Five Takes on International Students’ Distance Learning Experience

Upon examining the literature for insights about international students and distance learning, the researcher located five articles that contributed in their own way to theory by offering different points of view on how international learners interact with technology, instructors, and other students. These five articles differed in subjects, aims, and researchers, but all five had as a common thread the attempt to better understand the experience of international students as they learn remotely.


Erichsen and Bolliger (2011) pointed to the literature as indicating that one of the greatest challenges for the academic success of international students who chose the online modality was isolation. The authors referred to Shaw and Polovina (1999), who demonstrated that student isolation is a major contributor to online student dropout rates. They also pointed to Cross (1998), who believed that higher levels of isolation among online students may result from lower levels of support from their peers and from lower participation in communal learning opportunities. The researchers, using a mixed-methods approach, attempted to understand how and why online international students experienced different levels of isolation in social and academic terms. In the process, they also looked for suggestions from international students that may help mitigate the problem.

The researchers asked 54 international graduate students to meet in two focus group sessions, during which an interview was conducted. The interview was based on a 25-question survey that yielded valuable data. The researchers generated scatterplots, calculated Pearson correlation coefficients, and conducted collinearity analyses, followed by independent t-tests using gender, type of degree, and family presence as independent variables. An additional ANOVA was run after the interviewees were divided into three groups according to how long each individual had been in the United States. By choosing these three independent variables (gender, type of degree, and family presence), the researchers may have inadvertently used moderating variables as causal variables. But they also added continent of origin as a moderator, and this helped to identify trends that depended on where the students were from and how they perceived isolation.

Some of the findings included the fact that online international students tended not to consider themselves as part of the community of learners, and that they “were employing coping mechanisms to lessen their feelings of social isolation” (Erichsen & Bolliger, 2011, p. 318). Also, online students felt more at ease taking courses online because of reduced anxiety in communicating in English even when facing the additional difficulty of writing in a foreign language. In addition, online international students had a particular difficulty with clearly understanding the expectations of online courses. Despite the largely positive online experience, most online international students indicated that they would prefer to attend a traditional classroom course where they could interact with their peers—they seemed to view online learning as a missed opportunity to have a cultural experience.

Online Teaching Presence

Morgan (2011) investigated teaching presence in light of activity theory (Engeström, 1999) and the community of inquiry framework (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000). The community of inquiry framework includes teaching, social, and cognitive presence as its three main components, but in the author’s view it does not account for the complexities of a globalized online education. So the researcher turned to activity theory in order to better understand one of the components of the community of inquiry framework: teaching presence. Activity theory includes interacting factors such as rules, community, divisions of labor, instruments, subject, and object that all result in an outcome. This theory is better suited to approach online teaching presence because it affords the researcher a more complex look into the distance learner’s experience in light of interactions with his or her instructor. The researcher called this approach a “sociocultural framework” where “teaching presence is viewed as a negotiation and a practice that occurs within a community of inquiry characterized by constraints and affordances” (Morgan, 2011, p. 5).

The aim of the study was to investigate how instructors in online environments negotiate their teaching presence, as well as to identify the factors that influence this negotiation. The researcher used a qualitative multiple case study approach, using six cases from higher education contexts. In each case, the instructor was interviewed multiple times, discussion forum transcripts were analyzed along with other course documents, and interviews with co-instructors and program directors helped to elucidate any questions about the courses and the interactions within them. After the interviews, the transcripts were coded and analyzed, and their contents were later triangulated with data collected from other sources. There were no statistical analyses used in this study.

All six cases demonstrated that instructor conceptualization of online interaction space directly influenced how teaching presence was negotiated. Each instructor viewed these spaces differently, and hence the goals and expectations were different in each case. The factors (constraints and tensions) that influenced each case were based on whether the instructor was able to put into practice his or her conceptualization. Other key findings were that there is a “need to be cautious in relying on quantifying types of interactions as a means of describing teaching presence” (Morgan, 2011, p. 16) and that course designers should not overlook the fact that each instructor views the online interaction spaces differently.


Muhirwa (2009) conducted a study that investigated the interaction between international learners and instructors via video-conferencing and chat. The researcher used international distance education (IDE) concepts to evaluate the interactions; some of these concepts included socio-cultural and philosophical assumptions and differences between the two parties that are attempting to communicate with each other. With a background in the understanding of Vygotsky (1978) that learning is a process of dialectics involving the solving of problems in a shared experience, and a modified take on Moore’s (1989) interactions classification system (i.e. learner-to-instructor, learner-to-learner, learner-to-content, and learner-to-interface interactions), the researcher proceeded to observe and record on video the interactions between Canadian professors (teaching from Canada) with students in Mali and Burkina Faso. Over 20 hours of video were taken at two locations. The number of students was not reported.

The researcher had the videos transcribed and imported into HyperResearch. The transcripts were then read multiple times and coded. Both qualitative and quantitative analyses were done on the data. The quantitative analysis was based on a simple compilation based on the coding of the transcripts linked to video excerpts. The data were broken down by major groups (location, instructor or student, interaction rationale, and duration). Bar graphs were generated to help in the visualization of the data. The qualitative analysis included the use of HyperResearch and its video coding capabilities.

The findings of the qualitative analysis supported the findings of the quantitative analysis. Among those findings, the researchers believed that poor Internet connectivity was a major obstacle to interactivity between learners and instructors. Also, the Canadian instructors were not well prepared to deal with the challenges of international education. Local students challenged their tutors and did not accept their guidance very easily. In addition, students seemed to be unfamiliar with the technology used in the courses (PowerPoint presentations, synchronous video teleconference, live chat, etc.) and had a hard time using the technology for timely and quick interactions. Another factor that impeded more productive interactions was the fact that in both locations a small group of students took control of the technology and would not allow the rest of the class to use it as they wished; they served as gatekeepers without the instructor’s knowledge. This generated major conflicts and left some of the students discouraged. Also, mediated by poor Internet connection and poor instructor preparation, students were discouraged from seeking complete answers to their questions.

Technology Use

Selwyn (2011) investigated international online students’ use and non-use of digital technology. The researcher framed his study using Nipper’s (1989) concept of interacting technologies in distance education, Guri-Rosenblit’s (2005) findings about the continued use of print-materials in distance education, and the fact that the individual learner is now at the center of the online experience (Sims, 2008). The study also incorporated Nunes’ (2006) findings about the shift in learning behavior in distance education, whereby the learner is expected to actively seek knowledge by “(re)constructing the place, pace, timing, and nature of the learning event” (Selwyn, 2011, p. 86).

This study sought to contribute to theory by complementing previous studies by the author and other researchers in different settings. The goal of the study was to discover how international distance learning students use technology in their studies, and the reasons for not using technology in their studies. A total of 60 distance learners were interviewed, and all of them lived outside the United Kingdom, the origination place of the courses. The researcher sought students from programs that represented a variety of approaches to learning and studying (moderating variable). The interviews lasted between 45 and 90 minutes and consisted of questions about “how and why the learners made space for distance education in their lives; how the learners ‘got on with’ the process of learning; and how they perceived the outcomes of distance education” (Selwyn, 2011, p. 89).

The interviews were transcribed and the transcripts were then coded and analyzed using the constant comparison technique (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). No statistical analyses were used. Some of the findings included the fact that most students were using technology as a means to “engage with the printed materials” (Selwyn, 2011, p. 90). Very few respondents were using technology to supplement the readings from printed materials. The researchers also noted that students were using technology as a way to “compensate for learners’ partial engagement with the printed materials” (Selwyn, 2011, p. 90). Another valuable finding was the fact that distance learners explained their non-use of technology as being due to lack of usefulness or sometimes even because using the technology would waste considerable amounts of their time. The most important finding in this study was the fact that despite the flexibility of online or distance education, students were using this flexibility to create a rigid, inflexible schedule for interacting with the materials. This finding may indicate a need to reexamine what has been regarded as one of the most positive aspects of online education (flexibility).


Zhang and Kenny (2010) investigated three international students’ learning experiences. All three students were enrolled in a university in Canada, and all three were graduate online students. Using the ideas of Everhart (2000) about computer-mediated communication (i.e. by using distance learning, students have time for reflection before posting their thoughts), Peters’ (2002) findings about the modern shift of online education towards a constructivist approach to learning, Vygotsky’s (1978) socio-cultural approach to educational analysis, and the insights of Hedberg and Harper (1997) on how students use prior experiences in learning, the researchers sought to answer two important questions: “How do international students perceive their learning in an online course?” and “What were the biggest challenges the international students had to face in the online learning environment?” (Zhang & Kenny, 2010, p. 21).

Using the exploratory case study method, the researchers recruited a total of 12 graduate online students who were then interviewed via email or telephone, observed online, and given online surveys. The transcripts of the interviews were coded using open coding. No statistical analyses were reported. Some of the findings included the fact that students presented a wide variety of educational backgrounds, with all students having received their previous degrees in their home countries. The fact that courses were offered in English—and that all interactions and assignments within those courses were in the English language—had a negative impact on non-native English speakers as far as posting in the online discussion forums. Students who scored barely above the minimum requirement in the English-language proficiency exam had the greatest difficulty and were the ones most likely not to post as often; this finding would seem to support a previous study by Lee and Greene (2007). Another finding was that cultural differences accounted for some students not posting as often or simply observing the forums without actively participating—cultural references by instructors or by other students were hard to understand and made it more difficult for these students to interact with others.


The five studies previously described all relate to international students in a distance learning environment. All five studies contributed to theory in their own unique way, but there are some gaps that could be investigated in future studies. For example, Muhirwa (2009) argued that poor Internet connectivity combined with poor instructor preparation caused a breakdown in the interactions between learners and instructors, and fostered an environment that led to further conflicts between students and other students and students and tutors. The failing technology or the shortcomings of the instructors seem to have been the main reasons for the conflicts, but maybe the technology was not the root of the problem. It may be that learners’ attitudes towards the material were also influencing their behavior. Or it may be that the instructors’ lack of preparation was not directly causing the frustrations and ensuing arguments among students. Additional variables may be considered in future studies as well: classroom set-up (positioning of desks, chairs, computers, etc.) or ground rules for interactions (code of conduct, participation requirements, etc.) could have an impact on how students get along and how they interact with their instructors.



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