1 ONLINE LEARNING AND COPING STRATEGIES Marcela Jonas, University of the Fraser Valley, Canada Summary The goal of this case study is to contrast two types of students: native and non-native speakers of English in online courses where English is the language of instruction. The focus is on the kinds of challenges experienced by both groups of learners, on the strategies employed, and on the interactions between the two groups of students leading to the formation of an inclusive global learning community. The study describes the characteristics and online behaviour of students registered in two first-year university online courses, English Composition and Introductory Linguistics, offered at the University of the Fraser Valley, a public teaching university in British Columbia, Canada. The data and observations are drawn from several sources: class information available from the Blackboard Learning System, an online questionnaire, daily observations of online postings, discussions, and student interactions online, an examination of s directed to the instructor, and informal conversations with students. Increasing numbers of university students are attracted to online learning and its obvious benefits: no need to travel to the campus, working at one s own pace, being able to set one s own schedule. However, not all students are realistic in their expectations and in their own assessment of readiness for online learning (Moisey & Hughes 423). When taking an online course for the first time, many students experience difficulties and frustrations (Peters). The focus of this case study are problems and coping strategies of students in two first-year online courses delivered at the University of the Fraser Valley, a public teaching university in British Columbia, Canada. Both courses, ENGL105: The Reading and Writing of Prose and LING101: Introduction to Linguistics, are concurrently delivered as in-class courses. The goal of this study is to provide a comparison of online learning habits between students whose first language is English (the language of instruction) and students whose native language is not English. The study first presents the characteristics of the courses and students. Then their online learning challenges and coping strategies are summarized. Finally, the interaction between the two groups and the formation of an inclusive global learning community are described. Data for this study came from several sources: class information available from the Blackboard Learning System, an online questionnaire, daily observations of online postings, discussions, and student interactions online, an examination of s directed to the instructor, and informal conversations with students.
2 ENGL105 is a first-year course, but many students take it later in their academic career. The main goals are to develop critical reading, thinking, writing skills, and research strategies. To achieve these goals, students are assigned tasks that involve reading, summarizing, analyzing, and writing, in addition to exercises dealing with grammar and writing conventions. In the online version of the course, students complete weekly assignments that consist of questions related to the reading selections, e.g., questions about understanding details, analyzing meaning, or discovering rhetorical strategies, and of exercises based on either individual grammar points or on the mechanics of writing. Students post their responses on the bulletin board called Discussions, and they react to their classmates postings. During the week, the instructor monitors the online communication, trouble-shooting and answering questions. At the end of the week, the instructor posts answers to exercises and provides general feedback to discussion questions. In addition to weekly postings, students are asked to submit three essays. During the drafting stage, course participants work in groups providing feedback on each other s writing. Course evaluation is based on online participation, essay marks, and a final exam. The main goal of the other course, LING101, is to develop an understanding of basic linguistic concepts. In the online version of the course, students are assigned weekly readings, and they post answers to selected exercises from their textbook. They are encouraged to comment on each other s answers and to work together to solve the linguistic problems. During the week, the instructor monitors students online activities, answering questions and commenting on answers already posted. At the end of the week, the instructor posts the correct answers with explanations. In addition to weekly problem-solving assignments, students have to submit a group chapter report. Evaluation is based on online participation, quizzes, the group chapter report, and an online final exam. While most, but not all, domestic students are native English speakers, for international students English is a second or foreign language. During the Winter 2009 semester, there were 49 students enrolled in both classes. While all international students declared a language other than English to be their native language, only a few domestic students first language was not English. By mid-semester, there were only eleven students for whom English was not a native language (5 non-native speakers withdrew). These eleven students declared either Punjabi or Chinese as their first language. The students academic backgrounds varied. While most ENGL105 students were enrolled in business administration (57%) or arts programs (17%), the majority of LING101 students were in arts (45%) or general studies (27%). Most of the non-native speakers were business administration students (64%). In both classes, the students also varied as to the length of their academic careers. Their starting dates ranged from Winter 2005 (students close to graduation) to Winter 2009 (students just starting). In terms of accumulated credits, the largest group in ENGL105 had credits (43%), while in LING101, the distribution was more equal. Among the non-native speakers, the largest group consisted of students with credits (55%). Individual students online experience also varied. For 44% of students (45% of non-native speakers), the course they were currently taking was their first online course. When asked about the reasons for online studying, students cummulative responses showed that time reasons ranked the highest in both classes and for both groups, native and non-native speakers. Time reasons were followed by transportation and personal reasons. When asked about the positive aspects, or benefits, of online studying, the most frequently stated benefit was studying according to own schedule; it was followed by working through the material according to one s own pace, and by being able to study from home. Other benefits included the ability to study when in another country. Only three students saw being able to talk online to more people than in a classroom as a benefit (none of the non-native speakers).
3 It is difficult to single out the most frustrating aspect of online learning because of the many variables. The most frequently mentioned challenges were related to technology, time, and classmate interaction. Only three students overall (all non-native speakers) admitted to having a language problem. On the other hand, monitoring revealed that one group of native speakers expressed had reservations about giving feedback on the non-native speakers drafts stating the language was difficult to understand. At the same time, they did not want to offend their classmates by red-marking the entire essays. The technology problems students often encountered were related either to computer malfunctions or server problems. There were concerns about access to the class website or its individual components. Another source of frustration with technology was the lack of trust in the system, e.g., students were not sure whether their went through, whether the instructor got the test results, or whether the quiz was submitted properly. Often, the students level of computer literacy played a role. For the first half of the semester, there were many misdirected postings and confusion about how to chat, how to post, how to attach files, etc. Students reported on missing communication opportunities due to computer malfunctions or due to a lack of computer savvy. On the whole, there was no difference between the native and non-native speakers reports of technology-related problems. The source of many frustrations was the asynchronous nature of communication and nonimmediate feedback. Problems with the nature of feedback in online learning were pointed out by Bower, and the students in this study confirmed these observations. Waiting for feedback was found time-consuming. Some students also stated a preference for face-toface communication; some found it difficult to communicate with classmates they had never met. Several students stated that they prefered the in-class dynamics, and a combination of face-to-face meetings with online studying was seen as the best way. Again, both groups of students had very similar reactions. For a number of students, time problems were an issue because their study and work schedules sometimes interferee with online course demands. Information overload and too much reading were quoted as reasons for late postings and missed deadlines. For two students located overseas (one a non-native speaker), time zone differences resulted in their inability to participate in synchronous communication. The strategies the students used to deal with online course problems most frequently included using the Internet, asking the instructor for help, and contacting students who had taken the course before. Other strategies mentioned were asking classmates for help and calling the Help Desk (to solve computer problems). A very small number of students joined a study group or employed other strategies, e.g., spending more hours on homework or using other textbooks or resources. There was not a reported difference in the kind of strategies both groups used. However, evidence from s and postings shows that there was a different pattern in the online behaviour. Differences were observed in the kind of questions the two groups of students asked the instructor in their s. Generally, student questions were related to computer problems, the course content, deadlines, clarifying assignments, and asking for help with the material. Surprisingly, the only questions the non-native speakers of English asked were about submitting essays through another channel rather than the class website. There were also quantifiable differences in online behaviour of the two groups.the following criteria were considered and average values for all students (native and non-native speakers) were calculated: total average number of log-in sessions 55 total average time spent online 21 hours
4 average mail read 32 average mail sent 10 average discussions read 838 average discussions posted 42 average chat sessions 22 Online habits of the non-native speakers of English (Punjabi and Chinese speakers) were compared with the class average values. Two groups of non-native speakers emerged: students whose values for the above criteria exceeded or were equal to the class average and students whose values were below the average. Comparing the non-native speakers online behaviour with their essay grades, another pattern emerged: the higher grades were distributed among the students who were more active in their online activities. Only one Punjabi speaker registered average or higher values in all categories; the other Punjabi speakers consistently fell below the average values, with some exceptions: read discussions, read mail, chat, and posted discussions. The Chinese students behaviour was different. One Chinese speaker was below the average values in all criteria except for total time and posted discussions. The other Chinese speakers exceeded the average values for all categories except for read mail, sent mail, and chat. There is a reason why both the Punjabi and the Chinese speakers avoided falling below the average in the number of posted discussions: they counted towards the participation grade. The reason for the discrepancy between the average number of read versus posted/sent online communication in the case of the Punjabi speakers may be their relative facility in reading as opposed to composing written texts. The Chinese data show a different pattern: the students generally needed more time to complete their online tasks, both reading and writing; otherwise, they may fall behind (Hara). Students writing skills, and their facility with the English languge, have an effect on not only the quality but also the quantity of online interactions (Peters). In addition to online postings, interaction between the two groups was also observed in group formations. Group membership was established by means of sign-up sheets. In LING101, the group choice was determined mostly by the choice of the chapter the students wanted to work with, and no differing patterns between native and non-native speakers were observed. The situation in ENGL105, in contrast, confirmed Hara s observation that one way of dealing with frustration is communicating with a classmate of similar ethnicity in her own native language. For each essay assignments, there were 5 groups with a maximum of 5 members each. For the first essay, there was one group consisting solely of non-native speakers of English (Chinese and Punjabi); the other non-native speakers (also Chinese and Punjabi) were distributed among the other groups. For the second essay, the Punjabi speakers who had started together in the same group stayed together; those who were in mixed groups initially joined mixed groups again. All Chinese students, including those who started in the non-native-only group, joined mixed groups for the second essay. The success of online learning largely depends on the community created in the process of the online course. Such community is created through the interaction among the participants of the online course, the students and the instructor. Bower points out that creating such a community requires more planning on the part of the instructor and more effort on the part of the student. Despite the challenges of their particular online experiences, an analysis of s and online discussions shows that the students in ENGL105 and LING101 put into practice their suggestions on how to overcome problems experienced within the online framework, and almost always the solution entailed reaching out. From the second week, the students worked together on assignments in the chat room. As the semester progressed, individual
5 students started announcing when they were planning to work on a particular assignment, inviting others to join them in the chat-room. Sometimes, students met in person to work together on their assignments. Invariably, when somebody sent out a call for help, another classmate posted an invitation with an offer to help. In essence, there were no substantial qualitative differences between native and non-native speakers of English when it comes to bulletin board activities. The postings of non-native speakers of English, apart from the language form at times, were the same in content as those of native speakers, perhaps more complimentary at times, often relying on formulaic expressions like good job or nice work and not much more. After the first few weeks, however, the non-native speakers of English started using more explicit language to express their opinions. They started to express appreciation when somebody else proposed a solution to a problem, and often they admitted that they had a problem with some part of the exercise themselves. This was a similar pattern as observed in native speakers postings. In the written communication of non-native English speakers, there were often grammatical, word choice, and spelling errors. Occasionally, a native speaker would provide gentle criticism in the form of advice on how to use a spelling and grammar checker and offer to help. In cases where word choice was criticized, it came in the form, You probably meant / wanted to write this was no different from what the native speakers did among themselves. In conclusion, there is evidence that despite the frustrations experienced by students in online courses, this mode of instruction does bring all types of learners together. As the formation of an inclusive global learning community is the goal for successful online learning, it is necessary to recognize that it is happening, but at a different rate and in different forms for individual students. Instructors and institutions need to focus on both the apparent and hidden problems of students involved in online learning and work together to overcome them.
6 WORKS CITED Bower, Beverly L. Distance education: facing the faculty challenge. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration Summer 2001: IV-II. Tallahassee, FL: State University of West Georgia, Distance Education Center. 7 Mar <http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/summer42/bower42.html>. Hara, Noriko and Rob Kling. Students frustrations with a web-based distance education course. First Monday 6 December 1999: Mar <http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewarticle/710/620# h5>. Moisey, Susan D., and Judith A. Hughes. Supporting the online learner. The theory and practice of online learning. Ed. Terry Anderson. 2 nd ed. Edmonton: AU Press, Peters, Linda. Through the looking glass: Student perceptions of online learning. Technology Source Archives at the University of North Carolina September/October Mar <http://technologysource.org/article/through_the_looking_glass/>.