E-learning for boundless education

Written by  Femke Kools, Lucia Geurts Friday, 01 January 2010 00:00

Study in Maastricht, using a laptop in North Korea

Education is no longer defined by borders of place, time or age. During the last decades, higher education has come to encompass the globe and is available almost anywhere. E-learning supports independent studying in any place and at any time in the world, as long as the internet is accessible. What are the benefits of e-learning? What are the barriers? Bart Rienties, Bas Giesbers and Dirk Tempelaar, researchers at the Department of Educational Development and Research at the Maastricht University School of Business and Economics (SBE) are searching for the answers.


The Pareto principle, which posits that 80% of the economy is managed by 20% of the people, also seems to apply to online learning communities. In Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) a small core of people accounts for most of the contributions, while the majority simply sits on the sidelines. What characterises the active group? What distinguishes them from the majority? Bart Rienties investigated the personality traits of 100 students who posted approximately 2000 messages in an online environment over four weeks, and carried out a social network analysis to examine who interacts with whom.

“’Core’ participants are motivated intrinsically”, says Rienties, “because they’re interested in the topic, they actually want to understand it. They often have thorough and deep learning approaches: they’re looking for context and aren’t satisfied with merely memorising definitions. Intrinsically motivated people perform particularly well. However, most people are extrinsically motivated. They are not driven by interest but rather by career goals or because their environment demands it. And because there is little guidance and supervision in online communities, they are less stimulated to participate. Online learning seems to be less suitable for extrinsically motivated students, who are usually in the majority. “It sounds like an obvious conclusion, but until now it has never really been researched”, according to Rienties.


Follow-up research by Rienties and his colleague Bas Giesbers is directed towards interventions like web-video conferences. Do these keep the extrinsically motivated on board? This research involves students who are participating in online ‘brush-up’ courses offered by Maastricht University and other institutions, in a programme called ‘Webspijkeren’.

‘Webspijkeren’ started at Maastricht University in 2004. Nine other institutions of higher education are already using a second, improved version of the programme (www.acculturation.nl). It allows students who lack sufficient knowledge (usually in mathematics and economics) to catch up online before they start their study. The participants meet each other in a community, comparable to Facebook or Hyves. The course follows the principles of Problem-Based Learning: working independently in small groups and studying cases in seven steps. Getting to know each other in a safe environment is essential for good interaction. The digital café is an important meeting place in this respect. The participants receive tasks oriented towards their own context. “An example: imagine a girl from North Korea is coming to study in Maastricht. In this case you can set learning objectives about contrasting a planned economy with a market economy, and so on”, says Rienties.

“We measure what they learn, conduct satisfaction studies and compare participants’ results with those of students who didn’t take part in the project. E-students appear to score 10% better. They pass more exams on the first attempt and have a higher grade point average. They even maintain contact with each other during the rest of their studies.”

Blended learning

Dirk Tempelaar also researches first-year students who follow supplementary courses in mathematics and statistics. These are offered in the form of ‘blended learning’: regular courses combined with a digital learning environment. Participants engage in online learning individually, as part of a tailor-made programme. “It appears that women and those students who normally study only ‘superficially’ use the digital learning environment the most, and therefore also benefit most from it. A lack of self-confidence in women may explain their greater participation; they may still underestimate their own feel for mathematics”, according to Tempelaar.

Rienties expects the future to bring even more blended learning. “Five years ago it was still relatively unknown, yet today’s student expects nothing less from a university. Blended learning offers chances, but not for everyone. At the moment, little attention is being paid to individuals’ different learning styles and motivation. That’s something that can and must be improved.”

‘The role of academic motivation in Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning’, the first study referred to in this article, is published online in Computers in Human Behavior. ‘Who profits most from blended learning?’ is published in Industry and Higher Education. More information via +31 43 38 83770 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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