Online Learning and Learning Styles

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Education in a Chaning Environment 17th-18th September 2003

Conference Proceedings

Online Learning and Learning Styles
Abuagila Musa

J. R. G. Wood


Based on work in progress, this paper presents a literature review which forms part of a PhD investigating how to improve the design of Online Learning Systems in order to progress student learning. The paper focuses on the learning style issue and investigates how they can be applied to design better online learning systems according to learners’ preferences. Two learning methods (4MAT Learning Styles model and Problem-Based learning) will be evaluated in the design of an online learning course, and research questions and methods are discussed.
Keywords: Web-Based Learning, Online Learning, Learning Styles, Problem-Based Learning.

The integration between information and telecommunication technologies has supported distance learning by providing learning situations that are accessible to individuals any time any place (Franklin and Peat, 2001). Although distance learning is available with many facilities there is little effective use of technology to achieve progress. (Shortridge, 2001; Torrisi-Steele and Davis, 2000). The question therefore arises as to whether the Internet and related computer technology (software & hardware) are utilised to their full potential in Online Learning (OL). In addition, how is it possible to guarantee that a learner will find it interesting enough for him/her to return and complete the course? (Dillon, 2001). The problem therefore is to find a way to design OL material that is enjoyable and so enhances peoples’ learning.

There are many web sites that contain learning material, but which seem to be simply transferring traditional course material directly to electronic format without considering the pedagogical principles involved (Dobbs, 2000; Fetherston, 2001; Stephenson, 2001; Alexander and Boud, 2001). Few theory-based guidelines have been published that support course designers (Shortridge, 2001; Stephenson, 2001). Accordingly, this research investigates how to improve the use of technology in order to achieve improved learning. This leads to questions about usability and keeping the user engaged with the technology so that he/she can improve his/her way of learning, and employ the technology to go beyond that. In summary, it is important to think about new ways of employing technology in order to help people learn.
Given the importance of training and education, it is strongly recommended that more research is undertaken to develop effective Internet-based learning environments, and so improve their quality (Wang, et al, 2001; Kettanurak, et al, 2001; Andrewartha, and Wilmot, 2001). It is clear that there is a gap between the current status of OL and learning theories, and a need to consider pedagogy in the design and implementation of the process of OL (Charp, 2001; Alexander and Boud, 2001).
This paper is part of a PhD research and presents the literature review about the investigated area. In this part of the research two learning methods (4MAT Learning Styles model and Problem-Based learning) are being studied to evaluate their use in Online Learning Systems (OLS). This paper presents an overview of the two learning methods which will form the basis of the study.
Literature Review

Web Based Education (Online Learning)

The Internet has acted as a springboard for Web-based Education (WBE), providing the facility to organise learning activities on the network worldwide. Web-based Education (WBE), Web-based instruction (WBI), and Online Learning (OL), are all terms referring to the use of web technologies for education within academic fields. The term Web-Based Training (WBT) is related to the use of web technologies within industry fields. WBE or WBT refers to the joining of distance learning, computer-conveyed education, and Internet technology to form OL (Horton, 2000). WBE and WBT aim to utilise the advances in IT and telecommunications. However, we need to redesign the process of learning to benefit from the facilities provided such as audio, video, and high-speed Internet connection. These aid synchronous and asynchronous communication in chat groups, virtual classrooms and discussion forums (Aggarwal, 2000). The learning activities in OL can be managed by using the following facilities; e-mail, chat rooms, virtual classroom (synchronised), and discussion forums (asynchronised). These facilities can add deferred accessibility for the learner to the course material, learner-to-learner, and learner-to-instructor with additional resources all the time (Taylor, 2001).
Learning Styles

There are differences among people in the way they learn. These differences are recognised and classified as styles of a learning process that an individual has. The term Learning Styles (LS) has been defined by many authors for example:

Learning style may also be defined as the tendency to adopt a particular strategy in learning. Most students have a preferred learning style but some may adapt their learning styles according to tasks. (Pask, et al, 1977)
People learn in different ways. These differences depend on many things: who we are, where we are, how we see ourselves, and what people ask us…We hover near different places on a continuum. And our hovering place is our most comfortable place.

(McCarthy, 1980. p. 3-4)

The term LS first appeared in 1892, and was first applied in 1954 by Thelen in a study of groups at work (Honey and Mumford in Fatt, 2000). In addition there are more than 30 different LS theories and more than 30 instruments used for evaluating LS (Ouellette, 2000). Kolb explained learning as a circular process as illustrated in Figure 1 added to the general experiential learning model is a combination of the main two dimensions (sensing/feeling thinking and acting/watching learners):
Learners, if they are to be effective, need four different kinds of abilities, concrete experience abilities (CE), reflective observation abilities (RO), abstract conceptualisation abilities (AC), and active experimentation (AE). (Kolb, 1984)
Source: (Kolb, 1984)
Figure 1: Learning Styles and Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle
This has led to the four learning styles, which are Convergent style, Accommodative style, Divergent style and Assimilative style (Felder, 1996; Gary, and Palmer, 2001).

A study by McCarthy (1990) added two new views to Kolb’s model concerning the way the brain works (right/left mode). McCarthy described her idea (Gary, and Palmer, 2001):

People have major learning styles and hemispheric (right mode/left mode) processing preferences. All of us feel, reflect, think and do, but we linger at different places along the way. These lingerings form our learning style preferences; complex patterns of individuality, developed over time, that bias what we see and how we see it. (McCarthy in Fatt, 2000, p. 32)
According to this idea she identified eight theoretical approaches to the learning process cycle, illustrated in the 4MAT System Model as seen in Figure 2 (McCarthy, 1987; Gary, and Palmer, 2001):

  1. CONNECT: Engage in the experience to start to establish a link between learner’s personal meaning and the content of the subject to achieve clear connection to learner’s life and background;

  2. EXAMINE: Students start to analyse the new experience to build their own beliefs;

  3. IMAGE: Students start to form the picture that clarifies the concept of the new experience;

  4. INFORM: Students learn concepts and skills that must be known for the new experience;

  5. PRACTISE: Work with concept’s content, and practise the new skills as the experts have found it. This stage needs an environment where learners can experience putting the concepts into practice;

  1. EXTEND: Apply to a more complex experience where learners can add their own innovation. At this point the student should know enough, and have enough skills to extend their thinking on the new experience;

  2. REFINE: The students begin to analyse the application of the concepts to evaluate that experience and extension for relevance and usefulness;

  3. PERFORM: In the last stage the learners are able to do it by themselves and sharing it with others may form a new shape to this experience.

The 4MAT system model has a distinction from the other learning styles theories; it takes into account all learning styles in one cycle of learning process, which can involve all learners’ differences (Gary, and Palmer, 2001). The aim is to evaluate the uses of this learning theory in OLS to investigate how technology can better be used in education to enhance the way students learn. The 4MAT learning model offers a framework that can help learners with different learning styles at the same time. This framework could inform OLS which could be evaluated to examine how students can benefit equally within the same learning environment. The 4MAT cycle is based on variations in learning styles and differences in brain hemispheric preferences. What this adds up to, is a circular learning pattern that acknowledges diversity (Gary and Palmer, 2001; Karuppan, 2001). For this reason the research will evaluate this learning system in an online learning environment to see if learners can benefit from it in distance learning.

Source: (Gary and Plamer, 2001)
Figure 2: An Online Course Model Using 4MAT Learning Styles System Model
Problem-Based Learning

The second learning method that the researcher selected to be evaluation on Web-Based Learning is Problem-Based Learning (PBL). Problem-Based Learning is an approach to structuring the curriculum which involves confronting students with problems from practice that provide a stimulus for learning (Boud, and Feletti, 1997). The reasons behind the selection of the PBL method for this project are, that the aim of the project is to uphold the constructivist’s ideas of active learning, and to help students to ‘make sense’ for themselves. PBL is an approach that enables individuals to learn and understand their own situations and frameworks by themselves so that they are able to observe how they learn, and how they see themselves as future professionals. Also, PBL can offer an excitement factor in learning, and through its implementation it is possible to provide many rich and innovative opportunities to help improve student learning (Savin-Baden, 2000; Vat, 2000; Edward, 2001). It may appear more appropriate for a learner who learns better by doing (e.g. Convergent style), however, there is an indication that the Problem-Based Learning method is appropriate for the majority of learners (Edward, 2001).

Learning Process of Problem-Based Learning Method

The structure of the learning process in the PBL approach requires students to work in small groups to challenge the problems in a practical way to provide motivation in learning. However, the learning process in this method can take many forms (Duch, et al., 2001; Boud, and Feletti, 1997; Savin-Baden, 2000; Jonassen, 1999). In this kind of learning environment students can be given the chance and the ability to assess their strengths and weakness, to determine their own needs, and to learn how to meet those needs, learning from each other during peer discussions (Glasgow, 1997; Wang, 2000).

The researcher designed an online learning process as illustrated in Figure 3. This starts by organising students in small work groups in order to share their experience or they can work as an individual. In the second stage students are expected to access the learning material online on the Internet. In the third step learners select a case study to practise the skills that they are expected to learn. In the next stage group members start to collect the information needed for the case study. This initiates the group discussion online through use of the available facilities on the course website (for example, group forum, e-mail, and online whiteboard discussion).
During this debate students can access the course contents for further details. It is also possible for the students to use the Internet resource to find more information on their case study. Out of this work the group members can present their initial work on the group’s web page, which aims to share information and can open wide discussion with other groups. In the following stage learners begin to use the important skills that they are expected to develop. The group members then start to open up new online discussions about their work, referring to online course contents to clarify any ambiguous point(s). Finally the group’s work can be presented on the group’s web page to share their experience with other groups’ members (Wang, 2000; Duch, et al., 2001; Rhem, 1998; Ross, 1997; Vat, 2000).

Figure 3: An Online Course Model Using the Problem-Based Learning Method.

Research Questions and Method

So, the key principle behind this research is the issue that ‘people are learning in different ways’. The research is investigating how it is possible to improve the use of technology in the learning process by employing one of the pedagogical learning theories. The main question is: How is it possible to apply web-based learning technology to support people learning according to their learning preferences?
As illustrated in Figure 4 the project contains a design of two online courses for the selected course titled the Understanding System module that aimed to:

  • Provide an understanding of systems concepts and general systems theory and how they may be applied to a broad range of disciplines;

  • Encourage students to internalise systems thinking as an approach to understanding problem situations.

This module is targeting undergraduate students on the BSc program. In the first case the online course has been designed according to the 4MAT learning styles model. In the second case the online course has been designed according to the PBL method as seen in Figure 3. The two cases of online course module (Understanding Systems module) will be delivered on the Blackboard learning management system version 6 on the University of Salford network in the UK. During the 2nd semester of the 2003-04 academic year students will access the course online. Students will be divided in two groups randomly and each group will access only one of the two cases. Before they can access the learning material online students will be asked to complete two questionnaires.
The first questionnaire is a pre-test, the aim of which is to gauge their initial knowledge on the subject of the course model. This will be compared with the post-test result at the end of the model, to measure the progress students achieve. The second questionnaire is the Learning Type Measure to identify every student’s learning style. This will be used in the comparison of the two learning methods and is expected to clarify:

  • Which group will gain better achievement;

  • Which learning method can offer a balance between the four learning styles in one online learning environment.

A potential ethical issue arises from the groups’ use of different learning methods, which may disadvantage some learners. However, the same learning material is covered and students receive ongoing support from the instructor by e-mail and discussion forums.
Figure 4: General Diagram of Research Methodology

The study has been designed to give a clear understanding of the nature of the technologies used as learning tools in higher education, and to provide an analysis of its impact on student learning. This research has been established to test the effectiveness of the combination of learning theories (4MAT styles model and Problem-Based Learning) in Web-based Instruction in order to find out how students will react to each. In addition, it intends to provide clear guidelines on how to employ pedagogical learning theory in Online Learning to improve the student experience in this particular learning environment (Gary and Palmer, 2001; Karuppan, 2001).

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