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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Variables affecting persistence in distance education in the natural resource sciences Garland, Maureen R.


This research was undertaken to clarify the nature of barriers to persistence in natural resource sciences distance education at the tertiary level in order that participation through to completion may be improved. Its aim was to provide insights and theoretical concepts useful in clarifying distance education access as a whole, while also providing understandings helpful in improving education and communication initiatives concerning sustainable development and the environment. Ethnography was used to illuminate the declarative and tacit understandings of withdrawal and persisting students. Ethnographic interpretations of student understandings were complemented by demographic and other data collected through questionnaires and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a psychological survey instrument. Statistical analysis of quantitative data yielded predictive relationships that accounted for 24-39% of the variability in student withdrawal/persistence. However, many variables defy meaningful measurement and quantitative analysis. Overall results suggest that student withdrawal is related to a set of complex multivariables that act additively and interactively in numerous context-dependent ways to result in a dropout decision that is almost idiosyncratic in nature. Nonetheless, important common barriers to persistence are evident. Both withdrawal and persisting students experienced situational, institutional, dispositional and epistemological problems that acted as barriers. A number are relatively unique to second chance learners, who are effectively disadvantaged. Many of the problems students experienced reflect the social contradiction between their roles as students and their roles as mature adults. The newly elucidated cluster of potential barriers to student persistence termed epistemological problems are the result of incongruency between the student's cognitive and affective perceptions of knowledge, and the nature of the knowledge presented in the courses. Although the courses mainly present hard, applied knowledge with a generally positivistic, empirical viewpoint, they also demand high levels of integration and inference. as well as abstract and relativistic thinking. A number of students found the courses' diverse epistemological stances problematic: some thought the content too scientific and technical; a few found it too abstract and ambiguous. Some were challenged by demanding prerequisite knowledge requirements. Still others found it difficult, in the absence of face-to-face interaction with instructors and peers, to make the epistemological shift from learning by rote to higher level thinking. It was concluded that more facilitative instructional design and student support are needed. Distance education persistence could be enhanced by providing students with all the resources and support they need in order to exercise personal control over their learning. A dialogic construct reflecting empathetic response to the views, values, frames of reference and varying dependency states of individual adult learners is suggested. Elucidation of the epistemological problems also provides understandings useful in general improvement of natural resource management education and communication initiatives. Because the highly structured, technical and specific nature of the disciplinary content and the dense formal jargon of the disciplinary discourse in themselves impede effective communication, it appears that natural resource scientists could more effectively share their knowledge if they simplified it, assumed no prior understandings, and helped people learn by informally and subjectively putting it in a more holistic context for them, including making inferences to application and implication.

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