Gwyneth Hughes

  • Who are successful online learners? How new online pedagogies and technologies (re)produce both positive and negative online learner identities

    Gwyneth Hughes and Lynda Lewis, University of East London, UK

    Research paper

    Themes: Use of C&IT, Meeting the challenge of diversity, Supporting learners

    Learner identities are complex constructs that cannot be treated in isolation from the learning context. Previous work has explored how gender and other identities interact with curriculum discourses to generate different learner identities with implications for inclusivity (Hughes, 2001). Meanwhile, current research into online learning has often been inhibited by generalisation of diverse student experiences as well as decontextualisation. We argue that online learner identities are constructed in the learning environment, and vary according to wider social issues, and we have developed a context-sensitive methodology for research into inclusive e-learning.

    Using this contextualised learner perspective, we studied three campus-based undergraduate modules with online components such as a CMC (computer-mediated communication) collaborative activity, online self-study materials and CAA (computer assisted assessment). These modules were not part of any specialist development and were taught by lecturers with typically modest experience of online learning. We explored how different learners engage online by considering access issues such as: orien

    tation towards ICTs, gender, disability and approaches to learning. We then adapted a model developed by Lee (2001) to differentiate online learner identities. The model, which links perceived academic achievement and satisfaction, categorises students as: maladaptive (low achievement, low satisfaction), fanatic (low achievement, high satisfaction), disenchanted (high achievement, low satisfaction) and model (high achievement, high satisfaction). Finally, the discourses of learner engagement we obtained were then analysed in relation to the learning context, with particular emphasis on how new online pedagogies and the associated technologies were presented.

    In the paper we discuss the relationship between the learner identities and the different learning contexts to produce insight into who is enabled/disabled online. We found that ICT orientation and access were not significant for the majority of students because the new pedagogies were accompanied either by familiar technologies or by new technologies with some instruction. Nevertheless, students were not given formal guidance on how to learn online, especially when groupwork was required, and they had to rely on experimentation to benefit from this new medium. Students who were motivated academically to use the software, or who had a specific reason to benefit from the flexibility of learning online, were able to become model students despite the absence of clear instructions and goals. Lack of understanding of the new pedagogies meant that others were not confident enough to tackle something new, they were disenchanted, but were able to succeed by defaulting to familiar face-to-face learning methods. However, of more concern were those who became maladaptive because the lack of pedagogic guidance was de-motivating and they did not have the resources to pursue an alternative learning approach. These were often technically and/or socially disadvantaged learners and for them the flexibility offered by e-learning decreased, rather than improved, inclusion.

    Our contextualised learner perspective revealed that in these ordinary examples of online learning, guidance on new online pedagogies was much less available to students than technological instruction. We finally consider the implications of this finding for curriculum and staff developers.


    Lee, M (2001) Profiling Students' adaption style in Web-based Learning Computers in Education 36: 121-132
    Hughes, G (2001) Exploring the availability of student scientist identities within curriculum discourse: an anti-essentialist approach to gender inclusive science Gender and Education 13(3): 275-290