Contextual support, motivation, and well-being in the online learning environment
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Self-determination theory has been widely applied to general education and many other fields; however, the application of SDT to the online learning environment is still in its inception. This study comprehensively tested self-determination theory in two special education online programs in order to answer the three research questions: 1) What is the primary locus of motivation for students enrolled in an online course? 2) What is the degree to which the SDT framework can be substantiated in an online learning environment? 3) What is the relative salience of autonomy, relatedness, and competency on online learners’ motivation and learning outcomes? This study employed a cross-sectional design, and collected online students’ perceptions of contextual support, need satisfaction, motivation, and learning outcomes through the pre-test (N = 263) and the post-test (N = 270) online surveys. Results substantiated much of SDT’s theorizing, including the distinctiveness of the five types of motivation, the existence of self-determination continuum, and the positive effect of contextual support on learner motivation. Additionally, four out of six SDT full models yielded proper fit through structural equation modeling, and all the fitted models substantiated the mediating effect of need satisfaction between need support and self-determination. Lastly, this study found that perceived autonomy, relatedness, and competency synergistically affected online students’ self-determination. Taken together, it could be argued that SDT is valid and tenable, and can serve as an appropriate framework for addressing learner motivation in the online learning environment. This study also found that identified regulation stood out as the primary locus of online learners’ motivation, and that the relative salience of autonomy, relatedness, and competency varied from categories of motivation and learning outcomes. Implications for online learning practitioners were discussed, and recommendations for future studies were proposed. It is hoped that this study inspires more studies to apply self-determination theory, and to examine the interrelationships among contextual support, need satisfaction, learner motivation, and learning outcomes in the online learning environment.