Undergraduate experiences of coping with networked learning – Paper Summary

The following is a summary of Bell, Zenios and Parchoma’s (2010) paper ‘Undergraduate experiences of coping with networked learning : Difficulties now, possibilities for the future’ .  A copy of this paper  can be obtained using the following link.


UK Higher Education’s recent focus on enhancing learning through technology has taken root in educational policy. The Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW, 2008) has stressed to universities in Wales that “we will ask you to report on your use of technology-enhanced learning in future Learning and Teaching Strategies.” Trinity University College, Wales matriculates largely undergraduate students and is faced with the challenge offered up by the funding council. Considerable research has already been conducted on the use of ‘networked learning technologies’, but is often based in the context of post-graduate professionals undertaking more flexible off-campus delivery modes of learning (Asensio et al., 2000; McConnell, 2006; Fung, 2004).The aim of this study was to examine campus based learners’ reflections of their experience when they were moved from the familiar face- to-face learning to a networked learning environment. To achieve this, the following questions emerged: How do campus-based learners initially react to using discussion forums? What did they offer that traditional face-to-face approaches did not? How did they cope? What benefits did they gain? What did they lose? What can be learned from the experience?
The methodological approach adopted for this was qualitative and based on the grounded theory method provided by Charmaz (2006), as the research seeks to explore and examine a complex and detailed phenomenon from the perspective of the learner’s experience. From the results of this grounded study four themes were identified from the reflections of the ‘lived experiences’ offered by full time undergraduate learners participating in a research methods programme. The themes identified were categorised as: Familiarisation with the networked environment; grappling with collaboration; learning anew the ‘text as talk’ medium and coping strategies – reverting to the familiar. Networked learning often places great emphasis on text as the medium of mediation between learners, their tutors and their resources. The findings identify benefits from networked learning that face to face interactions rarely offer. However, the study questions the efficacy of relying solely on a text based medium for communication with undergraduate learners and offers possibilities for the future.


Networked education:

  •  Is a social process of learning underpinned by socio-cultural theories of learning based on dialogue”.
  • Values individual perspectives and diversity in teacher, student, resources relationship.
  • See the learner participating in both the process and content of the learning.
  • Enhances learning through collaboration and cooperation.
  • Challenges teachers to’rethink their teaching practice’.

Asynchronous and synchronous technologies:

  • ‘offer potential for richer and more diverse forms of dialogue and interactions’ eg: discussion forums (asynchronous)


Justification for sole use of discussion forums within the study:

  • Students were all working on individual projects
  • Discussion forum was seen as a more suitable means for students to share their experiences.
  • Additional benefits – greater reflection and collaborative engagement through the forum.



Grounded theory method:

  • Collection of data from inside the study
  • Allows researchers to past social intereaction to the students experiences with the forum
  • Removes preconceived ideas regarding existing theory
  • Interpretive approach

Data Analysis – Emergent Concepts and Themes

Challenges faced by students:

  • Familiarisation with the networked environment
  • Coming to terms with collaboration
  • ‘communication using ‘text as talk’ medium
  •  Coping strategies (holding onto old patterns)


Grappling with collaboration

  • Some learners may perceive that they are in competition with one another and this would impact of the collaborative aspects of this format
  • Many students found benefits in being able to view their classmates posts in both clarifying how the forum worked and thereby encouraging them to participate in the discussions online.

Familiarisation with learning in a networked learning environment

  • Student generally found the process challenging
  • Positives: flexible pace of learning, time for reflection, informed responses, ability to mediate and share ideas
  • Negative: Time delay in discussion forum responds impacted on the dyanmics of the discussion

Learning anew the ‘text as talk’ medium

  • Many students struggled with written dialogue
  • Written dialogue is consider a ‘key skill for successful collaborative learning through discussion forums’.
  • Student identified that skills in articulating their thoughts, ideas and experiences where lacking.
  • Lack of ability to expression oneself through text ‘will hold back learner’s ability to function well in discussion forums.’
  • ‘a learner who can or who learn to engage through written speech act more intellectually, and although difficult, it aids learners’ thinking.’
  • ‘Writing and thinking are clearly linked’.

Coping strategies

  • Students who struggle or lacked confidence in their ability to express thoughts, ideas and experiences using written text often return to face-to-face interactions.
  • Student who resorted to F2F failed to make the more of online discussion as an ‘aid-memoire’.
  • Discussion forums provide a record of learning and understanding and a reference to which they can refer at a later date, this enabled online users to ‘go deeper into learning’.
  • F2F did not create the same record and as such relied solely on memory to recall key learning.


  • ‘when online discussion forums are used with collaborative networked learning design, then learning can be enhanced.’
  • ‘shared online environment creates opportunities for vicarious learning opportunities that offset the initial problems of participation.
  • If learning activity is designed to foster reflective writing and to encourage dialogue between learners, this acts as catalyst for greater cognitive development, through writing, that is more considered and intellectual.’
  • ‘Written language is essential for learning through discussion forums.’
  • ‘Networked learning often places greater emphasis no text as the medium of mediation between learners and their resources.
  • Important to consider in the future how networked learning might include/create opportunities for the benefits of the energy and engagement that comes from live discussion.


Bell, A., Zenios, M., & Parchoma, G. (2010). Undergraduate experiences of coping with networked learning: Difficulties now, possibilities for the future.


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