Online students and virtual supervisors

The numbers of international students taking on graduate degrees is on the increase, partly due to the advent of rapid communication and information tools and partly due to the recognition that globalisation is taking over the world. Hah!

Supervisors I’ve spoken to over the years have always seen the mix of cultures in their laboratories as being an entirely positive aspect of their science. But, apparently, the social research literature is littered with issues surrounding attrition, motivation, and supervision among those students studying online and being supervised remotely.

Learning and teaching styles can differ greatly and lead to problems where neither student nor teacher is necessarily gaining what they need from the relationship. Kenneth David Strang, himself an international researcher based at APPC IM Research, in Long Island, New York, USA, and the University of Technology, in Sydney, Australia, hopes to address the emergent problems. He has now created a model for assessing and improving supervision of international postgraduate students taking part in online college classes.

‘The internet has extended the reach of postgraduate education to international candidates around the world,’ explains Strang, ‘Global international enrolments exceeded 1.5 million in 2002, (according to a UNESCO study in 2003), growing to approximately 2.2 million in 2005 and are anticipated to hit 3.7 million by 2025.’ It’s debatable whether postgraduate education, and in particular, PhD studies, have increased in a relative sense, but ICT has certainly globalised many disciplines in the way Strang describes.

Professors must strive to understand international student learning styles and work to appease them, while international students themselves might struggle to comprehend their supervisor’s style and so must work harder to cope with the demands of their degree. In terms of economics it is important to address these issues as graduate degrees are expensive with long durations and student satisfaction is an important measure of success in market economic terms. In the US, half of graduate students drop out before they get their PhD, and similar statistics are seen in Australia and the UK.

Research regarding student satisfaction has previously focused on face-to-face supervision, but Strang suggests that the shift in delivery to the online mode ‘will not magically transform poor supervision or confusing structure into better quality.’ Indeed, Strang asks whether a student can be blamed for failure due to incompetence or lack of motivation if teaching style is more to blame. After all, even the brightest students, who start out with commitment and enthusiasm, can become disappointed when they fail to cope well.

Current models that attempt to address the problems are complicated by the fact that there can be almost as many learning styles as there are students, which makes it almost impossible for supervisors to customise their teaching style and materials to cope. Moreover, professors may simply not recognise the gap between learning and teaching. Strang also points out that learning styles are similar to personalities with respect to their persistence since they usually do not change significantly, as compared with culture which can dramatically change in different situations.

‘My model proposes that students have hidden expectations, desires, and wants, which are not easily measureable,’ Strang says. ‘This is common place in marketing and psychology. For example, when a person asks you what you really want to do on your day off: what will you say? Do you even know yourself until the day off begins? Ok, now think about asking that question to people all around the world, from Japan, China, India, etc. Would you expect some pretty far-out replies? Likely. This is the sort of complex educational psychology I am dealing with in my research.’

‘I feel this research is pushing our thinking far beyond current educational psychology models that deal only with particular dimensions of the learning process,’ Strang told me. ‘My model deals with many aspects [of learning] and it has also been tested with international students.’ He points out that given that we are going online more and more and becoming increasingly virtual in our communications (in terms of business as well as education) he suggests that it is time we got realistic in our testing of models, by incorporating culture into research designs and teaching approaches. ‘Gone are the days when everyone applies the USA model of doing things – now the world is building on those models, and feeding back the results so everyone around the world can benefit – and learn more,’ he says.

Strang’s model is quite new and he admits it is therefore unproven. He is on the leading edge of integrating culture with learning styles, and especially in terms of testing this outside of the USA, where most educational theories were originally developed, and continue to be developed. He uses more powerful statistics than were previously available and also addresses the issue of online learning that simply did not exist when those models were first wrought.

Research Blogging IconKenneth David Strang (2010). Improving supervision of cross-cultural postgraduate university students Int. J. Learning and Change, 4 (2), 181-202