Distance education (DE) has recently been popularized because of the advances in information and communication technologies. The latest version of the web, which further enhances Internet-based interactivity, revolutionizes DE and creates the possibilities for the development of online learning. Several universities around the globe, including the UP Open University (UPOU), took advantage of such modernization. In recent years, these universities developed programs, formal and non-formal alike, that were offered wholly online. Specifically, UPOU espoused the open and distance e-learning (ODeL) worldview in providin the global community with a quality higher education.

However, regardless of the framework or mode of delivery used, DE in general or ODeL in particular still involves the spatial and temporal separation of teachers and students. According to Liu (2008), geographic separation between the students and teachers is a common characteristic of distance learning. Such separation may create a feeling of isolation, which remains to be one of the barriers that a distance learner should overcome. A study conducted by the Higher Education Academy as cited in Croft, Dalton, and Grant (2011) reported that about 22 percent of distance learning students mentioned the risk of feeling isolated as a challenge, highlighting the importance of personal interaction in the learning process. Isolation affects learner’s motivation to learn. Thus, it should be considered in the design and delivery of courses.

In addition, online learners exhibit diverse patterns of navigation while logged on their virtual classrooms. Navigational behavior analysis is important in personalizing the learning environment. According to Carbo, Mor, and Minguillon (2005), personalization arises from the extracted knowledge of the navigational behavior of the e-learning environment users.  This  highlights  the  need  for instructional designers, teachers, and web designers to have powerful tools for  the visualization of all information collected    in the e-learning virtual environment (Carbo, Mor & Minguillon, 2005).

The issues of isolation and navigational patterns are among the converging points between ecology and DE. The purpose of this paper is to describe ODeL as a fragmented landscape, and discuss how such fragmentation may bring isolation effects on students. It will also discuss certain navigational patterns as observed in two case studies.


ODeL Patches

The ODeL environment can be construed as a virtual landscape with a mosaic of elements that is affecting and affected by the learning process. This landscape is highly fragmented, that is, its elements are physically separated. In ecological terms, the ODeL landscape consists of communities of teachers and learners in conjunction with the non-living components (e.g., online platforms, learning materials, technologies) interacting as a system. These components are linked together through their academic programs, courses, interests, or learning goals.

The UPOU ODeL landscape may consist of about seven virtual patches, namely: UPOU headquarters, learning centers, testing centers, affiliate faculty members, students, partner institutions, and alumni that are distributed in various geographic locations. The main headquarters of UPOU, which serves as the center of all major processes and activities, is located in Laguna province while its learning and testing centers are dispersed in more than 20 other provinces. Philippine embassies located in 50 countries—including Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, Canada, United States, Mongolia, Oman, Algeria, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates—also serve as UPOU’s testing centers.

In addition, a 10-year enrollment data of the university shows  that more than 90% of its enrolled students are located in the Philippines. Of this percentage, more than 80% is located in Luzon, 6% in Visayas, and 2% in Mindanao (Figure 1). In the academic year 2013-2014 alone, UPOU’s students came from more than 80 provinces in the Philippines and 50 countries though most of them are concentrated in Metro Manila and in some urban centers in the country.

Spatial distribution of studentsVirtual corridors

Corridors are structures that may act as links or barriers in a landscape (Clark, 2010). In UPOU’s ODeL landscape, these corridors refer to all the wired and wireless systems developed to connect all its fragmented patches. In recent years, UPOU has maximized the use of virtual corridors such as the internet for its administrative and academic processes including the application for admission, registration, submission and viewing of grades, course development and delivery, payment, check notification, meetings, and the like. Communication via web-based applications has been considered more cost-effective than through telephone lines. Likewise, the online systems of the university have helped the students in several ways. In a survey conducted by Secreto and Pamulaklakin (2013), about 90% of the respondents (n = 147) indicated that the online student portal and myportal, the university’s academic platform, has allowed them to connect to UPOU’s information and services. They considered these systems as more convenient, cost-effective, and time-efficient than going to the learning center to carry out certain non-academic processes. “With the online portal, students were freed from the hassles of lining up during enrollment and payment of matriculation fees. Likewise, it increases learners’ convenience since the system is available 24/7 anywhere” (Secreto & Pamulaklakin, 2013).

In addition, these online systems, which serve as important virtual corridors for all the university’s patches, provide timely information to all users. The immediacy of information is critical to all Faculties of Study in assessing students’ application for graduation, deciding to dissolve courses, advising students, and other student-related processes, and to students who will make decisions regarding their studies (Pullan, 2011). According to Nelson (2007), online students usually work on their course requirements or perform their academic tasks outside of their work schedules. Thus, the availability and accessibility of the system 24/7 could help these students save time and money in fulfilling their academic tasks (Secreto & Pamulaklakin, 2013).


The highly fragmented UPOU’s ODeL landscape highlights the need to enhance interconnectivity especially between the student and teacher patches to reduce the impacts of fragmentation. In a real landscape, fragmentation leads to isolation of organisms, which when unmitigated will result in biodiversity loss (Echeverria et al., 2007). In this virtual landscape, however, the fragmentation may lead to the development of a feeling of isolation, which when unmitigated, may result in students’ de-motivation and eventually “loss” from their programs. According to Rovai and Wighting (2005), DE students are more likely to develop a feeling of isolation and alienation because of their physical separation from the school and its services and from other students. “This geographical isolation significantly detracts from the need for social interactions that are usually afforded by face-to-face situations” (Lee & Chan, 2007). According to Cooper (1990) and Fields and Lemay (1989) as cited in Senanayake, Liyanege, and Dadigamuwa (2005), students who felt isolated and alienated are more likely to drop out of their programs. In fact, isolation has been regarded as one of the major causes of students’ non-completion of their courses (Delahoussaye & Zemke, 2001 in Lee & Chan, 2007).

In addition, isolation may increase the DE students’ learning insecurities. Knapper (1988) in Senanayake, Liyanege, and Dadigamuwa (2005) argues that distance learners are more likely to have insecurities about learning more than traditional students. “Because there is no regular, classroom-based instructor contact, students may face difficulty in self-evaluating their progress and their understanding of the subject material” (Lee & Chan, 2007). Sweet (1986) in Senanayake, Liyanege, and Dadigamuwa (2005) said that these insecurities could be founded in personal and university- related issues such as financing of study, disruption of family life, perceived irrelevance of their studies, and lack of support from their employers.

Several studies (e.g., Lee & Chan, 2007) suggested the use of modern information technologies as tools to improve interconnectivity of ODeL students and teachers. As Lee and Chan (2007) indicated, these technologies, including both synchronous and asynchronous online communication tools, would have tremendous potential to help mitigate isolation effects. In Duke University and Georgia College and State University, the learning materials, lectures, orientation information, and administrative and academic materials were converted into podcasts (Lee & Chan, 2007) so that students might be able to bring them anywhere at any time or they may download it to their personal computers to avoid the “click and wait” scenario with poor Internet connectivity (Curry, 2004). In UPOU, some faculty members have maximized the use of web-based technologies in order to simulate what is done in face-to-face learning (Arinto, 2013). The purpose of the simulation is to increase information immediacy and achieve high degree of interactivity and students’ participation. In a narrative study conducted by Fakinlede (2012), a DE student reported that communication technologies promote students’ interactivity, collaboration, and social networking. These technologies had created opportunities for effective dialogue and bridges for transactional distance within the community of inquiry (Johnson, 2008 in Fakinlede, 2012). Likewise, the same student reported that synchronous media tools provide real-time, audio- video communications, thus making them necessary social, teaching and learning platforms for effective interaction and interconnectivity for distance education delivery (Fakinlede, 2012).

 

However, these technologies should be used appropriately and with appropriate strategies; otherwise, they will further isolate and alienate the students by introducing technical overhead that acts as a further impediment to learning (Lee & Chan, 2007). For instance, Wagstaff (2007) warns “simply recording the audio component of a weekly lecture can potentially result in an experience for the listener that is boring, disconnected and difficult to follow.” In addition, “more complex multimedia elements such as video, animation and interactive media like simulations and games may have a high success rate in terms of boosting attention, motivation, and interest, but they are expensive and time consuming to develop, typically requiring a great deal of technical expertise” (Lee & Chan, 2007). They also require higher bandwidth for downloading, and thus, increase the likelihood of the “click and wait” situation common in streaming, especially in slower connections (Lee & Chan, 2007).


Fragmented landscape reduces organisms’ movement. “Individuals may  experience  difficulty  in  moving  between  different  parts  of the landscape  to  obtain  their  required  resources”  (Bennett & Saunders, 2010, p.93). This highlights the need to increase landscape connectivity. However, in some cases, the fragmented characteristic of the landscape allows species to develop certain patterns of movement. According to Bennett and Saunders (2010), species persist in fragmented landscape because they move to multiple fragments, incorporating them in their territory and daily foraging areas. Other species, however, may become isolated and fail in their breeding activities. Hence, movement of organisms    in fragmented landscape is species-specific and depends upon species’ dispersal abilities combined with the composition of the surrounding landscape (Eycott & Watts, 2011).

In similar fashion, students may exhibit certain patterns in their navigational behavior under the ODeL fragmented landscape. Analyzing this students’ behavior in such environment could offer new opportunities for both web-based architects and designers, and pedagogical and instructional designers (Carbo, Mor & Minguillon, 2005). One of these opportunities is personalizing the learning environment. As suggested by Carbo, Mor, and Minguillon (2005), personalization arises from the knowledge extracted from the navigational behavior of e-learning virtual environment users. Personalization usually pursues improvement of user learning experience and satisfaction.

In analyzing the movement of students in ODeL landscape, three parameters could be quantitatively measured, namely: number of visits, time of visits, and length of visits. As students access their course sites in a semester or trimester basis, these parameters could be quantified in an academic term. The number of visits will measure the number of times that students visited their virtual classroom in a given term. The time of visit identifies the specific time of the day when the student logged on to the course site. The length of visit measures the number of minutes or seconds that the student stayed in the virtual classroom (Bagarinao, 2011). These parameters can be used to describe the pattern of the virtual movement of a student, and may be useful in designing the virtual classroom.

In a study by Bagarinao (2011) involving 6,107 logged data of an online Natural Sciences II course in a Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment (Moodle) platform in UPOU, students were observed to visit their virtual classroom more than the required number of days in the academic term of analysis, and even more than the number of days required for one academic term in the conventional residential education. On the average, they stayed logged on to the course site for more than 10 hours. They are also more active in nighttime than in daytime. These patterns are predictable because most of the students are working and had Internet connection at home (Bagarinao, 2011). But more research should be conducted involving working students in other online courses to have a substantial generalization of these patterns.

The movement could be studied in details by using existing visualization and movement analytic tool such as graphs. For instance, a study that will analyze the number of visits of online students to all the pages in a virtual classroom could be done while the measurement of the parameters could be presented graphically. Figure 2 is an example of a graphical representation of such analysis.

Graphical representation of students movement in a virtual classroom in Science, Technology and Society (STS)

The data used in visualizing this pattern were extracted from the logged data of online students in Science, Technology, and Society in Moodle platform in UPOU during the third trimester of academic year 2012-2013. Numbers in black boxes represent the total

number of information contained in each course site page while the number in yellow lines represent the total number of times that the class moved from one page to another. In this example, students’ movement in the virtual classroom was analyzed by using the graph theoretical approach. Graph theory indicates that movement of organisms in a landscape can be studied by looking at the nodes and edges of their movement. In the ODeL landscape, the pages could represent these nodes while the edges are the virtual paths that will be created as the students navigate from one page to another. These data are readily extractable from the logged data in Moodle. As indicated in Figure 2, students have accessed more frequently those pages (e.g., resource page, home page, forum discussion page, forum page) that contain information necessary in performing their learning tasks. According to Bagarinao (2014), these pages contained the resources such as the learning materials of the course, important announcements, and discussion threads on the concepts and applications of Science, Technology and Society (STS) that are needed to complete the course. As in a real landscape, movement of students in the ODeL landscape appears to be influenced also by the presence or absence of resources that could help them achieve their learning goals. But more researches involving different students’ set up or contexts should be conducted towards this analysis to have more evidence that could either support or deny this observation.


Some concepts of landscape ecology could be applied metaphorically to describe the ODeL environment and behavior of users in such environment. Two aspects of the ODeL environment could be described with landscape ecological terms, namely: the geographic separation of the users, which is associated with the fragmentation concept in landscape ecology, and the navigation behavior of users in a virtual environment, which could be analyzed by using the movement ecological concept.

As  mentioned  earlier,   fragmentation  in  the  ODeL  landscape   is associated with the geographic separation of its functional elements—including the students, teachers, staff, offices—which serve as its major patches. Its wired and non-wired systems that link these patches could serve as the virtual corridors of the landscape to reduce or avoid the isolation effects of fragmentation or separation. Isolation effects should be minimized among the students since it could affect their academic performance and decision to complete their program. Though there are already existing modern information technologies that could enhance interconnectivity in the ODeL landscape, they should be used effectively and with appropriate strategies; otherwise, they can just further isolate and alienate the users.

Users’ movement in the ODeL landscape can be viewed as their navigational behavior. Such behavior is individual-specific and depends upon their abilities to navigate in the online environment. In landscape ecology, it is suggested that both intrinsic and extrinsic factors—such as the characteristics of the landscape itself and the ability of the organism to move—influence organisms’ movement across the landscape. Some studies involving online courses are suggestive of the same pattern where students navigate pages that contain the learning resources. However, this observation still requires more evidence, and thereby, it is suggested that more research studies could be done in varied students’ contexts.

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Suggested citation:

Bagarinao, B. T. (2014). ODeL Environment in Landscape Ecological Perspective. In G. J. Alfonso, & P. G. Garcia (Eds.), Open and Distance eLearning: Shaping the Future of Teaching and Learning (pp. 35-47). Los Baños, Laguna, Philippines: UP Open University and Philippine Society for Distance Learning.

ODeL Environment in Landscape Ecological Perspective | Dr. Ricardo Bagarinao

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