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An investigation of the preferred learning practices of culturally diverse students in an online distance education environment Zhang, Zuochen

Abstract

Online distance education courses use Computer-mediated Communication (CMC) spaces to create learning environments in which learners interact, collaborate, and build their knowledge base from their prior experiences. Online distance education also masks and possibly influences and changes one's perception of certain social category systems such as age, gender, ethnicity, race, and social status on communication practices. This study was conducted with two research objectives: (1) exploring the relationships between the learners' cultural conditions and their preferred learning practices, and (2) examining how learners' cultural conditions limit or extend his or her participation in online distance education courses. Data were collected through four methods: survey, observation, email interview, and telephone or face-to-face interview. An online survey was used to collect demographic data such as age, access to the Internet, educational background, English proficiency, gender, life experience in North America, etc. And interviews were used to collect more in-depth data. By analyzing relationships from this study, I identified time, space, convenience, flexibility, and control as five attributes of culture that had a direct influence on how and why participants preferred to engage in particular learning and life experiences in the online course. In order to manage these changing cultural attributes, participants in this study used and modified their preferred learning strategies in order to: (1) feel comfortable, (2) locate study space, (3) communicate effectively, (4) work independently and in community, (5) balance studies with family, employment, and social responsibilities, and (6) build confidence and maintain focus and commitment to actively participate in an online CMC learning environment. I do not believe, however, that these are isolated concepts associated with only CMC systems or online learning environments. Instead, these attributes of culture emerged from the possibilities presented when peoples' ways of living were challenged by the introduction of graduate studies and the use of CMC spaces as learning environments. It is the interactions of these various educational, cultural, technological, and political forces that provided the contextual conditions for these attributes of culture to form and become visible and identifiable. The focus of this study was on how cultural conditions affected participants' preferred learning practices in an online learning environment. During the research analysis, I grew to appreciate the complexity involved in looking at the relationships between the research participants' cultural conditions and their preferred learning practices. It was also clear that CMC spaces are not necessarily democratic learning environments. I was challenged by the findings that cultural conditions had such a strong influence on the research participants' learning within CMC spaces. I have come to believe that in such spaces, some specific populations continue to struggle for a voice. Democratic processes should be designed into the teaching presence, social presence, and cognitive presence of online learning environments, and these processes should be mediated so that they are not taken for granted. I anticipate that the democratic dimensions of culture and CMC spaces will be the topic of some of my future research studies.

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