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How are international university students in Australia adjusting to online learning?

It was only three months ago that Australian universities began intensely searching for solutions deliver online courses to students in China who could no longer travel to Australian campuses. Now all Australian universities are delivering solely online teaching to all their students – both domestic and international. Globally higher education institutions are transitioning into what some are calling a new digital era of learning and teaching, and a new way of delivering international higher education.

A vast majority of Australia’s international students – approximately 80% - are now in Australia, hunkering down and social distancing with the rest of us. These students had paid for, and expected, an inter-cultural and international learning experience in one of our world-class institutions. Instead, as the pandemic continues, international students are coming to terms with how best to achieve results and make the most of their time here, regardless of this unprecedented and isolating crisis.

Australia is not new to delivering online education to domestic students. The Grattan Institute’s report, Mapping Australian higher education 2018 documents the rapid increase in off-campus study since 2011. One in five domestic students now studies off-campus. The use of technology to teach has likely contributed to the sector’s 50% increase in regional and remote student degree attainment in the last ten years and significant increase in mature age students achieving qualifications.

Despite our history of providing distance education and the recent integration of digital platforms within on-campus courses, we are new to delivering online courses to entire student cohorts, including international students, and within a rapid time frame. The challenges, hiccups as well as the positive experiences of international students during this time highlight key considerations for institutions going forward this year.

Coco is a final year Masters student in international business at an Australian university. She’s familiar with Australia and her campus having originally arrived from China five years ago. She’s not, however, familiar with completing all her study online.

“If there are challenges it's because it’s not a real time, face-to-face interaction. We can see each other, but you can still feel the distance.”

For Coco, this lack of ‘real-time’ interaction inhibits her learning, and her confidence. “Sometimes the lecturer will be the only one talking. The other students, even if they want to ask questions, have to ask by typing and letting the lecturer see that. They can’t really ask questions by raising their hand like old times.” She says that she fears that students feel less confident to ask their questions and less sure that they will be answered at the end of the lecture. For Coco, she suspects this is preventing students from speaking up at all.

Dekko, teaches part time while he completes his Masters in IT. He also finds the asynchronous nature of online teaching a challenge.

“I find it extremely difficult to teach the workshops and the tutorials for the students. Sometimes students can’t ask questions immediately. This makes the whole teaching experience very hard because after one hour of teaching step one to ten, I find that somewhere in step 5 a student didn’t understand something and I then have to go back and teach step 3 through to step 10 again. Its very time consuming to do that for just one student.”

Like Coco, he expects this temporal distance is leading to students not asking questions at all. “Maybe the other students understand but some of them might just be too shy to speak up with their questions. I can’t know because I can’t see their faces, whether they understand or not. I think teaching needs to be more engaged because in a digital environment we can’t tell if a student understands. This makes teaching to a high quality very difficult to deliver effectively.”

Difficulties building genuine and effective social interaction while online learning and teaching impact different disciplines in different ways. Some courses offer themselves more effectively to remote and digital techniques. For example, in Dekko’s IT course, he says a lot of what he needs to do is learn codes and theories. “We don’t have to link them to too much explanation from the lecturers.” He says this means that if he doesn’t understand, he uses the internet to find alternative information and support his learning.

For Coco, on the other hand, her course involves learning to critically analyse and discuss various issues and ideas. “It doesn’t allow multiple people to speak at the same time. It’s especially difficult for our course because we need group discussion to make it more meaningful because there isn’t a right or a wrong answer. We need this interaction.”

Part of what Coco is hoping to learn in her course is how to structure argument, produce confident and logical dialogue and, importantly, how to critically think. These are highly valuable skills in our future workplaces and are a key part of why she – and many other Chinese students – have chosen to study abroad. Confident and productive participation by students is key to adapting critical thinking-based courses to an online format.

Adding the social dimension to online participation – that is, differentiating work or task-oriented participation and social interaction or relationship building – is essential to both Coco’s academic success and building the core ‘soft skills’ she had signed up for. In the COVID 19 context, building positive social relationships between students and between students and lecturers takes on a further heightened significance. The positive links between social connectedness and a person’s psychological health and wellbeing are a key part of what should be underlying online course delivery and methodology.

This need for social connectedness within online platforms needs to be carefully managed against the benefits many students recount from being able to study at their own pace and in their own time. It is, after all, this flexibility which has partially contributed to the rise in online learning among many cohorts in recent years.

Xuenan, an international business student from China, enjoys the flexibility the move to online learning has given her. “I can schedule my time very freely. I can attend any online tutorial I want. I can listen to the lecture recording if I have free-time.” For international students in particular, this can give an added ability to double check terminology and ensure that they are understanding the content in a fast-moving English environment.

However, the freedom of choice is a double-edged sword. “The freedom of choosing any tutorial I want and choosing to listen to the lecturer whenever I want, makes me feel a little bit lazy. Sometimes I will be too lazy to open my computer, log into Zoom and attend my online tutorial.” This ambivalence as a result of seemingly endless choice is what social theorist Ulrich Beck refers to as an ‘unintended consequence of modernity’. In other words, the more options we have in front of us, the less likely we are to care about any of them. For Xuenan, the ability to choose what to listen to and when to listen to it, is leading to this ambivalence about the course in general and to what she refers to as “laziness.”

This ambivalence may also result from a perception that others are not engaging with the course content. Kathy, an international relations student from China, says that while the lecturer is often the only person speaking, she is usually unaware of how many students are listening and whether they are engaging. Coco also says that she suspects that many students are logging out shortly after the lecturer explains the learning goals for the session. This sense that others may not be participating can produce a sense of anxiety and isolation – am I the only one engaging? If others aren’t participating, perhaps I shouldn’t either?

These difficulties – the sense of temporal distance, the ambivalence of choice and a sense of being alone – all hinge on digital courses placing an emphasis on ensuring that social connectedness is front and centre. Building relationships between students and each other, and between students and the lecturer is key to building sustainable course offerings which more closely resemble the expectations of students – both international and domestic. Building communities of learning that are interactive and incentivise participation will ensure that our international students are returning to their home countries with the inter-cultural skills and experience they had arrived in Australia to receive. 


Education Analyst at The Lygon Group

Dr Angela Lehmann is a sociologist with expertise in international migration and higher education in Australia and China. She holds honorary positions at The Australian National University and The University of Xiamen and is The Lygon Group’s Education Analyst. 


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