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Vol. 2, No. 2. ISSN: 1473-8376

How Useful are Course Websites? A Study of Students' Perceptions

Yu-Fai Leung ([email protected])

North Carolina State University Box 8004, 4012F Biltmore Hall, Raleigh, NC 27695-8004, USA. Mark I. Ivy ([email protected]) Middle Tennessee State University Box 96, Murfreesboro, TN 37132, USA. DOI:10.3794/johlste.22.38 Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Education


Course websites are increasingly used to augment in-class instruction in various disciplines, including the allied leisure, recreation and tourism (LRT) fields, despite the fact that their effectiveness has seldom been evaluated. This study examined 56 senior students' use and perception of a course website designed for a recreation and facility planning course at North Carolina State University. Results show that most students had computer and Internet experience. Many students used the website often, particularly those components that were directly related to their final grades. The majority of the students preferred websites for future courses, but they did not prefer web-only courses without class meetings. Implications for instructors in the LRT fields and future research are discussed. Keywords: World Wide Web, websites, e-learning, instructional tools, student evaluation


The use of the Internet and its popular variant, the World Wide Web (web), for providing academic information is becoming ubiquitous in educational institutions. In North America, almost all academic departments in the allied leisure, recreation and tourism (LRT) fields take advantage of this technology to a certain extent. For example, most LRT departments have established official websites, which consist of a series of web pages with an organised structure, for delivering admission, curricular, degree, career and personnel information (Jackson, 1999). Many websites also contain research information and a collection of links to related websites.

Dr Leung is an assistant professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at North Carolina State University. His interests include recreation ecology, visitor impact monitoring, visitor use planning and management, GIS/GPS applications, and the use of information technology in instruction and research. Dr Ivy is the coordinator of the Outdoor Recreation Concentration at Middle Tennessee State University and has worked in the parks and recreation profession for over fifteen years. His interests include the use of technology to enhance classroom instruction as well as employing video monitoring technology to study visitor use patterns and recreation behaviour in outdoor settings.

Leung, Y-F. and Ivy, M. I. (2003) How Useful are Course Websites? A Study of Students' Perceptions In academia, the web is also increasingly employed in course instruction as one of the popular multimedia tools for enhancing the learning experience for students (Barrie and Presti, 1996; Karuppan, 2001; Sigala, 2002). There are a variety of uses of the web in course instruction, including web demonstrations during class, online course materials, assignments that require information gathering on the web, and online exercises and tests. Perhaps one of the most common uses of the web in education is the provision of course-specific websites (Washenberger, 2001; Young, 1995). The College of Letters and Science at the University of California, Los Angeles has gone so far as to require that a website be provided in every course within the college (Young, 1997). Like their colleagues in other disciplines, more and more instructors in LRT departments have developed or are developing course websites for their respective classes. Such efforts are facilitated by the web-publishing capabilities of most word processing software, not to mention specialised hypertext mark-up language (HTML) authoring programmes. For example, all geographic information systems courses offered by the Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management Department (PRTM) at North Carolina State University (NCSU) provide course websites. Colorado State University's Resource Recreation and Tourism Department and Northern Arizona University's Recreation Management programme both provide many course syllabi and schedules online via departmental websites. Instructors spend time and energy developing course websites, with an assumption that students will take advantage of them and thereby benefit from utilising these online resources. This assumption, however, may not be warranted, since there is little research that has examined how students actually use, perceive and benefit from course websites (Rosen and Petty, 1997). For example, links to related sites are often incorporated into course websites in order to provide additional information to curious students, but those same links might also distract some students from learning as they surf to, and are attracted by, unrelated websites. Moreover, some students may benefit more from course websites than others due to past Internet experience, attitudes toward computers and learning style. An understanding of how students utilise and perceive course websites and how different factors influence their use and perceptions will provide valuable input to instructors. Based on this knowledge, instructors can justify their effort and design websites to maximise the utility to all students, not just those who are particularly computer literate. The goal of this study was to explore the students' use and perceptions of the utility of course websites by means of a case study at NCSU. Specific research questions are: 1. How do students use the Internet in general and the course website in particular? 2. How do they perceive the utility of the course website and its constituent components? 3. How do students differ in their use and perception of the course website according to their age, gender and home computer access?

Related literature

Course websites have been developed as a means for conducting distance learning classes as well as to enhance face-to-face instruction. Many confusing descriptors have been used in the literature to identify web courses ­ courses that have a web component. Morihara (1999) distinguished two major types of web courses: (1) `web-assisted courses' - courses taught face-to-face that also have a course website containing course materials or activities (also known as `web-enhanced'); and (2) `web-only' (or `web-based') courses - courses designed for total web delivery with no regular face-to-face class meetings (often called online learning). In reality, there is a spectrum of web courses that have varying levels of web involvement in their delivery. Variations in web involvement occur in the amount and depth of information provided, the quantity of student-to-student interaction, the level of student-to-instructor interaction, and the degree to which assignments and tests are incorporated into the website. Course websites can be as simple or as intricate as the developer wishes. Many course websites are used as surrogates for existing elements of a course, such as distributing syllabi and assignments. Rice (1998) noted that such a use of a website is adapting a new technology to fit an existing mode of Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Education 2(2), 15-25. 16

Leung, Y-F. and Ivy, M. I. (2003) How Useful are Course Websites? A Study of Students' Perceptions thinking and advocated a reconceptualisation of teaching strategies to take full advantage of the resources available on the Internet. Some key functions of a course website, as identified by Rice (1998), include a link to send email to the instructor, review materials to bring all students to an initial level of competency required to participate in the course, at least one sample assignment, a link to background information on the instructor, the course syllabus, and links to related websites. Providing a website for these functions reduces costs associated with photocopying handouts and reduces the amount of in-class time dedicated to distributing materials. Websites also offer the possibility of incorporating graphics, audio, video clips, real time (synchronous) communication, interactive assignments, and asynchronous communication (which uses electronic mail to send messages back and forth between the instructor and students or among students) into the web presence of a course. In order for a website to encourage knowledge building, Lightfoot (2000) recommends that course websites be used for all in-class announcements, the distribution and collection of assignments, practice tests, discussion groups, student feedback, providing students with access to their grades, and as an audiovisual archive for all lectures delivered in class. Since in-class time is limited over the course of a semester, students are often required to work outside of class on projects that are designed to integrate the various concepts that are taught during lectures. The interactive nature of a website can help students better integrate concepts by acting as an extension of the classroom. Students and instructors can interact using the website either in real time, such as in a chat room, or asynchronously, such as on a list serve (email mailing list). Hartley (1999) cautions against too much repetition among graphic, audio, and text components of a website. Relevant information should be presented in a straightforward manner so as to not overload the senses of the individual reading the web page. Redundancy of information may actually hinder the understanding of concepts. The incorporation of a narrative option would allow oral learners to benefit as much as their visual learner counterparts. Detailed book-length guidelines are now available to guide website design and evaluation (Alexander and Tate, 1999). While these innovations are exciting, a great deal of time and effort must be invested by the instructor in order to successfully incorporate them into a website. Typically, instructors are given little support or motivation to dedicate time to the development and maintenance of web-only or web-assisted courses (Morihara, 1999). In a study of eight educators who voluntarily created web courses at Oregon State University, Morihara (1999) found that all of them had a strong interest in exploring a new teaching medium, in making notes and ideas more accessible to students, and in linking to up-todate resources. These interests influenced their decisions to devote the time needed to create course websites. Without such underlying motivations, it is doubtful that a course website would enhance the learning experience for students. Educators have become smitten with the potential impacts of online learning without investigating the effectiveness of websites in enhancing the educational experience for students. Having the ability to go to class without the burden of stacks of handouts, or to change the course schedule to accommodate guest speakers online is very appealing, but what are the negative consequences of relying heavily on a course website? There is a considerable body of literature on evaluations of online or web-based teaching (e.g., Garson, 1998; Morss, 2001). However, only a limited number of studies focus specifically on student views of course websites (Barnes et al., 1999; Huff, 1997; Montelpare and Williams, 2000). Huff (1997) identified three web-based activities which were evaluated as being beneficial by students through evaluations of an introductory geology course at the University of Cincinnati: 1) readings pertinent to the subject of study that can be accessed via the web tend to be more timely than material found in textbooks; 2) data collection assignments provided an opportunity for students to access a broad spectrum of information that is available via the Internet, ranging from weather data to the current population of the world; and 3) virtual field trips created by faculty or students to meet specific learning objectives were also identified as being helpful. In a study of students on an introductory animal and poultry science course at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, students Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Education 2(2), 15-25. 17

Leung, Y-F. and Ivy, M. I. (2003) How Useful are Course Websites? A Study of Students' Perceptions indicated that the class notes and the practice questions were the most valuable components of the course website (Barnes et al., 1999). Finally, Montelpare and Williams (2000) conducted focus groups with students from two undergraduate courses that incorporated web-based activities into the curriculum. Focus group participants appreciated the fact that the web-based activities were relevant, easily accessible, convenient, and self directed. Students also reported that they gained confidence from the hands-on experience and that the exercise encouraged interactive teamwork. Students' use and perception of course websites may also be influenced by a variety of factors, including variables such as age, gender, educational level, past experience and motivation (Teo, 2001). For example, results of a recent study suggest that males are more likely to engage in downloading and purchasing activities, while females are more likely to engage in messaging activities. Younger users were more engaged in Internet activities than older users (Teo, 2001). This study addresses a limited number of demographic and accessibility variables.


The above questions about student use and perception of course websites were examined through a case study. The study population was made up entirely of students enrolled in a required recreation and facility planning course at NCSU during the Spring semesters of 2000 and 2001. Principles of Recreation Planning and Facility Development (PRT 451) is a senior-level, three credit hour course that is taught every semester. The course focuses on recreation planning and facility development at the site level. During this course, students learn basic concepts, principles and processes associated with recreation planning, as well as techniques for collecting and interpreting relevant physical and social data for making facility planning decisions. Assignments include a number of exercises on planning standards and guidelines, demographic data, public involvement, topography and soil, and geographic information systems. The final project involves developing a site plan in both written and graphic forms for an undeveloped park site. A number of site visits and measurements are implemented to collect data necessary for the development of conceptual and final plans. A comprehensive website ( was developed for student use in PRT 451, although it can be accessed by anyone. Students were introduced to the course website on the first day of class and reminded throughout the semester to utilise the website for obtaining class material and for preparing their final projects. The website consists of eight sections: 1. Announcements ­ changes in schedule and reminders of deadlines and exam dates; 2. Syllabus ­ course requirements, grading methods, and attendance and other policies; 3. Schedule ­ lecture and lab topics by date (during the semester the schedule was revised several times due to weather related school closures and class make-up days); 4. Assignments and tests ­ instructions and test guides; 5. Final project ­ instructions and group data are available on the website for downloads; 6. Lecture notes ­ overheads and some handouts available in hypertext format or as slide shows created in PowerPoint presentation software; 7. Class links - hotlinks to supplementary readings and websites, providing students the opportunity to explore related topics and issues, and review examples of recreation and park plans at state, community and site levels; and 8. Questions and feedback ­ links to instructors' email addresses. A survey questionnaire was administered to the PRT451 students during the last class meeting in May 2000. This survey was administered again in the same manner in May 2001. Students enrolled in these two classes (a total of 79) were asked to participate in this study voluntarily. Seventy-one percent of the students volunteered and completed the survey, resulting in 56 valid responses.

Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Education 2(2), 15-25.


Leung, Y-F. and Ivy, M. I. (2003) How Useful are Course Websites? A Study of Students' Perceptions The survey instrument consisted of five categories of questions, including students' past experience with computers and the Internet; frequency of use of the Internet in general and of each component of the course website; perception of the utility of each component of the course website; learning style, and attitudes toward computers and the Internet. Questions were in either fill-in-the-blank or Likerttype scale. Data were entered in SPSS for Windows (version 10.0) for data handling and analysis. Due to the small sample size, normality was not assumed and only frequencies and non-parametric Chi-Square tests were performed in the analysis. The validity of results was also limited by the selfselection bias. However, since recreation and facility planning is a core course across Society of Park and Recreation Educators (SPRE) member programmes, results from this case study may provide some insights and stimulate discussion in similar courses.


Students on this senior-level course ranged from 20 to 57 years old, with a median age of 22. Half of the students were male (51 per cent). The majority of students in the study were comfortable using a computer and had several years of experience using the Internet. Most students (84 per cent) reported that they had access to a computer prior to attending NCSU, and 77 per cent owned a computer while they were enrolled on the course. Since the course was aimed at seniors, it is not surprising that 82 per cent reported using the Internet for at least three years. The students were using the Internet for a variety of purposes, including e-mail, coursework, news and information, and job searches. Less than half of the students used the Internet for shopping or games (Table 1).

Activity Engaged In: E-mail friends/family Coursework (notes/assignments/projects) Non-school related news and information University news and information Job searches and related information Surfing through web sites with no specific purpose Games (playing or downloading) Entertainment/leisure reading Self-learning (unrelated to school work) Not at All 4* 0 11 20 18 35 55 31 36 Occasionally 19 46 55 64 49 45 33 49 53 44 Frequently 77 54 34 16 33 20 12 20 11 0

Shopping 56 * All values reported in percentages. Table 1: Students' Use of the Internet for Various Activities (n = 56)

It was interesting to learn how much experience students had with course-related websites. Websites are not required for courses at NCSU, and most courses in the PRTM Department do not provide course specific websites. Despite this, 82 per cent of the students had taken a previous course with a website, and 75 per cent felt that all courses should have a website. Evidently, students perceive websites as being a positive attribute of a college course. Seventy-eight percent of the students reported that having the final project information on the website enhanced their learning of the subject matter. Similarly, using the website for obtaining course lecture notes, checking the class schedule and getting information on assignments and tests was also perceived to enhance learning. These components of the website were used most frequently by students. The questions and feedback portion of the website was least used by students. The three remaining components of the website (announcements, syllabus and links to other web resources) were used occasionally with little positive perceived impact on learning. Nevertheless, none of the components of the website was evaluated as detracting from learning (Figure 1).

Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Education 2(2), 15-25.


Leung, Y-F. and Ivy, M. I. (2003) How Useful are Course Websites? A Study of Students' Perceptions When asked specifically about the utility of the PRT451 website, 94 per cent agreed with the statements "I found that the website was well organised" and "I found that the website was easy to use", with median ratings of 2 (Table 2). Alternatively, less than one third (30 per cent) indicated that too much reliance was placed on the website for the provision of course materials. This highlights the need for the instructors to clarify the goals and objectives of such a website early in the course. There was a concern by the instructor that students might use the website as a jumping off point into the web and get lost surfing amongst interesting websites. This concern proved to be of some merit as 12 per cent of the students believed that they spent too much time browsing the links provided on the course website. It is also important to note that the course website was generally not perceived as having a negative impact on students, although ten per cent of the students reported being more computeranxious after the course than prior to the course.

Note: Use Scale (x-axis): 1=not at all, 2=occasionally, 3=frequently; Perception Scale (y-axis): -2=detracted substantially, -1=detracted slightly, 0=no effect, 1= enhanced slightly, 2=enhanced substantially. Points in the graph are average ratings for various components. Figure 1: Scattergram Showing the Relationship Between Use and Perception of the Course Website Components

Evaluation Criteria I found that the website was well organised I found that the website was easy to use I found that the instructors relied too heavily on the website for the provision of course materials I used the website to help me complete the final project I used links from the website to conduct research for assignments I used links from the website to explore topics related to this course

% Agree 94 94 30 76 58 45

% Disagree 2 2 45 9 14 25

% Neutral 4 4 25 15 28 30

Mean* 2.2 2.2 -0.1 1.5 0.9 0.4

Median* 2 2 0 2 1 0

Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Education 2(2), 15-25.


Leung, Y-F. and Ivy, M. I. (2003) How Useful are Course Websites? A Study of Students' Perceptions

I used links from the website to explore topics of my personal interest I would prefer to have a web-based course instead of meeting in a classroom 27 32 27 48 46 20 -0.1 -0.5 0 0

I spent too much time browsing links provided on 12 56 32 -1.3 -2 the course website * Mean and median values of the responses on the 7-point Likert scale (-3 = Strongly disagree to +3 = Strongly agree). Table 2: Student Evaluation of the PRT 451 Course Website

Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Education 2(2), 15-25.


Leung, Y-F. and Ivy, M. I. (2003) How Useful are Course Websites? A Study of Students' Perceptions Students were divided into two age groups for analysis: students under 30 years old (traditional) and those 30 or older (non-traditional). The results revealed only one noticeable age-related difference in students' perception of the course website, though it was not significant (Table 3). Over one third of the traditional students indicated a preference for a web-only course, while only one of the nontraditional students indicated a preference for this course delivery format.

Student Groups Age <30 30 Gender Female Male Yes No

n A

% Agreement on Statement*: B


The Course Website Was Important** 67 78 63 74 70 64

47 9 27 29 46 10

36 11 30 34 37


74 78 68 81 78 60

94 89 89 97 96 80

Home Internet Access 10

* Statement Description: A = "I would prefer to have a web-based course instead of meeting in a classroom"; B = "I am skillful with computer programmes"; C = "I think the Internet is very helpful". All positive responses on the 7-point Likert scale (-3 = Strongly disagree; +3 = Strongly agree) were combined. ** The exact statement is: "How would you rate the importance of the course website in your overall learning of this course?" Responses of Quite Important, Very Important and Critical were combined.


The association between variables is significant at = 0.01 level (Pearson Chi-Square).

Table 3: Comparison of Students' Responses to Three Statements and Overall Evaluation Based on Age, Gender and Home Internet Access

Students also exhibited some gender-related differences in website use and perception, though none of the comparisons was statistically significant. Males (86 per cent) were more likely to own a computer than females (68 per cent). Males were also more likely to have Internet access at home: 90 per cent, as opposed to 71 per cent of females. About half of the female students spent less than 30 minutes logged on daily, compared to only 13 per cent of their male counterparts. Corresponding to previous research (Teo, 2001), male students tended to perceive themselves as having good computer skills. In addition, a higher percentage of male students found the Internet to be very helpful (Table 3). Nearly one third of the female students (32 per cent) reported that they did not use the syllabus on the web at all, while 38 per cent of the males reported that they used it frequently. About half of the women reported that the online course syllabus (56 per cent) and course schedule (46 per cent) had no effect on their ability to learn the subject matter of the course. By contrast, most of the male students indicated that the online course syllabus (82 per cent) and course schedule (79 per cent) enhanced their learning of the subject matter of the course. Males also indicated that their final projects were substantially enhanced due to the website (64 per cent), compared to 39 per cent of females. In their overall evaluations of the course website, 97 per cent of males and 93 per cent of females indicated that it was easy to use and well organised. When asked if they would prefer to take a web-only course instead of meeting in a classroom, about the same proportion of male (30 per cent) and female (34 per cent) students indicated that they would rather take the web-only course (Table 3). One potential impediment to providing course materials on a website is the concern that not all students will have equal access to the information. Students were divided into two groups for analysis: students who had home Internet access and those who did not have home access. Most (81 per cent) of the students had Internet access at home. For those students who had Internet access at home, 37 per cent preferred completely web-based courses that do not require classroom meetings. Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Education 2(2), 15-25. 22

Leung, Y-F. and Ivy, M. I. (2003) How Useful are Course Websites? A Study of Students' Perceptions Only 10 per cent of the students who did not have Internet access had the same preference. There is an association between whether or not a person has home internet access and their preference to having a web-based course (chi-square = 0.01 level). In general, the acceptability levels of entirely web-delivered courses were not very high (Tables 2 and 3). Students indicated that they did not feel strongly enough about the necessity of a course website that they would make future course decisions based on whether or not one was provided. At NCSU, course websites are typically created through WolfWare, a course management application available to teaching faculty. By checking the WolfWare website ( students can determine if a course utilises a website.

Discussion and implications

This study investigated students' use and perception of course websites as part of their learning experience. Despite the limitations with a small sample, survey results do shed some light on the utility of course websites. As many faculty members and instructors are eager to put course materials online, research on this topic in different curricula and degree levels is needed to ascertain whether or not it is worth the considerable effort required of educators and to determine which students actually benefit from the online materials. As computers and the Internet exert a great influence over their daily lives, undergraduate students should be more experienced with and more receptive to information technologies. Most students in this study, who were seniors, found the course website helpful and felt comfortable using computers and the Internet for coursework. However, there might be a small number of students who would feel disadvantaged with limited access to computers. Some students, particularly mature or non-traditional students, may not be accustomed to a web-oriented learning process. This could be a bigger challenge for LRT students in comparison to engineering or science students who are often more inclined to keep up with the latest computer technologies. It is very important for instructors not to discriminate against those students with little prior computing experience. Tutorial sessions for less-experienced students should be used to bring them to an even level if a course involves intensive use of computers and the Internet. Another possibility is to team computer-literate students with inexperienced students for group assignments so that they can learn from each other. A background survey form for students at the beginning of semester would be useful to differentiate these two groups of students. Results from this study show that students make more use of those website components that are directly related to their grades, and that they found these components most useful (Figure 1). Few students took advantage of the links provided by the instructors, nor did they use the website for feedback and questions. This finding implies that the Internet was used mostly as a passive information archive. These findings are in contrast with Huff's (1997) and Montelpare and Williams' (2000) findings that web-based activities, including use of web links, were well received by their students. The differences in intensity and types of student engagement in web-based activities may partly explain such contrasting results among these studies. To encourage active use of different components of course websites instructors may design assignments specific to each of these components or provide incentives, such as extra credits, for judicious use of web links in assignments and projects. The collection of web links could also be made as a collaborative process with student contributions. On the other hand, web links provided on course websites in LRT, sport and hospitality fields might be more likely to lead students into unrelated entertainment websites that are fun to browse through for hours, thereby distracting students' attention from learning. Careful selection of web links and providing appropriate use guidelines would help minimise this potential problem. The potential of the Internet, with all its interactivity, is yet to be realised, at least in this case study. One possibility of facilitating use of course websites is web-based assignments in which students need to collect specific and up-to-date information on the web and use such information for decision making. Discussion forums on current LRT or sport management issues, such as sustainability, accessibility and service quality, can also be provided as a component of a website to encourage correspondence between instructors and students, as well as among students. Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Education 2(2), 15-25. 23

Leung, Y-F. and Ivy, M. I. (2003) How Useful are Course Websites? A Study of Students' Perceptions

Finally, careful design of websites based on established guidelines will make the websites more accessible, effective and useful to students, thereby reducing the anxiety of some students who are less computer literate (Alexander and Tate, 1999; Washenberger, 2001). Instructors in the LRT fields may need to learn more or get help on website design, particularly for more sophisticated websites that require script programming and database development.


The findings of this study suggest that students make use of course websites, and they perceive that course websites enhance learning. Website components directly related to final grades were perceived to be more important by students than other portions of the website. In order to facilitate the use of course websites by students, information provided on these sites should, therefore, be tied to their course requirements, such as homework assignments and projects. Such connections are easy to do in LRT-related courses. For example, a web-based data collection exercise can be developed in which students would gather online information about park master and management plans, and/or demographic and visitation data in facility planning and management classes. Other options include web or email surveys as an exercise for recreation demand and citizen participation topics, GIS exercises with online data downloading, evaluation of online facility plans, and website creation and demonstration as the final product of class assignments. Some differences in website use among students of different ages, between males and females, and between students who have Internet access at home and those who have no access at home were found. These types of differences need further exploration in future research to ensure that educators who provide websites accommodate the needs of all types of students. More importantly, this finding illustrates a general acceptance of Internet based learning on the part of the students. An important examination in future studies would be to compare website utilisation among students with different learning styles. The use of the web is becoming a very important skill in the workplace. Therefore, it is critical for college students to gain experience in the productive use of online information. Further research is needed in different courses and in different colleges to examine the benefits and challenges of utilising course websites. Only with better knowledge of how students perceive and use online resources can educators identify effective ways of providing course websites which will enhance learning for the greatest number of students.

Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Education 2(2), 15-25.


Leung, Y-F. and Ivy, M. I. (2003) How Useful are Course Websites? A Study of Students' Perceptions


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Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Education 2(2), 15-25.




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