A Critical Review on ‘Users’ perspective on the adoption of e-learning in developing countries: The case of Nepal with a conjoint-based discrete choice approach’

Sagun Shrestha

Abstract

Use of digital technologies or e-learning is expected to have some significant impact in education in Nepal. Of late, some studies have been conducted to understand the impact and status of integration of digital technologies in education in Nepal. The study by Acharya and Lee is one of them which analyses the users’ perspective on the choice of e-learning in Nepal using conjoint-based discrete choice approach. This current paper makes a critical assessment of Acharya and Lee’s study and questions their research design and methods which they have employed in their research. Since their findings are based on purely survey research, the author of this paper suggests that some other research instruments  such as interviews or focus group discussion could be further help to explore the issues for an area they are researching belongs to a social research category. It is expected that this paper will help future researchers to plan their research design and execute their study taking account of certain issues, such as sample representation. 

 Introduction

The paper entitled ‘Users’ perspective on the adoption of e-learning in developing countries: The case of Nepal with a conjoint-based discrete choice approach’ by Bikram Acharya and Jongsu Lee was published in Telematics and Informatics journal volume 35 (pp. 1733-1743) in 2018. Their study looks at the users’ preference of e-learning in school environment using conjoint based discreet choice model.

In the beginning of this paper, the authors stress that the recent technological advancement has impacted significantly to deliver quality education. However due to the lack of a strong policy framework as well as resources, the implementation of ICT is not very dominant. They have also emphasized that the e-learning environment has been easy to access to the privately-owned schools, and these resourceful institutions use them as a means to attract students rather than to improve for the overall education system. And such a voluntary adoption has created digital gap amongst people and institutions. Referring to a developing country like Nepal, they state that there exists an introjected policy in the country that does not reflect the demand side of consumers which in turn cannot ensure the required output for the sustainable growth.

Nepal has got several policies such as School Sector Reform Plan (SSRP, 2009-2015), IT Policy (2010) which has broadly focused on the use of ICT in Education. In their literature review, the authors posit that effective implementation of these policies is still a question, for it has been ”constrained by a number of challenges such as a lack of digital content, poor infrastructure, inadequate human resources, and financing issues”  (p. 1734). Showing the gap of the study on ICT in Education, they maintain that current available resources are not prepared to implement ICT in education as stated in policies; therefore resource mapping and mobilization as per the adoption behaviour of the users is necessary.

Based on ICT services and government policy, their study analyzes the preference structure of e-learning adoption in schools, which is based on the features of e-learning packages available in a particular school and further tries to interrelate preference with socio-demographic factors.

Research design

This study has followed primarily quantitative research design and adopted inferential reasoning for the claims made. It has followed the discreet choice research design, which is the market research used to predict the alternatives available in the market. In Discrete choice model, ”respondents are allowed to perform the choice experiments, to choose the best alternative among available alternatives in a set using comparative judgment” (Acharya, 2015, p. 40). The comparative judgement to derive one’s utility depends upon the attributes of the alternatives available and characteristics of individuals.

The study used the conjoint survey to identify and analyze consumers’ preference structure, their taste variation, and effects of socio-demographic characteristics, that dictate the preference with respect to the attributes of e- learning adoption.  As per the 1Qualtrics (“9 Common Types of Conjoint Analysis and How To Use Them,” n.d.),  “conjoint analysis is the optimal market research approach for measuring the value that consumers place on the features of a product or service.”

In conjoint analysis, participants are asked to select the best choice among the hypothetically designed alternatives to capture their preference structure so that decision makers, while making new policy or amending the existing policy, can take account of the best alternative(s) that the majority has chosen which can make e-learning  project more effective and sustainable. In this study, preference survey was employed to find out people’s choice pattern for using e-learning. Quantifying perceived utility by the consumer is really difficult as it is difficult to measure the perception, and to meet this objective here, the researchers have used mixed logit with appropriate choice variables and mixing distribution in required degree of accuracy. Referring to McFadden and Train (2000); Revelt and Train (2000); Train and Sonnier, (2005),  Acharya & Lee, 2018 mention,

The Mixed Logit model incorporates the random variation in coefficient of the attribute in utility function and can approximate any random utility model to any degree of accuracy through the appropriate specification of the distribution of the coefficient of attributes and provides individual-specific conditional taste densities unlike standard logit models (p.1733).

Through Mixed Logit model, they have accounted for the taste variations across the demographics in choosing the alternatives. They have explored the interaction of socio demographic variables to identify how the socio demographic factor impact on preference structure. Acharya and Lee (2018) assume that

an individual (q = 1…Q) chooses an alternative amongst the i presented alternatives in each of T choice scenarios. The decision maker, q is placed in a hypothetical situation in which s/he needs to select considering the optimally available set of alternatives in choice situation t and chooses the alternatives with the highest utility. The relative utility associated with each alternative i as evaluated by each individual q in a choice situation t is represented in a discrete choice model by a utility expression of the general form (p. 1733).

So, Uqit = βqxqit + εqit

For the simplicity of the analysis, they drop the subscript t as

Uqi = βqxqi + ηqi + σqi

Thus, the utility of individual q based on alternative i in t choice situation is represented as

Uqit = βqMidasMidasqit+βqCDCCDCqit + βqNepalWirelessNepalWirelessqit + βqNGOINGONGOINGOqit + βqGovtGovtqit + βqInternetInternetqit + βeMobile Mobileqit + βqLinux Linuxqit + βqAvl Avlqit + βqReqAvl ReqAvlqit + βqPrice Priceqit + εqit

They have analysed the influence of attributes in the preference structure and choice pattern of the respondents and later derived the utility that every attribute level poses to the average consumers. Through the use of Willingness to Pay (WTP) model, the perceived value of each level of attribute is identified.

They have analysed pricing, the Willingness-to-Pay(WTP) in the following way:

WTP = βia/βip

where βia is the coefficient of an attribute on which the consumer selects the choice set i from a set and βip is the coefficient of the pricing attributes.

As regards the data collection, at first, the pilot survey was conducted in one of the eastern districts of Nepal, and later in the final survey, 298 responses were valid out of 378 responses collected. The invalid responses were the ones not duly filled out by the participants. The demographic status of the participants was that 64.4% of the participants had some level of computer skills, 52.8% had used Internet in school, but, only 33.2% had used computer and the internet for the purpose of e-learning in the school environment.

Findings

Based on the previous literature, they identified six attributes in the respondents’ preference structure and choice pattern such as content provider, infrastructure provider, availability of the internet, operating environment, availability of maintenance service and pricing. Within content provider attribute, they have selected Midas, the private content developer, Curriculum Development Center (CDC), the government body who develops courses and other materials, and Open Learning Education (OLE) as a non-governmental organization. Similarly, under infrastructure provider, they have accounted for four levels, viz., community led infrastructure provider as Wireless Nepal, government, NGO/INGOs and self-funding. Next, the operating environments comprises the use of open source such as Linux, Windows or use of smart phones. The next attribute, availability of maintenance service has been split up as no availability, availability upon request and available. The last attribute, pricing is the cost that decision maker pays for the product.

It was found that regarding the first attribute, i.e., content provider, Midas was preferred to OLE. CDC’s status was insignificant. Midas produces quite a lot of offline content. For the infrastructure attribute, the coefficient for Wireless Nepal is significant and positive, and the variable related to government support is significant whereas self-funding is negative. Based on this result, they have claimed that community led programme has sustainable impact, as the one like Wireless Nepal builds the infrastructure assessing the needs of the community and they also posited that the government led infrastructure are top-down and often deviate from the communal needs which seems true. As regards the operating system, Linux is least preferred compared to Windows and preference of smart phone for e-learning is insignificant. They have argued that it might be because of their unwillingness to change as the respondents have lack of knowledge that Linux can be cheaper and some distribution in Linux are built for educational purposes. As regards, maintenance facility, maintenance upon request is significant over non-availability, and on-premise maintenance is not significant. The researchers found that respondents’ preference towards this maintenance is largely heterogenous. The internet attribute is positive, however, shows a high variance. They have reasoned that the offline packages or intra-network packages are more reliable. As there is a high willingness to pay for the internet among respondents, there is a possibility to integrate some online materials in regular teaching and learning so that the regular teaching learning won’t be based on mere hard copies.

They have concluded that the findings such as end users’ preference towards offline content, Windows operating system, and the facility of  maintenance can provide some input to bring change in the ICT policy. It is true that in Nepal, there is hardly any research on the preference of learners and teachers on the use of ICT. It might be because Nepal is still planning to building ICT infrastructures. The study carried out by Acharya and Lee can be instrumental to inform the perspectives of the real consumers as regards consumers’ preference for e-learning to policy makers. As community led programs such as Wireless Nepal was preferred, the authors argue that such community initiatives should be promoted so that they can help integrate technology in education assessing the communal needs. They position that despite the preference of the respondents to the attribute like offline materials, as these offline materials incur much cost to build a wide repository, the government should think of expanding at first building offline resources and later enhancing intranet and internet connectivity gradually.

Eventually, they have also acknowledged the limitation of the study that this study could only look at the demand side. However, as they have explored the opinions of large number of students, as claimed, this research work can be a very good input for the policy, and I agree that the learners’ voice should be addressed in the policy albeit the policy is formed in a firmly top-down fashion.

Their research is also close to the research recently carried out by Rana (2018).  Rana’s study looked into teachers’ experiences of using ICT in primary schools of Nepal in which he sees teachers’ perspectives of using ICT. When teachers’ perspectives are looked at, the choice pattern of e-learning comes into play.

My reflection

Since the issue that these researchers are exploring is of social research, the findings that they have derived merely based on the survey instrument can be questioned.  The respondents might happen to prefer ‘A’ category of attribute such as ‘Midas Technologies’ to ‘OLE’ due to their exposure to only ‘Midas’ or it might be that they haven’t understood about these levels much. Several methods of quantitative approach rely massively on administering research instruments on subjects and we do not know if survey respondents have the required knowledge to understand the question, and as a result their responses may not reflect their actual practice (Bryman, 2012). Therefore, further exploration can be made even in this study to find out how their preference to e-learning environments is influenced.  To me, alongside using conjoint survey, the author could have used interviews or focused group discussion (FGD) to learn learners’ perspectives of choosing certain levels of attributes. This data could have helped them triangulate their findings.

In this study, the model specification section which deals with Logit Model, is highly technical. To me, it seems that it needs some explanation with some simplified expressions so that the interested readers can easily comprehend it. As claimed by the researchers, since it is meant for the policy input, the policy makers might not comprehend it, for all the policy makers might not have the strong statistical background to understand Logit model as expressed here. As a result, as expected by the paper, it may not be used at all for the policy intervention.

It is good that they had a pilot study and a full study so that they could test whether their research instruments fit for their project, whether their research issues are in the field, and whether the study is feasible or not. They haven’t talked representativeness of the sample schools which were located in 4 different locations of Nepal, thus it makes the findings questionable from the standpoint of external validity.

In a discussion session, while dealing with Table 2, they have explained the relationship between the variables such as gender and  computer operating system briefly, which is a mere mention. To me, if authors plan to mention interaction between other variables, they have to be sufficiently dealt thereby enabling readers engage in the text fully. Overall the research paper is successful to bring the critical issue to the fore with sufficient epistemological and empirical claim so it is expected that this paper will be one of the crucial documents to help Nepal policy makers review the existing policies.

References

Acharya, B., & Lee, J. (2018). Users’ perspective on the adoption of e-learning in developing countries: The case of Nepal with a conjoint-based discrete choice approach. Telematics and Informatics, 35(6), 1733–1743. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tele.2018.05.002

Acharya, B. (2005). Effective E-Learning Adoption Policies in Developing Countries: A Case of Nepal with Conjoint-Based Discrete Choice Approach (Unpublished master’s thesis). Seoul National University, Seoul, South Korea.

Bryman, A. (2012). Social Research Methods. Great Clarendon Street, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

9 Common Types of Conjoint Analysis and How To Use Them. (n.d.). Retrieved November 3, 2018, from https://www.qualtrics.com/experience-management/research/types-of-conjoint/

Government of Nepal, Ministry of Education. (2009). School Sector Reform Plan, 2009-2015. Kesharmahal, Kathmandu: Nepal Government Printing Office.

Government of Nepal, IT High Commission. (2010). Suchana Prabhidi Niti, 2067 [Information Technology Policy, 2010]. Sinhadurbar, Kathmandu: Nepal Government Printing Office. Government Printing Office.

Rana, M., K. (2018). ICT in rural primary schools in Nepal: context and teachers’ experiences (Unpublished PhD dissertation). University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://ir.canterbury.ac.nz/handle/10092/15166

Endnote

1 qualtrics (the world’s first experience management platform, cloud-based software, as described by itself) has briefly discussed on ‘Conjoint Research’.

About the author

Sagun Shrestha is a PhD student in Dublin City University, Dublin, Ireland. For his PhD project, he is looking into the affordances of Information and communication technologies and barriers of integrating ICT in secondary education in Nepal.

Click here to download the pdf version of the article by Sagun Shrestha.

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