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The Impact of Physical Learning Environment on Undergraduates’ Academic Engagement in an Online Learning Setting during COVID-19: Evidence from a Sri Lankan University


All physically conducted activities in educational institutions including universities were discontinued due to restrictions imposed with the COVID-19 outbreak. Many universities commenced academic activities online during the work-from-home period. Although student engagement is vital in students' learning and satisfaction in distance education, the literature reveals that the level of student engagement in online learning is relatively low. As stipulated in the Engagement Theory, given the right conditions individuals will be engaged in their in-role performances. Although the significance of physical environmental factors including ambient and spatial attributes has been emphasised continuously by scholars on academic engagement of students, studies on this phenomenon are inconclusive. In response, this cross-sectional quantitative study aims to study the impact of ambient and spatial attributes in the physical environment on the level of students’ academic engagement in an online learning setting. Data were collected through a structured questionnaire from a purposive sample of 238 undergraduates representing all four academic years of the Faculty of Management Studies and Commerce, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Sri Lanka. The collected data were analysed using the Structural Equation Modelling with AMOS. The study findings empirically validate the impact of ambient and spatial attributes of the physical environment on student engagement in an online learning setting. The impacts of age and education level, the controlling variables, on student academic engagement were found insignificant. Through the validated impact of ambient and spatial attributes of the physical environment on the student engagement in an online learning setting, this study broadens the components taken as physical resources considered in the Engagement Theory by including external environmental factors; ambient and spatial attributes as key significant components in the availability antecedent. Further, this study helps practitioners to identify ways to improve physical environment attributes to improve the comfortability of students to properly engage in their academic activities.

Keywords: Ambient Attributes, COVID-19, Engagement, Online Learning, Spatial Attributes