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Critically evaluate factors influencing motivation in e-learning
Electronic learning, often abbreviated to e-learning, is ‘having a massive impact’ on Human Resource Development (HRD) (Bratton & Gold, 2012:321). Some argue it offers cheaper, more effective ‘just-in-time’ learning solutions (Pollard & Hillage, 2001), which could help make organisations more productive (strategic HRD). Others argue it needs to be blended with other learning interventions (Stewart 2010) as there are concerns over motivation to learn through this medium alone (such as anxiety and isolation).
This essay identifies and discusses factors influencing motivation in e-learning, drawing on my experiences of e-learning at university and at work, which are weaved into each section. First, it defines e-learning. Then it discusses theories of learning relevant to e-learning. Third, it identifies and critically evaluates factors influencing motivation. Finally, it offers some conclusions and implications for educators and HR professionals.
E-learning can be defined as any learning activity supported by information and communication technologies (ICTs) (Sambrook 2004). The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) defines it as: ‘Learning that is delivered, enabled or mediated by electronic technology for the explicit purpose of training in organizations’ (Sloman & Reynolds, 2002:3). Earlier forms were exclusively computer-based packages. Contemporary forms of e-learning are associated with more mobile technologies (portable devices) to access social networking sites, such as Facebook (Roberts & Sambrook 2014). E-learning requires electronic technology – as opposed to chalk and blackboard technology – to support learning. It is perhaps ironic that many universities, including Bangor, use the term ‘Blackboard’ to describe their electronic, virtual learning environment (VLE).
At university, I have used Blackboard to complete online tests, requiring responses to multiple choice questions (MCQs). I have also regularly referred to additional electronic resources provided on Blackboard, such as links to external resources (Higher Education Academy materials on group work, and CIPD website on professional issues, for example). These complement formal lecture materials so could be considered a form of blended learning (Stewart 2010). I wouldn’t enjoy learning exclusively from online resources as I would miss the human interaction during lectures and tutorials. However, if I couldn’t get into university for any reasons, then podcasts and videos of lectures would be useful, although they cannot replace lectures. I think it is sad that so many students skip lectures because they can access lecture notes online. However, I also appreciate that students might be under considerable pressure to work to fund their studies, and will skip those lectures where online resources are available.
At work, I have also completed a short online course on equal opportunities, where I had to read paragraphs of information and then answer several questions at the end of each section. If I didn`t get all the answers right, I had to re-read the information and try again. I could not proceed to the next section until I had correctly responded and ‘proved’ I had learned the topic. However, this could be seen as a form of controlling employees, who soon lose interest and then realise they get several attempts so it doesn’t matter if they don’t really understand the important information being provided. Also, I had to do this course in my own time, so I got annoyed when I had to keep re-doing sections, which actually reduced my motivation to learn. This also raises the question of why I had to do in my own time if it was compulsory work-related training.
Linking learning and motivation
Theories of learning can be categorised into three broad perspectives. Behavioural models of learning (Skinner 1953) are based on a stimulus-response approach, where learning is achieved through trial and error, and practice. Motivation is stimulated by the possibility of gaining some (extrinsic) reward. The equal opportunities course was an example of a behavioural model – I just kept changing my answers (trial and error) until I got them right so I could finish the training session (extrinsic reward). Cognitive models (Piaget 1971) liken learning to information processing or a complex computer programme. Here, learning is stimulated by a need to make sense of new information, and achieved through manipulating this information to generate personal understanding. This is an internal process that can be measured (externally) by changes in knowledge and comprehension. An example of this is submitting an individual assignment, where you demonstrate understanding by relating theories to personal, practical experiences. Humanistic models (Rogers 1983) focus on learning about oneself and one`s situation, and this approach includes social constructivist models of learning (Doloriert, Stewart & Sambrook 2015).
This approach fits with my curiosity to develop my self-awareness and reflect on my experiences (Schon 1983). For example, I like following the links provided on Blackboard to online personality tests and other questionnaires to find out more about myself. Motivation to learn can be intrinsic (to meet personal, internal goals) and/or extrinsic (to achieve tangible, external rewards) (Bratton & Gold 2012). At university, I am motivated to learn deeply (Biggs 1987) about subjects of personal interest (intrinsic) but also to achieve high marks (extrinsic).
In higher education and work organisations, users of e-learning will be adults so it is useful to consider the concept of adult learning or andragogy. Knowles (1978) explains principles of adult learning, including motivation to learn. These principles (cited in Mumford 1986:260) are summarised below in Figure 1, along with the implications for e-learning design.
Lecturers and HRD professionals need to consider whether adults’ learning preferences are satisfied through e-learning materials. Reflecting on Knowles’ principles, I can analyse my own experiences of e-learning. So, for example, when I use additional electronic resources on Blackboard, each module is self-contained and I can adopt my preferred (reflective) learning style (Kolb 1976, Honey & Mumford 1986) and work at my own pace and in my preferred learning environment (a quiet room), allowing me to feel independent and in control. This assignment offers me an opportunity to diagnose my learning needs (is e-learning effective for me?), providing intrinsic motivation. Some of the materials on Blackboard, such as MLQs, offer instant feedback and marks, which provide extrinsic motivation. Some of the materials encourage active participation, where you have to consider different scenarios and respond to questions, rather than just passively reading text, which you could do with a traditional book. However, some of the materials are really awkward to work through, with links taking you to a different site and then it is difficult to navigate back. Some are not relevant to any current or future jobs so they are less motivating – for me, but other students might not find these problematic, recognising that we all have different learning/e-learning purposes and preferences.
Desired design features of e-learning to provide motivation
¨ see themselves as independent
¨ Are learning materials self-contained? Can learners adopt their preferred style(s)
¨ desire a sense of self accomplishment and determinism
¨ Is there learner control – eg over choice of content, pace, learning strategy and style?
¨ are motivated through diagnosing their own needs
¨ Are learners able to diagnose their individual learning needs?
¨ like to actively participate in the learning experience;
¨ Is there active participation in learning eg interaction with software?
¨ like to be involved in self-evaluation and compare performance to norms;
¨ Are there opportunities for self-evaluation and feedback?
¨ consider their previous experience an essential basis for future learning;
¨ Can learners navigate through the content, eg enabling individuals to start from appropriate knowledge base?
¨ evaluate learning in relation to its application to day-to-day living
¨ Are learning materials relevant to the learner’s current/future job?
Figure 1: The principles of adult learning and implications for e-learning design (Knowles (1978) cited in Mumford (1986:260)
Factors influencing e-learning motivation
Having discussed motivation and learning, it is important to consider the ‘electronic’ context. Keller (1987) covers the subject of motivation and ‘computer assisted’ learning under three broad headings: interest, attention and feedback. Keller (1987) suggests that computer based packages can provide motivation if the content is of interest and relevance to the learner, if the presentation engages and maintains their attention, and if there are appropriate feedback mechanisms. Reflecting on my experience of using Blackboard, the best modules are the ones where lecturers post up-to-date articles on contemporary issues, such as graduate employability, which are both of interest and immediate relevance to business studies students. They also post lecture slides that are provocative (to stimulate discussion) and employ colourful graphics to maintain attention. In addition, they offer timely electronic feedback, which is easier to access and read than having to wait for handwritten comments. However, this is only from one student’s perspective and other students - and lecturers - might not (yet) perceive the same benefits. In addition, lecturers and HRD practitioners need on-going training and appropriate resources (time, software, technical support etc) to be able to deliver interesting, relevant, attractive and meaningful e-learning.
To provide motivation, e-learning needs to take into account a range of factors, such as learner independence, meeting individual learner’s goals, learner control, giving feedback, enabling active participation, relevance and anxiety. Each of these factors is discussed below.
¨ Learner independence
Learner independence allows the learner to adopt their preferred learning style(s) (Kolb 1976, Honey & Mumford 1986) and approaches to learning (Biggs 1987, Gibbs 1992). However, effective learning requires that learners are not only aware of their preferred learning styles but also develop the ability to operate outside of these, to enable them to work around the experiential learning cycle (Kolb 1983). A key issue in how successful individuals learn is their flexibility and ability to use appropriate learning approaches (Honey and Mumford 1986). Helping individuals become aware of their own learning processes and approaches (meta-learning or learning about learning) can speed up this process. For example, if students are activists and fail to be reflective learners, this may impede effective learning. A question to be asked of e-learning materials is – does the software allow time for (professional) reflection (Schon 1983)? However, whilst I have plenty of time at university (in my control), it could be argued that there is little time available for reflection in organisations demanding ever-increasing work intensification.
Scott, Buchanan and Haigh (1997:19) report that, `In many institutions increasing priority is being given to the educational goal of intellectual independence with course objectives placing more emphasis on the processes of learning and less on course content.` The authors then discuss their research to develop an independent learning approach in the context of large university classes. They `introduced a student-centred learning approach to encourage students to take more responsibility for their own learning,` (ibid:21). They drew upon Kolb`s (1984) work on learning styles and that by Boud (1988) on student independence, including characteristics such as choosing where and when learning can take place, engaging in self-assessment, and acquiring new learning strategies and tools. Success was measured by student enthusiasm and evidence of deeper learning. They report that, `While results to date show a pleasing increase in the use of effective learning strategies for independent learning by students, a significant minority of students have not responded positively to the independence goal,` (ibid). A question to be addressed in e-learning is, therefore, how can learners be supported and allowed to become independent, rather than always relying on lecturers to direct their studies. I think this assignment is a good attempt to encourage independent learning and greater self-awareness and understanding of personal processes of learning, but I can understand why some students would prefer to be told exactly what to do and simply copy large chunks of information, demonstrating little personal learning.
¨ Meeting individual learner’s goals and learner control
Traditional definitions of pedagogy suggest that the learner is dependent upon the teacher, who decides content, delivery, timing and assessment. So, in the past, the lecturer would force students to sit an exam or submit a specific coursework assignment. A learner-centred approach allows the learner greater control over their experience, (Rogers 1965, 1969), such as negotiating the topic of assignments, which increases motivation. Self-diagnosis of learning needs affords ownership of and, thus, greater commitment to the learning. So, for example, the lecturer could set a test at the start of a module to help students identify what they already know about the topic and what areas they need to develop their knowledge about. Rasmussen and Davidson (1996) argue that one of the most powerful features of computer-aided instruction (CAI) is its capacity to individualise instruction to meet the specific needs of the learner. It could be argued that using Panoto, the university’s lecture capture software, is one way of helping students meet their own learning goals by enabling students to listen to lecture content again to better understand certain aspects of particular relevance, or areas not yet fully understood during the lecture itself. This also offers greater learner control.
Keller (1987) suggests that e-learning packages can provide motivation if there are appropriate feedback mechanisms. Self-evaluation enables feedback to be sought when the learner considers it necessary and/or appropriate. Such self-evaluation could be achieved through MCQs, such as a mid-module test, to review how students are dealing with the lecture materials. This could provide reasonably quick feedback, although it could take the lecturer some time to design the MCQ – and a different one each year to avoid cheating! Lecturers should consider providing more regular feedback to enhance motivation, although this is more difficult as student numbers continue to increase and academic work becomes more intensified and performance managed (Forrester 2011). As I mentioned earlier, receiving feedback (and marks) electronically encouraged me, because I could read the comments quickly.
¨ Active participation
Simons (1999:15) states that there are three ways to learn: guided learning, experiential learning and action learning, and argues for a shift from passive to active learning. Active learning can be defined both as learning in which the learner uses opportunities to decide about aspects of the learning process, and the extent to which the learner is challenged to use his or her mental abilities while learning. Active participation enhances experiential learning through the construction of personal understanding and the transformation of experience (Kolb 1983). Simons argues that `Active learning is more attractive to learners because they are more motivated and interested when they have a say in their own learning and when their mental activity is challenged,` (1999:17). Thus, quality e-learning should incorporate active learning characteristics, such as flexibility (choice over learning goals and how these are achieved) and appropriate intellectual challenge, to provide (intrinsic) motivation. As I mentioned before, having control over where and what pace I could learn provided greater motivation. E-learning might help reflective learners become more active, especially if they appear passive during lectures, as they can work thoughtfully at their own pace.
It is important to consider the relevance of e-learning. Ventkatesh and Speier (1999:3) comment that little is known about the underlying factors influencing extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, the key drivers of technology usage. They suggest that if a technology is perceived to be useful/relevant in facilitating the individual`s productivity, s/he is likely to have extrinsic motivation to use a given technology. However, if a technology is not perceived as useful, it will offer no advantages to job performance or financial reward. So, just as relevant content is important to learners, so is the medium – whether electronic or not. Lecturers and HR professionals need to ensure that learners recognise the relevance of the technology being employed/enforced. Employing some sophisticated but unnecessary technology might distract or even annoy learners and not achieve the desired goal of learning. There is nothing more annoying than complex programmes and/or technology breaking down, particularly during an e-learning session, for example a class test or an online psychological test during recruitment or at an assessment centre. This could be frustrating for both learners and lecturers/trainers and costly in terms of lost time and effort, reducing motivation to engage further in e-learning.
¨ Computer Anxiety
One potential demotivator in e-learning is anxiety. Lee (1997) argues that the design of effective computer training needs to take into account the level of anxiety toward learning computer technology in addition to other adult learning characteristics. It is argued that `human beings are relentless theorisers, actively learning and seeking to make sense of their experiences. This is particularly so in computer related tasks, where operations are normally quite alien to the new user, creating stress and an added incentive to gain a measure of control as soon as possible (Carroll and Mack 1995),` (cited in Hale 1998:185). I am not particularly technologically able (I don’t use Twitter, for example) and was somewhat reluctant to engage in e-learning at first. Brosnan (1998) explored the relationship between computer anxiety and computer performance using a self-efficacy framework and argues that computer anxiety directly influenced the number of correct responses obtained. Brosnan (1998) found that less anxious participants obtained more correct responses. So trainers and lecturers should recognise that some learners might be anxious and provide them with the skills and confidence to engage in e-learning.
To conclude, this essay has identified factors influencing motivation to learn and critically evaluated these in the context of e-learning. I have drawn on personal experiences and related theories of adult and e-learning to my practical examples. E-learning is ‘having a massive impact’ on Human Resource Development (HRD) (Bratton & Gold, 2012:321) and could help organisations achieve strategic objectives, such as being an exemplar graduate recruiter. E-learning can offer cheaper, more effective ‘just-in-time’ learning solutions (Pollard & Hillage, 2001), which is attractive to HR professionals. Yet others (Stewart 2010) argue it needs to be blended with other (more traditional) learning interventions to address concerns over motivation to learn through e-learning alone. Key features of e-learning that provide motivation are: learner independence, meeting learner’s goals, active participation, feedback, and relevance. However, factors such as fear and anxiety should also be considered as these can de-motivate (particularly older and less technologically skilled) learners. Whatever the method, e-learning will continue to provide innovative ways of facilitating and supporting the development of knowledge and skills, whether at work or in the classroom, or wherever. HRD practitioners and educators need to be aware of the factors influencing motivation to engage in e-learning and develop appropriate packages to help employees and students expand their knowledge and practical skills. E-learning is not a cheap, quick fix. From an organisational perspective, it requires substantial investment – of time, financial resources, software design, and effective implementation and HR professionals need to consider to what extent it helps achieve organisational objectives - vertical integration/alignment through strategic HRD, (Anderson 2009). From a learner perspective, it also requires investment of time and personal resources, to achieve individual goals. From personal experience, e-learning can be both isolating (alone) and inspiring (individualised).
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