An investigation into the usability of synchronous information technology for a virtual e-learning and information sharing environment at a university in South Africa

Ekermans, Gina (2003-04)

Thesis (MComm)--Stellenbosch University, 2003.

Thesis

ENGLISH ABSTRACT: As the information age evolves, society is undergoing changes based on developments in technology that have tremendous implications for the educational systems. Institutions of tertiary education are increasingly facing the pressures of globalisation. Associated with this is the knowledge society that demands experience with technology, different skills and a different learning experience (US, 2001). Furthermore, new information and communication technologies have demonstrated the potential to transform the way that knowledge is packaged, delivered, accessed and acquired, thereby altering higher educations' core production and delivery processes. Institutions of tertiary education that want to remain competitive, both locally and internationally, should, therefore, act proactively to facilitate the successful and innovative integration of relevant technologies into currently established practice and procedures. The University of Stellenbosch (US) recognises the importance of staying abreast with these global and local changes. The Virtual Information Space (VIS) project for optimal information sharing is a research initiative that developed as a direct response to the need for an inquiry into the functionality of alternative synchronous and asynchronous computer-mediated communication media (CMC), to be provided as part of the technological infrastructure of the US for enhanced information sharing and communication. The VIS project provides the framework within which this study was conducted. The aim of this study was to conduct an exploratory study through the use of empirical research and prototyping, by quantification of the usability of synchronous CMC media, for application in the South-African on and off-campus tertiary education environment (focused at post graduate level), in order to enhance information sharing between inter alia, information service suppliers, lecturers, students and researchers at the US. It was anticipated, however, that the degree to which the synchronous CMC media add value to the learning and information sharing processes within the VIS, will be influenced by the usability of the software applications within which the media are embedded, the perceived need of the role-players for the media, as well as the feasibility and viability of the systems when employed within the technological infrastructure of the US. These elements were, therefore, empirically investigated by conducting several usability experiments in a setting which simulated a usability laboratory, in order to acquire the necessary subjective and objective data, related to the identified goals and objectives that encapsulate the aim of this study. In order to demonstrate the value of the VIS environment, a theoretical perspective is provided by means of a literature review of the fundamental concepts of communities of practice and flexible learning. It is proposed that the use of the synchronous CMC media (embedded within the software applications) will assist in the creation of a VIS that supports the more advanced educational paradigm of constructivism by linking users into collaborative conversational networks, thus forming learning communities (better known as communities of practice) in cyberspace. The purpose of these communities is to create a means through which ideas and materials can be shared and exchanged, aiding individuals in building their own conceptual networks of interrelated ideas, strategies and theories and therefore construct and share knowledge. Information was obtained concerning participants' characteristics, preferences, needs and evaluation of the usability of the two software applications, NetMeeting and Yahoo Messenger, when utilised within the technological infrastructure of the US for the purpose of increased information sharing and communication. Performance measurement data (related to selected usability criteria) was obtained during the experimental phase, as well as information about the feasibility and viability of the systems when utilised within the technological parameters of the US. The analysis of the information consisted of descriptive statistics as the research aimed to illustrate the attitudes concerning usability, the perceived needs for the software applications, as well as the feasibility and viability of the systems. The results revealed that both NetMeeting and Yahoo Messenger were perceived by the participants as usable, achieving a positive rating on almost all of the dimensions of usability it was tested on. In the case on NetMeeting, technological limitations imposed on the system (such as bandwidth and network traffic) severely limited the effectiveness of the system as a whole and require further investigation to ensure successful implementation. Technological limitations in the case of Yahoo Messenger mainly centered on the unstable server environment that the system functions within. Hence, further research is therefore needed to ensure successful implementation and utilisation of NetMeeting and Yahoo Messenger within the technological parameters faced by the US.

AFRIKAANSE OPSOMMING: Soos wat die informasie-era ontplooi, is die samelewing besig om ingrypend te verander. Die dramatiese impak van die tegnologiese revolusie op die hoër onderwyssektor dwarsoor die wêreld hou dus aansienlike implikasies in vir tersiêre onderwysinstellings. Hierdie instellings is toenemend onderhewig aan die druk van globalisering en die kennis-samelewing wat al hoe meer vereistes stel in terme van ondervinding met tegnologie, verskillende vaardighede wat vereis word en 'n veranderende leer ervaring. Nuwe informasie- en kommunikasietegnologieë beskik oor die potensiaal om die maniere waarop informasie herwin, verwerk en gestoor word, te transformeer. Dit impliseer noodwendig 'n wysiging in die kern informasie produksie en -aflewerings prosesse van tersiêre onderwysinstellings. Sulke instellings word dus genoop om daadwerklik en pro-aktief op te tree ten opsigte van die suksesvolle en innoverende integrasie van relevante tegnologieë by bestaande prosedures, ten einde internasionale en nasionale mededingendheid te verseker. Die Universiteit van Stellenbosch (US) erken the belangrikheid daarvan om op hoogte te bly met verandering. Die Virtuele Informasie Spasie (VIS) projek vir optimale informasiedeling is 'n navorsingsinisiatief wat ontwikkel het vanuit 'n behoefte vir 'n ondersoek na die funksionaliteit van die verskillende sinkrone en asinkrone rekenaargebasseerde kommunikasie media, wat as deel van die tegnologiese infrastruktuur van die US voorsien sal word - ten einde verbeterde informasiedeling en kommunikasie teweeg te bring. Die VIS projek het 'n raamwerk verskaf waarbinne hierdie studie uitgevoer is. Die doel van hierdie navorsing was om 'n verkennende studie uit te voer, deur die gebruik van empiriese navorsing en prototipering, vir die kwantifisering van die bruikbaarheid van sinkrone rekenaar-gebasseerde kommunikasie media. Die spesifieke toepassingsarea is die Suid-Afrikaanse tersiêre onderwysomgewing (spesifiek gefokus op nagraadse vlak) met die doelom informasiedeling tussen informasiediensverskaffers, dosente, studente en navorsers te verbeter. Daar word egter verwag dat die graad waartoe die sinkrone media waarde toevoeg tot leer- en informasiedelings prosesse binne die VIS, beïnvloed sal word deur die bruikbaarheid van die sagteware waarbinne die media gesetel is, die waargenome behoeftes van die rolspelers vir die media, sowel as die uitvoerbaarheid en lewensvatbaarheid van die sisteme wanneer dit aangewend word binne die huidige tegnologiese infrastruktuur van die US. Hierdie elemente was dus empiries ondersoek deur die uitvoering van verskeie bruikbaarheidseksperimente in 'n omgewing wat 'n tradisionele bruikbaarheids laboratorium simuleer, ten einde the nodige subjektiewe en objektiewe data te ontgin wat gemik is op die doelwitte en mikpunte wat die strewe van hierdie studie omsluit. 'n Teoretiese perspektief word voorsien deur 'n literatuur-oorsig, ten einde die waarde van die VIS omgewing te konseptualiseer. Konsepte wat veral aandag geniet hou verband met die ontwikkeling van elektoniese gemeenskappe en buigsame leer omgewings. Die aanname word gemaak dat die gebruik van sinkrone rekenaargebasseerde kommunikasie media (soos gesetel in die sagteware pakkette, NetMeeting en Yahoo Messenger) die ontwikkeling van 'n effektiewe VIS sal fasiliteer wat 'n nuwe onderrigparadigma ondersteun. Die uitgangspunt van hierdie paradigma is dat kennis nie net weergegee moet word nie, maar dat dit gekonstrueer kan word soos wat die partye betrokke raak in relevante gespreksnetwerke binne die virtuele informasie spasie. So word elektroniese gemeenskappe dus geskep waarbinne individue idees en materiaal met mekaar kan deel en uitruil, terwyl kennis effektief geskep en gedeel word. Informasie is ingewin aangaande die deelnemers se kenmerke, voorkeure, afkeure, behoeftes en persepsies oor die bruikbaarheid van die sagtware pakkette, NetMeeting en Yahoo Messenger, wanneer dit aangewend word binne die tegnologiese infrastruktuur van die US, ten einde verhoogde informasiedeling en kommunikasie te bewerkstellig. Prestasiemetingsdata (gekoppel aan sekere bruikbaarheidskriteria) was ook verkry tydens die eksperimentele fase, sowel as informasie oor die uitvoerbaarheid en lewensvatbaarheid van die onderskeie sisteme wanneer dit aangewend word binne die huidige tegnologiese parameters van die US. Die analise van die data het beskrywende statistieke behels aangesien die navorsing ten doel gehad het om die ingesteldhede betreffende die bruikbaarheid en behoefte aan die sagteware pakkette, sowel as sekere tegniese aspekte rakende die stelsels, uit te lig. Die resultate het getoon dat die respondente beide NetMeeting en Yahoo Messenger as bruikbaar waargeneem het, aangesien 'n positiewe beoordeling op bykans al die dimensies van bruikbaarheid bereik was. In die geval van NetMeeting het sekere tegnologiese beperkinge van die sisteem, soos beperkte bandwyte, egter die effektiwiteit van die sisteem beduidend beinvloed. Tegnologiese beperkinge in die geval van Yahoo Messenger was hoofsaaklik as gevolg van die onstabiele omgewing waarbinne die bediener funksioneer. Verdere navorsing is dus nodig om suksesvolle implementering en aanwending van NetMeeting en Yahoo Messenger te laat realiseer, gegewe die tegnologiese parameters van die US.

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