International Graduate Students’ Perceptions of Post-COVID-19 Online Learning
Feature article by Adam V. Agostinelli, Boston College
Research related to international students’ perceptions of online learning indicates that academic and informal English (Tan et al., 2010), cultural differences (Kang & Chang, 2016; Kung, 2017), and a lack of multicultural course content, plagiarism, and time zone differences (Liu et al., 2010) are barriers that international students face. Many of these students also seem to feel that classroom interaction is either lacking in online environments or difficult to engage in (Leem et al., 2018; Phirangee & Malec, 2017). Other evidence shows that the lack of social cues in the online setting is a barrier to learning for both domestic (Tichavsky et al., 2015) and international students (Zhang & Kenny, 2010).
To contribute to these findings, this case study explores five international graduate students’ perceptions of online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic at a U.S. university. The goal of this research was to better understand the affordances and challenges associated with this medium of instruction. Findings indicated that (1) English comprehension difficulties are enhanced in the online interface, (2) students struggle to build relationships and participate in class because of English-related dynamics and a lack of social cues, (3) some students are easily distracted during synchronous classes and heavily rely on passive learning skills, and (4) students acknowledge and appreciate certain aspects of online learning. Even though the participants in this study showed great resilience by performing well in their classes since the switch to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there remains a need for instructors to further innovate their pedagogical approaches, particularly by utilizing strategies that mitigate ambiguity of instructions and promote engagement in active learning opportunities.
The five participants of this study were full-time international graduate students at a private university in the northeastern U.S. (see Table 1 for participant information). Each of the participants attended classes remotely during the Fall 2020 semester from within the U.S., with the exception of Hyuk, who moved back to Korea in the middle of the semester for personal reasons. None of the students initially enrolled in their programs of study with the intention of taking any online classes. This is an important distinction because their experiences likely differed from students who set out to enroll in entirely online degree programs.
A snowball sampling method was used to find five volunteer participants (Baimyrzaeva, 2018). The primary sources of qualitative data used for this study were two 40 to 70-minute semi-structured interviews, recorded on Zoom and administered four months apart in Summer and Fall 2020 (for four out of five participants - for the fifth participant only one interview in Fall 2020 was administered). Semi-structured interviews in this study contained a mix of standard questions that were combined with individualized exploratory questions. This allowed participants to clarify their answers, provide more details, or give specific examples to support their comments (Baimyrzaeva, 2018).
Informal observational data was also collected using field notes during classes, club meetings, and informal conversations. The amount of observation was dependent on researcher and participant availability, and ranged from around three hours to 30 hours per participant during the fall semester. The fifth participant only participated in one semi-structured interview, and no observational data was collected from him because he became interested in participating in the study shortly before the second round of interviews as a product of the snowball sampling method used to find volunteer participants.
Atlas.ti was used to code the interview transcripts according to pre-determined themes, which included perceptions of academic support, perceptions of social support, and perceptions of online learning. The coding also included themes that spontaneously emerged from the data. Using a thematic analysis approach, field notes and observational data were organized into emerging trends and categories (Fereday & Muir-Cochrane, 2006). However, within the scope of this study, only data related to perceptions of online learning were drawn upon.
Findings from the study at hand represent a small portion of a larger ethnographic inquiry that documents four of the participants’ academic and social experiences during their first three years at their university. Online learning was not originally intended to be a major focus of this research; however, due to COVID-19 and the widespread switch to online learning, a considerable portion of the qualitative data collected during the participants’ third semester was related to Zoom classes or online education in some respect, as each of the participants were enrolled in three online courses during this semester.
Findings and Discussion
Enhanced English Difficulties
Although each of the participants reported notable improvement in their overall English ability between their first and second year, it seemed that the switch to online learning as a result of COVID-19 enhanced language barriers for some international students. Hyuk recounted how the transition to online classes was difficult to adapt to:
…for the international students … I assume it (online class) is very demanding because it is harder to understand what other people are saying, and it's harder to express speaking English. … last semester I was frequently under stress whenever I speak something, because I couldn't deliver my intention properly. So anyway, online format is even worse.
When another participant, Shin, was asked about his overall experience with online courses during his second (Spring 2020) and third (Fall 2020) semesters, he cited English listening as his greatest barrier. Referring specifically to these comprehension difficulties during class lectures, he stated, “It’s very unilateral. I barely understand anything, so I can’t participate.” Research related to international students’ perceptions of online learning indicates that academic and informal English pose unique barriers to some members of this population (Tan et al., 2010; Zhang & Kenny, 2010). This was found to be somewhat true for at least Hyuk and Shin.
Hyuk moved back to Korea as a result of COVID-19 during the Fall 2020 semester, and although he recounted feeling more comfortable being in a familiar context and having a stronger support network, he expressed concerns about not remaining in the U.S., especially concerning his English development. By leaving an English-dominant context and immersing himself in a context dominated by his first language, Hyuk effectively lost opportunities to interact in English. Hyuk’s preoccupation with developing his English skills also contributed to his feelings of being “left behind,” which shows how the connections he maintained with his university through online coursework and meetings left much to be desired in terms of both improving his English and fulfilling his socioemotional needs in general.
Importance of Social Cues
Three of the participants noted how the lack of social cues, such as eye contact and body language, made it difficult to engage in course discussions and understand the course content. Shin commented, “I had no idea how important social cues are for communication before we had Zoom classes.” These reports can be corroborated with other research showing that the lack or a reduced number of social and verbal cues in the online setting is a source of difficulty for all students (Tichavsky et al., 2015), but particularly for international students who heavily rely on these cues to process instructions and engage in discussions (Zhang & Kenny, 2010).
This lack of social cues seems to be connected to both English ability and motivation, in that the lack of these cues can result in miscommunications, which, in turn, can cause disengagement in terms of listening actively. The accountability that comes with social cues, and especially eye contact, is also lost in the online format. As Hyuk put it, “there is no push” to pay attention because it is impossible to tell who the instructor is looking at during a Zoom class. Additionally, as Ana noted, it seemed like the lack of social cues has caused various “awkward” silences. It is possible that students who speak English as a second or third language may be less likely to be the first to fill these silences because of uncertainties regarding social etiquette and expectations during such scenarios.
These findings regarding the importance of social cues indicate that instructors of online classes need to be aware of the importance of these cues and utilize strategies that mitigate ambiguity of instructions and promote engagement. For instance, instructors should provide explicit instructions, signal transitions in the lesson, and provide both written and audio descriptions of course content.
Limited Social Interaction
Ana, Eunbi, and Shin thought there was limited social interaction during Zoom classes, and Hyuk noted feeling “completely disconnected” from the campus community despite regular engagement in online courses and meetings. Shin felt that the lack of interaction was hurting his social networking, and both he and Eunbi explained that this lack of interaction has led to feeling socially isolated and unfulfilled at times. Similar reports of isolation in online settings in the literature confirm that many international students perceive interaction in general to be lacking, or that they have difficulty engaging during online classes (Leem et al., 2018; Phirangee & Malec, 2017; Tichavsky et al. 2015). Interestingly, Shin also expressed that a barrier to interaction was potentially being perceived as homosexual or flirtatious by domestic students if he attempted to build relationships through the private messaging function in Zoom. This comment serves as an example of how sociocultural characteristics of the host country can shape an international student’s perceptions of and experiences with online education.
Overall, cases like these highlight the importance for instructors to engage students during synchronous lessons by utilizing strategies that promote active learning; however, it seems like this is an area that is still in its developmental stage.
Reliance on Passive Learning
In a diverging finding, some forms of online teaching appeared to cause some students to disengage in synchronous class lectures and rely on other available learning strategies. Hyuk described on how he was constantly distracted by other things on his computer during class, saying “I never know when activities start or what we are supposed to be doing. But I can’t stop! It’s like I am drunk!” He reflected that his lack of focus was likely due to the lack of accountability and English difficulties caused by the online interface. He continued, “It is much easier for me to catch the English if I am in a class” and that “I am less motivated to concentrate because it is online. … I feel like I can just understand everything better by reading the PDFs.” Similar sentiments were expressed by Shin, and such findings indicate that reading asynchronously is a more effective way for students to acquire content knowledge rather than listen to synchronous class sessions, even to the point of deeming the synchronous lessons useless.
These findings are concerning because if such students are allowed to fall back exclusively on their strengths in passive learning and asynchronous participation, they will not be motivated to develop critical listening and speaking skills. This makes it likely that they will be at a competitive disadvantage once they graduate and enter the job market. Both Hyuk and Shin have aspirations of working in the U.S. and were well aware of this potential outcome, citing it as a source of anxiety.
Despite the many difficulties reported, each of the participants provided examples of beneficial online teaching approaches and strategies they had experienced during their second (Spring 2020) and third (Fall 2020) semesters. Guo and Hyuk mentioned how they appreciated it when their professors were meticulous with the organization of their class time and materials. Guo noted that organization made the lesson seem “fluent” and that it helped him stay focused. He also explained how the instructor’s “responsiveness, attitude, and availability” helped him concentrate and that the professor being motivated to engage him in conversation was “highly important for me, for making me feel like I am improving my English.” Ana and Guo also mentioned that they found structured opportunities to interact with their classmates to be very helpful for their engagement, which again hints at the central role the instructor plays in facilitating structured interactional opportunities among all students (Leem et al., 2018; Phirangee & Malec, 2017).
Conclusion, Limitations, and Implications
In addition to reported difficulties with both productive and receptive aspects of English, the data indicated that the lack of social cues enhances English language barriers and discourages participation in online synchronous sessions. Also, the lack of formal and informal social interactions can lead to feelings of isolation and present potential barriers to improving English skills and building social, academic, and professional networks. However, ultimately, the participants’ perceptions of online education need to be considered in light of the wider context and circumstances. Although it is beyond the scope of this study to discuss in detail, the political climate in the U.S. at the time, COVID-19, and physical separation from friends, family, and colleagues all shaped the participants’ experiences. While the discussions in this paper were limited to findings that are specific to language-related experiences with online learning, there was undoubtedly a consensus amongst the participants that “everybody seems sick and tired of online learning right now because of COVID,” as Eunbi described.
Besides limitations related to generalizability, a crucial limitation of this study is that it is difficult to claim that certain findings are attributable to the online medium of instruction or are specific to international students.
In addition to contributing to the growing body of literature regarding international students’ perceptions of online learning, the timely and candid reports from this study’s participants may help to better understand the diverse lived experiences international graduate students have with online learning. Given the uncertainties that come with the continued prevalence of COVID-19 on U.S. campuses, it seems likely that Zoom classes will remain the norm for many international students. While many instructors teaching online for the first time in 2020 have been able to quickly adapt to the new format and implement various activities that facilitate student participation, the findings of this study suggest that some international students feel more marginalized than ever before. This points to the need for instructors to continually innovate their online pedagogical approaches to encompass strategies which help international students navigate the contemporary challenges and ambiguities they might face in the online interface.
Instructors can start by unambiguously articulating transitions during lessons and by providing explicit written and verbal instructions for class activities. This has the effect of mitigating uncertainties derived from the absence of social cues and language-related miscommunications. It is also vital for instructors to be cognizant of the fact that some international students who have been “forced” to take online courses because of COVID-19 may have fundamentally different educational expectations than those who consciously enrolled in online courses in the past. Even though each of the participants in this study identified positive aspects of online learning and has shown great resilience by performing well in their classes since the switch to online instruction, there is still room for pedagogical improvement. As Hyuk said, “I did not sign up for cyber [university],” and allowing such students to fall back on passive learning skills and overreliance on asynchronous learning can have detrimental effects on their language development and socialization, and limit future opportunities.
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Adam Valentin Agostinelli spent the past decade as an English language instructor in the U.S. and Korea in elementary, secondary, and higher education settings. His passion for teaching has led to an interest in researching and writing about multilingualism, identity, language education, and student mobility in international contexts. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in Teaching, Curriculum and Society from Boston College.