When Distance Learning Meets with Foreign Academic Cultures
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The specific objectives are as follows: To identify the differences between the academic culture in China and in the UK based on the existing literatures; and to identify various established contemporary Distance Learning delivery approaches; To identify and examine the commonalities and gaps between the perceptions and preferences of the “deliverers” and the “receivers” in Distance Learning with regard to delivery methods and approaches; To analyse the implications of these gaps and to identify solutions for filling the gaps; To provide recommendations for better design and practice of Distance Learning initiatives in a cross-cultural context in international collaborative programmes for the ultimate purpose of improving students’ learning experience and enhancing their learning outcomes; To assist in designing an appropriate and effective delivery approach responsive to the needs of students for this joint Master of Laws initiative. Background/context to project Under the current climate of internationalisation of higher education in the UK, Plymouth University has indicated in its Teaching and Learning Strategy (2009), that it will “encourage international collaboration through… joint academic developments with global partners” and is committed to ‘develop an internationalised approach to learning and teaching’ (p.8). A number of international collaborations have been established over the past few years, e.g., the partnership with the China Agricultural University. Currently, new initiatives are under negotiation, one of which is the establishment of a joint Master of Laws (LLM) Programme in Marine and Maritime Law with Shanghai Maritime University (SMU) in China. This initiative was developed during the Vice-Chancellor’s visit to Shanghai last year; at the time of writing, a detailed agreement for the programme is under discussion. With the increasing development of distance learning over the past twenty years (Hawkridge & Wheeler, 2009; Richardson, 2009), many pedagogic studies have been carried out that compare distance learning to face-to-face learning. Although findings have sometimes differed, (e.g. some suggest that students receiving online tuition have reported poorer experiences than those receiving face-to-face tuition (see e.g., Price et al, 2007; Kitto & Higgins, 2003; Hara & Kling, 2000; Hartley, 2002), whilst others claim that there is no difference between the two (see e.g., Richardson, 2009)), it is notable that these studies are all conducted within the context of a single ‘academic culture’ (Cortazzi & Jin, 1996, p.76) and therefore, no reference or consideration is given to the differences in academic culture between ‘deliverers’ of the courses and ‘receivers’ in cases where they are continents apart. As defined by Cortazzi and Jin (1996), ‘academic culture’ is ‘the systems of beliefs, expectations and cultural practices about how to perform academically’ (p.76). As such, the effects of culture on students’ ability to communicate and participate effectively within academic discourses and communities should be fully recognised and addressed. It is reasonable to envisage that an inquiry about this issue would be especially significant in terms of distance learning because the salient features of different academic cultures may be altered (either magnified or minimised) by the distance as well as by the use of IT if used as part of it. On the other hand, it is also possible to imagine that the distance may well be prolonged or shortened by the differences in culture. There have been some studies pertaining to academic cultures and particularly the Chinese academic culture (e.g., Rastall 2006; Jin & Cortazzi 2006; Volet & Ang 1998; Higgins & Li 2009; Gu & Schweisfurth 2006; Chan 1997; Cheng 2002; Jones 1999; Lee 1996), although none of these studies were carried out in connection with or in the context of distance learning. This project therefore aims to develop a case study to investigate the implications of the existence of differences in academic culture for distance learning and to provide insight into approaches that might enhance the effectiveness of distance learning in a cross-cultural environment. The project findings will be used to inform recommendations to international collaboration programmes, including the Plymouth University Master of Laws initiative for better design of learning and teaching approaches.
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