Int. J. Innovation and Learning, Vol. 7, No. 3, 2010

The key factors for acquired knowledge through e-learning Viktorija Sulčič
Faculty of Management Koper University of Primorska Cankarjeva 5, 6000 Koper, Slovenia E-mail: viktorija.sulcic@fm-kp.si
Abstract: In the paper, some study results of the key factors that have impact on acquired knowledge in a blended learning course are presented. The study derives from two groups of research activities the results of which are presented in the paper – the research on student dropout and research on learning outcomes. The experience of e-learning implementation in a business school in higher education is included in the research as well. The research is based on nine hypotheses about the impact on student success in a blended learning course. An e-learning course is considered successful if students gain more knowledge than they do in a traditional course. Different e-learning characteristics were investigated on the sample of 339 undergraduate students. The regression analysis was used to identify the variables that have significant impact on the acquired knowledge. More knowledge participating in a blended learning course was acquired by part-time students, by students whose personal characteristics studying online improved, by the students who were able to use different e-business services, who were more motivated in their studies and by the students for whom the course performance was acceptable. At the end of our research, three main factors were isolated as the key factors for the success of blended learning courses in small educational environment – course performance, output characteristics and tutor support. Keywords: blended learning successfulness; innovation; higher education; learning. e-learning effectiveness;

Reference to this paper should be made as follows: Sulčič, V. (2010) ‘The key factors for acquired knowledge through e-learning’, Int. J. Innovation and Learning, Vol. 7, No. 3, pp.186–198. Biographical notes: Dr. Viktorija Sulčič teaches business informatics, e-business and e-learning at the Faculty of Management Koper. She leads the faculty’s e-learning centre. Her research work is closely connected to e-learning and e-business. Some of her research papers are available on her personal web page: http://www.vika.si/.

Copyright © 2010 Inderscience Enterprises Ltd.

The key factors for acquired knowledge through e-learning




Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in educational institutions is used to support all school processes although the main processes – learning and teaching – have been supported with more resistance and with a respective delay in ICT implementation in the administrative (transaction) processes. The situation is quite similar to ICT implementation in businesses where transaction processes (e.g., accounting and finance) were supported first (Turban et al., 1999, p.48). The pioneers in introducing ICT in learning and teaching processes were institutions that performed distance education. ICT was first used as a distribution channel through which study materials were distributed from the school (teacher) to the students. In the first quarter of the 20th century, radio transmission techniques were successfully used for delivering study content to students in areas with scattered population (Buck, 2006). In the 1950s, a television technique was recognised as a potential content delivery medium (Sulčič, 2007, p.2). During the last 20 years, computers and the internet became the main educational technology in schools. E-learning has become a general term for education where ICT is used irrespective if it is used to support teaching and learning processes in the classrooms or if the teaching and learning is performed at a distance, where teachers and students are not present at the same place. Implementing ICT in education is similar to implementing ICT in businesses – it demands process renovation. Teaching and learning methods have to be changed and adapted to the new circumstances. ICT is not used only to overcome the distance between teachers and students. It can be used in on-campus courses as well. With the development of the mobile networks, the term mobile learning (m-learning) was created. As online learning, it is a form of e-learning (Petrova, 2007). We prefer to use the term e-learning rather than online learning (we can use ICT offline as well) or distance learning. E-learning, based on different learning pedagogies, mostly on Piaget’s cognitive constructivism and Vygotsky’s social constructivism that are the basis of learning approach is discussed in our paper. The knowledge gained during formal education becomes quickly out-of-date and therefore needs to be updated. Leaving a job and enrolling in the formal education as a regular full-time student is not often possible and realisable for different reasons (family or professional obligations and responsibilities), thus different e-learning courses have become useful and popular; not only courses organised by educational institutions, but also courses organised by profit and non-profit organisations. According to the Global Industry Analysts report, e-learning has emerged as the second most employed method for imparting learning in organisations. They provide many advantages to e-learning, including cost reduction, simplifying training programmes and flexibility. The US e-learning market is greater than the European market. The global e-learning market is expected to grow between 15% and 30% next year (Global Industry Analysts, no date). On other hand, there are several research activities that put a shadow on e-learning. We may divide these research activities into two groups: 1 research on students who leave their online education before its conclusion or dropouts (Flood, 2002; Diaz, 2002; Masie Center – eLearning Consortium, 2003; Forrester, 2000 in Dagger and Wade, 2004; Mungania, 2004; Carter, 1996 in Tyler-Smith, 2006)

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V. Sulčič research on learning outcomes (Russell, 2001; NSD, 2008).

According to some studies between 10%–20% of online students (Diaz, 2002) or even up to 70%–80% students (Forrester, 2000 in Dagger and Wade, 2004; Flood, 2002) leave their online courses. Researchers differ in the methodologies used to figure out dropouts. For example, some institutions do not include students who leave their online courses during the transitional period at the beginning of the course (Carr, 2000) when schools fees are refunded. The data on dropouts do not encourage institutions to implement online education because the resulting dropout is not something that the institutions would like to achieve. The other group of research known as ‘no significant difference phenomenon’ collects results of different comparisons between learning outcomes achieved by students who study online and students of distance education. The Russell (2001) Research and the NSD web page (NSD, 2008) report that there are no significant differences between the outcomes. The awareness of the research results of both groups open the challenge to find the most appropriate model of e-learning that will improve student knowledge and do not increase student dropout recorded in classical courses. On the basis of the negative experience in online education reported in the first group of research, we decided to combine classical lectures with online activities in a web-learning environment. This combination of face-to-face meetings with online activities is known as a blended learning approach (Valiathan, 2002; Sulčič, 2007, p.17; MacDonald, 2008; Koohang, 2009, pp.76–77). Our blended learning approach also includes tutor support. The tutor – a teacher or an assistant, monitors student progress – motivates them to accomplish their obligations, gives additional explanations of topics that are less intelligible and assesses their assignments. For the implementation of the tutor-supported blended learning approach, a tutor-training course was developed and a large percentage of our academic staff have been enrolled in it. During a four-week tutor-supported training, which was performed as a blended learning course, the participants acquired skills to prepare and to perform their courses as a combination of face-to-face meetings carried out in real classrooms and online activities in web-based classrooms. Moodle,1 an open source Learning Management System (LMS), has been used as a web-based classroom at our faculty from the beginning of e-learning activities at the faculty. Our aim to implement e-learning at the faculty was followed by the research on the appropriateness of selected e-learning models. The research results regarding the dropouts showed that there were no significant differences between online learning outcomes and those achieved in ordinary classrooms. In our research we would like to figure out the critical key factors that have an impact on the acquired knowledge in courses that were performed according to the selected e-learning model. The research results will contribute to the e-learning research field because the factors that we would like to figure out are significant for smaller learning environments, which has not been researched in this way so far. It needs to be emphasised that in our country, there were no more than 115 445 students in all higher education institutions (public and private) in the academic year 2007/2008 (SORS, 2008). The research started with the hypothesis that predicts the impact of e-learning courses on student sucess: Hypothesis 1 Demographical features do not have a significant impact.

The key factors for acquired knowledge through e-learning Hypothesis 2


Students who assess their personal characteristics with higher values are more successful. Students who have a computer with internet connection at home are more successful. Students who are more computer and internet literate are more successful. Motivated students and students who are willing to learn are more successful. Students who use ICT in everyday life are more successful. Students enrolled in courses with more face-to-face meetings are more successful than students in courses with fewer face-to-face meetings. Students who work in smaller groups are more successful. Professionally educated and pedagogically skilled tutors have significant impact on student successfulness.

Hypothesis 3

Hypothesis 4

Hypothesis 5

Hypothesis 6 Hypothesis 7

Hypothesis 8 Hypothesis 9

Our hypotheses were constructed based on the research activities carried out in larger institutions and in truly online learning environments.


E-learning process and e-learning effectiveness

E-learning is a process in which students, teachers/tutors, developers and technical or administrative staff are included (see Figure 1). Depending on the institution characteristics (size, level of education, e-learning model, etc.) a single person – a teacher, based on curriculum, develops the e-course, prepares the study materials and delivers them to students. The teacher can have a tutor role as well. This is usually the case in small institutions, as our faculty is, where course materials are not ICT-intensive and the online activities are combined with face-to-face meeting in a real classroom. Students accomplishing study obligations graduate and successfully leave an e-learning process and enter the labour market as job seekers. E-learning courses that are developed can be offer on the e-learning market, not only for full-time students but also for life-long learning learners (see Figure 1). The e-learning process depends on different external factors, such as market conditions, formal and jurisdiction framework, pedagogical and andragogical perspectives, etc. (see Figure 1). According to Swan (2003) learning effectiveness means that learners complete an online program (course) and achieve the program (course) goals. Learning effectiveness is defined similarly by Liu et al. (2007) – as gained knowledge, skills and attitudes, which means that the goals are achieved by learners. In some research activities a faculty perception of student (learner) goals achievements is used and in others a learner evaluates his/her own achievements (Swan, 2003; Hjeltnes and Hansson, 2005).

Figure 1

V. Sulčič
The e-learning process

Learning (e-learning) effectiveness can be measured in different ways. In same cases cost effectiveness is measured – learner achievements are compared to educational costs (Rumble, 1997). In others cases, learning (study) effectiveness is measured with output results – the number of students completing the program, the number of graduates placed in appropriate jobs, etc. (Sulčič, 2007, p.73; Hjeltnes and Hansson, 2005, p.25). Finishing studies on time and acquiring competencies that can help a graduate find a job represent important criteria to assess study effectiveness – not only for traditionally performed study, but for e-learning study as well. Our school does not have experience in performing the whole study program online, therefore data collected from three undergraduate courses help us to find the key factors of the successful e-learning course performed in a small business school (a school with no more than 3000 students). We assess study effectiveness on the basis of course grades (teacher perspective) and on the basis of student opinion about required knowledge (student perspective).
Figure 2 Institutional e-learning model

The key factors for acquired knowledge through e-learning


The effectiveness of the e-learning process depends on different processes – e-learning developing process, e-learning performance and on the evaluation process through which all e-learning processes and activities are evaluated (‘E’ in Figure 2) and improved (see Figure 2). Especially the evaluation process and the process of continuing improvement have an important role in the process of e-learning effectiveness endeavour. It needs to be stressed that ICT infrastructure is not more than a material prerequisite for the e-learning process. Achieving e-learning effectiveness teaching strategies – how the course is performed – is more important than ICT per se.


Research methodology

The research is based on the survey in which 339 full-time and part-time students were enrolled in three undergraduate courses in the academic years 2004/2005 and 2005/2006. The courses – one obligatory and two electives, are part of traditionally taught study programme, therefore no selection among students enrolled in these courses was made. Students were invited to fulfil a questionnaire at the beginning and at the end of each course. Short questionnaires were presented to students during the course as well. In the short questionnaires, data on student workload and their opinions on the study materials, tutor support and course performance were collected. Based on the literature review and on the institutional e-learning modes presented in Figure 2, the groups of characteristics, which, according to our opinion, could have an impact on the study effectiveness, have been designed (see Figure 3). The characteristics groups could be connected to students or to learning strategies and to study materials, and could have an impact on the outputs – on course grades or on acquired knowledge (see Figure 3).
Figure 3 The characteristics groups

Demographic characteristics Personal characteristics Infrastructure Computer and internet literacy Internet services usage Readiness for e-learning Study attitude Learning strategies and study materials e-learning performing Tutor support Students STUDY EFFECTIVENESS

Course grade

Acquired knowledge

Course grades are determined by the teacher who assesses how well the students achieved course outcomes, therefore they present a teacher’s perspective of study effectiveness. On the other hand, students alone, especially part-time students, can easily assess if the acquired knowledge is usable and recognised in the labour market. From the institution perspective and also for its promotion, it is very important that acquired


V. Sulčič

knowledge can be tradable on the market, which is why (see Figure 4) the impact on the acquired knowledge (student perspective of e-learning effectiveness) is presented in our model.
Figure 4 The model of factors that have an impact on acquired knowledge

Way of study Type of course Gender Output characteristics

Demographic characteristics Personal characteristics Infrastructure Computer and internet literacy Internet services usage

Acquired knowledge

Wish to study online Work harder Changed motivation E-classroom Study materials Course performing

Readiness for e-learning Study attitude

e-learning performing Tutor support

Because of the data quantity collected during our research some of the characteristics were later combined. We used simple mathematical operations or the Principal Components Analyses (PCA) where it was possible (KMO ≥ 0.60, Cronbach alpha ≥ 0.80 and Bartlett test: Sig. < 0.5). The regression analysis (stepwise method) was used to extract significant characteristics from the characteristics group and to move them into the model of the key factors for the acquired knowledge in e-learning. The impact of particular items in the group of the demographic characteristic, items in the group of the personal characteristics and so forth (see Figure 3) on the acquired knowledge were tested. Only the items for which the regression analysis found significant impact (Sig. < 0.005) on the acquired knowledge entered our model of key factors presented later in Figure 4. The regression analysis was used in the final model as well.



In the group of demographic characteristics, the impact of gender, age, mode of study (part-time or full-time study), working hours, years of work experience and the success of their secondary schooling were tested. The significant impacts are presented in Table 1 and included in our model of key factors (see Figure 4). The linear regression excluded insignificant variables, therefore these variables have not been included in our model. Based on the results presented in Table 1, Hypothesis 1 wherein demographical features do not have a significant impact can be rejected. Part-time students, students in the elective course and female students believed that they acquired more knowledge by studying online.

The key factors for acquired knowledge through e-learning
Table 1 The impact of demographical characteristics B 0.710 0.551 0.366 F = 14.653; Sig. = 0.000; Adjust. R2 = 0.184. t 3.359 3.279 2.266 Sig. 0.001 0.001 0.025


Included variables Way of study Course Gender Notes:

The group of personal characteristics consists of student performance – for study, communication and work organisation. Their leadership skills and creativity were also included. We gathered data about their personal characteristics at the beginning of the course and after its completion, where the supposed impact of ICT usage in learning process may change them. The personal characteristics gathered at the beginning of the course were joined with the PCA method into a new variable – input personal characteristic. The new variable explains the variability of joined variables by 59.92%. The same procedure was used with data gathered at the end of the course. A new variable – output personal characteristic – explains the variability of joined variables by 65.11%. Only the output personal characteristics have a significant impact on the acquired knowledge and explain it by 25.5% (Sig. = 0.000). Motivation – before and after the online study experience – was tested as well. We found that output motivation (motivation after the completion of the course) has a positive significant impact on acquired knowledge (Sig. = 0.000). It is interesting to note the course performance impact on student motivation: after the course was completed, students became more motivated in their studies. Based on these results, the fifth hypothesis – where we supposed that motivated students and students who are willing to learn are more successful – can be accepted. The personal characteristics were assessed higher by part-time students and by students participating in an elective course. The differences were found in both surveys – at the beginning and at the end of the courses. Students who have more self-initiative and persistence acquired more knowledge in a blended learning course. The second hypothesis – where we supposed that students who assess their personal characteristics with higher values are more successful – can be accepted. In the group of infrastructure characteristics the probable impact of students’ computer equipment and internet access on acquired knowledge was tested. No variable had a significant impact and the third hypothesis, that is, that students who have a computer with internet connection at home are more successful, was rejected. The group of computer and internet literacy consists of variables on students’ general computer usage ability and their ability of using some of the most common applications and services – a word processor, spreadsheet, browser and e-mail. All variables were joined with PCA in a new variable that explains 60.14% variability of the joined items. The regression analysis did not find a significant impact of computer and internet literacy on the acquired knowledge. Therefore, the fourth hypothesis, that is, that students who are more computer and internet literate are more successful, can be rejected. Students assessed how often they use internet services – downloading music and movies, listening to the internet radio or watching internet TV, using different messaging programs, e-banking, etc. Their usage of 13 different services was assessed on the four-point scale where ‘1’ means that they do not use a particular service and ‘4’ means


V. Sulčič

that they use the service frequently. The PCA method was used to join all 13 variables. The four components were extracted to explain the variability of the 13 variables on internet services usage by 62.99%. The first component represents student attitude towards e-business usage; the second component represents entertainment part of the internet usage; the third component, the internet usage for study purposes; and the fourth component represents the multimedia content downloads. The results of the regression analyses showed that only the first component has an impact on the acquired knowledge (Sig. = 0.001). Therefore the sixth hypothesis, that is, that students who use ICT in everyday life are more successful, can be accepted. Readiness for e-learning was measured through student assessment of six different variables: attitude towards ICT, willingness to study online, to study on their own, to communicate with teachers via e-mails, awareness of life-long learning demands and the necessity for contacts with fellow student. Only willingness to study online was found to have a significant impact on the acquired knowledge (Sig. = 0.000). E-learning was performed as blended learning where traditional meetings in real classroom were combined with online student activities in a web-based learning environment. Students assessed the web-based learning environment – its usability, clarity and user friendliness. Their ability to use learning environment was assessed as well. All variables were combined into one by using the PCA method. A new variable named ‘e-classroom’ explained joined variables by 79.35%. Students assessed the characteristics of study materials in e-classroom as well. The particular variables were joined by PCA method in a new variable named ‘study material’, which explained joined variables by 70.77%. Students assessed the course performance – achieving course expectations, course attraction, ease of study, etc. These variables were joined together in a new variable named ‘course performance’, which explains source variables by 57.32%. In all three new variables – e-classroom, study materials in course performance, acquired knowledge is explained by 52.4% (Sig. = 0.000) (see Table 2).
Table 2 The impact in the group of blended learning characteristics B 0.556 0.210 0.173

Included variables Course performing Study materials E-classroom Notes:

t 5.807 2.189 2.033

Sig. 0.000 0.030 0.044

F = 62.318; Sig. = 0.000 Adjust. R = 0.524.

At the end of our survey, the tutor role was investigated. According to the students’ opinion, the tutor activity can improve their study successfulness. The students realised that they have more contact with the tutor than in a classical learning environment. The tutor role was extremely important for part-time students. All variables related to the tutor role were joined with PCA method in a new variable named ‘tutor support’. This variable explained 59.50% variability of the source variables. The positive impact of student/learner support in virtual environments was likewise found by Bailenson et al. (2008), although the research was made in a different cultural and learning environment.

The key factors for acquired knowledge through e-learning


All analysed variables that have a significant impact on acquired knowledge were joined together and are presented as a model in Figure 4. The variables presented in Figure 4 correlate more or less among them and they have different (significant or not significant) impact on the acquired knowledge. More acquired knowledge was perceived by part-time students (0.36); by students who believed that their personal characteristics improved by studying online (0.57); by students who are e-business participants (0.24), who wish to study online (0.69), who became more motivated for their study (0.57), who keenly accepted study materials (0.62) and who liked the way the course was organised (0.69). Acquired knowledge was in a positive correlation with the opinion about tutor support (0.54) – students who acquired more knowledge assessed tutor role higher in the e-learning process than students who acquired less knowledge in a blended course than in a classical course. In the next step, a regression analyses was used on the variables that correlated with acquired knowledge. From the results presented in Table 3, statistically significant impact of course performance, output characteristics and tutor support were isolated. The acquired knowledge was explained by the isolated variable by 55.2%.
Table 3 The key factors with an impact on acquired knowledge B 0.484 0.296 0.233

Included variables Course performing Output characteristics Tutor support Notes:

t 5.429 3.445 2.845

Sig. 0.000 0.001 0.005

F = 52.284; Sig. = 0.000; Adjust. R = 0.552.

Other variables included in model and gender (see Figure 4) were excluded from the model, despite the fact that there are research activities in which gender represents a significant variable (Liu, 2008b; Masie Center, 2003).



The research started with a review of literature and with characteristics that could have an influence on study effectiveness – from a teacher or from a student perspective (see Figure 3). In the next step, only the impact on acquired knowledge was the centre of our attention and the characteristics that could have a significant impact on acquired knowledge were isolated and collected in the model presented in Figure 4. The regression analysis exposed three variables – course performing, output characteristics and tutor support – which explained acquired knowledge by 55.2% (Sig. = 0.000). Our research confirmed that teaching strategies are much more important than ICT per se. Teaching strategies have an impact on course performance (see Figure 2), which was exposed by regression analysis as one of the key factors for effective blended learning course as used at our faculty. Instead of intensive ICT usage (multimedia and interactive study materials) a well-prepared tutor with clearly defined roles participate in a learning process. The tutor presence was found as a significant factor of effective blended


V. Sulčič

learning course (see Table 3) and the ninth hypothesis, that is, professional education and appropriate pedagogical skills of the tutor have significant impact on student success can be accepted. It is interesting that students who assess tutor role with high values do not need more face-to-face meetings. As we can see, a well-prepared tutor can freely substitute traditional meetings, which would consequently decrease the institutional costs. The seventh hypothesis, that is, more organised face-to-face meetings have significant impact on student success, can therefore be rejected. As mentioned before, the tutor role is very important. However, the tutor can work well only if the group that he/she is mentoring is so small that it can be managed successfully. Students in smaller groups were more successful than their fellow students in larger groups; therefore, the eighth hypothesis can be accepted. During the research, the following hypotheses were accepted: • • • Motivated students and students who are willing to learn are more successful. Students who assess their personal characteristics with higher values are more successful. Students who use ICT in everyday life are more successful.

However, the hypotheses that demographical features do not have a significant impact, students who have a computer with internet connection at home are more successful, students who are more computer and internet literate are more successful, cannot be accepted. Our research was focused on smaller educational institutions where learning and teaching processes are usually performed in a different way than in larger institutions. It took into consideration not only the extent of institution but also the approach used in teaching and learning. The key factors were found in courses where the blended learning approach was used. Therefore the findings may help smaller higher education institutions where ICT would be used to support traditional (face-to-face) courses or when those institutions are planning to move from traditional courses to online courses. The research findings would be useful for school management in the case of implementing ICT at the school level and in particular to teachers who implement ICT in their traditional courses. All stakeholders in organising and performing educational processes in smaller educational environments can easily take care of the exposed key factors and therefore assure efficient e-learning courses. In these cases, ICT will not replace a teacher but will change his/her role into a tutor role that can be easily managed and improved by the institution and by teachers themselves. The research confirmed that a tutor-supported blended learning course could be cost-efficient and effective even if it is performed in a small educational environment. In the subsequent research, it will be interesting to find out if student learning styles, as grouped by Liu (2008a) – positive evaluator, suspicious participant and interactive empathiser – will have any impact on acquired knowledge in our model. A similar research for the whole study programme and not only for individual courses should also be carried out.

The key factors for acquired knowledge through e-learning


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1 www.moodle.org

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