Academic support under COVID-19 lockdown: what students think of online support e-tools in an ODeL course

Micheal M. van Wyk (Department of Curriculum and Instructional Studies, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa)

Interactive Technology and Smart Education

ISSN: 1741-5659

Article publication date: 4 December 2020

Issue publication date: 22 September 2021

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Abstract

Purpose

This paper aims to explore student teachers’ views related to the online academic support e-tools used under the COVID-19 lockdown.

Design/methodology/approach

Mapping a pragmatic research approach, an explanatory mixed methods design was used for the study.

Findings

Empirical evidence revealed that student teachers were satisfied and experienced the academic support tools as being positively applied to their online learning. Furthermore, it is reported that student teachers preferred the discussion forum as the most appropriate academic support e-tool in the course under coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown.

Research limitations/implications

This exploratory pragmatic study extends the knowledge of the online academic support e-tools for an open distance e-learning (ODeL) context that was used under COVID-19 lockdown. This study provides additional evidence concerning a revised academic support frame for an ODeL online learning context. Research limitations: small sample size was used, and therefore caution must be applied, as the findings might not be transferable to a similar context. The current study has only examined a teacher education course and could not be generalised to similar conditions as those under COVID-19 lockdown. This exploratory research has raised many questions that require further investigation. More research is required to determine the efficacy of the academic support e-tools with regard to student learning in other online courses and contexts.

Practical implications

The student teachers that participated in this study were empowered to using the academic support e-tools to support them under COVID-19 lockdown. The discussion was mostly preferred academic supportive e-tool as an engaged, participatory and communicative platform for accelerated learning in the teaching methodology of economics course.

Originality/value

A noteworthy contribution was made in the design and testing of the reliability of methodological tools, which could be replicated in blended and ODeL contexts.

Keywords

Citation

van Wyk, M.M. (2021), "Academic support under COVID-19 lockdown: what students think of online support e-tools in an ODeL course", Interactive Technology and Smart Education, Vol. 18 No. 2, pp. 137-157. https://doi.org/10.1108/ITSE-08-2020-0121

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited


Introduction

In recent times, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic had a significant impact on global events, from governance to socialisation. In the interests of “social distancing”, the COVID crisis suddenly threw the daily operations of businesses, households and governments into disarray (Rospigliosi, 2020). Moreover, COVID-19 pandemic had a serious effect on the economies of both developed and developing countries. Nations felt the strains and the down-turns in economic activities resulting from border-closures. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on all economic activities forcing countries to scale down or even close many sectors of the economy for fear of spreading the virus. However, scholars are of the view that “economists must abandon their comfort zones” (Foroohar, 2020) to become more critical about contemporary issues such as poverty, unemployment, workplace wellness, infectious diseases and illiteracy levels (Benjamin, 2020; Bourner et al., 2011; Foroohar, 2020). Furthermore, this has confirmed the worst fears of lecturers and students who had not experienced e-learning until the COVID-19 lockdown emerged. The COVID-19 lockdown had affected students’ learning, not only isolating them at home but also isolating them in front of their screens.

The global pandemic had created serious challenges for the South African education sector, in particular institutions of higher learning. In a media briefing by the national Minister for Higher Education, Science and Innovation, universities and technical, vocational, education and training colleges (TVET) had to respond in preparing for a post-COVID-19 lockdown era (Shoba, 2020).In view of the minister’s media briefing, university councils and top management were challenged to restructure the academic year under lockdown and beyond 2021. However, to salvage the academic year, university councils, top management and stakeholders, including the Department of Higher Education and Training, had to take bold steps and play a significant role in salvaging the academic year or “spillover” into the 2021 academic calendar (Makinana, 2020; Mandela, 2020). In the quest to execute the academic project by institutions of higher learning in providing quality education for all students, support is imperative in student learning (van Wyk, 2019). Therefore, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced universities to rethink how to support their staff and students. One particular COVID-19 lockdown challenge was the many hours of teaching time that were lost which had an impact on academic performance (Rospigliosi, 2020). To catch up with lost teaching time, universities started expanding their learning management systems (LMS) to support staff and students (Mbolekwa, 2020). COVID-19 has changed the way universities operate, thus compelling them to rethink strategies to support students. Such strategies include online pedagogies, alternative assessment practices and support initiatives. Furthermore, universities have started to reimagine pedagogical strategies to support students with online tools and with data bundles to connect to online teaching platforms.

Given what is stated, the COVID-19 pandemic had changed and challenged lecturers’ perspectives on how to provide meaningful support to students in online teaching and learning context (Mbolekwa, 2020; Rospigliosi, 2020). Some of the academics at the open distance e-learning (ODeL) university where the author of this paper is used started exploring Web 2.0 e-tools at their disposal to support online teaching and learning. The lockdown had an impact on and shifted the reimagining of online academic support. In view of the urgency to assist students, some academics felt frustrated about not supporting students (Almpanis, 2015; Makoe, 2012). With reference to the ODeL university, academics were concerned about whether time lost under COVID-19 and whether there would be enough time to cover the curriculum, assessment and other related teaching responsibilities for students to succeed in the course.

In the context of this paper, the author argues that academic support is defined as an intentional, purpose-driven and meaningful action provided by the lecturer to students to achieve the ultimate goal of meaningful learning in the course. Concerning this paper, what is not yet clear is the specific academic support e-tools that were used in an ODeL course at an ODeL university under COVID-19 lockdown. The study used a mapping of a pragmatic approach, an explanatory mixed methods design was used in reporting students’ lived experiences of academic support e-tools for an ODeL course.

Therefore, this paper explores student teachers’ views related to the online academic support e-tools used under the COVID-19 lockdown in a teacher education course. An overarching research question is stated: what are student teachers’ perceptions of online academic support tools in an ODeL course under COVID-19 lockdown? To answer this question, the following sub-research questions were formulated:

SRQ1.

What are students’ perceived satisfactions of academic support e-tools in the teaching methodology of economics course under COVID-19 lockdown?

SRQ2.

What are students’ perceived preferences in terms of the academic support e-tools in an ODeL course?

SRQ3.

What is involved in the use of the discussion forum platform as an academic support e-tool in the teaching methodology of economics course under COVID-19 lockdown?

Literature review

An integrative theoretical frame for student support in the study

In the context of this study, an integrative theoretical frame is foregrounded. The following theories, namely, the socio-cultural pedagogy (Teemant, 2005) and the technology acceptance model (TAM) (Davids, 1989), as a strategy to change student perceptions and web-collaborative learning (Drinkwater et al., 2014), are applied to share and support student learning and will be explained briefly. Because of the ODeL context of this study, the seminal work of social constructivist Vygotsky, the theory of social learning, is widely used. In support of the TAM for this study, student learning experiences are situated on bases of perceived usefulness and the accessibility (ease of use) of web-collaborative online learning support e-tools in a mediated and contextualised ODeL environment. Therefore, student teachers in the Teaching Methodology of Economics course were exposed to academic support strategies that were purposively constructed in the context of social, historical and cultural. This online ODeL space provided academic support to students so that they could collectively become simultaneously a community of online learners and online facilitators. As a community of web-collaborative online learners and online facilitators, student teachers during the COVID-19 lockdown became actively involved and engaged in an online space to construct meaning to acquire knowledge, digital literacy skills and increased awareness of valuing a changed attitude towards studying as distance learners at an ODeL university. In the quest to support these student teachers during COVID-19, the researcher used specific online learning e-tools to support their learning. So, given the online support to students, the question remains, how is academic support defined in the context of this paper? The author argues that academic support is a deliberate action of planning and implementing various teaching and learning methods and resources; thus assisting students on their learning path to achieve the learning outcomes in the course. In the case of online learning support, the author as facilitator provides ongoing assistance to students with online teaching e-tools and Web 2.0 social media platforms. This obligated the author to critically reflect on and exploring an ODeL teacher education course with academic support e-tools (Figure 1).

Online academic support e-tools

Academic support and collaborative learning are designed for a particular purpose and to achieve that objective for the online course careful planning is needed. In the context of this paper, the author purposively selective e-tools that were available on the university’s LMS. A plethora of online e-tools is available for academic support whether contact or blended or ODeL environments. In the online course, teaching methodology for economics, the online tutorial letter is compiled with specific instructions related to attending online seminars, tasks and examinations, as well as support in the course. For the course, a study guide contains planned content, and has been language edited, quality assured and written to achieve the objectives for the course. In the tutorial letter, recommended textbooks are stated for extra reading in the course.

Included in teaching methodology for economics course, academic support learning materials such as mass open online courses (MOOCs), open education resources (OER), YouTube videos and emails were used under lockdown. From time to time well-known academic support e-tools and strategies to advances student learning, in particular for online learning was also included for additional study purposes. For each course, lecturers can post brief announcements, and send short messages (SMS) in emergency cases to communicate with students. To increase online communication, collaboration and engagement, Web 2.0 technologies (Facebook, blogs, Twitter, WhatsApp) are effective online e-communicative tools. Currently, video-conferencing facilities such as online discussion forums, webinars, Zoom meetings and Microsoft Teams are popular online video-conferencing platforms. Finally, scholarly articles, PowerPoint presentations by lecturers and lesson demonstrations can be used to support student learning.

Empirical evidence of academic support

Several studies have reported the advantages of academic support in online learning spaces, using different types of platforms and e-tools. Drinkwater et al. (2014) conducted a study using a web-collaborative learning tool for sharing and supporting students. The findings show that using a web-based learning platform supports student learning. Kuboni and Martin (2004) reported they incorporated a computer-mediated communication tool together with face-to-face classes to support active learning and peer learning amongst learners. Then, with immigrants in the local environment, Kukulska-Hulme et al. (2015) designed a mobile app, the Mapp tool, to advance the use of mobile learning in the classroom. This language mobile app was designed to be embedded with applicable language images and game-based learning activities to enhance immigrant learner development. Higgins and Harreveld (2013) used an online work-integrated learning strategy (WIL) for professional development, finding that an online WIL could intensify career enhancement and mentoring amongst university staff. In a mixed-methods design study, Almpanis (2015) reported that technology enhances learning strategy support and enhanced the staff development needs of online tutors significantly. Finally, Kainama et al. (2018) used a social network site-based design, the technology acceptance model (TAM), as a strategy to change student perceptions and support collaborative student learning.

Context of the study

This study was conducted during the COVID-19 lockdown at a South African ODeL university. This is the only African ODeL university and has the largest student population (349 000) on the continent. The university was established147 years ago as a correspondence college catering for working-class students. Later it ventured into distance education and more recently, it became an ODeL university.

Currently, the university is the trendsetter in open distance education in African and has established partnerships with several universities. The university had also expanded its global footprint with satellite campuses and regional centres. It offers multiple online courses, degrees and certificates through blended learning on an online learning platform that is accessible and open to all students, both locally and internationally.

Academics, administrative staff and students can connect to engage online at any time, anywhere, anyplace as a means of advancing online learning. The academic staff and students at this university access the learning management system (LMS) for all academic and non-academic activities. However, the COVID-19 lockdown has changed the manner in which we teach online, as well as how we conduct meetings, give support and deliver learning programmes.

As an employee at the ODeL university, the researcher started to support students in the Teaching Methodology of Economics course. Several academic support e-tools are hosted on the myUnisa platform, including Microsoft Teams for student meetings and WhatsApp groups for important messages. The researcher (lecturer) in the course planned and used the following e-tools on the LMS: the online tutorial letter, study guide, recommended textbook, announcements, blogs, open education resources (OER), YouTube videos, email, the discussion forum, SMSs and additional resources (scholarly articles, webinars, PowerPoint presentation of lectures, lesson demonstrations). These academic support e-tools were used to empirically investigate students’ experiences during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Methodology

Before conducting the research, ethical clearance was applied for and granted by the University Ethics Committee (Reference 2020/05/13/90178912/18/AM).The university policy stipulates that confidentiality and adherence to COVID-19 protocols and regulations be observed and adhered to before, during and after COVID-19 lockdown.

In this study, a sample was selected from a cohort of Bachelor of Education and Postgraduate Certificate in Education students (n = 93) registered for the subject teaching course, teaching methodology of economics. The sample comprised 66 Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) and 27 fourth-year Bachelor Education (4th Year BEd) (Senior and Further Education and Training phase) student teachers.

This inquiry took the form of an explanatory and pragmatic mixed-methods design (Creswell, 2012). The purpose was to design data collection tools for the investigation. An online self-constructed academic support e-tool questionnaire (Academic Support e-Tool Scale, ASeT) was designed on Google forms. The Cronbach’s alpha coefficient, a reliability test, was computed (α < 0.813). An online link was sent to students to complete the questionnaire anonymously. Specific data collection instruments, processes and analyses were used to generate and compute the data.

In the first stage of the quantitative data analysis process, descriptive and inferential data were computed. Data sets were computed by means of factor analysis using the Kaiser-Meyer-Olkim (KMO) measurement for sample adequacy, Bartlett’s test of sphericity and, finally, the analysis of moment structures (Arbuckle, 2006) to test the structural equation model (SEM) empirically for students’ perceived satisfaction and perceived preferences of academic support e-tools; in particular, the discussion forum for online learning support in the teaching methodology of economics course. For the AMOS model, the goodness-of-fit-measures were computed, namely, chi-square statistics (CMIN), degrees of freedom (DF), CMIN divided by DF, root mean square residual (RMR), goodness-of-fit-index (GFI), adjusted goodness-of-fit-index (AGFI) and parsimony ratio (PRATIO).

In the second stage, the qualitative data process used thematic analysis. The researcher used the posted comments on the e-tools as the qualitative research approach for the data collection process. The rationale for using the e-tools to explore the lived experiences of students related to academic support in the course during the COVID-19 lockdown. During the lockdown period of 5-months, specific content and the e-tools were combined for the discussion forum, so that students enjoy the learning process. In the summary course content and e-tools are combined (Figure 2).

The comments, suggestions and views of students were downloaded, transcribed and analysed. The following steps of the thematic analysis process were used to identify specific extracts and themes (Denzin, 2009; Creswell, 2012; Nowell et al., 2017), namely:

  • Concepts –reading and re-reading each posting on the discussion forum.

  • Coding–identifying, underlining and coding each text of the postings.

  • Listed patterns or categories – making a list of all repeated words in each posting.

  • Identified themes –underlining all extracted words or ideas in each text.

  • Revising themes – studying the themes again, revising the identified themes.

For purpose of collecting data, a data triangulation (Denzin, 2012) process was followed for the discussion forum. The student teachers’ comments from the discussion forum were downloaded, copied into a word document and subsequently analysed over time. The posted discussion forum comments were conducted over time (dates and time arranged on the myUnisa institutional platform) with student teachers (identified participants on the online platform) and at a suitable place, an online myUnisa platform, as an engaged discussion forum for sharing of ideas on specific content. According to Denzin (2012), the data triangulation process is conducted with participants (student teachers) registered (Teaching Methodology of Economics) course at an arrangement place (an ODeL university, myUnisa online platform) and time to be engaged (posted comments weekly on the discussion forum) downloaded, analysed and compared with original content used on the platform. To ensure, the trustworthiness of the data, this research adheres to the ethical protocol as stipulated in the UNISA ethics policy (Ethics certificate 47215763/MC). On completion of the data analysis process, the original, transcribed data set from the discussion forum posted comments sent and made available to a senior professor in the department. The objective is to validate the emerged themes and the original downloaded comments from the discussion forum were credible, valid and a true reflection. This information was made available the professor in the department who specialises in qualitative research designs, data analyses and interpretations. The objective of the data triangulation process is to validate the trustworthiness and validity of the content for each theme that emerged from analysed data.

Results

Quantitative results

In the next section of this paper, the quantitative results pertaining to the specific academic support e-tools used during the COVID-19 lockdown in the course were presented. Accordingly, the first research question was addressed: what was students’ perceived satisfaction with the academic support e-tools in the Teaching Methodology of Economics course under the COVID-19 lockdown? (Table 1)

In the table, 13 items were assessed on a satisfactory scale, ranging from very dissatisfactory to very satisfactory. In the table, 10 items ranging from very satisfied for discussion forum (M= 3.79) to satisfied for Phone calls (3.01). On the other hand, three e-tools, course recommended textbook (M= 2.86;SD= 1.083) online Econ blog (M = 2.55; SD= 1.044); and OER (M= 2.00; Sd = 1.001), were viewed as unsatisfactory. The overall response to this question was generally positive.

Table 2 summarises the statistics on student teachers’ views on academic support tools. The data shows that 11 of the e-tools were statistically significant, with p-values ranging from 0.956 to 0.794 and the t-test for the 11 items ranged from p < 0.000 to p < 0.002. It is observed that students were satisfied with the course recommended textbook (t-test = 0.302; p = 0.696), OER (t-test= 0.361; p = 0.619) and online Econoblog (t-test= 0.340; p = 0.613) which were not statistically significant. Furthermore, the discussion forum is viewed by respondents as the most satisfactory academic support e-tool during COVID-19 lockdown. There were significant positive views from the two groups related to the academic support e-tools. As shown in Table 2, both groups reported significant satisfaction with the majority of academic support e-tools for the course.

Figure 1 displays students’ responses to the research question:

RQ1.

What are students’ perceived preferences regarding the use of academic support e-tools in an ODeL course?

Figure 1 shows the number of student responses to the question related to preferences for specific types of academic support e-tools before and during COVID-19 lockdown in the course.

Figure 3 displays students’ preferences for specific academic support e-tools. The discussion forum was preferred before (45%) and during (77%) the COVID-19 lockdown. Secondly, the preference was for emails (before = 44% and during = 58%), then WhatsApp (before = 31% and during= 55%) and finally by announcements (before = 33% and during = 44%). Students’ preferences regarding support e-tools, arranged from highest to lowest, were, namely, the discussion forum (61.3%), WhatsApp group (48.0%), emails (56.3%) and Announcements (32.3%). These results refer to both before and during COVID-19 lockdown as an important e-tool on LMS to support them academically in the course. The data were downloaded and a histogram was designed to compute responses in the e-tools.

In Table 3 below, students responded in the open questions on their preferences and gave reasons for the type of specific academic support e-tool preferred before and during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Table 3 depicts students’ responses with regard to their preferences regarding specific academic support e-tools post-COVID-19. Students’ viewed the discussion forum (71.3%), WhatsApp group (68.0%) and emails (61.3%) as the most preferred e-tools to support them academically. The students’ supported the use of emails and the discussion forum with reasons for their most preferred e-tools to be used after the COVID-19 lockdown. Students’ reasons and motivations include sharing, communicating and collaborating with the lecturer and fellow students in the course. In the open-ended question section of the online survey, students’ preferences were recorded in relation to several academic support e-tools that were used in the ODeL teacher education course during the COVID-19 lockdown. Furthermore, students selected these e-tools as the most preferred under and post-COVID-19 lockdown. Students explained that these e-tools were used to motivate, share, communicate and collaborate with the lecturer and fellow students in the course.

The second stage of this study comprised generating inferential quantitative data for the four posited variables:

  1. perceived satisfaction (PS);

  2. perceived preferences (PP);

  3. preferences for discussion forum (PDF); and

  4. Web-based collaborative learning (WCL) is related to the academic support e-tools for online learning.

The ASeT was an online survey designed for students to respond to items related to their satisfaction and preferences for academic support tools in the course. As indicated, the ASeT was used to map student views regarding their satisfaction with and preferences for academic support e-tools, in particular the discussion forum, in an online course. Consequently, the following hypotheses were formulated given the specific research questions:

H1.

The ASeT positively influences the PS with academic support e-tools for online collaborative learning.

H2.

The ASeT positively influences the PP of academic support e-tools for online collaborative learning.

H3.

PS positively influences students’ preferences for the discussion forum as an academic support e-tool for online learning.

H4.

PP positively influence students’ preferences of the discussion forum as an academic support e-tool for online learning.

H5.

Discussion forum positively influences the students’ satisfaction with and preferences for web-based collaborative online learning (Figure 4).

The results of the factor analysis using the Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin (KMO) measurement for sample adequacy, Bartlett’s test of sphericity were computed. The analysis of moment structures (Arbuckle, 2006) to test empirically was used. The structural equation model (SEM) for students’ perceived satisfaction and perceived preferences of academic support e-tools, in particular, the discussion forum for online learning support in the Teaching Methodology of Economics course was explained.

In Table 4, the retention of 38 items on ASeTs presented three components, PS (13 items, α = 0.911); PP (13 items, α = 0.912), PDF (9 items, α = 0.877) and WCL (3 items, α = 0.722).It is observed that these three components have a strong relationship with students’ satisfaction with and preferences for academic supports in the course. The five hypotheses that were stated were accepted related to the positive effect on students’ satisfaction and preferences of the ASeT surveyed in an online course.

Next, in the data set (Table 5), the results for the AMOS model, the goodness-of-fit-measures were computed, namely, the chi-square statistic (CMIN), degrees of freedom (DF), CMIN divided by DF, root mean square residual (RMR), goodness-of-fit-index (GFI), adjusted goodness-of-fit-index (AGFI) and parsimony ratio (PRATIO).

The data analysis yielded acceptable goodness-of-fit-measures (Table 5). The goodness-of-fit-index (GFI = 0. 863) shows that the fit for the proposed model (AMOS) is approximately 86% of the saturated model. Furthermore, the following measures were generated, namely, chi-square statistic (CMIN = 786.761), degrees of freedom (DF = 89), CMIN divided by DF (8.766), root mean square residual (RMR = 0.0773), adjusted goodness-of-fit-index (AGFI = 0.866) and the parsimony ratio (PRATIO = 0.811). The results in Table 5 show that there is a positive relationship between the ASeT and PS (0.601***), the ASeT and PP (0.344***), PS and PDF (0.716***) and PP and PDF (0.561***)which reflects students perceived satisfaction with and preferences for academic support e-tools used in the online course during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Qualitative results

The third research question sought to ascertain: why do student teachers prefer the discussion forum as an academic support e-tool in the Teaching Methodology of Economics course under COVID-19 lockdown? To obtain qualitative data, thematic content analysis was used to identify themes from the discussion forum entries. Every week a specific question was posted for students. The posted comments were then downloaded, copied into a word document and subsequently analysed. The steps for the thematic analysis process, as described by Creswell (2012) and Nowell et al. (2017), were followed. The identified themes that emerged from the data analysis process were discussed below.

Discussion forum as engaged, participatory and communicative platform

The discussion forum e-tool was used during the lockdown in specific topics to stimulate students to share, engage, participate actively and communicate ideas on the online learning platform. The lecturer purposively used this e-tool as an engaging and active participatory strategy to stimulate reflection in the course. The objective is to help students who are inactive on the platform.

I like the engagement of contemporary topics, for example, […] the impact of COVID-19 on unemployment locally.

I support this platform for sure […] One thing I will do […] is trying this strategy in my lessons. Yah, our lecturer encouraged us to participate in the online discussions group.

My view is, this is an effective communicative method […] on this platform, it helps us to express our ideas.

The role of the lecturer as a facilitator in the discussion forum as a guide, motivator and online facilitator

The discussion forum e-tool was used by the lecturer as an engagement strategy to support students under COVID-19 lockdown. The lecturer played an important role in ensuring that effective participation remained high under lockdown. The lecturer’s role ranged from the guide, sympathiser, motivator to the facilitator to support students.

I learned one lesson from my lecturer on the forum: friendliness, compassion and sensitivity to us.

The lecturer provided constructive feedback to support me in my assessment tasks, projects and portfolio. His comments or suggestions on the forum were very helpful.

My lecturer shows sympathy for my circumstances during the lockdown. He knows our circumstances and understood my challenge of what we are going through if you cannot work during the lockdown.

He motivated and advised me on how to plan my lessons. He immediately answers my queries and offers supportive advice.

Our lecturer extends support by giving us further information on where to find relevant information on a topic to be taught.

Discussion forum as an online space for enhancing critical cognitive thinking and reimaging self-directed learning

On the Forum, students mentioned that they were challenged to reflect, rethink and reimagine issues of the day and contemporary topics such as unemployment and poverty in the country. The discussion forum gave students opportunities to share, reflect and open-up ideas. Students shared ideas on how to resolve the challenges of poverty during COVID-19 lockdown and how they could become involved in non-profit organisations (NPOs). Most of the discussions on the forum challenged students thinking about unemployment and poverty in the community.

What challenged my belief was when we discussed the topic of the state of poverty in our community. This topic changed my view of things that I never notice. During the lockdown, everyday NGOs giving food parcels to poor people.

I am fortunate to study at a university. I learned to be more sensitive to others in my community.

Be open to other viewpoints or ideas. It enhances my cognitive skills to think about how COVID-19 impacts our lives.

If you can see others’ frustrations and be mindful of my position of privileged in becoming a teacher […] then I must be thankful for this opportunity to serve my community.

I like the forum because it is an engaged and reimaging space for us to learn from each other. Mostly, I like the weekly contemporary topic […] unemployment, inflation, poverty, COVID-19 under lockdown […] other related topics.

Use of the teaching strategies that support student learning is empowering

Student teachers wrote in the discussion forum that the online pedagogical strategies they received were supportive of their learning. From the entries, it would appear that students were generally positive and satisfied with the support strategies throughout the course. They were positive, and they seemed to like the strategies as an extra effort and means used by the lecturer to clarify the module and its contents:

I could easily follow the types of teaching approaches. It was clear how to plan lessons, in particular, the cooperative learning strategies like a jigsaw.

Most of the pedagogical strategies that I learned and will implement in my lessons – the flipped learning and economic games – I like these two learner-focussed approaches.

I like the responses to issues posted on discussion forums and regular announcements. These means direct us what to be expected in the course.

Poor connectivity, non-responsiveness of other students (“online-lurkers”) and expensive data prices

Regarding the drawbacks of the forum, students expressed disappointment about how some of them experienced the platform. Some students alluded to frustrations with depleted data bundles, logging in to an online platform, inaccessibility, non-responsiveness of online lurkers and expiring passwords. Most students mentioned their frustrations with poor connectivity to the online system. Many complaints were received about expensive data prices. Sometimes the discussion forum platform is offline, thus preventing participation in the forum. The issue regarding some students who are lurking and just reading other comments on the Forum emerged during the course. These lurkers never post any comments or suggestions on the topics under discussion on the forum, they merely read those of others:

It is very frustrating to log in to the Forum. Either system is offline or very slow. Very, frustrating when you are lock-out or your password had expired. Yeah. my experience was when I run out of data bundles.

Some students only read comments but never post anything on the Forum. They are the online lurkers […] They only read your views but contribute or post nothing.

Discussion of findings

This study contributes to existing literature that academic support is an intentional, purpose-driven and meaningful action provided by the lecturer to students to achieve the ultimate goal of meaningful learning in the course (Dearnley, 2003; Lee, 2010). This study investigates student teachers’ views related to online academic support e-tools used in a teacher education course under the COVID-19 lockdown. In the context of this study, an integrative supportive frame based on social constructivist and web-based collaborative learning theories was used to examine the lived experiences of students on basis of perceived satisfaction with online learning support e-tools in a mediated and contextualised ODeL environment (Fryer and Bovee, 2016; LaPadula, 2003; Lee, 2010). It can be deducted supporting students under COVID-19 lockdown using specific academic support e-tools in online open distance e-learning (ODeL) course at an ODeL university revealed that students’ were positively in their responses. After executing this exploratory mixed methods design study, student teachers were satisfied with the academic support e-tools used under the COVID-19 lockdown in a teacher education course.

To support this major finding, the first question explored whether students were satisfied with the academic support e-tools used in the teaching methodology of economics course under the COVID-19 lockdown. It was found that student teachers were satisfied with these academic support tools and experienced them as positively impacted their online learning. This is supported by findings reported in this study that indicate that the e-tools were statistically significant (<0.000 to <0.002) relevant in measuring students’ perceived satisfaction of academic support e-tools in the Teaching Methodology of Economics course. Similar studies report the educational benefits of using the support tool through a pragmatic approach. These studies use online surveys, telephonic interviews and online video-conferencing to engage student learning in an online context (Morris et al., 2019; Nightingale et al., 2019; Zalavra and Papanikolaou, 2019). Regarding preferences in relation to the discussion forum, students viewed this e-tool as the most satisfactory academic support e-tool used to support students’ online learning. Also, it is observed that students were very satisfied with eleven of the items in the ASeTs to support them in the online course during the COVID-19 lockdown. In support of this finding, Nuninger and Châtelet (2018) used a video-based training strategy for tutoring students in a work-integrated learning course. Both student groups (4th-year BEd and PGCE) reported significant satisfaction with the majority of the academic support e-tools for the course. It is encouraging that a similar study conducted by Van Wyk (2019) also reported that pedagogical support tools enhance student online learning. Other studies also compare favourably with the findings of this study (Haggerty, 2015).

In the second question, students were asked about their preferences in regard to academic support e-tools used during the lockdown. Findings showed that students viewed the discussion forum (71.3%), WhatsApp group (68.0%) and emails (61.3%) as the academic support e-tools they most preferred to support them academically. This finding further supports Kainama et al. (2018) study on the use of social network sites to support students in a web-based collaborative online learning context. Adding to this outcome, students selected these e-tools as those most preferred under the post-COVID-19 lockdown. Attached to this finding, students were asked in the open-ended questions why they preferred specific academic support e-tools over others used in the course. The most prevalent reasons posted by students for their preferences for specific e-tools were motivation and satisfaction for online learning. They explained that the e-tools motivated them to participate, to share ideas, to communicate with fellow students and to collaborate with the lecturer and fellow students in the course. It is encouraging to compare these findings with those found by Kuboni and Martin (2004). The latter study used an integrated technology-enhanced web-based learning platform to assess support strategies for distance learners. After running a retention test for items in the ASeTs survey, four components, perceived satisfaction (α = 0.911); perceived preferences (α = 0.912), perceived discussion forum (α = 0.877) and web-based collaborative learning (α = 0.722) were found to be statistically significant. Overall, the five hypotheses were accepted which indicated a positive influence on student satisfaction with and preferences for e-tools in the online course. An empirical trend is observed of a positive relationship between ASeT and student satisfaction and preferences. Moreover, it showed that students were satisfied and preferred the use of support e-tools in the teaching methodology of economics.

The third question raised a couple of interesting unexpected outcomes in relation to why student teachers prefer the discussion forum platform as an academic support e-tool in the Teaching Methodology of Economics course under COVID-19 lockdown. Students viewed the discussion forum as an engaged, participatory and communicative platform for accelerated learning. This finding confirms an earlier study by Kuboni and Martin (2004) that reported on the incorporation of a computer-mediated communication tool with face-to-face classes supporting active learning and peer-learning amongst learners. One particular comment was captured that the discussion forum […] “is an effective communicative method […] it helps us to express our ideas”. This finding corroborates the ideas of Fiester and Workman (2019) that online instructors should be cognisant of the technologies students use, and how they are using them when considering planning for a virtual context. For most of the participants on the discussion forum, the lecturer was seen as an online guide, a motivator and an online facilitator of learning during COVID-19 and about which they were very positive in their comments. This extract, taken from one of the many positive views expressed by students related to the role of the lecturer in an online forum, says it all: “the lecturer provided constructive feedback to support me in my assessment tasks, projects and portfolio. His comments or suggestions on the forum were very helpful”. The current findings seem to be consistent with other research which found that instructors play a major role in the use of collaborative online or project-based learning platforms (Drinkwater et al., 2014; Haggerty, 2015; McLoughlin, 2002). The students posted that the discussion forum enhancing their critical thinking and supported self-directed learning when used as a supportive tool during the lockdown. In the discussion forum, students expressed ideas and communicated with fellow students about topics discussed in the course. This comment captured the forum as […] “Be open to other viewpoints or ideas. It enhances my cognitive skills […]”. On the discussion forum, several teaching strategies were discussed that support student learning throughout the course. The online facilitators must take cognisance of the flexibility of virtual pedagogical strategies to accommodate students. It is imperative that when instructors plan online projects or tasks for teams to collaborate virtually and flexibly support should be included in the design process for online learning (Fiester and Workman, 2019; Mullen and Tallent-Runnels, 2006). For example, cooperative learning models flipped learning, social media, videoconferencing and OER were designed to expose students to these teaching methods. One aspect that formed part of the design process of these tasks was issues of flexibility, constructive feedback and support. This extracted post refers: “most of the pedagogical strategies that I learned and will implement in my lessons – the flipped learning and economic games – I like these two learner-focussed approaches”. These strategies were used to empowering students.

Students also posted several drawbacks or challenges experienced with the Forum and with some of the academic support e-tools during COVID-19 lockdown. Comments ranging from poor connectivity to access the discussion forum as an online web-based collaborative space hosted on myUnisa. Students raised concerns related to some students who did not participate and who never respond to tasks on the forum. There were serious issues with students who are lurking and expensive data prices of service providers. This is what students wrote on the forum in this regard: “there are some students only reading comments but never post anything on the forum. They are the online-lurkers […] They only read your views but contribute or post nothing”.

Conclusions

This paper has argued that academic support is an intentional, purpose-driven and meaningful action provided by the lecturer to students to achieve the ultimate goal of meaningful learning in the Teaching Methodology of Economics course. This study has shown that student teachers were satisfied with the academic support tools and experienced them as positively impacting on their online learning under the COVID-19 lockdown. A second finding was that students’ perceived specific preferences regarding the academic support e-tools were, in particular, the discussion forum in an ODeL course. The most obvious finding to emerge from this study is that student teachers generally preferred the discussion forum platform as an engaged, participatory and communicative platform for accelerated learning in the teaching methodology of economics course. This exploratory pragmatic study extends our knowledge of the online academic support e-tools for an ODeL context that was used under COVID-19 lockdown. This study provides additional evidence concerning a revised academic support frame for an ODeL online learning context. A noteworthy contribution was made in the design and testing of the reliability of methodological tools which could be replicated in blended and ODeL contexts. However, in view of the small sample size, caution must be applied, as the findings might not be transferable to a similar context. The current study has only examined a teacher education course and could not be generalised to similar conditions as those under COVID-19 lockdown. This exploratory research has raised many questions that require further investigation. More research is required to determine the efficacy of the academic support e-tools with regard to student learning in other online courses and contexts.

Figures

Academic support and collaborative mapping of online learning

Figure 1.

Academic support and collaborative mapping of online learning

Course content combined with e-tools in the course under COVID-19

Figure 2.

Course content combined with e-tools in the course under COVID-19

Students’ preferences for academic support e-tools

Figure 3.

Students’ preferences for academic support e-tools

AseTs frame and structural model for effect on online learning

Figure 4.

AseTs frame and structural model for effect on online learning

Descriptive results of students’ satisfaction with e-tools (n = 93)

Descriptive analysis Satisfaction: Likert scale
How satisfied are you with the below listed academic support e-tools in the course? Means SD Very satisfied (%) Satisfied (%) Dissatisfied (%) Very dissatisfied (%)
1.1 Online tutorial letter 3.31 1.745 56 37 7 0
1.2 Official course study guide 3.25 1.520 21 69 7 3
1.3 Course recommended textbook 2.86 1.083 15 70 10 5
1.4 Online announcements/SMS 3.32 1.566 69 21 0 0
1.5 Online Econblog 2.55 1.044 30 59 11 0
1.6 Phone calls 3.01 1.111 45 50 5 0
1.7 Open education resources (OER) 2.00 1.001 5 66 24 5
1.8 Selected YouTube videos 3.13 1.111 14 69 17 0
1.9 WhatsApp group 3.46 1.842 73 27 0 0
1.10 Student emails 3.59 1.871 75 25 0 0
1.11 Online video-conferencing (teams) 3.11 1.388 56 44 0 0
1.12 Discussion forum 3.79 1.944 84 16 0 0
1.13 Additional resources (scholarly articles, webinars, PowerPoint presentation of lectures) 3.09 1.003 33 65 2 0
Notes:

Scale: 4 = Very satisfied; 3 = Satisfied; 2 = Dissatisfied; 1 = Very dissatisfied

Descriptive results of BEd vs PGCE group satisfaction with e-tools (n = 93)

Academic support e-tools 4th year BEd (n = 27)
Descriptive analysis
PGCE (n = 66)
Descriptive analysis
Statistical significance
Means SD Means SD t-test Sign
2.1 Online tutorial letter 3.81 1.845 3.76 1.805 0.001** 0.912*
2.2 Official course study guide 3.86 1.820 3.65 1.720 0.000** 0.853*
2.3 Course recommended textbook 2.06 1.083 2.31 1.031 0.302 0.696
2.4 Online announcements/SMS 3.78 1.766 3.43 1.506 0.001** 0.862*
2.5 Online Econblog 2.89 1.086 3.07 1.344 0.340 0.613
2.6 Phone calls 3.31 1.167 3.01 1.111 0.002** 0.797*
2.7 Open education resources (OER) 2.67 1.001 2.00 1.001 0.361 0.619
2.8 Selected YouTube videos 2.67 1.055 2.88 1.105 0.000** 0.803*
2.9 WhatsApp group 3.46 1.742 3.676 1.898 0.002** 0.794*
2.10 Student emails 3.39 1.871 3.51 1.671 0.001** 0.889*
2.11 Online video-conferencing (teams) 3.11 1.388 3.58 1.598 0.000** 0.843*
2.12 Discussion forum 3.89 1.914 3.92 1.994 0.000** 0.956*
2.13 Additional resources (scholarly articles, webinars, PowerPoint presentation of lectures) 3.49 1.303 3.11 1.103 0.001** 0.832*
Notes:

*p < 0.05;

**p < 0.001; Sign at 95% confidence level (two-tailed)

Students’ perceived preferences for academic support e-tools

Preferences and motivation for each of the type of support e-tool used before and during the lockdown in the course Less preferred e-tool before COVID-19 lockdown Most preferred e-tool during COVID-19 lockdown Reasons for preferring a specific e-tool for academic support
2.1 Announcements 52.3% X Not likely to use. Only the lecturer posted information on this space
2.2 SMS 45.6% X Some of the messages posted are not clear
2.3 Blog 39.8% X Most students did not respond to questions. Most were lurking and merely reading what others wrote
2.4 Emails 61.3% X The most frequently used e-tool for support during the course. I will use my @mylife.unisa.ac.za
2.5 Discussion forum 71.3% X This e-tool help me to share, post comments, communicate with fellow students. My lecturer posted valuable information on the course to assist us
2.6 Phone calls 51.5% X Not a cost-effective e-tool. As a student, not enough funds to make calls
2.7 WhatsApp group 68.0% X This e-tool is not licenced by the university but most students preferred to use it to communicate, share and collaborate with other students/lecturer

Factor analysis for ASETS of support e-tools (n = 93)

Items Factor name Factor loading Eigenvalue Extracted variances Corrected item-total correlation Cronbach’s alpha (α)
PS1.1 Perceived satisfaction 0.887 8.435 19.334 0.832 0.911
PS1.2 0.818 0.808
PS1.3 0.701 0.721
PS1.4 0.852 0.842
PS1.5 0.708 0.700
PS1.6 0.819 0.839
PS1.7 0.780 0.721
PS1.8 0.729 0.711
PS1.9 0.831 0.867
PS1.10 0.844 0.821
PS1.11 0.826 0.800
PS1.12 0.891 0.878
PS1.13 0.756 0.744
PP1.1 Perceived preferences 0.917 8.891 21.144 0.902 0.912
PP1.2 0.856 0.838
PP1.3 0.621 0.701
PP1.4 0.852 0.822
PP1.5 0.689 0.700
PP1.6 0.887 0.839
PP1.7 0.782 0.723
PP1.8 0.778 0.771
PP1.9 0.843 0.887
PP1.10 0.833 0.841
PP1.11 0.846 0.840
PP1.12 0.981 0.978
PP1.13 0.756 0.744
PDF1.1 Preference discussion forum 0.861 8.555 25.766 0.872 0.877
PDF1.2 0.808 0.788
PDF1.3 0.741 0.744
PDF1.4 0.833 0.832
PDF1.5 0.658 0.678
PDF1.6 0.819 0.800
PDF1.7 0.734 0.777
PDF1.8 0.759 0.731
PDF1.9 0.831 0.837
WCL1.1 Web-based collaborative learning 0.800 16.755 0.799 0.722
WCL1.2 0.809 0.788
WCL1.3 0.781 0.723
Total 82.999
Notes:

KMO = 0.861 Bartlett’s test of sphericity, Chi-square = 10,684. 255; DF = 140; Sign. = 0.000.

Extraction: principal component analysis, rotation: varimax with Kaiser normalisation

Structural equation model (SEM)

Independent variables <or > Dependent variables Regression estimates Total effects Direct effect Indirect effect
H1. ASeTs positively influences the PS of academic support e-tools for online collaborative learning Perceived satisfaction of support e-tools 0.601*** 0.601 0.601
H2. ASeTs positively influences the PP of academic support e-tools for online collaborative learning Perceived preferences of support e-tools 0.344*** 0.344 0.344
H3. PS positively influences the students’ preferences regarding the discussion forum as an academic support e-tool for online learning Preferences for discussion forum 0.716*** 0.966 0.716 0.201
H4. PP positively influences the students’ preferences regarding the discussion forum as an academic support e-tool for online learning Collaboration on the discussion forum 0.561*** 0.891 0.561 0.277
Note:
***

p < 0.001 statistically significant at a 95% confidence level

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Acknowledgements

The author expresses his gratitude toward the peer reviewers and the guest editors of the Special Issue of this journal for constructive suggestions to strengthen this paper. Acknowledgment is given to the National Research Foundation for grant funding (Grant ID # 113615). Furthermore, acknowledgment is given to the economics student teachers who voluntarily participated in this research study. The quality of language revision work done by the University’s Language Services is highly appreciated. Finally, any opinions, findings and conclusions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the Department.

Corresponding author

Micheal M. van Wyk can be contacted at: vwykmm@unisa.ac.za