You are on page 1of 12

Evaluating a model for citizen participation in elearning environments

Richard Hall

De Montfort University,

Note: the author is grateful to the editors of e-Learning for their permission to reproduce published material in this paper. (See:


This paper focuses upon the individual learner’s integration of both institutional and non- institutional technologies in their personal learning spaces as they journey between levels 1 and 2 of higher education. The author evaluates the ability that learners have to select and make decisions about the types of technology that they deploy in their work, and how this frames participation in the curriculum.

The context for participation is framed by two central issues and linked questions.

1. HEIs have invested significant amounts of money to embed virtual learning environments as institutional standards. Are the models of learning that they encourage relevant for e-communicators in a world of rich, user-focused Web 2.0 technologies?

2. The perceptions and expectations of academic staff about technologies impact upon

the learning environments experienced by learners. Does this strategic, academic- modelling of the curriculum empower or disempower the learner? How are sub- groups of learners widening the space in which they learn through Web 2.0 technologies? These two issues pivot around the ability that learners have to select and make decisions about the types of technology that they wish to deploy in their work. It is the creation of a context in which decision-making can be highly personalised that promotes participation.


Participation; user-voice; free-ranging; action research; scoping.


The issue of building environmental frameworks that are inclusive and participatory is the central theme of this article. In particular it seeks to evaluate the concept of citizen

participation in light of learner-expectations for the use of e-learning in UK tertiary education. The argument structures a framework for evaluating the active participation of e-learners in the learning process, by addressing:

civic inclusion through engagement with the service-user voice[s];

the management of digital, information-literacy divides;

the legitimacy of non-academic knowledge; and

decision-making through negotiable freedom-of-action, or free-ranging;

This emergent framework is tested with respect to one UK higher education institution (HEI), in order to highlight the specific academic interventions that can support citizen participation in e-environments.


Social exclusion exists regardless of technology, where individuals feel that they have no power within the society in which they exist, and have no decision-making role (Care Services Improvement Partnership, 2006;, 2005). The key for inclusivity is to focus services, including on-line provision, around the individual, so that they underpin a personalized life experience. This is evidenced by the aspiration to renew UK public services through a multi-agency approach that is focused upon service-user involvement (The Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health, 2006; Department of Health, 2004). The desire is to scaffold an individual’s development of the personal skills that will enable her/him to take decisions about joining and acting within specific communities. This frames representation that is beyond mere token involvement: “Service users have a key role in explaining new policies to other service users and in helping professionals to understand service users’ experiences and views on new ways of working” (Care Services Inclusion Partnership, 2005).

These associations and campaigns may have authority figures, for example career professionals or civil servants, but they are accountable to their users and need to seek the consent and co-operation of the latter. On-line environments are seen to be central to this approach. This accords with Hirst’s (1994; 2002) associative democratic model, which argued that individuals can be empowered to decide upon and implement local solutions to local problems, supported by a multi-agency structure that is democratic and transparent

Whilst technology frames a central element of this participatory structure, there are two problems that arise from it. Firstly, it pre-supposes a level of both access to technology and information-literacy. Secondly, the attempt to create a personalised, participative context must take account of the wider needs of civic society and balance competing views. Inevitably some decisions that citizen would like implementing are not going to be feasible; this is a function of the diversity of communities. Enabling diversity to flourish demands meaningful communication that can support collaborative, critical decision-making.


The deployment of digital technologies that focus upon personalised content creation and distribution affects notions of legitimacy. The development of ‘Me Media’ (The Observer, 2006) and the focus upon on-line social networking has activated new social spaces. There has been a shift in the creative use of the internet through Web2.0, from digital media consumption to digital media publishing, as evinced by the growth of websites like,, and The growth of these sites highlights advancing techno-literacy and a more interactive culture of inventing and re-inventing knowledge.

This move towards technologies that foster sharing and re-invention reinforces Barnett’s notion of ‘supercomplexity’; that is the existence within multiple media forms of an overload of frameworks for analysing an overload of data (2000). He develops this concept within the view that academic knowledge has no greater currency than that obtained from beyond the university context. Therefore, ‘supercomplexity’ is particularly relevant in an age where more open access to information leads to its re- conceptualisation, as attested by the growth in mashups (Wikipedia, 2006). One result for higher education is that social networking and its affordances for information- management demand innovation in learning and teaching, in order that learners can participate in knowledge-creation and decision-making.

The types of innovation that frame empowered social networking need to encourage the growth of trust, emotional security and motivation. These outcomes are effective where they scaffold an emotional space that is engaging, secure and legitimate (Barnett and Coate, 2005, p. 139). Whilst such legitimacy supports participation, it also requires the creation of a learning environment that values experiential learning. This has a high value in forging learning communities which can share expertise and experience, and work towards the development of ‘the amenities of social intercourse, and… the responsibilities of civic and political engagement’ (Grayling, 2002, p. 159). This type of emotional and affective curriculum project is central to empowered decision-making.

Decision-making through battery-farming or free-ranging?

There is a risk of a tension developing within a community between the use of procedural and radical pedagogies. For instance, sections of a learning community may want to use a virtual learning environment solely to present information, whereas others may wish to embed blogs or wikis as community-owned, reflective resources. Equally, there is a balance to be struck between the mechanics of ‘belonging’ to a community and active participation. Enforced enrolment on a learning environment by dint of being registered on a specific curriculum unit may not have the same emotional cachet, and may not lead to the same participation-level, as voluntary enrolment in a community that exists on

In building participation, Ip (2004a) argues that embedding radical pedagogies is a risk worth taking. He argues that ‘the real promise of e-learning is not [as] an online

textbook, but a simulator… My approach would be to build engaging scenarios at critical moments in a role play simulation.’ The vision in Ip’s approach is the experiential learner-focus on decision-making where the contexts for the scenarios are built in partnership with users, so that their voice is legitmised. The key focus is upon a context for praxis that is safe and involving.

The ability of students to judge and act, as part of a formative approach to decision- making and involvement, is central to their participation. Ip (2004b) argued that a formative approach requires a ‘free-ranging’ environment for information-gathering, scenario-building and evaluation, that is structured and safe, rather than battery- intensive. In the latter learners are housed within a restrictive and minimally-engaging environment, where structure, tasks and information are wholly defined and made accessible by the teaching team. This leads to a dependency culture with minimal learner-input and token involvement in tasks.

As in a battery-intensive environment, one that is free-ranging has clearly-defined parameters in terms of what it is, why the students are in it, and how they should use both it and their outputs from it. The difference lies in the culture of active participation. Both learners and tutors shape the boundaries of the environment and the available tasks and information. This is important for Ip (2004c): ‘When all the learners (or trainees) are exchanging meaningful stories related to the theme of the training, I would say we have a [sic.] rich e-learning experiences’. Within this free-ranging culture the learner has a negotiable freedom-of-action over her/his approach to task-work, that allows investigation and experimentation with a reduced risk of summative failure.

This argument is refracted a little more by the application of games to learning, in particular focused around the ability of individuals to draw judgements about the scenarios that games present and thereby make decisions. It has been noted that

participation is related to but different from interactivity. Interactivity is a property of technologies; participation is a property of cultures. Games are interactive; game culture is participatory. A focus on participation means new emphasis on the ways people act upon media content: play, performance, expression and collaboration (Project New Media Literacies, 2006).)

Whilst games ‘let players be producers rather than just consumers’ of alternative possibilities, many ‘players’ still need to “solve problems they’re not good at yet, get immediate feedback on the consequences and try again immediately” (Stitt and Chappell, 2005). However, the access and information-literacy caveats of Mossberger et al. (2003) maintain their validity. In the creation of a differentiated, inclusive epistemological space, free-ranging through a negotiable and individualised freedom-of- action is vital. Scaffolding an inclusive model for active, citizen participation in e- environments needs to factor-in these themes.


Enabling the users of a specific environment to shape its culture is central in scaffolding citizen participation, and in enabling users to make judgements and take decisions. This was modelled by Anstein (1969) in the development of her ladder of citizen participation, which examined public involvement in community architecture projects (see figure 1).This ladder ranked eight manifestations of user-engagement in the development of an environment, that were crystallised into three modes of user involvement.


Citizen control



Delegated power

Degrees of citizen power








Degrees of tokenism








Figure 1: Anstein’s ladder of citizen participation.

As individuals and groups move up the ladder they become better able to take control of their own lives, through engagement in an agreed activity. In the process they move beyond the critique of their environment towards action within it. Not only is this predicated upon the motivation of the individual, but it also depends upon the extent to which the professionals or authority-figures that ‘control’ the environment are willing to give up some of their decision-making power.

Anstein’s ladder highlights the gradations of citizen power in the decision-making process and these are key to understanding the levels of participation in specific environments. She highlighted “the redistribution of power that enables the have-not citizens, presently excluded from the political and economic processes, to be deliberately included in the future” (1969, p. 216). Thus, the ladder connects into the cultural theme of developing legitimate, citizen participation through partnership in:

defining and controlling agendas and new areas for activity and action;

defining common ground within diverse communities;

developing legitimate, alternative models for analysis;

promoting equality by making communities as inclusive as possible to all citizens; and

enhancing the resources available to the community to undertake its work.

It is with Anstein’s ladder and Ip’s free-ranging model in-mind that the rest of this paper evaluates the alignment between student expectations for e-learning in the curriculum and a baseline evaluation of the use of a virtual learning environment at one UK HEI. The alignment enables a model for citizen participation in e-learning environments to be presented.

A note on context and evaluation

The discussion that follows focuses upon the impact on the learning experience of deploying an integrated e-learning system within one UK HEI. The evaluation is designed to baseline the institution’s approach to e-learning, in order to examine how

the tools provided are being embedded within the curriculum, and to align that view with student expectations. It focuses upon the triangulation of two data sources.

1. A qualitative scrutiny of each available course on the virtual learning environment as of the end of scheduled teaching in 2004 - 05, to assess how it was being deployed.

2. Student evaluations: snapshots of the impact of the implementation on the learning experience were taken during in 2004 – 05 with 354 student questionnaires delivered by 5 module teams, in weeks 2 and 22 of the academic session (these are noted below as Q1 and Q2 respectively); and, interviews and on-line focus groups were conducted with students on all five modules in 2004 – 05 and with 42 students in 2005 – 06.

The evaluation was driven by the impact of the systematic implementation of e-learning upon learning and teaching, rather than by specific theories. It utilises Zuber-Skerritt’s CRASP model (1992, pp. 14 - 17), which aims for the critical, reflective, accountable, self-evaluative and participative improvement of practice. Thus, the evaluation examines what students say about the impact of e-learning on their learning experiences, in order to provide some pragmatic enhancement opportunities. Unless otherwise stated the percentages given in the sections which follow are for respondents to specific questions.


In Q1, students felt that access to learning materials was the most important on-line element for them, with 157 (64.0 per cent) of the 245 respondents simply highlighting the role of teaching notes. By Q2 a more complex understanding of e-learning developed, focused upon a mixed economy of: available resources for the whole programme of study; assessment preparation materials; and, a relevant structure in which to clarify the processes of a module or programme. One student noted that that “I can’t understand all the words of the teacher and it is good for me to find a lot of information in the [e-environment]. It helps me to understand all the topics”. A second commented that “trial and error and interactive exercises help me. I find that info is more easily absorbed, and missed slides and forms can be copied.” The background for

participation, in terms of what students would like to see on-line and when, changed over the life-span of a course to become more free-ranging.

The e-environment was used to support assessment strategies. In courses where more interactive tasks were deployed e-learning was also used more frequently to give performance scores to students. In all, 155 (23.3 per cent) courses made use of the system to give whole class feedback on assessment during the session, primarily at level one (53 or 32.3 per cent of modules). Moreover, of the course teams that gave personalised scores, 33 (82.5 per cent) also delivered more generic feedback to their students.

This complexity was welcomed by one student who stated that “I would like all my grades and feedback for all my modules with a link to the [professional body] webpage for their assessment criteria.” There was a misalignment between actually receiving feedback and feeling that it aided the achievement of the learning outcomes. Of those 105 students completing both Q1 and Q2, 15 (14.3 per cent) who had believed the system would be used for feedback subsequently felt that it had not enabled them to achieve their learning outcomes. The need for interaction with other learners and tutors, and active participation in a shared space grew as the environment became more familiar.

The use of more interactive tasks, structured by both staff and students, and using student and tutor-created content, was more prominent in subject areas with a tradition of experiential learning. In particular, the use of discussion boards and weblogs to critique work-in-progress was crucial. Student-led tasks were facilitated on 205 (30.8 per cent) courses, and these included: building interactive worksheets to test knowledge about specific mathematical concepts; using media files to test the understanding of media production concepts; and working with virtual libraries for diagnostic task-work. Academic teams scaffolded simulations and hands-on, practice-based work, as well as laboratory or workshop engagements, particularly at post-graduate level. One learner highlighted “the ability to hear other people’s views and have the opportunity to express mine” but that “I would like to see more collaboration between lecturers and students in order to make learning more interesting.”

The critical participative theme of ownership and membership within discursive groups was emergent from the interviews that followed. One student “liked the fact that group pages were only seen by us and no-one else, and I can find out what the other group members are contributing to the work. We can then decide who to send information to”. A second was concerned that “[the] organisation meant that we were not being able to work with people who have similar interests. I would have liked direct contact and discussions with [them] in order to have better communication about progress and brainstorming [sic.]”. This plea for free-ranging came from students on more technologically-innovative programmes. Learners with limited experience of on-line communication did not expect to engage with other people on-line.

Team-work was reflected in the approach to student engagement. Of the 155 courses where the system was used to give feedback on student progress, 101 (65.2 per cent) were demonstrably team-owned. Interestingly, those courses that had student- controlled content also had a majority of modules where a team approach was applicable (79 or 78.2 per cent) and where on-line participation reflected the extant learning and teaching structure (96 or 95.0 per cent). For the 205 modules with task- based or interactive content, 169 (82.4 per cent) were restructured and 121 (59.0 per cent) had a defined team approach to on-line delivery. This demonstrates a more complex view of how both e-learning is contextualised across the curriculum, and participation can be enhanced.

However, there are issues raised where students cannot access at a time suited to their needs. One learner argued: “[the system is] not helpful as not everyone has access to the internet at all times and it’s not always practical to come into uni[versity]”. Another highlighted that “it is time consuming to be at a computer especially at weekends and updates cannot always be known unless you have regular access [sic.]”. Of more concern was the view of a postgraduate student that “I don’t have access at home therefore more affluent students benefit… if you don’t live [locally] and you work from home on a dial-up connection it’s painful and tedious to check so many different sites and emails”. This issue of access and staff expectations for non-face-to-face activity needs to be negotiated with learners, so that they are able to participate on acceptable terms. The mechanics of access impact upon an individual’s perception of their environment. An environment that is designed to promote active participation may be restrictive and confining for those with limited access.


A central issue for students is the activation of the space in which they are studying. When asked about this issue of on-line space, a group of trainee-teachers argued that ”we were a disparate group. It’s made a huge difference to us, having the notes up and being able to contact others – we are not so desperate when we are on placement”. This was different for students who formed a more loosely-connected grouping. Students in art and design-based subjects were more used to sharing and critiquing personal and external artefacts. One first-year argued that:

In our course we are fully multi-media, with sketchbooks, digital cameras, film and photoshop. We need to be able to document this in one place and publish more creative stuff. I want to ask peoples’ opinion. I use MySpace rather than expect feedback in tutorials. We all have MySpace sites – they are more interactive and I can get to know people or even get constructive feedback from strangers. If someone has an opinion it’s great; it’s simple and I get to re-think my space. Some staff are technophobic so we don’t use the system.

This connects into recent work on Vygotsky’s theory of the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978), where the distance between actual and potential problem-solving abilities are scaffolded through collaboration and participation (Guile

and Young, 2001), and where new tools and new forms of organisation have to be assimilated by a community of practice. One focus group of learners noted “the problem with our discussion boards has been the formation of cliquey little groups that don’t reciprocate when you ask them a question. Competitiveness overrides the collective for some”. In the end this group noted that “[we] need social engagement and debates about practice… we set up our own MSN chat room”.

Socialisation and finding time to develop an emotional engagement on-line were specifically mentioned by 16 of the 42 interviewees (38.1 per cent), with one arguing that “there’s no space on-line, in the seminars, to say what you think or feel. We need more help with socialisation.” A second stated that “I’d love a blog – the chance to discuss how I am feeling and what is happening. I would like to be able to share stuff that it hasn’t be appropriate to talk about in our seminars – finding ways to share our thoughts is vital.” Clearly the provision of tools that could provide a softer edge to the problem-solving is a necessity for some students.

This sense of a user-built community was echoed by a third-year who noted that some students re-shaped their on-line environment by creating new, non-tutor-controlled areas: “a few of us use Skype, especially at assessment time when there was no activity on the assessment [discussion] board.” In all twenty-two interviewees (52.4 per cent) specifically mentioned the value of student-managed, on-line spaces. Clearly, the individualisation of the learning space and the individual’s appropriation of specific technologies provide them with the safety to engage.


The links between the baseline of use of this on-line system, and student expectations and experiences within similar on-line spaces enable us to iterate Anstein’s model

(1969) in-line with Ip’s construction of free-ranging spaces (2004). The baseline flags ten ways in which academic teams utilise e-learning.

1. Sharing basic tutor-produced content.

2. Shaping an on-line architecture that reflects the curriculum learning outcomes and management-structure.

3. Giving students the opportunity to clarify the assessment process.

4. Posting tutor-controlled, interactive content.

5. Scaffolding open-ended discussion about general concepts that are tutor-led.

6. Structuring non-class-contact time tasks by connecting materials and people.

7. Enhancing assessment preparation through interaction with content and discussion in groups, led by tutors.

8. Embedding co-owned tutor-student feedback processes within the overall learning environment.

9. Managing both group and tutor-student communication, that is task-oriented, and co- owned by tutor and students.

10. Student production and upload of work for critique.

As more elements are embedded within an environment, students move from interacting with basic content that staff have posted, towards an emerging discussion of more structured, interactive content with their tutors. Finally they are encouraged to develop a sophisticated position where they are able to reflect on and adapt their learning. This is achieved within a participative, co-owned environment that connects resources, shared tasks, feedback, and critique.

The model of use developed reflects these elements.


Learner role in curriculum space

Level of learner-participation


Learner-control and definition of spaces for


knowledge-critique and creation

Degrees of free-ranging and


Delegated power to learner focused upon

active participation

tasks negotiated with tutor(s)


Partnership between learners and tutors, in

a task-driven curriculum


Placation of learner needs through



Degrees of token participation


Consultation with learners about tutor-

controlled change


Tutors inform learners about curriculum-



Therapeutic use of the space to access

Limited-participation in a


battery-style learning


Restrictive or manipulated learner-

environment, controlled by



Figure 2: a ladder of citizen participation in e-environments.

In e-environments legitimate, citizen participation is framed through partnership in:

defining and controlling agendas and new areas for activity and action;

defining common ground within diverse communities;

developing legitimate, alternative models for analysis;

promoting equality by making communities as inclusive as possible to all citizens; and

enhancing the resources available to the community to undertake its work.

As one learner noted “tutors need to use the students effectively to shape where we go collectively with conversations”. Activating meaningful on-line spaces demands the legitimate participation of learners as co-owners of its environmental definition.


ANSTEIN, S.R., 1969. A Ladder of Citizen Participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35(4), pp. 216-224.

BARNETT, R., 2000. University knowledge in an age of supercomplexity. Higher Education, 40(4), pp. 409 - 22.

BARNETT, R. and COATE, K., 2005. Engaging the curriculum in higher education. Maidenhead: Open University Press.


DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH, 2004. Making partnership work for patients, carers and service users: A strategic agreement between the Department of Health, the NHS and the voluntary and community sector. blicationsPolicyAndGuidanceArticle/fs/en?CONTENT_ID=4089515&chk=KvDHnR (accessed 20 March 2007).

DWIGHT. J., 2004. ‘I’m Just Shy’: using structured computer-mediated communication to disrupt masculine discursive norms. e-Learning, 1(1), pp. 94–104.

GRAYLING, A.C., 2002. The Meaning of Things. London: Phoenix.

GUILE, D. and YOUNG, M., 2001. Apprenticeship as a conceptual basis for a social theory of learning, in C. PAECHTER et al. (Eds) Knowledge, Power and Learning. London: Sage, pp. 56 – 73.

HIRST, P. 1994. Associative Democracy. Cambridge: Polity.

HIRST, P., 2002. Renewing Democracy through Associations. Political Quarterly, 73(4), pp.


IP, A., 2004a. Simulation and E-Learning. (accessed 20 March 2007).

IP, A., 2004b. E-Learning models. (accessed 20 March


IP, A., 2004c. It’s all about rich e-learning experiences. (accessed 20 March 2007).

MOSSBERGER, K., TOLBERT, C.J. and STANSBURY, M., 2003. Virtual Inequality: Beyond the Digital Divide. Washington: Georgetown University Press.

NOTSCHOOL.NET, 2005. Evaluation Report (unpublished). (accessed 20 March 2007).

The Observer, 2006. How to make 80 million friends and influence people.,,1799881,00.html (accessed 20 March 2007).

Project New Media Literacies, 2003. Game On! The Future of Literacy Education in a Participatory Media Culture. (accessed 20 March 2007).

STITT, J. and CHAPPELL, L., 2005. Games that make leaders: top researchers on the rise of play in business and education. (accessed 20 March 2007).

VYGOTSKY, L.S., 1978. Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Wikipedia, 2006. Mashup (web application hybrid). (accessed 20 March 2007).

ZUBER-SKERRITT, O., 1992. Action Research in Higher Education. London: Kogan Page.