John T. E. Richardson

  • Perceptions of academic quality and approaches to studying in distance education: The role of on-line tuition

    John T. E. Richardson and Linda Price, Open University

    Research paper

    Theme addressed: Use of C&IT

    The approaches to studying that students adopt in courses of study in higher education depend on their perceptions of their academic environment and, in particular, on their perceptions of the academic quality of their courses. This was shown by Lawless and Richardson (2002) in the case of distance-learning courses delivered by correspondence materials with face-to-face tuition. It was confirmed by Richardson and Price (2003) in the case of distance-learning courses delivered by electronic materials with on-line tuition, in a study presented at the 10th International Improving Student Learning symposium. In both of these studies, the Course Experience Questionnaire (CEQ: Ramsden, 1991) was used to measure perceptions of quality.

    The study by Richardson and Price is particularly interesting, given the increasing use of information technology in higher education (both campus-based and at a distance) (Alexander & McKenzie, 1998). However, it suffers from at least three drawbacks:

    1. The questionnaire used to measure study behaviour (the Approaches to Studying Inventory: Ramsden & Entwistle, 1981) proved not to be very robust in this context.
    2. The students were taking courses in computing, which may raise particular issues of pedagogy and the use of information technology (Thomas & Carswell, 2000).
    3. Neither the mode of delivery of the course materials nor the mode of delivery of the tutorial support was manipulated in their study.

    We therefore carried out a further study using the Revised Approaches to Studying Inventory (RASI: Entwistle, Tait, & McCune, 2000) to assess approaches to studying and perceptions of quality of students who were taking a course in international development by distance learning. Some of the students received tutorial support face-to-face, whereas others received tutorial support on-line using electronic mail and computer conferencing.

    A postal survey yielded responses from 66 students receiving face-to-face support and 33 students receiving on-line support. The two groups were significantly different in their scores on the CEQ, insofar as the students receiving on-line support gave lower ratings to the quality of tutoring than did the students receiving face-to-face support. This indicates that both tutors and students need advice and training on how to use on-line facilities for tutorial support. However, there was no sign of a difference between the two groups in their scores on the other scales of the CEQ or in their ratings of their overall satisfaction with the course. This suggests that variations in tutorial support do not influence students' perceptions of other aspects of academic quality.

    As in previous studies, the students' perceptions of the academic quality of the course were associated with their approaches to studying: in particular, higher ratings on the CEQ were associated with higher scores on deep approach and with lower scores on surface approach according to the RASI. However, there was no sign of any difference between the two groups of students in terms of their scores on the various scale and subscales of the RASI. This implies that approaches to studying in distance learning are not influenced by whether tutorial support is delivered face-to-face or on-line.