November 2007 Index
Home Page

Editor’s Note: This paper identifies profound cultural differences that provide dissonance in the learning process. It also shows how language combined with teaching and learning styles impact learner behavior and academic success. This intriguing article is made more so because of the author’s acute analysis of her own culturally imprinted learning style. It has implications across whole realms of interactions world wide.

Problems of Distance Education Materials from the Perspectives of Japanese Learners

Mitsuko Maeda


This paper examines the problems of distance education materials in the UK from the perspectives of Japanese learners. It aims to provide course designers in distance education with information to improve the study materials for overseas students, particularly Japanese learners. Self-reflection was used to examine the problems. This paper identifies and discusses two aspects of difficulties for Japanese students learning from distance education materials: language construction and learning style. Some recommendations are made for mitigating these difficulties and to accommodate the Japanese learners in the UK distance education programmes.

Keywords: Distance education materials, Japanese learner, learning style, language construction, UK distance education, cultural difference, self-reflection, campus-based learning, distance learning, overseas student, course book.


Many western academic institutes have been opening their door to Asian students. However, it is not an easy task for foreign students to adapt to the different learning environment. While many Asian students are required to make an effort to adapt themselves to the foreign academic way (Henderson, Milhouse, & Cao, 1993; Liu, 2001), it is strongly suggested that western academic staff should be required to understand socio-cultural variations and to respond to overseas learners Carroll & Ryan, 2005; Cortazzi & Jin, 1997; Robert Harris, 1995; Li & Kaye, 1998; Scherto, 2007). Indeed, this issue has arisen not only within campus-based education, but also in distance education, and study materials that are more sensitive to learners’ cultural background are increasingly called for (Allen, 1993; Matthew, 2006; Simon, Parboteeah, & Yushan, 2004).

This paper responds to this call, critically examines the study materials of a distance education programme in the UK and makes some recommendations to accommodate overseas learners, particularly Japanese learners. The paper starts by describing the aim and approach of this research. Then, findings and discussion are presented, followed by recommendations.


The major goal of this paper is to provide course designers with information to improve study materials for Japanese learners. There were three objectives:

  1. Identify parts of the materials that Japanese learners find difficult.

  2. Identify and analyse reasons why Japanese learners experience difficulties.

  3. Suggest ways to reduce or eliminate these difficulties.


Researcher’s self-reflection

Learners’ self-reflection is widely recognised as a powerful instrument in educational research and the improvement of educational programmes (e.g. Catherine, 1999; Jackie, 2006; Richard, 2005). A researcher’s self-reflection and experience is also acknowledged as significant research data Bell, 1998; Lewis-Beck, Bryman, & Liao, 2004, p. 890; Potts, 2007). Based on such recognition, this study is largely based on the author’s personal experience as a distance learner, with reference to her campus-based learning experience both in Japan and in the UK. She was familiar with both Japanese and British teaching and learning styles and academic environments because she obtained each of her two MA degrees in Japan and the UK. While it is acknowledged that her experience could not be all-encompassing, her background in the field of education helps to provide a generalised concept to identify the different aspects of British and Japanese learning styles and identify the problems which arise from them. It should be noted that provisional generalisation from a single case study should not be underestimated in scientific inquiry (Evers & Wu, 2006; Stake, 1995).

In this research, the author studied the materials and attempted to find out difficulties that could exist, all the while assuming that she was a Japanese distance learner with no experience of studying in the UK. She kept a learning diary for three months, employing Race’s1992, p. 81) approach. She noted her impression in each section of the course book with evaluation adjectives such as clear, readable, irritating, longwinded or difficult. Later, this impression was analysed, with particular focus on the negative adjectives. It is recognised that, like other self-evaluation studies, this method might not lead to an appropriate evaluation fitting all study programmes. Her observations and reflections were not conducted as systematically as predefined criteria would require. However, this method provides initial data to guide design of effective study programmes targeting overseas customers, particularly Japanese students.


The University of London External Programme offers an MA and Postgraduate Diploma in Distance Education to distance learners worldwide. This research focuses on one unit from the study materials which was developed by the International Extension College and used since 1997. The examined unit was, Unit 15: Industrialisation and the Human Face, written by Tony Dodds from Course 2: The development of distance education.

Since the research was concerned with the effective interaction between a British teacher and a Japanese student in distance education, the topic ‘Industrialisation and the Human Face’ was chosen for these course materials. This topic discusses the issue of industrialised education through distance media and identifies drawbacks in that human contact between teachers and students does not exist. The materials studied in this research were two items: a course book, and a set reader including 6 articles.

Findings and Discussion

Broadly, the difficulties in the study materials were identified in two areas: (i) language construction and (ii) learning styles.

 Language Construction

Competence in the English language is essential to study in the UK and the lack of it is the cause of considerable difficulties for many students(Cammish, 1997, p. 149-152). However, compared to campus-based education in the UK, there are some advantages to distance education for the non-native English learners, in terms of language skills (Allen, 1993, p. 15).

The author experienced that, in a conventional (i.e. a typical campus-based) university in the UK, lectures and group discussions were often stressful events. It was sometimes difficult to follow what native speakers said, as they often used rapid, unfamiliar and non-standard English. Once she missed the lecturer’s words, she had little chance to listen to the same words again. When she tried to say something and made sentences in her brain, the lecturer had already moved on to the next topic. She was afraid to make a mistake in asking questions and she chose to keep quiet so she would not be seen as an incapable student in class. She believed that many Japanese students might have similar feelings.

On the other hand, in distance learning, she would feel free from such stress because she was not required to have direct verbal interactions with people. She could read the text over and over many times, until she could understand. She felt that distance learning materials were effective for getting information and would help to avoid unwanted stress. In some cases, distance learning could be more effective than campus-based learning for Japanese students whose language skills were not sufficient.

Even though distance learning might be easier than campus-based learning for the less language-proficient students, distance education materials are not always easy-to-use for non-native English speakers. Even native learners find the language difficult in some educational materials.

In order to examine this point, the level of difficulty in reading the study materials was analysed (the course book and the set reader). Indeed, many scholars indicate the significance of readable prose in relation to the ability the learner to understand the materials (e.g., Lewis & Paine, 1985; Rowntree, 1994). The following segments discuss how the readability of the texts is measured. This is followed by analysis of the elements that affect readability.

Measurement of Readability

The difficulty level (i.e., readability) of the text in the course book was measured by two methods: (i) Cloze Test and (ii) Fog Index. From the text, the author identified two blocks of sentences which she found difficult to understand and they were labelled as Section A and B.  Also, she identified two blocks of sentences which she did not find difficult and labelled them Section C and D. Each Section consisted of 4-5 paragraphs.

The Cloze Test

The method of the Cloze Text is suggested by Lewis and Paine (1985) as follows:

§ Take a 250 word long text and delete the 36th  word and then every tenth word thereafter (e.g. 46th, 56th, 66th, ... , 226 th. Then ask someone to provide the 20 missing words.

§ Ask someone to provide the 20 missing words.

§ If he/she fails to provide the correct word or a totally acceptable alternative in at least 13 cases out of the 20, the text would be considered to be too difficult.

A paper test of Sections A, B, C, and D was prepared and ten Japanese students and five English native speakers were asked to try it out. It should be noted that the competence in English of the ten Japanese students satisfied the course entrance requirement. That is, their International English Language Testing System (IELTS) scores were above 6.0.

The results (the medium values of the numbers of words that they failed) were as follows:

Japanese…A 16, B 15, C 14, D 15

English … A 13, B 12, C 12, D 11

Although the number of research participants was limited, results show the text was at the right level for the English native speakers, but Japanese students were not comfortable with the text.

The Fog Index

Rowntree (1994, p. 141) introduces the Fog Index as a measurement of readability.
It is calculated as follows:

  Fog Index = [(The number of words / the number of sentences)
          + (the number of three or more syllable words
          × 100/ the number of words)] × 0.4

According to Rowntree, if the Fog Index is more than 12, the text is too difficult for many readers.

The results calculated for sections A, B, C, and D, were:

A= 17.7, B = 17.5, C = 21.0, and D = 17.8.

As a control, the Fog Indexes of three articles in the Guardian, a major British newspaper, were calculated. They were, 14.5, 19.6, and 17.8.

We may say that the readability of the text in the course book is nearly the same as that of a newspaper. Although Rowntree (1994) suggests that a text whose Fog Index is above 12 is difficult for many readers, there is fairly general agreement that a newspaper is not difficult for general English speakers. Therefore, perhaps, the readability of the course book is appropriate for the English students, but not for the Japanese students.

It is acknowledged that the results of these two tests cannot be generalised because of the limited number of tests and these tests themselves are a blunt instrument, as Race (1992, p. 100) points out. For example, the author’s perception of the readability did not always agree with the results of the test, as shown in the Fog Index test on Section C. Moreover, it can be said from the tests that some parts of the text are not easy for Japanese students to read.

Elements of Readability

As shown above, some parts of the reading materials may be too difficult for Japanese learners. Many scholars point out elements that affect the readability of materials and give guidelines to improve them (e.g., Lewis & Paine, 1985; Rowntree, 1994). This section looks at some of the elements that can be altered and thus improve readability: paragraphing, sentences, writer’s voice, and reading guide.


One element that makes text difficult is paragraph structure. According to Lewis and Paine (1985, p. 56), each paragraph should be one idea, usually introduced by the first sentence, and the maximum length should be about 5-7 lines assuming 13 words to one line.

Most paragraphs in the course book were in accordance with this guideline. The researcher could read these paragraphs without any difficulty. However, some parts failed to satisfy these criteria. For example, Section A, which was pointed out earlier as difficult text, consisted of two 12-line paragraphs, each of which failed to provide a clear point.


Lewis and Paine (1985, p. 56) suggest that writers should make an effort to restrict sentences to a maximum of 20 words. However, in the text in the course book, there were some sentences that disturbed the author’s understanding due to their length and complexity. For example, one sentence was 70 words long. Important information was highlighted as boldface words and letters. Another sentence was 50 words long with tangled clauses and phrases that made this sentence’s meaning unclear.

Writer’s voice

‘Reader-friendly’ writing also affects readability (e.g., Rowntree, 1994, p. 139). For example, the ‘voice’ of the writer is a plain speaking or conversation style using the word ‘I’ as an author and ‘you’ as a learner. This text is written in a personal voice, as the writer Dodds (1994, p. 76) himself says in the course book. The author felt that there was a teacher in the text rather than a computer.

Sometimes this speaking style can affect readability in a negative way if inserting a writer’s voice makes sentences more complex. For example:

There is no doubt that we must beware of becoming too closely tied to individual definitions of these terms: no learning can be completely independent of other people or of outside influences - thank goodness; and technology is increasingly giving us new opportunities to interact without direct face-to-face contact (Dodds, 1994, p. 72).

But the dilemma remains, and, I am sure, will remain, for planners of distance and open learning: How much of our resources should be devoted to the distance media? (Dodds, 1994, p. 72)

As shown, the colloquial expression ‘thank goodness’ or ‘I am sure’ stopped the flow of the sentences. Therefore, although the speaking style was effective to improve the readability, it may cause, rather than solve, comprehension problems for some students.

Reading guide

Generally, assigned reader articles are not written with the intention of being used as distance education materials. Quite the contrary, they often use complicated, vague and abstract words or sentences. One way to solve this problem may be to change these articles into good teaching materials for use in distance education through, for example, editing to the text, as Melton (1990) suggested. Alternately, the course book should provide the reading guide, such as outlines, summary or how to read. Also, Nathenson (1979, p. 104, p. 108) pointed out that advice on how to tackle the course material was a significant aid to improve study comprehension.

In this course book, useful reading guides were provided to the author in order to read 6 articles in a set reader. For example:

§  How to tackle… ‘As the article is quite long, I suggest you read it in two parts: first read pages 16-23, up to...’(Dodds, 1994, p. 71)

§  Summary…‘ This article has come to be recognised as an important statement of the problems posed, …’Dodds, 1994, p. 71)

§  Introduction…‘A more detailed analysis of this problem can be found in chapter 24 of your set reader.’ (Dodds, 1994, p. 74)

Learning Style

While language skills are very important, the major problem for students has less to do with difficulties in language skills than with ways of studying. Students may simply not understand what is involved in writing, thinking and talking in the UK, particularly at postgraduate level (Todd, 1997, p. 176).

As shown in the above statement, in addition to the language difficulty overseas students, including Japanese students, face difficulties in coping with the different teaching and learning styles used in conventional universities in the UK (Woodhall, 1989, p. 107-108). As seen in campus-based learning, the same problems are found in distance learning (Allen, 1993). This section discusses the difficulties in terms of three features of different learning styles: result versus process, single solution versus multiple solutions, and hierarchical versus horizontal relations between teachers and students.

Result versus process

The first feature that is different between Japanese and British learning styles is emphasis on the point of learning, that is, a result or process, as shown in the following example.

One of the unnecessary activities for this author was to answer leading questions in the course book. The author found that leading questions were typical of the British academic style. The purpose of this activity is to guide learners to answer in a certain way before getting into a topic. The answer is normally described in the following section or page. Without this activity (process), learners can easily achieve this purpose (result).

Like the author, Japanese learners might regard this kind of leading questions as a time wasting activity, because it is generally known that our expectation of teaching style is product-oriented while the British expectation is in problem-solving. In other words, a teacher provides unquestionable knowledge in Japan; but a teacher raises argument and discussion in the UK (R. Harris, 1997, p. 42; Macrae, 1997, p. 141). Japanese learners might not be accustomed to engage in process-centered activities.

Single solution versus multiple solutions

The second feature of difference is the way in which the answer is sought, that is, single solution or multiple solutions, as in the example below.

In the course book, there were questions that gave the author confidence to answer. They were “which” and “what” questions. On the other hand, there were questions to which the author was unable to answer in a straightforward manner. They were “how” questions. The former questions had one relatively clear answer, but the latter ones had many answers the learners can give. When answers were diverse, the author could not have the same level of confidence in her answer.

This feeling might be explained by Cortazzi and Jin (1997). According to them, the Japanese students tend to seek one correct answer, whereas most British see that only one correct answer is too limited. In other words, the Japanese approach is a ‘dualistic’ one, in which there are right and wrong answers to everything, the British approach is a ‘relativistic’ one in which all knowledge is relative but equally valid (Jaques, 1995, p. 46). Indeed, such different attitudes towards knowledge can be measured by the Uncertainty Avoidance Index, which shows the degree of the aversion to unknown or uncertain situations. Japan is ranked 7th out of 53, while the UK is ranked 47th (Hofstede, 1994, p. 113). Thus, generally speaking, Japanese are not good at replying to open-ended questions, which allow for wide-ranging answers.

However, the problem of open-ended questions is not limited to Japanese learners. Race (1992, p. 63) recommends writers not use too many open-ended questions, because it is very difficult to respond to the learners’ varied answers. He also suggests that if a writer uses them, model answers or important ideas should be provided to allow learners to judge their answers by comparing them to valid alternative answers (p. 91).

Hierarchical relation versus horizontal relation

The third feature of different learning styles is the relationship between teacher and student, that is, hierarchy or horizontal relations. This is illustrated by the experience described below.

The author often found it confusing when views and opinions of the writer differed from the facts presented. One example is the way in which Otto Peters is introduced in the course book. Peters is introduced as ‘The principal proponent of the idea of distance education as a highly industrialised form of education’. However, Peters denies the view that he himself is seen as an advocate of industrialisation of teaching and learning (Peters, 1989, p. 180). Later, the author realised that the statement introducing Peters was based on the writer’s own point of view and not the fact.

This kind of statement, which shows the viewpoints of the writer, may be a strategy to develop learners’ critical thinking in the UK, but perhaps it should be avoided for the Japanese learners. The reason is that in terms of communication between listener/reader and speaker/writer, the former has a responsibility in Japan while the latter has that responsibilityin the UK. Moreover, Japanese learners tend to accept everything a writer says, and to regard a writer as a teacher. Japanese see teacher’s words, even in printed form, as correct knowledge which is not to be questioned (Allen, 1993, p. 10-11). Indeed, as Galtung (1981) pointed out, while the relationship between a teacher and a student in Japan is hierarchical, in the UK they are socially equal. Therefore, writers needs to be more sensitive to the relationship with learners, particularly for Japanese learners.


This paper identified and discussed two aspects of difficulties for Japanese students learning from distance education materials: language construction and learning style. Suggestions for mitigating these difficulties now follow.

In terms of language difficulty, distance learning course designers should improve the readability of the course book and a set reader through:

  • short and well-structured paragraphs

  • short and simple sentences

  • inserting a writer’s voice but making sure it does not interrupt the sentence structure, and

  • include a reading guide

In terms of learning style difficulties, the first step to minimise difficulties is to have a practical understanding of the gap between the Japanese learning styles and the British teaching styles. Designers should be aware that Japanese learners tend to emphasise the result of learning by looking for a single correct solution and not to question the writer’s views. Designers should also recognise that Japanese learning styles are different in intent from British teaching, which encourages students to emphasise the process of learning, to seek for multiple solutions and to criticise writer’s views. Ballard (1989, p. 170) suggests that:

Instead of merely dismissing them as “rote learners,” “text dependent students” and “students who can memorize but can’t think,” the staff can recognize that such behaviours are symptomatic not of incompetence or intellectual limitations but of different cultural approaches to the task of being a good student. 

The second step is to find a way to bridge this gap. It is not suggested here to revise the materials entirely to suit Japanese learners. Indeed, introducing the Japanese learning style into the materials may unintentionally extend the weak points of distance learning, as pointed out in this course book as follows:

Distance education by its nature is in danger of being authoritarian, teacher dominated and indoctrinatory (Dodds, 1994, p. 68).

The promotion of learning by enquiry and discovery is less common and more difficult to design (Dodds, 1994, p. 69).

Perhaps the way to solve this problem is to lead, but not force, Japanese learners to be familiar with British learning styles. Indeed, understanding British learning styles may bring considerable benefit to the Japanese learners. It would teach learners critical thinking and give them an opportunity to create new knowledge rather than just regurgitate old knowledge. Furthermore, the shift from Japanese learning style into British learning style, that is, from ‘dualism’ to ‘relativism’, is seen by some educators as intellectual development e.g., Jaques, 1995, p. 45-49). Hence, it is suggested that the designers help, but not force, the Japanese learners to understand and even adopt a British learning approach. As Ballard (1989, p. 170) points out, once the differences of learning styles are recognised by the teaching side, then:

It is possible to make explicit the shifts that are necessary, and for the lecturers to make clearer exactly what they do expect of their students.

Materials for Japanese learners should more precisely show the designers’ expectation and recognise the differences of learning styles. The materials should be produced in the way that guides Japanese learners to the British style. For example, in the course book, a Japanese learner would be helped towards learning the British way if the writer provides some guidelines, such as, how to constructively criticise a writer, how to find multiple solutions, and how to think step by step. In doing so, the difficulties in learning style could ease.

In conclusion, in so far as the British distance education is offered to the Japanese learners, the designers need to ascertain its quality and effectiveness for Japanese learners. Although this paper may be limited in scope, the author hopes that it will contribute to improvement of course materials and accommodate Japanese learners as well as learners from other cultures.


Allen, A. (Ed.). (1993). Culture as a Learning Variable: Implications for Quality Assurance in Distance Education. Downing College, Cambridge.

Ballard, B. (1989). Social and Cultural Adjustment by Foreign Students: The Australian Experience. In K. Ebuchi (Ed.), Foreign Students and Internationalization of Higher Education. Hiroshima: Research Institute of Higher Education Hiroshima University.

Bell, S. (1998). Self-Reflection and Vulnerability in Action Research: Bringing Forth New Worlds in Our Learning. Systemic Practice and Action Research, 11(2), 179.

Cammish, N. (1997). Through a Glass Darkly: Problems of Studying at Advanced Level through the Medium of English. In D. McNamara & R. Harris (Eds.), Overseas Students in Higher Education: Issues in Teaching and Learning. London: Routledge.

Carroll, J., & Ryan, J. (Eds.). (2005). Teaching International Students: Improving Learning for All. London: Routledge.

Catherine, M. (1999). Self-assessment at work: Outcome of adult learners' reflections on practice. Adult Education Quarterly, 49(3), 135.

Cortazzi, M., & Jin, L. (1997). Communication for Learning across Cultures. In D. McNamara & R. Harris (Eds.), Overseas Students in Higher Education: Issues in Teaching and Learning. London: Routledge.

Dodds, T. (1994). Industrialisation and the Human Face. London: International Extension College/ University of London Institute of Education.

Evers, C. W., & Wu, E. H. (2006). On Generalising from Single Case Studies: Epistemological Reflections. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 40(4), 511-526.

Galtung, J. (1981). Structure, Culture and Intellectual Style: An Essay Comparing Saxonic, Teutonic, Gallic and Nipponic Approaches. Social Science Information, 20(6), 817-856.

Harris, R. (1995). Overseas Students in the United Kingdom University System. Higher Education, 29(1), 77-92.

Harris, R. (1997). Overseas Students in the United Kingdom University System: A Perspective from Social Work. In D. McNamara & R. Harris (Eds.), Overseas Students in Higher Education: Issues in Teaching and Learning. London: Routledge.

Henderson, G., Milhouse, V., & Cao, L. (1993). Crossing the gap: An analysis of Chinese students' culture shock in an American university. College Student Journal, 27, 380-389.

Hofstede, G. (1994). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. London: Harper Collins.

Jackie, D. (2006). How Adults Learn from Self-Paced, Technology-Based Corporate Training: New focus for learners, new focus for designers. Distance Education, 27(2), 155.

Jaques, D. (1995). Learning in Groups. London: Kogan Page.

Lewis-Beck, M. S., Bryman, A., & Liao, T. F. (Eds.). (2004). The Sage Encyclopedia of Social Science Research Methods By Michael S. Lewis-Beck, Alan Bryman, Tim Futing Liao. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications Inc.

Lewis, R., & Paine, N. (1985). How to Communicate with the Learner. London: Council for Educational Technology.

Li, R. Y., & Kaye, M. (1998). Understanding Overseas Students' Concerns and Problems Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 20(1), 41-50.

Liu, J. (2001). Asian Students' Classroom Communication Patterns in U.S. Universities: An Emic Perspective. Westport, Conn: Ablex.

Macrae, M. (1997). Induction of International Students. In D. McNamara & R. Harris (Eds.), Overseas Students in Higher Education: Issues in Teaching and Learning. London: Routledge.

Matthew, M. (2006). Adapting e-Learning for Japanese Audiences - Tutorial. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 49(4), 335.

Melton, F. (1990). Transforming text for Distance Learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 21(3), 183-195.

Nathenson, M. (1979). Bridging the Gap between Teaching and Learning at a Distance. British Journal of Educational Technology, 10(3), 100-109.

Peters, O. (1989). The Iceberg Has not Melted: Further reflections on the Concept of Industrialisation and Distance Teaching. Open Learning, 4(3), 3-8.

Potts, P. (2007). The place of experinece in comparative education research. In M. Bray, B. Adamson & M. Mason (Eds.), Comparative education research: approaches and methods (pp. 145-163). Hong Kong: Comparative Education Research Centre, The University of Hong Kong, and Springer.

Race, P. (1992). 53 Interesting Ways to Write Open Learning Materials. Bristol: Technical and Educational Service.

Richard, W. (2005). 'I Call Myself a Mature Student. That One Word Makes All the Difference': Reflections on Adult Learners' Experiences. Auto / Biography, 13(1), 53.

Rowntree, D. (1994). Preparing Materials for Open, Distance and Flexible Learning: An Action Guide for Teachers and Trainers. London: Kogan Page.

Scherto, G. (2007). Overseas students' intercultural adaptation as intercultural learning: a transformative framework. Compare, 37(2), 167-183.

Simon, M., Parboteeah, K. P., & Yushan, Z. (2004). On-line course design and delivery: cross-national considerations. Strategic Change, 13(4), 183-192.

Stake, R. (1995). The art of case research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Todd, E. (1997). Supervising Overseas Students: Problem or Opportunity? In D. McNamara & R. Harris (Eds.), Overseas Students in Higher Education: Issues in Teaching and Learning. London: Routledge.

Woodhall, M. (1989). Specific Measures and Programmes for Foreign Students: Some Lessons from British Experience. In K. Ebuchi (Ed.), Foreign Students and Internationalization of Higher Education. Hiroshima: Research Institute of Higher Education Hiroshima University.

About the Author

Mitsuko Maeda is Associate Professor, Osaka Jogakuin College,
2-26-54 Tamatsukure Chuo-ku Osaka, Japan 540-0004

Email: Maeda Mitsuko []

go top
November 2007 Index
Home Page