Academic journal article Research in Learning Technology

Student Engagement with a Content-Based Learning Design

Academic journal article Research in Learning Technology

Student Engagement with a Content-Based Learning Design

Article excerpt


Learning is commonly conceptualised as a social, collaborative process, in which people communicate and actively build knowledge. Students who work and share ideas with others are generally more motivated and display better academic performance than passive students (Beaudoin 2002; Swan 2002). Several authors have emphasized the importance of fostering interactions between people, or social interactions, in online educational contexts (Woo and Reeves 2007).

Social interactions are valuable as a means to improve student engagement (Zepke and Leach 2010), which is critical to the effectiveness of learning activities (Kuh 2009; Noe, Tews, and McConnell Dachner 2010). In this paper, student engagement refers to the way in which participants interact with course materials and activities to achieve learning outcomes. This term has also been defined as students' involvement in their own learning process (Axelson and Flick 2010), or the time and effort students devote to learning activities (Kuh 2009).

Despite the acknowledged importance of social interactions for student engagement and learning, in organisations online courses often provide limited or no opportunities for communication between people (e.g., Padilla Rodriguez and Fernandez Cardenas 2012; Welsh et al . 2003). Sometimes just-in-time, just-for-me demands (e.g., a single person requiring training) make the delivery of online courses with social interactions unviable. In such contexts, content-based learning designs constitute an option.

This paper focuses on students' experiences in an online content-based course delivered in a large Mexican organisation with a high geographical dispersion. Specifically, it addresses the following questions: How do students engage with content-based courses? How do they find answers to their questions? How do they achieve learning outcomes?

Content-based learning

In this paper, content-based learning design refers to a way of organising a course that focuses on fostering learner-content interactions and includes no activities to enable communications between people. Moore (1989) describes learner-content interaction as an intellectual process that results in changes in learners' perspective, understanding or cognitive structures. This implies processes such as analysing the material, relating it to previous knowledge or applying it to problem solving; in other words, using the content to perform activities that can enhance learning (Abrami et al . 2011).

Internet-enabled devices and tools make a variety of learner-content interactions possible. These include replaying sections of a podcast, searching information, following links to glossary entries, answering multiple-choice questions and checking automatic feedback (Anderson 2003; Caladine 2008). The capability to design and deliver these learner-content interaction opportunities has increased with the maturity of institutional virtual learning environments (often referred to as learning management systems), higher levels of connectivity and digital literacy.

Learner-content interactions can be designed to perform some of the functions traditionally carried out by teachers (Anderson 2003), such as suggesting a learning pathway. They can foster flexibility by enabling participants to work independently, at their own pace and in their own time. This type of interactions can contribute to the achievement of learning outcomes and course completion: the more learners interact with the content, the better grades they tend to achieve (Zimmerman 2012).

While this type of interaction has advantages, focusing only on learner-content interactions excludes the potential benefits of other types of educational interactions (see Figure 1). For example, exchanges between peers can create meaningful learning experiences (Anderson and Garrison 1998; Conole 2013; Salmon 2011), which can help relate new information to previous knowledge and facilitate problem solving (Mayer 2002). …

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