Approaches to networked learning : an investigation into the nature of autonomous student interaction with web-based educational environments.

Smyth, Keith (2006). Approaches to networked learning : an investigation into the nature of autonomous student interaction with web-based educational environments. PhD thesis The Open University.



A Networked Learning Environment is an autonomously accessible web resource that combines hypertext course materials, online communication channels, multimedia and other interactive features. Constructivist learning theory makes many claims about the potential of such environments, and the educational ‘affordances’ inherent within them.

Yet what we understand about the ways in which students learn online, and whether this is conducive to realising the potential benefits on offer, is somewhat limited. Research into learning style differences and attitudes towards online studying provides a partial insight. However, by using tools designed for assessing how students undertake learning in traditional contexts, and through having been predominantly quantitative, much of the research to date can only highlight the relevance of such factors.

Consequently, many questions regarding the how and why of networked learning behaviour remain largely unanswered, and there is a growing consensus that an understanding that is informed by the subjective perspectives of learners is required.

This thesis describes a primarily qualitative investigation that shared this concern. The main research element involved a phenomenographic study that focused on the perceptions, behaviours and experiences of students who interacted with NLEs that were the sole or primary means of course delivery in three undergraduate, campus- based contexts. Two case studies and a naturalistic experiment were conducted, and the phenomenographic study was supplemented with other data relating to assignment grades, online discussion contributions, and preferences for conventional studying.

The phenomenographic analysis identified three distinct types of approach to networked learning that can be seen as increasingly effective in terms of networked learning interactions and outcomes. Based on the findings of the phenomenography, and other aspects of the research, the thesis argues that while many students will experience to some extent the affordances inherent within NLEs, there is an important distinction between students recognising the benefits of networked learning, and actually undertaking this in a way that is conducive to good knowledge development.

This thesis concludes by presenting a theoretical framework that conceptualises the relationship between a range of individual and contextual factors that influence networked learning, and which has a number of implications for theory and practice.

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