«The purpose of this qualitative study was to examine how communication preferences, learning preferences, and perceptions about online learning ...»
The specific qualitative methodology chosen for this study is the instrumental case study. Stake (1995) wrote that “the case is a specific, complex, functioning thing” and “an integrated system” (p. 2). Additionally, “the use of case study is to understand something else” (p. 3). Relating to my study, I sought to understand how communication and learning preferences, along with perceptions about online learning affected nontraditional African American students’ participation in online world literature classes.
The bounded system was 10 nontraditional students who were enrolled in two online world literature classes. The fact that these nontraditional students attended the same HBCU also binds the case. Finally, case study methodology was chosen because it gives focused attention to the question of what can be specifically gleaned from a specific case (Stake, 2005).
Because I sought to examine the participation of African American nontraditional students in online world literature classes at a southeastern HBCU, the actual case is of secondary interest; however, it plays what Stake (2005) calls a “supportive role” (p. 445) and aids in our understanding of something else. Nonetheless, case study methodology requires that the case is examined thoroughly, with its contexts viewed with careful scrutiny, and its day-to-day activities detailed. Cases can be interpreted as typical or not;
though, the case is not dependent on its typicality.
Important to case study design are the following elements: (a) the nature of the case, particularly its activity and functioning; (b) its historical background; (c) its physical setting; (d) other contexts, such as economic, political, legal, and aesthetic; (e) other cases through which this case is recognized; and (f) those informants through whom the case can be known (Stouffer, 1941, as cited in Stake, 2005). I was able to study the activity and functioning of two online world literature courses. Additionally, I became privy to the historical background of online learning and implementation on the campus of the particular HBCU where the study took place. I also considered how digital inequality, influenced by economic, political, and social forces, the participation of the nontraditional students who participated in the study. This study is unique in that there is a dearth of research literature about how African American students experience distance education environments (Rovai & Ponton, 2005). Therefore, this study can potentially add to the body of research on students’ experiences with online learning at colleges and universities. Most importantly, this study is pertinent because it amplifies the voices of nontraditional African American students, a marginalized and often silenced group of people within the scholarly research.
At the time of the study, approximately 6,000 students attended this HBCU which is located in the southeast region of the United States. Around 5,500 undergraduates and 450 graduate students called this institution their academic home. Forty-five hundred attendees are African American, 711 are White, 17 are American Indian, 38 are Asian, 65 are Hispanic, and 131 races are unknown (University Website, 2009). Each year, the highest degree awarding program is a science affiliated profession making this southeastern HBCU one of the largest degree-producing institutions in the state in this aforementioned field. Overall, the institution offers approximately, 50 baccalaureate degrees, one post baccalaureate certificate, nine Master’s degrees, two post baccalaureate certificates, and one add-on teaching licensure (University Website, 2009). Roughly, 86 percent of the university’s undergraduates receive financial aid (University Website, 2009).
According to the institution’s 2007-2008 statistical information (2009), there are approximately 500 distance learning students. This southeastern HBCU is one of the few campuses in its state in which all campus facilities offer wireless network connections (University Website, 2009). Distance learning includes both online and face-to-face programs. While students who participate in the online program take all of their classes solely online, those participating in the face-to-face distance learning programs meet at off campus sites, view videos, watch lectures televised through cable television and participate in tech-assisted instruction through both the Internet, telecommunications, and other media. Currently, there are four online programs. In addition, there are also four off campus distance learning programs in a science-related field and education. At the time of the study, there was no campus data showing how many distance learning students solely participate in online learning vs. other distance education courses.
Small numbers of general education courses are offered online. Though both distance and non-distance learning students are able to participate in online learning, nondistance learning students are not able to participate in courses with Evening Weekend (EW), Web-Assisted (WA); or Web Course (WC) section identifications. Non-distance learning students can participate in courses that end with section numbers like W1, W2, or W3. In the spring of 2009, six world literature courses were offered online. Two of the six were available to be taken by students who were not distant learning students.
The online learning platform at this southeastern HBCU is Blackboard. Through this platform, students are able to chat synchronously (speak in real time) with other students, participate in discussion threads where students may discuss specified topics asynchronously, take learning assessments, upload homework through a digital dropbox, watch videos, and link to other sites on the World Wide Web to gain further information about specific topics and subject matters. Instructors are free to design the course including multimedia or text. In addition, instructors may upload supplemental reading materials and include discussion threads or not.
Both online world literature classes referred to in this study were taught by the same instructor. One of the classes was exclusively online, and the other was blended, meaning the course was delivered both face-to-face and online. Both classes contained a link that allowed students to watch filmed portions of Euripedes’ play Medea; however, all other assignments required the students to read and respond online in text- based format. None of the assignments allowed the students to work in groups online; although, there was a face-to-face group activity in the blended version of the course. Furthermore, there were no online chats available in the online portion of either course. It is important to note that course information, assignments, announcements, and quizzes were easily accessible to students as they were made available, clearly named, and located in links on the course’s main page. Though there was no central location like a thread or virtual office made available online where students could ask questions, the professor did provide her email, phone number, and office hours for students in the online version of the syllabus. In addition, students were provided with the instructor’s online help desk number via the online syllabus should they have had technical difficulties. Furthermore, a course tutorial was not provided online nor was there any indication that live tutorial sessions were offered on campus.
As a result of the online and blended nature of the courses, the instructor had different assignments and expectations in each course. In the exclusively online version of the course, the instructor had six discussion questions. Students had to respond to the initial post in each discussion question and reply to at least two other students with at least 100 words in each response. In addition, the online course had four sets of study questions, one for each of the four required readings in the course, two examinations, two essays, and one final exam as graded requirements. In addition, the instructor provided character guides and summary plots for one of the four works. In contrast, the blended course contained two analytical essays, one presentation completed and presented by a group, two multiple choices exams, and 11 discussion questions. Related to the discussion questions, students were expected to post an initial response of at least 100 words and reply to at least one other classmate’s response.
The participants for this study included 10 nontraditional African American students participating in online world literature classes at this southeastern HBCU.
Nontraditional students were selected for this study because of the growing numbers of adult learners in institutions of higher education. In addition, at this time nontraditional students are offered more selections of online courses than traditional students at this southeastern HBCU. Five of the nontraditional students who were at sophomore level or above are also digital natives. Another five were sophomore level students or above but are digital immigrants. Participants were selected through convenience sampling.
Convenience sampling is a way of selecting participants based on their availability and desire to participate (Creswell, 2005). By interviewing both the students who are digital natives and those who are digital immigrants, I was able to explain how communication, learning preferences, and learning styles affected African American students’ participation in online literature classes in a comparative manner.
Furthermore, I focused this study on participants in world literature courses as opposed to other disciplines because it is a subject matter about which I am familiar and because world literature courses can only be taken at the sophomore level or above which had a plethora of advantages when I conducted the study. These advantages included the following: (a) World literature students are mostly sophomores who have already had one year of academic life behind them. At this point they had adapted to college life and had accomplished a measure of success in order to return to the university; (b) These students would have already completed freshman composition and would be able to express opinions and ideas that I needed for them to complete in written form, if not in person; (c) World literature, like freshman composition, is a required course that all students must complete before finishing general college; and (d) I had taught world literature both faceto-face and online, so I was familiar with the learning objectives and methodologies that must be used to teach the course in both traditional and online formats.
Opening the study to other disciplines would have been difficult to level the selection pool for the study. Offerings for online general education courses are limited (University Website, 2009). In addition, students may place out of math courses and are not required to take any if their academic major does not require further mathematics study. So far, only two math courses are offered online at this HBCU. In addition, students have a plethora of different electives in history and social sciences which make it difficult to locate a course in which all students are required to participate in while also having the option of taking them online. Unlike all of the other disciplines on campus, the English department at this HBCU comes in contact with every student before s/he graduates. Six world literature courses were offered during spring 2009 (University Website, 2009). By remaining in one discipline, I could adhere to time and resource constraints as well as avoid errors in research.
With UNCG Institutional Research Board clearance, I sought permission from online world literature faculty members to solicit student volunteers who fit the aforementioned criteria to participate in the student. In addition, I engaged in snowball sampling as well in that I asked participants whom they knew could possibly participate in the study. I sought faculty members who taught world literature online and asked them to solicit student-volunteers for the study. In addition, I engaged in snowballing by asking participants whom they knew who might want to participate in order to gain participants for the study whom I may not have known about before the project began (Creswell, 2005).
There were 10 participants in the study. The participants represented four different generational categories: Older Boomer, Younger Boomer, Generation X and Generation Y. More specifically, five participants are members of Generation X, which means they were born between 1965 and 1976. Three of the participants are members of Generation Y, born anywhere from 1977 to 1990. Both the Older Boomer and Young Boomer generations had one participant each. An Older Boomer is someone who is born between 1946 and 1954; a Young Boomer is someone who is born between 1955 and
1964. While eight of the participants were born in rural settings in the southeastern part of the United States, only two hailed from urban settings in the northeastern part of the country. Nine of the participants were female and only one was male. Pseudonyms were used to protect participants’ identities. As such, this study referred to the participants as follows: Shannon, Mariah, Angel, Tenille, Sheila, Badesha, Amy, Joshua, India, and Jasmin.
Shannon Already retired from a 30-year career in the insurance industry, Shannon was an older boomer born in the southeastern part of the United States when she entered the HBCU featured in this study. Married for the second time, she has three adult children and is the grandmother to nine. With the intent of fulfilling a lifelong dream of becoming an elementary school teacher, the world literature class was Shannon’s first online course attempt. Her desire was to take the class face-to-face, but when she discovered the class was full, she unenthusiastically signed up for the online version of it. Because computers were not a household item in her youth, she did not consider herself to be technologically savvy. In fact, she recalled using Disk Operating Systems (DOS) computers in the 1970s when such technology “was not smart... [they] were a dignified version of a typewriter” (PI, 5-10-10).