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«Learning in an Online Distance Education Course: Experiences of Three International Students Zuochen Zhang University of Windsor, Canada Richard F. ...»

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International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning

Volume 11, Number 1. ISSN: 1492-3831

March – 2010

Learning in an Online Distance Education Course:

Experiences of Three International Students

Zuochen Zhang

University of Windsor, Canada

Richard F. Kenny

Athabasca University, Canada


This case study explores the learning experiences of three international students who were enrolled in an online master’s program offered by a large university in Canada. The aim of the study was to understand the international students’ experiences with, and perspectives on, the online learning environment. Findings indicate that previous education and especially language proficiency strongly impacted the learning of these students in this environment. Non-native English speakers required considerably more time to process readings and postings and to make postings themselves. Their lack of familiarity with the details of North American culture and colloquial language made it difficult to follow much of the course discussions. They also tended to avoid socializing in the course, which left them at the periphery of course activities. Based on these findings, the authors make the following recommendations for designers and instructors of online courses: 1) Raise the English language proficiency requirement for graduate admissions into online programs because the text-based communication in a CMC space requires interpreting messages without non-verbal cues; 2) Ensure that online distance education course designers are aware of the needs and expectations of international students; and 3) Combine the design principles from both traditional and constructivism theories.

Keywords: Distance education; online learning; CMC; international students Background to the Study As new technologies become less expensive and various forms of multimedia are increasingly accessible, online learning environments are becoming widely used for teaching and learning purposes. In particular, online education, as experienced through computer-mediated communication (CMC), is being heralded as meeting the needs of course participants’ lifestyles by allowing them to juggle personal commitments, to manage time conflicts, and to access course materials from a variety of locations.

Learning in an Online Distance Education Course: Experiences of Three International Students Zhang and Kenny The benefits of asynchronous communication via CMC have the potential to enhance cooperative learning by providing users with extended time (Aviv, 2001). Participants in an online learning environment can engage in course discussions by providing reflections after thinking about what has been said (Bird, 2004). As asynchronous communication may also allow course participants more time for reading, writing, and posting in discussion forums, there is the potential to increase their participation. Moreover, this virtual environment may promote critical thinking that leads to higher achievement and more satisfaction in collaborative learning (Alavi, 1994).

Stahl (2005) posited that learning takes place in effective collaborative interactions and that individuals internalize the effects of collaboration. However, it has been argued that effective collaboration will not take place in an online learning environment unless the instructor takes proactive measures to provide an appropriate context for collaborative learning (Harasim, 1989).

The increasing globalization of education makes it necessary for educators to be aware of the factors beyond their institutions that constrain, steer, or facilitate their practice (Bottery, 2006) and to avoid ethnocentric instructional designs (Gayeski, Sanchirico, & Anderson, 2002).

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Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) and Online Learning December (2009) defines CMC as “the process by which people create, exchange, and perceive information using networked telecommunications systems (or non-networked computers) that facilitate encoding, transmitting, and decoding messages.” CMC provides both the technological infrastructure for, and permits the human cognitive processes involved with, communication and learning. CMC can take place in an evolving range of both synchronous and asynchronous digital spaces. Some advantages of asynchronous communication (e.g., email or threaded discussion forums) include the flexibility to log on from various geographic locations and the opportunity for reflection before responding to a classmate’s or the instructor’s posting (Everhart, 2000).

However, some asynchronous communication methods can also adversely affect course participants if they feel that they are being left behind or if they experience information overload.

For instance, students who do not receive a prompt response to their postings or those who find more postings than they can manage to find time to read may feel lonely or stressed.

CMC spaces can also provide a social system for learning. Palloff & Pratt (1999) have shown that learning is improved when there is a sense of community established through the use of CMC.

When new members join communities of practice, they have access to existing members and learn from them as they work (Lave & Wenger, 1991). In a virtual learning community, meaning can be negotiated among learners through a process of discussion and collaborative work on specific group projects. Moreover, the interaction among individuals through CMC may assist learners in developing a meaningful and strong sense of identity (Postmes, Spears, & Lea, 2000).

For example, Biesenbach-Lucas (2003) observes that while non-native and less verbal students tend to keep silent in face-to-face class, they “felt more comfortable participating more fully in electronic discussions” (p. 36).

Learning in an Online Distance Education Course: Experiences of Three International Students Zhang and Kenny In addition, in recent years, online education has experienced the strong influence of constructivist learning theory and a paradigm shift from teacher-controlled to learner-centred instruction (Peters, 2002). In such a constructivist learning environment, learner autonomy and initiative is accepted and encouraged. Learners acquire knowledge by fitting new information together with what they already know. Hence learning is affected by the social and cultural contexts of the situation (Vygotsky, 1978) and the beliefs and attitudes of the learner. Learners are encouraged to invent their own solutions, try out ideas and hypotheses, and assemble new knowledge from their prior experiences (Hedberg & Harper, 1997).

Culture and CMC Environments

In contrast to face-to-face instruction, online learning environments allow geographically dispersed students to enrol in courses; thus, online learners are more likely to be exposed to a greater variety of learning experiences, including those that reflect different cultural conditions and expectations. Ziegahn (2001) suggests that it is important for designers of adult learning programs to take cultural differences into account.

Learners’ cultural conditions are influenced by the dynamics of social forces as they operate multidimensionally and multidirectionally across both the micro environment of the immediate locale and the macro environment of the learner’s societal situation. The flow and circulation of social, economic, technological, and political forces is complex in any society (Fiske, 1992). Wild and Henderson (1997) argue that culture has a very strong influence on the management, design, and use of information, communication, and learning systems. Palloff and Pratt (1999) suggest that a CMC environment is the great equalizer, which renders participants’ cultural, ethnic, or social condition irrelevant, but Reushle and McDonald (2000) disagree, arguing that with the globalization of learning the design process for online teaching and learning must consider and accommodate the challenges of changing learner profiles caused by increasing enrolments of students from diverse conditions.

In this regard, it is becoming common practice in higher education for online distance education programs to enrol international and transnational students. These programs are often offered in a country other than where the awarding institution is located and involve students who have had different teaching and learning experiences and expectations. McLoughlin (2000) argues that as the current instructional design models are the products of particular cultures, they usually do not fully contextualize the learning experience. Since web-based instruction is based on the particular epistemologies, learning theories, and goal orientations of the designers themselves, it cannot be expected to be culturally neutral. Wild and Henderson (1997) state that the learning theories that play a dominant role in distributed learning systems currently provided on the Internet are likely to avoid “the cognitive, epistemological and philosophical aspects of interrelated cultural educational contexts” (p. 187).

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Constructivist Theory and Cultural Differences Online distance education courses that are designed based on principles derived from social constructivist theories of learning usually incorporate teaching strategies that require learners to collaborate, communicate, explore, and reflect (Lebow, 1993). Learning is viewed in these perspectives as an active, constructive process through which the learner creates new knowledge based on available cognitive resources by extracting information from the environment and integrating it with the information stored in memory (Nathan & Robinson, 2001); thus, it follows that constructivist and collaborative approaches are the most appropriate modes for managing online discussion groups (Oren, Mioduser, & Nachmias, 2002).

Regardless, when applying constructivist principles in online distance education course design, it is important to consider whether these design principles fit the perspectives and expectations of students with different cultural conditions. For example, in Asian countries such as China, though the education system has been greatly influenced by Western pedagogical theories in the past few decades, and increasingly attention is being paid to the development of learners’ problem solving and communication skills in different educational settings, mainstream educational programs are still test-driven (Lee, 2004). Learners’ expectations of a course, whether face-to-face or online, tend to be focused on the mastery of content for the course and on obtaining high scores on the tests.

Active participation in course activities is a very important part of online learning (Scheuermann, Larsson, & Toto, 2001). Researchers have studied how to motivate online learners to actively participate, for example, by providing incentives and by making participation a part of evaluation.

However, Beaudoin’s (2002) study shows that “invisible” online students, those who do not seem to be participating as often as others, may log on to the course site often and “feel they are still learning and benefiting from this low-profile approach to their online studies” (p. 147). An online learning environment has many benefits for learners, such as flexibility, the quantity and quality of participation, open and accessible communication, and archived postings from participants for reference (Morse, 2003). However, as students enrol in online courses from different locations, time zone differences may keep some students from participating, especially when synchronous communication methods are used (Cifuentes & Shih, 2001). Research also shows that learners may feel uncertain in their communication and isolated in this environment because of a lack of non-verbal cues and social presence (Muilenburg & Berge, 2005), and this may impact significantly students who were raised in a culture where social context and/or social presence (Ku & Lohr, 2003; Tu, 2001) are emphasized. International students, especially those who are from Asia and the Middle East, may face more challenges or frustrations in this regard than their domestic peers because of such factors as language barriers (Goodfellow, Lea, Gonzalez, & Mason, 2001; Lee & Greene, 2007), feelings of isolation or alienation (Shattuck, 2005; WalkerFernandez, 1999, as cited in Uzuner, 2009), unfamiliarity with the disciplinary culture of the institution offering the course (Zhao & McDougall, 2008), and a lack of knowledge of specific cultural references (Thompson & Ku, 2005). Influenced by their home culture, international students may not participate in the online learning environment as actively as domestic students (Al-Harthi, 2005; Hannon, J., & D’Neto, 2007).

Learning in an Online Distance Education Course: Experiences of Three International Students Zhang and Kenny This study explores the learning experiences of three international students enrolled in an online master’s program offered by a large university in Canada with the aim of understanding their perspectives of the online learning environment. Based on our findings, we make some tentative recommendations for designers and instructors of online courses about how to take cultural expectations into account and how to accommodate the needs and perspectives of such international students.

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Purpose The purpose of this study was to explore the learning experiences of three international online master’s students by using an exploratory case study design to understand their perspectives of the online learning environment. The goal of an exploratory case study is “not to conclude a study but to develop ideas for further study” (Yin, 2003, p. 120). A case study “provides descriptions of a case, a group, a situation, or an event” (Krathwohl, 1998, p. 26) and examines the details of a setting, subject, or particular event (Merriam, 1988; Stake, 1995; Yin, 2003). We examined relationships between a research participant’s cultural conditions and his/her learning practices as complex social phenomena (Yin, 2003) in order to provide a “comprehensive view and broader insight into the multifaceted phenomenon” (Waggoner, 1991, p. 137). In this case study, we combined both qualitative and quantitative research methods (Waggoner, 1991).

Research Questions

This study addressed the following two research questions:

1) How do international students perceive their learning in an online course?

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