Research reveals that users of eLearning systems in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have a diversity of perceptions, theories and styles due to their demographic differences. Practically, these perceptions are translated into behavior (attitude) of the eLearning-users. Thus, positive and correct perceptions generate greater interest and involvement in the use of eLearning while incorrect and weak perceptual beliefs turn into lack of interest and low frequency of using new technologies for teaching, learning and educational administration. Though differences are identifiable from individual to individual however, broader classifications make better sense and make the differences comprehensible. This paper brings together the research findings of different studies to figure-out a theoretically-rich modeling of the facts and issues relating to the role of user-perceptions, theories and styles on their attitudes to the newly emerging digital environments of eTeaching (for teachers), eLearning (for students) and eEducation (for administrators).
Keywords: eLearning, HEIs, Perception, Theories, Attitudes, Styles, eTeaching, eEducation, Digital Environments.
Allah Nawaz is a PhD Scholar in Management Studies and working as Assistant Professor in Department of Public Administration Gomal University DIKhan, PAKISTAN.
Dr. Ghulam Muhammad Kundi is Assistant Professor in Department of Public Administration Gomal University DIKhan, PAKISTAN. He has done PhD in Management Studies on eBusiness. Authored two books and more than two dozen research articles published in national and international journals.
Technology means nothing if it is not used (Mujahid, 2002) however use depends on the users' motivation towards eLearning (Lynch et al., 2005). For example, people need word processing not to survive rather to command over the efficient ways of sharing information about livelihoods and employment. Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) for human development are not about technology, but about people using the technology (Hameed, 2007). Similarly, teachers and students expect better support for lectures, a better access to databases, better support for research, better connectivity with the rest of the world but these high expectations are reported to be in contrast with reality (Vrana, 2007; Nawaz & Kundi, 2010b).
In higher education institutions (HEIs), the conceptions of students about educational technologies are very positive but they are extremely critical about the current state of affairs related to eLearning and educational use of ICT by the teaching staff (Valcke, 2004). Students perceive that in majority of eLearning programs, the burden for learning is placed totally on the learners (Dinevski & Kokol, 2005). Research reveals that there is a great deal of uncertainty among the decision-makers, managers, developers, trainers and learners about their relationship with eLearning tools and techniques (Ehlers, 2005). The users are reportedly expressing doubts, suspicions, trust, and beliefs about the nature of their relationship with ICTs and difficulties in working with new technologies (Bondarouk, 2006; Nawaz et al., 2007).
Research also unveils that these problems are due to the changing roles of teachers, students and administrators in new digital environments. All of the stakeholders are trying to understand their roles, which "are still blurred (UQA, (2001)." Similarly, technology integration into education is re-engineering the roles of teachers and students from old models to new paradigms embedded in the digital environments of modern technologies (Mehra & Mital, 2007). Similarly, "the diversity of students in eLearning poses a challenge to the instructor (Moolman & Blignaut, 2008; Nawaz & Kundi, 2010a)."
eLearning is a buzzword among the teachers and students of HEIs around the world. Some talk of it as a fashion while others intend to learn and integrate ICT-gadgets in their teaching and learning practices. eLearning refers to any level of applying computers and related technologies in pedagogy, learning and education-management (Tinio, 2002; Young, 2003; Gray et al., 2003; Kanuka, 2007). For example, most of the teachers and students in higher education use Internet for browsing, emailing, chatting or any other purpose and thereby learn to add new aspects to their teaching and learning - this is also a kind of being involved in eLearning. Likewise, using a computer to prepare a lecture (by teacher), an assignment (by student) and typing and publishing a notification in a word-processor (by administrator) or doing all this online, as Virtual University does - all reflect eLearning in action (Sife et al., 2007; Qureshi et al., 2009b).
The educational applications of ICTs are multiple; starting from a simple information delivery (accessing an online catalogue of a digital library) and ending with modern uses of cognitive tools (Web 2.0 technologies), which belong to the family of adaptive technologies or systems that support and enhance customized learning (Sirkemaa, 2001; Chan & Lee, 2007). eLearning therefore, covers a continuum of educational applications with Word, Excel, Access and PowerPoint as the main gadgets on one end with 'No or little' impact on teaching, learning and administrative practices. On the other extreme are the virtual learning environments with web-based applications and virtual lecture halls having 'Far reaching' impacts on teaching, learning and education management (Sife et al., 2007; Thompson, 2007; Nawaz et al., 2007; Kundi & Nawaz, 2010).
In the contemporary digital scenario, social software has changed not only the tools but also the style, preferences, tastes, perceptions and thus culture of the users (Klamma et al., 2007). For example, teachers, students and administrators around the world are quite accustomed to email as an 'opener to their daily work' to a level that any interruption in email system in the morning keeps them upset all the way till the day is off. Wikipedia (2009), quoting the pioneer of online-learning (Bernard Luskin) notes that "e" in 'eLearning' stands for "exciting, energetic, enthusiastic, emotional, extended, excellent and educational in addition to electronic."
3. Users of eLearning
The "University-Constituents - teachers, students and administrators (Juniu, 2005)" all use ICT-based tools in an eLearning environment however; their use varies from one group to other. Similarly, nature and extent of use is different under traditional computer-based learning, blended learning and virtual learning facilities. In blended and virtual learning, all teachers, students and administrators are supported with highly user-friendly and networked facilities where ICTs are used both individually as well as collectively in a collaborative manner. Whatever the form of eLearning, the functions of universities are going through changes from narrow focus to broader and global roles of education for all, lifelong learning, pioneering role in national education, mega universities and so on (Sanyal, 2001; UNESCO, 2004; Nawaz & Kundi, 2010b).
The new functions and new technologies like Internet, web-based technologies, and Web 2.0 products - all are reengineering the pedagogic and learning theories and practices. There are shifts from objectivism to constructivism in teaching and learning (Young, 2003), technocratic to reformist and holist paradigms in eLearning development and use (Aviram & Tami, 2004), and from instrumental views of ICTs to their substantive perceptions and roles in the education and society as a whole (Mehra & Mital, 2007; Kundi & Nawaz, 2010).
The challenging nature of ePedagogy demands greater preparedness by the teachers by possessing a wider repertoire of teaching techniques (UQA, 2001). An eTeacher is considered as a mentor, coach or facilitator and expected to perform diverse functions particularly:
Managerial: The teacher plans the teaching program, which includes objectives, timetable, rules and procedures, content development and establishment of the practical work and interactive activities.
Intellectual: This is the traditional teaching function. The teacher should know the syllabus and the particular subject which will inform the learning content.
Social: This is a fundamental function in eLearning and eTraining that the teacher creates conducive learning environment, interacts with students and examines their feedback. To perform this function, the eTeacher should motivate, facilitate and encourage the students in the new learning environments (Blázquez & Díaz, 2006).
Five types of teacher-users of eLearning have been identified by the researchers: builders of eLearning tools, tool-users, tool-adapters, tool-abiders and those who are indifferent to the use of computers (Johnson et al., 2006). They further suggest that universities must develop a large body of tool users. Then motivate some creative faculty members to become adapters by providing them incentives and support from the highest level of administration. The most important type of teacher users is the 'tool adapters', who are skilled users and can adapt/utilize it to fit the student and faculty requirements. Tool adapters should be tenured faculty who enjoy teaching and do not fear technology.
The research indicates that decisions made by teachers about the use of computers in their classrooms are influenced by multiple factors including the accessibility of hardware and relevant software, the nature of the curriculum, personal capabilities and teachers' beliefs in their capacity to work effectively with technology are a significant factor in determining patterns of classroom computer use (Albion, 1999). Furthermore, Teacher anxiety over being replaced by technology or losing authority in the classroom as the learning process becomes more learner-centered can be alleviated only if teachers have a keen understanding and appreciation of their changing role (Tinio, 2002; Qureshi et al., 2009b).
Computers are regarded as beneficial to the students not because these machines can create a better form of learning but mainly because the knowledge and skills needed to operate the new tools are essential in today's job market. The ability to work with this new technology is perceived as an asset for the future success of their pupils (Sasseville, 2004). Even according to researchers, student manipulation of technology in achieving the goals of education is preferable to teacher manipulation of technology (Abrami et al., 2006). The challenge of evolving pedagogy to meet the needs of Net-savvy students is daunting, but educators are assisted by the fact that although these students learn in a different way than their predecessors did, but they do want to learn (Barnes et al., 2007; Kundi & Nawaz, 2010).
Contemporary eStudents are denoted by several concepts to express their involvement with ICTs: Computer Geeks/Nerds (Thomas & Allen, 2006); Net-Generation, Net Geners, and Net-Savvy students (Barnes et al., 2007); Millennials, and Electronic Natives (Garcia & Qin, 2007). Instead of learning from computers, students are able to learn with computers in these constructivist environments (Young, 2003).Given that most students almost anytime, anywhere can access various forms of information technology - MP3, cell phones, PDAs (Aaron et al., 2004), it is obvious that the Net Generation is different from the previous generations in terms of their technological abilities, teamwork skills, and openness to participatory pedagogies (Garcia & Qin, 2007; Nawaz & Kundi, 2010a, 2010c).
The actual ICT use fosters logistics and administrative processes, distribution of materials and communication about instructional issues (Valcke, 2004). ICT has had more impact on administrative services (e.g. admissions, registration, fee payment, purchasing) than on the pedagogic fundamentals of the classroom (Dalsgaard, 2006). Likewise, ICTs are also facilitating in organizational learning through improved forms of communication and sharing (Laffey & Musser, 2006). Usually, administration (or management) provides the original momentum to create an IT committee and will be responsible for charging the group with its mission. High-quality IT literacy teaching requires the administration to provide support for faculty by adequately funding the staffing of IT services personnel to levels that can accommodate the demands placed upon them (Ezziane, 2007; Qureshi et al., 2009a; 2009b).
Leadership plays a key role in ICT integration in education. Many teacher- or student-initiated ICT projects have been undermined by lack of support from above. For ICT integration programs to be effective and sustainable, administrators themselves must be competent in the use of the technology, and they must have a broad understanding of the technical, curricular, administrative, financial, and social dimensions of ICT use in education (Tinio, 2002). The support from senior administrative level ensures the successful implementation of the strategic plan for educational technology (Stockley, 2004) however, university administrators and information technology (IT) departments struggle to provide the most appropriate resources to support classroom integration in isolation from the educators (Juniu, 2005). Administrators must balance the needs of all stakeholders (Abrami et al., 2006; Nawaz & Kundi, 2006; Qureshi et al., 2009a; 2009b).
4. Perceptions & Theories about ICTs
One way to assess an individual's approach to computer use for instruction is by testing an individual's attitudes to this. Numerous studies have explored individual differences in attitudes towards computers (Graff et al. 2001). Understanding teachers' perceptions of technology integration training and its impact on their instructional practice will help both the technology training programs and social studies (Zhao & Bryant, 2006). Teachers' attitudes were strongly related to their success in using technology (Bataineh & Abdel-Rahman, 2006). Students use the computer and the Internet depends on the perceived usefulness of this resource in terms of effective communication and access to information to complete projects and assignments efficiently (Gay et al., 2006). Very little research has been published about students' perceptions of their computer literacy, especially in third world countries (Bataineh & Abdel-Rahman, 2006).Technology paradigm shifts changed not only the way of computing but also how the technology itself is perceived by society (Ezziane, 2007; Kundi & Nawaz, 2010; Nawaz & Kundi, 2010c)
For example, male students preferred using computers in their learning than females. Individual differences are evident in terms of attitudes to computer-based learning and Internet use and that these differences exist principally on two levels, which are nationality and cognitive learning style (Graff et al., 2001). "Net Generation" is a force for educational transformation. They process information differently than previous generations, learn best in highly customizable environments, and look to teachers to create and structure their learning experience (Dinevski & Kokol, 2005). Furthermore, male students have more positive perceptions about computers and information technology than female students. Older students may have a somewhat more positive perception of computers (Gay et al., 2006). Students bring prior knowledge to their learning experiences. This prior knowledge is known to affect how students encode and later retrieve new information learned (DiCerbo, 2007; Nawaz & Kundi, 2010a).
ICT is generally perceived as a welcome addition to the arsenal of pedagogical tools and approaches in the classroom (Sasseville, 2004). However, by compelling instructors to collaborate with people outside the classroom (government agencies, university administrators, technical support staff etc); technology can be perceived as a threat to the private practice of pedagogy (Aaron et al., 2004). The relevant concern, then, is how well teachers perceive and address the challenges for education (Knight et al., 2006). Based on the perceptual differences of eLearning users Mehra and Mital (2007) have categorized, particularly teachers, into:
Cynics: They have negative perceptions about eLearning but strong pedagogical beliefs therefore unwilling to change;
Moderates: They like ICTs and ready to change and adapt to new pedagogical practices with some guidance and training;
Adaptors: These are the intellectual leaders who use eLearning for inner progress and external enhancements by continuously innovating their pedagogy with latest technologies.
Thus, there can be three extreme perceptions and attitudes about eLearning among the teachers community. Cynics are those who dislike ICTs to change the pedagogy and love their traditional methods of teaching. May be it is the same type of teachers about which Hans-Peter Baumeister (2006) notes "taking a realistic view, teaching, whether it be face-to-face or eLearning, is not always numbered amongst the most beloved tasks in our universities." So, moderates and adapters are the catalysts who hold positive theories about the nature and role of ICTs in higher education and ready to adapt accordingly.
The multiplicity of perceptions about the nature and role of ICTs in HEIs can be grouped into two broad user-theories or beliefs, which are guiding most of the eLearning development and use practices around the globe:
Instrumental theory: It is the most commonly held belief, which views technology as a 'tool' without any inherent value (neutral) and its value lies in how is it used so a one-size-fits-all policy of universal employment of ICTs (Macleod, 2005; Radosevich & Kahn, 2006). Instrumental education is based on the premise that education serves society. An emphasis is placed on the relevance and utility of education, where students are expected to apply their knowledge vocationally, contributing to the economy. The risk of such a system is that students are encouraged to simply meet some identified need, rather than think critically with the purpose of achieving some sort of personal or communal advancement (Ezer, 2006).
Substantive theory: This is a determinist or autonomous approach, which argues that technology, is not neutral and has positive or negative impacts. Technological determinism encourages the idea that: the mere presence of technology leads to familiar and standard applications of that technology, which in turn bring about social change (Macleod, 2005; Radosevich & Kahn, 2006). The substantive theory matches with the 'liberal theory' of education (Ezer, 2006), which views learning as active and interconnected experience and not simply a recollection of facts.
The design and development of eLearning is not simply a matter of selecting a technology and a team of content and instructional experts, it also includes choosing educationalists with pedagogical and ICT skills required to handle online learning (McPherson & Nunes, 2004). Thus, technology-integration should not be guided by a technologically deterministic approach but situated in the context of an appropriate development and critical theory of technology approach, which takes into account a broad range of social, cultural, political and economic enabling factors (Macleod, 2005). In India, for example, most ICT education is ineffective because it is too technical and not at all concerned with local contexts and real world problems (Ezer, 2006). There is also increasing acknowledgement that it is not just technical skills that are needed by the eLearning developers rather soft skills' are more vital (Jewels & Ford, 2006; Qureshi et al., 2009; Nawaz & Kundi, 2010c).
5. Teaching/Learning Styles
The students have different learning styles: Some learn fast and advance rapidly while others prefer to learn at a slower pace and repeat. In addition, some like working alone whereas others prefer to working in groups. Information technology allows customization of the learner's learning experience and makes it possible to accommodate different learning styles (Sirkemaa, 2001). Learning style is an individual's inherited foundation, particular past life experience and the demands of the present environment that emphasize some learning abilities over others. Researchers believe that learning style is a good predictor of an individual's preferred learning behavior. While instructors cannot always accommodate each student's need, it is important that several learning opportunities are provided. A match between learning style and teaching style reveals increases student's satisfaction (Manochehr, 2007; Kundi & Nawaz, 2010; Nawaz & Kundi, 2010c).
Most educators accept that ideally learning should be delivered in the manner and environment that matches the needs and learning styles of individual learners (LaCour, 2005). A research reveals that for the instructor-based learning class (traditional), the learning style was irrelevant, but for the web-based learning class (eLearning), the learning style was significantly important. The results indicated that students with the Assimilator learning style (these learn best through lecture, papers and analogies) and the Converger learning style (these learn best through laboratories, field work and observations) achieved a better result with the e-learning (web-based) method (Manochehr, 2007).
One of the challenges facing instructional designers is in producing eLearning systems, which take account of individual differences such as cognitive learning style (Graff et al., 2001). However, the new technologies like personalization, integration, and electronic portfolios help develop systems according the user learning styles. The learners will be able to have more control over how, where, and when they experience educational and professional development in pursuit of their individual goals (LaCour, 2005). Net Geners are independent and autonomous in their learning styles, which makes them more assertive information seekers and shapes how they approach learning in the classroom. They have an independent learning style, which has grown out of the habits of seeking and retrieving information from Internet. Furthermore, multitasking is an integral part of the Net Generation lifestyle (Barnes et al., 2007; Nawaz & Kundi, 2010c)
Research shows that teachers don't find eLearning environments matching with their teaching styles (Mehra & Mital, 2007) however; web-based learning is worldwide accessible, low in maintenance, secure, platform-independent, and always current and can accommodate various learning styles. Educators and students are using the web in a variety of ways to enhance their teaching and learning experiences. E-learning can be delivered to the learners easily, in an individualized manner (Manochehr, 2007; Kundi & Nawaz, 2010).
Attitudes are the behaviors one adopts about the nature and extent of changes required for the introduction of ICTs in education (Aviram & Tami, 2004). "Attitudes help predict work behavior (Luthans, 2005:122)." Some educators may be strong advocates of technological innovation while others may more reluctant in accepting technology as an integral part of the learning process. These divergent reactions and concerns have thus created a continuum that represents various attitudes towards technology (Juniu, 2005). Since teachers and students differ in their perceptions, learning styles and attitude therefore benefit more if ICTs match with their individual preferences (Cagiltay et al., 2006).
Besides, emotional and behavioral aspects of attitude, the 'informational component' is on the top in the sense that it creates the belief and a perception of the person therefore sets forth the foundation for practical attitude. Given this, attitudes can be changed by providing correct, complete and timely information to the users about ICTs, educational technologies, eLearning development and use practices and benefits for the user (Luthans, 2005:124; Qureshi et al., 2009; Nawaz & Kundi, 2006; Nawaz & Kundi, 2010b).
Figure 1 Cycle of the User Perceptions, Styles and Attitudes
Above figure provides enough food for thinking and understanding the relationship between user-mind and his/her practical behavior. "One of the most obvious characteristics of human beings is their readiness to attribute meaning to what they observe and experience (Checkland & Scholes, 1991:1)." Thus, the story begins from perception or attachment of meaning or attribution by the individuals, which then constitutes the 'intellectual and physical style' of the person. The user then behaves according to that understanding and emergent style. As Luthans (2005:124) note that lack of information can develop unwanted and incorrect attitudes, whatever is the perception, theories (or simply understanding) of a user, the same is translated into action or behavior or attitude. Similarly, all of these variables constantly change each other through new information and experience with the attitudes.
Prima-facie, eLearning is a blessing in disguise, particularly for the developing countries, who are struggling against illiteracy, poverty, global isolation and disempowerment and since very long. ICTs have, obviously, emerged as panacea if not for all but most of these ills, which had almost paralyzed the developing states because they had started believing in their absolute incapacity in educating their masses through providing physical learning facilities (Qureshi et al., 2009). Contemporary cutting-edge technologies have opened a vista of opportunities for all the HEIs of the globe to grab as much benefits as possible depending on the capabilities, consistency of efforts and localization of technologies (Kundi & Nawaz, 2010; Nawaz & Kundi, 2010c).
One of the biggest threats to ICT-enabled projects is resistance to change (Tinio, 2002). Teachers are reluctant to integrate ICTs into their daily scholarly activities and this situation has not changed over the past few years (Sasseville, 2004). Research shows that technical issues are given priority over the educational change, for example, digital-change management are hardly linked with the institution-wide digital strategies and management (Valcke, 2004). While most educators acknowledge the significance of eLearning, problems continue to recur in the adoption process showing a critical gap between perceptions, theories and practices of teachers (Knight et al., 2006). Thus, there are many problems and concerns related to eLearning such as, low rates of participation, learner resistance, high non-completion rates, poor learner performance (Kanuka, 2007; Nawaz et al., 2007; Qureshi et al., 2009; Nawaz & Kundi, 2010b).
Similarly, in most of the eLearning projects, the academics sometimes refuse to change curricula and pedagogic approaches; teaching staff and instructors lack incentive and rewards; there is a lack of feedback towards higher levels of decision and policy-making, and little impact on strategy definition and implementation (Loing, 2005). Furthermore, since digital systems create winners and loosers due to redistribution of organizational resources therefore there can also be political-maneuvering to sabotage the eProjects for individual or group interests within or outside HEI (Nawaz & Kundi, 2006; Nawaz et al., 2007; Kundi et al., 2007; Kundi & Nawaz, 2007). Thus, there are many barriers in the implementation of eLearning solutions in HEIs where some are classical such as inertia of behavior or natural resistance to changes, while others who lack access to information develop a fear of isolation however, if proper eLearning environments are created, user resistance can be transformed into a collaborative learning workplace (Vrana, 2007; Qureshi et al., 2009).
Though ICTs are gushing in a copious stream, a wide array of studies caution that development and implementation of eLearning in HEIs is a rocky, complex and challenging endeavor (UQA, 2001), primarily not in terms of technology rather the training and motivation of users to adopt 'information-culture' and thereby make effective use of new technologies (Young, 2003). Positive perceptions and attitudes of the users have been posted over and over as the predictors of success and failure in educational digital initiatives, specifically in the HEIs (Aviram & Tami, 2004; Nawaz et al., 2007; Qureshi et al., 2009).
Difficulties occur when systems are not designed with consideration to learner characteristics, perceptions, learning-style, and context of use (Graff et al., 2001). The research and experience tells that "attitudes tend to persist unless something is done to change them (Luthans, 2005:121)" otherwise, users of eLearning behave according to their demographic characteristics of gender, age, educational level, cultural background, experience, personal goals and attitudes, preferences, learning styles, motivation, reading and writing skills, computer skills, ability to work with diverse cultures, familiarity with differing instructional methods and previous experience with e-learning (Bataineh & Abdel-Rahman, 2006; Moolman & Blignaut, 2008; Nawaz & Kundi, 2010a, 2010b; 2010c).
eLearning is not merely another medium for the transmission of knowledge rather it changes the relationship between teachers and students and demands new skills, competencies and attitudes from the developers (planners, managers, teachers and trainers) who design and develop contents and process to support online learners (Gray et al., 2003). However, pragmatically, researcher shows that in most of the eLearning digital initiatives, developers and administrators give insufficient attention to several pedagogical and delivery issues (McPherson & Nunes, 2004; Qureshi et al., 2009; Kundi & Nawaz, 2010; Nawaz & Kundi, 2010c). The final note will be that the eLearning digital initiatives of HEIs must consist of:
Local eLearning models based on local research.
Customized and state of the art training.
Consistent technical support of ICT department and professionals.
Paradigm-shifts from teacher-centric to student-centered pedagogy.
Departure from objectivist teaching and learning to social-constructivist environments.