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«2.1 Introduction The emergence of educational technologies offers flexible learning opportunities to the twenty-first-century learners. Research ...»

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Chapter 2

Identifying Factors Influencing Students’

Motivation and Engagement in Online Courses

Dilani Gedera, John Williams and Noeline Wright

2.1 Introduction

The emergence of educational technologies offers flexible learning opportunities to

the twenty-first-century learners. Research affirms that online courses provide learners with some flexibility in terms of time, place and pace (Gedera and Williams 2013).

However, the anonymous nature of the online learning environment can lead to demotivation and disengagement with subsequent minimal participation or even withdrawal. In face-to-face classrooms, students’ levels of motivation can be observed to a certain extent with few of the physical cues available. However, online courses present challenges and concerns in relation to students’ motivation and active participation. The challenge of engaging online learners seems common across subject matter, levels and institutions. Therefore, in order for the learners to have positive learning experiences, it is vital to identify factors that affect students’ motivation and engagement in online courses. Through a case study, this chapter highlights some pedagogical and practical ideas and strategies that teachers may like to consider when designing online courses to enhance students’ motivation and engagement.

2.2 Student Motivation and Engagement The term motivation is derived from the Latin word ‘movere’ which means ‘to move’. The idea of movement in relation to motivation is understandable if we look

at some of the definitions of motivation. For example, Ryan and Deci (2000) say:

To be motivated means to be moved to do something. A person who feels no impetus or inspiration to act is thus characterized as unmotivated, whereas someone who is energized or activated toward an end is considered motivated. (p. 54) D. Gedera () · J. Williams · N. Wright University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand e-mail: dilani.pahalagedera@gmail.com © Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2015 13 C. Koh (ed.), Motivation, Leadership and Curriculum design, DOI 10.1007/978-981-287-230-2_2 14 D. Gedera et al.

This denotes that motivation can be something that keeps us ‘moving’. Motivation is defined as the ‘desire or willingness to do something’ (Oxford Dictionary 2013), the condition of being eager to act or work, a force or influence that causes someone to do something (Merriam Webster 2013). There are two different kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation comes from within and is associated with the joy or passion that the task gives the learner rather than any reward it brings (Irvin et al. 2007). Extrinsic motivation is something to do with external factors associated with the task such as assessment. External factors can also be related to instructional strategies, learning conditions, educational technologies and other elements in activity systems.

Motivation can be a prerequisite of learner engagement. For instance, because of a long-term goal for credentials, learners can be motivated to engage in courses.

Motivation can also be a feeling of satisfaction/success when being engaged in worthwhile learning. Either way, student motivation and engagement are closely related elements of student learning that can have an impact on learning outcomes.

Beer et al. (2010) state that in spite of the fact that there is no universally accepted definition of what comprises engagement, student and college success, student retention and student motivation are always linked to engagement. For instance, some of the early studies defined engagement in terms of aspects such as interest (Dewey 1913), effort (Meece and Blumenfeld 1988), time on task (Berliner 1990) and motivation (Skinner and Belmont 1993). For the purpose of this chapter, online learner engagement is defined as students’ active participation in e-learning activities (i.e. discussion threads, virtual classroom) to achieve learning goals. Motivation is considered an essential element to engage learners and thereby enhance students’ learning experiences.

2.3 Methodology

This chapter is based on a case study carried out in one of the universities in New Zealand in a course offered in semester A of each year which is part of a Post Graduate Diploma. The data collection took place in 2012 and seven students and their lecturer participated in this study. In order to capture the experiences and perspectives of the participants in this research, individual interviews with the students and teachers, observation of online learning activities, online profile questionnaire and document analysis were used as methods of data collection. The learning technologies that facilitated the synchronous and asynchronous learning activities of this course comprised Adobe Connect virtual classroom and the university learning management system (LMS), Moodle.

The aim of this study was to examine factors that affect students’ motivation and engagement in a specific online learning environment. In exploring mediational factors that affect students’ motivation and engagement that exist in activity systems, Engeström’s (1987) Activity Theory framework was used in this research. The constituents of an activity system include subject, object, tools, rules, community and 2 Identifying Factors Influencing Students’ Motivation and Engagement … 15

Fig. 2.1 The basic structure of an activity system. (Adapted from Engeström 1987)

division of labour. Activity Theory provided a framework to guide data collection, analysis and interpretations of our study. The framework allowed us to recognize the whole structure of the course and learning activities as activity systems and examine how different elements of activity systems influenced and affected each other in this context. Figure 2.1 shows the basic structure of the Activity Theory.

2.4 Factors Affecting Students’ Motivation and Engagement

This Post Graduate Diploma course was taught fully online for a period of 12 weeks and delivered via the university LMS. The participants included seven students (six New Zealanders and one from the Middle East) and the lecturer (New Zealander).

The activities which provided the data for analysis included synchronous virtual classroom and discussion forum that was facilitated by the LMS.

In this context, the elements—tools and community—seemed to mediate students’ active participation and motivation in the process of achieving their ( subject) learning objectives ( object). Tool mediation, which is a key principle of Activity Theory, highlights that human activity is mediated by various tools (Kaptelinin 1996). These tools can be external (physical)—a computer or a book—or internal (psychological)—a mental model, concept or a plan, for instance. The tools that mediated students’ motivation and engagement in this context included the educational technologies—Adobe Connect virtual classroom and the university LMS, Moodle.

The Adobe Connect virtual classroom facilitated a synchronous activity in this case as an individual assignment which represented 30 % of the marks students received. The objective of this activity was to present their research to the members of the class in the virtual classroom environment. The dates of presentations were predetermined and posted on the Moodle site for students to choose the day that best suited them (out of 3 days from 7.30 to 9 pm). The presentations took place during week 10 of the semester. Figure 2.2 shows the virtual classroom activity system that is overlaid in Activity Theory framework.

16 D. Gedera et al.

Fig. 2.2 Virtual classroom activity system. (Adapted from Engeström’s Activity Theory framework 1987) For students to access this password-protected virtual class, they clicked on a specific URL, entered their password and joined the activity. Figure 2.3 shows the layout of a typical virtual classroom that included video/audio, participants, PowerPoint slides of the presenter, text chats, file sharing and polling features.

In the virtual classroom activity system, the affordances of virtual classroom software allowed the participants to see each other in real time, and the participants

perceived this as a benefit, as they could get to know each other better. Alex commented:

I would like to see more synchronous. Only because I like seeing people when I’m talking to them and stuff like that. I like that backwards and forwards that can happen very easily in that environment. (Alex, interview 2) Another feature of virtual classroom that supported students’ active participation was the ability to have an oral discussion in real time right after each presentation.

As part of students’ responsibilities, each student was nominated by the lecturer to ask three questions from another student in the form of a discussion. The dates, list of the names of presenters and the reviewers were posted on Moodle 2 weeks before the activity. Having a discussion after each presentation allowed the students to immediately clarify the issues related to the topic as well as provide some instant feedback.

In synchronous learning, instant feedback and the interactions with peers and the facilitator seem to increase motivation and student learning (Schullo et al. 2007).

The findings of our research also suggested that by having audio and video features, 2 Identifying Factors Influencing Students’ Motivation and Engagement … 17

Fig. 2.3 Virtual classroom activity (9 May observation)

the virtual classroom facilitated reciprocal communication among participants where they could clarify issues and provide instant feedback as they were engaging in the activity. Students also acknowledged the value of physical cues in the virtual classroom environment.

As a group, they were also motivating each other by giving words of encouragement after their presentations. The words exchanged included ‘very interesting’, ‘well-done’ and ‘excellent presentation’. Apart from the video and audio functions, the virtual class also allowed the students to have a text-based chat during this activity. This was particularly useful when they had questions to ask from a particular person in private or in public as well as to have a chat before the facilitator (lecturer) joined the group where they could support and motivate each other to do well in the activity. An example of a text-based chat is shown below.

Alex: Hi Fiona… I hope you’re not too nervous :)

Guest: Hi Alex and Fiona hope technology is on our side tonight Fiona: no I am not Alex: That’s good.

Guest: Debbie here I’m nervous Guest: How do we see each other?

Brent: Richard will come on at some stage and enable all that business and then you click the camera button that will appear at the bottom of the “Camera and Voice” thingy at the top left :-) 18 D. Gedera et al.

Fig. 2.4 Case study one: Moodle course layout The conversation above shows how the students were supporting each other by giving instructions how to set the camera and also encourage them to do well without being nervous.

2.5 Learning Management System Anderson et al. (2001) suggest that ‘Thoughtful design of learning activities is critical to the attainment of educational outcomes’ (p. 15). The design and the way courses are structured can be vital factors that are associated with students’ motivation and positive/negative experiences of learning online.

Figure 2.4 shows the course layout in Moodle.

The data indicated that Moodle as a virtual tool also affected students’ motivation and engagement. The Moodle page of this course was well-structured and the lecturer deliberately used several structural strategies in its design. As the lecturer, Richard acknowledged, ‘students did not have to wrestle with the interface or find resources to be able to learn’ (interview 1). In particular, the lecturer’s design in embedding all the teaching materials and 2 Identifying Factors Influencing Students’ Motivation and Engagement … 19 resources within texts and hyperlinks in logical order made students’ learning experience as easy as possible. This is supported by the strategies suggested by Savenye et al. (2001) in providing students with easy access to hyperlinked resources and materials that are well-organized in modules. The University of Texas (2013) states that to help motivate students, it is crucial to structure courses where students know what to expect. In this case, the lecturer, Richard acknowledged this factor and mentioned that ‘patterns are important in online learning’ (Richard, interview 2).

He explained:

A lot goes down to the fact that I must stick to the uniformity and the design of the interface.

Anything that is neat and tidy…and the same order for each module…, so it’s predictable.

The importance of a structured course was also highlighted by the students and they appreciated that the lecturer ‘has been a very good coordinator and his work is structured’ (Christine, interview 2). Students also mentioned that all the information is there and they can read in their own time. Brenda acknowledged that the course has a logical organization of materials and concepts that help students to understand the subject better.

We read all those papers where things haven’t been going that well. That was fascinating because we kind of looked at the history and then we looked at the potential benefits and then we looked at how things are not going that great, but we already got ideas of potential benefits, I like the way he puts things together. (Brenda, interview 2) Brenda here refers to the reading materials that Richard has put together to suit the topics that are covered in the course. In summary, the logical arrangement of the learning materials to provide a well-structured course seemed to sustain students’ interest and led students to actively participate in learning activities.

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