronous classes about the subject area Student Interview #1 #2 #3 #4 Constance 50% 30-40% 25% 20-25%JD 50% 40% 75-80% 40-60%Peter 40% 80% N/A 50%Mya 75% 100% 100% 75%Jasmine 95% 100% 100% 100%Kathy 95% 90% 90% 50%Justine N/A 65% 25%/50% 10%Max 90% 50% 50% 80% Mean 70% 70% 65% 50% The students in this study reported building a support community amongst themselves, which theyutilized during their synchronous classes. A stronger sense of community is normally present inrural schools (Kannapel & DeYoung, 1999), which was also true at Beaches All Grade, and thestudents themselves used terms like “friendly,” “close knit,” and “family” to describe their ruralschool. For example, Mya commented “I know that over the last year we’ve gotten to know eachother, umm through the course, but I would say like in person it’s like a tighter community amongststudents.” The students all felt the smaller class size in their virtual school classes created a greatersense of community with their local virtual school classmates. Conrad (2002) described place-basedcommunities, or communities physically together, as “like-minded groups of people [gathered]together in the spirit of shared goals” (p. 4). In this case, the shared goals focused onunderstanding the material their e-teacher presented. Cross (1998) believed a learning communityfostered “active learning over passive learning, cooperation over competition, and community overisolation” (p. 5). CDLI students were quite active in their learning and cooperated to ensureeveryone who expressed confusion understood the material. For example, students frequentlyasked each other content-based questions during synchronous class time.While attempts were made to help establish a sense of community through e-teachers collectingpictures and background information on students to use during synchronous class sessions, a senseof community with students in their virtual class, not physically located at Beaches, did not appearto exist. Data indicated there may be several reasons for this disconnect; the most prominent wasthe use of direct messaging versus live voice chat. While students did occasionally use both, all butone student preferred to use direct messaging when given the choice. Most students preferreddirect messaging because they were shy about speaking over the live voice chat or because theyfelt they did not know the other online classmates. “I just don’t like talking over the mic,” saidJasmine, while Justine indicated, “I guess I’m kind of shy using the mic.” This was consistent withNippard (2005), who found CDLI students in the 6 courses he observed preferred to use directmessaging in their virtual classrooms.A sense of community or a connection between learners is affected by several factors such as thelevel of social presence perceived by the learners (Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997; Tu, 2004). Short,Williams and Christie (1976) defined social presence as “the degree of awareness of another personin an interaction and the consequent appreciation of an interpersonal relationship” (p. 66). This alsolinks to other influences described by researchers, including useful relationships (Tu & McIsaac,2002) and emotional bonding (So & Brush, 2008). The data indicate that the CDLI students atBeaches still did not feel that their online classmates projected themselves in any way that fosteredany meaningful relationship. Research Question Two: Students’ Asynchronous Experiences The Beaches data indicated only a small percentage of the instruction that was provided by theCDLI took place during scheduled asynchronous time. Overall, it appeared most CDLI e-teachersattempted to teach the complete content of their course during the synchronous time. Wheninstruction did occur during scheduled asynchronous time, the students were typically assigned oneof four activities by their teachers to complete:1. questions about a reading or practicing new mathematical or scientific formulas;2. work on up-coming assignments;3. for science students, completion of hands-on laboratory work; and/or4. for language arts students, reading of various assigned poems, short stories, novels andplays.The students reported they were assigned a variety of work during their scheduled asynchronousclass time, for example:I was reading, I had to catch up with everyone else because we had to get the bookread before Easter Break and I only had a couple of pages, a couple of chapters left, soI read my book and finished that up, and we had to add to our notes, so I did that too,but I was done that during the first half hour of class. (Mya)Along with time to read her novel and add to her journal assignment, Mya also reported her e-teacher had them respond to a discussion posting: “They’ll [the e-teacher] put topics up and stuff and you have to respond to them and state your position to them, whether you agree or youdisagree and why.” JD, on the other hand, expressed his view more pragmatically:
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