Cultural Differences in Online Learning: International Student Perceptions

Article excerpt

Introduction

The advancement of computer-mediated communication and Internet technology has shaped the landscape of higher education and allowed universities and educational institutes to expand their global outreach through transnational collaboration with multiple institutions. Developing countries in Asia, including China and India, have been the most attractive destinations for offering online degrees because of their rapid rise in economic development and enormous demands for higher education access.

Although modern communication technologies have afforded increasing flexibility that can be used to conduct transnational course design and delivery, concerns exist regarding the social and cultural dimensions of task design, the cultural adaptability of the learning materials and the re-engineering or transformation of courses (Collis, 1999; McLoughlin, & Oliver, 2000).

Existing research suggests that cultural differences can have a negative effect on students' participation in online courses. Shattuck (2005) observed that international online learners felt a "sense of marginalization, or, sometimes even alienation" from the American learner group even in a highly interactive communication learning environment (p. 186). Reeder, Macfadyen and Chase (2004) found that different cultural communication patterns increased miscommunication, and that the greater the perception of cultural differences between the participants in an activity, the greater the incidents of miscommunication.

Interestingly, other studies have indicated that cultural differences may be mitigated in online education through the "external identities" (Walker-Fernandez, 1999) or "cultural negotiation" (Goodfellow & Lamy, 2009) of the online participants.

In general, the growth of cultural concerns in regard to online learning has not been accompanied by a growing number of studies in the field. Although a handful of researchers have begun to explore cultural issues in online education, very few formal studies have been conducted and the results of these studies have been inconclusive. As the Web-based learning market becomes increasingly global, it is important for online education providers to have an understanding of the different educational values and cultural expectations of the participants as well as the impact of those differences on learning in order to maintain a competitive advantage in today's e-learning world. As such, there is a need to develop new theories and conduct empirical studies in order to provide guidance for the successful design and delivery of cross-cultural online courses.

The purpose of this case study is to examine the perceptions of international students in an online MBA program regarding their transnational learning experiences. Given the limited research in the cross-cultural design of online education, such a study is important in order to identify potential cultural barriers that may affect the performance and satisfaction of the international student population. Three questions were addressed in this study:

* Do international students perceive cultural differences in their online learning courses?

* How do the international students perceive the impact of cultural difference on their learning?

* What features do international students prefer in the design and delivery of an engaging global course?

Literature

Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions

One of most widely used frameworks for studying cross-cultural communications is based on work conducted by Hofstede (1986). Hofstede developed a four-dimensional model of cultural differences, which can be used to characterize cultural behaviors that originate from different societies. A detailed description of each dimension is displayed in Table 1.

He further stated that many perplexities could arise when teachers and students come from different cultures. …