The effects of a social support intervention on distance learner behaviour
Jane E. Brindley, University of Ottawa , Canada
University of Ottawa . Awarded
The major purpose of this study was to evaluate the effect of an early intervention on distance learning outcomes, specifically learner behaviour associated with persistence and academic achievement, learner satisfaction, and intention to re-enroll. Social support theory was used as a conceptual framework to guide the development of an early intervention designed to enhance social integration by linking the distance learner into existing institutional support systems at a dual mode university. The social integration model proposes that students who are sufficiently integrated into the academic and social life of an institution through various kinds of interaction are more likely to experience goal satisfaction, develop institutional commitment, and, consequently, to persist in their studies.
The project involved random assignment of paired study participants (all new to distance education) to either an experimental (n = 93) or a comparison (n = 93) group (the latter referred to herein as the control group). Both groups received a baseline service consisting of a printed orientation package called The Starter Kit that was designed specifically for this study. The experimental group, in addition to these materials, received an intervention consisting of two telephone calls and two follow-up letters from a member of the university staff. These interactions consisted of welcoming the learner, calling the learner's attention to the orientation materials, addressing issues common to distance learners, identifying any problems or needs, providing encouragement and positive emotional support, and strongly reinforcing the notion that help for distance learners is readily available from the institution.
The first hypothesis was that the social support intervention provided to the experimental (intervention) group would be positively related to desired learning outcomes, both learner behaviour and learner satisfaction. The second hypothesis was that to the extent that a relationship was revealed between the treatment and the outcomes, it would be mediated by perceived social support. The results of t-tests and chi-square analyses revealed that there was no significant effect (at the p < .05 level) of the intervention on learner behaviour or satisfaction. It therefore seems appropriate to regard the two orientation efforts (i.e. print materials plus intervention by telephone and mail, versus print materials alone), as about equally (rather than differentially) effective in enhancing distance learner behaviour and satisfaction. Lack of adherence to design, a ceiling effect, and the absence of a no-treatment control group were identified as factors which may have contributed to not finding a direct relationship between the intervention and outcomes.
Although no main effects were found for the intervention, a series of post-hoc regression analyses revealed a strong positive relationship between social support and learner satisfaction, including intention to re-enroll. This outcome supports and extends findings from other studies of learner support in distance education by confirming the relationship between perceived institutional support and learner satisfaction, and by providing a theory-based explanation of how interaction enhances the distance learner's experience. The results are consistent with the social support literature in that it was the individual's subjective appraisal of support availability which was associated with satisfaction. Future research should address what kinds of university processes might contribute significantly to perceived social support in a distance learning setting, and if outcomes other than satisfaction can be improved by enhancing perceived social support. Follow-up research will be enhanced by the development in this study of reliable multi-faceted measures of learner satisfaction and perceived social support.
Brindley, J.E. The effects of a social support intervention on distance learner behaviour. Ph.D. thesis, University of Ottawa.
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