The Use of Web-Based Learning in Culturally Diverse Learning Environments

Kum Leng Chin [HREF1], Curtin Business School, Curtin University of Technology, GPO Box U 1987, Perth, Western Australia 6845.

Vanessa Chang [HREF2], Curtin Business School, Curtin University of Technology, GPO Box U 1987, Perth, Western Australia 6845.

Christian Bauer, Curtin Business School, Curtin University of Technology, GPO Box U 1987, Perth, Western Australia 6845.


This paper examines the influence of their cultural background on students' perception of Web-based learning. A survey of an on-line course has been conducted, linking the students' cultural background to usage patterns, attitudes towards Web-based learning in tertiary education and students' learning experiences. The outcome of this research provides developers with starting points to consider cultural diversity for their Web-based course design.


There has been a steady increase in the use of the Internet and in particular the World Wide Web for tertiary education. The convenience and flexibility of this mode of delivery has attracted many students who are unable to attend on-campus courses due to work commitment, busy life styles and simply not being able to attend on-campus lectures due to distance. However, because of the remoteness and feeling of isolation, many students do not like the on-line learning experience (Simonsen, 1995). Consequently, most on-line education offerings carry the theme of "connected not isolated" (Lowery, 1998) and "learning without distance rather than learning at a distance" (Duchastel, 1996). On-line education developers and researchers have already proposed a variety of ideas and theories to overcome these inherent shortcomings of Web-based instruction. The Web as a communication medium has strong potential for interactivity and this echoes Jonassen's (1994) constructivist model where he stresses the need for collaboration among learners. According to Boston (1997), access to the Web is a victory for educational opportunity equity for groups who are disadvantaged to achieve the goal of equal outcomes. Reeves and Reeves (1997) state that Web-based learning should accommodate diverse ethnic and cultural background among the learners expected to use the Web-based materials. This research investigates one particular aspect of on-line education equity: the effects of the cultural background of learners and their perception on Web-based learning.

Culture issues and the Web

The Web learning environment is potentially a powerful arena in which new practices and new relationships can make significant contributions to learning. However, attention needs to be paid to on-line learning processes. Students in face-to-face classroom settings see and work with one another and get to know each other well through the learning process. For learning to be successfully delivered on-line, the learning process on the Web needs to be well facilitated. Naturally, these requirements become even more critical in culturally diverse learning environments.

Finder and Raleigh (1998) explain four ways in which Web applications could be used in a course: (1) Informational, (2) Supplemental, (3) Dependent, and (4) Fully developed. Informational use is defined as making course information, such as course outline and assignment descriptions, available on the Web. Supplemental use requires students to use the Web to complete part of the course. The learning materials generally include links to related secondary sources. In dependent use most learning materials already exist on the Web and students (partly) use the Web to complete course assignments. In fully developed use the entire course is delivered via the Web. This is deemed as offering the course totally on-line without students and teachers meeting face-to-face.

Research Plan and Methodology

Curtin University of Technology in Western Australia is one of the universities embracing the idea of using the Internet to provide a flexible learning environment for its students (Reid, 1999). Curtin University of Technology has a very diversified campus population, with its international student population being the fourth highest amongst all Australian universities.

Five units from Curtin University of Technology were selected to participate in this study. Amongst them, one was a third year unit from Computer Science, another was a second year unit from Social Studies, the third one was a first year service unit from Engineering and the other two units, one at undergraduate and other at postgraduate level, were from the Business School. In terms of the background of the students, some units had more international students (like the two units from Business) enrolment than others. As an illustrative example for the context and online content of the selected courses, we will describe one particular Business unit (Electronic Commerce unit about Internet Functions and Facilities) in detail. An appropriate level of English language competency was assumed underlying the design of the educational material as the class was only offered to second year students. The degree of language difficulty was further controlled by the inclusion of a content developer, who did not have English as his first language. This unit was offered in two modes, dependent and fully developed, according to Finder and Raleigh's framework as introduced in the previous section (Finder and Raleigh, 1998). The on-line learning material of the unit was developed using WebCT (Goldberg, 1996; Goldberg and Salari, 1997). The unit consisted of specifically designed on-line reading materials, links to external on-line resources, on-line group work on case studies, discussion on bulletin boards and on-line exams.

This study allows us to look into how students of different cultural background perceived and received Web-based learning. To evaluate this, a questionnaire was distributed to all students enrolled in the five units in semester 2, 1998. To ensure a high response rate the survey was administered during the lecture time of each of these units and students were required to complete and return the questionnaire during the session.

A total of 196 questionnaires were returned in which 157 could be assigned to either Australia (as a proxy for Anglo-Saxon countries) or the Asian cultural groups according to proximity clustering within Hofstede's (1986, 1991) model of cultural differences. The Anglo-Saxon group comprised 52 students (33 %), and 105 international students from the Asian region (67 %). Besides Australia (41 students), countries included in the Anglo-Saxon group are England (5 students), Northern Ireland (2), New Zealand (2), and Scotland (2). The home countries of the Asian students are Singapore (37 students), Malaysia (36), Indonesia (19), Hong Kong (5), India (2), Philippines (1), Korea (1), Taiwan (2), and Thailand (2). These are summarised in Table I. The location of origin serves as a proxy for cultural background in this study, based on the assumption that the cultural background is driven by the surrounding social network and environment. For example, an Australian of Chinese descent, who had spent the last ten years living in Australia is considered Australian. This assumption appears to be particularly justifiable for younger age groups, such as the one studied in this research on university students.

The demographics of the student population as reflected by valid questionnaires are summarised in Table II. These factors could potentially bias the results of the questionnaire. In particular age and gender, have already been identified as irrelevant to the success or failure of Web-based learning in previous empirical studies (Bauer, 1998). However, the other demographic variables have been tested for significance against the perception of the usefulness of the particular Web-based learning unit (Pearson Chi-Square test), and none of them yielded a high significance.

Table III summarises some demographic and educational background information in a comparison between Anglo-Saxon and Asian students in the unit. For both groups the sample is male dominated, and the average of the student age is around the mid twenties. The numbers about study background are very similar for both groups, as reflected in their workload (by comparison of full-time to part-time students), the number of postgraduate students surveyed and their experience of Web-based learning.

The collected data from the two groups (Anglo-Saxon versus Asian cultural background) is analysed, compared and tested for significance through Chi-squared tests of contingency tables. These tests are employed to establish whether there is enough evidence to infer that differences between these two groups exist. The Pearson coefficient is used as a measure of significance, with lower values suggesting higher significance.

Research Findings

A. Overall Usefulness of Web-Based Learning

The overall perceived usefulness is without doubt one of the most important measures for the success of Web-based learning. The question on the questionnaire regarding this read as follows:
Have you found Web-based learning in this unit useful (Yes/No)?
A majority number of students (97%) answered approvingly to this question. The difference between the two cultural groups is only marginal with a two-sided, asymptotic significance for the Pearson Chi-Square test of 0.776. Based on this result it can be suggested that Web-based learning is popular amongst students, regardless of their cultural background.

B. Perceptions of Web-based Learning

The next section of the questionnaire examined the students' perception of the role of Web-based learning. Table IV lists the most important issues. For each question the answers for each of the cultural groups are compared and Pearson's Chi-Square is computed to investigate the relationship between the cultural background and the respective variable. As can be seen from Table IV only one variable shows a relationship at a significant level with the culture of the student. More Asian students are attracted to Web-based learning because it is an innovative idea for facilitating learning. While 80% of the Asian students agreed or strongly agreed to this statement, only 53% of the Anglo-Saxon students indicated likewise.

C. Access and Usage Patterns of the Web-Based Learning Materials

While the perceptions of Web-based learning did not show very different opinions based on the cultural background, the actual usage of the Web-based material shows more significant relationships. Although the time spent when accessing the Web-based material did not vary significantly between the two groups, the percentage distribution indicates that Anglo-Saxons spend less time for each access. The overall number of accesses did show some significance, however this difference can be attributed to a large extent to a few outliers in the Asian group with very few accesses and should therefore not be overestimated. More robust than this variable is the result of the question for the student's perception of his or her own knowledge to use the Web. The Anglo-Saxon student group seems more confident about using Web technology with 90% agreeing or strongly agreeing to the corresponding question, compared to only 75% of the Asian students. This higher confidence rate is reflected even stronger in the question on difficulties with navigation in Web-based learning material. While 85% of the Anglo-Saxon students agreed or strongly agreed that they had only few difficulties, in contrast it is a case for only 55% of the Asians. Finally, the question for the familiarity with search engines for searching information on the Web showed a similar result, but a weaker significance in the relationship to the cultural background. Overall, it becomes clear from the collected data, that Anglo-Saxon students in the sample felt more confident about using Web-based technology for learning.

D. Perception of Web-Based Discussion Groups

Although there was no indication for differing preferences (see Table VI) for choosing electronic over face-to-face communication (eg. in the e-mail contact with the lecturer), the satisfaction with the on-line discussion groups and bulletin boards showed some cultural differences with weak significance. 71% of Anglo-Saxon students agreed or strongly agreed with the idea of using discussion groups as a good way to discuss problems amongst students, compared to only 68% in the Asian group. Interestingly, this satisfaction is not accompanied by an increased usage as Asian students tend to check and post messages more frequently. 46% agreed and 36% strongly agreed to have frequently checked and posted messages in the Asian group, whereas 38% and 33% agreed and strongly agreed respectively in the Anglo-Saxon group. Overall the numbers are not convincing enough to provide a clear picture, but on-line discussion groups are definitely an important issue as far as the impact of the cultural background on the perception of Web-based learning is concerned.


Based on the research findings, it can be summarised that Web-based Learning is popular amongst Asian and Anglo-Saxon students. Both groups of students perceived Web-based Learning as an innovative idea to facilitate learning. It must also be noted from the findings that the Anglo-Saxon group of students seems more confident in using the Web-based materials. Also, the number of on-line access shows a much higher percentage to the Anglo-Saxon group. Asian students recorded fewer access to the Web-based materials. The Anglo-Saxon group also showed that they had fewer difficulties in navigating through the on-line materials as compared to the Asian students. This finding support Hofstede's (1986) views that Anglo-Saxon students are more accustomed to student-centred situations whereas Asian students prefer a teacher-centred approach.

The findings also indicated that both groups of students are satisfied with e-mail communication, on-line discussion and discussions on bulletin boards. It is encouraging to notice that whilst Asian students are generally more reluctant to speak up in a classroom environment (Hofstede, 1986), they found that communicating on-line is less threatening and they are more willing to participate using this medium.

In Australia's tertiary education landscape, where multi-cultural student groups are the norm rather than the exception, on-line learning may provide the answer to some pressing problems. The use of on-line discussion fora to complement, or even substitute, face-to-face interaction is such an example as indicated by the usage figures in this paper. However, while there is an abundance of opportunities in web-based learning, this research also uncovered a number of issues related to on-line content: The Asian students in the sample seemed to have significantly more trouble dealing with the task of Web-based learning than their Anglo-Saxon classmates; and there were some significant differences between the two cultural groups as far as perception and access frequency are concerned. These differences suggest that a more differentiated approach to on-line learning might be necessary, despite claims of increasing "globalisation" of education through the Internet. Such need for differentiation has already been acknowledged for other categories, for example level of sophistication, pre-requisites, and so on. Cultural differences should be considered another differentiator for the personalisation of on-line educational offerings.

The results of this study are of great importance to educational institutions, especially to those who are offering courses to students from different countries. The findings presented in this paper encourage further research into the impact of cultural differences on Web-based education.


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Hypertext References



Kum Leng Chin, Christian Bauer and Vanessa Chang, © 2000. The author assigns to Southern Cross University and other educational and non-profit institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The author also grants a non-exclusive licence to Southern Cross University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and on CD-ROM and in printed form with the conference papers and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web.

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