Monday, 6 February 2012

H809: Week 1 – Activity 1.4: Reading Hiltz and Meinke (1989): Teaching sociology in a virtual classroom

Overview of paper
The paper describes a study conducted between 1986 and 1988 at two colleges in New Jersey. Comparisons were made between the performance and perceptions of students studying a variety of sociology courses traditionally as against those studying in a virtual classroom or in ‘mixed mode’.  The results were derived from a statistical analysis of questionnaire surveys completed by students on the courses.

As an aside, one of the first things that struck me about this study was that the research took place between 1986 and 1988. During this period I was actually studying on a part time (day release) basis for my first degree. I am quite surprised that the technology which was the subject of this paper was even available. When I think back to my own studies at that time, electronic communications of any type were not even on the horizon!

Questions: What research questions are being addressed?
In summary the research sought to establish whether course delivery via a virtual classroom could achieve comparable outcomes to those of traditional face-to-face delivery. Additionally, the research identify the factors which contributed to positive or negative outcomes.

Setting: What is the sector and setting? 
The research was based in a higher education setting, and specifically within two New Jersey colleges. I’m not completely sure of the distinction between colleges and universities in America, so the UK equivalent setting might be more FE than HE. Nevertheless, the setting is clearly one of formal education, and the students in the research were studying  sociology courses.

Concepts: What theories, concepts and key terms are being used?
I would say that the fundamental concept under consideration is that of education. Early in the paper (p432) a definition of education is provided, and in very simple terms the researchers were simply trying to determine whether the objectives of education can be achieved using computer-mediated communication. Key educational terms used include collaborative learning; mastery of subject; access to educational activities; interest, involvement and motivation; interaction.
Educational technology is also a key concept, and the widely used terms are virtual classroom and computer-mediated communication.

Methods: What methods of data collection and analysis are used? 
The main data collection technique used was the questionnaire survey. Surveys were administered to students both before and after they took courses. The questionnaires were analysed statistically which is obviously a quantitative approach. In addition a qualitative approach was adopted through participant observation of the online conferences.

Findings: What did this research find out?
The key finding was that the use of the virtual classroom can “increase access to and effectiveness of college education”. There were some variations in the outcomes between courses, and particularly between courses at different levels, the significant finding was that the virtual classroom represented a “viable option” for post-secondary educational delivery.

Limitations: What are the limitations of the methods used?
Since the primary data collection technique was a questionnaire survey, I would say that the main limitation was that respondents are simply selecting their responses limited range of possible options and there is no opportunity to investigate the underlying significance of the results at a deeper level (such as would be possible using interviews).

Ethics: Are there any ethical issues associated with the research?
One possible ethical issue that springs to mind is that the researchers may have been enthusiastic about the technology, and therefore perhaps approached the research with a tacit expectation or hope that the technology would be shown to produce positive outcomes.

Implications: What are the implications (if any) for practice, policy or further research?
It is important to recognise that this research was conducted over 25 years ago. Clearly at the time, the use of the virtual classroom would have been highly innovative, and the results of this study would have been sufficient to warrant further studies and more widespread implementation.


Hiltz, S.R. and Meinke, R. (1989) ‘Teaching sociology in a virtual classroom’, Teaching Sociology, vol. 17, no. 4, pp. 431–46. 

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