Two Malaysian academics have been studying the effects of face-to-face components and group dynamics among students in an otherwise online study programme. They have concluded that creating a strong sense of community helps the learning process.

E-learning : satisfaction boosted by face-to-face components and sense of community

What happens if you include face-to-face teaching sessions in an otherwise entirely online course? This was the basic question that prompted recent research work carried out by Maryan Tayebinik and Marlia Puteh, both researchers and lecturers at the Language Academy of the Universiti Teknologi in Malaysia. The two language teaching experts studied the needs and progress of a group of around 50 Iranian students following a ‘blended’ course – i.e. with some in-classroom sessions on top of the e-learning programme. Their findings suggest that the general satisfaction with ‘blended’ teaching is mainly due to the sense of community that this approach engenders among the students.

Some 42% of the students responding to the survey had a high perception of the ‘sense of community’ in their blended learning programme and felt strongly motivated by the face-to-face teaching approach in combination with their online learning tasks. However, the main drawback with these findings is that the Malaysian researchers do not provide any figures regarding satisfaction levels before the inclusion of the in-classroom components, which makes it hard to estimate accurately the change in attitude on the part of the students.

The most common student answers after introduction of classroom sessions

Dr Tayebinik and Professor Puteh are certainly not the first commentators to underline the importance of a sense of community in the education process, but they are the first to try to assess the dynamics of blended (online plus in-classroom) courses. As long ago as 2007, two Italian academics pointed to what they saw as the major weakness in exclusively e-learning courses – the absence of a feeling of community. They revealed the extent to which a group of students tend to motivate, assist and support each other, leading to overall improvements. This dimension comes on top of the beneficial effects of face-to-face sessions with the teacher and direct feedback, which arguably make this approach more productive than exclusively virtual contact with teachers.

Basically what the Malaysian language experts are suggesting is that the best solution is a combination of e-learning and classroom teaching. However, one must remain aware of the danger with this approach of losing the main advantage of distance learning: that it makes education more accessible for all. Perhaps one promising solution taking all factors into account might be to follow the example of the language teaching experts in Spain who are looking to analyse student emotions and pass this information on to the distance-learning teachers.

By Guillaume Scifo