In this blog post Helen Boulton (Principle Lecturer/Reader, Nottingham Trent University firstname.lastname@example.org) discusses the introduction of a virtual learning environment (VLE) within a Professional Doctorate course, delivered both in the United Kingdom and Hong Kong, and the impact on student learning. The project was run in collaboration with the Hong Kong College of Technology. The project gathered student’s opinions, analysed the potential benefits and challenges of using a UK-based VLE. We evaluated the implementation of the VLE and other learning technologies in a transnational context where there is a different culture of learning, lack of prior experience of a VLE and where English may not be the first language.
Project website: www.tech4teachingtransnationally.weebly.com
HE institutions in the UK are developing collaborations with international partners introducing technology, often with little understanding of alternative cultures. The Nottingham Trent University (NTU) Professional Doctorate team has expanded its Education Doctorate provision through a collaborative agreement with Hong Kong Technology College (HKCT) involving the use of a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). At the start of the project, engagement with the VLE by HKCT students was almost non-existent. An initial visit to HKCT with the intention of engaging the Hong Kong (HK) students more thoroughly in the use of the VLE revealed disengagement, not in the notion of using the VLE for learning but in the unconsciously ethno-centric design. Baseline data indicated that only 9 of the 35 students had engaged with the VLE and identified a range of barriers including:
- lack of understanding of the purpose and how to use the VLE;
- a requirement to change their password every 90 days - failure to do this resulted in no access to the VLE;
- not knowing where to go if they experienced technical problems, compounded by than 8 hour time difference excluding them from accessing timely UK technical support.
This project then focused on the development of evidence-informed practice to identify what would engage HKCT students more effectively with the VLE and other new technologies to enable a greater use of online learning, a deeper level of learning and a faster pace of progression.
Although focused on postgraduate students it is anticipated that learning through this project will help to inform others facing the challenge of having to develop cross cultural competence with regards to the use of technologies and pedagogies.
Overcoming barriers to engagement
A literature review revealed no specific guidance to academics in relation to this area of practice. The review identified that Hofstede (1985) opened the debate and stimulated dialogue about cultural differences and the need for culture to be acknowledged in teaching and learning. Carroll and Ryan (2005) asserted that there is a need to be explicit about purpose and structure of activities and assessment; while this assertion is based on classroom focused research it impacts on online learning. Brown (2004) drawing on Gestalt cognitive theory asserted that the personal theories of learning and constructs of international students differs widely from the Western norm, which can hamper learning. Maclean and Ransome (2005) identify studying in a second language, adjusting to an unfamiliar educational context and perceptions of workload can impede international students.
We responded to the barriers identified above by developing the induction for the HKCT students so that it targeted access and use of the VLE. We then developed the use of the VLE to encourage HKCT students to regularly access information, such as regular news items, updates to reading, links to the course blog and wiki materials from workshops, use of Dropbox for tutorial records and submitting assignments. Finally we created a content area in each module learning room specifically for HKCT students. Wifi in HK can be slow; in response we added a widget to the homepage of each learning room taking students directly to their area – this has been reported a positive impact.
We acknowledged the problems that HKCT students can experience in logging into our systems. We created a separate Word Press blog with vodcasts explaining how to access the VLE and technical support if they were locked out. We ensured that the blog would be accessible via mobile phones, the most used technology by our HKCT students, and this has been described as a ‘lifeboat’ by the students who are not able to drop into the help desks in the UK. We worked with our UK based IT Support systems to introduce a timed email to go to the HKCT students every 85 days to ensure they had adequate notice to change their password.
We worked with our HKCT students to identify the main elements to be built into the wiki. We selected PBWiki (www.pbwiki.co.uk). The wiki was established with different learning spaces and pre-populated with sufficient support for the students in working together. Students were informed of this development via an email, invitation to join the wiki, and a news item in the VLE learning rooms. Uptake was initially slow but as students attended taught workshops both in Hong Kong and the UK we have demonstrated how to use the wiki, explained the purpose and created time in the workshops for students to engage with the wiki. Current analytics show that the students are increasingly engaging with the wiki.
We have developed further widgets to enable faster access for our HKCT students to their content area; a link to the course wiki and a link to the course blog. This simple access into the VLE and out to the key external sites has provided increased confidence in using our systems and increased engagement by the HKCT students.
We have also developed time in each workshop for students, both in the UK and Hong Kong, to add knowledge to the wiki. This may be in terms of key readings they have found of significant impact on their research, sharing their research methodology, and sharing their methodological frameworks including their developing understanding of epistemology and ontology. It is early days for making links across the continents in terms of writing papers, or putting together conference papers where they are undertaking similar research, however, both NTU and HKCT students are excited about these possibilities.
Further data collection indicated that our HKCT doctoral students wanted a space to co-construct knowledge with students in the UK to share reading and support each other. This was beyond the capability of the VLE. We therefore investigated various alternatives and identified a wiki as the most appropriate technology.
The key outcomes of the project were to develop evidence-informed practice to identify what will support HK-based students to engage more effectively with our VLE to enable a greater use of online learning, a deeper level of learning and a faster pace of progression.
We are keen to find out if you have had similar experiences with the use of technology with transnational students.
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