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InPsych 2011 | Vol 33

Science and education

Can online lab classes overcome the tyranny of distance?

Stephen Provost was the recipient of the 2010 APS Distinguished Contribution to Psychology Education Award and has a particular interest in enhancing the educational experience of psychology students in rural and regional Australia.

The importance of laboratories for practical skills acquisition in psychology undergraduate programs is a cornerstone of educational practice and accreditation requirements in Australia. This has benefited students not only through its influence on curriculum design but also through the implications for the qualifications and numbers of academic staff required to successfully maintain a program of study.

Providing a laboratory experience that meets the expectations of the discipline and profession is a particular challenge for educators working within rural and regional parts of Australia. For example, approximately one third of the students at Southern Cross University (SCU) are external and are spread around Australia and the globe. When the SCU Psychology Program was established in 2001 considerable thought was given to the possibility of extending our reach beyond those students on our own campus. At that time the model for external student delivery of units within the University was what you might call ‘paper’ based: students received an envelope in Week 1 containing a study guide, possibly a book of readings and a set of instructions regarding assessment, which often consisted of a single essay due at the end of semester. The students were also given a telephone number to enable contact with a staff member, who was often employed on a casual basis and was typically not the author of the study materials. This model seemed to us to be wholly inadequate to meet the pedagogical goals of a psychology program, particularly with respect to its laboratory component.

Converged delivery using online formats

The development of what SCU describes as ‘converged’ delivery based around information technology has been particularly important for the University’s capacity to broaden its student base. The core concept underlying converged delivery is that the location or mode of access of students is not relevant to the academic, who simply delivers the materials in whatever way seems most appropriate, and students are free to flexibly decide how they wish to receive them. Although an innovative approach, this has raised significant concerns for academics responsible for units such as some of those within psychology that have traditionally centred on laboratory work and experimentation. In this context my colleagues and I have been utilising the ‘Elluminate Live!’ online teaching environment, which provides a virtual ‘classroom’ and student participation and feedback to the academic teacher (see boxed information).

For example, converged delivery with the Elluminate classroom has been used in the second-year unit on learning and memory, for which I am responsible. There is a traditional lecture to a live audience on campus that is recorded and ‘podcast’, and laboratory sessions are held on campus in the normal way but are also held in an online classroom. The online laboratories are conceptually no different to those held on campus: students are free to interact with other students and tutorial staff, and are engaged in the process of acquiring skills in experimental design through participation in group-based research and reporting research outcomes in a traditional APA-formatted laboratory report. My enthusiasm for teaching in the Elluminate classroom is driven by the belief that it provides a context in which external students experience something that is as close as possible to that of the on-campus student, providing a sense of familiarity and empowerment to the academic while simultaneously enhancing the students’ sense of community and engagement.

What do students think of the converged mode of delivery?

As scientist-practitioners, of course, we should be subjecting our assumptions to empirical test, and we commenced such an evaluation over the last summer session of teaching. The study was conducted by a third-year (now Honours) student in our program, Ms Jennifer Rees Brown. Students were surveyed about their feelings with respect to differing aspects of external unit delivery, and the relationship between these views and the students’ approach to learning and sense of community. Two questionnaires were utilised – the revised Study Processes Questionnaire (Biggs, Kember, & Leung, 2001), which measures ‘deep’ (e.g., “I find that at times studying gives me a feeling of deep personal satisfaction”) and ‘surface’ (e.g., “My aim is to pass the course while doing as little work as possible”) approaches to learning; and the Classroom Community Scale (Rovai, 2002) which provides a measure of sense of community that can be applied in an online learning situation.

Only a small sample of data could be collected over the summer (N=30) and the data could thus only be thought of as very preliminary. Despite this there are some interesting, and rather disconcerting, conclusions. The study found that many of the attributes of the paper-based model of delivery were more strongly endorsed by the students, while many of the features of converged delivery were not held in high regard by the students. Furthermore, a number of the statements more strongly endorsed by students were either positively correlated with a deep approach to learning (e.g., “Having powerpoint slides before the lecture is useful”) or were negatively correlated with a surface approach (e.g., “I like to receive all of the study materials at the commencement of semester”). The apparent lack of support for the value of online classes and contact with other students and academic staff in the promotion of learning was uncorrelated with approach to learning. The sense of community held by students sometimes influenced the perceived value of classroom experience (e.g., “I like to be able to interact with other students studying the same units as me”) and was strongly correlated with participation in study groups with other students.

These results don’t provide support for the notion that students believe that their learning is enhanced by participation in the online classes. Indeed some aspects of this delivery, such as the absence of a study guide, seem likely to have had the reverse effect. The fact that these views appear to be held most strongly by students who would be categorised as having a deep approach to learning is particularly worrying. I don’t think we will be abandoning online teaching, but it would seem that we need to go about selling the product better!

Elluminate Live! Online Classroom

Students who are participating in the ‘class’ are listed on the screen. As a result, the educator ‘knows’ the students better than they do those in an on-campus class. Sessions can be recorded for the benefit of absent students, or to replay for revision purposes.

Students can reward or punish the academic moderating the class with smiley faces, applause, frowns and thumbs-down, or raise their hand to ask a question. Powerpoint slides can be presented by the moderator on the main screen, and annotated as desired by participants using the available graphic tools. Switching on ‘application sharing’ allows students to see an application (for example SPSS) being used live on the moderator’s desktop.

A microphone enables students to hear the moderator, and if allowed, speak with each other. Many students prefer to use the provided chat box, and frequently exchange messages while the moderator is talking. These often add considerable value as students will be explaining material to each other, telling participants where to look for information in the text book, and so on. If nothing more, these provide an immediate flag for the academic about topics that are not well understood and require more attention. In some classes, particularly with more experienced ‘e-students’, there is often an almost constant stream of positive affirmations between groups of students. The cognitive load for the moderator is high, but the quality of the relationship with students makes this an enjoyable and productive process.

Elluminate Live! has been purchased by Blackboard, and forms part of the new ‘Blackboard Collaborate’ environment, which can be accessed through www.blackboard.com .

Benefits for students’ sense of community

In contrast with these rather pessimistic conclusions, the study data provide much more encouragement for the view that our online teaching could benefit students’ social and emotional experience. Aspects of online classrooms are better received by students who have a greater sense of community than those who do not. We are now focussed upon trying to determine whether sense of community is enhanced by participation in online classrooms, or whether this relationship simply reflects the fact that gregarious students enjoy interacting with other people. It seems possible that students who are at some distance from a university campus in rural and remote parts of Australia could be more likely to experience feelings of loneliness and isolation. The potential for information technology to help to reduce this experience within a learning community seems great, but at present we know little about our students’ situation, much less how this might differ across modes of educational engagement. An opportunity to more effectively test these questions will be provided during the second semester, when psychology units are being delivered that have both on-campus and online laboratory components.


The intriguing outcomes of this preliminary evaluation of online classroom learning have rather obvious implications for our teaching practices. Our desire to provide similar learning experiences for our students regardless of their mode of engagement may not be as well received as we would like. We need to be seeking evidence for the educational benefits of such an approach, something that is not easy to implement in our everyday teaching practices. However, quality of learning is not the only factor involved in our students’ on-campus experience. We want our students to feel part of the psychological community, and to ‘act like’ psychologists. In order to achieve this we should consider the impact of our methods on the social dimension of student experience with the same intensity as we seek information about educational outcomes. Our evidence suggests that the move toward technology-based online solutions may be most beneficial when viewed from this perspective. The author can be contacted at steve.provost@scu.edu.au.


  • Biggs, J., Kember, D., & Leung, D.Y.P. (2001). The revised two-factor Study Process Questionnaire: R-SPQ-2F. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 71, 133-149.
  • Rovai, A.P. (2002). Development of an instrument to measure classroom community. Internet and Higher Education, 5, 197-211.

Disclaimer: Published in InPsych on August 2011. The APS aims to ensure that information published in InPsych is current and accurate at the time of publication. Changes after publication may affect the accuracy of this information. Readers are responsible for ascertaining the currency and completeness of information they rely on, which is particularly important for government initiatives, legislation or best-practice principles which are open to amendment. The information provided in InPsych does not replace obtaining appropriate professional and/or legal advice.