Economics Network CHEER Virtual Edition

Volume 16, 2004

Student Feedback on Distance Learning with the Use of WebCT

Alina M. Zapalska
Division of Finance and Economics, Lewis College of Business, Marshall University, WV
Magdalena Niewiadomska Bugaj
Western Michigan University
Frank Flanegin
Department of Finance and Economics, School of Business, Robert Morris University, PA
Denis Rudd
Department of Hospitality and Management, School of Business, Robert Morris University, PA


This paper argues that pedagogical improvement can be successfully achieved by using technology. The use of WebCT-based instruction in an Economics undergraduate distance-learning programme is one vivid demonstration of the potential for using technology in instruction. Here, a satellite Economics course is taught using the WebCT as a complementary teaching instrument. This paper shows that using WebCT strongly contributed to the effectiveness of distance learning by improving the quality of students' comprehension in areas of critical thinking, problem solving, decision-making ability, aptitude for detail, written communication, knowledge of information, and ability to organise and analyse.


Web-based instruction is being used extensively in college educational settings. One of the most powerful elements of Web-based instruction for teaching is the ability to engage learners in an interactive format. The students who most clearly benefit from the advances in Web-based technology are those non-traditional learners in rural areas distant from main campus areas. Unfortunately, these individuals are often the least likely to be comfortable with the structure and demands of Web-based instruction. They also often bring a range of expectations and backgrounds that have been set by the patterns of traditional classroom pedagogy: an active and present instructor; instructordirected activities and discussions; and a passive or merely responsive role for students.

By contrast, Web-based pedagogy tends to reverse these dynamics, making the instructor less present and increasing the interactive and leadership roles of the learners. Highly motivated and confident learners respond well to this self-directed format, and they are the most likely to benefit from distance education. But to be successful, distance education must be designed to address the needs of learners, particularly those non-traditional students who may be most uneasy with the format of Webbased professional development.

This paper argues that instead of being restricted to traditional classrooms, we can use computer projection systems, network-based interactions, and other interactive computer-based tools for effective learning and teaching. The authors present their experiences from teaching a satellite Economics course in a distance-learning programme at Marshall University. The course was offered in the Spring 2002 semester. More specifically, this paper shows that the use of WebCT strongly contributes to the effectiveness of distance learning by improving the quality of students' learning in the following areas: critical thinking; problem solving; decision-making ability; aptitude for detail; written communication; knowledge of information; and ability to organise and analyse. The study provides evidence that WebCT is an effective learning and teaching instrument that brings improved learning outcomes.

Literature review

Many educators have recognised the potential of using the Internet for instruction. Although many Internet technologies, such as e-mail/conferencing on the Web, can be used to assist with teaching, the World Wide Web, and most recently WebCT, remain the most popular mediums. They provide a user-friendly and easy access to text, graphics, audio and video materials usable in a common and consistent format (Moore and Kearsley 1996). Most education web sites provide basic course information such as syllabus, schedule, announcements, reading lists, synchronous or asynchronous communication, online testing, discussion groups, conferences, whiteboards, streaming audio, and video. These types of material are being made available in courses that meet in classrooms regularly and use Web materials as supplementary tools, as well as courses that are delivered entirely over the Web without traditional classroom meetings (Cornell and Martin 1997, Kearsley 1996, McManus 1996).

Zapalska and Brozik (2002) suggest that Web interactivity helps engage students in the active application of knowledge, principles and values. It also provides them with feedback and interaction that allow their understanding to grow and evolve. The interaction can be with course content, other students, instructors, participation in a discussion group, quiz questions, simulation programs, conferencing, live chat, or by filling out a feedback form (Robin et al. 1996). Web environments can make use of one or more of these interactive components at any time. In designing learning environments, researchers have recommended using an approach that provides appreciation for multiple perspectives and embedded learning in relevant contexts, and that encourages the use of multiple representation modes, while encouraging self awareness of the knowledge construction process (Wilson 1995, Hiltz 1994).

While traditional instruction may tend to discourage social interaction, WebCT is designed for collaboration and interaction, both of which can be effectively employed in the learning process. This type of social interaction also fosters a greater sense of accountability among the students. Several authors noticed that the rich environment of WebCT promotes study and investigation within authentic, realistic, meaningful, relevant, complex and information-rich contexts, and encourages the growth of student responsibility, initiative, decision-making and intentional learning (Wilson 1995, Cornell and Martin 1997). Some authors noticed that Web-based instruction cultivates an atmosphere of cooperative learning among students and teachers, utilises dynamic, generative learning activities that promote level thinking processes (i.e., analysis, synthesis, problem solving, experimentation and creativity among many others), and assesses student progress in learning through realistic tasks and performances (Comeaux 1995, Wilson 1995, Jonassen 1996).

Shotsberger (1996) has stressed that interaction and feedback have significant impact on the learning process, since they add value that results in improving quality and success in Web courses. Moore and Kearsley (1996) have specifically identified interaction and feedback components as factors that influence student motivation in completing a course. In a research study, McGreal (1996) also found that interaction and involvement lessened the psychological distance of students at remote learning sites.

With educators designing and customising Web learning environments, it is necessary to determine if these environments are meeting learners' needs. Kemp et al. (1994) indicate user feedback as being a friendly way of examining if the learning environment is successful in meeting learning outcomes. They argue that mechanisms must be incorporated in Web-based environments to evaluate the medium, content, format, design and structure.

In Web-based courses, one way of collecting assessment and feedback data is by using Web-based forms. Similar to paper forms, Web-based forms have designated fields where the user enters information that is sent back to the course instructor via the Web. Faculty can design and customise questions based on course content or the outcomes to be measured. In most cases, since the design does not go through reliability and validity statistical analysis, and because it is used for the sole purpose of improving teaching, it can be considered as informal assessment (Angelo and Cross 1993). Other methods of evaluation to assess teaching effectiveness can be used in conjunction with informal evaluation methods to form a more comprehensive model of faculty evaluation (Green 1997, Harasim et al. 1995).

Based on the information above, the primary objectives of this study are: (1) to learn about student attitudes and practices regarding the use of WebCT in Economics distance education; and (2) to examine their learning performance in different skill areas. In order to evaluate student learning improvement and instructor teaching effectiveness via WebCT, a student opinion survey was conducted. The use and results of the instrument are discussed below.

Background on teaching Web-based courses at Marshall University

Marshall University (MU), which includes several locations throughout the state of West Virginia, is a state-supported, interactive university providing 2-year and 4-year undergraduate and graduate programmes. A major goal of Marshall University is to create teaching excellence and to ensure that all students receive the best possible instruction by enriching student skills in communication, critical thinking and problem solving.

For the last few years, the Lewis College of Business at MU has been offering business and economics distance education to students in rural communities in West Virginia. The programme is considered comprehensive because it enables students to obtain undergraduate business degrees without coming to campus. The primary mode of course delivery is videoconferencing or satellite courseware, but Web-based conferencing, as well as e-course instruction, have been integrated into the programme to help promote a comprehensive learning process to students in rural locations.

There are many professionals in rural West Virginia communities who have difficulty in accessing coursework in traditional campus-based settings. During its Spring 2002 semester, MU's Lewis College of Business offered a satellite and Web-based Economics course to these remote rural locations in West Virginia. The courseware was offered by having students who lived in remote areas meet in one of three towns nearest to where they lived. At these sites, they were linked to campus-based instructors in a satellite conference. The towns chosen to hold the classes included Logan, Williamson and Beckley, WV. Class groups included 10 to 25 students and met once a week, and each class session involved at least two remote sites. The learning activities stressed learner interaction across sites.

Moreover, all students were required to use WebCT for the learning and communication processes. This satellite and WebCT-based course was structured in such a way that it provided an interactive learning environment. Students could read notes, take quizzes, perform exercises, or communicate with the instructor or other students using a chat room. Between classes, students shared their work and discussed course content using Web-based conferencing and e-mail. This tool offered a robust Web-based platform for discussions and document sharing, and allowed the students to work in groups via WebCT. Students used the Web-based tools to discuss course concepts, to share work experiences, and to offer one another suggestions for carrying out assignments and improving learning. General familiarity with the Internet was required to use WebCT-based instruction. The conferencing tool was supported by MU's technology infrastructure. There were a total of 55 students enrolled in this course.

Assessment instrument

A questionnaire form was used to collect feedback that helped the instructors gain a perspective on the range of attained learning, as well as student competence. This type of assessment was beneficial because it allowed us to evaluate the students' knowledge acquisition and retention rate. More specifically, we focused on the use of WebCT and its effect on improving the quality of students' learning in areas of: critical thinking; problem solving; decision-making ability; aptitude for detail; oral and written communication; knowledge of information; and ability to organise and analyse.

Forms were set up so that students were not required to identify themselves while replying to the form's questions. Anonymous feedback offered an opportunity for students to make comments they would not ordinarily have mentioned openly during face-to-face or in-group meetings. We believe that this type of environment encourages students to take learning more seriously, and hence, teaching and learning becomes more efficient and effective.

The data were collected at the course's beginning and conclusion. Each time, students were given the same questionnaire that evaluated how strongly (if at all) the method of instruction (first without and then with the use of WebCT) influenced each area of the students' learning outcome: critical thinking, problem solving, decisionmaking ability, oral communication, written communication, knowledge of information, and ability to organise and analyse. Students had to rate the influence on a scale of 1 to 5, with the most positive influence rated a 5, no influence rated a 3, and a completely negative influence ranked as a 1. The assessment instrument that was used at the beginning (Part I) and at the end of semester (Part II) is presented in Table 1.

Table 1. An assessment instrument

Part I: Indicate how strongly the method of instruction (without the use of WebCT) influenced each of the following areas.
Part II: Indicate how strongly the method of instruction with the use of WebCT influenced each of the following areas.

Area Positive Influence No Influence Negative Influence
Critical thinking 1 2 3 4 5
Problem solving 1 2 3 4 5
Decision-making ability 1 2 3 4 5
Oral communication 1 2 3 4 5
Written communication 1 2 3 4 5
Knowledge of information 1 2 3 4 5
Ability to organise and analyse 1 2 3 4 5

The survey was conducted in the Principles of Macroeconomics course in the Spring 2002 semester. Because all 55 students who were enrolled in the course participated in our survey, the survey data are not represented by a simple random sample. However, because all of the students who participated in our course were typical business students, we see no source of potential bias in a student sample. Consequently, the group of participants has been treated as a valid representation of students who take Principles of Macroeconomics courses.

Statistical analysis and results

Since the same seven questions were asked each time we ran the survey, the matched pairs data allowed us to use each participant's differences to evaluate the impact of WebCT on the pedagogical performance. After converting the data into the 'differences' representing the positive distance between categories selected on both occasions, we noticed that the values ranged from 1 to 4. It implies that in most cases there was either a positive shift in categories selection (1 to 4), or no change noticed (0), There were also few negative changes (1).

Statistical analysis was performed with two goals in mind. First, by analysing positive differences in student responses and looking for evidence of improvement, we analysed how students benefited from the use of WebCT-based instruction. Then, we examined their distributions across the student group to see if most of the students benefited in a similar way, or if there were groups of students who benefited strongly from WebCT-based instruction while others did not benefit as much.

Second, we looked at all seven areas to determine if the changes were similar, or if there were some areas where the improvement is more obvious than in the others. For each participant who reported an improvement in at least one of the seven areas, we obtained a number that represented the magnitude and the direction of the opinion shift. Based on these numbers, we obtained the number of areas in which there was a positive shift for each participant, which could have been 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7.

The frequencies of positive shifts, according to area, are presented in Table 2. According to Table 2, only two of the total of 55 students indicated no benefit in any area, while more than half of the students (42) benefited in the majority (at least 4) of the seven areas (76.4% +/ 11.2%).

Next we looked at the number of students who reported an improvement in at least one of the seven areas. Initially, we disregarded the magnitude of the improvement, and looked only at the positive shift during the time period of the WebCT-based instruction. The numbers of students reporting positive change are reported in the Table 3, with the 95% confidence intervals for the percentages provided in column 3. Since the confidence intervals overlap, there is no evidence that the true percentages of students who benefited from the WebCT instruction vary across all seven areas. The observed differences could be due to randomness only.

To get more insight, we next compared the changes within all seven areas for all students. The change frequencies are reported in the contingency Table 4. As mentioned earlier, each change was recorded within the range of 1 to 4. However, because of many small counts in two outside columns, the two first and the last two columns were collapsed for chi-squared analysis to be valid.

Chi-square analysis of homogeneity in distributions across all areas for the data in Table 4 yielded P-value of 0.082 (chi-square = 26.831, 18 df) providing some, although not very strong, evidence of heterogeneity of the distribution of the magnitude of change across the seven areas. Frequency counts marked with stars indicate cells with standardized residuals 2.33 (count 7) and 2.08 (count 5). They indicate that the lack of homogeneity is mostly due to both counts being significantly less than expected for this contingency table. In area 2, there were fewer students than expected who did not benefit from the WebCT-based instruction. In area 4, the number of students who strongly benefited from the WebCT instruction is significantly lower than expected. Except for these two cases, the improvement is similar for all seven areas.

Table 2. Frequencies of students classified according to the number of areas (07) in which they reported positive change

Number of areas in which student benefited 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Number of students 2 4 3 4 5 11 9 17

Table 3. Numbers and percentages of students reporting positive change for each area (A1A7)

Areas Number of Students Percentages
A1: Critical thinking 36 64.6% +/ 13.2%
A2: Problem solving 48 85.1% +/ 9.6%
A3: Decision-making ability 37 66.3% +/ 13.0%
A4: Oral communication 37 66.3% +/ 13.0%
A5: Written communication 41 73.2% +/ 12.2%
A6: Knowledge of information 40 71.5% +/ 12.5%
A7: Ability to organise and analyse 31 56.0% + / 13.7%

Table 4. Classification of students according to their magnitude of the positive change

Areas 1 or 0 1       2       3 or 4
A1: Critical thinking 19 14 13 9
A2: Problem solving 7* 16 17 15
A3: Decision-making ability 18 10 12 15
A4: Oral communication 18 16 16 5*
A5: Written communication 14 17 10 14
A6: Knowledge of information 15 14 12 14
A7: Ability to organise and analyse 24 11 6 14


In traditional as well as technology-based courses, there is a gap between what is taught and what is learned. Methods of assessing the teaching and learning experience that are generally used in college education are not sufficient to evaluate adequately how well a faculty member performs in a virtual classroom. The assessment tool presented in this paper was used to obtain students' feedback on their learning outcomes.

In general, most students positively evaluated the effect of WebCT on their learning within areas such as critical thinking, problem solving, decision-making ability, oral communication, written communication, knowledge of information, and ability to organise and analyse. As the results of the above analysis indicate, almost all students benefited from using WebCT. The majority of students benefited in at least five of the seven areas.

Looking at each area separately, the percentages of students who benefited in a particular area are not significantly different across all seven areas. Also, the extent of the improvement made in each area is fairly consistent, with two exceptions: fewer students than expected did not benefit from the WebCT technology in the area of problem solving (A2), and fewer than expected students benefited strongly in the area of oral communication (A4). We also observed that by including assessment as part of course evaluation, student motivation increased. This is probably because the students realised that faculty were interested in their success as learners.

We learned that much of distance education's success rested on encouraging learners to take an active role. Students need to learn to rely on themselves to access and master the use of technology. Careful, gradual introduction of Webbased technologies can guide and enhance learners' transition from a traditional model of pedagogy (in which their role is passive) to a model in which they take a full, active role in directing and achieving their own learning.


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Contact details

Dr Alina Zapalska
Professor of Economics
Division of Finance and Economics
Marshall University
Huntington, WV 25755

Tel: (304) 696-3234

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