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How Online Learning Impacts Chinese Undergraduate Students Learning Behaviour While Studying in UK

Abstract

The education sector has experienced significant changes in the past century because of advancements in technology. From this development, online learning has emerged as the biggest catalyst of change. This is particularly true for foreign students studying in various countries around the world. In the UK, the number of international students has been steadily increasing because of this trend. Furthermore, many institutions of higher education are increasingly embracing online learning as a viable and legitimate mode of learning. This paper seeks to understand the impact of online learning on the behaviors of undergraduate Chinese students studying in the UK.

The analysis will be guided by three research questions, which will investigate how online learning influences the psychological adjustment of Chinese students to school programs, examine how virtual learning influences the interest of Chinese students in learning and predict how this type of education impacts the learning ability of Chinese students studying in the UK.

Subject to the above-mentioned issues questions, most of the respondents said e-learning helped them to adjust well to school programs by reducing the social anxiety associated with attending regular classroom discussions. The informants also said that online education helped to improve their learning abilities by offering multiple tools, such as the ability of students to browse learning materials using the Chinese language.

Notably, language emerged as a key concept throughout the discussions because all the respondents mentioned it. The relationship between online education and increased interest in education also emerged in the discussions, especially for students who associated improved learning abilities with virtual education. The interest generated by e-learning stemmed from the rapid and transformational nature of the learning technique.

Introduction

Research Background

Advancements in technology have changed the way human beings live. Notably, the development of the internet and computers has affected how people spend their free time, work, and learn (Larionova et al. 2018). The education sector has not been spared because e-learning has revolutionized how information exchanges occur between different parties in the sector. Notably, the mainstream education system, which has been characterized by face-to-face interactions where a student and professor are in the same physical space, has had to evolve because online learning allows for similar engagements in a virtual setting.

Ellman and Schwartz (2016) define online learning as a form of education where teachers and instructors are not in the same location at the same time. Instead, they are separated by distance and time, or a combination of both. The distance between both parties is often bridged by communications technology. Comparatively, Saleem and Rasheed (2014) define online learning as “the delivery of education, including the activities of instruction, teaching, learning and assessment through various electronic media” (p. 47).

Virtual communication does not necessarily have to be in real-time but it is heavily dependent on the internet and emerging educational technologies for successful learning to occur (Bawa 2016). In other words, it allows educators to provide teaching services at any place and at any time. Relative to this assertion, Saleem and Rasheed (2014) say virtual communications have altered how teachers and students relate in the learning environment. Relative to this assertion, they add that the “Internet breaks the limitations of time and space and also creates many benefits, including reduced cost, regulatory compliance, meeting business needs, retraining of employees, low recurring cost and customer support” (p. 47).

Andrews, Bath, and Smith (2018) say that institutions of higher education have adopted online learning because of its multiple competitive advantages, such as improved efficiencies and lower costs of education. However, from a broader perspective of review, the adoption of e-learning has been attributed to pedagogical and socioeconomic factors of learning development (Larionova et al. 2018). Some of them include increased access to information, improved communication (via the use of technological devices), enhanced levels of collaboration, and synchronous learning (Ellman & Schwartz 2016).

The growth of online learning, as a significant tenet of the global education system, has created the need to understand its impact on student learning behaviors. Particularly, it has allowed instructors to exchange information by breaking the limitations of space and time, which have been associated with traditional forms of learning (Hu 2015). Therefore, virtual education has been adopted in most learning content to overcome the barriers of time and distance (Ellman & Schwartz 2016).

Broadly, the growing appetite for online learning around the world is supported by the quest by developing and industrialized countries to compensate for the deficiencies of the physical learning environment (Marshalsey & Sclater 2018). This is why many developed or wealthy countries are credited as the main source of software for online learning education (Saleem & Rasheed 2014). However, based on the design of such software, the cultural considerations of developing these facilities should be carefully reviewed (Marshalsey & Sclater 2018).

This paper is an assessment of the impact of online learning on the behaviors of Chinese students studying in the United Kingdom (UK). The assessment criteria used for undertaking the review are predicated on an understanding of the depth of learning, the pace of knowledge development, student productivity, and satisfaction levels (Marshalsey & Sclater 2018). The UK is selected for this review because it is the second most popular destination for international students seeking quality education (Studying in UK 2019). Statistics published in 2018 showed that the number of international students studying in the UK was 458,520 (Studying in UK 2019). This figure represented a 3.6% increase in enrolment within the past year, meaning that there has been a steady increase in the number of foreign students studying in the UK. Figure 1 below highlights this rise in the number of international students in the European country.

International Students in the UK.
Figure 1. International Students in the UK (Source: Studying in UK 2019).

Chinese students are selected as the target population for this assessment because they are among the fastest-growing population of students in the United Kingdom. Other groups of international students are from India, Hong Kong, United States (US), and Malaysia (Studying in UK 2019). Furthermore, China is the leading source of international students based in the UK, relative to the other countries highlighted above. Figure 2 below highlights the country’s position in the hierarchy of foreign students studying in the UK.

Top ten countries of origin of international students in the UK.
Figure 2. Top ten countries of origin of international students in the UK (Source: Studying in UK 2019)

As highlighted in figure 1 above, in 2018, it was reported that 106,530 international students studying in the UK were from China (Studying in UK 2019). Therefore, the Asian country accounts for most of the international students studying in the nation. In this regard, the Chinese form a significant student population for analyzing the impact of online learning on their conduct.

Research Problem

Researchers, such as Fenwick and Edwards (2016), who have examined how different cultural groups respond to teaching strategies, highlight the need for a culture-specific understanding of the impact of online learning on the education system. A similar investigation by Lohr and Haley (2018) suggests that students who subscribe to individualism and collectivist cultures respond differently to e-learning strategies compared to students from other demographics. However, this area of research is significantly underexplored, subject to how students from a non-western culture are affected by online teaching strategies while studying in foreign countries. This study seeks to fill this research gap by undertaking a context-specific analysis of the impact of online teaching strategies on Chinese students studying in the UK.

The key issue identified in the investigation is that culture may significantly influence the learning behaviors of the target audiences. Furthermore, assuming a culturally -neutral attitude in the implementation of virtual teaching may not be helpful to students who are supposed to benefit from them in the first place. At the center of this discussion is the need to understand that online learning technologies were not uniquely designed to achieve educational goals (Fenwick & Edwards 2016). Instead, pedagogical considerations that are often applied to the traditional learning environment need to be examined in online learning and the behaviors of students in the typical classroom setting also need to be reflected in the virtual classroom setting.

Research Aim

To find out how online learning influences the behaviors of Chinese undergraduate students while studying in the UK

Research Objectives

  1. To investigate how online learning influences the psychological adjustment of Chinese students to class and school programs
  2. To examine how online learning influences the interests of Chinese students in learning
  3. To predict how online learning impacts the learning ability of Chinese students studying in the UK

Research Questions

  1. How does online learning influence the psychological adjustment of Chinese students to class and school programs?
  2. How does online learning influence the interest of Chinese students in learning?
  3. How does online learning impact the learning ability of Chinese students studying in the UK?

Implications of Study

This study is pertinent to the growth and development of online learning by providing an assessment criterion for understanding its impact on student behavior. This new form of system evaluation will be instrumental in supporting the next phase of evolutionary development in virtual learning. Understanding the impact of online teaching strategies on Chinese students studying in the UK also helps to understand how culture-specific influences affect the behaviors of students studying in the UK (Brown & Lally 2018).

As mentioned in this chapter, this review will be instrumental in providing a non-western perspective of the effects of teaching strategies on Chinese undergraduate students studying in the UK. The findings could pave the way for undertaking more reviews of the impact of online learning strategies on other international student groups in the UK, such as Indians and Americans. Therefore, this context-specific review provides a framework for undertaking future analyses.

The findings of this study will also be instrumental in redesigning the online learning environment to improve the productivity of Chinese students in their learning environments. This impact could be integrated into the learning resources provided on online platforms, such as the availability of multiple linguistic settings, to aid non-English speaking students to understand current educational concepts. Researchers, such as Rodriguez (2014) and Boisselle (2014), who have argued that online learning environments are influenced by the culture of the students who use them, support this finding.

Software developers who provide virtual education programs could also use the findings of this study to tailor their products better to appeal to an international student demographic. More importantly, the findings of this study may enable them to develop technological products that appeal to the unique cultural and linguistic needs of Chinese students. Other education practitioners, such as professors and lecturers, could later augment such insights with other online learning practices to promote cultural adaptation in education. Lastly, the findings of this study will be instrumental in identifying unique areas of the online environment that require adjustments to address the cultural needs of a Chinese student population.

Literature Review

Introduction

This chapter is a review of what other researchers have written about the study topic. Key issues that will be covered in this section of the report include the theoretical foundations of the review, the role of culture in influencing student behavior in the classroom setting, and the main social characteristics of Chinese students, which may affect their behaviors in the online learning environment. However, before delving into these areas of analysis, it is important to understand the general impacts of online learning on education.

Impact of Online Learning on Education

A growing number of studies have investigated the impact of online learning on students by analyzing their differences with face-to-face learning (Ellman & Schwartz 2016). The same studies have concentrated on highlighting the in-principle advantages and disadvantages of online learning and the strategies for creating a perfect learning environment for international students (Ellman & Schwartz 2016). Studies have also shown that online learning tools are enablers of education development because they allow students who have been unable to get an education, because of geographical or logistical reasons, to do so (Ellman & Schwartz 2016; Marshalsey & Sclater 2018).

A research study conducted by Kemper and Patel (2015) suggests that online learning significantly alters the relationship between teachers and students because of its ability to transcend distance and time. Its effects on student behaviors need to be reviewed because of the growing importance of e-learning in higher education. For example, a report by Falls et al. (2014) suggests that up to 32% of students in higher education are taking a course online.

Virtual learning has had a significant impact on education by improving efficiencies, workflows processes, and enhancing collaboration among stakeholders (Ellman & Schwartz 2016). The ability to merge gaps in space and time through e-learning also professes its power because it empowers instructors to roll out education programs around the world (Falls et al., 2014). Relative to this assertion, Falls et al. (2014) say, in many countries, e-learning has affected the provision of education services from primary to higher education levels. In this regard, it has revolutionized the provision of learning services.

Another way that e-learning has affected education is through the infusion of flexibility in the design and implementation of education curricula (Ellman & Schwartz 2016). In other words, students have an opportunity to access learning materials conveniently. Therefore, online learning acts as a developmental tool where teachers can see the expectations and requirements of learning and how to fulfill them by reformulating their curriculum development goals (Veletsianos, Reich & Pasquini 2016).

Broadly, student learning behaviors could be influenced by the evolving nature of communication in the e-learning environment. The adaptability to new technology means that students have to reacquaint themselves with new ways of engagement. Student behavior could also be influenced by their interactions with instructors (in the virtual classroom setting) because e-learning has helped stakeholders to adapt their teaching styles to new technology (Veletsianos, Reich & Pasquini 2016). Therefore, the impact of online learning on student behavior stems from its influence on students’ actions and access to information (Reeves & Gomm 2015). Broadly, its effects have been linked with personality types and the learning strategies adopted by an educational institution when using the tool (Marshalsey & Sclater 2018).

Impact of Culture on e-Learning

Studies authored by Luna-Nevarez and McGovern (2018) have shown that students understand e-learning from their cultural perspectives. Therefore, it is difficult to ignore the implications of social values and norms on the learning process (Luna-Nevarez & McGovern 2018). Particularly, the alignment of a developers’ culture and those of the users could shape the most effective online learning environments (Luna-Nevarez & McGovern 2018). Nonetheless, some authors caution that the multiplicity of human cultures across different nationalities of students makes it difficult for social norms to overlap easily (Marshalsey & Sclater 2018; Veletsianos, Reich & Pasquini 2016). This concern stems from the fact that, in an increasingly globalized world, the potential for cultural clashes is often real.

It is also important to understand the impact of culture on e-learning because students from different nationalities often subscribe to unique sets of norms and beliefs stemming from their backgrounds (Luna-Nevarez & McGovern 2018). These values may influence their learning experiences in online learning. Scholars who have investigated this research phenomenon have used Hofstede’s cultural dimensions to understand the impact of culture on e-learning experiences (Özoğlu, Gür & Coşkun 2015; Mikhaylov 2014).

Some researchers have also explored the same concept as a meaningful consideration in learning and development. For example, Solak and Cakir (2015) say that many sociocultural factors influence cognitive development. These elements of analysis are often rooted in language and communication between students and their instructors or learning institutions (Falls et al. 2014). However, in the context of the online learning environment, culture is the most important tool studied by researchers. However, from a broader perspective, these cultural tools could include computers and symbols, or numbers and graphics. Their main function is to enable people to communicate and solve problems easily. By doing so, they create knowledge that is passed down to younger generations.

Theoretical Analysis

Social Constructivist Theory

The social constructivist theory has been used in the education sector to investigate the impact of online learning on student behavior (Shochet et al. 2019). It presupposes that learning occurs in a collaborative environment where culture and social factors influence interactions between students and their teachers (UCD Dublin 2019). The same theory supports the view that learning is a product of social interactions (Shochet et al. 2019). In this regard, teaching is not presented as an acquisition of knowledge but rather the integration of students into a knowledge community (Shochet et al. 2019). This theory stems from the weaknesses of previous education scholars, such as Piaget, who failed to account for the social nature of knowledge in language development (UCD Dublin 2019).

A broader assessment of the constructivist theory is its portrayal of the learning environment as a replication of different forms of reality (UCD Dublin 2019). Broadly, the above-mentioned features of the social constructivist theory augment well with research findings that have emphasized the role of culture in influencing the learning environment. They also highlight the need to design the learning environment in a manner that supports the completion of authentic tasks, as opposed to following abstract instructions out of context.

Social Presence Theory

As highlighted above, most of the discourse in online learning and its impact on education support a social constructivist approach. The main goal of students to take part in such a system is to engage in meaningful scientific inquiry with their instructors (UCD Dublin 2019). However, a review of the literature suggests that when they interact with their colleagues or instructors in the online learning environment, they do so as agents of the co-construction of knowledge (Houtman, Makos, & Meacock 2014). Consequently, they are also likely to have a meaningful experience and a higher probability of retaining knowledge (UCD Dublin 2019). In this regard, students act as learners but also co-conspirators in the creation of knowledge.

The social presence theory focuses on the interpersonal experiences of learners in the virtual environment. These experiences could influence student behavior because their perceptions of collaboration in the online learning environment shape their behaviors in the same setting (Houtman, Makos, & Meacock 2014). Broadly, the social presence theory is a complex concept characterized by three key areas: the medium of interaction for learners, student perceptions regarding the learning environment, and the relationship between students and the online learning community (Houtman, Makos, & Meacock 2014).

Scholars who have investigated the nature of relationships between humans and computers have mostly addressed this area of research (Larionova et al. 2018). Their works have also been related to understanding the social presence of students in the virtual learning environment to the extent that it influences their attitudes, persuasive power, perceptions of reality, learning memory, and mental health (Larionova et al. 2018). The most recent attempts to understand the key tenets of social presence and its influence on the online learning community have shown that the concept is dynamic (Houtman, Makos, & Meacock 2014).

Broadly, the social presence theory moves from the individual and cognitive-based orientations of learning to group-based reviews of educational outcomes (Lohr & Haley 2018). This discussion diverts attention from improving the capacity of the communication medium to the impact it would have on the community.

Stated differently, the analytical focus is redirected from the competencies associated with different communication methods to the experiences of a student and his or her engagement with the community and context of learning (Lohr & Haley 2018). In this regard, the analytical emphasis is on the social presence of a student in the online learning community as opposed to their user experiences. This change could provide valuable information for understanding their behaviors in the online learning environment.

Neo-Nationalism

A review of the literature suggests that globalization has significantly influenced people’s feelings and sentiments regarding nationalism (Smith & Segbers 2018). This outcome stems from the perceived loss of national identities, which have been deliberately undermined to pave the way for the development of a “global culture.” Most scholars suggest that the renewal of neo-nationalist sentiments in some industrialized nations, such as the UK, significantly affect the experiences of foreign students studying in western countries (Bath & Smith 2018; Smith & Segbers 2018).

This trend has also been witnessed in national politics in the United States (US) and the UK through the election of President Donald Trump and “Brexit,” respectively. The consensus among researchers is that these nationalistic sentiments could make foreign students feel insecure and targeted (Bath & Smith 2018; Smith & Segbers 2018). However, an opposing force in academic literature, which encourages people to learn how to collaborate with their peers, has countered this trend by highlighting the need to work with all stakeholders (Ellman & Schwartz 2016).

The increased adoption of online learning in the higher education sector shows that it has been a leader in embracing globalization and increasing people’s level of engagement around the world. This is true because e-learning has helped to enhance the rate of academic information exchanges (Bath & Smith 2018; Smith & Segbers 2018). Studies also show that the globalization trend has embodied most of these developments because, instead of looking at the movement as a threat to nationalist sentiments, students are increasingly becoming aware of existing prejudices and their effects on the learning environment (Ifediora 2019).

Studies that have investigated student experiences in this context have been domiciled in South Africa, China, and South-East Asia (Smith & Segbers 2018). They suggest that differences in cultural dynamics across multiple countries have complicated the assessment of student experiences (Smith & Segbers 2018). Their ability to adapt to cultural changes and language are other indices that have been used to assess their behaviors in the learning environment.

In light of this discussion, many authors have suggested that the presence of social networks has helped students to gain a better experience in the virtual learning environment (Bath & Smith 2018; Smith & Segbers 2018). However, it is difficult to ignore the impact of unique cultural aspects of learning from students’ experiences, which differentiates them from others. The section below highlights the unique characteristics of Chinese culture, which may influence their experiences in the online learning environment.

Unique Characteristics of Chinese Students

As highlighted in this paper, the cultural differences between western and non-western students in institutions of higher learning often affect their learning outcomes. Particularly, differences between Chinese students and their western counterparts influence how both sets of students relate with one another and, more importantly, how they compare with their peers, in terms of educational outcomes. A study authored by Haarms et al. (2019) shows that Chinese students are passive learners, unlike their western counterparts who are actively involved in the education process. The researchers also believe that these characteristics negatively influence their learning outcomes (Haarms et al. 2019).

In a different study, it was reported that Chinese students differ from their western counterparts because their learning processes are often defined by the need to avoid shame and humiliation (Perez-Encinas & Rodriguez-Pomeda 2018). These characteristics stem from the infusion of Confucian principles in the Chinese education system (Perez-Encinas & Rodriguez-Pomeda 2018). Its principles have significantly affected how students respect authority and treat their seniors. Comparatively, western education systems have been influenced by scholastic principles of learning which encourage students to remain inquisitive and satisfy their curiosity by asking questions (Haarms et al. 2019).

Perez-Encinas and Rodriguez-Pomeda (2018) also report that changes in the education system have prompted many Chinese students to seek education services outside of their home countries. Their unique characteristics can be linked with the collectivism and power distance tenets of the Hofstede model of cultural analysis (Haarms et al. 2019). In this regard, the Chinese education system imparts a high power distance between students and teachers, while the western education system instills a low power distance between both parties, whereby students can always question their teachers or interact with them freely.

The collectivism and power distance tenets of the Hofstede model are critical to this analysis because they influence student behavior (Albert 2015). They also add to the creation of ideological values, which are key features of Chinese society and its education system (Albert 2015). The unwillingness of Chinese students to engage with authority is loosely referred to as the face-face culture where students are taught to avoid humiliation by staying quiet and refraining from questioning authority (Haarms et al. 2019). This culture is linked with the unwillingness of students to ask questions because Chinese students may deem it a weakness of due diligence on their part (Hyams-Ssekasi, Mushibwe & Caldwell 2014).

Overall, the Chinese culture may lead to problems in adjusting to e-learning when students leave their home countries for western nations to seek higher education (Albert 2015). The latter society is commonly defined by the need for students to ask questions and engage in discussions with teachers and peers (Haarms et al. 2019). Stated differently, discussions with students are often welcomed and encouraged in western countries because of the link between classroom engagement and high levels of academic achievement. Some studies have also shown that classroom discussions are associated with multifarious cognitive development attributes, including critical thinking (Perez-Encinas & Rodriguez-Pomeda 2018). However, the power of culture continues to shape student behavior in the long run.

Summary

In this paper, the focus on Chinese students has been justified by studies, which have shown varied differences in the manner students from different nationalities experience e-learning. It should be noted that most of the literature sampled in this review is primarily developed from the subjects of learning. However, it cannot be emphasized enough that individual considerations about learning should be taken into account when developing instructional strategies associated with online learning programs. Indeed, as outlined by Stutz and Sachs (2018), when educators understand the effects of individual learning styles in online education, they will be able to better shape the context of learning plans.

The findings of this chapter justify why it is essential to investigate the impact of online learning on Chinese students because they have unique sets of beliefs, values, and norms (compared to the majority student population), which may influence their behaviors in the online learning environment. The gap in the literature that has emerged from this review is the lack of empirical investigations that have linked online learning and the experience of Chinese students in the virtual education setting. Instead, existing studies have only shown characteristics of the Chinese culture that may affect the experiences of their citizens while studying abroad. This study will fill this research gap by finding out how online learning influences Chinese undergraduate students’ learning behavior while studying in the UK.

Methodology

Introduction

This chapter outlines the strategies employed by the researcher in meeting the objectives of the study. It will not only highlight the methodologies adopted but also justify why they were selected. Similarly, its key tenets will explain the research methods, design, data collection strategies, analytical techniques, and ethical implications for carrying out the investigations. The details provided in the assessment will be adequate to replicate the study if there was a need to. A review of the selected research method appears below.

Research Method

According to Dixon and Quirke (2018), there are two main research techniques adopted in academic studies: qualitative and quantitative. The qualitative method is often used to measure research variables of a subjective nature (Ciolan & Manasia 2017). It is also difficult to quantify such data using a measurable index. Therefore, the qualitative research method provides a framework for assessing such data. Comparatively, the quantitative research strategy is often applied to investigations that have measurable variables (Paskins et al. 2017).

For example, data could be measured using numbers and statistical assessment tools, such as data analysis software. However, the research variables have to be measurable as well. This characteristic of the quantitative research method made it difficult for the researcher to use in this study because its variables were subjective. Therefore, the justification for using the qualitative research method is defined by the difficulty in quantifying student learning behavior. Consequently, the qualitative technique was the main research method applied in the study.

Research Design

According to Bradshaw, Atkinson, and Doody (2017) and Ammann (2018), there are six main types of research designs associated with the qualitative research method: grounded theory, ethnographic reviews, case studies, narrative research, phenomenology investigations, and historical studies. The researcher selectively reviewed these designs because they applied to the qualitative investigation. Emphasis was made to use the design, which will best suit the review of the research variables. Consequently, the unique characteristics of each design are briefly explained below, and a justification for their use or rejection is provided.

Grounded Theory

As its name suggests, the grounded theory is often used as a systematic way of assessing data because of its assumed root in theory. In other words, the researcher uses the design to come up with a theory to explain a unique phenomenon (Rosenbaum, More & Steane 2016). Developed by Glaser and Strauss, the grounded theory traces its roots to the sociology discipline and focuses on incidents, or phenomena, as opposed to individual behaviors, when examining research variables (Chun Tie, Birks & Francis 2019). Based on its inapplicability to reviewing individual (student) behaviors, the grounded theory was not appropriate for this study because the focus of the investigation is on the behaviors of Chinese students, relative to their online learning experiences.

Ethnographic

The ethnographic study design is often used to interpret the cultural dynamics of a specific group of people (Rashid, Caine & Goez 2015). Tracing its roots to the field of anthropology, this design was used to study differences in cultures between different groups of people (Jarzabkowski, Bednarek & Lê 2014). According to Jain and Orr (2016), gathering data through observation is the primary mode of collecting information.

In this regard, this technique was inapplicable to the study because, as will be discussed in subsequent sections of this chapter, the preferred mode of data collection will be interviewed. Furthermore, this study is not focused on a review of culture, as proposed by the ethnographic design, but on student behavior. Stated differently, culture is only a small tenet of student behavior that is being investigated in this report. Therefore, it does not define the focus of the study. These reasons explain why the ethnographic technique could not be effectively used to address the research phenomenon.

Case Studies

Case studies trace their roots to the early 1800s through the works of notable scholars in the scientific field, such as Frederic Le Play, and more recently John Creswell (Dewasiri, Weerakoon & Azeez 2018; Walker & Baxter 2019; Rule & John 2015). The case study approach is rooted in several disciplines, including law, science, and education but it has commonly been used in qualitative investigations to create narratives about different social issues (Ebneyamini & Sadeghi 2018).

Broadly, the research design suggests that human behavior can be observed when researchers examine their habits in the natural setting without interference from another party (Ebneyamini & Sadeghi 2018). Researchers have commonly used it to understand a specific issue of importance in scientific investigations (Zimmerman & Smit 2016). This technique may involve multiple methods of data collection, including interviews observation, and the analysis of historical data (Rashid et al. 2019).

Narrative Research

The narrative research design relies on people’s written or verbal assertions to make deductions about a research phenomenon (Mueller 2019). It is commonly associated with storytelling and is linked with sociology investigations (Johnston 2019; Abildgaard 2018). In other words, researchers often use it to explore the lived experiences of a person or a group of people based on their narrations of the same (Burles & Bally 2018). This design was inapplicable to this investigation because the researcher did not rely on past events but rather on an interpretation of student behaviors based on their online learning experience,

Historical Investigations

The historical research design relies on past events to make inferences about the future (Zhukov, Kanishchev & Lyamin 2016). In this context of analysis, researchers rely on past data to develop their findings based on their interpretation of it (Kawabata & Gastaldo 2015). The main goal of using the historical research design is to prevent the occurrence of adverse events based on historical data (Stutz & Sachs 2018). Therefore, it does not apply to this study because the research investigation was about a current phenomenon based on the lack of sufficient information to link the impact of online learning on the behaviors of Chinese students in the UK.

Phenomenology Investigations

As its name suggests, the phenomenology research design is used to investigate issues based on the occurrence of a given phenomenon (van Manen 2017). In this context of analysis, researchers strive to investigate people’s subjective experiences about a given phenomenon to make recommendations or conclusions about it (Klinke & Jónsdóttir 2014).

Husserl Edmund and Heideggar Martin were the main proponents of this technique and they proposed that it could be used to describe in-depth and common characteristics of the phenomenon under investigation (Strandmark 2015; Bovin 2019). The phenomenology research design emerged as the best approach to use for the study because virtual learning is a phenomenon that has impacted the UK education sector. A review of student behaviors refers to their subjective experiences when using online learning techniques.

Data Collection

The main data collection method adopted in this study was interviewed. It is one of the most common methods of data collection in qualitative research (Berner-Rodoreda et al. 2018; Dennis 2014). The interviews were semi-structured in the sense that the researcher had a set of indicative questions that would be used to start the conversation (see the interview protocol attached in Appendix 1). The development of the interview protocol was guided by the research objectives which were aimed at investigating how online learning influenced the psychological adjustment of Chinese students to class and school programs, examining how virtual learning influenced the interests of Chinese students in learning, and predicting how online learning impacts the learning ability of Chinese students studying in the UK.

The researcher selected the interview method as the main data collection technique because it aided in describing the meanings and central themes of the respondents’ student life. Therefore, this technique helped to cover the research topic at the meaning and factual levels. This outcome was pegged on interpreting the views and experiences of students using online learning tools. The interviews were also important in making follow-ups to some of the issues raised by the participants, unlike the survey technique, which does not have such a provision. Therefore, it was possible to get detailed data that would help the researcher make sense of their views on online learning.

The interviewing technique was also selected for this study because the researcher was seeking the views of a minority student population (Chinese students) in the university. According to Studying in the UK (2019), the population of a Chinese student is only between 12% and 14% of the total student population. The interview technique is appropriate for sampling the views of such small student populations.

The interviews were designed to fit the context of the research questions because the researcher intended to gather information about the general areas of impact assessment associated with online learning. According to Chongo et al. (2018), this interviewing technique provides more focus on the research questions as opposed to the unstructured and informal interview technique that may evade the research issues. However, the guided interview method still possesses the same flexibility and adaptability associated with informal and unstructured interviewing techniques.

Lastly, the interview method was selected for use because the researcher had access to the respondents who studied in the same institution. Therefore, it was possible to book appointments and schedule investigations within this environment without compromising their safety. Furthermore, the familiarity of the respondents with the researcher and the study setting enabled them to be comfortable enough to give honest responses.

Research Participants

As highlighted above, the participants who took part in the investigation were colleagues of the researcher because they all attended the same institution of higher learning. In sum, the researcher interviewed 12 respondents through face-to-face interactions that were conducted at the school cafeteria. This location was selected as the venue for the interviews because it was open and familiar to most students. The interview schedule was designed to fit the interviewee’s schedule.

Twelve participants were recruited for the interviews based on the recommendations of Ciolan and Manasia (2017), which suggest that saturation in qualitative interviews is often, realized when the same number of interviewees are selected. Paskins et al. (2017) also support this view by recommending that qualitative interviews should have less than 20 participants to allow the researcher to develop close relationships with them. A higher number would make it difficult for the respondents to be frank with the researcher because of a possible lack of a close relationship.

Sampling Procedure

According to Paskins et al. (2017), it is important to understand the sampling procedures to use in qualitative interviews to safeguard the quality of data obtained from the process. The random sampling method was adopted in the investigation to eliminate researcher bias. Ciolan and Manasia (2017) define the random sampling technique as a method for selecting a sample population of participants from a larger body of interviewees. In this method, each participant has an equal probability of being selected for the study. Therefore, there was no room for the researcher to choose preferred participants even though they all schooled in the same institution.

In this regard, Ciolan and Manasia (2017) assert that the sampling technique offers a fair way of selecting participants. Therefore, each informant who took part in the study was selected independently from other members of the student population. The simple random sampling method is advantageous to the researcher because it provided a generally representative sample of the student population. Consequently, it was possible to make generalizations about the impact of online learning on student behaviors based on the views of a cross-section of the population.

Data Analysis

As mentioned above, data was gathered through the interview method. The researcher analyzed the information using thematic and coding methods. This technique is commonly associated with the analysis of qualitative data. The technique helps researchers to pinpoint, examine and record patterns of meaning from a larger body of information provided by the research respondents. The themes were comprised of pieces of information that shared a common meaning. In other words, they were underpinned by a central concept, which was instrumental to the researcher in answering the research questions.

However, Ebneyamini and Sadeghi (2018) suggest there is no universal definition of these meanings or a requirement that themes need to be organized around a central concept. Nonetheless, the themes identified in the research were later assigned unique codes that helped the researcher to organize data and inform unique tenets of information that helped to answer the research questions. The codes were centered on the objectives of the study so that the researcher easily pairs the information obtained with the research questions. The whole process took six steps, as outlined in table 1 below.

Table 1. Thematic and Coding Method.

Step Activity
1 Researcher familiarising with the data
2 Generating initial, codes
3 Searching for themes
4 Reviewing themes
5 Defining and naming themes
6 Producing the report

Stutz and Sachs (2018) say that the thematic and coding method is appropriate for qualitative research studies because it accords the researcher the flexibility needed to analyze different types of information. However, they caution that its reliability is often a concern because people may have different interpretations of the data obtained or the themes generated (Stutz & Sachs 2018). However, this risk is associated with many qualitative research data because of their subjective. Therefore, it is not unique to this study. However, to minimize its effects on this investigation, the researcher made a deliberate effort to monitor the themes and codes throughout the data analysis process.

Ethical Considerations

Walker and Baxter (2019) say that, unlike other research methods, the qualitative technique has many ethical implications because of the use of human subjects. The Centre for Innovation in Research and Teaching also holds the same views by saying that the ethical considerations of qualitative research are critical in the analysis of data (Rule & John 2015). Based on these assertions, the ethical considerations linked with this study are identified below.

Informed Consent

The researcher provided the respondents with adequate information about the study before they committed to participating in it. The objective was to make sure that the respondents had adequate information to make an informed choice regarding whether to participate in it or not. In this regard, they consented to take part in the study voluntarily.

Privacy and Confidentiality

All the participants who were interviewed were guaranteed their privacy because the researcher presented their views anonymously. This approach was undertaken to allow the interviews to express their views freely and without the fear of reprisal. In addition, the researcher informed the participants that the focus of undertaking the study was only to understand their views on the research topic and not to reveal their identities.

Data management

Data obtained from the researchers were stored safely in a computer and the information was secured using a password that was only privy to the researcher. At the end of the investigation, all data will be destroyed. Lastly, the researcher conformed to the ethical guidelines outlined by the university.

Reliability and Validity of Data

The reliability and validity of the information obtained from the respondents were guaranteed using the member check technique. This technique is often associated with qualitative research investigations and is often used to improve the accuracy, validity, and credibility of information. The technique works by requiring a researcher to contact the respondents after the data analysis process and sharing the findings of the study with them. The goal is to ascertain whether the information presented in the final work reflects their true views. In case of inconsistencies, the researcher should adjust the findings to align with the respondents’ views. By using this technique, the findings of the investigation had credibility.

Findings

Introduction

To recap, in this study, the researcher sought to understand the impact of online learning on the behaviors of undergraduate Chinese students studying in the UK. The analysis was guided by three research questions, which investigated how online learning influenced the psychological adjustment of Chinese students to school programs, examined how virtual learning influenced the interests of students in learning, and predicted how this type of education impacted their learning ability. This chapter outlines the findings developed from the implementation of the research processes highlighted in chapter 3 above.

Preliminary Findings

As outlined in the methodology section, the research investigation included the collection of data from 12 respondents interviewed by the researcher in a higher institution of education. Table 1 below shows their demographic information, including their year in university, course studied, place of origin, and learning background.

Table 1. Demographic Details (Source: Developed by Author).

Respondent Place of Origin Year in university Learning Background Course Studied
1 China(Beijing) 2 Business and Commerce International Business
2 China(Beijing) 2 International Relations Public Relations
3 China(Beijing) 2 Medicine Clinical Medicine
4 China (Shanghai) 3 Information, Communications Technology Computer Science
5 China (Lu’an) 1 Engineering Civil engineering
6 China (Suzhou) 1 Engineering Civil engineering
7 China (Funding) 1 Linguistics Sociology
8 China (Tianchang) 4 Social sciences Anthropology
9 China (Ning’guo) 4 Business and Commerce International Business
10 China (Shanghai) 2 Business and Commerce International Business
11 China(Beijing) 1 Business and Commerce International Business
12 China (Beijing) 1 Business and Commerce International Business

How Students use Online Learning

The second part of the investigation saw the researcher ask the students about their understanding of online learning and its use in their educational development. All of the respondents mentioned using online learning as a research resource. Particularly, they admitted to using this platform to conduct preliminary research and to fill in the gaps in education that may emerge from attending regular class sessions.

One student was notably frank when he said that he always searched for materials online whenever he did not understand a specific issue or concept that emerged in classroom discussions. Another respondent said he used online learning to crosscheck the information provided by the instructor. He added that he was able to detect significant areas of inconsistency between what the professor taught in class and what he discovered online. In this regard, he said that the wealth of information available online could confuse students because of the inconsistency of some pieces of information available online. Nonetheless, he agreed that this mode of learning was instrumental in gaining a deeper insight into what was taught in class.

Five of the respondents said they used online learning as opposed to the conventional mode of education because it allowed them to learn at their own pace. To support this view, they argued that they often had difficulties keeping up with the pace of learning in the classroom setting. In addition, they claimed that this type of education was accommodative of different learning abilities because students learn independently, thereby avoiding the pressures associated with the regular classroom setting where it is implied that students learn at the same pace.

This group of respondents also alluded to using online learning to prepare for their course work because it allowed them to have a broad overview of what to expect in their curricula. In this regard, they were able to conduct preliminary studies and attend class sessions after being conversant with the learning materials. One of the respondents said she easily follows the works of other students who have come before her through online information exchanges.

This way, she developed a reliable database for comparing performance and being aware of what her instructors expected from her. In line with this view, she admitted to having shared certain lessons with other students on the online learning platform, thereby making room for discussing the same content offline. In this regard, online learning acted as a medium for sharing data and provoking group thought because students were able to talk about the same issues offline that they have seen or shared on the platform.

Another respondent also said that this type of learning gives her access to advanced learning materials, which would otherwise take a long time to discuss in class. In other words, she could spend her private time to get in-depth information about her learning modules. These views showed that the informants used online learning in varied ways. Although these views explained how the students used online learning, there was a need to investigate why they preferred this mode of learning to the conventional style of learning.

Why Students Use Online Learning

Part of the interview sought to find out the informants’ reasons for using online learning. Three of the respondents said they use this mode of education for convenience because it allows them to submit their assignments easily and on time. They also stated that virtual learning also allowed them to take their classes from wherever they were. Notably, one respondent said it helped him to carry out face-to-face interactions with his instructor from different locations because it was difficult to access her during regular classroom sessions.

In this regard, he considered virtual learning as a way to gain access to learning instructors and seek guidance regarding different types of educational programs. The informants also said they saved a lot of time that would have otherwise been used to commute to access education services using online learning. This advantage made them more productive as they could easily use this time to carry out other activities.

Four of the respondents said virtual education helped them better choose the materials they wanted to learn while avoiding those that would be problematic to their understanding of key concepts. In addition, seven of the respondents said they used online learning to undertake to make up work because of their inability to physically attend all classroom sessions. Therefore, this type of learning helped them to catch up with other students, relative to what they studied when they were away.

Three of the students also said they have missed classroom sessions for health-related reasons but online learning helped them to catch up with their colleagues who simply sent them a link, which allowed them to follow what was taught in class. Consequently, online learning gave them the liberty not to be physically present in the classroom environment and still not lag behind other students. Indeed, so long as they had an internet connection, it was possible to access any learning material from any location.

The same respondents said that online learning helped them to stay abreast with current industry knowledge regarding their learning courses because they admitted that the learning materials offered in class may be outdated. Therefore, there was a need to be updated with changing industry knowledge to remain relevant and stay abreast with current research in their respective fields. This advantage was mentioned to another respondent who agreed with the same narrative by saying that teachers also benefit from online learning because students can “stay on track” with virtual lessons, even in their absence. Therefore, this mode of learning was not unique to improving students’ learning outcomes.

Differences of Online Learning Experiences between the UK and China

Based on the cultural and contextual differences between China and the UK, it was important to find out the respondents’ views regarding their educational experiences in both countries. Out of the twelve respondents sampled, eight of them argued that their online learning experience in the UK was more intense and interactive compared to China. To support this assertion, one of the respondents said…

My online learning experience in the UK took me by surprise because our professor involved students much more than the approach taken in China. I have also noticed that in the UK, students are encouraged to use more interactive tools in their learning compared to China. The latter case is more systemic than experimental because students and teachers are encouraged to stick to what is known and replicate what they have been taught. I would argue that the UK case is quite different because there is more tolerance for diversity in thought and learning methods.

The respondents also alluded to differences in the initiative that exists in online learning experiences between China and the UK because they said that online learning in the UK encourages students to take more initiative in learning compared to China. They also observed that the UK education system manifests a purpose for knowledge where students are not only encouraged to pass tests but also comprehend the concepts that are taught in class.

Another difference observed between the UK and Chinese online education systems is the support offered by staff. All the respondents noted that online learning in the UK offered students more career support compared to the Chinese system. For example, three informants suggested that online learning in the UK offered networking support for students studying in various disciplines. Another one observed that they received one-on-one curriculum vitae (CV) support via the same platform, while two other respondents indicated that their online platforms had provisions for undertaking mock interviews for practice to prepare them for the real-world job setting.

In this regard, they believed that online learning in the UK was superior to the Chinese. This view was informed by the perception that the UK education system created a better blend between academia and practice even through online assessments. For example, the informants said that that they interacted with professionals from reputable financial agencies, such as Goldman Sachs and the London Stock exchange, who shared their professional experiences with them in the academic setting. In this regard, the students had a better insight into the relationship between academia and the real-world setting.

How Online Learning Works in the UK

To investigate how online learning works in the UK, three major codes were generated from the data analysis process: psychological adjustment to school programs, interest in learning, and learning ability. Table 2 below outlines the coding output for each theme.

Table 2. Coding Output (Source: Developed by Author).

Theme Code
Psychological adjustment to school programs 1
Interest in learning 2
Learning ability 3

The results of each theme are further investigated in the subsections below.

Code 1: Psychological Adjustment to School Programs

Marshalsey and Sclater (2018) say that student populations that do not fit the characteristics of the majority population could experience psychological distress when adjusting to school programs. Chinese students are a minority student population in the UK. Therefore, they faced the same challenge because they hail from a different culture to the majority student population and speak a different language as well.

When asked to explain how online learning influenced their psychological adjustment to school programs, one of the respondents claimed that the learning technique helped them to better adjust to the school’s programs by reducing the social stigma associated with being in a study setting where they have to cope with cultural differences in education. In this regard, it helped them to adjust to the learning environment. Relative to this assertion, one of the respondents said,

The best part is that we can use online learning tools developed with the Chinese language in mind. I mean, it may sound weird, but it makes me less home-sick…that is learning electronically using our language and still be in a study setting that is different from what we are used to at home. So… yes, I would say it helps a bit to adjust to the school programs. I am sure it is the same for other students who do not speak English as their native language.

Another respondent said the convenience and flexibility associated with online learning make her adjust better to the learning environment by eliminating the pressures associated with the physical learning environment. She believed that a more convenient and flexible learning setting gave her more room to acclimate with new learning strategies employed in the UK. Moreover, the informant pointed to the fact that when she first came to the country, she was nervous about learning in an unfamiliar environment but online learning helped her to be knowledgeable about what to expect in her new environment.

The school’s online learning programs also helped her to gain a better understanding of the education requirements. This advantage could not be replicated in the real-world setting where she would have to approach an instructor, or a colleague and have discussions that would allow her to better understand the goals of her learning programs.

In a different context of the discussion, another respondent said that online learning did not have any effect on his adjustment to school programs because he did not see any difference between this type of learning and the mainstream education system. However, he admitted to having a flexible personality that allowed him to integrate into different study settings and claimed that he could acclimate easily to new surroundings and different learning modes. Relative to this observation, he also said,

I understand that some students may have some difficulty adjusting to school programs using online learning but I think it is a psychological issue and not necessarily an environmental one that could be influenced by the mode of learning. That may sound insensitive to some people, but students should not complain too much about the learning modes offered and instead concentrate on how well they prepare for their educational programs.

Another student had a contrary view to the above-stated assertion when she claimed that online learning had a positive impact on her psychological adjustment to school programs because it offered information piecemeal. Consuming data in small quantities is unlike traditional forms of communication where students were offered massive volumes of data that often overwhelmed them or inhibited their ability to follow up on all learning exercises. This is because they have to document the information while learning at the same time. Online learning eliminates this requirement because it provides information in small volumes, thereby allowing students to follow the teachings much more effectively. To support this view, the respondent said,

I think students tend to adjust better to learning programs when information is offered in small quantities. It is just the way our brains are wired. When we receive too much information, our understanding and adjustment to them may diminish, as it may take a long time to comprehend how the data applies to our real world. Therefore, online learning helps to bridge these learning gaps because most learning materials are often offered in short videos, visuals, or exercises that require instant feedback.

The above assertion showed that online learning helped most of the respondents to adjust to their school programs. Only one of them had a contrary opinion but he attributed this anomaly to his personality and general view of education. The subsection below describes the respondents’ views regarding the impact of online education on their interest in learning.

Interest in Learning

Fenwick and Edwards (2016) say that effective educational progress can only be achieved when students are interested in learning. This concept refers to a student’s motivation to engage in learning programs, or be actively involved in several group activities that aim to achieve the same goal. Relative to these views, the researcher asked the respondents to explain how online learning affected their interest in education and all of them agreed that it had a positive impact.

One of them claimed that it energizes learning, while another said it gives her the motivation to complete school tasks. The same informant also pointed out that online education guides the development of learning interventions that are tailored to a specific audience. To support this view, she said,

Online learning is predicated on the assumption of a global culture… to mean that it transcends traditional communication barriers. Therefore, it appeals to people from different cultures, as it is sensitive to social differences that could impede learning. Consequently, it increases learning interest among students who are enrolled in linked programs because of its ability to circumvent barriers to communication.

Another respondent also had a positive but different view of the impact of online education on his interest in learning. He said that the only reason students are intrigued by the learning method is that it is a technology-based tool and many people believe virtual technology is the future. Therefore, their willingness to experiment with the future draws their interest to the use of the technology.

A different student claimed said that school administrators are pushing the online learning agenda because it lessens their resource demands for practical learning. In addition, he further affirmed that this trend is complemented by the students’ willingness to obtain learning materials and information conveniently. Another informant said that online learning has created an interest in finding out the potential for learning because information could be transferred almost instantaneously and in large amounts. Therefore, the technological premise of online education appealed to her because it held immense power of exploration compared to other modes of learning. In other words, there was more to be discovered through online learning, as opposed to traditional learning methods, which have been used for decades.

Another student claimed that online learning reduced his enthusiasm to seek knowledge because it requires students to stare at the computer for long hours. When asked to explain why this was a problem to his interest in learning, he answered by saying that he chose to study in the UK, as opposed to other universities in other parts of Europe, because its universities stress the importance of learning outside the classroom, as opposed to inside it. Relative to this assertion, he said,

The major difference between the UK and Chinese universities, and that greatly informed my decision to study in a British University, is that there is a greater emphasis on classroom work in China, as opposed to fieldwork, which is more common in the UK. This approach to learning is significantly appealing to me because I dislike the confined classroom environment. I tend to acquire and grasp the knowledge better in a non-institutionalized environment and UK universities are great in offering this facility. Online education does not support this kind of learning environment for me so I am not a big fan of it. I should also point out that my education success in the UK is primarily performance-based, as opposed to being dependent on which type of university I attend, which is the case in China. I mean..here in the UK, our success is determined more by how we perform in our class, as opposed to the university we attend.

Based on the above assertion, most of the students believed that online education had a positive impact on their learning interests. This view was primarily informed by its resourcefulness. Their opinions on its impact on their learning ability are described below.

Learning Ability

When asked to state the impact of online learning on their learning ability, three of the respondents were unsure about its effects. They said its benefits could easily be negated by its downsides because there were several advantages to traditional education that still lacked in online learning courses. For example, they pointed out that the low emphasis on social interactions in online learning significantly impedes a student’s ability to develop soft skills of communication.

Five of the respondents argued that online learning had a positive impact on their learning ability because it made it easy for them to keep up with their learning outcomes. Four of the respondents also argued the contrary because they believed that this mode of learning negatively influenced learning ability. After all, students did not adhere to their study schedules much easier than they did in the traditional classroom setting, thereby undermining its effectiveness in improving their learning ability.

Another respondent supported the view that online education improves student learning ability after admitting that he had poor digital literacy skills before using this learning method. However, after a couple of months of interacting with learning materials available on this platform, his digital literacy skills improved. Another respondent supported the same view by saying that online learning has helped him to stay abreast with new teaching and learning techniques, which were instrumental in the advancement of his career. He gave the example of social media marketing as a growing portfolio in most marketing plans.

Therefore, he deemed online learning as one of the ways to help students gain experience interacting with several data analysis tools, which they may use later in their careers. The same respondent observed that online learning did not only help students to improve their digital literacy skills but also encouraged some instructors to become more knowledgeable about the latest digital assessment tools for review. Stated differently, it helped lecturers to communicate more effectively using digital communication strategies.

In a related context of analysis, one of the students said that online learning helped to improve her learning ability by allowing her to be better composed in approaching educational challenges because she could simply work from home, as opposed to the stressful physical learning environment. In other words, she did not have to manage the cultural issues associated with the physical learning environment.

In light of this view, she said that coming to the UK was a culture shock because the British lifestyle was significantly different from what she was familiar with within China. She also mentioned that withdrawing from the comfort of home and having to live in a different country with strangers could affect the learning abilities of any foreign student who experiences challenges adjusting to new environments. Relative to this assertion, she said,

Think of it this way…a British student could have trouble getting used to a different city in the country…. now imagine the kind of challenges that a Chinese student coming from thousands of kilometers away would experience getting used to the UK culture and having to acquire quality education at the same time. I do not know about other students but that experience harmed my learning abilities and I think online learning makes it a bit easier for some of us to better manage some of these challenges and show our real potential.

Another respondent said that online learning helped him to become more engaged in active school programs because it provided the resources required to conduct assessments and evaluations. This view was also supported by another female student who claimed that this mode of learning provided a wealth of resources that she needed in research. In a witty response, she said,

I think older generations of learners would be envious of us because of how easy it is to obtain information nowadays. I guess in previous decades they had to look for data on the field… but nowadays we have these pieces of information at our fingertips. Therefore, the bigger question is how we use it.

The ability to back up information on the cloud was also mentioned by another respondent as an advantage to online learning the helped him improve his learning ability. He observed that there is a lesser need to carry learning materials, such as books, in online learning because important data is usually stored in the cloud, and students could simply retrieve them and continue with their education. This approach of data management is unlike past years when students had to carry physical learning materials to the classroom. Often, they could forget these learning materials in their hostels, thereby impeding their educational experience.

Online learning has solved such problems and improved their learning experience. Researchers such as Stutz and Sachs (2018) have also highlighted the ability of students to conduct deeper and meaningful research by suggesting that virtual research gives students access to an immense wealth of knowledge, which is important in conducting preliminary studies about their learning exercises. Nonetheless, the presence of conflicting views from some of the respondents showed that the students had a mixed review of the impact of online education on their learning abilities.

Discussion

Introduction

This chapter of the paper critically interrogates the findings presented in section four above. Key parts of the chapter compare the respondents’ findings with existing literature and contrast them to the context of the study to find out how the themes generated relate to the research objectives and questions. To recap, the questions investigated how online learning influenced the psychological adjustment of Chinese students to school programs, examined how virtual learning influenced their interest in learning and predicted how this type of education impacted the learning ability of Chinese students studying in the UK. However, before delving into the details of this analysis, it is important to understand how the demographic characteristics of the respondents may have influenced the data provided.

Possible Influence of Demographic Profile

Although the views presented by the respondents were elaborate in explaining some of the fundamental differences between online education in China and the UK, there is a possibility that their demographic characteristics could have had an effect on their online learning experiences. Particularly, their place of origin could have impacted their views on online learning because most of them were from large cities in China.

Certain assumptions are affiliated with students who come from these metropolitan areas. For example, they could be more educated and exposed compared to children who hail from rural China. Some of the respondents may also have been pre-exposed to online learning back home and may have consequently developed preconceived notions about it before the interviews. In this regard, their largely positive views about online learning may have been influenced by their places of origin.

The gender profile of the respondents may also have influenced their opinions of online learning because10/12 of the respondents were male. This statistic means that their views could have been influenced by gender. Therefore, a more balanced view of this demographic criterion could be investigated in future studies. Generally, having a broader and more representative view of the population of Chinese students studying in the UK could improve the robustness of data that may be collected in explaining the research phenomenon. Although these demographic details may have influenced the research findings, it is essential to also understand how students’ views of online learning compare with the theoretical underpinnings of the investigation highlighted in the literature review section of this analysis.

Theoretical Analysis

As highlighted in chapter two of this dissertation, the social constructivist theory was the main theoretical framework of this study. The views provided by the respondents emphasise one key tenet of this theory – learning often occurs at the level of potential development (UCD Dublin 2019). In other words, the benefits provided by online education often aid in improving educational processes. Particularly, the three themes identified in the paper accentuate this fact because they discuss students’ interests in learning, their psychological adjustments to education programs and the state of their developmental abilities.

Based on the findings highlighted in chapter four, the respondents contended that online learning had a positive impact on the above-mentioned three key aspects of learning. This effect highlights the collaborative nature of learning, which is a key tenet of the social constructivist theory. For example, the emphasis on language development, as an advantage of online learning, depicts the importance of students and instructors to interact effectively in the virtual environment. In other words, it supports the development of good communication skills for Chinese students to foster their educational programs because English is not their first language.

The difficulty faced by this group of learners in the UK partly signifies the challenge of separating education from its social context. This view aligns with the reasons that proponents of the social constructivist theory gave to object the views of Piaget who tried to portray learning as an independent entity from its social context (UCD Dublin 2019).

Comparison with Previous Research

Most of the respondents sampled said online learning had the potential to improve their learning abilities. This view was mostly presented from a linguistic perspective because online learning helps to customise the preferred learning mode to a student’s language. Therefore, those who do not speak English as their first language are able to follow instructional materials using their native language simply by changing the settings on the online platform.

This view aligns with research studies, which have emphasised the ability of virtual learning to improve instruction outcomes at every level of learning. For example, according to Rodriguez (2014), online education helps students to learn at their own pace, thereby improving their classroom experience. These outcomes have been supported by the requirement to adjust materials to fit the needs of both remedial and advanced learners. In the context of this study, online learning helps to fit the needs of both native and non-English speaking students.

Some of the respondents sampled said that they did not like to learn virtually because of their liking for out-of-class sessions. This observation is consistent with several research studies, such as those authored by Larionova et al. (2018) and Ridge et al. (2015), which note that online learning is anti-social in nature because it minimises incidences of human-to-human interactions. Therefore, students who use it are likely to be overwhelmingly dissatisfied with it. This feeling may cause unhappiness and a poor self-image for users. For example, unhappiness in learning is a type of stress factor affecting many Chinese students. The same view was observed in a report authored by Clarke (2018), which suggested that most of them are unhappier in the UK compared to China.

The statistics also suggest that about 16% of Chinese students studying in the UK are stressed and unhappy compared to only 10% of those in China (Clarke 2018). These statistics are further compounded by reports, which show that about one-fifth of students in the UK said they were nervous most or all of the time when interacting with their colleagues in the classroom or institutional settings (Clarke 2018).

Researchers who have investigated this matter in greater depth suggest that the stresses experienced by Chinese students, if left unchecked, could lead to depression (Clarke 2018). Some observers attribute this problem to the immense resources UK universities dedicate to marketing themselves as opposed to improving the welfare of international students (Clarke 2018). This analogy shows that there is a link between online learning and antisocial behaviour because universities are becoming less concerned about improving student’s learning experiences. Relative to this assertion, Rodriguez (2014) and Boisselle (2014) say that many people generally regard online education as an antisocial learning phenomenon.

Comparatively, the respondents’ views suggested that all cognitive improvements and functions associated with virtual education are products of social interactions that occur in the learning environment. Stated differently, the informants did not only regard online education as an assimilation of knowledge with a convenient learning environment, but rather a product of different levels of social interaction between teachers and students. Therefore, as suggested by the social constructivist theory, online learning is not only a tool for improving learning outcomes but also an instrument for assimilating students into the knowledge community (Shochet et al. 2019; UCD Dublin 2019).

The above insights show that most knowledge obtained from online learning is not only a product of what teachers tell students but also a result of their interaction with their social settings or environments. For example, the emphasis made by the informants about language development via online learning platforms stems from their quest to better interact with their learning environment. The social constructivist theory affirms the same view because it suggests that students prefer to use effective linguistic skills to better adapt to their learning environment (Shochet et al. 2019; UCD Dublin 2019).

Stated differently, the linguistic options offered on online learning platforms provide them with opportunities to improve their learning experiences and communicate more effectively with colleagues. This view aligns with studies conducted by Hamlet et al. (2015), Nielsen (2014), Quarles and Davis (2017), which suggest that, during learning, most students do not respond to external stimuli but rather to their perceptions of them. Language helps them to better comprehend these perceptions. Many researchers who have explored a similar issue in past studies failed to comprehend this social nature of online learning.

The focus of this study on the experiences of Chinese students studying in the UK comes from the growth in the number of internationals students from the Asian country seeking higher education in the country. In fact, according to Sandhu (2019) the number of Chinese students in Britain is set to be higher than that of those coming from Wales. This trend is likely to continue in the future, and is supported by reports that show that UK universities will continue to rely on foreign students to cover their budgetary shortfalls in the wake of the uncertainty caused by “Brexit.”

While this trend is commendable for institutions that want to maintain stability during uncertainty, Chinese students continue to experience several cultural problems studying in the UK. The respondents mentioned some of them. Particularly, they mentioned language as one of the key concerns because many of them pointed out that online learning helped to address this challenge.

Several research studies and reports also mention the role of language in learning but the views of Guilherme (2016), Laskaratos, Gkotsi and Panteliou (2014) are more relevant to this discussion because they suggest that the UK education system is designed with an international focus and could easily address some of these challenges. For example, most British universities have a multicultural workforce that offer learning assistance to students from different parts of the world (Guilherme 2016; Laskaratos, Gkotsi & Panteliou 2014).

The educational programs offered in UK universities are also tailored to appeal to an international student population (Laskaratos, Gkotsi & Panteliou 2014). Therefore, it is not expected that cultural issues would significantly influence students’ learning experiences. However, the findings outlined in this paper seem to contradict this position because the respondents still regard cultural barriers as a significant impediment to the enjoyment of their learning experiences. Nonetheless, this problem does not mean that Chinese students are unable to speak English because most of them do.

Sandhu (2019) tries to describe the above-mentioned problem by claiming that most Chinese students have accents. Therefore, instances of miscommunication or misunderstandings could occur and create a negative learning experience, especially when they are subjected to the physical learning environment where they have to verbally communicate with their colleagues. Online learning helps to address some of these challenges because it eliminates communication difficulties using online learning tools, such as language assistance.

For example, the use of software to detect grammatical errors in online learning plays a role in addressing the communication challenges that Chinese students may experience when having a conversation with an instructor or student. The same miscommunication issues that have been highlighted by previous researchers would occur if the same group of students were to hand-write their assignments or communicate with their colleagues face-to-face.

In light of the above concerns, Sandhu (2019) says that Chinese students are not the only ones who are affected by language and communication barriers because instructors in the UK also experience the same challenge. Subject to institutional rules, the scholar says some instructors have trouble communicating with their students because they do not think they would match their level of linguistic sophistication (Sandhu 2019). In other words, they feel that the students may not understand English as well as those who speak it as their native language. Kajanus (2015) and Sherlock (2016) contribute to the argument by saying that the problem is not necessarily linguistic but cultural because English instructors and Chinese students may experience difficulties understanding the context of the educational exchange.

Online learning has the ability to standardise the educational exchange format. Therefore, it has a positive impact on different aspects of learning for Chinese students. According to Ridge et al. (2015), this type of education was introduced to address some of the main challenges associated with traditional learning methods. For example, conventional teaching methods have a low retention rate for international students because some of the associated learning resources are not tailored to the students’ unique needs (Bath & Smith 2018). Therefore, it is common to find some of them enrolling for educational programs and soon dropping out (Ridge et al. 2015).

The respondents also argued that online learning could help to address such problems because it is interactive, as developers can introduce customised tools, such as the use of Chinese language, to appeal to the unique needs of the target population. Qiu et al. (2019) supports this view by saying that online education is more engaging than traditional modes of learning. This is why it is associated with a 60% increase in retention rates (Qiu et al. 2019).

The high retention rates are associated with the generation and exchange of data via the platform. For example, the generation or development of online video content for learning is linked with an increased acceptance of virtual education as a viable teaching method (Larionova et al. 2018). The respondents’ views about the flexibility of online learning tools are also similar to those held by several researchers who have affirmed its proficiency in this regard (Ellman & Schwartz 2016; Perez-Encinas & Rodriguez-Pomeda 2018).

The views held by some respondents about the fun nature of virtual learning aligns with existing literature, which suggests that this learning method is more enjoyable and interactive than traditional forms of education (Ellman & Schwartz 2016; Perez-Encinas & Rodriguez-Pomeda 2018). This because it eliminates the anxiety associated with face-to-face meetings. Indeed, the use of devices, applications and multimedia tools of engagement has helped instructors and educators to develop innovative learning content that are relatable to the present-day generation of learners (Saleem & Rasheed 2014; Marshalsey & Sclater 2018). In this regard, online learning has made education much easier and fun for most of the students sampled. This is why it is increasingly popular in the UK.

Learning Behaviours and Habits

The respondents presented a mixed view of the impact of online education on student behaviours and habits. Of significance is the impact that this mode of learning has had on the convenience of obtaining knowledge. Their behaviours and habits can be changed from this focal point. For example, some of the respondents said that students who use online education do not adhere to the strictness of submitting learning materials or even attending class in the first place.

This view stems from the difficulty of monitoring students in the virtual learning environment compared to the physical education setting. Therefore, it encourages laziness among some students who are not enthusiastic in pursuing their educational goals. The motivation for learners to use online learning in achieving their educational goals stems from their willingness to use available resources to improve their learning experiences.

This view reflects the findings of Saleem and Rasheed (2014) who says that online learning does not necessarily improve learning outcomes because it is a tool for improving educational access and outcomes. Therefore, as opposed to employing it as a learning goal, it should be perceived as an instrument for achieving education outcomes. A student’s motivation to use this tool for positive or negative reasons depends on their ability to comprehend the importance of the learning tool to their educational development. In this regard, online learning can be envisaged as creating a paradigm shift in power from the educators to students, whereby a lot of responsibility is accorded to the latter to fulfil their learning duties with minimal or no supervision.

Summary

Online learning has been presented in this report as a tactful way of addressing some of the challenges of traditional learning methods for not only Chinese students but also the larger student body. While it is important to celebrate its merits, it is equally vital to understand that its implementation should not be misunderstood to mean a substitution of traditional learning methods. Instead, it is a tool for completing the learning cycle that is often initiated through the conventional education setup.

Conclusion Recommendations

Conclusion

From the onset of this research, the aim of this investigation was designed to find out how online learning influenced the behaviours of Chinese undergraduate students, while studying in the UK. To meet this goal, three research objectives were formulated and they strived to investigate how online learning influenced the psychological adjustment of Chinese students to class and school programs, examine how this learning platform impacted the interests of Chinese students in education and predicted how it influenced students’ learning abilities.

The qualitative research approach was selected as the main technique for undertaking this review. Using the phenomenology research design, 12 respondents were recruited from the same campus as the researcher. Ten of them were male, while two were female. They were interviewed in the institutional setting after responding to several questions relating to their online learning experiences in the UK. Comparisons were also made with their online learning experiences in China. Subject to these questions, most of them said that this mode of learning helped them to adjust well to school programs because it reduced the social anxiety associated with attending regular classroom discussions.

The informants also said that online education helped to improve their learning abilities by offering multiple learning tools, such as the ability of students to browse learning materials using the Chinese language. In particular, language emerged as a key concept throughout the discussions and all the respondents mentioned it. The ability to backup data in the cloud and the convenience offered by e learning were also major advantages of the virtual platform mentioned by the respondents. Nonetheless, they said that the main drawback to online learning was the lack of constant supervision, which often led to laziness and increased cases of respondents missing their deadlines. In this regard, it had the potential to negatively influence their behaviours and habits in the institutional setting.

The relationship between online education and increased interest in education also emerged in the discussions, especially for students who associated improved learning abilities to this type of education. The interest generated by e learning stemmed from the rapid and transformational nature of the learning technique. It not only creates excitement to students regarding the opportunities it currently offers but also the potential it holds in making students work easily and become more engaged.

The traditional mode of learning has been characterised by the physical learning environment where a professor stands in front of a lecture room, gives instructions to the students and the latter takes notes for future referencing. Face-to-face communication has been a critical part of this mode of learning, especially in facilitating the exchange of knowledge between the two parties. However, the online learning phenomenon has created a paradigm shift because it has changed the way teachers and students communicate.

This development has emerged from novelties in education and consistently questioning how learning could be improved in the 21st century through reflective thought. The advent of technological tools in higher education learning has especially introduced new arguments about how learning could be made more fun, engaging and interactive for both students and teachers.

The theoretical foundations of the arguments presented in this paper cut across different disciplines, including education, psychology and information communication technology (ICT). Therefore, institutions of higher learning today can perceive online learning not only as a virtual tool of assessment but also as an important learning instrument for foreign students. The impact of online learning in the education system cannot be underestimated because it affects all facets of the discipline.

Indeed, as Shaheen (2016) observed, technological innovation in the education sector is no longer a luxury but an urgent necessity. Based on the findings of this study, the real impact of online learning in the education sector is yet to be fully realised, as it influences different aspects of students’ learning processes. Broadly, as technology becomes more ubiquitous and students grow increasingly accustomed to online learning tools, such as video conferencing and webinars, higher institutions of education in the UK will have more incentive to integrate this learning method as part of their mainstream education system.

As the respondents pointed out, school administrators have failed to improve student welfare, despite the rapid changes occasioned by this learning platform on student behaviours. Instead, they are still focused on marketing their courses to a bigger audience, thereby jeopardising the future of their students’ learning development because the potential to match the learning experiences offered online and offline depends on continuous improvement and innovation by higher institutions of education on both platforms. Consequently, there needs to be more initiatives developed within the UK education sector to improve the impact of online learning on students’ outcomes. The section below outlines possible recommendations that could be considered to achieve this goal.

Recommendations

The findings of this study go beyond a superficial assessment of the impact of e learning on the education sector because it provokes thought on the systematic assessment of its effectiveness. The growing demands associated with online learning cannot be fully satisfied by the employment of a few techniques but rather the deployment of an array of tools, methodologies and technologies to effectively scale them and make it more effective in realising learning outcomes. However, it is important to recognise that e learning is still a growing field in education and integrating some of its methodologies and tools in the learning setting may be challenging to some educators. For example, data encryption and information security still need more attention.

In the literature review segment of this investigation, it was demonstrated that students’ learning styles needed to be considered when developing instructional strategies for online learning. In this regard, it should be understood that the effectiveness of this mode of education cannot be improved if school administrators cannot enhance their online learning outcomes without doing integrating learning differences and in a manner that is consistent with the individual learning styles of Chinese students.

Therefore, teachers need to pay more attention to cultural differences between China and the UK, which may influence students’ learning behaviours. For example, parental beliefs and attitudes about online learning may influence their children’s attitudes towards it. Some students may also require cognitive support because parents or guardians have a significant role to play in influencing their educational outcomes.

The habits and behaviours of Chinese students towards any form of learning depend on societal norms and values regarding education. This reason explains why some of the respondents mentioned the differences in learning styles between the UK and China as being a motivator for choosing to study online. Therefore, future researchers should interrogate the influence of parental views about education on students’ behaviours and attitudes towards online learning.

This review should be specifically focused on the Chinese students because parental influence on their learning outcomes is stronger than in the UK. Future researchers can also focus on understanding the impact of e learning on the behaviours of other international students, such as Indians, who have a significant social presence within the UK foreign student body. The proposed investigation could also be compared with current findings because the cultural dynamics of these alternative student groups are relatively linked with those of the Chinese.

In chapter five of this paper, it was also observed that online learning was an educational tool and not necessarily a goal of learning. The importance of students to be motivated and understand how this resource could improve their educational outcomes has also been highlighted in this document because a strong link was established between the learning platform and student motivation. Low levels of supervision (on this platform) also emphasise the need for developing strong accountability systems that would make sure students complete their learning exercises without the direct involvement of the instructors.

This development need not necessarily require more face-to-face interactions between students and professors because it accentuates the need for developing more accountability measures in the system. This strategy could better improve student behaviours and reduce the complacency associated with virtual education. Indeed, when students have to be more accountable for their virtual learning exercises, they are likely to develop productive learning behaviours. This way, the negative effects of online learning could be minimised in favour of the positive ones.

Lastly, considering the growing importance and relevance of e learning to the global education sector, it is becoming increasingly important for students to acquire basic technological knowledge. They should utilise them as a means of achieving their educational aims. Based on this importance, many institutions of higher learning in the UK are using online education as the main method of learning.

Consequently, instructors have learned the academic and technical tools required to convey knowledge to learners. In this regard, the acquisition of basic technological data should not only be a basic skill for students but professors as well. Broadly, the findings of this study could be instrumental in improving the quality of education offered by UK universities because Chinese students benefit immensely from it because they tend to thrive in the UK better than in other countries. In addition, UK universities benefit by being more culturally diverse.

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Appendix

Appendix 1 – Interview Protocol

  1. Which year are you in university? What are you studying?
  2. Where are you from? What’s your learning background? (briefly describe it)
  3. Tell me about how you using online learning?
  4. Tell me about why you using online learning?
  5. Can you describe the difference of online learning’s experience in university between UK and China?
  6. What potential effects(positive and negative) does online learning have on undergraduate student in UK in terms of learning behaviour, habits and methods)
  7. Can you describe the role of online learning in UK University? How it works in students learning process?