“We may need to undergo a mental attitude shift: rather than talking about ‘students who work,’ it may well be more appropriate to talk about ‘workers who study’—where it is irrelevant whether this is paid or unpaid work. In essence most of these students are comparatively resource rich but time poor.”
This study is especially valuable for instructors and administrators for designing and scheduling online programs and support.
Patterns of User Behavior in
* The Residential school period appears prolonged because of the Olympic Class-free period (4 Sep to 2 Oct).
Since its adoption as a fully functional system in 1998, the online forums have seen a substantial uptake in use (Figure 2).
Clearly the patterns of use over a twelve month period show a nexus between the two study semesters and high demand. The University also operates trimesters in parallel with the two main sessions. Although some forums are based on trimesters, and could potentially impact the sessional use profile, the trimester forums are low in number and insignificant in size and activity. Forums based on trimester subjects can therefore be discounted as influencing the present analysis of the annual behavior patterns.
There is a close correlation between the traditional holiday and University breaks and reduced levels of use (Figure 3; Figure 4). Christmas holidays, Easter and mid term breaks are clear examples. These patterns are surprising given that students study predominantly within the distance education mode. One may expect them to undertake most of their study during periods of spare time availability. This does not appear to be the case during the holiday periods. Minimums of use occur during holiday periods.
The pattern is exacerbated by the University calendar, which tends to follow traditional holiday periods. Although not entirely unique to online learning, but related to distance education by what ever delivery mechanism, the breaking of the nexus between the session calendar and the holiday calendar, may provide students with a greater opportunity to devote more time to their study.
However assumptions about cause and effect, particularly as they relate to the ordinariness of everyday life, need to be approached with caution. Because students are on “holiday” does not necessarily mean that they have any more available time for study. For example, women represent 60% of online forum users. During “holiday” periods, and with the possibility of children at home all day (rather than at school from 9am to 3pm), it may well be that women in fact have less disposable time available for study. Although the allocation of study time for distance mode students is outside the scope of this study, this parameter is now less masked by other influences, such as the online environment per se. We may need to undergo a mental attitude shift: rather than talking about ‘students who work,’ it may well be much appropriate to talk about ‘workers who study’—where it is irrelevant whether this is paid or unpaid work. In essence most of these students are comparatively resource rich but time poor.
Figure 3 shows the annual pattern of posts to all forums at Charles Sturt University from 1999 to 2003. The curves are very similar to each other, with 1999 showing two major peaks per semester, while the curves for 2000-2003 exhibit only one peak (see below). It is possible that the 1999 dual peak was influenced by the novelty value of the system. The pattern of views is similar but more balanced (Figure 4).
The curve for the (southern) spring term of 2000 differs from the others, largely because the Australian government directed universities to adjust their teaching calendars in such a fashion that the period of the Sydney Olympics (from 4 September to 2 December 2000) would be teaching free. This reduced the mid-year break and extended the mid-term break in spring. The forum usage, both posts (Figure 3) and views (Figure 4) is low throughout the Olympic period underscoring the observation that actual forum usage reflects the sessional study pattern with holidays as periods of low activity. Moreover, during the Olympic period forum utilization was even lower than during the spring mid-term break in other years.
An analysis of the sessions provides interesting insights into student behavior over the duration of a thirteen-week study semester. This analysis is based on the average posts and views for the period 2000 to 2003 (posts: n=589,359; views n=28,025,746). The years 1998 and 1999 are excluded from the averages as can be argued that these were the ‘start-up’ years of the forums, where both staff and existing students familiarized themselves with the technology and its opportunities. Beginning with year 2000 intake students and staff were using the forums as a mainstream activity. Figure 5 shows the average sessional usage of the forums for the period 2000 to 2003, with the spring 2000 term adjusted for the Olympics shift. The average ratio of views over posts was 47.6 : 1.
Patterns of use show a peak of activity at the beginning of a major session with the autumn session (and start of the academic year) peaking higher than the spring session. Clearly there is a user expectation and willingness to participate right from the beginning of the session—the participation does not have to “built,” it is ready and available. However, the fact that forum activity during spring is less than during autumn may indicate that some users became ‘jaded’ and decide that participation is not amenable or advantageous for them.
The pattern of use for a given term, be it autumn or spring, are overall the same: a much greater usage before than after the mid semester break. This is particularly the case with forum posts, which also outpace views (in percentage terms) (Figure 5).
The maximum posts occur during weeks 2 and 3 of each term. Posts then fall off during the mid semester break and rise again after the break, but only to approximately 60% of the original traffic. Although this may be explained by a reticence by the user to rejoin a community after a break, it could also be explained as a natural decline in posts (and views) as the session progresses. The curves run in sync during the period before the mid semester break, with posts far outpacing views (in annual percentage terms). While immediately after the mid semester break both posting and viewing activity recommence apace, posts soon drop off altogether, while views continue to the end of term. During the spring term they in fact slightly peak during the pre-exam week.
It would appear that new generation of information or active queries for information declines at that point, while rereading of existing posts becomes the prevalent occupation, most likely linked to end-of semester exam preparation.
Over the period of a week, the posting of messages is below (theoretical) average on Mondays and Tuesdays, but rises sharply to a peak on Wednesdays, remains above average Thursdays and Fridays, trailing off on Saturdays and Sundays (Figure 6). The viewing pattern, however is different. Students view forums exceed the average from Monday to Thursday, with a peak on Tuesdays (the busiest day for forum traffic).
Anecdotal evidence has suggested that the main study time for distance education was on Saturdays and Sundays—that assumption has largely gone uncontested. Clearly according to use of the forums, this is not the case for forums use. Both in terms of viewing and posting, weekends are by far the least utilized days.
Because so many students are part-time and are in the work force, it may well be that students access the forums from work where they may have faster Internet access and also access to better, or cheaper, printing facilities. It is possible that relevant forum messages are accessed and printed at work and then used for study at home on the weekends. It is also possible that students prefer to use the weekends for the study of their printed materials and textbooks. The fact that forum views peak on Tuesdays, but that forum posts peak the day after seems to lend support to the assumption that people view and print forum posts of interest at the beginning of a work week and rejoin the discussion the day after.
The low utilization of the weekend can have various causes, ranging from competing family and personal commitments to competition for computer and internet access by other family members, in particular school-age children.
Although the demonstrated daily pattern has been established for forums over a period of three years (Figure 6), the question arises as to whether this pattern exists in isolation to other online university services provided to users and whether there is a correlation with services provided to a completely different set of online users. To assess this daily pattern of forum use was compared with the daily pattern of a different university services targeted at the same user group, i.e. the student portal (my.csu.edu.au) and the digital university-student communications and notification system (e-box)(Figure 7).
It was found that the same weekly pattern emerged (Figure 7). This is not surprising since there is a high correlation between use of the forums and the portal, and although the portal is not the only method of accessing the forums, it is the most popular.
In order to establish if the pattern is representative of Australian online learner behavior in general rather than just C.S.U. learners, a public site, NSW HSC Online (hsc.csu.edu.au) was analyzed (Figure 7). This site caters for a specific audience of New South Wales Year 12 students and is used heavily by students both in and out of formal secondary school classes (Green 1996; Gorman 2003). Even though NSW HSC Online caters for an entirely different group of learners (in this case senior secondary school students in the age range 16 – 20), the pattern of use is very similar to the C.S.U. environment. An increase in use over the weekend can be noted however.
An examination of public web servers should reveal whether user patterns change once groups of users other than learners are included in the audience. So as to keep the variables to a minimum, the proxy server (proxy.csu.edu.au) and the public web server at C.S.U. (www.csu.edu.au) were chosen (Figure 8).
CSU directs all its outgoing requests for web pages through a proxy server and copies of the files are temporarily cached to improve performance and to reduce traffic (Spennemann in prep). The CSU proxy shows a completely different level of demand, peaking towards the end of the week.
The public web server has a marketing focus and provides information to prospective students as well as providing general information. As such, the daily pattern still reflects the drop off on the weekends, however the weekday traffic appears to be stabilizing particularly over the Monday – Thursday range indicating that the pattern of behavior does begin to change as a different group is introduced into the audience.
The services provided within each of the previously discussed examples are quite different. However it is interesting to note that the user behavior within the C.S.U. environment (i.e. forums, my.csu and to some extent the public server) tends to be similar. However once the services are examined outside of C.S.U. learners, patterns of behavior begin to change.
It would appear that the patterns of daily use are similar for learners whether they are visiting forums, the portal, HSC Online and to a lesser extent the CSU public web server. Note that they are not the same group of learners (in fact they are even across two different educational sectors) but learners just the same. This is a quite unexpected outcome and demonstrates that user behavior is entirely driving the pattern and that the service or the timing of manager postings for example, are unlikely to influence the patterns of behavior.
How does the C.S.U. forum use compare to on-campus presence? Even though pure on-campus students represent only 9.2% of the student population, with another 10.7% studying as blended learners, i.e. only some subjects in distance mode, they may skew the picture. The forum statistics obviously do not distinguish between the two—indeed, the advantage of the forums is to be able negate many of the requirements of on-campus presence.
Figure 9 plots the on-campus presence of students on all the main three C.S.U. campuses in 2003 (Albury-Thurgoona; Bathurst; Wagga Wagga) as constructed from the timetables and actual enrolment numbers (Spennemann 2004). Also plotted is the usage of on-campus computer laboratories, many of which have 24/7 access (Spennemann et al. in prep). Attendance fluctuates during the week with, understandably, no classes scheduled for the weekend. The usage of the computer laboratories is more level through the working week, with a few students using the labs during the weekend. Compared to these, the forum use is much more level throughout the week and exhibits a much higher usage during the weekend.
It would appear that forum usage is determined by external factors, such as work week, access to machines and the like, rather than by the academic pattern. Thus it is imperative that the teaching and learning environment plans its activities around the actual usage pattern rather than trying to influence that pattern.
Clearly the reading pattern for learners has moderate use on Mondays, and a high use on Tuesdays, gradually tapering off to Sundays, with a slight increase on Sundays. The greatest ‘reaction’ to views occurs on Wednesdays, when posts are at their peak. Thus if the maximum exposure to new material or postings is to be garnished, then that material needs to be published later in the week (i.e. Friday to Sunday) in order to receive maximum exposure on Mondays. Patterns of work behavior by subject coordinators or forum managers for example will need to be adjusted only to the extent that new material needs to be posted during that time. If participation in the forum itself needs to be demonstrated (as part of an assessable item, for example), then this should be scheduled for the middle and later part of the week. It is highly unlikely that learning and teaching outcomes will be substantially increased by participation within the forums on weekends.
But if forums are heavily used during weekdays, does that mean that this usage occurs during the work hours (and thus probably from the place of work) or after hours, and thus from home? To assess this, the average usage of forums over the duration of a day, with the figures expressed in percent or the total views per day were calculated.
Online forums were used most heavily in the time band 8 am to 11 pm peaking at 1pm. Another smaller but significant peak occurs in the 8pm to 9 pm time band. Again it is surprising for a distance education focused enterprise that online forums were accessed so heavily in the 9am to 5 pm band. One again, this pattern is more interesting in that it more closely reflects traditional hours of access than it does non traditional patterns – the peak at 1pm most likely caused by lunch time access at the workplace or the CSU computer laboratories – again highlighting that “spare” time is a determining factor.
The time band 7am – 9am shows a remarkably steep increase in traffic indicating that a number of students access forums early in the mornings, possibly within the workplace. Certainly on campus traffic would have a minimal impact on traffic at this time.
The pattern of forum access, established over the past three years (Figure 10) is very high during the working day, peaking at 1pm, which is not consistent with previous surveys relating to conventional distance education study habits. As a result of Charles Sturt University’s high distance education intake, students may be accessing the forums from work during these times, which is supported by the peak occurring during work lunch times. High use also occurs at 8.00 pm, which is more consistent with previous study patterns for distance education students.
The traffic between 12 midnight and 1 am is worth noting. Presumably this traffic mostly originates from the overseas student cohort. These will be “real” visitations since forums operate under an authenticated environment, the traffic is unlikely to be automated system tools and search engines (known as “noise”), common in public web environments. The distribution curve shows a steep rise between 7 and 9 am, a well-developed usage during the work day and a drop during the end of work-day and dinner period. Usage rises again after 7 pm with a high presence between 8 and 9 pm.
The rate of increase of traffic in the mornings is far greater than the decrease in the evenings which tends to have a lengthy “tail”. Surprisingly in order to support the same level of learner activity that occurs at 9 am (which is taken very much for granted in most institutions), the online environment would be required to be resourced until 11 pm. To support the same level of activity as occurs at 8 am (which is becoming the trend in many institutions), a service envelope stretching until 12 midnight would be required. The support required in the mornings is generally provided without question, however the notion of providing that same level of support until 11 pm or 12 midnight would be considered by many to be unjustifiable.
Again the question arises as to whether this is a pattern in isolation of other online services and in isolation of other groups of users. The main on-line services for students, forums, my.csu and e-box, show similar patterns, with my.csu usage being higher in the mornings, at the start of the day, and e-box usage higher at the end of the working day during the census months of December 2002 (Figure 11). The “after-dinner peak’ is present in all three. These curves are in contrast to that of the HSC Online service frequented by year 12 students. High school student usage starts later than university student usage. This offset is a function of the different circadian rhythms among teenagers (cf. Caskadon et al. 1998, DeWeerd et al. 2003). Furthermore, the HSC curve shows a peak during the main school hours, indication school-based access, a peak after returning home from school (between 16:00 and 17:00) and a peak after dinner, between 21:00 and 22:00. The main difference between is the prolonged high use among HSC Online usage during the evening. If we were to take online usage as a proxy measure for learning diligence, the high school students are much more dedicated learners.
How does this compare to the general Australian population? Spennemann (in press) developed a web usage curve based on data from five ISP-specific telephone exchanges along the eastern seaboard of Australia (early 2004; Brisbane, Sydney x 2, Melbourne x 2)(‘Eastern Australia.’ Figure 12). Elsewhere Spennemann (in prep) assessed the average usage of government web pages along the eastern seaboard (State Government Websites of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, all first part of 2004), the demand for which is near exclusively of national origin. There is also a small rise in demand after the dinner time period.
The government websites have a well defined demand curve for the work hour period, with a small reduction during the lunch time period. By comparison, the CSU Forum demand is similar in the mornings, but less during the afternoons, but stays higher during the after hour period. The overall activity, on the other hand, shows that the bulk of the demand occurs between 3 and 9 pm. This pattern is most probably a combination of demand for web services both as part of business/ work (9am to 5pm) and leisure (after hours), with the after hours period for school students (starting at 3pm) driving up the demand. Common to all is that demand drops off after 10pm.
Let us now compare the CSU forum use (Oct 2002) to the student presence on campus (2003), as well as to the student usage of on-campus computer laboratories (average 2001-3)(Figure 13). The on-campus presence is well defined, with a significant peak in the morning and a smaller peak in the afternoon. The computer lab usage follows the general on-campus presence for scheduled classes, but with the demand starting earlier and lasting longer. There is a small tail into the later evening/early night. Forum use, on the other hand, has a much more pronounced use during the hours of the evening and early night.
Using a large-scale multi-year sample of Charles Sturt University online supported subjects, the patterns of annual, sessional, daily and hourly user behaviors in online forums have been developed and analyzed. It was found that, although the online environment has been developed for “any time, any place” learning, the main use is still with the “traditional” year (i.e. low during Christmas/New Year break), during session (i.e. low during session breaks and mid session breaks), “traditional” days (i.e. low on Saturdays and Sundays) and the “traditional” hours (i.e. peaks during 9 -5 office hours). The underlying reasons appear to be that students, while resource rich, are essentially time poor, juggling the demands of work, family and study. Where academics assume that holiday periods without scheduled classes and study workloads represent time-rich study opportunities, others may regard these as actually time-poor periods as out-of-school dependent children compete for time.
The diurnal analysis shows that learning does occur after hours when compared to internal students, but that very little difference exists in terms of weekend study—at least as forum viewing and posting is concerned.
The above has ramifications for resourcing the online environment and the level of support provided. For one, there is little need for costly weekend technical and instructional support. These savings are offset by additional costs requiring such support to be provided until the evening hours of 10 or 11 pm.
The data presented here, gathered over a four-year period, clearly demonstrate that the available technology does not influence study habits, but that work and study habits influence when the technology is being accessed.
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Deputy Director of Student Services,
Leslie Burr. Les has inhabited the educational technology jungle for 25 years, discovering the food chain of educational television, computer assisted language learning, interactive video disc, videoconferencing and online learning.
A passion for history has resulted in a study of film exhibition in rural north east Victoria, a study of the development of the video phone and a pictorial journey retracing the steps of the explorer of inland Australia, Charles Sturt.
Les also has a background in teaching with qualifications in educational research, technology and management. He recently submitted his master’s thesis which analyses the nature of online interaction.
For the past five years, as Manager of CSU Online, Les was responsible for Charles Sturt University's online environments. Recently he has been appointed Deputy Director of Student Services at Charles Sturt University.
Dirk HR Spennemann, PhD
School of Environmental and Information Sciences
Dirk HR Spennemann (MA Frankfurt, Ph.D. Australian National University) is Associate Professor in Cultural Heritage Management at Charles Sturt University, Albury, Australia. His main research interests are German colonial heritage in Oceania, in particular Micronesia, and historic preservation/ cultural heritage management issues in Micronesia. His second focus is threats to heritage posed by natural and human hazards and by managers in their efforts to counter these hazards. Ethical Heritage Planning and Policy are the cornerstones that need to be addressed if humanity's past is to have a meaningful future.
As a university educator, Dirk is interested in the implications of the utilization of information technology for students and staff. He serves on the editorial board of Campus-wide Information Systems.
He is the author/editor of 22 books, with a life-time publication record of over 150 book chapters and refereed academic papers, over 60 non-refereed papers, and close to 100 technical reports and consultancy studies. He currently edits the Micronesian Journal for the Humanities and Social Sciences.