Supporting Learning through Learning Management Systems in an ODL Environment amid Covid-19: Technology Accessibility and Student Success

Supporting Learning through Learning Management Systems in an ODL Environment amid Covid-19: Technology Accessibility and Student Success

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Rendani Sipho Netanda

University of South Africa, South Africa
Impact of COVID – 19 on Education
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ABSTRACT

Although prior research looked into the effects of LMSs upon student success, little is known on the effects of LMSs on student success, particularly during the current Covid-19 pandemic. Informed by technology acceptance model (TAM), this study explores the linkage between the geographic setting and the accessibility of NTs, and examines effects of LMSs upon student academic success in ODL in the context of Covid-19. The purpose of this chapter is to indicate how teaching and learning pedagogies is impacted by the novel coronavirus within the global open and distance learning education system and to suggest possible mechanisms to support students through learning management systems in order to reduce student attritions and to accelerate student success rate. I used a mixed-methods methodological lens, blending the self-administered questionnaires for 177 students with unstructured in-depth interviews with 2 regional directors, and 4 learning and facilitation managers during data collection. I analysed data descriptively and thematically, unveiling, from all cohorts of participants that the greater proportion of students are from remote rural areas with a considerable limited access to technologies, which ultimately adversely influences upon their usage and academic achievements. However, its continued use was valued salient with a potential to improve students’ academic performance and success. I conclude that inaccessibility to new technologies for teaching and learning has a bearing on students’ success. I propose that ODL institutions should support students by increasing accessibility of technologies through the provision of gadgets and data as well as establishing learning support centres and encourage students to use them in learning.

Keywords: Open distance learning, technology accessibility, new technologies, learning management systems

1. INTRODUCTION

The need to conduct research on the novel coronavirus and the degree to which it impacts on teaching and learning is increasingly gaining attention across the entire academic global community. Across the entire academic spectrum, institutions of higher learning have been and are continuing to make adjustments to their teaching and learning pedagogies due to the outbreak of coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic and its massive effect upon teaching and learning methodologies. Covid-19 has demanded attention of policy-makers and the leadership of higher education institutions to rethink and reshape how the core business, teaching and learning, should occur.

It has blurred the distinctive character of both the residential universities and those which operate in Open and Distance learning terrain as they both begin to hugely rely on gadgets, linked to the internet network, for the delivery of educational contents and to enable students to access higher education. It is quite clear that if changes are not properly reconceptualised and effected as rapidly as possible in teaching pedagogies, many students, particularly those who reside in remote areas where there is little or completely no access to internet will be forced to make a pause in their learning journeys or rather drop out completely. It can be expected that its devastation in the academic space will result in the surge in student attrition for many years to come if teaching methodologies do not accommodate this alarming change and if new and appropriate ways to support students are not put into place.

In response to this possible calamity in order to realize an ultimate goal, student success, various types of support interventions are therefore of a paramount significance in the context of this catastrophic epoch in which a balance between saving lives and creating an educated society becomes inevitable. This chapter focuses on the accessibility of technologies for teaching and learning and supporting students to enable them to be successful in their studies in this era of Covid-19.

Owing from its prominence in education, academic institutions are increasingly integrating information and communication technologies (ICTs) in teaching and learning pedagogies (Comi, Argentin, Gui, Origo, & Pagani, 2017). With the widespread benefits of LMSs for teaching and learning and the multiracial diversity of student population across the globe, open distance learning (ODL) institutions are constantly reshaping their pedagogies to respond to the worldwide speedy transformation in the technological landscape as well as the catastrophic situation brought by Covid-19. There are varied motives for this move that encompass, to mention but few,

  • The need to continue executing academic project amid Covid-19
  • The need to position institutions as competent within the much contested Higher education market (Apple, 2010; Henderson, Barnett, & Barrett, 2017);
  • The obligation to promote an educated society; and
  • By their very nature, ODL institutions mostly deliver distance education to its student cohorts using various technologies to facilitate interactions between students and instructors (Netanda, Mamabolo, & Themane, 2017).

The teaching and learning model of ODL involves a student-centred methodology in which the institution provides student support while students themselves flexibly exercise their rights upon what, where, when and how to study. The devastating Covid-19 virus dictates new terms and conditions for teaching and learning. It compels students from different types of higher learning institutions to learn from their homes as the globe makes efforts to contain its spread.

It turned many higher education institutions into residential/contact learning institutions as technologies are applied more than ever before. Within the broader parameters of higher education, Apple (2010) postulates that universities have pressure to become efficiently accessible to the bigger pool of students and to, successfully, compete with other academic institutions, across the entire spectrum of higher education, which offer online courses. Congruent to this viewpoint, Henderson et al (2017) postulate that new technologies, in amalgamation with the swift transformation within the boundaries of transnational education, have given rise to competition through providing innovative opportunities in the global education sector. In trying to fight for the survival in the current global competitive higher education system, the provision of instrumental tools, such as data for both students and instructors to access internet is inevitably essential.

In his enchanting motivational guidance that accentuates the value of education, the first South African democratically elected black president, Nelson “Rolihlahla” Mandela, stated that “education is the great engine of personal development” (Mandela, 2013). In what seemed to be an acknowledgement of the educational value in the development of human capital, new developments were planned and implemented in the Republic of South Africa. In 2013, South Africa’s department of higher education and training (DHeT) proposed a higher education system that will, among other objectives, widens access to higher education from over 937, 000 enrolments in 2011 to a student population of 1.6 million by 2030, with a view to eradicate the escalating poverty ratio (Roy, 2007; DHeT, 2013) in the country. This is against the backdrop that economic limits tend to have adverse effects on the access to post-school education. In a similar vein, Cunha, Heckman, Lochner and Masterov (2006) argue that family status, such as financial limitations could lead to inaccessibility to higher education. Hence, there is a need for a higher education system that will lead to increased incomes, improved productivity level and the change to a more knowledge-exhaustive economy (National Development Plan, 2011). Regrettably, Covid-19, with its dictatorship and cruelty element, has exacerbated the existing challenges as many students who were already absorbed into the labour market lose their jobs due to the economic downfall caused by coronavirus. The same problem occurs to those who rely on their parents to finance their studies and whose parents have lost their jobs due to the same catastrophic virus, Covid-19.

Although a considerable corpus of literature has, to a larger degree, dealt with access of education and using technologies for teaching and learning purposes (see Broadbent, 2017; Chauhan, 2017), the degree to which inaccessibility of LMSs and its usage by the students impact on their academic success has, up to this age, received a slight devotion. Yet a sustained exponential escalation in student success (completion) rate has been one of the crucial defining features to scale higher education institutions’ excellence (Netanda, Mamabolo, & Themane, 2017). This chapter is set to examine the effects of inaccessibility to LMSs upon their academic achievement and successes from the perspectives of the students, learning and facilitation managers and regional directors within the ODL environment in wake of coronavirus. In the hunt for answers to the lacuna of this research, the following research objectives guided the inquiry:

  1. to examine the relationship between the geographical setting and the accessibility of LMSs, and academic success in the context of Covid-19
  2. to determine the perceptions and experiences of ODL students, learning and facilitation managers, and regional directors on effects of LMSs on their academic success

I contextually used a case of University of South Africa (UNISA) as an epitome of the ideal ODL institution, limiting our scope to its Polokwane and Rustenburg Hubs to examine effects of accessibility of LMSs on student success.  I used UNISA’s myUnisa as a case of LMS.

1.1 Contextual background of the University of South Africa (UNISA)

South Africa has 25 universities that are strewn across its nine provincial states. Centred on their exclusive operational mandates, these universities have been generally categorised by the ministry of higher education and training (DHeT) into comprehensive, traditional and university of technology. UNISA, previously known as the University of the Cape of Good Hope, is a public open distance education institution and a member of the comprehensive system that has been tasked with an obligation to offer vocational diplomas and theoretically based degrees. Through its seven colleges and seven regional centres, it accommodates a massive student share than traditional and university of technology do, and operates in 130 countries with a student community of 337, 612 in 2015 (University of South Africa, 2016) and over 407 000 in 2020. UNISA is the largest of the seven universities in the comprehensive system, largest on the African continent, and the fifth throughout the entire globe. Contrary to this mandate, the University of Technology merely teach vocational diploma programmes whilst the scope of traditional universities is slanted towards programmes that are theoretically oriented. This chapter limited its contextual scope to Limpopo and Midlands regional offices, and specifically focused on their hubs, Polokwane and Rustenburg. The ensuing section deals with learning management system, using myUnisa as a case LMS.

1.2 Learning management system: myUnisa

In delivering educational contents, particularly in higher education, the proliferation of new technologies have progressively become indispensable vehicles and their use has maximized because of the emergence of coronavirus throughout the global village. Of course, one such typical epitome of technologies that has reformed the character of teaching and learning practices in the ODL space is the learning management system. As the discourse on the system increasingly advances in the plethora of literature, various concepts became assigned to label it. These embrace information and communication technologies (Garrote & Pettersson, 2007), learning management system, content management system, instructional management system, learning platforms, portals, distributed learning system (McGill & Klobas, 2009), course management system (Lonn & Teasley, 2009; McGill & Klobas, 2009), virtual learning environment (Seeger & Astrom, 2005; Zaharias & Pappas, 2016), and more recently, personal learning environment (Zaharias & Pappas). Regarding understandings, related studies contain a mixture of descriptions on what LMSs are, what they do and what they entail. Alias and Zainuddin (2005), for instance, regard them as web-based technologies or software applications which are primarily utilised for the planning, execution and evaluation of particular learning trajectories. Garrote and Pettersson (2007) define them as computer programmes with multiple roles for management, teaching and evaluation of courses. Lonn and Teasley (2009) describe them as web-based systems through which students and educators (lecturers and tutors) are able to interact, submit assignments and provide feedback on assignments. My operational definition of LMSs consider them as virtual systems designed to facilitate teaching and learning in ODL environments through serving as online communication platforms and delivery modes for educational contents exchanged between institutions and students.

LMSs facilitate online learning through processing, storing and disseminating study materials, and help in interactions and administration, which are teaching and learning oriented (McGill & Klobas, 2009). Research points out that LMSs can adversely affect teaching and learning, yet, as noted by Coates, James and Baldwin (2010), studies that investigated the effects of LMSs, especially on pedagogical traits, are still scant.

Students and lecturers in an ODL context use many technologies for teaching and learning. However, focusing on all sorts of technologies to examine their effects on student academic success would be a difficult study to investigate.  As warned by Petko et al (2017), it would seem as mixing oranges and apples to study relationships between the collective frequency of all technologies that students and lecturers use in teaching and learning framework. Hence, in this study, I used the case of UNISA’s LMS – myUnisa. Moreover, it is appropriate to consider educational technology as a single cut in the puzzle of interconnected attributes leading to quality of teaching, learning effectiveness and test performance standard (Mujs et al., 2014).

1.2.1 MyUnisa

The implementation of the learning management system is crucial in the era of knowledge and online technology (Brown & Cooke, 2005) as well as Covid-19. Concisely, myUnisa is the University of South Africa’s learning management system which has been developed to enable students to manage modules they are registered for and to participate in student-student, student-content, student-lecturer, and other forms of communications with the variety of university structures (University of South Africa, 2013). Lecturers and students alike access and use it through entering their unique usernames and passwords to log into the system. As in cases of other LMSs, myUnisa was developed to enable the institution to promote teaching and learning and to serve as a virtual environment in which the institution plan, manage and assess courses. The system allows students to submit assignments and exam portfolios and to receive feedbacks from anywhere they are. It is also a platform for posting announcements regarding specific courses and teaching through, for instance, podcasts. As a response to the challenges brought by Covid-19 within the teaching and learning domain, in 2020, UNISA had to provide data to each lecturers and students. In compliance with the South Africa’s lockdown regulations, all students and lecturers had to stay home, allowing teaching and learning to continue with the technologies, such as smartphones and computer linked to internet network, being used.

1.3 Contextual background of the problem

Prior to the end of the South African minority government (apartheid system) in 1994, many people, particularly from black community, were historically marginalised educationally and economically (Netanda, Mamabolo, & Themane 2017). However, after the South Africa has gained independence, transformation within the educational space and economic sphere begun to occur, with the growing fraction of black students being able to access higher education. Entrenched from the effects of the isolative apartheid system, UNISA’s South African student cohort come from differing influential backgrounds that encompass, inter alia, poor financial, socio-economic, educational and technological backgrounds. Influenced by these challenges, many black students encounter difficulties to access the necessary new technologies (LMSs) and subsequently LMSs to use for academic purposes. Hence, this case-study of UNISA narrowed its attention to Rustenburg and Polokwane Hubs to examine the impact of student access to LMSs on their academic success.

As for the university landscape, expanding access comes with a severe challenge for students who, during the apartheid era, were historically excluded based on disability, race and gender (DHeT, 2013). Tinto (2014, p. 6) deprecates a mere expansion of access to higher education, suggesting that support interventions are fundamental and must be implemented. While the proliferation of studies that looked into the use and benefits of technologies to enhance teaching and learning in the global higher education sector is adequately inherent in the literature, technology-based barriers that affect student success has been sparse.

The escalating widespread adoption of LMSs for teaching and learning accentuates the role of LMSs as a catalyst for increased student success. Many students studying in distance education institutions face challenges that relate to lack of technological resources, popularised as new technologies, such as computers with internet networks, smart phones, tablets, and iPad. These undesirable variables contribute to poor academic performances of the students and subsequently dwindle success and retention rates. The foremost student cohort which is adversely affected by inaccessibility of learning management systems reside in remote rural areas where many households are characterised by poor financial, poor academic history and low technological infrastructure. Yet, as noted by Jeno, Grytness and Vandvik (2017), the growing use of tablets and smartphones open avenues for fostering learning in educational terrain. Minnaar (2011, 499) asserts that students must receive financial support to access technologies, and other forms of support to enhance their understanding of such technologies as well as how to use them. Students’ access to LMSs has become an inevitable research focus and this chapter addresses it within the borders of open distance education, limiting its scope to the South African distance education context.

An exponential rise in the use of technologies have permeated distance education domain and subsequently redefined the way open distance learning environments execute teaching and learning roles. The student population involved in online learning have increased over the past decades, and such a form of academic engagement became popularly labelled as e-learning. According to Minnaar (2011, 483) e-learning encompasses accessing study materials, communicating with academics and other students, and interacting with learning content in order to get support during the study process. I adopted Davis’s (1989) pioneering ‘technology acceptance model’ (TAM) to guide this study.

1.4 Technology Acceptance Model

Owing to the fact that the collective containment of the coronavirus pandemic requires persons to keep social distancing, or where it is feasible, to stay home, technologies for teaching and learning purposes become increasingly useful and mandatory in ODL environment, in particular during Covid-19. Until recently there had been very little studies or no study that specifically applied TAM in the context of Covid-19. However, TAM had been widely used in research focused on technologies. The vast majority of preceding inquiries on LMSs have employed various theoretical lenses which incorporate, inter alia, Oliver’s (1980) expectation confirmation theory; the unified theory of acceptance and use of technology (UTAUT) (Venkatesh, Morris, Davis, & Davis, 2003), and Davis’s (1989) pioneering technology acceptance model (TAM). A typical example of a research that was grounded on TAM is the Al-Busaidi and Al-Shihi’s (2010) study that delved into the instructors’ acceptance of LMSs. This study employed TAM as a theoretical basis. The model was deemed fit to serve as a theoretical lens to study the identified phenomena, predominantly because since its ‘birth’, it has been useful in exploring attributes leading to the wide-ranging acceptance and usage of technologies (Tarhini, Hone, Liu, & Tarhini, 2017). Until this epoch of research developments, a substantial division of studies has applied the TAM to study technology-related phenomena. For instance, in investigating students’ acceptance of cloud file hosting services and LMSs for learning, Stantchev, Colomo-Palacios, Soto-Acosta and Misra (2014) were guided by the TAM. In its dogma, the TAM postulates that people’s attitudes to use technologies are influenced by their perceptions on the ease of use, the usefulness and user acceptance of technologies (Davis, 1989), and gratification (Davis, Bagozzi, & Warshaw, 1992) derived from using such technologies.

The progressively adoption speed and compulsive usage of various technologies for teaching and learning greatly assist higher education students academically (Comi et al., 2017) and as, viewed by Al-Busaidi and Al-Shihi (2010), the widespread implementation continue to be promising globally. However, the extent to which such technologies become effective largely hinge on the level of acceptance and utilization within the populace targeted (Teo, 2014). Technological capabilities, degree of knowledge and perceived usefulness of LMSs determine the acceptance and usage levels of a range of technologies in higher education (Tarhini, Hone, & Liu, 2015). In this study, the ‘perceptions’ element of Davis’s (1989) TAM was particularly pertinent for the study, but I intertwined it with ‘experiences’ (the actual use) for students who use LMSs for learning for a more comprehensive meaning. This was particularly salient because approximately 50% of participants in current survey studies reflected their intentions to change their extant LMSs due to problems relating user experiences (Zaharias, & Pappas, 2016). In exploring the linkage between geographic settings and accessibility of LMSs, and examining effects of technological pedagogies upon student academic success in ODL, I mingled students’ (non-users’), learning and facilitation managers’, and regional directors’ with other student cohort (users) to measure their perceptions and experiences on LMS.  Experiences encompassed possession of skills to use LMSs and the degree to which such technologies were found non- or user-friendly. When students find educational technologies useful, user-friendly and have the necessary technological skills, Petko, Cantieni, Prasse (2017) conclude that positive attitudes towards technologies may emerge.

2. OBJECTIVES OF THE STUDY

An all-purpose of this mixed-methods research was as follows:

2.1 To measure the linkage between accessibility of technologies (and LMS in particular) and student success in an ODL terrain in the context of Covid-19

2.2 To examine the effects of using LMS in learning on student performance and success in an ODL within the Covid-19 context

To achieve the objectives of the study, I used the technology acceptance model (TAM) to study the ontological issues under investigation.

3. LITERATURE

The rise in the acceptance of new technologies (LMSs) and learning management systems to enhance teaching and learning is by no means an astonishment in the current epoch of coronavirus pandemic and it is likely to be the case even long after the covid-19 curve would have successfully flattened globally. The plethora of studies (for instance, Lau, 2017) upon effects of technologies, such as social media, on student academic achievement is profusely prevalent in the literature. As an epitome, Jeno et al (2017) observed that there are studies that looked into the effectiveness of mobile technologies in the current literature. In response to this research cavity, this chapter also deals with how learning management systems serve as stimulus towards ODL student academic success amid Covid-19. In considering LMSs within the expansive context of teaching and learning in open distance learning institutions during coronavirus pandemic, it is fundamental to highlight both student and institutional deliberations for the usage of such technological pedagogies within the context of global crisis of Covid-19. This is particularly substantial because getting insights into the value of adding new technology into an all-encompassing pedagogy requires an interwoven approach that involves student and institutional perspectives. From a philosophical point of view held by mixed-methods paradigm, interlacing groups of participants and investigating a phenomenon from different perspectives enhances the trustworthiness of the research findings (Netanda, 2012). Hence, mixed-methods was employed in this study to serve that purpose.

3.1 Usefulness of technology-based pedagogy for students and institutions during coronavirus

Though little is known on how and when LMSs benefit students in learning (Lonn & Teasley, 2009), from studies to date, technological pedagogies have been mirrored as having the capacity to shift teaching and learning methodologies in the education landscape (Conole, 2014; Furio’, Juan, Seguí, & Vivo’, 2015). In fact, coronavirus makes the application of new media technologies compulsory in almost all institutions of higher learning as many educators are ordered to work from home, and students to learn from home in a bid to curb is fast spread. Different stakeholders, such as academics and researchers, are in congruence with the notion that ICT is inevitably salient, not only in the context of Covid-19 deadly disease that keeps people at homes and the need to ensure adherence to the global notion of keeping a social distance, but in 21st century teaching and learning pedagogies (Siddiq, Scherer, & Tonderur, 2016). Academic institutions and students alike growingly use internet-based social media, such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, for teaching and learning (Lau, 2017) since they are capable to offer numerous advantages, which include the following ones, amongst others:

  • make interactions amongst students, lecturers, institutions, community members and parents more easier (Cox & McLeod, 2014)
  • escalate the level of students’ interests to study (Lau, Lui, & Chu, 2016)

In USA, many school districts budget a lot of money for an investment into technology for teaching and learning with an aim of stimulating academic excellence (Chauhan, 2017, p. 15). The benefits of implementing new technologies are abundant in the current massive volume of literature. For instance, Henderson, Barnett and Barret (2017, 12 and 13) assert that over a 10-year span, potential advantages of new technologies have influenced higher education through offering online courses and widening the scope of student access through distance education institutions. Paralleling online education with blended and on-campus face-to-face learning pedagogies, Broadbent (2017, 25) enunciated that online learning is more expedient as it expands the scope of accessibility and flexibility to learn anytime and from anywhere. Not only does technologies increase access to education, they have an ability to make learning effective. Chauhan (2017) investigated the impact of technology upon the effectiveness of elementary students and reported that when technology is intermingled into teaching and learning pedagogies, elementary students tend to learn more effectively. While the expansion of access to higher education for students is a widely acknowledged benefit of technology, literature lacks sufficient research on effects of access to LMSs on ODL student success. This has been the research void that this chapter wanted to fill. Moreover, O’challaghan, Neumann, Jones and Creed (2015, 409) reviewed student, lecturer and institutional issues to examine the use of lecture recordings within the higher education territory and found that an important aspect that warrants further scrutiny when implementing lecture recordings is the perceptions of lecturers upon technologies.

3.2 Challenges in using ICTs

The use of new technologies has widely become omnipresent in open distance education terrain. Their proliferation and worldwide usage in tertiary education market emanate from the multifarious advantages they offer in teaching and learning. In Thomson, Bridgstock and Willems’s (2014, 67) viewpoint, improved technological infrastructure in universities expand access to education through a range of data-enabled mobile services and computers. Lin and Lee’s (n.d, 313) insight into the benefits of podcasts in teaching and learning reflect that they are important in information sharing between the students and their lecturers without time-based and geographical constraints.

Irrespective of an array of benefits which LMSs offer to the global tertiary education sector, some parts of the countries around the globe still experience challenges, such as lack of access to technologies for teaching and learning purpose. This problem has been popularised in the gamut of media studies as the ‘digital-divide’. Besides, a mere increase in accessibility of new technologies for teaching and learning does not translate into the student academic success. In line with this view, Webb (2009) contends that technology alone does not often results in student success. Academic success is the desired product of a good performance and, as a result, students need to do well academically to become successful. To enhance chances of student success, the actual teaching has to occur still and various support interventions, such academic support, technological and technical support as well as an emotional support must still be given to the needy students. However, the multiplicity of functions of various new technologies can be a threat to effective teaching and learning and to student academic success if support is only in the form of expanding accessibility. In their inquiry upon the impact of media multitasking on student academic performance, Van den Schuur, Baumgartner, Sumter and Valkenburg (2015, 287) reported that media multifunctioning impacts negatively on perceived academic learning, study attitudes and behaviour as well as academic outcomes. Other negative effects of new technologies, particularly social media, in learning contexts embrace cyberbullying, the fading margins in student-instructor relationship through unfitting communications between them (Lau, 2017). In their study on effects of obsessive use of social app on academic performance and technostress, Hsiao, Shu and Huang (2017) found that such communication platforms lead to disturbance in learning, and technostress. Studying from homes as it has been the case for many students during the recent coronavirus pandemic has obviously been a serious challenge. These probably incorporate, inter alia, fear of uncertainty as to what will be the end results on the devastating Covid-19 upon the existence of a humankind, and the inability to draw a difference between learning and home activities.

This study was tailored to examine effects of students’ access to learning management systems used for teaching and learning, and narrow its focus to the University of South Africa’s Rustenburg and Polokwane Hubs which are used by a considerable diversity of students from both rural and urban areas. It is deeply ingrained from the present lack of studies focused into addressing the access component within the Rustenburg and Polokwane Hubs, prior to and during Covid-19. Numerous students at UNISA do not use LMSs technologies, even though an emphasis to use them is promulgated across the entire student population. The study adopted the Technology Acceptance Model as a lens through which to explore the access-oriented challenges that students face in these Hubs.

4. METHODOLOGICAL PARADIGM

This study used an amalgamation of conventional quantitative and qualitative methodologies – mixed-methods approach. A concurrent mixed-methods research design was followed and data were collected and analysed instantaneously. The design was opted for in order to cut costs for travelling. In addition, mixed-methods approach helps to generate results that tend to complement and validate those determined by the other methodological approach. Furthermore, the use of different methods from quantitative and qualitative methodologies provides diverse insights into the phenomenon investigated.

4.1 Procedure

To promote a higher response rate, e-mails were sent to both Polokwane and Rustenburg support centres, directed to directors, and learning and facilitation managers, requesting them to participate and to assist in organising students to partake into the study. Such e-mails were accompanied by an ethical clearance certificate and permission granted to conduct the study. Although this purposive sampling technique could not assure the representativeness of the participants, it was the most appropriate method to reaching a bigger pool of students from different fields of studies.

4.2 Target population

With Garrote and Pettersson’s (2007), and Conde, Garcia, Rodriguez-Conde, Alier and Garcia-Hogado’s (2014) studies serving as epitomes, much of the prior research has dealt with LMSs from students’ and lecturers’ perspectives, rather than from the perspectives of the management staff, such as learning facilitation managers and directors. This study involved students and management staff. The research primarily targeted UNISA’s students, irrespective of which educational levels they were. Such students were using the Polokwane Hub and Rustenburg Hubs to receive learning support services from the university. The qualitative approach has the regional director, and the learning and facilitating manager as the secondary target population of the research. Triangulating the two groups of participants along with mixed-methods paradigm was believed that it would heightens the trustworthiness of the results.

4.3 Sampling procedure and research instruments

I employed the convenient and purposive sampling techniques. This choice originated from the belief that any UNISA registered student I find and who may consent to partake in the study may still provide us with key information I need. Whereas from non-users of myUnisa, I aimed to elicit perceptions of students, from students who once used myUnisa for learning, I needed to explore their experiences. I limited my description of an experience to viewing it, not in terms of the timespan they have been using it, but in terms of the extent to which the myUnisa has been useful and ease to use. Realising that the response rate of Polokwane students who accepted the request made, on our behalf, by the regional office to participate in the study was lower than the anticipated one, additional convenient students who were studying in the regional library were requested to complete the questionnaires. In Rustenburg Hub, the regional learning and facilitating manager and the lab assistant helped us in requesting students who were in computer labs and other tutorial classes held on that day to complete the self-administered questionnaires and to participate in focus-group interviews.

Qualitative data collected through in-depth interviews with the regional director from Polokwane and the learning and facilitating manager from the Rustenburg Hub were informed by the interview guides developed. To supplement the interviewing mode, a tablet was also used to record the interview proceedings. I targeted the two people because of their control, organising, leading and management roles and the contemplation that they serve as key informants, ingrained from receipt of complaints from students who require support.

4.4 Sample composition

Participants were 183. Categorically, these were 177 (97%) students, 4 (2%) learning and facilitation managers, and 2 (1%) regional directors from Polokwane and Rustenburg Hubs, two of the seven UNISA’s learning centres. Informed consent form was developed and all participants acceded to partake in the survey. The range of students’ ages were between 20 and 36, with females making up 109 (62%) while males amounted to 68 (38%) (Mean = 88.500). Distribution of students across the Hubs were 103 (58%) for Rustenburg and 74 (42%) for the Polokwane Hub. Regarding the levels of study, 14 (8%) students indicated they were at fourth-year level, 29 (16%) were third-year level, 63 (36%) were at the second-year level, and 71 (40%) were first-year students.

4.5 Data Analysis

While the quantitative data employed the descriptive statistical analysis, qualitative data was analysed by means of a thematic categorisation.

4.6 Validity and reliability

To identify and eliminate vagueness in questions asked in the quantitative measurement instrument, the study was piloted to Florida campus and Sunnyside campus. The validity of the results was maximized by the application of the integrated use of quantitative (self-administered questionnaires) and qualitative (focus-group with students and in-depth interviews with management staff) data collection and analytic methods. Such integration was purposefully used to generate rich information and increase the trustworthiness of the results as well as to validate the results of one methodological approach by those derived from the other.

4.7 Ethical consideration

The research applied for ethical clearance and it was granted by the ethics committee of UNISA’s College of Humanities. Request for permission to collect data was then made to the regional directors, learning and facilitating manager, lab assistants concerned as well as the libraries’ managers in all the Hubs. Participants and respondents were informed of the purpose of the research and that the findings will result in no harm to them, to the university as well as to the society at large. All students gave consents and took part in the study on the voluntary basis. Qualitative participants were requested to provide permission to record the interviews ahead of it and they all permitted me to do so. Both the respondents and the participants were assured of anonymity and confidentiality.

4.8 Measures

Guided by an all-encompassing purpose of this study – to measure the perceptions and experiences of ODL students and the management staff on the linkage between the geographical setting and the accessibility of technologies, and examining the effects of LMSs on their student academic success, the following TAM components influenced the inquiry:

  • perceived usefulness of myUnisa
  • perceived ease of use of myUnisa
  • perceived student acceptance of myUnisa

I added the following measures:

  • Students and management staff: perceived linkage between the geographical setting and accessibility of new technologies
  • Students’ experiences (actual use) on myUnisa

The state of research on staff members’ and students’ perspectives divulge that learning management systems present serious challenges for students who are studying online (Gummesson & Nordmark, 2012). In view of the fact that teaching and learning has to occur through technologies in many higher education institutions, and more often online, as Covid-19 shamefully put the global village into an ‘Intensive Care Unit (ICU)’, it is inevitable for institutions of higher learning to relook into their teaching and learning pedagogies and to make strategic adjustments in response to the challenges presented by the coronavirus.

Irrespective of the widespread adoption of LMSs in higher education, the plethora of studies have satisfactorily fixated on technology and practice (McGill & Klobas, 2009) while the effects of LMSs on student success has been neglected. Against this background, McGill and Klobas (2009) assert that there is necessity for studies, which have to accentuate on learning success. In response to this gap, this study examined the effects of LMSs on student academic success.

5. RESULTS AND DISCUSSION

The study explored the linkage between the geographic setting and the accessibility of LMSs and its usage thereof, and examined the effects of a LMSs upon the student academic success in an ODL within the context of Covid-19. I investigated the phenomena from the perspectives and experiences of students and the management staff, employing quantitative descriptive and qualitative thematic techniques to analyse data. Guided by the ground-breaking TAM and its components that are grounded on perceptions that embrace usefulness, ease of use and user acceptance of technology, I added along the linkage between the geographical setting and accessibility of technologies, and students’ experiences (actual use). The last two aspects were pertinent since some students have been using myUnisa LMS to enhance learning. The purpose of this study was to investigate the linkage between the geographic setting and the accessibility of new technologies, delving into the effects of LMSs on student academic success within ODL confines. The ensuing sections report and discuss the results uncovered in relation to the technology accessibility, technology use, ease of use and actual use (experience) within the following contextual dual-purpose of the study:

  • First, the linkage between the geographic setting and the accessibility of technologies (digital-divide) for teaching and learning, and
  • Effects (perceptions and experiences) of myUnisa upon student performance and success in an ODL institution

5.1 Linkage between the geographic setting and the accessibility of technologies (digital-divide) for teaching and learning prior to and during Covid-19

The analysis of the quantitative data derived from students unveiled that 75% of ODL students perceive the digital-divide (inaccessibility to teaching and learning technologies, and subsequently LMSs) to be among the principal attributes leading to the non-usage of technological pedagogies by certain students. Engrained from that reason, 41% of ODL students still opt to use traditional delivery channels, such as using Post Office delivery services and to come personally to support centres for the submission of assignments. In the context of coronavirus in which students and educators are encouraged to adhere to social distancing and staying home regulations in a global effort to flatten the coronavirus curve, it is clear that a mere access to technologies is not enough. Grippingly, neither the students, learning facilitation managers nor regional directors’ perceived inaccessibility to appropriate technologies as a sole factor that preclude improved academic performance and success rate. However, focusing on other factors is a probable space for future research since the distinct line of the study was on LMSs in an ODL domain within the current catastrophic era of coronavirus. Divergent from students’ perspectives regarding the accessibility and, subsequently, the non-usage of LMSs, the perceptions of the management staff uncovered that many students, both from remote rural and urban areas have access to and use myUnisa for learning purposes. However, they suggest that certain remote rural areas are severely affected by the digital-divide and an intervention is required to expand accessibility of pertinent new technologies and to foster technology-focused literacy to students who may have difficulties in using myUnisa.

Indeed the effects of the pre-1994 apartheid government system and its previous economic deprivation, particularly to black communities, have left severe ‘scars’ to many families in South Africa. Although there is a substantial advancement in the South African technological infrastructure, 38% of the students have indicated that they cannot afford to secure applicable gadgets, such as computers with internet network, tablets, WiFi and smartphones for usage in learning. As a result, one student commented as follows:

“If a student is required to use myUnisa, but has no access to an internet, it means he or she may not participate in the discussion forums occurring on myUnisa, will not download study materials, and will not submit assignmentsSomehow, the performance of such a student may be negatively affected and the programme completion may be delayed or attrition may occur.”

This quote highlights the significance of myUnisa as a learning management tool and the importance of expanding access to necessary new technologies that may be helpful in teaching and learning.

5.2 Effects of myUnisa upon student performance and success in an ODL institution during the coronavirus pandemic

Regarding the usage and, subsequently, effects of LMSs on academic success, students (86%) further perceive myUnisa to be extremely fundamental, with potential to give rise to the academic success rate for effective users. Effective users, in this context, refer to students who are technically skilful and find myUnisa user-friendly for academic purposes. This result accedes to Lonn and Teasley’s (2009) findings, which were concluded by their study on students and instructors’ perceptions and uses of LMSs. Lonn, and Teasley found that students and instructors alike regard LMSs as greatly instrumental in learning. The infectious Covid-19 has forced students to stay homes or away from their academic institutions, leaving them with no better alternative to learn but to use new technologies. Covid-19 pandemic has deprived both students and institutions of higher learning of their freedom to choose whether or not to use technologies in teaching and learning

Extremely multifaceted, but exciting to uncover from the analysis was that a mere compulsive usage of LMSs does not guarantee an exponential rise in academic success ratio in the ODL environment. Drawing conclusion from the unveiled result, Petko et al asserted that quality is more valuable than quantity of educational technology use.  Instead, the results of this study suggest that multiple factors, individually or in mixture, along with effective use of LMSs, play a significant part in the student academic performance and success within the ODL terrain. As evident from one of the managers’ representative view below:

“A student can have access to all sorts of technologies and myUnisa in particular, but if that student, for instance, is registered for a programme, for which he or she has no interest; lacks motivation; financial support; academic support; commitment; time management skill; self-directedness; then academic success may not be achieved.”

Indeed, implied by this quote, as with academic performance, is that student academic success is a result of more than one attributes. To cite ‘being registered for programmes that students have no interests on’ and ‘lack motivation’ as epitomes of essential factors that may feasibly stimulate success, Schweitzer asserts the following hypnotic claim:

“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” (Albert Schweitzer

Nonetheless, despite the inaccessibility challenge, all students perceived myUnisa LMS in a constructive light, indicating that, with influences from other attributes; it has the potential to

Advance academic performance standards and, subsequently, the success rate. Such influential attributes, to mention some, may encompass users’ ICT literacy and students’ profiles on ICT use as was highlighted by the management staff who commented as follows:

“I think usage is also determined by the level of computer literacy and the student profiles that may involve age, residential areas, programmes enrolled, and family backgrounds and so on.”

Despite the fact that the majority of students use technologies for learning, as was also found in this study, Scherer, Rohatgi and Hatlevik (2017) hypothesize that many students, often, do not take the advantages presented by technologies in their learning paths. However, with the outbreak of coronavirus that will exist for a longer time, students will have to adapt to these unexpected changes in the global village, and commence to learn how to use new technologies and benefit from their advantages.

Both groups of participants cited its probable capacity to foster high academic performance and an escalated success rate to be rooted from its character to serve as a communication channel, allowing both synchronous and asynchronous forms of interactions between students and instructors to occur. Further to this efficacy, students shared that myUnisa LMS enables them to submit assignments and examination portfolios, and instructors to provide feedbacks at a swifter pace than conventional delivery methods do.

For users, however, technical challenges associated with myUnisa and its habitual downfall exclusively during peak times were cited to be the foremost facets leading to dissatisfaction with myUnisa for the greater student proportion (81%).  From the perspective of one of the management staff,

“Not only did the downfall of my Unisa negatively affects its usage, some students ends up not submitting their assignments, especially during the due dates.”

Matching with much of the earlier studies, technical-related concerns did not emerge as a bombshell. Previous publications show that a substantial amount of online students in higher education faces technical challenges when using learning management systems for learning. Serving as a case in point, Weaver, Spratt and Nair (2008) investigated Monash University’s academic and student usage of WebCT LMS and reported the corresponding conclusion that there are few technical problems students face. Such challenges, in the context of Covid-19, requires ICT experts to be always available to assist students with all technology-based problems. If not dealt with well or addressed on time, such challenges can possible lead to student attrition.

Fascinatingly, it was evident from the results of this study, that a constant assistance with effectively using LMSs to warrant positive learning experience is inevitably basic. While it was reassuring that 62% of students mirrored to be satisfied with how they generally use myUnisa, a considerable cohort (38%) indicated they need technical support intervention. Other students’ concerns were associated with less usage of online discussion forums of myUnisa. Proportionally, 63% of students indicated that online discussion forums are less used by instructors leading to less usage by students as well and has become redundant as a result. Thus, fostering higher student performance standard and success rate is a multi-layered need that requires active participants (students and instructors) in both teaching and learning. However, active participation during this time of coronavirus demands that both students and instructors must fully know how to use the available new media technologies for teaching and learning.

With regard to the TAM’s enjoyment (gratification) that students (42%) derive through using myUnisa, an extremely less percentage of students (12%) showed that only online discussion forums sometimes provide pleasure through engaging in active academic dialogues. The statement below support that:

“I feel happy to participate and learn through online discussion forums, but participants must, at all times, be active. If they take time to post comments, I get bored. Furthermore, unlike social media, such as WhatsApp and Facebook, myUnisa online discussion forums demand a particular academic writing skill, and, unfortunately many of us like being informal.”

Table 1:

TAM-based support framework for ODL institutions and students

Area of focus Support (Intervention) Source
Technology accessibility § Constantly determine the geographic dispersion of student population, and fairly expand accessibility of pedagogical technologies by creating support centres. 

 

§ Encourage students and parents to have technologies that will support learning online and from a distance

Institution, government, etc. 

 

Students, parents, etc.

Usefulness § Measure the degree to which pedagogical technologies are effective for both students and instructors and make possible improvements which are informed by the outcomes of the assessment. 

 

§ Encourage instructors and students to take advantages which technologies present in teaching and learning.

Institution, instructors (lecturers and tutors)
Ease of use § Measure users’ satisfaction levels upon the usability of the pedagogical technology and constantly improve the design 

 

§ Impart instructors and students with skills to effectively use technologies for teaching and learning

Design the technology (LSM) with users (students) in mind. 

 

Train both instructors and students on how to used teaching and learning technologies

Actual use (experience) §  Upon and after every support given, assess its usefulness (effectiveness) and ease of use (user-friendliness) Institution and instructors
User acceptance § Either one or an amalgamation of technology accessibility, user-friendliness, effectiveness and/or positive teaching and learning experience should promote the adoption (acceptance) of pedagogical technologies 

 

§ Constantly evaluate the extent to which teaching and learning technologies are used

Institution and instructors
Enjoyment (gratification) (Davis, Bagozzi and Warshaw, 1992) §  Instructors should ensure active participation in discussion forums Institution and instructors

Based on the literature and the results of this empirical study, I propose the following TAM-based support framework to assist ODL students and institutions in the context of Covid-19 to promote academic success. The framework can be seen as an advancement of the Davis’s (1989) TAM.

6. SHORTCOMINGS

Whereas the strength of the results rests within the integrated use of multiple lenses to describe and explore the phenomenon, the research is also characterised by some shortcomings that point to extant research lacuna for future investigations.

Owing to the focal point of the study which centred its exploration into open distance terrain, cautions should be exercised in the application of results of this study in other educational contexts, such as the residential universities. While UNISA has over 407 000 of students, locally and internationally, only a total of 177 local students and four management staff became participants.  Thus, considering the magnitude of UNISA that comprises the variety of branches, both locally and internationally, it is reasonable to point out that the sample was small. There is no reliability on representativeness of students who participated as respondents as sampling was based on convenient and purposive techniques. In addition, the study mingled students from different fields, disciplines and levels of studies which may have added complexity in understanding the effects of LMSs on student success. In their study to determine students’ profiles of ICT usage and the degree to which backgrounds and motivational reasons led to disparities in profiles, Scherer et al (2017) concluded that describing ICT usage, relative to merely report on the average use for the whole sample, is important.

7. CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS

This study investigated the linkage between the geographical setting and the accessibility of LMSs, examining effects of LMSs on student success in the ODL parameters. The study was contextualized within UNISA and its LMS, myUnisa. The quantitative analysis proved that there is significant relationship between the geographical setting and the accessibility of LMSs. Grounded on this result we deduce that remote rural students face inaccessibility challenge to LMSs used for teaching and learning and that those who are proximal to the Hubs are better off to access and use LMSs than the rural students. Support interventions is increasingly becoming important during the coronavirus pandemic. Institutions of higher learning must provide students with the necessary supports, such as the provision of new media technologies with internet network to be involved in their online courses. For those students who may opt to visit the premises of higher education institutions, support interventions should include personal protective equipments, such as face masks and alcohol-based sanitisers for the prevention of the infectious covid-19 spread. In minimizing the digital-divide, it is of importance to suggest that ODL institutions facing similar challenges need to support their students through establishing more support centres wired with internet network to increase accessibility of technologies that will assist students in gaining access to LMS teaching and learning environment. Ensuring the adherence of rules put into place to contain Covid-19 movement in such centres which would have be established is inevitably of a paramount importance. This implies that a new normal teaching and learning terrain as dictated by the coronavirus demands that a balance between saving lives and livelihoods and contributing to building an educated society is unavoidably crucial.

Further to the results derived from the questionnaires, it was also revealed that many students reside in remote rural areas and have no access to relevant LMSs which they can use to fulfil the learning involvement. Being isolated from the Hub undesirably impact on their academic performance and result in low retention and success rate.

Inherent into this concern, is an insinuation that students from both Polokwane and Rustenburg Hubs adversely experience a digital-divide problem that subsequently contribute to low access to and usage of LMSs used for teaching and learning. The research pointed out that some students encounter technical problems relating to the actual use of the LMS, such as low literacy level. This suggest that there is a need to provide technological support interventions to the affected cohort and to transfer technological skills for improved effectiveness.

I recommend that learning centres be built in pastoral far-flung areas and computers with internet networks be supplied to increase accessibility to LMSs and their adoption and usage should be maximized through students’ reinforcement. Further to this necessity, intervention programmes, such as training initiatives are pivotal in transferring technological competencies and to stimulate students’ e-readiness. An inclusive research focused on all UNISA local eight Hubs and its other international centres is necessary for expanding the scope for understanding of digital-divide problem and challenges attributed to inaccessibility to LMSs used for teaching and learning. Further to this proposal, the e-readiness aspect demands an inquiry to establish if the resistant character to adopt technologies for teaching and learning exists among isolated rural students.

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