Year

2013

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

Faculty of Education

Abstract

In Saudi Arabia, online learning is still a relatively new concept in higher education. There is limited research investigating online collaborative learning environments which examine social interactions between students. The purpose of this study was to investigate student collaboration in Saudi higher education through the use of online collaborative tools, which were selected to compliment the face-to-face experiences traditionally offered. This study examined how these online tools may support student learning through group tasks orchestrated and completed within an online learning environment.

Throughout the two iterations of this study, particular attention was paid to contextual and cultural factors that may potentially support or hinder student learning in blended learning environments. Two cohorts of fifteen male education students in a first year IT class at King Faisal University (KFU) in Saudi Arabia participated in this study over two iterations (each bound by a teaching semester of fifteen weeks).

A design-based research approach (Reeves, 2000, 2006) was used to organise and report on the two iterations. Qualitative research which included observations and interviews, as well as action research, were employed to collect and analyse data from the two cohorts. The students were observed to examine their interactions while completing the two collaborative tasks in the online learning context. They were also interviewed (preliminary, second, and post interviews) by a Teaching Assistant to explore their cultural/social backgrounds and beliefs regarding technology, and to investigate difficulties with technology and collaboration, and personal factors that have affected their use of technology.

This study revealed that the participants found it difficult to deeply engage in the processes of online collaboration to complete their tasks. They did not make meaning or demonstrate understanding of the tasks within their discussions through their engagement with the online tools. The discussion forum was the most used tool, followed by the chat tool and then the email tool.

Cultural and contextual factors affected student learning in the online environment. Cultural factors were found that limited students’ meaning-making and engagement in collaboration. These factors included their preference for face-to-face learning, and a lack of experience in engaging in collaborative learning and using online tools for learning. Contextual factors that limited student collaboration and interaction through the online collaborative tools included difficulties with technology and previous group work experience.

In conclusion, student collaboration through online tools did not support the students to advance their understanding while completing the collaborative tasks. Cultural and contextual factors were found to affect online collaborative learning. This study suggests that subject content should be appropriate for use with the specified online collaborative tools, and that online collaborative tools in a Saudi higher education context should be simple and adaptable to the prevalent traditional and cultural norms. Collaborative blended learning environments present new considerations for teaching and learning in Saudi Arabia and need continued research attention.

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