|The emergence of educational technologies offers flexible learning opportunities to students. However, the nature of the online learning environment can lead to disengagement and subsequent minimal participation, which present challenges and concerns in relation to students’ learning. Therefore, in order for learners to have positive learning experiences, it is vital to identify factors that affect students’ engagement in online learning environments.
Although the use of learning management systems (LMS) as an asynchronous e-learning platform can influence learner engagement, there is little research on these influences and the ways in which an LMS affects engagement. In addition, studies on students’ perceptions of learning and engagement with synchronous and asynchronous technologies are under-explored. In response to these concerns, this research sets out to gain a better understanding of students’ engagement in e-learning activities. In particular, the study examines mediating factors that affect students’ engagement in e-learning activities in a range of e-learning contexts at the University of Waikato. The study also aims to explore the affordances and constraints of some e-learning tools and their influence on students’ engagement in this context.
The research was carried out in the form of three case studies and students and lecturers of the three courses in three different university departments participated in this study. Qualitative data collection methods used in the research were interviews, observations and document analysis. The data were collected throughout the duration of the courses.
In exploring the factors that affect students’ engagement in e-learning activities and how the various elements operate together, Engstrom’s (1987) Activity Theory was used as the research framework. Activity theory helps describe learning activities, mediating tools, relationships between elements of activity systems and goals and objectives of activities. The constituents of an activity system include subject, object, tools, rules, community and division of labour. An activity system framework allowed this research to examine the relationships between these elements and also the way elements affect each other.
Findings indicated that students’ active participation in the three cases was mediated by the educational technologies, the learning materials, the design of the course and the English language. The analysis also showed that the lecturers’ technological pedagogical knowledge (TPK) was reflected through the design of the courses and consequently influenced students’ learning. The development of an online learning community also benefitted students’ learning. Some deliberate strategies like creating spaces for communication both in general and in specific modules provided students with opportunities to work collaboratively, share ideas and useful information, and learn from each other. These interactions also facilitated close connections among students. The guidelines that specified information about the format of written or oral presentations, duration or length, level of formality, assessment criteria/marking guidelines and referencing guidelines also acted as a mediator and influenced the way students participated in activities in all three case studies. The analysis also indicated the importance of participants’ responsibilities in their courses. In particular, as a result of lecturers not defining both their roles and those of their students, some misunderstandings, confusions and frustrations occurred. These mediated students’ engagement.
Insights gained from this study related to affordances and constrains of some e-learning tools and their influence on students’ engagement may be of benefit to tertiary educators. The pedagogical strategies that are suggested at the end of this thesis can also be of use to teachers and instructional designers when designing online courses. Overall, the findings confirm the importance of providing appropriate conditions for learner engagement in online learning contexts, and significance of lecturers’ technological pedagogical knowledge on learner engagement and positive learning experiences.