Faculty members and students perceptions of e-learning in the English department: a project evaluation.

Author:Al-Dosari, Hamad
 
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INTRODUCTION

Web-based learning, often called online or e-learning includes online course content discussion forums via email, videoconferencing and live lectures (video-streaming via synchronous or asynchronous teaching); these possibilities and several others are all available through the web. E-learning is an outcome of an information revolution across all disciplines, including foreign language learning and teaching.

With these brisk developments in information and telecommunication technology applications worldwide, a dire need for developing a national strategy for reforming education and especially English Language Teaching (ELT) in Saudi Arabia has been strongly advocated (Al-Sharhani, 2000). According to the University World News website,

"Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has called for a national plan to adopt information technology across the country. The plan recommends implementation of e-learning and distance learning and their prospective applications in higher education".

Notes that the Internet penetration rate in Saudi Arabia is 10.6% (average worldwide = 27.4%) and that user growth rate is 1.170% while the average worldwide is 222.5%. He further describes Saudi Arabia as the 47th country out of 60 major nations with 4.50 points out of 10 which makes it ready to install e-learning programmes on a wide scale. Therefore, there grew an increasing interest in online learning in higher education fuelled by both the innovations in internet-related technologies and the desire for flexibility and convenience on the part of both students and instructors in Saudi Arabia.

The need for this flexibility and convenience in the delivery of university education and other instructional/training courses across all levels of education has been identified by various initiatives in Arabia aiming at maintaining widening participation in education in all sections and across all ages in the Saudi society as well as sustaining professional development. Of such initiatives is the SBM-KIT partnership for course delivery in the master's program on the Internet for Saudi students interested to pursue their master's degrees in business administration or in science, as well as the STC initiatives for enhancing e-learning opportunities in Saudi Arabia in collaboration with the Ministry of Higher Education. With the widespread use of technology and technology literacy, there has been a notable increase of interest and activity within computerized learning technologies over the past decade, specifically online learning made possible by the development of the Internet. Further and above all, Web-based education-the now most popular form of distance education-can be provided synchronously and asynchronously, thereby catering to a wide variety of needs, given the availability of computers and the internet and the interactive nature of most online learning today. In point of fact, contemporary distance learning can be seen as a product of 30 years of research and implementation of computerized learning technologies (Chumley-Jones et al., 2002).

Distance learning technologies are a response to a number of challenges in contemporary education, including rising costs, reduced operating budgets and overused personnel and physical resources as well as changes in life styles of people, especially the working class who aspire to continue their education (Goldstein and Ford, 2002).

In Saudi Arabia, policy-makers, educational researchers, educators and the general public and particularly students are gaining awareness of the advantages of these technologies and are adopting them widely, though yet in some limited form. For example, Saudi universities are establishing e-learning centers and e-learning communities and some very limited courses are compulsorily delivered asynchronously online in the form of blended learning.

In fact, there is currently a growing interest in blended learning in Higher Education worldwide as indicated by the growing number of effectiveness research in this area (Irons et al., 2002; Stubbs and Martin, 2003; O'Toole and Absalom, 2003; MacDonald and McAteer, 2003). In university education, there arises 'the need for an holistic approach to embedding e-learning in institutional activities'. Blended learning arises when students are taught via 'a combination of face-to-face and online media' (Voos, 2003). This has come into being after the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education had established the National Centre of E-learning and Distance Learning, known as the ELC, to organize the change and prepare e-learning material. Nine universities have already agreed to implement the system in attempts to transfer to an e-learning system integrated with the traditional system of education. For instance, students in King Khalid University where this study was conducted, are encouraged to take online courses, not as a second-class alternative, but as a first-class method of instruction. This is not discrepant from many parts of the world which are in infancy for integrating e-learning with traditional learning in higher education institutions. Usually, online learning configurations range from the integration of web-based technologies and conventional lecture courses, to the development of innovative online courses conducted entirely via distance learning (Lebel et al., 2005).

The merits of e-learning, as a culmination of distance education all along the past three decades and as the most popular open education facilities currently, have now been established in research findings across all disciplines (Gilmore and Warren, 2007; Oh, 2003; Bernard et al., 2004; Crutsinger et al., 2005; Stokes et al., 2004; Tallent-Runnels et al., 2006; Poole, 2006; Tham and Werner, 2005; Newsome, 2008). Nevertheless, there are many issues that affect their successful completion of online courses. Some of these issues include work overload, lack of technological skills and feelings of isolation (Newsome, 2008).

Many institutions are not prepared for the challenges involved in offering quality online learning; especially, there is a lack of a reliable assessment tool for evaluating and improving online courses. Moskal et al. (2006) pointed out that "The expansion of online environment presents formidable challenges to higher education. Universities must confront the demand for new pedagogies, enhanced support for both faculty and students, organizational redefinition, authentic and contextual assessment techniques" (p.27).

Moreover, Willging and Johnson (2004) reported in their survey results tapping into technology-related reasons behind e-learning that a "lack of technical preparation for the programme" contributed to ahig h drop-out rate (p.115). It becomes evident, as Lynch (2001) emphasized that "effective student and faculty preparation for the Web-based teaching and learning environment can make a significant impact on student success in their studies, thus increasing retention and curriculum completion" (p.3).

In light of this tremendous growth, it is critical to examine various important factors that must be considered in order to create effective online courses. These factors include the need to increase online student completion rates, provide training to online instructors, support students' technological skills and develop more valid and reliable online evaluation methods. The investigation of these elements guided the researcher's investigation into the intricacies of developing a high quality online education. Therefore, there is a need to build on the accumulated expertise associated with conventional teaching in order to establish best practices for effective online learning and instructions and to devise appropriate pedagogical, organizational and technological paradigms that will shape the groundwork for future courses (Lebel et al., 2005; Harasim et al., 1995).

The purpose of the current study was to contribute to the body of literature on behaviorally oriented web-based instruction by assessing the efficiency of and preference for two supplemental learning modules within an online course in order to determine, empirically, the viability of these commonly used learning tools. In other words, the present study evaluates the effectiveness of and preference for web-based learning as perceived by faculty and students in the English department based on their perceptions of how effective e-learning is or have been for them as derived from a questionnaire study.

Nature and problem of the study: The focus of the present study was to recognize the perceptions of faculty and students as to the e-learning endeavor at King Khalid University by probing the opinion of a sample of undergraduate students and their teachers enrolled in the English Department, College of Language and Translation, Abha. Two courses (Drama and Novel) were studied in both the traditional delivery method of classroom attendance for one semester and the e-learning online delivery method in the second semester in the academic year (2008-2009).

Because it may seem easier to augment an already busy schedule with an internet course, rather than a traditional face-to-face course, some students may take on more study than they can handle. There is reason to believe students enrolled in traditional courses are busier than those enrolled in traditional classes. In addition to their enrollment in an online course, they may be involved in the following: (a) a full- or part-time job; (b) face-to-face classes; or (c) extracurricular activities, such as athletics, on-campus or off-campus activities, or any other study. As the study piles up, students might drop the online courses in order to catch up. In addition, if the students feel that the online instructor is not qualified to teach the class, then they will probably drop out or their performance in the final test which is usually given in traditional assessment format incompatible with the online delivery method...

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