Editor’s Note: Global reach makes learning accessible across national and cultural boundaries. Language and cultural differences impact both ease of learning and learning outcomes where instruction is in a second language. This small sample experiment documents the challenges faced by .Chinese students using discussion boards in western universities
Chinese Students’ Perceptions of Online Learning in Western Discussion Boards:
Low Context Culture
High Context Culture
Emphasis on learning outcomes: student-centered learning and active learning
Emphasis on teaching inputs: all materials provided in class and rigid parameters set in course syllabi
Emphasis on attitudinally-based deep learning: development of personal skills, and attitudes toward lifelong learning
Content- and knowledge-based learning: little emphasis on personal, transferable skills
Wide variety of learning tools and assessment instruments: assessment as feedback instrument and wide range of assessment/feedback tools
Individual and examination-based assessment: frequent, highly content specific assessment
Informal lecturer/student relationships: teachers as guides/facilitators/mentors in learning process
Formal lecturer/student relationships: students’ performance depend on teachers’ knowledge
Larger student numbers/more contact time: efficient use of teaching resources sought
Small group sizes/fewer contact time: intimate teacher/student relationship sought
Adapted from: Morse (2003, p. 42)
Hofstede (1991) analyzed 50 countries’ worldviews and identified four different dimensions among those national worldviews: individualism vs. collectivism, large vs. small power distance, strong vs. weak uncertainty avoidance, and masculinity vs. femininity. By employing a dichotomous method, these four categories represent different cultural traits, showing each country’s cultural values. For example, cultural values in America fit with individualism, small power distance, weak uncertainty, and masculinity. Like Hall’s context model, Hofstede’s four dimensions of national worldviews could also be applied to analyze cultural groups’ learning styles (Williams-Green, Holmes, & Sherman, 1998). Definitions and pedagogical implications of the four dimensions are summarized in Table 2.
Individualism: everybody is supposed to look after his or her own self-interest
Purpose of education is learning how to learn
Collectivism: everybody looks after interest of his or her in-group and have opinions and beliefs of in-group
Purpose of education is learning how to do
Small power distance: authority decentralized and leadership more democratic
Teachers expect initiatives from students in class; teachers are experts who transfer impersonal truths; students treat teachers as equals
Large power distance: authority more centralized and leadership more autocratic
Teachers are expected to take all initiatives in class; teachers are gurus who transfer personal wisdom; students treat teachers with respect
Strong uncertainty avoidance: society tries to beat the future, higher anxiety in people
Students comfortable in structured learning situations and concerned with the right answers; teachers supposed to have all the answers
Weak uncertainty avoidance: society socializes members to accept uncertainty
Students comfortable with open-ended learning situations and concerned with good discussions; teachers may say ‘I don’t know’
Masculinity: traditional masculine social values permeate the whole society
Best student is the norm; failing in school is a disaster; brilliance in teachers appreciated
Femininity: dominant values for men and women are those traditionally associated with feminine role
Average student is the norm; failing in school is a minor accident; friendliness in teachers appreciated
Adapted from: Williams-Green, Holmes, & Sherman (1998, p.7); Hofstede (1991, p. 37, p. 67, p. 96, p.125)
Based on the above theoretical foundations, this study perceives that since Chinese students participate in Chinese educational systems a long time before coming to American universities, previous educational values might unconsciously or indirectly influence their learning perspectives. Chinese students may bring certain learning traits, identified in Hall and Hofstede’s models, into a new learning environment (i.e. the American university).
Total of 5 female and 1 male voluntarily participated in this study. The sample size satisfies the phenomenological requirement that at least six individuals who all have experienced the phenomenology should be interviewed (Morse, 1994). All participants are Chinese graduate students enrolled in the College of Education in a large state university in the Northeast America. The online courses they took were all offered by the same university. They came to America to pursue their doctoral degrees after receiving bachelor or master degrees in Asia. Mandarin is their mother tongue. They all passed the English proficiency tests (e.g. TOEFL and GRE) to fulfill the graduate school’s requirement. Table 3 shows their basic profiles.
Number(s) of Online
Curriculum & Instruction
Curriculum & Instruction
Curriculum & Instruction
Curriculum & Instruction
This study employed a phenomenological methodology to explore learners’ perceptions and online experiences in order to obtain more in-depth understanding of any possible cultural challenges learners might encounter during their participation in online discussion activities. According to Van Manen (1997), “the aim of phenomenology is to transform lived experience into a textual expression of its essence…” (p. 36). Van Manen further claimed that “… the task of phenomenological research and writing: to construct a possible interpretation of the nature of a certain human experience” (p. 41). The purpose of this study fits well with Van Manen’s statement because it seeks to understand learners’ experiences in online courses and further interpret non-native English learners’ perceptions of online asynchronous discussions.
Based on literature review and the researchers’ personal experiences, a semi-structured interview guide (see appendix) was developed. With regard to the design of interview process, this study applies Seidman’s (2006) three series of phenomenological interviewing: focused life history, the details of present lived experience, and reflection on the meaning of experience with minor modification. In order to match with participants’ schedule, the three series of interviewing were condensed into a 90-minute interview with each research participant. During interview process, observations on participants’ archived discussion boards were another data source to verify participants’ sayings.
After data collection, Moustakas’s(1994) method of phenomenological analysis was employed to analyze all written transcripts. First, significant phrases or sentences were identified (preliminary grouping). Second, meanings were formulated from significant phrases or sentences (clustering of invariant meaning units). Third, the formulated meanings are clustered into different themes (searching for themes). Finally, exhaustive descriptions of each theme and overarching interpretation of essences of the experiences were provided (composite textural-structural descriptions).
In order to increase validity and reliability of this study, a number of techniques were employed. For validity, this study conducted triangulation, peer review, and member checking suggested by Cresswell (2007). In triangulation, multiple sources, such as observations on participants’ archived discussion boards and in-depth interviews with participants, corroborate evidence. For peer review, several colleagues continuously questioned research design to increase the research quality. As for member checking, once interpretative data was obtained, some participants reviewed the data for the second time to validate the findings. Concerning the reliability, the researchers not only employed a high quality of digital devices to record interview conversation, but also requested one colleague to verify the accuracy of interview transcripts.
The interpretation of participants’ transcribed interview data resulted in ten findings. Representative quotations from participants were inserted in each finding.
When encountering uncommon first names, few participants were sometimes unable to identify their peers’ genders. P1 stated,
“Sometimes, I confused with my classmates’ gender in online discussions. I can easily identify popular English names, which tell me the difference between male and female. But for unpopular ones, it is much difficult for me to tell the difference.”
A male participant (P2) had the same feeling as P1’s when he sent an e-mail to his online classmates. He said, during group project development, e-mail was a preferable communication channel. One of my team members corrected my writing in an e-mail. My classmate told me
“I used wrong gender pronoun. I was so embarrassed when I realized she is not he.”
All participants strongly respected the teachers. They followed what their teachers required for the course work and did not challenge the teachers’ viewpoints. P3 said,
"My culture background tells me that I should show a great expect to my teachers even though I have been U.S. for a long time".
P6 expressed a similar thought when talking about his course requirements. He stated,
"Whatever online instructors said, I would definitely follow their rules. Although Sometimes course requirements they set did not make sense to me, I still respect what they did and did my best to meet their needs."
P5 also showed a great respect for her online instructors. She said, " Usually, I disagreed with my teachers' comments. However, Chinese culture put down my desire to challenge their (teachers) viewpoints".
When compared with their Western fellow students, some participants perceived that their expression styles in discussion board were non-critical and euphemistic. P1 stated:
"I wanted to create a harmonious learning environment. I think critical arguments will lead to a tense environment, which discourages people's responses. So, I often complimented on my classmates' postings. For example, I will not directly point out which one (sentence or paragraph) is wrong or right. I will write some complimentary words first and then indirectly tell what I thought in each posting".
P6 thought direct argument would embarrass her classmates. She stated,
"When I composed my response postings, I would try to soft the tone of my writings. I think correcting other people's viewpoints in a direct way is impolite”.
If online instructors are not actively involved in online discussion, some participants often felt anxious due to their strong dependence on teachers’ comments. P4 was extremely concerned this issue. She stated,
"I knew the instructors would see what I post in online discussion. But they often did not give any feedback to me. So, under this situation, I always worried if my postings were appropriate to discussion topics. In face-to-face learning settings, I can really perceive their (teachers) involvement in course discussions. When it comes to online learning, their silent involvement (seeing the postings without giving feedback) often causes strong stress for me."
P3 related teachers' comments to her confidence. She said,
"My confidence built on their frequent comments. I knew they read my postings. However, as online courses progressed, their sparse comments would cause anxiety for me. I need their guidance all the time".
Some participants considered that their English writing skills would not affect their participation in online discussions. They enjoyed text-based communication, but they did not like to write lengthy postings as their Western fellow students often did. P4 compared her face-to-face learning experiences with online learning. She said,
"At face-to-face courses, I wanted to be a active speaker like my American classmates. But English is not my mother language. During course discussions, I still need to spend much time thinking how to say in a correct way. So, compared to my American classmates, I looked like a non-active speaker. In the online world, I did not need to respond to my classmates or teachers instantly. I liked text-based discussion because I could have much time thinking how to say. However, I found that my online American classmates often wrote lengthy postings, which drives me crazy.”
P3 attributed this issue to cultural background. She said:
“This (English) is their advantage. If I were American, I would easily write lengthy postings. But I am always wondering is it necessary to write this style of postings? I like asynchronous silent (word-based) communication but I think each posting should be succinct".
Native English students often wrote some slang few participants could not understand. P1 thought she had a good command of English skills. However, she hated to see slang language appearing in online postings. She said,
"Often, my classmates would put some slang in their postings. When I looked these terms related to American culture, I could not figure out what they mean".
P2 also experienced the same situation. He stated,
"I got used to this phenomenon. My classmates treated me as an American student. Their assumption is that I would know slang they posted. When I saw slang or terminologies I did not understand, I would google these special terms".
Few participants tended to write more postings than the required to impress their instructors. P5 often cared about online instructors' views of her. She said, "In addition to weekly posting requirements, I would write more postings to impress my teachers. Although I could not see my teachers' face, I still wanted them know that I were active learners". P6 related good impression to good grade. She said,
“The more postings I wrote, the higher grade I got. Even though I achieved weekly requirements, I thought the extra efforts I put would let me get good impression, which influences my teacher’s grading judgment. “
Before attending online courses, most participants felt that the online courses would be easy to pass. However, during the online learning process, they considered their previous expectations were unrealistic because they always had a lot discussion sessions and weekly assignments. They felt that workload in online discussion was overwhelming. They had to log in to the online learning management systems frequently to check discussion postings for each weekly instructional unit. Meanwhile, they must also pay closed attention to the interaction and exchanges of ideas in the discussion boards. P2 stated:
“Two weeks after taking an online course, I would like to drop the course. In a traditional face-to-face course, weekly one-hour or two hour course discussion was enough for me. But in an online course, you should check discussion postings all the time. It was a torture for me." “
P4 also expressed the same feeling. She said:
“My face-to-face courses’ instructors would not force me to engage in the class discussion. But, in online courses if I seldom expressed my personal opinions or commented on others’ postings by leaving messages in the discussion boards, my instructors might notice my inactive engagement in the discussion activities simply by looking at the frequency counts of their names appearing in the discussion boards. So, I should behave to be an active speaker during the online discussions all the time, which I think workload was very heavy.”
When asked if their instructors used any new strategies to facilitate online discussion, all participants mentioned that the instructors only asked them to post and reply messages in discussion boards. However, most participants could not tolerate to read through all the discussion postings. They hoped the course instructors could divide students into different subgroups so that they only have to review fewer discussion postings. Consequently, the exchange of ideas or generation of knowledge would become more effective and sufficient. P3 said,
“During specific time, several postings popped up suddenly. Each new posting was followed by responded postings. It was mess. ”
From a reading habit perspective, P5 stated,
“I hated to focus on computer screen a long time, especially for certain areas. Going through each posting was a torture for me. When looking for main ideas of discussion postings, you look like searching a needle in the ocean.”
Participants expressed their concerns about posting discussion. Four factors often affect their willingness to write postings: course requirement, peer pressure, prior knowledge, and on-campus schedule. These factors were listed in Table 4.
How many time each
1. Course requirement
2. Peer pressure
3. Prior knowledge
4. On-campus schedule
(a) Course requirement: Since course requirement related to course grade, participants would not challenge the rules instructors set. All participants perceived that obeying course requirement was their responsibility. They took posting rules seriously. P1 said,
“If my instructor asked us to write three postings each week, I would do that. I did not want to fail the course. “
P3 agreed with what P1 said. She stated,
“I definitely will follow that requirement (posting). Although I would not write a lot of postings, I at least completed the required number of postings.”
(b) Peer pressure: If online classmates actively engaged in online discussions, most participants perceived that peer pressure influenced their posting attitudes. From a competition viewpoint, P3 said,
“Online discussion board was a public area. Each student and the instructor could easily see how many postings you wrote. If they (classmates) wrote more (postings), I followed their pattern. I did not want to situate in disadvantageous point. “
P5 viewed this issue in a positive way. She stated,
“Sometimes there would be one or two active speakers in my online discussions. They may actively respond what you said, which causes you to spend more time on replying messages. Under such situation, the number of my posting would be growing. Although back-and-forth posting process was demanding, it was worth of sharing knowledge.”
(c) Prior knowledge: Some participants emphasized discussion topics. Once the topics provoked their prior knowledge, they tended to write more postings. P2 took “Internet News” as an analogy. He said,
“It was just like browsing online newspapers. When the topics related to your past experience, you would be willing to spend much more time on them.”
P4 also said,
“If I know much more background information about the topics, I will be a active speaker. “
P5 added to what P4 said. She stated,
“Sometimes you would see several interesting topics listed in the discussion boards. I experienced these issues before and could provide my in-depth viewpoints. For example, I remembered one topic was online learning system. I used to be a system programmer. For that topic, I wrote at least ten postings.”
(d) On-campus schedule: Because participants were on-campus students, on-campus resident schedules often dominated their time. Few participants considered a busy schedule might exhaust their thinking process, which leads to low productivity of postings. P4 said,
“You could not expect what will happen in a daily schedule. Sometimes unexpected things will put down your desire of engaging in online discussions”.
“I only took one online course at each semester. When I fulfilled weekly posting requirements, I would shift my focus to my on-campus schedule. If I complete assignments at other courses (traditional face to-face courses), I will try to write more postings. After all, resident courses were my focus”
Through constant comparison between the results presented earlier and existing literature, six culture-related factors were found. Figure 1 summarizes the findings of this study.
As people from different cultural backgrounds engage in the same discussion issue, communication misunderstandings are inevitable (Hall & Hall, 1990). Apparently, in this study, as Chinese students engaged in cross-cultural online discussions, gender confusion, as one of misunderstandings, seemed to hinder peer communication development. Difficulty in identifying classmate’s gender embarrassed participants during learning process. This finding was consistent with Basharina (2008)’s study, which reported gender confusion existed in international computer mediated communication.
In addition to gender confusion, the use of slang language from American culture can also be regarded as one of communication misunderstandings. Although Chinese students in this study can look up the meaning of slang language by searching in the Internet, they were still confused what slang means when seeing slang terms at first time. This result was similar to Tu(2001)’s findings. In Tu’s study, American acronym used by American students complicated Chinese students’ cognitive understandings about discussion postings.
The Chinese educational system builds on Confucisu-based philosophy (Lewis, 2003). In education settings, Chinese students should accept a teacher-based pedagogy and show great respect to instructors’ wisdom (Chan, 1991). In this study, due to strong influence by Chinese culture, Chinese participants also showed such behavioral patterns in online discussions. Even though disagreeing with what instructors said, they still did not challenge the teacher’s role, who was an authoritative figure in their minds (Tu, 2001).
Generally speaking, in traditional educational environments, Chinese learners’ communication styles tend to be indirect. Often they avoid counterargument and confrontation during group discussions (Chan, 1991; Lewis, 2003). This concept is also applicable to online settings. In order to create a harmonious environment, Chinese students in this study used a soft and non-critical tone to compose their postings. Indirectness expression was their preference. This result supported Yang et al. (2008)’s findings, which showed that Asian-based groups of students tended to exhibit a non-straightforward and conservation fashion in online discussions.
Based on Hofstede (1991)’s worldview category, Chinese culture is large power distance and strong uncertainty avoidance. In schools, Chinese students are comfortable in a structured learning environment, where teachers are expected to control all learning resources. Under this situation, Chinese learners become used to rely on teachers’ involvement (Williams-Green, Holmes, & Sherman, 1998; Morse, 2003). In this study, Chinese participants’ online behaviors also exemplify Hofstede’s theoretical concepts. Due to lack of face-to-face communication, Chinese students perceived anxiety appeared when teachers showed less involvement in the online discussions.
In Western educational settings (online or face-to-face), Chinese students’ learning motivation is often higher than average students, and Chinese students work hard on school assignments (Nield, 2004; Zhao & McDougall, 2008). In this study, a few Chinese participants also performed harder on their weekly online learning. They attempted to write more postings than required to make a good impression on their online instructors. One participant even perceived her online behaviors might influence the instructor’s grading judgment.
Being international students, Chinese learners often encounter language barriers during the learning process in Western educational settings (Tu, 2001). In online learning environments, Chinese students also face the same issues (Tu, 2001; Ku & Lohr, 2003; Zhao & McDougall, 2008). However, because of different sampling techniques in this study, some Chinese students perceived that their English writing skills would not influence their performances in online discussions, where oral communication was not an emphasis. Although Chinese students enjoyed text-based communication, a dilemma feeling may erupt as they were forced to view American classmates’ lengthy postings.
Moore and Kearsley (2005) indicated that one of myths in schools’ distance learning is that many learners consider online courses are easy-pass zones and often misunderstand the features of online courses, which strongly emphasize self-directed learning . In this study, most participants’ perceptions seemed to fit in Moore and Kearsley’s statement. Their easy-pass expectations were shattered because heavy workload overwhelmed their weekly online schedules. Compared to traditional face-to-face learning, Chinese students should spend much time interacting with classmates by viewing and replying to messages in online discussions. This result supports Ku and Lohr (2003) and Zhao and McDougall’s (2008) findings. In their studies, online Chinese learners perceived discussion participation dominated large amount of time.
Past studies had reported that a relationship exists between instructional strategies and meaningful online discussions. Innovative strategies often promote in-depth discussions (Chou, 2009). However, in this study, all Chinese students did not recall any innovative instructional strategies from their online discussion experiences. Although intolerance with the old-fashion strategy (back-and-forth posting) did not influence discussion performance, Chinese students still demanded a new strategy. Rather than a whole class discussion, they considered a division of team discussion would be beneficial to knowledge exchange.
In this study, four main factors influenced Chinese students’ willingness to write postings: course requirement, peer pressure, prior knowledge, and on-campus schedule. First, since online instructors established course requirements in online discussions, all Chinese students would obey posting rules. They at least completed the basic number of postings. However, whether or not sticking with rules is one of learning traits influenced by Chinese culture is worth further exploration. Second, Chinese students perceived peers’ active engagement in online discussions strongly affects their posting attitudes. Chinese students may follow classmates’ learning patterns from the aspect of competition and knowledge sharing. This result confirmed peers’ behaviors play an important role of promoting active online discussions (Fung, 2004). Third, topics, which can provoke Chinese students’ prior knowledge, contributed to the number of postings. Once topic contents were interesting to participants and related to participants’ past experiences, Chinese learners would become active speakers in online discussions. Despite different Western learning environments, this result is consistent with Zhao and McDougall’s (2008) study, which found that familiarity with topic related to Chinese students’ posting willingness. Last, few Chinese students struggled with on-campus resident schedules. They considered a busy schedule might reduce the desire of writing postings. However, once those students’ schedules are not full, whether or not their postings will significantly increase needs in-depth exploration.
Despite the limitations of small sample size and generalizability, this study added support to existing literature that confirmed the effect of culture on non-native English speakers (Chinese students) in Western (American) e-learning environments (Tu, 2001; Ku & Lohr, 2003). Chinese learners indeed brought several learning traits influenced by Chinese culture to new learning settings. These unique learning characteristics urged students to engage online discussions in which several challenges affected learners’ learning development.
Based on these findings and the discussion described earlier, two approaches for future research are suggested. First, although Chinese students exhibited learning traits in online discussions, little was known about instructors’ viewpoints on this issue. Instead of looking into students’ perceptions, future studies may examine online instructors’ attitudes towards the minority group. The second approach is to identify factors influencing posting writing. Due to limited sample size, diverse opinions could not be obtained. Future studies may survey Chinese students through large sample size. A factor model of posting writing may be created.
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Pao-Nan Chou is a post-doctoral fellow at Cheng Shiu University, Taiwan. He received his PhD in Instructional Systems from The Pennsylvania State University, USA. firstname.lastname@example.org
Wei-Fan Chen is an assistant professor at College of Information Sciences and Technology at The Pennsylvania State University, USA. email@example.com
1. Does your English ability (writing skill) affect your online discussion? How so?
2. How often do you post in your online course? What factors make you write more posts, and what factors make your write fewer posts?
3. Do you like to respond to others’ postings or to write new postings? Why?
4. How do you perceive the instructor’s role in your online discussion?
5. How do you perceive the amount of work in online discussion?
6. What do you do when you disagree with the opinions of another student in the online discussion?
7. Did instructors use any new teaching strategies to promote online discussion? How did they implement the teaching strategies?
8. How do you perceive the feedback that peers and instructors give?
9. Compared to face-to-face learning, how do you perceive interaction in online discussions?
10. What is your expectation in the online discussion? Did any unexpected things happen during online discussion?