Cross-cultural Comparison of Online Learning Delivery Approaches Used in Western and Thai Online Learning Programs
- Vichuda Rattanapian, Chulalongkorn University
Given the vast number of innovations over the millennia, only a very few can claim to have affected the lives of people around the world—the Internet is one such innovation.
The global market for online learning currently is estimated at over $300 billion (USD) annually with a projected growth to $365 billion (USD) in 2003 (Web-Based Education Commission, 2001). However considering how rapidly online expenditures have grown throughout countries around the world, there is comparatively little literature addressing effective online pedagogical strategies for delivering instruction across cultures. In fact, the entire research domain of cultural interactions with online learning is still very young (Cagiltay, 2000; Wild, 1999). Of the literature that is available, the majority is produced in western, English-speaking countries with extremely little research addressing Asian and Thai online programs in particular. This shortage of cultural-specific literature and research presents a challenging problem for organizations wishing to employ online learning programs. Many times its not possible or appropriate to simply transfer instructional programs across borders or cultures (World Bank, 1999).
Recent estimates place the number of publications released between 1998 – 2001 at 250 documents, not counting white papers and other positional papers (Waight, Wilging, & Wentling, in press). However, follow-up research has shown that the overwhelming majority of these reports are produced in western countries. Comparatively little literature is available for non-western or cross-cultural e-Learning programs. In fact, the entire research domain of cultural interactions with online learning is still very young (Cagiltay, 2000; Wild, 1999).
This lack of cross-cultural literature and online learning guidelines presents a risky problem for non-western and Thai organizations in particular wishing to employ online learning activities in their educational and training operations. Many times it is not possible or appropriate to simply transfer instructional programs across borders or cultures.
“Attempts to deliver courses and programs across national boundaries have assumed that materials and delivery methods can be transferred from one place to another. But experience has shown that this is not necessarily so, even in subjects often assumed to be culturally neutral, such as technology and mathematics. Thus distance educators have been faced with a need to adapt materials for overseas use or to develop materials specific to receiving countries” (World Bank, 1999).
Looking specifically at the Asian realm of education, an excellent example of Asian versus western educational differences comes in Jin and Cortazzi’s (1998) study assessing “what is a good teacher” as measured by 129 Chinese students and 205 British students. The Chinese students were significantly more likely to describe a good teacher as someone with deep knowledge and who sets a good example. Whereas, the British students were significantly more likely to describe a good teacher as someone arouses students’ interests and is sympathetic to individual learners.
When dealing with technology-based instruction, these cultural issues are compounded because culture can affect individuals’ responses to computer-related systems (Collis, 1999). Collis goes on to note that Watson, Ho, and Raman (1994) illustrate how the design of software—for example software/environments intended to group activities—are often based upon the social customs of a particular society and require redesigning before being used by a different culture that with differing social customs and practices. Consequently, one of the keys to the successful implementation of online learning in the Thai culture, or in any culture, lies in the design and utilization of appropriate online educational environments (Harasim, 1995; Henderson, 1996).
The purpose of this study is to generate instructional delivery combinations that are effective, feasible, and appropriate for Thai online programs and learners. To that end, the following research questions were developed to fulfill this purpose:
1. What are the prominent instructional delivery methods and media used by:
2. What online instructional delivery methods are best for Thai learners based upon: cultural appropriateness, potential effectiveness, and feasibility of execution?
To answer these questions, a multi-stage study was conceived and executed. The target population for the study was researchers and practitioners involved with online learning programs in Thailand. However, it is recognized that other individuals outside of this population, e.g., individuals involved with online programs outside of Thailand, might also find the conclusions and insights provided by this study beneficial to their own programs.
Representing this population were online learning experts and publications from around the world. More specifically the sample included three (3) Thai online learning experts, six (6) non-Thai Asian online learning experts, two (2) online learning experts from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois and, lastly, hundreds of publications authored by researchers and practitioners from Asia, Europe, North American, Australia, and Africa addressing instructional delivery strategies, online learning.
This study’s design utilized a mixed methods approach with a strong reliance upon qualitative data collection and analysis techniques. Among the techniques used were inductive document analyses, email surveys, focus group discussions, and expert rating/review forms. The combined use of these techniques was necessary to ensure adequate triangulation of data collection and validation of results given the immature and relatively unexplored nature of Asian-oriented (and Thai specific) online learning research and instructional delivery practices. The study, itself, was designed with five (5) stages. These five stages are:
1. Multi-reader review of literature and online web sites.
2. Interpretive content analysis of documents and web sites.
3. Email-based surveys with online experts from six (6) different Asian countries.
4. Thai experts reviews of findings – both from Stage 2 (literature) and from Stage 3 (Non-Thai, Asian expert interviews).
5. Identification of appropriate, effective, and feasible instructional delivery methods and media combinations for Thai online programs.
Stage 1: Multi-reader review of literature and online web sites
Methodical searches were conducted western, Asian, and Thai literature using print-based and Internet-based resources. Including among the resources searched were large education- and technology-specific databases such as the Educational Resource Information Clearinghouse (ERIC), ERIC – Information Technology (ERICit), and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications’ elVIAS e-Learning repository. These three sources alone possess over one million records. In addition to these sources, more general database resources, such as Dissertation Abstracts International, and Internet-based resources, i.e., Google, Metacrawler, and Yahoo, also were utilized to augment the searches of education and technology-oriented archives. In the end, over 200 documents were retrieved for reviewed and analysis. To find the most relevant and appropriate publications from those retrieved during the search and to guard against potential bias, a multi-reader document analysis strategy was employed. The document reviewers selected for this study represented Thai and western (American) cultures.
Stage 2: Interpretive content analysis of documents and web sites
Documents were analyzed utilizing the inductive analysis procedures defined by Michael Patton in his seminal work, Qualitative Evaluation and Research Methods (Patton, 1990, pp. 391-393). Inductive Content Analysis is where the researcher allows the data to emerge and define the findings/results without the use of predefined parameters or categorization of themes. The emergent trends are based upon the text of the documents and the web sites. The results of the content analysis were organized into related areas and then summarized through the use of frequency counts. These summaries were then used in Stage 3 to formulate the interview questions used in the Asian e-Learning expert online interviews and in Stage 4 in the creation of Thai expert review forms.
Stage 3: Email-based surveys with Asian online experts
Experts were purposefully selected from (five/six) Asian countries for participation in asynchronous, email-based, interviews. Experts were selected due to their experience with and knowledge of e-Learning programs globally and within their own countries.
The questions addressed the qualifications of experts (e.g., their current and previous responsibilities pertaining to e-Learning delivery in their countries), the types of technologies/media used by their programs, the instructional strategies employed in their programs, and the primary barriers encountered in delivering online instruction in their respective e-learning programs.
The data collection procedures followed the general process outlined for survey research methods as defined by Fowler (1993). Experts received an initial email contact introducing the researcher, the nature of the study and the actual interview instrument. Five days following the initial contact, experts who had not responded received a follow-up email. A 100% response rate was achieved from the selected experts.
Stage 4: Thai expert review of findings
In addition to reviews conducted by the researcher, three Thai online learning experts were selected to conduct a final review of the findings. These experts were selected based upon Thai heritage, their experiences with long running e-learning programs, and their established knowledge of e-learning programs and practices as a whole.
The Thai expert reviews were done through two methods. First, the individual experts were asked to analyze and complete expert review/rating forms. The forms were developed using the results of the Stage 2 literature review and the Stage 3 Asian expert interviews. As with the email interview forms, validity of this instrument was checked by online learning experts at the University of Illinois’ National Center for Supercomputing Applications. Where recommended, revisions were made to the instrument and the final copy was approved for use in this stage of the study.
The review/ratings forms, themselves, served three functions: (a) identification of common media/technologies used in delivering instruction in e-Learning programs, (b) identification of common instructional strategies used to deliver instruction to learners, and (c) assess the combined utilization of the identified strategies and media for the delivery of instruction to Thai learners in e-Learning environments. The assessment of these combined factors was measure using three factors: appropriateness, potential effectiveness, and feasibility (see the sample in Figure 1).
Figure 1. Excerpt from Thai Expert Rating/Review Forms
Scores were generated for each of these three measures and the total score for each combined instructional strategy and media were calculated and ranked. In turn, these rankings were used in generating the final product of these research—the establishment of recommended instructional delivery strategies for Thai online programs. These scores also were used to calculate inter-expert reliability values to guard against bias and skewed results.
The second method of soliciting information from the Thai experts was through the use of an interactive focus group discussion. The discussion was an open structure format with primary focus of the discussion revolving around the experts providing supporting for their respective ratings. For example, should one expert rate a given instructional strategy as being very feasible for a specific media while the other two experts rated the same strategy as being unfeasible, a short discussion would be held to resolve possible differences and reach a consensus among the three experts.
By analyzing the data gathered during these five stages and by using the above samples, findings were generated. The following section discusses the prominent findings associated with each of the research questions.
Given the exploratory nature of this study and in keeping with the argument that there can be significant items which lack statistical significance (Lockee & Burton, 1999; Minium & Clarke, 1982), identification of significant quantitative items of analysis is based primarily upon their meaningfulness of these item in their contribution to effective, culturally-appropriate forms on online instruction. In addition to quantitative analysis, many of the items in this study feature qualitative data which were analyzed using a combination of theme and pattern analyses.
The results presented in portion of the study are organized in the following manner: (a) identification of common instructional strategies, (b) summary of interviews with Asian experts, and (c) presentation of Thai expert ratings. This order was selected due to the cumulative and filtering nature of the data from Stages 1 through 5 of this study.
Identification of Common Instructional Strategies
In Stage 2 of this study, numerous instructional strategies from online and face-to-face environments were identified. These strategies, in turn, were presented to Thai online learning experts who ranked their viability with used in conjunction with commonly available Internet-deliverable technologies and media. Due to the central role these identified instructional strategies play in this study and to instructional delivery as a whole, special attention is given to them here.
The most common instructional strategies were found by conducting theme analyses of targeted publications and articles addressing online learning and also by analyzing the content of textbooks used in teaching instructional methods courses. The results of these analyses are presented in Table 1. The list also is reproduced in Appendix A along with short descriptors for each instructional strategy type.
Table 1: Common Instructional Strategies
Brain Storming Modeling
Case Studies Paper, 5-Minute
Class Debates Paper, Term
Demonstration Peer Teaching
Discussion, Large (class) Practice, Guided
Discussion, Small Practice, Independent
Drill & Practice Questioning
Field Trips Role Playing
Inquiry Learning Student Presentations
Jigsaw Team Projects
The above summation of instructional strategies recaps the instructional strategies most commonly found through out the literature. It is these forms of instructional delivery that are combined with common forms of Internet-based technologies and media to form the basis for most online instructional delivery activities. Bearing that in mind, and realizing that not all cultures conduct and/or prefer instruction in the same form, Asian and Thai online learning experts were solicited for their experiences and insights into online learning pedagogy.
Email Surveys with Asian Experts
As a group, the six Asian experts began their online learning experiences in either 1997 (1 expert) or 1998 (4 experts); one experts began slightly earlier, in 1994. Working in five different countries (India, Indonesia, Malaysia [2 experts], Singapore, and Thailand), these experts stated possessing the greatest deal of expertise in the design and development of online learning instruction. Only two experts cited Program Evaluation as an area of significant experience. Similarly, only two experts cited Faculty Training as an area of meaningful experience.
With regard to their areas of greatest expertise (design and development), the experts were asked about their usage of 24 specific technologies. These 24 technologies were selected based upon their usage levels (past, present, and projected) in online instruction. Collectively, these 24 technologies form a comprehensive toolbox of online instructional media. Table 2 provides a summary of the experts’ responses to the question, what types of instructional media/tools are being used in the online program with which you are involved?
Table 2: Technology/Media Usage in Six (6) Asian Online Programs
Media/Technology # of Programs Using
HTML (Web Pages) 5
Bulletin Boards 5
PowerPoint & MS Office Applications 4
Document Sharing 4
Adobe PDFs 3
Text Chat Rooms 3
Email Lists 2
Scripts (ASPs, JS) 2
Java Applets 1
Instant Messaging 1
Audio Conferencing 1
Video (QT, AVIs, etc.) 1
As Table 2 shows, E-mail, HTML, and bulletin boards serve as the most common forms of online instructional media. They were selected based upon their stability, relatively inexpensive costs, and ability to delivery content to learner connected through extremely low bandwidth. This ability to deliver to content using low bandwidth, in particular, is a key factor for selecting technologies in countries with developing infrastructures.
Forming the second level of technology/media usage are the multimedia related items. These include using packages like PowerPoint and other Microsoft Office applications, along with Flash or Shockwave animation to deliver more interactive and engaging environments. Also, prominent in many of these programs is the practice of document sharing—e.g., uploading files to a central location (typically through a bulletin board) so others can download and view the documents at their convenience. This type of instructional practice has several useful applications—dissemination of lessons/instructions by the instructor, sharing of resources by students, collaboration on team projects, etc. In many of these cases, the documents being shared are stored as Adobe PDFs. Using Adobe Acrobat, individuals are able to capture their documents exactly as they appear on their computers and then share these precisely formatted documents with other individuals using the free Adobe Acrobat Reader to open and view the files.
The last technology/media being commonly used by these experts is text chat rooms. Commonly these synchronous environments are used for delivering technical support, providing question and answer sessions between the instructor and the students, and for building interaction for community/team projects.
Like many programs around the world, these experts also encountered various problems while delivering their online programs. Some of the more common and meaningful problems encountered by these experts are identified in Table 3.
Table 3: Common Problems Encountered by Asian Online Learning Programs
Problem Experts Citing Problem
Low Bandwidth/Slow Connections 4
Access to Network Connections 3
Need for Instructor Training 3
Hardware & Software Compatibility 2
Longer Content Development Time 2
Personal Attitudes Toward Technology 2
Users’ Poor Technical Skills 2
Users/Learners Not Participating in Discussions 2
Learners Not Good at Self Paced Instruction 1
Learners Prefer Textbooks vs. Online Readings 1
Time Zone Differences for Synchronous Sessions 1
As the above table shows, bandwidth and hardware related issues are the more commonly encountered problems. This comes as no surprise as they are among the more commonly cited problems by programs around the world—see Limitation of Online Learning in the literature review portion of this study. The more insightful and meaningful comments by the experts come lower in this summary table as they address issues of faculty training, users attitudes towards technology (both from the learners and the instructors), users’ poor technical skills (again, for both the learners and instructors), and lastly some individual citations regarding the preferences and/or abilities of students enrolled in online programs. In each of these cases, they support the argument that online programs are not simply hardware and technology-driven endeavors, they are highly humanistic problems and humans—and their characteristics—are key parts of successful online programs.
Presentation of Thai Expert Ratings
Complimenting the responses of the Asian online learning experts, above, are the combined ratings of instructional strategies with common technologies. The ratings forms used in this stage of the study were built using the instructional strategies identified in the literature review and common technologies/media used in Asian online programs. For each combination of instructional strategy and technology/media (338 combinations total), experts were asked to rate the union of the two factors in terms of cultural appropriateness, probability of effectiveness, and feasibility of delivery/execution. All three scores were combined and an overall score was generated for all 388 combinations. These overall scores were averaged across experts to offset for potential biases among experts. The averaged scores were then ranked from highest to lowest. Table 4 shows the results for the 20 highest ranking online instructional approaches.
Table 4: Highest Ranking Instructional Approaches
NOTE: 15 = Highest Possible Score.
As Table 4 illustrates, the experts agree that the best possibility of success in delivering online instructions to Thai learners is to provide interactive, engaging strategies intermixed with more traditional lectures and group discussions. It also can be seen that the experts believe that a greater degree of synchronous delivery should be integrated into Thai online learning programs through the use of text chat room and, when possible, desktop conferencing environments.
Three readily apparent and meaningful conclusions emerged from this study. They are: (i) the barriers to online instruction in Asian countries are very similar to those encountered in other parts of the world; (ii) older, more stable, and low bandwidth-compatible media are the more appropriate for online programs faced with developing infrastructures; and (iii) active, engaging instructional approaches are believed to hold the greatest potential for online instructional effectiveness. The following paragraphs describe these conclusions in greater detail.
Similar barriers across cultures. The literature of this study found four (4) common barriers encountered by western online learning programs. At that time, it was uncertain if—and to what degree—these same barriers would occur in Asian online learning programs. It was found that many of these same limitations also were encountered by a majority of the Asian online learning experts interviewed—under-developed infrastructures, lack of support for learners, and a need for training instructors in effective techniques for developing and delivering online instruction. To that end, there seems to be no culturally unique limitations to online learning.
Stable, low-bandwidth media best. Older, stable, and low bandwidth-compatible media—such as email, email lists, Web pages, chat rooms, and bulletin boards—are the best starting media for online programs. They serve as solid technological foundations upon which more advanced media can be built, as bandwidth and instructor and learner technology skills improve. Given their easy-to-use, stable, and low-bandwidth nature these technologies are ideal for budding online programs. Later, as a program (and its participants) mature, additional multimedia and bandwidth intensive media can be added to facilitate enhanced engagement of learners.
Active, engaging instruction preferred. The Thai online learning experts were quite definitive in their ranking of active, engaging instructional approaches as the best chances for success. These include the use of games, small group discussions, student presentations, team projects, and streaming media lectures. By utilizing these forms of instructional approaches, learners become more engaged in the learning process, they feel less isolated, and they see their learning as more meaningful.
To make use of the above conclusions, a series of recommendations has been generated. These recommendations include: (i) retraining of faculty, (ii) exploration of streaming technologies, and (iii) call for investigation of innovation instructional approaches using traditional low-bandwidth media.
Retraining of faculty. Begin training of faculty one semester prior to the beginning of their online instructional design efforts. Doing so gives them ample time to identify and minimize the use of isolating, unengaging, instructional delivery activities—such as requiring students to read web pages, employing solo learning projects/assignments, etc. Ideally, this retraining process would be carried out with the assistance and/or mentoring of an instructor with prior online experience. Accompanying this process should be a piloting phase in which the retrained instructor produces a module of instruction for review by his/her peers of experiences online instructors to ensure high quality, engaging and socially integrated instruction.
Explore streaming media. Although not currently in wide use by Asian online programs, streaming media—such as MP3, RealVideo, RealAudio, Windows Media Files, and QuickTime—holds great potential delivering multimedia over limited bandwidth connections. While capable of producing high-end multimedia files, streaming media uses better data compression than traditional multimedia files (suchs as AVIs, MPGs, and WAVs) and are capable for delivering instruction over very slow bandwidth connections.
Investigation of innovative instructional activities. While numerous combinations of instructional media and strategies are provided in Appendix A, additional examinations of media/strategy combinations needs to be done to assure the utilizing of a side variety of low-bandwidth, engaging instructional strategies. By providing fresh, appealing, and meaningful learning activities, instructors and program managers alike can best serve their users and in the process generate highly effective, well respected programs of instruction.
While still currently emerging, online learning programs in Asia are encountering many of the same obstacles and utilizing many of the same technologies of western programs in their formative stages. Bearing this in mind and realizing the learners in Asian cultures are different from those in western cultures, managers of Asian online programs can learn from the lessons of western managers and adapt their online programs to best fit their culture’s unique needs and characteristics. The findings and recommendations presented in this study describe how some of these customizations can be carried out. In particular, valuable information is provided to program managers with regard to possible combinations of instructional strategies and media. These findings along with the more generic recommendations provide a sound, foundation upon which long-standing, effective, online programs can be produced.
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Appendix A: Instructional Strategies with Brief Descriptions
Instructional Strategy Description
Case Studies In-depth analysis of real life, projects/events and their application to the topic of instruction
Class Debates Learners are sorted into teams and then make supporting arguments for their assigned position or viewpoint
Demonstration The instructor illustrates the correct technique or process for carrying out a particular task
Discussion, Large (class) Open discussion in which the instructor serves as facilitator and the students ask and answer questions related to a given topic
Discussion, Small Students are separated into teams of 3-6 and carry out unmoderated discussions much like they would in the class-wide discussion
Drill & Practice Learners repeatedly complete a series of steps over and over in order to increase accuracy and speed of their performance
Field Trips Students are transported on-site to a location of significant importance in order to study the site and the items/events on that location in greater detail
Games Students use games to build knowledge and skills—such as keyboarding games to improve student typing skills
Inquiry Learning Student investigate topics of interest by probing content related to the topic in order to answer pertinent questions, often written the students
Jigsaw Students split into teams with one person serving as presenter. The teams study one aspect of a topic in detail and then as a class piece them together like a jigsaw puzzle
Journaling Reflective learning exercise in which learners ponder their thoughts and insights and then write them into a journal/log
Lectures Instructor presents information to learners in a class setting—most common form of traditional instruction
Modeling Models of complex systems are created by and/or shown to students to illustrate how these systems work
Paper, 5-Minute Students reflect upon and quickly write their thoughts/knowledge about a given topic. These short essays can be shared with their peers or their instructor for further learning opportunities
Paper, Term Long, in-depth papers in which learns expose their knowledge and insights into selected topic
Peer Teaching Students teach other students and in the process reinforce their own knowledge about a given topic or domain
Practice, Guided The instructor assists a student in completion of a task, providing coaching tips and guidance in the process
Practice, Independent Students work on a task on their own. Home work is a common form of independent practice
Questioning The instructor asks a series of questions of the student in order to get them thinking about how they would explain, support, analyze, and/or evaluation a given topic
Role Playing Individuals act out different scenarios and events illustrating their understanding or perceptions about pre-selected topic
Simulations Replicate real-world systems and events that otherwise would be too costly or dangerous to present in real life—flight simulators, etc.
Student Presentations Student conduct formal, oral, presentations in order to display their understanding about a topic
Team Projects Student work together to complete tasks, such as presentations, term papers, etc.
Vignettes Short case studies used to gain quick understanding when more in-depth case studies are not available or appropriate
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