DISTANCE EDUCATION AND OPEN DISTANCE LEARNING

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CHAPTER 3 RESEARCH DESIGN AND METHODS

“I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn” (Albert Einstein, 2011:online

INTRODUCTION

In the previous two chapters, the background and theoretical perspectives applicable to this study were explained. As the aim of the study was to apply the DE theoretical frameworks of Holmberg (1982) and Moore (1973) to understand the low retention and throughput rates of the FAC2602 students at Unisa, data was required to determine whether the application of mobile phones in the teaching and learning of FAC2602 did indeed increase the didactic conversations (cf. Holmberg, 1982) between the students and the lecturer and by doing so lessened the transactional distance (cf. Moore, 1973). In this chapter, the research design and methods appropriate to this study are explained.
The chapter commences with a description of the research scope and philosophy setting applicable to this study, after which the research design and methods most appropriate to answer the research questions are explained. The chapter concludes with a discussion about the limitations and strengths of this study as well as the ethical considerations applicable. A visual presentation of the layout and structure of Chapter 3 is provided in Figure 3.1

RESEARCH SCOPE

The research process comprises several activities and is a “systematic process of collecting, analysing and interpreting information (data) in order to increase our understanding of a phenomenon about which we are interested or concerned” (Leedy
& Ormrod, 2010:2). The rationale for the present research originated from the low retention and throughput rates of the FAC2602 students. The literature reviewed in Chapter 2 inter alia revealed that DE students need contact with the institution/facilitator (to lessen the transactional distance) and support (to improve didactic conversation) in order to be successful in their studies. The DE theories of Holmberg (1982) and Moore (1973) provide a theoretical framework for understanding student retention and throughput. The present study aimed to determine whether the application of mobile phones in the teaching and learning of FAC2602 facilitated quality didactic conversations and lessened transactional distance. The research questions that had to be answered are again presented in Table 3.1

RESEARCH PHILOSOPHY

Before I could evaluate the students’ experiences and perceptions on the use of mobile phones, I had to consider various key research concepts. Firstly, I had to investigate the main philosophical characteristics differentiating existing research paradigms. Mertens (2010:7) defines a paradigm as a way of looking at the world. A paradigm encompasses ethics, ontology, epistemology and methodology (Lincoln, Lynham & Guba, 2013:189). These concepts are central to all social research and relate to the nature of knowledge and the development of that knowledge (Coe, 2012; Kalof, Dan & Dietz, 2008; Laughlin, 1995:63; Saunders, Lewis & Thornhill, 2009). The methodological approach used by any researcher is underpinned by and reflecting specific ontological and epistemological assumptions (Grix, 2002:179). In Table 3.2 Hay (2002) summarises the key concepts related to research design.
The aforementioned concepts have been applied in the present study as described below

Ontology

Ontology is the starting point of all research after which a researcher’s epistemological and methodological positions follow (Grix, 2002:177). Blaikie (2000:8) suggests that ontological claims are “claims and assumptions that are made about the nature of social reality, claims about what exists, what it looks like, what units make it up and how these units interact with each other”. Blaikie (2000:8) goes on to imply that ontological assumptions are concerned with what we believe constitutes social reality. The ontological dimension of the present study was thus the learning experience as a proxy of the social reality of FAC2602 students. The focus however was on their learning experience in using mobile phones as a means of communication

Epistemology

Epistemology, on the other hand, is concerned with the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to the methods, validation and “the possible ways of gaining knowledge of social reality” (Blaikie, 2000:8). Knowledge is not static, but is forever changing. When reflecting on theories and methods, researchers need to reflect on their paradigmatic assumptions and preferences as well as the related theories and methods (Grix, 2002:177). The importance of research paradigms in the accounting sciences has been recorded in various scholarly documents (refer Ahrens et al., 2008:840; Kaidonis, Moerman & Rudkin, 2009:285; KakkuriKnuuttila, Lukka & Kuorikoski, 2008:298; Laughlin, 1995:63; Lukka, 2010:110). The shift in accounting education research from positivist to subjective thinking (Laughlin, 1995:63) and also from quantitative to qualitative research (Parker, 2012:54) become noticeable in the 1970s. This subjective thinking and qualitative research in accounting education research are supported by Becker (2008 in Ahrens et al., 2008:842) who is of the opinion that critical interpretive research in accounting can assist by finding theories and data, which may in likeness be applied to the field of accounting education. Hopper, Otley and Scapens (2001:263) also want accounting “research attempting to integrate and consolidate the variety of theories and methodologies which have emerged in recent years”.
Epistemologically, the present study constituted an integration of theories and methods of two separate disciplines, namely the accounting sciences and the education studies. As the study was concerned with accounting students’ learning experiences and perceptions, I had to consider two contrasting epistemological orientations namely the positivist paradigm (positivism) and the interpretivist paradigm (interpretivism) (Bryman, 2001:12; Grix, 2002:178). Positivist researchers seek to acquire lawlike generalisations by conduct ing ‘valuefree’ research to measure social phenomena (Neuman, 2011; Wahyuni, 2012:71). These authors also believe that different researchers observing the same phenomenon and using the same methods will generate similar results and reach the same conclusions (Creswell, 2009).
Conversely, an interpretivist paradigm, also called the phenomenological approach, subscribes to what is called constructivism, and aims to understand people (Babbie & Mouton, 2001:28; Wahyuni, 2012:71). This paradigm involves taking people’s experiences as the essence of what is real to them in their natural settings. The central assumptions of interpretivism (Stahl, 2014:2) embrace that knowledge –
is gained through social constructions;
does not have predefined dependent and independent variables;
focusses on sense making in complex and emerging situations; and
attempts to understand phenomena through the meanings assigned to them by individuals in situations.
Interpretivists therefore aim to “piece together people’s words, observations and documents into a coherent picture expressed through the voices of the participants” (Trauth & Jessup, 2000:54). Geertz (1973:9) summarises the data collected in an interpretive study as “what we call our data are really our own constructions of other people’s constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to”. When taking people’s experiences as the essence of what is real for them in their natural setting (Creswell, 1994; Leedy & Ormrod, 2001) and applying it in an interpretive research paradigm, it is necessary to interact with the people and listen to their voices in order to gain an indepth understanding of their percepti ons and experiences. People’s perceptions, opinions and experiences are explored using methods such as semi structured interviews or focus groups, so that fewer people take part in this type of research compared to the positivist approach (Creswell, 2005; Patton, 1990). Table 3.3 highlights the aforementioned differences between positivist and interpretivist paradigms.
The aforementioned concepts have been applied in the present study as described below:
Ontology
Ontology is the starting point of all research after which a researcher’s epistemological and methodological positions follow (Grix, 2002:177). Blaikie (2000:8) suggests that ontological claims are “claims and assumptions that are made about the nature of social reality, claims about what exists, what it looks like, what units make it up and how these units interact with each other”. Blaikie (2000:8) goes on to imply that ontological assumptions are concerned with what we believe constitutes social reality. The ontological dimension of the present study was thus the learning experience as a proxy of the social reality of FAC2602 students. The focus however was on their learning experience in using mobile phones as a means of communication

Epistemology

Epistemology, on the other hand, is concerned with the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to the methods, validation and “the possible ways of gaining knowledge of social reality” (Blaikie, 2000:8). Knowledge is not static, but is forever changing. When reflecting on theories and methods, researchers need to reflect on their paradigmatic assumptions and preferences as well as the related theories and methods (Grix, 2002:177). The importance of research paradigms in the accounting sciences has been recorded in various scholarly documents (refer Ahrens et al., 2008:840; Kaidonis, Moerman & Rudkin, 2009:285; KakkuriKnuuttila, Lukka & Kuorikoski, 2008:298; Laughlin, 1995:63; Lukka, 2010:110). The shift in accounting education research from positivist to subjective thinking (Laughlin, 1995:63) and also from quantitative to qualitative research (Parker, 2012:54) become noticeable in the 1970s. This subjective thinking and qualitative research in accounting education research are supported by Becker (2008 in Ahrens et al., 2008:842) who is of the opinion that critical interpretive research in accounting can assist by finding theories and data, which may in likeness be applied to the field of accounting education. Hopper, Otley and Scapens (2001:263) also want accounting “research attempting to integrate and consolidate the variety of theories and methodologies which have emerged in recent years”.
Epistemologically, the present study constituted an integration of theories and methods of two separate disciplines, namely the accounting sciences and the education studies. As the study was concerned with accounting students’ learning experiences and perceptions, I had to consider two contrasting epistemological orientations namely the positivist paradigm (positivism) and the interpretivist paradigm (interpretivism) (Bryman, 2001:12; Grix, 2002:178). Positivist researchers seek to acquire lawlike generalisations by conduct ing ‘valuefree’ research to measure social phenomena (Neuman, 2011; Wahyuni, 2012:71). These authors also believe that different researchers observing the same phenomenon and using the same methods will generate similar results and reach the same conclusions (Creswell, 2009).
Conversely, an interpretivist paradigm, also called the phenomenological approach, subscribes to what is called constructivism, and aims to understand people (Babbie & Mouton, 2001:28; Wahyuni, 2012:71). This paradigm involves taking people’s experiences as the essence of what is real to them in their natural settings. The central assumptions of interpretivism (Stahl, 2014:2) embrace that knowledge –
is gained through social constructions;
does not have predefined dependent and independent variables;
focusses on sense making in complex and emerging situations; and
attempts to understand phenomena through the meanings assigned to them by individuals in situations.
Interpretivists therefore aim to “piece together people’s words, observations and documents into a coherent picture expressed through the voices of the participants” (Trauth & Jessup, 2000:54). Geertz (1973:9) summarises the data collected in an interpretive study as “what we call our data are really our own constructions of other people’s constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to”. When taking people’s experiences as the essence of what is real for them in their natural setting (Creswell, 1994; Leedy & Ormrod, 2001) and applying it in an interpretive research paradigm, it is necessary to interact with the people and listen to their voices in order to gain an indepth understanding of their percepti ons and experiences. People’s perceptions, opinions and experiences are explored using methods such as semi structured interviews or focus groups, so that fewer people take part in this type of research compared to the positivist approach (Creswell, 2005; Patton, 1990). Table 3.3 highlights the aforementioned differences between positivist and interpretivist paradigms

Methodology

The selection of an appropriate research design and methodological approach (refer section 3.4) in order to solve the research problem as stated in Table 3.1 is directly related to the theoretical perspective derived from the theories of Holmberg (1982) and Moore (1973). This combined theoretical perspective was used as suggested by Eisenhardt (1989:532) as:
an initial guide to design and collect data (section 3.4 and 3.5);
part of an iterative process of data collection and analysis (section 3.5); and
the final interpretation of the results (section 3.5)

RESEARCH DESIGN

A research design is defined as the logical sequence that connects the empirical data to the initial research questions of a study and ultimately the conclusions of the study (Yin, 2003:20). It can also be explained as the blueprint of research, namely –
which questions to study;
which data is relevant;
which data to collect; and
how to analyse the results (Yin, 2003:21).
The blueprint common to a case study research design is very suitable for an educational setting. The components include:
the questions of a study;
the propositions of a study;
the unit(s) of analysis of a study;
the logic linking the data to the propositions; and
the criteria for interpreting the findings (Yin, 2003:21).
Focussing once more on the research questions (Table 3.1) and the provisional conceptual framework (Figure 2.5) relevant to this study, my reasons for choosing an explanatory singlecase study design (Yin, 2009:219 ) are authenticated by Yin’s (2003) four reasons for choosing a case study design, namely:
nature of research questions – according to Yin (2003), case studies are favourable when ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions are being asked. This was in line with my own research questions as I wanted to know ‘how’ the students experienced and perceived the use of mobile phone interventions in the FAC2602 module;
nature of event – Yin (2003) suggests that case studies are favourable when contemporary events are investigated and when behaviour cannot be controlled. Education (including accounting education) is also a field in which the researcher and participants often have little control over events. When conducting the study at hand, I had no control over the behaviour of the students in the FAC2602 module at Unisa, an ODL institution in Africa, and the aim of the study was to obtain/investigate their experiences and perceptions;
nature of phenomenon – according to Yin (2009:219), case studies allow for a holistic study of a phenomenon. In this research, I applied the DE theories of Holmberg (1982) and Moore (1973) to answer the research questions. Student retention and throughput constitutes a contemporary phenomenon in any academic institution and are also relevant to accounting students’ teaching and learning; and
unique case – this holds true for FAC2602, an Accounting module at Unisa, an ODL institution in South Africa, with its own syllabus and where no mobile phones have previously been used in the presentation of the module. This rationale was also the reason why I considered and labelled my case study a singlecase study, as I focussed on one specific Ac counting module at Unisa.
In addition to the above four reasons, I have selected this design to gain an indepth understanding of the particular situation and its meaning to the students involved (Yin, 2009:18). This design was well suited to this topic as it provided me with an in depth and accurate portrayal of the participating FAC2602 students’ experiences and perceptions on the integration of mobile phones in the module.
By selecting the explanatory single casestudy rese arch design, I have followed the successful examples of other scholars to observe and interpret the participants’ experiences and perceptions that might escape researchers using other methodologies (Fraenkel & Wallen, 2006; Hamilton & CorbettWhittier, 2013:39; Merriam, 1998; Miles & Huberman, 1994:25). Students registered for the FAC2602 module from 2006 to 2012 were selected for this explanatory singlecase study.
One of the advantages of a case study design is the close collaboration between the researcher and the participants, while enabling participants to tell their stories (Crabtree & Miller, 1999). Yin (2009) believes the researcher’s interests lie in the process rather than in the outcomes, in context rather than in a specific variable, and in discovery rather than in confirmation. Through their stories, the participants were able to describe their views of reality and this enabled the researcher to understand the participants’ actions better (Lather, 1992:87). The participating FAC2602 students helped me to answer my research questions by sharing their experiences and perceptions on the use of mobile phones in the module with me.
In addition, there are two key approaches that guide case study design. One is proposed by Robert Stake (1995) and the second by Robert Yin (2009:219). Both seek to ensure that the topic of interest is well explored and that the essence of the phenomenon is revealed. Stake (1995) mentions the intrinsic, instrumental and collective type of case studies, while Yin (2009:219) identifies the exploratory, explanatory and descriptive case studies. I deemed an explanatory case study a valuable means to study the integration of mobile phones into an Accounting module at Unisa. This explanatory singlecase study was an alysed by relying on the theoretical propositions outlined in the review of the literature. The propositions helped me to focus my attention on certain data, to ignore other data and to organise the entire case study.
However, one of the common pitfalls associated with case study design is that there is a tendency for researchers to attempt to investigate a question that is too broad or a topic that has too many objectives for one study (Baxter & Jack, 2008). In order to avoid this problem, I followed the suggestions by Yin (2009) and Stake (1995) by placing boundaries on the case study for my research by restricting my selected case to students registered for the FAC2602 module between 2006 and 2012. These boundaries had to ensure that the study remained in scope and indicated what would and would not be studied in the research project. Schramm (1971) describes the essence of all types of case study, is that it tries to illuminate a decision or a set of decisions: why they were taken, how they were implemented and with which results. Research experts (Creswell, 2005; Patton, 1990; Yin, 2009:219) agree that it is important for the researcher to have a detailed research design in place

RESEARCH METHODS

Case study as a research design comprises an allen compassing method covering the logic of design, data collection techniques and specific approaches to data analysis (Yin, 2003). Another advantage is that a case study relies on multiple sources of evidence (Yin, 2009:14). The researcher collects detailed information using a variety of procedures (which in the present study comprised quantitative and qualitative data) over a sustained period (Merriam, 1998; Yin, 2003). This ensures that the issue is not explored through one lens but rather a variety of lenses which allows for multiple facets of the phenomenon to be revealed and understood (Baxter & Jack, 2008:544)

Research approach

I used a mixedmethod research approach in this stu dy to answer the research questions. Johnson and Onwuegbuzie (2004:17) define mixedmethod research as:
the class of research where the researcher mixes or combines quantitative and qualitative research techniques, methods, approaches, concepts or language into a single study.
Mixedmethod research thus entails a procedure of c ollecting, analysing and mixing/integrating both quantitative and qualitative data at some stage of the research process within a single study (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2011:54; Plano Clark & Creswell, 2008:21). When used in combination, quantitative and qualitative methods complement each other and provide an absolute picture of the research problem (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2011:26; De Vos et al., 2011:434; Plano Clark & Creswell, 2008:164; Yin, 2009:63). The mixedmethod research approach enabled me to address a range of confirmatory and explanatory questions with both the quantitative and qualitative approaches simultaneously and therefore to verify theory.
In addition, my study followed a sequential mixedm ethod approach, consisting of two distinct phases (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2007:81; De Vos et al., 2011:441; Plano Clark & Creswell, 2008:180). In the explanatory sequential design, the quantitative (numeric) data are collected and analysed first, while the qualitative (text) data are collected and analysed second in sequence (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2011:82). Following up the quantitative results with a qualitative data collection helps to explain and elaborate on the quantitative results obtained in the first phase.
Figure 3.2 is a diagram depicting the mixedmethod explanatory sequential research approach followed in this study

TABLE OF CONTENTS
Declaration
Recognition and acknowledgements
Preface
Summary
Abbreviations and acronyms
Table of contents
List of tables
List of figures
CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY
1.1 INTRODUCTION
1.2 PRESENTATION STYLE
1.3 BACKGROUND AND CONTEXTULISATION OF THE STUDY
1.4 RATIONALE TO THE STUDY
1.5 RESEARCH PROBLEM AND QUESTIONS
1.6 RESEARCH DESIGN AND METHODOLOGY
1.7 SIGNIFICANCE OF THE RESEARCH
1.8 EXPLANATION OF KEY TERMS
1.9 OUTLINE OF STUDY
1.10 CHAPTER CONCLUSION
CHAPTER 2 THEORETICAL PERSPECTIVES
2.1 INTRODUCTION
2.2 DISTANCE EDUCATION AND OPEN DISTANCE LEARNING
2.3 THEORETICAL FRAMEWORKS IN DISTANCE EDUCATION CONTEXT
2.4 FACTORS INFLUENCING TEACHING AND LEARNING
2.5 ADOPTION AND INTEGRATION OF TECHNOLOGY
2.6 MOBILE TECHNOLOGY
2.7 CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK
2.8 CHAPTER CONCLUSION
CHAPTER 3 RESEARCH DESIGN AND METHODS
3.1 INTRODUCTION
3.2 RESEARCH SCOPE
3.3 RESEARCH PHILOSOPHY
3.4 RESEARCH DESIGN
3.5 RESEARCH METHODS
3.6 LIMITATIONS AND STRENGTHS OF THE RESEARCH DESIGN – OWN REFLECTIONS
3.7 ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS
3.8 CHAPTER CONCLUSION
CHAPTER 4 MOBILE PHONE INTERVENTION PROJECT
4.1 INTRODUCTION
4.2 REFERENCE SYSTEM USED TO REPORT QUALITATIVE DATA
4.3 INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGN PROCESS
4.4 MOBILE PHONE INTERVENTIONS
4.5 CHAPTER CONCLUSION
CHAPTER 5 RESEARCH FINDINGS
5.1 INTRODUCTION
5.2 ANALYSIS OF STUDENTS’ RETENTION AND THROUGHPUT RATES
5.3 PARTICIPANTS’ PERCEPTIONS ON THE USE OF TECHNOLOGIES: A QUANTITATIVE PERSPECTIVE
5.4 PARTICIPANTS’ PERCEPTIONS ON THE USE OF MOBILE TECHNOLOGIES TO LESSEN TRANSACTIONAL DISTANCE AND INCREASE DIDACTIC CONVERSATION: A QUALITATIVE
PERSPECTIVE
5.5 PARTICIPANTS’ PERCEPTIONS AND EXPERIENCES ON THE USE OF MOBILE TECHNOLOGIES: A QUALITATIVE ANALYSIS OF ALL DATA SOURCES
5.6 CHAPTER CONCLUSION
CHAPTER 6 INTERPRETATION, CONCLUSION AND CONTRIBUTION
6.1 INTRODUCTION
6.2 SUMMARY OF THE VARIOUS CHAPTERS OF THE THESIS
6.3 A REFLECTION ON THE LIMITATIONS OF THE STUDY
6.4 MAIN FINDINGS IN RESPONSE TO EACH OF THE NINE RESEARCH QUESTIONS
6.5 THE SIGNIFICANT AND ORIGINAL CONTRIBUTION OF THIS RESEARCH TO THE FIELD OF ACCOUNTING EDUCATION
6.6 RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH
6.7 RESEARCH CONCLUSION
REFERENCE LIST
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