Putting the cart ahead of the horse.

Zembylas, M. (2008). Adult learners’ emotions in online learning. Distance Education, 29(1), 71-87.

Putting the cart ahead of the horse.

As I continue down the path of gaining better insight into what research is out there around professional development, I’m also pursuing what research is out there in regards to adult online learning. This particular branch of my area of inquiry is quite interesting because it takes me all over the world. Adult online education has been a huge thing in European countries for decades now and much research has been done abroad. It is these particular articles that I find interesting because the focus and topic may be similar but often it is the lens that is different and, at times, quite revealing.

The journal that I most recently read centers around a qualitative study out of the Open University of Cyprus in Nicosia, Cyprus. This particular study followed the emotional ups and downs of twenty-two graduate students enrolled in a year-long, distance education course on the topic of multicultural education and social justice pedagogies. The majority of the participants were women and averaged an age of 36 years old. The researcher, Michalinos Zembylas, was the professor for the course and he gathers data around the emotions of the online students through a monthly journal, two in-person interviews at the start and end of the course, 867 email messages between him and the students, his reflective journal, field notes from the face-to-face meetings, phone conversations, student work documents, and his own planning.

His findings include: new online students experience both positive and negative emotions in relation to their new roles and the new setting in which they’re learning in, those emotions change over the course of the year, and men and women experience the outside pressures of being a student differently.

In general, I found there to many strengths to this journal article. The organization and overall coherence of this article to be good. It was very clear and understandable and particularly easy to read. I do think that his participation in the study might have made him write in a certain point of view that was then easier to read. I believe that elements of this work appear to be original to an extend and do offer something new to the field. Since the students were self-reporting their own emotions and causes for those emotions throughout the year-long course does seem to make this unique. I do think the socio-historical aspect of the setting in which the study took place also provides a uniqueness to the text that I’ll speak more about later. I found the literature review to be thorough and it really, naturally built up to the need and space for this particular study. The theoretical framework that was chosen, critical and postructuralist thinking, seems to make sense for the setting. This framework outlines placing and identifying emotion in a space between the public and the individual. Hence, the students self-reporting would occupy that same location. One last strength of the article, was the many direct quotes that were captured from student documents that really highlight and humanize the findings. The unique struggle that Zembylas’ findings found was the difference in emotional reporting and reasons between men and women. I will come back to this particular point later as I personally connected with it.

As interesting and easy as it was to read Zembylas’ work, I did find a variety of elements disconcerting in the research and make me want to offer them up as ways for improvement. Since this research centers around utilizing only qualitative data, it would seem wise to have incorporated some elements of quantitative research and even utilized another reviewer to ensure more reliability across the coding and results. I found the fact that he was their professor to be highly problematic to this whole design model. In the article, Zembylas mentions talking about the research the first night and inquiring how students felt about the study and his position of power. Having not hearing any negative responses, he offers them 10% of their grade if they’d participate. I know the rules about if you can’t and can “pay” someone to participate but this method seems to be completely against the established code of conduct. If the journal assignments were somehow aligned to the topic of the course, then maybe. One other similar concern was that the author never listed or illuminated what the specific interview questions were that he utilized in this study. In the author’s findings, he mentions that the student emotions changed over the year. First of all, I’m sure I, if I thought about it for a little while, could have written these findings just off of the top of my head. These “findings” didn’t appear to be so revealing or revolutionary. In fact, the “findings” were a let down to the development of the literature review and the scope of the study. And upon even deeper reflection, I don’t know how he made the “leap” from his findings to his very strong conclusions and implications. One conclusion he establishes is that the the emotions of the students changed over the course of the year. Again, that is so vague and obvious, that I could’ve written that sentence years ago without any data. What would’ve been revealing is an even deeper dive into the data and a more linear projection that truly demonstrated how their students’ emotions did change over time. There seems to be a chasm of disconnect between the findings and conclusions. I was also surprised to see citations from other articles in the Conclusions section. It would seem like these concepts and citations should be up in the literature review helping to build the case of why this study is important.

This article struck a personal chord because of the slightly tangential point it made about working women as professionals and students expressed more negatives around the many roles and responsibilities they have to upkeep along with their studies. I also over the past year and a half have had to face this same battle but I do think it speaks to something Zembylas mentioned. These women have gone back to college at a graduate level and are being forced to take on the evolution of equal opportunity and/or gender equality while still maintaining old family traditional values. I daily face this balance and have wanted to engage further in research around the concepts and tension between the expansion of gender equality or more access for women to ladder climbing experiences with the lack of equal fluidity in gender responsibilities shared in the family unit.

Lastly, I do think this study has opened up a new consideration for in my field of influence. The incorporation or explicit focus on user emotion in professional development that occurs online. Applying interventions that provides the students with innovative strategy of how to engage the importance of user emotion in a learning experience as well as its correspondence to particular events in the online platform.

In general, this article seemed to make quite a few leaps from their findings to their conclusions. So much so, that I almost thought that they had written a bunch of other articles where this data was further unpacked and graphics were utilized to support the statements made and helped the user track the same trends that then logically lead to an appropriate conclusion.

I will use the positives and improvements to make sure I don’t put the cart of my conclusions before the horse of my findings.

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Has spent six years in education as a classroom teacher and administrator at the K-12 level and another three more years as a clinical instructor and curriculum coordinator in higher education. Personally and professionally holds great interest in online learning K-20.

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