Online Learning and Chinese Undergraduate Students in UK

Introduction

Research Background

This paper seeks to understand the impact of online learning on the behaviours of undergraduate Chinese students studying in the United Kingdom (UK). Online learning is one of the most profound phenomena to affect the education sector because it influences the relationship between learners and instructors through a change of the education environment. Notably, the development of the internet and computers has affected how people spend their free time, work and learn (Larionova et al. 2018).

This is particularly true in the education sector, which has been characterised by face-to-face communications between students and their instructors. However, with the integration of computers in learning and the development of virtual technology, the need for teachers and students to be in the same classroom (for learning to occur) has significantly declined. Online learning has emerged as a result.

Ellman and Schwartz (2016) define online learning as a form of education where teachers and instructors are not in the same location at the same time. Instead, they are separated by distance and time, or a combination of both. The distance between both parties is often bridged by communications technology. Comparatively, Saleem and Rasheed (2014, p. 47) define online learning as “the delivery of education, including the activities of instruction, teaching, learning and assessment through various electronic media.” Virtual communication does not necessarily have to be in face to face but it is heavily dependent on the internet and emerging educational technologies for successful learning to occur (Bawa 2016).

In other words, it allows educators to provide teaching services at any place and at any time. Relative to this assertion, Saleem and Rasheed (2014) say virtual communications have altered how teachers and students relate in the learning environment. They add that the “Internet breaks the limitations of time and space and also creates many benefits, including reduced cost, regulatory compliance, meeting business needs, retraining of employees, low recurring cost and customer support” (Saleem & Rasheed 2014, p. 47).

In addition, Andrews, Bath and Smith (2018) suggest that many institutions of higher education have adopted online learning because of its multiple competitive advantages, such as improved efficiencies and lower costs of education. However, from a broader perspective of review, the adoption of e-learning has been attributed to pedagogical and socioeconomic factors (Larionova et al. 2018). Some of them include increased access to information, improved communication (via the use of technological devices), enhanced levels of collaboration and synchronous learning (Ellman & Schwartz 2016).

The growth of online learning as a significant tenet of the global education system has created the need to understand its impact on student learning behaviours. Particularly, it has allowed learning instructors to exchange information by breaking the limitations of space and time, which have been associated with traditional forms of learning (Hu 2015). Therefore, online learning has been adopted in most education systems to overcome the barriers of time and distance (Ellman & Schwartz 2016).

Broadly, the growing appetite for online learning around the world is supported by the quest by developing and industrialized countries to compensate for the deficiencies of the physical learning environment (Marshalsey & Sclater 2018). This is why many developed or industrialized countries are credited as the main source of software for online learning education (Saleem & Rasheed 2014). However, based on the design of such software, the cultural considerations of designing these facilities should be carefully reviewed (Marshalsey & Sclater 2018).

This paper is an assessment of the impact of online learning on the behaviours of Chinese students studying in the UK. The review will focus understanding the depth, pace, productivity and satisfaction of learning (Marshalsey & Sclater 2018). The UK is selected for this review because it is the second most popular destination for international students seeking an education (internationally) (Studying in UK 2019). In addition, I have been studying in the UK for 6 years and within this time, I have learned that there is a significant difference in learning experience between the UK and China. These issues draw the interest from me to explore this topic.

To begin with, statistics published in 2018 showed that the number of international students studying in the UK was 458,520 (Studying in UK 2019). This number represented a 3.6% increase in enrolment within the past year, meaning that there has been a steady increase in the number of international students studying in the UK. Figure 1 below highlights this rise in the number of international students.

International Students in the UK.
Figure 1. International Students in the UK (Source: Studying in UK 2019).

Chinese students are selected as the target population for this assessment because they are among the fastest-growing population of students in the United Kingdom. The other groups if international students are from India, Hong Kong, United States (US) and Malaysia (Studying in UK 2019).China is the leading source of international students based in the UK, relative to the other countries highlighted above. Figure 2 below highlights the country’s position in the hierarchy of international students studying in the UK.

Top ten countries of origin of international students in the UK.
Figure 2. Top ten countries of origin of international students in the UK (Source: Studying in UK 2019).

As highlighted in figure 1 above, in 2018, it was reported that 106,530 international students studying in the UK were from China (Studying in UK 2019). Therefore, the Asian country accounts for most of the international students studying in the UK. In this regard, China offers a good platform for analyzing the impact of online learning on student behaviours.

Research Problem

Researchers, such as Fenwick and Edwards (2016), who have examined how different cultural groups respond to teaching strategies highlight the need for a culture-specific understanding of the impact of online learning on the education system. A similar investigation by Lohr and Haley (2018) suggests that students who subscribe to the individualism and collectivist cultures respond differently to e-learning strategies. However, this area of research is significantly underexplored, subject to how students from a non-western culture are affected by online teaching strategies, while studying in foreign countries. This study seeks to fill this research gap by undertaking a context-specific analysis of the impact of online teaching strategies on Chinese students studying in the UK.

The key issue identified in this study is that culture may significantly influence the learning behaviours of the target audiences. Furthermore, assuming a culturally neutral attitude in the implementation of virtual teaching may not be helpful to students who are supposed to benefit from them in the first place. At the centre of this discussion is the need to understand that online learning technologies were not uniquely designed for education purposes. Instead, pedagogical considerations that are often applied to the traditional learning environment need to be examined in online learning and the behaviours of students in the typical classroom setting also need to be reflected in the virtual classrooms.

Research Aim

To find out how online learning influences Chinese undergraduate students’ learning behaviour while studying in the UK. This will be guided by interviews with in-depth discussion along with the findings from the interview process.

Research Objectives

  1. To investigate how online learning influences the psychological adjustment of Chinese students to class and school programs
  2. To examine how online learning influences the interest of Chinese students in learning
  3. To predict how online learning impacts the learning ability of Chinese students studying in the UK

Research Questions

  1. How does online learning influence the cultural adjustment of Chinese students to class and school programs? This question aims to understand the effects of the Chinese culture on the adjustment of school programs provided online.
  2. How does online learning influence the interest of Chinese students in learning? This area of analysis stems from the need to understand students’ enthusiasm to complete their learning projects because it is a key contributor to their educational performance.
  3. How does online learning impact the learning ability of Chinese students studying in the UK? The focus on learning ability is informed by the presentation of online education as a learning tool, which may empower learners to improve their educational performance.

Implications of Study

This study is pertinent to the growth and development of online learning by providing an assessment criterion for understanding its impact on student behaviour. This new form of system evaluation will be instrumental in supporting the next phase of evolutionary development in virtual learning. Understanding the impact of online teaching strategies on Chinese students studying in the UK is the first step towards understanding how culture-specific influences impact the behaviours of students studying in the UK (Brown & Lally 2018).

As mentioned in the research gap section of this chapter, this review will be instrumental in providing a non-western perspective of the effects of teaching strategies on different types of student populations. The analysis on the Chinese students could pave the way for undertaking more reviews of the impact of online learning strategies on other international student groups in the UK, such as Indians and Americans. This context-specific review will then provide a framework for undertaking future analyses.

The findings of this study could also be instrumental in redesigning the online learning environment to improve the productivity of Chinese students in their learning environments. This impact could be reflected in the resources provided on online platforms, such as the availability of multiple linguistic settings to aid non native English-speaking students to understand educational concepts. Researchers, such as Rodriguez (2014) and Boisselle (2014), who have demonstrated that online learning environments are influenced by the culture of the students who use them, support this finding. The enculturation could manifest in the resources available on the online learning platform.

Software developers who are engaged in the education sector because they could better tailor their products to appeal to an international student demographic could also use the findings of this study. More importantly, they may develop technological products that appeal to the unique cultural and linguistic dynamics of Chinese students. Other education practitioners, such as professors and lecturers, could later augment such developments with other online learning practices for cultural adaptation. Lastly, the findings of this study will be instrumental in identifying unique areas that require adjustments in the online environment to address the cultural needs of a Chinese student population.

Literature Review

Introduction

This chapter is a review of what other researchers have written about similar study topic. Key issues that will be covered in this section of the report include the theoretical foundations of the review, role of culture in influencing student behaviour in the classroom setting and the main characteristics of Chinese students, which may affect their behaviours in the online learning environment. However, before further explore these areas of analysis, it is important to understand the impact of online learning on student’s learning behaviour.

Impact of Online Learning on Students’ Learning Behaviours

A growing number of studies have investigated the impact of online learning on students by analysing their differences with face-to-face learning (Ellman & Schwartz 2016). Similar studies have concentrated on highlighting the in-principle advantages and disadvantages of online learning and the strategies for achieving a perfect learning environment (Ellman & Schwartz 2016). Studies have also shown that online learning tools are enablers of international education because they allow students who have otherwise been unable to get an education, because of geographical or logistical reasons, to do so (Ellman & Schwartz 2016; Marshalsey & Sclater 2018).

A research study conducted by Kemper and Patel (2015) suggests that online learning significantly alters the relationship between teachers and students because of its ability to transcend distance and time. Its effects on student behaviours need to be reviewed because of the growing importance of e-learning in higher education. For example, a report by Falls et al. (2014) suggests that up to 32% of students in higher education are taking a course online.

Virtual learning has had a significant impact on education by improving efficiencies, workflows processes and enhancing collaboration among stakeholders (Ellman & Schwartz 2016). The ability to merge gaps in space and time through e-learning also professes its power by empowering instructors to roll out education programs around the world (Falls et al. 2014). Relative to this assertion, Falls et al. (2014) say, in many countries, e-learning has affected the provision of education services from primary to higher education levels. In this regard, it has revolutionised the provision of learning services.

Another way that e-learning has affected education is through the infusion of flexibility in the design and implementation of education curricula (Ellman & Schwartz 2016). Consequently, students have an opportunity to access learning materials at a convenient time. Therefore, online learning acts as a developmental tool where teachers can see the expectations and requirements of learning and how to fulfil them by reformulating their curriculum development goals (Veletsianos, Reich & Pasquini 2016).

It is clear that student learning behaviours could be influenced by the evolving nature of communication in the e-learning environment. The adaptability to new technology means that students have to reacquaint themselves in new ways of engagement. Student behaviour could also be influenced by their interactions with instructors in the virtual classroom setting as e-learning has helped stakeholders to adapt their teaching styles to new technology (Veletsianos, Reich & Pasquini 2016). Therefore, the impact of online learning on student behaviour stems from its influence on students’ actions and access to information (Reeves & Gomm 2015). In general, its effects have been linked with personality types and the modalities adopted by an educational institution when using the tool (Marshalsey & Sclater 2018).

Impact of Culture on e-Learning

Studies authored by Luna-Nevarez and McGovern (2018) have shown that students approach e-learning from their cultural perspectives. Therefore, it is difficult to ignore the implications of social values and norms on the learning model (Luna-Nevarez & McGovern 2018). Particularly, the alignment of a developers’ culture and those of the users could shape the most effective online learning environments (Luna-Nevarez & McGovern 2018). Nonetheless, some authors caution that the multiplicity of human cultures across different nationalities of students makes it difficult for social norms to overlap easily (Marshalsey & Sclater 2018; Veletsianos, Reich & Pasquini 2016).

This concern stems from the fact that, in an increasingly globalized world, the potential for cultural clashes is often real. It is also important to understand the impact of culture on e-learning because students from different nationalities often subscribe to unique sets of norms and beliefs stemming from their backgrounds (Luna-Nevarez & McGovern 2018). These values may influence their learning experiences in online learning. Scholars who have investigated this research phenomenon have used Hofstede’s cultural dimensions to understand the impact of culture on e-learning experiences (Özoğlu, Gür & Coşkun 2015; Mikhaylov 2014).

Some researchers have also explored the same concept as a meaningful consideration in learning and development. For example, Solak and Cakir (2015) say that many sociocultural factors influence cognitive development. These elements of analysis are often rooted in language and communication between students and their instructors or learning institutions (Falls et al. 2014). However, in the context of the online learning environment, culture is the most important tool studied by researchers. From a broader perspective, these cultural tools could include computers and symbols, including numbers and graphics. Their main function is to enable people to communicate and solve problems easily. By doing so, they create knowledge which is passed down to younger generations.

Theoretical Analysis

Social Constructivist Theory

The social constructivist theory on education has emerged from studies, which have investigated the impact of online learning on student behaviour (Shochet et al. 2019). It presupposes that learning occurs in a collaborative environment where culture and social factors influence interactions between learners and their teachers (UCD Dublin 2019). The same theory supports the view that learning is a product of social interactions (Shochet et al. 2019). In this regard, teaching is not presented as an acquisition of knowledge but rather the integration of students into a knowledge community (Shochet et al. 2019). This theory stems from the weaknesses of previous education scholars, such as Piaget, who failed to account for the social nature of knowledge in language development (UCD Dublin 2019).

A broader assessment of the constructivist theory is its portrayal of the learning environment as a replication of different forms of reality (UCD Dublin 2019). Broadly, the above-mentioned features of the social constructivist theory augment well with research findings that have emphasized the role of culture in influencing the learning environment. They also highlight the need to design the learning environment in a manner that emphasizes the completion of authentic tasks, as opposed to following abstract instructions out of context.

Social Presence Theory

As highlighted above, most of the discourse in online learning and its impact on education support the social constructivist approach. The main goal for students to take part in such a system is to engage in meaningful scientific inquiry with their instructors (UCD Dublin 2019). However, a review of the literature suggests that when students interact with their colleagues or instructors in the online learning environment, they engage as agents of the co-construction of knowledge (Houtman, Makos & Meacock 2014). They are also likely to have a meaningful experience by doing so and a higher probability of retaining knowledge (UCD Dublin 2019). In this regard, students act as learners but also co-conspirators in the creation of knowledge.

The social presence theory focuses on the interpersonal experiences of learners in the virtual environment. These experiences could influence student behaviour because their perceptions of collaboration in the online learning environment shape their behaviours in the same environment (Houtman, Makos & Meacock 2014). Furthermore, the social presence theory is a complex concept characterized by three key areas: the medium of interaction for learners, student perceptions regarding the learning environment, and the relationship between the student and the online learning community (Houtman, Makos & Meacock 2014).

This area of research has mostly been addressed by research studies that have investigated the nature of relationships between humans and computers (Larionova et al. 2018). These pieces of literature have also been involved in understanding the social presence of students in the virtual learning environment to the extent that it influences their attitudes, persuasion, the illusion of reality, learning memory and mental health (Larionova et al. 2018). The most recent attempts to understand the key tenets of social presence and its influence on the online learning community have shown that the concept is dynamic (Houtman, Makos & Meacock 2014).

On the whole, the social presence theory moves from the individual and cognitive-based orientations of learning to group-based reviews of educational outcomes (Lohr & Haley 2018). This discussion draws attention from improving the capacity of the communication medium to the impact it would have on the community. In other words, the focus is shifted from the competencies associated with different communication methods to the experiences of a student and his or her engagement with the community and context of learning involved. Therefore, this theoretical framework shifts a student’s focus from their social presence in online learning to their user experiences. This shift could provide valuable information for understanding their behaviours in the online learning environment.

Neo-Nationalism

The concept of neo-nationalism is discussed in this chapter because of the influence of national characteristics on student behaviour. It is informed by the potential for students to pursue nationalistic behaviours in their educational experiences (Haarms et al. 2019). For example, the subject areas and majors that some students pursue is a product of their national identities. For example, the interest of an African-American student studying African history in a United States (US) university could be aroused by nationalistic identity conflicts, which often arise in a global environment. Therefore, this subject is relevant to this study because of its potential impact on a student’s culture and behaviours.

A review of the literature suggests that globalisation has significantly influenced people’s feelings and sentiments regarding nationalism (Smith & Segbers 2018). This outcome stems from the perceived loss of national identities, which have been undermined to pave the way for the development of a “global culture.” Most scholars suggest that the renewal of neo-nationalist sentiments in some industrialised nations, such as the UK, significantly affect the experiences of foreign students studying in western countries (Bath & Smith 2018; Smith & Segbers 2018).

This trend has also been witnessed in national politics in the United States (US) and the UK through the election of President Donald Trump and “Brexit,” respectively. The consensus among researchers is that these nationalistic sentiments could make foreign students feel insecure and targeted (Bath & Smith 2018; Smith & Segbers 2018). However, an opposing force in academic literature, which encourages people to learn how to collaborate, has countered this trend by highlighting the need to work with all stakeholders (Ellman & Schwartz 2016).

The increased adoption of online learning in the higher education sector shows that it has been a leader in embracing globalisation and increasing people’s level of engagement around the world. This is true because e-learning has helped to enhance the rate of academic information exchanges (Bath & Smith 2018; Smith & Segbers2018). Studies show that theglobalisation trend as embodied most of these developments, instead of looking at the movement as a threat to nationalist sentiments, students are increasingly becoming aware of existing prejudices and their effects on the learning environment (Ifediora 2019).

Studies that have investigated student experiences in this context have been domiciled in South Africa, China and South-East Asia (Smith & Segbers 2018). They suggest that the differences in cultural dynamics across the multiple countries have complicated the assessment of student experiences (Smith & Segbers 2018).

Their ability to adapt to cultural changes and their language proficiency are other indices that have been used to assess their behaviours in the learning environment. In light of this discussion, many authors have suggested that the presence of social networks has helped students to gain a better experience in the virtual learning environment (Bath & Smith 2018; Smith & Segbers 2018). However, it is difficult to ignore the unique cultural aspects of students’ experiences, which differentiates them from others. The section below highlights the unique characteristics of Chinese culture, which may influence their experiences in the online learning environment.

Unique Characteristics of Chinese Students

As highlighted in this paper, the cultural differences between western and non-western students in institutions of higher learning often affect their learning behaviour and outcomes. Particularly, differences between Chinese students and their western counterparts affect how both sets of students relate with one another and, more importantly, how they compare with their peers in terms of educational outcomes. In one study, it was reported that Chinese students differ from their western counterparts because their learning processes are often defined by the need to avoid shame and humiliation (Perez-Encinas & Rodriguez-Pomeda 2018).

These characteristics stem from the infusion of Confucian principles in the Chinese education system (Perez-Encinas & Rodriguez-Pomeda 2018). Its principles have significantly affected how students respect authority and treat their seniors. Comparatively, western education systems have been influenced by scholastic principles of learning which encourage students to remain inquisitive and satisfy their curiosity by asking questions.

Perez-Encinas and Rodriguez-Pomeda (2018) also report that changes in the education system have prompted many Chinese students to seek education services outside of their home countries. These unique characteristics of Chinese students can be linked with the collectivism and power distance tenets of the Hofstede model of cultural analysis (Haarms et al. 2019). In this regard, the Chinese education system imparts a high power distance between students and teachers, while the western education system instils a low power distance between both parties, whereby students can always question their teachers or interact with them freely.

The collectivism and power distance tenets of the Hofstede model are critical to this analysis because they influence student behaviour (Albert 2015). They also add to the creation of ideological values, which are key features of Chinese society and its education system (Albert 2015). The unwillingness of Chinese students to engage with authority is loosely referred to as a face-face culture where students are taught to avoid humiliation by staying quiet and refraining from questioning authority (Haarms et al. 2019). This culture is linked with the unwillingness of students to ask questions because the teacher may deem it a weakness of due diligence on their part (Hyams-Ssekasi, Mushibwe & Caldwell 2014).

Overall, the Chinese culture may cause problems in adjusting to e-learning when the students leave their home countries for western nations to seek higher education (Albert 2015). The latter society is commonly defined by the need for students to ask questions and engage in discussions with teachers and peers (Haarms et al. 2019). Stated differently, discussion with students is often welcomed and encouraged in western countries because of the link between classroom engagement and high levels of academic achievement. Some studies have also shown that classroom discussions are associated with multifarious cognitive development attributes, including critical thinking (Perez-Encinas & Rodriguez-Pomeda 2018). However, the power of culture continues to shape student behaviour in the long run.

Summary

In this paper, the focus on Chinese students has been justified by studies, which have shown varied differences in the manner students from different nationalities experience e-learning. It should be noted that most of the literatures sampled in this review are primarily developed from the subjects of learning. However, it cannot be emphasised enough that individual considerations about learning should be taken into account when developing instructional strategies associated with online learning programs. Indeed, as outlined by Stutz and Sachs (2018), when educators understand the effects of individual learning styles in online education, they will be able to better shape the context of learning plans.

The findings of this chapter justify why it is essential to investigate the impact of online learning on Chinese students because they have unique sets of beliefs, values and norms (compared to the majority student population), which may influence their behaviours in the online learning environment. The gap in the literature that has emerged from this review is the lack of empirical investigations that have linked online learning and the experience of Chinese students in the virtual education setting.

Instead, existing studies have only shown characteristics of the Chinese culture that may affect the experiences of their citizens while studying abroad. This study will fill this research gap by finding out how online learning influences Chinese undergraduate students’ learning behaviour while studying in the UK.

Methodology

Introduction

This chapter outlines the strategies employed by the researcher in meeting the objectives of the study. It will not only highlight the methodologies adopted but also justify why they were selected. Similarly, its key tenets will explain the research methods, design, data collection strategies, analytical techniques and ethical implications for carrying out the investigations. The details provided in the assessment will be adequate to replicate the study if there was a need to. A review of the selected research method appears below.

Research Method

According to Dixon and Quirke (2018), there are two main research techniques adopted in academic studies: qualitative and quantitative. The qualitative method is often used to measure research variables of a subjective nature (Ciolan & Manasia 2017). It is also difficult to quantify such data using a measurable index. Therefore, the qualitative research method provides a framework for assessing such data. Comparatively, the quantitative research strategy is often applied to investigations that have measurable variables (Paskins et al. 2017). For example, data could be measured using numbers and statistical assessment tools, such as data analysis software.

However, the research variables have to be measurable as well. This characteristic of the quantitative research method made it difficult for the researcher to use in this study because its variables were subjective. Therefore, the justification for using the qualitative research method was defined by the difficulty in quantifying student learning behaviour. Consequently, the qualitative technique was the main research method applied in the study.

Research Design

According to Bradshaw, Atkinson and Doody (2017) and Ammann (2018), there are six main types of research designs associated with the qualitative research method: grounded theory, ethnographic reviews, case studies, narrative research, phenomenology investigations and historical studies. The researcher selectively reviewed these designs because they were applicable to the qualitative investigation. The phenomenology design emerged as the best technique for measuring the research variables. It is used to investigate issues based on the occurrence of a given phenomenon (van Manen 2017).

In this context of analysis, researchers strive to investigate people’s subjective experiences about a given phenomenon to make recommendations or conclusions about it (Klinke & Jónsdóttir 2014). Husserl Edmund and Heideggar Martin were the main proponents of this technique and they proposed that it could be used to describe in-depth and common characteristics of the study phenomenon (Strandmark 2015; Bovin 2019). However, before settling on the phenomenology design, the unique characteristics of each technique were explored and a justification for their use or rejection provided.

To begin with, the Ethnographic design was reviewed. It is often used to interpret the cultural dynamics of a specific group of people (Rashid, Caine & Goez 2015). Tracing its roots to the field of anthropology, this design was used to study differences in cultures between different groups of people (Jarzabkowski, Bednarek & Lê 2014). According to Jain and Orr (2016), gathering data through observation is the main mode of collecting information. In this regard, this technique was inapplicable to the study because, as will be discussed in subsequent sections of this chapter, the preferred mode of data collection will be interviews.

Furthermore, this study is not focused on a review of culture, as proposed by the ethnographic design; instead, the focus is on student behaviour. Stated differently, culture is only a small tenet of behaviour that is investigated in this report. Therefore, it does not define the focus of the study but only seeks to explain student behaviour. These reasons explain why the ethnographic technique could not be effectively used to address the research phenomenon.

Secondly, case studies, which trace their roots to the early 1800s through the works of notable scholars in the scientific field, such as Frederic Le Play, and more recently John Creswell (Dewasiri, Weerakoon & Azeez 2018; Walker & Baxter 2019; Rule & John 2015). The case study approach is rooted in several disciplines, including law, science and education but it has commonly been used in qualitative investigations to create narratives about different social issues (Ebneyamini & Sadeghi 2018).

Broadly, the research design suggests that human behaviour can be observed when researchers examine their habits in the natural setting without interference from another party (Ebneyamini & Sadeghi 2018). Researchers have commonly used it to understand a specific issue of importance in scientific investigations (Zimmerman & Smit 2016). This technique may involve multiple methods of data collection, including interviews observation and the analysis of historical data (Rashid et al. 2019).

Thirdly, Narrative Research design relies on people’s written or verbal assertions to make deductions about a research phenomenon (Mueller 2019). It is commonly associated with storytelling and is linked with sociology investigations (Johnston 2019; Abildgaard 2018). In other words, researchers often use it to explore the lived experiences of a person or a group of people based on their narrations of the same (Burles & Bally 2018). This design was inapplicable to this investigation because the researcher did not rely on past events but rather on an interpretation of student behaviours based on their online learning experience.

Fourthly, Historical Investigation, the historical research design relies on past events to make inferences about the future (Zhukov, Kanishchev & Lyamin 2016). In this context of analysis, researchers rely on past data to develop their findings based on their interpretation of it (Kawabata & Gastaldo 2015). The main goal of using the historical research design is to prevent the occurrence of adverse events based on historical data (Stutz & Sachs 2018). Therefore, it is not applicable to this study because the research investigation was about a current phenomenon based on the lack of sufficient information to link the impact of online learning on the behaviours of Chinese students in the UK.

The phenomenology research design emerged as the best approach to use for the study because virtual learning is a phenomenon that has impacted the UK education sector. A review of student behaviours refers to their subjective experiences when using online learning techniques.

Data Collection

The main data collection method adopted in this study was interviews. It is one of the most common methods of data collection in qualitative research (Berner-Rodoreda et al. 2018; Dennis 2014). The interviews were semi-structured in the sense that the researcher had a set of indicative questions that would be used to start the conversation (see the interview protocol attached in Appendix 1). The development of the interview protocol was guided by the research objectives which were aimed at investigating how online learning influenced the psychological adjustment of Chinese students to class and school programs, examining how virtual learning influenced the interests of Chinese students in learning and predicting how online learning impacts the learning ability of Chinese students studying in the UK.

The interviews were designed to fit the context of the research questions because the researcher intended to gather information about the general areas of impact assessment associated with online learning. According to Chongo et al. (2018), this interviewing technique provides more focus on the research questions as opposed to the unstructured and informal interview technique that may evade the research issues.

However, the guided interview method still possesses the same flexibility and adaptability associated with informal and unstructured interviewing techniques. Lastly, the interview method was selected for use because the researcher had access to the respondents who studied in the same institution. Therefore, it was possible to book appointments and schedule investigations within this environment without compromising their safety. Furthermore, the familiarity of the respondents with the researcher and the study setting enabled them to be comfortable enough to give honest responses.

Research Participants

As highlighted above, the participants who took part in the investigation were students of the University of Manchester by virtue of the fact that they all attended the same institution of higher learning. In sum, the researcher interviewed 12 respondents through face-to-face interactions that were conducted at the school cafeteria. This location was selected as the venue for the interviews because it was open and familiar to most students.

The interview schedule was designed to fit the interviewee’s schedule. Twelve participants were recruited for the interviews based on the recommendations of Ciolan and Manasia (2017), which suggest that saturation in qualitative interviews is often, realised when the same number of interviewees are selected. Paskins et al. (2017) also supports this view by recommending that qualitative interviews should have less than 20 participants to allow the researcher to develop close relationships with them. A higher number would make it difficult for the respondents to be frank with the researcher because of a possible lack of close relationship.

Sampling Procedure

According to Paskins et al. (2017), it is important to understand the sampling procedures to use in qualitative interviews to safeguard the quality of data obtained from the process. The random sampling method was adopted in the investigation to eliminate researcher bias. Ciolan and Manasia (2017) define the random sampling technique as a method for selecting a sample population of participants from a larger body of interviewees. In this method, each participant has an equal probability of being selected for the study. Therefore, there was no room for me to choose preferred participants even though they all schooled in the same institution.

In this regard, Ciolan and Manasia (2017) assert that the sampling technique offers a fair way of selecting participants. Therefore, each informant who took part in the study was selected independently from other members of the student population. The simple random sampling method is advantageous to the researcher because it provided a generally representative sample of the student population. Consequently, it was possible to make generalisations about the impact of online learning on student behaviours based on the views of a cross-section of the population.

Data Analysis

As mentioned above, data was gathered through the interview method.I analysed the information using the thematic and coding method. This technique is commonly associated with the analysis of qualitative data. The technique helps me to pinpoint, examine and record patterns of meaning form a larger body of information provided by the research respondents. The themes were comprised of pieces of information that shared a common meaning.

In other words, they were underpinned by a central concept, which was instrumental to the researcher in answering the research questions. However, Ebneyamini and Sadeghi (2018) suggest there is no universal definition of these meanings or a requirement that themes need to be organised around a central concept. Nonetheless, the themes identified in the research were later assigned unique codes that helped the researcher to organise data and inform unique tenets of information that helped to answer the research questions. The codes were centred on the objectives of the study so that I can easily pairs the information obtained with the research questions. The whole process took six steps, as outlined in table 1 below.

Table 1. Thematic and Coding Method.

Step Activity
1 Researcher familiarising with the data
2 Generating initial, codes
3 Searching for themes
4 Reviewing themes
5 Defining and naming themes
6 Producing the report

Stutz and Sachs (2018) say that the thematic and coding methods are appropriate for qualitative research studies because it accords the researcher the flexibility needed to analyse different types of information. However, they caution that its reliability is often a concern because people may have different interpretations of the data obtained or the themes generated (Stutz & Sachs 2018). However, this risk is associated with many qualitative research data because of their subjective. Therefore, it is not only unique to this study. However, to minimise its effects on this investigation, I made a deliberate effort to monitor the themes and codes throughout the data analysis process.

Ethical considerations

Walker and Baxter (2019) say that unlike other research methods, the qualitative technique has many ethical implications because of the use of human subjects. The Centre for Innovation in Research and Teaching also holds the same views by saying that the ethical considerations of qualitative research are critical in the analysis of data (Rule & John 2015). Based on these assertions, the ethical considerations linked with this study are identified below.

To begin with, informed consent, the researcher provided the respondents with adequate information pertaining to the study before they committed to participate in it. The objective was to make sure that the respondents had adequate information to make an informed choice regarding whether to participate in it, or not. In this regard, they consented to take part in the study voluntarily. Following that privacy and confidentiality, all the participants who were interviewed were guaranteed of their privacy because the researcher presented their views anonymously. This approach was undertaken to allow the interviews to express their views freely and without the fear of reprisal.

In addition, the researcher informed the participants that the focus of undertaking the study was only to understand their views on the research topic and not to reveal their identities. Lastly, data management, data obtained from the researchers were stored safely in a computer and the information secured using a password that was only privy to the researcher. At the end of the investigation, all data will be destroyed. Lastly, the researcher conformed to the ethical guidelines outlined by the university.

Reliability and Validity of Data

The reliability and validity of the information obtained from the respondents was guaranteed using the member check technique. This technique is often associated with qualitative research investigations and is often used to improve the accuracy, validity and credibility of information. The technique works by requiring a researcher to contact the respondents after the data analysis process and sharing the findings of the study with them.The goal is to ascertain whether the information presented in the final work reflects their true views. In case of inconsistencies, the researcher should adjust the findings to align with the respondents’ views. By using this technique, the findings of the investigation had credibility.

Findings

This chapter highlights the findings obtained from interviewing the respondents. Key themes that emerged from the investigation include students’ relationship with teachers, their interaction with curriculum materials and changes in their attitudes towards learning and achievements. The findings are described in detail below.

Students’ Interactions with Teachers

One of the key themes that emerged from the interviews was the influence of online learning on student-teacher relationships. Notably, the respondents said that online learning gave them more access to their instructors, thereby improving the quality of their relationship with teachers. More engagements between students and teachers meant that the respondents could access help from their instructors. One of the respondents said increased access to teachers was essential in completing academic research projects because students could get timely advice. Relative to this assertion, she said,

Although, I have not completed my end of semester research project, I must admit that online learning has significantly increased the access I have to my supervisor because I am able to get timely feedback and advice. All I need to do is schedule a virtual meeting and we are able to review the research progress. Thinking of it…students who completed their projects in the pre-internet era must have had a difficult time getting the same help because they had to organise physical meetings.

Improved Communications

Another respondent affirmed the above view by saying that today’s current fast-paced and globalised world could not function effectively without online learning. The underlying assumption is that online learning eliminates the need to commute across different cities and towns to give lecturers. Therefore, instructors are able to provide their educational services to many students from one location.

Lastly, the respondents said that frequent interactions between students and teachers in online learning improved the quality of their relationship. The high rate of exchanges between the two parties on this platform informed this view. Three of the respondents further pointed out that their online interactions with their teachers improved the quality of their interactions offline. Overall, the informants suggested that online learning improved the quality of student-teacher relationships.

Students’ Interaction with Curriculum Materials

All the respondents interviewed mentioned the effects of online learning on their interaction with study materials. Notably, they said virtual learning increased access to research materials, thereby simplifying the process of data access, which would have taken a long time to accomplish. Relative to this view, one of the respondents said,

In the past, before they digitised the library systems, we used to queue and use catalogues to access books and articles for research. It was a time-consuming process and I do not even want to mention the deadlines and schedules that we had to abide by when returning the books. It was a nightmare! Today, online learning has made things easier for us because we can access learning materials from the comfort of our hostels.

High Levels of Engagement

The interviewees also said their interaction with learning materials online was more engaging than physically reading books or other research materials. For example, they said the integration of user-friendly interfaces, music and even videos in data presentation made online learning a pleasant experience for most them. However, they were cautious to point out that their views only had merit if they were compared to the pre-internet age.

Three of the respondents sampled also mentioned that online learning had more learning resources compared to traditional modes of engagement. Consequently, it simplifies students’ work because they do not have to spend a lot of time looking for physical learning materials. Instead, they could simply click on a link and have access to thousands of learning materials from multiple databases in one location.

Nonetheless, one of the respondents said that the students’ advanced level of interaction with learning materials (on the virtual learning platform) increased the interplay between formal and informal learning. Therefore, he believes that students have to play an active role in the dissemination of data and in their interpretation of it. Lastly, the respondents argued that online learning helped to enhance how students interacted with their learning materials by meeting diverse student learning needs. Therefore, this form of education easily accommodated different cadres of learners.

Changes in Student Attitudes and Achievement

Positive Attitudes

Changes in student attitudes and achievement also emerged as another core theme in the investigation. This area of study stemmed from the views of respondents who alluded to a change in perspective regarding class attendance and the meaning of education. Relative to this finding, there was an almost equal number of participants who believed that online learning had a negative influence on student attitude and those who believed it had a positive influence. Those who affirmed the positivity of online learning mentioned time-saving and convenience as the top reasons for students to develop a positive attitude towards learning.

They also said that most learners felt energised by focusing on important matters in learning, as opposed to the logistics or processes that facilitate it. For example, the need to commute to the classroom, visit the library to access learning materials and even schedule meetings with teachers were highlighted as possible tasks that could be easily circumnavigated through online learning. Those who affirmed this view suggested that their attitudes towards learning improved because of the convenience of online learning.

Negative Attitudes

Respondents who held a contrary view said that the same convenience of learning virtually made students lazy and unmotivated. To support this assertion, one of the respondents said,

There is a certain magic associated with waking up and dressing up for class that we cannot find in online learning. There is simply no human interaction on these platforms… its only machines. That is not good…maybe just for some people, but I think there should be some sense of social interaction in learning. I mean real physical interaction between people and not simply talking to a person on a computer.

The lack of social interactions was also mentioned by two more respondents who linked it to high rates of depression among some students. They argued that learning should not be rigidly fixated on learning via gadgets at the expense of real human interaction. In this regard, they believed that online learning did not provide a holistic form of education for all students. Consequently, they proposed that it should only be used in necessary situations.

Perceptions regarding student achievement also emerged as part of the interview discussions because the informants argued that many students who graduated via online learning felt inferior to those who attended “real” class sessions. They described the problem as a perceptual one because the quality of education offered online could easily match that of the conventional system. Therefore, no compromise on quality was made in this regard.

Summary

Broadly, this chapter shows that three major themes emerged from the study. They focused on students’ relationship with teachers, their interaction with curriculum materials and changes in their attitudes towards learning and achievements. These key areas of analysis highlight the effects of teachers, learning goals and attitudes on student behaviour within the online learning context.

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