Unfamiliar academic lingo, exclusively Western-centric course materials, and seemingly unthinkable breaches of classroom protocol — these are just a few of the barriers international students often find themselves negotiating when logging in to an online education at a North American post-secondary institution.
Identifying such issues — and finding ways to foster greater engagement in learning with culturally diverse students — is the topic of Umeka Naidoo’s dissertation, “Fostering Multicultural Understandings within Global Online Higher Education Learning Environments.”
“There is a need to understand the ways in which culture manifests in the online learning environment,” says Naidoo, who recently completed her Doctor of Education degree through the Werklund School of Education. “From my own experience, I observed culturally diverse students struggle with trying to understand the norms of the Canadian online learning environment, which exacerbated feelings of isolation.”
Naidoo’s test group included some international students studying both fully online and in hybrid learning environments, in a variety of Canadian degree programs, including master's and PhD candidates.
“Some international students had a challenge adapting to the Canadian online learning environment,” explains Naidoo, by providing an example of the kind of disconnect felt by some study participants. “[It could be] something as simple how to address the instructor or reluctance to challenge their instructors because they are regarded as authorities of knowledge in certain cultures.
"Students mentioned feeling unsure of their online learning environments due to differences in perceptions of course setup, linguistic challenges, and interpreting instructor feedback.”
The means with which to ameliorate such misunderstandings, says Naidoo, is to make cultural responsiveness part and parcel of an institution’s online learning strategy through course design and facilitation. She says the move to establish offices of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and Indigenous Engagement at most schools is a step in the right direction, provided that such initiatives consider online learning environments rather than just focusing on face-to-face classes.
Cultural responsiveness makes sense, given the extent to which the pandemic accelerated the expansion of online learning. But while it’s tempting to think of 2020 as year zero for the shift from in-person to online education, for many students — particularly those already in the workforce balancing careers with their academic pursuits — virtual classrooms have long been the norm.
Naidoo is among that cohort, having completed two business degrees, and part of her doctorate, online long before the term “COVID-19” entered the global lexicon. With distance/community-based degrees increasingly becoming part of many faculties’ programming streams, Naidoo says an institution’s reputation in regard to cultural responsiveness plays a sizable role in attracting students to these programs. She speaks from personal experience, having chosen UCalgary as the place to pursue her EdD for this reason.
“I feel that as a person from a racialized group, the University of Calgary has been progressive in how they've acknowledged diversity, equity, and inclusion. Of course, there will always be work here considering the objective of driving ongoing positive impact."