Learner attitudes and theory – analysis of two DE journal articles

Peng, Tsai & Wu (2006) examine learner attitudes towards the Internet in an attempt to gain a broader understanding of the challenges learners face in a modern internet-based distance learning environment. The study focuses on a complex quantitative survey of Taiwanese university students, looking at several factors of Internet attitudes including perceived ease of use, frequency of use, and primary reasons for using the Internet. Three Internet survey types previously developed by other researchers were combined:

  1. The Internet Attitudes Survey (IAS), which considers students’ attitudes towards the internet in perceived usefulness, affection (e.g. feelings and emotions), perceived control (e.g. feeling of dependence/independence) and behavior (e.g. frequency of use)
  2. The Internet Self-efficacy Survey (ISS), which measure students’ self-efficacy in using the Internet, and considers both general self-efficacy (e.g. ability to navigate and use a browser) and communicative self-efficacy (e.g. ability to communicate using the Internet)
  3. The Perceptions of the Internet Survey (PIS), which determines students’ perceptions of the Internet, rates students’ preferences in considering the Internet as Technology, Tool, Toy or Tour.

The sample size in the study was rather large and included 1417 university students with a wide sampling of undergraduates and graduate students and a significant proportion of both male and female students. Among the more significant findings of the survey are:

  1. There was a notable correlation between perception and attitude/self-efficacy. For example, students who viewed the Internet as technology or tool tended to feel more negatively and have lower self-efficacy than those who viewed it as toy or tour.
  2. The differences in attitudes, perception and self-efficacy between graduate and undergraduate students were not as significant as those between male and female students. Female students tended to perceive the Internet as tool or technology, and so had a more negative attitude and lower self-efficacy than their male counterparts, who perceived the Internet more often as toy or tour.

This study has significance in its implications for designing learning delivered over the internet. The Internet is seen as a barrier to those who perceive it primarily as a tool or a technology, who might lack in general and communicative self-efficacy skills, and who might have negative attitudes towards it. In their conclusion, the authors suggest that learning programs include support services for learners at risk. The authors cite research that suggests that learners’ beliefs and attitudes (in this case, their attitudes towards the internet as a medium) affect their ability to engage in cognitive processes and meet learning outcomes. In essence, “learners’ perceptions regarding the nature of the Internet may be related to the learners’ behaviours, as well as to the learners’ psychological and cognitive activities, in Internet-based environments.”

This study was conducted in 2006, at a time when students’ comfort level with the Internet may not have been quite equal to what it is today. In addition, it was conducted exclusively in Taiwan, where access and gender issues might be very different from other places. Nonetheless, the comprehensive nature of the study and the large survey size lead to significant conclusions that provoke further thought. The study did not examine learner satisfaction and how well students meet their learning objectives in actual online courses, it only sought to survey student attitude towards and aptitude with the Internet generally. Correlation between performance in online courses and Internet attitudes might be an area that can be explored quantitatively with a well-designed study. Such a study would consider the measurable extrinsic load that the Internet places on learners (Hannafin et al., 2006), and would explore the negative correlation between this extrinsic load and satisfaction of learning outcomes.

Gokool-Ramdoo (2008) examines Moore’s Transactional Distance Theory and proposed that it be considered as a global, unifying theory of distance education. The article begins by deploring the fact that no one theory on distance education has emerged that is accepted universally among both academics and practitioners. Indeed, the article points out, the lack of theoretical focus (and focus instead on technology) is a widespread trend in the literature that the author is seeking to head off.

The author makes the suggestion that theories proposed by all the great distance education scholars including Peters, Holmberg, Garrison and Keegan can all be explained in some form by transactional distance theory. The author further proposes that transactional distance theory can be used to explain and inform processes that take place all along the chain of command in a distance education institution, including the design steps of analysis, design, development, implementation and evaluation, as well as institutional and political policy-making. Transactional distance theory, the author argues, has the potential to identify and correct weak points all along this chain of command through informed feedback loops.

The author is correct in deploring the lack of theoretical focus in the literature. In a recent content analysis of major distance education journals (Lee et al., 2007), the lack of theoretical research was significant. However, some researchers may reject the reliance on transactional distance theory as a basis or explanation for all distance education phenomena. Its focus on the mechanistic nature of mature distance education programs may stifle research into new learning theories that may be uncovered as distance education develops, such as connectivism (Kopp & Hill, 2008). While it is useful and tempting to settle on a unifying theory, in the social and behavioral sciences, it is difficult to pin all phenomena on one theory. Only further research will bear this out.

References

Kopp, R., & Hill, A. (2008). Connectivism: Learning Theory of the Future or Vestige of the Past? International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 9(3), 1-13.

Gokool-Ramdoo, S. (2008). Beyond the Theoretical Impasse: Extending the Applications of Transactional Distance Theory. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 9(3), 1-17.

Hannafin, M. J., Hill, J. R., Song, L., & West, R. E. (2007). Cognitive Perspectives on Technology-Enhanced Distance Learning Environments. In M. G. Moore (Ed.), Handbook of Distance Education (2nd ed., pp. 123-136). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lee, Y., Driscoll, M. P., & Nelson, D. W. (2007). Trends in Research: A Content Analysis of Major Journals. In M. G. Moore (Ed.), Handbook of Distance Education (2nd ed., pp. 31-41). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Peng, H., Tsai, C., & Wu, Y. (2006). University students’ self-efficacy and their attitudes towards the Internet: the role of students’ perceptions of the Internet. Educational Studies, 32(1), 73-86.