Postgraduate perspectives of distance e-learning : a qualitative case study of online distance learning in occupational safety and health
The use of the Internet as a medium for education has grown exponentially since the mid-1990s. Institutions of higher education are increasingly offering online access to distance education programmes, especially at postgraduate level. Some see e-learning as offering solutions to many problems traditionally associated with distance education. Research into e-learning at a distance has largely focussed on the effectiveness of differing technologies for the delivery of online courses, the emphasis being upon the technology itself, with few studies examining the student experience of this new phenomenon. It is therefore argued that a gap exists, as the views of distance e-learners at postgraduate level have seldom been paid attention, with their specific and individual needs failing to be addressed. This study aims to rectify this gap by examining postgraduates' experiences of e-learning at a distance. The purpose of the study is to inform the future development of elearning at postgraduate level and help determine how higher education can best support this rapidly expanding group of learners. The research presents a qualitative case study of a group of students studying modules from the University of Salford's MSc/Postgraduate Diploma in Occupational Safety and Health in a virtual learning environment called GOLDPhase, which was specifically designed and developed to facilitate the study. Issues related to the students' heightened awareness of their peers, their sensitivity to tutor feedback, and the learning strategies they adopted are identified and discussed. The findings show that e-learning engendered a range of barriers and enhancements for this group of distance learners. The enhancements were largely computer based and barriers were mostly sociological. The findings have implications for both online teaching and online learning strategies. As distance e-learning is in its infancy the study will increase overall understanding in this area and contribute to the growing body of knowledge.