This has been a week of transition. I’ve now transitioned back from being course leader to student. The experience of leading a unit was challenging but I enjoyed working with my group and I feel as though I learned a lot from the experience. I particularly enjoyed collaborating, putting each of our individual skills into the project. I think I went into the project daunted by working with students like myself, with full-time jobs and working mostly asynchronously. In many ways, using Teams to update each other felt more efficient than my previous experiences in group work in the physical classroom.
This week, I’ve also resigned my position at the Institute and will move onto an academic engagement role at a learning technology company, liaising with partner business schools to evaluate current and proposed online education programmes. I’m excited about going in this direction but I’m also extremely nervous. In preparation for the job, I have been conducting research on the partner universities, their programmes, their ethos, and, of course, their learners.
I’ve already established that one of the biggest changes for me with regards to the student population I’ll be serving, is the international context. In my current organisation, students are largely from Scotland, some from the wider UK and very few from anywhere else. This is because students must secure a job with a UK employer before they can study with us, and very few employers are willing to sponsor international candidates. Although we are delivering and intend to continue delivering online learning, there is no immediate intention to deliver remote learning for an international audience like some of our competitors (ACCA, for example).
In my new role, the universities with whom I’ll work serve a very international community of students and are, in fact, internationally dispersed themselves. Considerations around how to accommodate non-native speakers, students across different time zones and the cultural differences in approach to business and education will pose new challenges.
This week, we are discussing how to reach the hard to reach, starting with the challenge of defining who these ‘hard to reach’ learners are. The post our course leaders included from Stuart Allan, Director of Online Learning at Heriot Watt (2019), which looked at meeting the needs of students in Africa, particularly resonated with me. Issues like lack of access to technology or reliable wifi compound the feeling of isolation these students must feel.
As a student on a course that includes widely dispersed classmates, there is no sense that they are far away and that is a credit to the course design and the lecturers of that course. Having international participants in our course enriches the discussions we have about online learning as they offer fresh perspectives that are sometimes out of the realm of consideration within the bubble of the UK educational system. As an American, who never previously studied in the UK, the British approach to education is not something I have experienced as a student, only as an employee.
This globalisation of student cohorts is also beneficial to business education programmes, given the international context of business and the different cultural and governmental approaches to, for example, HR, business ethics and sustainability. In many ways, the accountancy programme would also be enriched by a more global student cohort for similar reasons and so sometimes our Scottish perspective at the institute feels like we’ve missed a trick.
There are, however, other considerations when including international students in online learning programmes. With online learning, there is the capacity of international students to undertake a UK qualification without leaving their home country. This creates specific challenges for teachers, beyond what Allan describes as purely technology-driven.
A case study of Russian students undertaking a UK-based online MBA course provides insight into the distinctive issues these students face (Ramanau, 2017). Some of the barriers to learning include an inability to contextualise course content to their own work environment and difficulty to adjusting to a more practice-oriented style of learning.
In another case study of Chinese students enrolled on an American online MBA programme, issues included the barriers to participation created by time differences, language barriers and an adjustment to case-based instruction that is a central component of many Western MBA programmes (Liu & Magjuka, 2011). In both studies, students remained in their home country to study. How would these factors change – or would they – should the students undertake a fully immersive experience of studying and living in the UK or US? Obviously issues like time differences and access to stable wifi become less relevant but culture shock and feelings of isolation may be amplified.
I would identify these students as hard to reach for instructors. Cultural adjustments to a different teaching style perhaps create the biggest challenge for educators, because there are limits to what the teacher can modify. On the other hand, online learning offers educators opportunities to adjust the way learners access information and demonstrate comprehension through assessment. Much like accessibility, designing courses for international learners, can improve the learning journey for all students.
Students who struggle with language barriers or who are not used to speaking in class have access to other forms of participating in debate, like online forums. Liu & Magjuka (2011) point out that online forums are often unknown to Chinese learners and they struggle with the rules of engagement. This is where instructor support and scaffolding plays a key role. Ensuring that students feel part of the dialogue in a way that helps to build confidence can mitigate against isolation and feeling disconnected, both physically and emotionally, from peers.
I’m looking forward to these new considerations with regards to online learners. Reaching international learners online poses different challenges but also offers up new opportunities to bridge the physical distance. Ensuring that these truly distant students do not feel segregated from their peers is essential to success in a globalised online classroom.
Allan, S. (2019, July). Are digital technologies complicit in acts of exclusion and marginalisation? Open plan learning. https://openplanlearning.wordpress.com/2019/07/31/digital-technologies-exclusion-marginalisation/
Liu, X., & Magjuka, R. J. (2011). Learning in cross-cultural online MBA courses: Perceptions of Chinese students. In Cases on globalized and culturally appropriate e-learning: Challenges and solutions (pp. 168-186). IGI Global.
Ramanau, R. (2017). studying on an online mba course with a UK business school: academic acculturation, global and local perspectives. In INTED2017 Proceedings (pp. 1829-1838). IATED.