Case Study Methodology and E-Learning: Reflections on Evaluation Activities for Blended Modules

Richard Walker & Wendy Fountain
University of York, &

This paper offers a description of the case study research methodology at the University of York and reflects on the way that it has been applied to capture student learning experiences for a series of blended learning pilot projects. Discussion focuses on the interpretive research approach, which has been adopted to provide a rich picture of student working patterns across a range of pilot projects. The York approach aims to establish a rolling evaluation programme, rather than a snapshot of current practice through e-benchmarking. This work in progress highlights the challenges to the successful implementation of this programme, and to the long-term sustainability of case-study research for e-learning.

Case study, interpretive research, blended learning

The University of York may be categorised as a ‘greenfield’ site for e-learning, without a legacy of institutional usage, although there have been isolated pockets of e-learning activity at a departmental level. This has enabled the University to introduce a centrally supported e-learning service in a holistic way, through a managed rollout strategy (Beastall & Walker, 2007). The University procured Blackboard Academic Suite as its institutional platform in December 2004, and has embarked on a four year implementation cycle (2005-09), during which time the University’s VLE Implementation Group aims to establish quality assurance and enhancement processes to guide elearning activities across the university. The rollout of the platform has been phased through the delivery of a series of pilot projects, which have been selected by the VLE Implementation Group to explore

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student-focused course design approaches, which place the emphasis on active learning through collaboration and the performance of assessed activities online. To date the University has launched two rounds of pilot projects with 21 projects delivered between January and July 2006, and a further 42 projects being delivered during the current academic year (2006-07). It is anticipated that the pilot projects will generate models of good practice for blended learning, and the lessons learned from course design and delivery will inform staff training activities in a virtuous cycle of course development. Consequently, the Implementation Group has placed a strong emphasis on evaluation practices in the rollout strategy, to record the outcomes from these pilot projects.

The approach aims to evaluate e-learning practices through the adoption of an interpretive research agenda, drawing on multiple data collection methods to provide a rich picture of student learning within these pilot projects.

“Interpretive studies assume that people create and associate their own subjective and intersubjective meanings as they interact with the world around them. Interpretive researchers thus attempt to understand phenomena through accessing the meanings participants assign to them”. (Orlikowski & Baroudi 1991) Our research approach has therefore focused on student perceptions of their experience, establishing ‘meaning’ from the standpoint of the actors, rather than through objective measurements of student learning. As Cohen & Mannion observe:

“The central endeavour in the context of the interpretive paradigm is to understand the subjective world of human experience. To retain the integrity of the phenomena being investigated, efforts are made to get inside the person and to understand from within”. (Cohen & Mannion 1994: 36) Case study research is entirely suited to this purpose, in helping us to grasp meaning from a real life situation, where the experiences of actors are important and the context of action is critical. As Yin (1994) notes, a case study “investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real life context”, providing a holistic picture of the phenomenon under observation. In the context of the University’s e-learning research plan, the case study approach has been selected to help us to construct a multi-dimensional picture of student learning across each pilot project. Through the use of multiple data collection methods, drawing on both qualitative and quantitative techniques, we aim to record individual perceptions of the learning experience for these experimental course designs. We are therefore interested in exploring the range of design approaches across each pilot course, identifying issues which may influence student acceptance of the new learning methods.
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The evaluation plan (see Appendix) for each pilot project seeks to investigate six key themes in relation to a range of stakeholders: student e-learning profile; induction to the VLE; student work patterns; student learning experience; the lecturer/tutor experience; and receptiveness to the VLE. The overarching research questions that we have selected for the case study research in particular are: • • • How are the VLE tools used by students to support their learning in formal / informal study activities? What are the students’ affective and attitudinal responses to the blended course experience? How did the lecturer/tutor perceive students’ learning relative to previous performance and what action would be taken for future course development?

Entry and exit surveys For each pilot project, we aim to establish at the beginning of the course the ‘e-learning profile’ of the cohort under investigation. This involves students completing an entry survey instrument for the module they are following during the induction session, which focuses on four main areas, namely: (i) computer access (ii) IT literacy levels (iii) familiarity with e-learning for educational purposes; and (iv) expectations towards the use of the VLE to support learning activities. The instrument also invites students to comment on the level of VLE training they have received at this point and any access problems they have encountered in logging on to the VLE. The survey design employs a nominal scale to reflect issues such as IT literacy and familiarity with e-learning, whilst students are asked to comment on VLE expectations against a range of items using a five point Likert scale, with items worded positively. Through the use of an exit survey instrument and focus group interviews at the end of the course but before the issuing of grades, attitudes for each pilot module are recorded, with students invited to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of their blended learning experience. The timing of these events is intentional in attempting to minimise the ‘halo and horns’ effect of student perceptions being influenced by course grades. As Hiltz observes: “Student evaluations are strongly related to grades received in the course. There is argument about which is the cause and which is the effect. If grades are ‘objective’ measurements of amount of learning, then we would expect that

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students with higher grades in a course would also subjectively report more positive outcomes. However, it may be that a student who has a good grade in a course rates that course and instructor positively as a kind of ‘halo effect’ of being pleased with the course because of receiving a good grade”. (Hiltz 1994: 154) We therefore distinguish focus group and survey methods from the standard end-ofmodule feedback instrument, and they are presented as serving a different purpose, in an attempt to decouple the student evaluation of the learning experience from an evaluation of the course instructor. The exit survey instrument invites students to reflect on their learning experience using the VLE and to review the same set of attitudinal statements that they considered in the entry survey instrument. They are asked to submit a further set of responses to the same list of items, and are also presented with an open set of questions at the end of survey, which invite comments on the contribution of the VLE to their learning and the link between the online and class-based components of the course. This enables us to track trends in satisfaction ratings against expectations - assuming that respondents completed both surveys. Focus group interviews The focus group interviews are loosely structured around the overarching research questions, and are designed to elicit more detailed answers from students on their usage of the VLE in the pilot module (interaction and work patterns). They are also used to obtain further data on attitudes to the blend of online and class-based learning. Students are invited to comment on the value of the online learning and the ways in which the VLE could be used to support their learning in future modules. Practicality demands that focus groups are comprised of volunteers, rather than randomly selected representatives from the student population for each pilot course, which may skew the sample in terms of the range of views which are expressed. This influences the way that we interpret the output from these sessions, which are treated as illustrative perspectives on student learning, rather than reflections of the whole class experience. VLE activity logs In addition to these methods, VLE activity logs are viewed for each module, with student interaction patterns recorded for collaborative activities hosted within the site. These statistics are gathered as contextual information for the module in question, and are not used to measure and evaluate student behaviour. What concerns us is the process by which students learn, rather than in establishing objective outcomes for the learning under observation. Our data gathering may be restricted to noting for example, the range of discussion forum posts against number of views, or classifying the nature of responses received (informational, analytical, confirmatory etc.) within a forum or blog. We acknowledge however that students do not restrict themselves to the use of centrally-supported tools in collaborative activities, and are equally proficient in using commercial software, mobile technology or web services such as Facebook to support

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informal learning activities. The focus group sessions are designed to probe the level of online activity that takes place both within and outside the course environment, to present us with a full assessment of student learning for the module under investigation. Staff interviews To provide a rounded view of the course experience and additional context to help interpret the student learning experience, we also record the perspectives of the module leader and tutors in the delivery of the module. Staff are encouraged to deliver snapshot progress reports on their module and are invited for a debrief meeting at the end of the module to reflect on the course design and lessons learned from the delivery of the module.

For each pilot module, we collate the data and feed this back to module leaders, with the aim of engaging staff in further discussion on the strengths and weaknesses of the blended course design. This may lead to a follow-up meeting with the central e-learning team to review the module and discuss future delivery plans. For selected pilot projects, we also publish a case study report, which is developed for staff training purposes, as well as for wider dissemination across the community of practice at York. The criteria for selecting projects for formal case writing are: (i) the innovative nature of the course design approach (ii) a clear focus on student-centred learning (iii) completeness of the data set (survey responses, focus group feedback) for the course; and (iv) the richness of the lessons learned and their transferability to other teaching contexts. Case study template and reports For the case study compilation, a common template has been introduced. Each case study report consists of: • An overview of the module, including the pedagogic theme which has been addressed in the design of the course and a list of conclusions / recommendations emerging from the pilot. • The rationale for the course and description of the blended approach, including comments on the learning activities and tools for the online component of the pilot. • The e-learning profile of the cohort, touching on their IT skills, experience with computers for learning and expectations towards the VLE. • Description of student perceptions on the outcomes from the pilot, drawing on focus group and survey feedback. Activity logs and feedback from the module leader and tutorial team are also used to provide context to their observations. • Actions for further development, highlighting the lessons learned for future modules.

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The module leader is asked to sign off the report, which is then associated with a blended learning model, as part of the University’s framework of blended course design models which reflect a graduated approach to design from supplemental to fully integrated course designs. This is intended to help staff interpret the course design approach and relate it to their own context. The case study reports are presented on a showcase website targeted at staff, highlighting the outcomes from the pilot projects (see ). In order to provide further context to the case study report, we have presented each report in conjunction with an archived (read-only) copy of the module site, with sensitive student data removed. Staff are encouraged to explore these course sites and draw inspiration from the course design approach which may, for example, feature good practice in the structuring of content and activities or the observance of accessibility standards in the site design etc. Looking to the future, we also aim to introduce a further enhancement to the showcase through linking original courses to revised designs which incorporate the lessons learned from the student learning experience, demonstrating the evolution of course design approaches to new staff. The combined case study report and module site access represents a valuable learning resource and footprint for each module leader, to review and build on in future iterations of the course.

Rather than capture a snapshot of student e-learning across departments through benchmarking practices, we have described an attempt to embed e-learning evaluation across modules as a standard practice using the case study method. Clearly though this has been established with a controlled level of system usage, and challenges to this evaluation approach will emerge in terms of the sustainability of data collection and case writing as the volume of blended modules increases and as we approach full availability of service. Nevertheless, there have been some useful lessons learned from the implementation of the evaluation process. The coupling of the induction process with the release of the entry survey has ensured a high response rate from students (> 70%), and useful feedback has been gathered on the varied e-learning profiles and expectations of students toward VLE usage. In contrast, the exit survey instrument has generally recorded lower response rates, which may reflect a level of survey fatigue, with students asked to complete two separate evaluation forms as part of the general course evaluation and reflection on the blended learning experience. The future points to a joined-up evaluation process where questions on the online learning experience are embedded within one evaluation instrument, as the VLE becomes integral to teaching and learning. A further challenge relates to the visibility of student learning for out-of-class activity, with students opting to use multiple communication tools to facilitate group-based tasks. This complicates the tracking process for student learning, with VLE activity logs recording online activity only in part. We have therefore placed a strong emphasis on
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focus group reviews to provide an insight into the range of tools that students are using, and the informal learning methods which they employ to support their learning. Moving forward, the challenge will arise as to how to support these sessions across a wider range of modules. Indeed there are associated issues of access to data and the willingness of module leaders to support this level of scrutiny on the student learning experience. Whilst collaboration between staff and the central e-learning team in the evaluation of projects has been a feature of the pilot phase, there may be less enthusiasm by staff for this activity as the VLE is rolled out across the university. Aside from the practicality of conducting case study research, we should also reflect on the wider value of lessons learned from this approach. A weakness often associated with case study research is the degree to which we can draw general conclusions from individual case studies and apply results to different contexts. The application of results is restricted to one event or situation, with generalisation proving quite problematic. For the purposes of staff training and the dissemination of good practices to new course developers, this represents a potential obstacle. However, Lawler et al., (1985) suggest that single case studies can be helpful in developing and refining generalisable frames of reference. Further, when multiple case studies are used, it is possible to relate variability in context to constants in processes and outcomes. Yin (1994) concurs with this view, arguing that case study research findings can be generalised at a theoretical level: “…case studies, like experiments, are generalizable to theoretical propositions and not to populations or universes. In this sense, the case study, like the experiment, does not represent a “sample”, and the investigator’s goal is to expand and generalize theories (analytic generalization) and not to enumerate frequencies (statistical generalization)”. (Yin 1994:10) It is at this level of “analytic generalization” that we seek to draw lessons learned from the pilot projects. The perceptions of participants on the blended course experience will be used to revise the framework of instructional responsibilities on course design and delivery which we present to staff in our training workshops. Consequently, we aim to revise our guidance to staff on a cyclical basis, taking account of generalisable features of the learning experience and characteristics of the student population in terms of IT skills and e-learning profile.

This paper reflects a significant work in progress in terms of the embedding of case study evaluation of blended learning modules. The selection of interpretive research methods has been intentional in helping us to focus on the student learning experience, seeking understanding of student interaction with VLE tools through the capture of student perceptions of the new learning methods. The case study methodology complements this approach, enabling us to build up a rich picture of the student learning experience for individual modules, whilst also providing scope for generalisation on course design and delivery methods. We acknowledge that the establishment of research activities is at an early stage, and the sustainability of data collection and data
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analysis processes will be tested as the volume of blended modules increases, with a requirement to integrate methods with existing course evaluation processes.

BEASTALL, L. and WALKER, R., (forthcoming, Spring 2007). Effecting institutional change through e-learning: An implementation model for VLE deployment at the University of York, Organisational Transformation and Social Change. COHEN, L., and MANNION, L., 1994. Research Methods in Education. Fourth Edition. London: Routledge. HILTZ, S., 1994. The Virtual Classroom: Learning Without Limits Via Computer Networks.Norwood NJ: Ablex. LAWLER, E., MOHRMAN, S., LEDFORD, G. and CUMMINS, T., 1985. Doing Research that is Useful for Theory and Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ORLIKOWSKI, W. and BAROUDI, J., 1991. Studying Information Technology in Organizations: Research Approaches and Assumptions. Information Systems Research (2), pp. 1-28. YIN, R., 1994. Case Study Research – Design and Methods. Second Edition. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

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Theme 1. Student elearning profile Sub-themes IT literacy Over-arching questions
What skills do you bring to the VLE? What is your experience of tools that support online learning?

Stakeholders Students Module leaders / tutors

IT socialisation

Methods Survey Focus groups Case study interviews

Data collection Entry Survey data Round 1 & 2 focus group records Case study data

Affective / attitudinal variables

What is your motivation for and what are your expectations of online learning? Was your technical training adequate? Was the module-specific training adequate? Did you encounter any technical or accessibility barriers to the VLE & Library resources? How extensively have you used the VLE and for what purposes? With whom have you interacted and for what purposes? Which communication tools do you prefer to use and why? Overall how have you worked with the VLE?

2. Induction


Students Instructors Info Desk

Survey Focus groups ETS (Enquiry Tracking Service)

Entry Survey data Round 1 & 2 focus group records Exit Survey data ETS logs

IT access

3. Student work patterns

Access & usage patterns of online resources

Students Module leaders / tutors

Survey Focus groups VLE system ETS

Interaction patterns (studentsstaff, staff-students, studentsstudents) Communication tools preferences Overall access & work patterns

Entry Survey data Round 1 & 2 focus group records Case study data ETS logs VLE activity logs

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4. Student learning experience

Satisfaction & attitudes to VLE

How satisfied are you with the VLE (relative to entry survey)? Is there evidence that the VLE supported changed learning outcomes? What skills are required to work effectively online? What skills have you acquired from working online? What approach did you take to blended learning? How has your future course design been informed?

Students Module leaders / tutors

Survey Focus groups

Learning outcomes

Entry Survey data Exit Survey data Round 1 & 2 focus group records Case study data

Skills & competencies (acquired / required online)

5. Instructor experience

Course design

Module leaders / tutors

Survey Focus groups Case study interviews Snapshot interviews

Case study data Snapshot reports


What training issues and needs emerged for you?

Course delivery approach

What is involved in effective delivery?

Role of instructor online

How would you describe your role in the blended module? How did it differ from your role previously? Is Blackboard easy to use? Have you had any difficulty using the VLE and/or accessing learning materials in the VLE? How do you rate the Blackboard environment overall?

6. Receptiveness to the VLE

Usability / accessibility

Look and feel

Students Disability Services Comp. Services Module leaders / tutors

Focus groups Case studies

Entry Survey data Exit Survey data Round 1 & 2 focus group records Special focus groups with DS Case study data

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