- Research article
- Open Access
The roles of academic engagement and digital readiness in students’ achievements in university e-learning environments
© The Author(s) 2019
- Received: 28 March 2019
- Accepted: 20 May 2019
- Published: 21 June 2019
University students, who are assumed to be digital natives, are exposed to campus e-learning environments to improve their academic performance at the beginning of their academic careers. However, previous studies of students’ perceptions of e-learning demonstrate a lack of consistent results with respect to the prediction of their academic achievement. The goal of this study was to examine university students’ perceptions of e-learning, based on their experiences, and the mediating roles of academic engagement and digital readiness within the university context of an e-learning environment for academic achievement. A total of 614 undergraduate students enrolled in a Korean university participated in this study. Using a partial least squares model to develop the theory, we examined students engaging in university e-learning environments in relation to their perceptions of e-learning, digital readiness, academic engagement, and academic achievement (i.e., grade point average). The results are significant for the importance of students’ academic engagement and digital readiness as mediators in their perceptions of e-learning predicted by academic achievement. Although students positively perceived e-learning experiences on campus, they must have strong digital skills to perform academic work and commit to effortful involvement in the context of academic learning in university e-learning environments. Our results provide practical implications for ways to enhance effective adoption of e-learning environments by college students, educators, and administrators.
- Digital learning environments
- Academic engagement
- Academic performance
In recent years, higher education institutions have shown a persistent concern with enhancing students’ academic performance through the use of innovative technologies that offer new ways of delivering and producing university education (Deng & Tavares, 2013; Orton-Johnson, 2009). E-learning environments in universities assist with distributing educational resources, supporting instructor-to-student communication, facilitating student learning communities, managing student learning progress, and enabling students to take e-learning courses (Islam, 2013). The e-learning experiences of students in higher education institutions tend to be integrated with academic experiences for sustainable learning improvement because they are relevant not only to academic success but also to lifelong learning for personal success. The e-learning environment in a higher education institution is a learning ecosystem that integrates digital technology with teaching and learning practices as a significant educational innovation, by advancing technology-enabled platforms (Eze, Chinedu-Eze, & Bello, 2018). The benefits of e-learning environments for students and universities are saving substantial costs for physical teaching and learning infrastructure, contributing to the digitization of course contents to easily share and adopt learning contents anytime and anywhere, and integrating the global educational environment (Pham, Limbu, Bui, Nguyen, & Pham, 2019).
Recently, technology-driven learning experiences in university education have followed the changing educational paradigm from being instructor-led to becoming learner-centered learning strategies (Ituma, 2011; Olelewe & Agomuo, 2016). In Korea, university students in recent years have been engaging in university e-learning courses from the start of their academic lives, often before entering a pre-college program. To develop higher quality and learner-centered education, universities have built enriching e-learning environments that meet various educational needs (Islam, 2013). For example, the high quality of digital learning resources triggers the transformation of traditional classrooms into flipped classrooms or blended learning environments (Álvarez, Martín, Fernández-Castro, & Urretavizcaya, 2013), thereby enhancing face-to-face instruction through digital learning resources and offering students a more intellectually engaging learning experience (Woods, Baker, & Hopper, 2004). These changes reflect the idea that traditional instruction can be enhanced by using e-learning environments. Thus, universities are investing in the development of campus e-learning environments as students’ preferred method of course delivery or as a supplementary method to traditional face-to-face courses, based on the approach that technologically savvy, digital native students are familiar with such learning environments (Parkes, Stein, & Reading, 2015). These movements in Korea are stimulated to move toward this university-driven effort by governmental policies impacting higher education and by the needs of university members such as faculty or students. Considering students as digital natives implies that when students are engaged in a university e-learning environment, they are expected to have experience and confidence using such a type of learning environment. However, university educators are faced with unexpected results of students who engage in university e-learning environments such as students’ mixed perceptions of e-learning (Hunley et al., 2005; Levy, 2007).
To achieve a high rate of student academic success, e-learning in higher education encompasses the use of digital technologies to build educational materials for teaching and learning, to teach learners, and to regulate courses (Fry, 2001; Parkes et al., 2015). E-learning has expanded rapidly with the popularization and advancement of multimedia and network technologies such as high-speed Internet, high-definition video, smart devices, and intelligent functionalities of learning management systems (Cidral, Oliveira, Di Felice, & Aparicio, 2018; Eze et al., 2018). Advances in e-learning environments at universities around the world continue to contribute to improving students’ academic success (Castillo-Merino & Serradell-López, 2014; Naveed, Muhammed, Sanober, Qureshi, & Shah, 2017). Technological tools and systems in e-learning environments enhance the quality of learning experiences and outcomes by providing adaptive materials and strategies for the needs and preferences of individual learners (Means, Toyama, Murphy, & Bakia, 2013).
From simple adoption of in-person technology instruction to complex adoption using lecture capture, online chat, discussion boards, and social networking services, the higher education sector adopts blended learning as the norm to improve the effects of using e-learning environments as more active approaches to drive student engagement (López-Pérez, Pérez-López, & Rodríguez-Ariza, 2011). Interestingly, these types of dynamic adoption of e-learning systems show mixed results for students’ academic success such as increased satisfaction with the learning experience (Lyons & Evans, 2013), a positive effect in reducing dropout rates (López-Pérez et al., 2011), higher academic performance (López-Pérez et al., 2011; Roffe, 2002), and reflective and critical thinking (Saadé et al., 2012). By contrast, many studies also showed that there was no relationship or a negative relationship between satisfaction with e-learning courses and grade point average (GPA) (Levy, 2007) or technology use and student GPA (Hunley et al., 2005) among students who fully or partially access campus e-learning environments. The reason for the mixed results may be students’ different levels of digital skills, engagement, and other characteristics, including attitudes, motivations, and confidence about using university e-learning technology for academic activities (Roffe, 2002).
Research model and hypotheses
Academic achievement, engagement, and e-learning
Academic achievement, represented by GPA as an outcome of student experiences at university, is a typical factor in examining the effects of instructional activities. GPA is one of the best predictors of college success in academic activities (Moore & Shulock, 2009). Achievement at university tends to be determined by previously acquired knowledge, skills, abilities, and various factors related to time and resources devoted to studying and attending classes (Plant, Ericsson, Hill, & Asberg, 2005). According to Carini, Kuh, and Klein (2006), academic performance and students’ learning engagement show statistically significant positive relationships. Students’ academic engagement refers to commitment to or effortful involvement in the context of academic learning throughout a student’s entire school experience (Coates, 2006; Henrie, Halverson, & Graham, 2015). Engagement refers to the quality of effort made by students in educationally purposeful activities and contributes to desired academic outcomes (Kuh, 2001). Students’ deeper engagement can lead them to beneficial educational practices, which further lead to comprehensive learning (Coates, 2006; Hodge, Wright, & Bennett, 2017).
Hypothesis 1 (H1): Students’ e-learning adoption is positively related to academic achievement (GPA).
Hypothesis 2 (H2): Students’ academic engagement is positively related to academic achievement (GPA).
Hypothesis 3 (H3): Students’ e-learning attitude is positively related to academic achievement (GPA).
Academic engagement and e-learning
The e-learning environment provides learning assistance that allows students to be more engaged and perform better in their academic courses (Islam, 2013). Academic engagement is important in any learning context, including face-to-face, online, and blended courses (Henrie et al., 2015). In studies examining higher education, academic engagement tends to be a strong predictor of academic development (Carini et al., 2006). Coates (2006), using a more inclusive and holistic perspective of the student experience, asserted that student engagement in academia develops from the dynamic association between students and their institutional circumstances. In that study, academic engagement focused more on student experiences in internal and formal instructional environments. Academic engagement can be increased by using technology to connect students, instructors, and the course content to facilitate academic success (Mehdinezhad, 2011). In this study, academic engagement plays the role of mediator for college students to support education via the adoption of e-learning in their academic work.
Hypothesis 4 (H4): Students’ e-learning adoption is positively related to academic engagement.
Hypothesis 5 (H5): Students’ e-learning adoption is positively related to digital readiness.
Hypothesis 6 (H6): Students’ e-learning attitudes are positively related to academic engagement.
Hypothesis 7 (H7): Students’ e-learning attitudes are positively related to digital readiness.
Digital readiness for academic engagement
Hypothesis 8 (H8): Students’ digital readiness for academic engagement is positively related to academic engagement.
The data were collected as part of a larger study on the quality of undergraduate educational experiences at the university, particularly students’ digital learning experiences. The survey was conducted through a self-administered online questionnaire using SurveyMonkey. The students who volunteered were sent an email in which they were asked to click on an attached Internet address that linked to the target survey.
Under 19 years
Over 25 years
Sports and others
To explore student experiences with e-learning environments on campus, we asked the students to confirm their level of experience through a series of statements assessed on a Likert scale. Students showed that they were good adopters of e-learning applications and devices, including smart phones, tablets, or laptops, for their academic work. Students were searching the Internet to find information (M = 4.23, SD = .89), studying with various types of online content (YouTube, etc.) (M = 4.17, SD = .86), creating academic documents using various tools (M = 3.90, SD = .93), using mobile apps to study academic work (M = 3.76, SD = 1.04), and using networking software to connect with classmates (M = 4.26, SD = .85). However, the students’ lack of experience in college was high with respect to the university e-learning environments. The students lacked experience using lecture videos as e-learning activities (M = 2.71, SD = .149). They also lacked experience with mobile e-learning courses using their smart devices (e.g., smartphones or tablets) (M = 2.22, SD = .139). The data show that the students lacked experience in taking credit-based e-learning courses (M = 2.07, SD = .145) and in using university e-learning platforms for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) for either credit or noncredit courses (M = 1.91, SD = 1.30).
In addition to questions regarding demographic information such as gender, age, grade, academic discipline, and grade point average (GPA), the survey included several questions to measure the students’ perceptions of e-learning environments on campus (see Appendix). The level of student experience with university e-learning environments was measured using items developed to collect such data, including e-learning systems with on-campus and off-campus components, the level of information and communication technology (ICT) required for the major, ways of learning to use e-learning resources and systems, and previous experience with e-learning prior to college.
As an antecedent to academic engagement and performance in university e-learning environments, e-learning attitude was measured as the positive or negative perceptions of students of the use of e-learning technology; it was measured using the seven items described by Chu and Chen (2016). Sample items included, “Studying with e-learning is a good idea” and “All things considered, using the e-learning system is beneficial to me.” The scale showed strong reliability in the present study: Cronbach’s alpha was equal to .94.
For e-learning adoption, perceived behavioral control in e-learning is measured through a student’s evaluation of resources and their capabilities when engaged in e-learning (Chu & Chen, 2016). An individual evaluation by college students of personal capabilities and resources is also an antecedent of the adoption of e-learning components. Perceived behavioral control is known to be a positive predictor of the intention to adopt e-learning (Chu & Chen, 2016). The three items were adapted from Chu and Chen (2016). Sample items included, “I have the necessary knowledge for using the university e-learning system,” “Using the university e-learning system is entirely within my control,” and “I have the necessary resources for using the university e-learning system.” The scale showed strong reliability in this study: Cronbach’s alpha was equal to .85.
Digital readiness was adopted from Hong and Kim (2018), who measured college students’ perceived digital competencies for academic engagement. Digital readiness is regarded as necessary for college students’ academic success. All 17 items were measured using a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). The scale showed strong reliability in this study: Cronbach’s alpha was equal to .91.
Academic engagement was measured using a scale developed by Handelsman, Briggs, Sullivan, and Towler (2005). Academic engagement is defined here as a student’s psychological and behavioral efforts and investment in learning, understanding or mastering skills, and knowledge in academic work (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004). Student experiences with e-learning systems can affect academic engagement. The scale showed strong reliability in this study: Cronbach’s alpha was equal to .84.
To analyze the collected data, descriptive statistics were used to calculate the mean, standard deviation, correlations, independent t-test results, and ANOVA using IBM SPSS 23 software. Partial least squares-structural equation modeling (PLS-SEM) was adopted to test the research model by empirically assessing a structural model together with a measurement model (Fornell & Larcker, 1981). To explore and develop a theoretical model, we assessed the research model using the SmartPLS 3.0 software (Ringle, Wende, & Becker, 2015), following the two-stop approach of first evaluating the measurement model and then the structural model (Anderson & Gerbing, 1988).
PLS-SEM was used to explore a hypothetical research model by analyzing latent variables with multiple observed variables using regression-based methods (Chin, 1998a, 1998b; Hair, Hult, Ringle, & Sarstedt, 2017). Also, PLS-SEM is a more exploratory means of understanding the specific path coefficients and variance of the dependent variable explained by the independent variables in the research model, rather than examining the goodness of fit (Chin, Marcolin, & Newsted, 2003; Petter, 2018). PLS-SEM is known to be a more effective approach to developing a theory with limited conditions such as multivariate normality assumptions, smaller sample sizes, residual distribution, and measurement scales than those in covariance-based structural equation modeling (CB-SEM) (Chin & Newsted, 1999; Hair, Sarstedt, Ringle, & Mena, 2012). For the fit indices of the model, we adapted Chin’s (1998a, 1998b) catalog of criteria.
For PLS-SEM, the size of data should be at least 10 times the number of constructs related to a single endogenous dependent construct (Chin, 1998a, 1998b; Wixom & Watson, 2001). In the research model, there are four constructs related to the endogenous dependent construct of academic achievement. The minimum number of data to apply PLS-SEM are 40 (10 × 4 constructs). Thus, the size of 614 in total exceeded the recommended sample size to drive statistical inferences.
The initial analysis of the research model was conducted through the approximate fit of the estimated model using the standardized root mean square residual (SRMR). The model showed the value of 0.051, which was below the recommended value of 0.08 (Hu & Bentler, 1998); this suggests that the research model is a good fit to the data. Moreover, the fit index of the saturated model showed a value of 0.051 and confirms a good value of model fit (Hair et al., 2017).
We evaluated the measurement model for the reliability, discriminant validity, and convergent validity of the constructs.
Descriptive statistics, Cronbach’s alpha, composite reliability, and average variance extracted
1. Academic engagement (AE)
2. E-learning adoption (EA)
3. E-learning attitude (ET)
4. Digital readiness (DR)
5. Academic achievement (GPA)
Discriminant validity analysis
Academic performance (AP)a
Academic engagement (AE)
Digital readiness (DR)
E-learning adoption (EA)
E-learning attitude (ET)
Matrix of loadings and cross-loadings of variables in the measurement model
1. Academic engagement
2. E-learning adoption
3. E-learning attitude
4. Digital readiness
Hypotheses, path coefficients, and results
E-learning adoption > Academic achievement
Academic engagement > Academic achievement
E-learning attitude > Academic achievement
E-learning adoption > Academic engagement
E-learning adoption > Digital readiness
E-learning attitude > Academic engagement
E-learning attitude > Digital readiness
Digital readiness > Academic engagement
E-learning adoption - > Digital readiness - > Academic engagement
95% LLCI: 0.028, ULCI; 0.080
E-learning attitude - > Digital readiness - > Academic engagement
95% LLCI: 0.011, ULCI; 0.079
E-learning adoption - > Digital readiness - > Academic engagement - > Academic achievement
95% LLCI: 0.008, ULCI; 0.024
E-learning attitude - > Digital readiness - > Academic engagement - > Academic achievement
95% LLCI: 0.003, ULCI; 0.024
E-learning adoption - > Academic engagement - > Academic achievement
95% LLCI: 0.010, ULCI; 0.066
E-learning attitude - > Academic engagement - > Academic achievement
95% LLCI: −0.023, ULCI; 0.036
In this study, we examine our research model to reveal the relationship between university students’ experience in e-learning and academic achievement (GPA) to enhance the explanatory power of the research model using additional factors. Mixed results regarding the effects of e-learning environments that encourage academic success motivated a scholarly interest in the design of the research model. Thus, the present study examined the mediating roles of digital readiness and academic engagement in e-learning for academic achievement within the university setting to strengthen this relationship.
This study attempts to contribute factors of enhancing student’s academic success in university e-learning environments. The findings show that two of the factors of students’ perceptions of e-learning on campus, e-learning adoption and e-learning attitude, did not directly predict academic achievement. This result is consistent with previous results on students’ participation in e-learning in university settings, which did not show a significant impact on their level of performance (Davies & Graff, 2005). There are possible explanations for the unexpected finding. First, it seems to be related to students’ high-effort experience required for academic activities involving e-learning. According to Kuh (2001), students’ quality of effort devoted to educationally purposeful activities can contribute to academic outcomes. The lack of a significant relationship may be related to a student’s commitment or effort—academic engagement—toward achieving good academic performance (Rodgers, 2008). In other words, students’ e-learning experiences and perceptions do not directly predict their achievement without their engagement in academic activities. Second, various factors, both personal and school-related, have an influence on student achievement (Plant et al., 2005), including gender, ethnicity, family income, and the social-economic environment (Betts & Morell, 1999); study hours and the pedagogical environment (Clifton, Perry, Stubbs, & Roberts, 2004); self-regulatory learning strategies and academic self-efficacy (Richardson, Abraham, & Bond, 2012); and others. Thus, examining the effects of university students’ e-learning on their academic achievement without controlling other factors may explain the weak direct relationship.
The research model revealed that student e-learning adoption and attitudes in the university context are academic achievements mediated by digital readiness and academic engagement. To lead students toward better outcomes using university e-learning environments, it is necessary to enhance their meaningful academic engagement in achieving better academic results (Axelson & Flick, 2010; Kearsley & Shneiderman, 1998). One of the most important goals of higher education using e-learning environments is to get students to be more active in the learning process through dynamic engagement that fosters cognitive and non-cognitive skills for academic success (Ituma, 2011; Saadé, Morin, & Thomas, 2012). Particularly, e-learning adoption plays the role of significant antecedent, rather than e-learning attitude, which means that the actual experiences of students in adopting e-learning can contribute to academic engagement. Additionally, university students who are confident in their digital skills for their academic work, which means they have digital readiness, encounter more possibilities for academic achievement in university e-learning environments; that is, positive perceptions or experiences of university e-learning environments and the use of course delivery using learning management are not enough to significantly demonstrate strong academic achievement for academic success. The findings of the current study imply that students who actively adopt e-learning and have confident attitudes still need to be committed and make the effort to learn the use of digital materials, along with a pedagogical approach that entails self-directed learning for academic achievement in a university e-learning environment (Davies & Graff, 2005). In addition, given that academic engagement mediates the relationship between e-learning use and academic achievement, e-learning environments should be designed to deepen students’ level of engagement in academic activities. Also, universities have not fully considered the digital competencies of students in relation to academic success in university e-learning environments (Parkes et al., 2015). Thus, a university should focus on supporting learning assistance and community building to ensure that students have enriched experiences of using e-learning systems for their learning (Islam, 2013). For example, universities can support the use of students’ electronic portfolios for academic courses with a university assistant as a learning mentor, as well as allow internal and external e-learning contents (e.g., MOOCs as large learning communities) to earn academic course credits toward degrees.
The practical implications of this study provide university administrators with suggestions for an integrated approach involving both e-learning and offline environments. The findings of this study suggest the need to provide opportunities for students to learn and adapt e-learning resources and infrastructure as a way of deepening their academic experiences. Universities need to provide training, direction, and support according to students’ profiles, which are derived from regular examination of their experiences and level of e-learning adoption for academic engagement and achievement. For example, universities have recently adopted intelligent systems using students’ profiles to predict students’ future performance and analyze current status of learning gaps. With such a system, the university can recommend activities (e.g., technology-based learning workshops) and contents (e.g., e-learning contents to learn Microsoft Excel for course work) to deepen student’s academic experiences of integrated learning environments. Although students as digital natives have experience using e-learning, universities should consider advancing the adoption of e-learning and other technologies, in both curricular and extra-curricular settings. For example, students could attend on- and offline campus workshops and courses from general education regarding technology integration for academic courses. Most of all, faculty must recognize the need for technology integration in their courses and make an effort to integrate campus e-learning environments into curriculum. E-learning environments on campus should be tools to support students’ efforts in their academic work. To be supportive, user experience design of e-learning systems is the key to enhancing student and faculty experiences and creating effective teaching and learning activities. Although members of the young generation are regarded as digital natives, they need to prepare for the integration of digital competency with academic work (Hong & Kim, 2018).
Further, integrated e-learning should be pursued by instructors along with students’ experiences of pursuing academic engagement to enhance the effect of higher education on academic achievement. In particular, blended learning that integrates instructor-led instruction with technology-driven teaching strategies or materials has proven to be an effective approach to enhancing student learning outcomes and academic satisfaction in higher education (López-Pérez et al., 2011; Lyons & Evans, 2013). Instructors should consider how to integrate campus e-learning tools and infrastructure in their classroom teaching and student learning. Effective emersion of a university e-learning environment that provides a successful academic experience strongly depends on the instructor’s guidance and teaching approaches in the environment. Instructors should find or apply digital tools or infrastructure to accomplish the course objectives according to the characteristics of the course.
It is necessary to examine additional antecedents to control unacknowledged confounding factors. The research model can be extended to the antecedents to predict digital readiness, academic engagement, and academic achievement having low R-squared values. For example, the possible antecedents for the model are student background information (e.g., young experiences of technology adoption, parental support at an early age; See Kim et al., 2018); academic experiences (e.g., instructors’ efforts to integrate e-learning into the courses and school support); e-learning experiences (e.g., taking intensive courses with digital technology, courses with mentors, and numbers of assignments using digital technology); and peer group culture of using technology can be considered as the antecedents to evolve our models. For future studies, the following are possible considerations: (1) Different levels of adoption with respect to university e-learning environments should be considered as a controlled factor in the model; (2) the research model needs to be extended to improve the findings of the roles of digital readiness and academic engagement as mediators; (3) the research model of the present study can be applied to examine students in other institutions or different countries to generalize the model; and (4) further studies could examine the relationship between university administrators’ and faculty members’ perceptions of e-learning adoption in campus-based and online courses and compare these with student engagement and performance.
We want to thank MS. Juyeon Hong, a Ph.D. student, for her help in the data collection. Furthermore, we wish to thank the anonymous reviewers.
This work was supported by the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Korea and the National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF-2017S1A3A2066878).
HJK, AJH, and HDS. conceived the research idea and designed the research framework. HJK collected the data and analyzed it. HJK, AJH, and HDS equally contributed to prepared, revised and approved the manuscript. All three authors read and approved the final manuscript.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
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