Laura Tan explores what benefits and barriers may exist when postgraduate students with East Asian heritage (mixed, Chinese, Japanese and Malaysian) study online with a Western university. Having grown up in Britain with an English mother and Singaporean father, she strongly believes that celebrating differences – no matter what they are and how subtle they may appear – is something we should always foster, not fear.
What is cultural identity?
Cultural identity may be a better way of allowing someone to have the freedom to self-identify with a culture or cultures rather than having labels imposed upon them. From my interviews, I learned that cultural identity tends to be fluid rather than fixed. It can change throughout our lives as we re-evaluate who we are. This can result in ‘hybrid identities’ as the students had either worked, lived and studied across cultures or because they had mixed heritage. A lot of distress also came from either feeling like they didn’t fit in (‘separation’) or from feeling disconnected from both the new culture and the one they formerly felt affiliated with (‘marginalization’).
The process of adapting to a new culture has been referred to as ‘acculturation’ in the literature. Within Berry’s (1980) model of this process, he argued that if students didn’t settle in well, they could experience anxiety or low mood – all of which most lecturers or tutors would like to lessen! Whilst the traditional literature has focussed on a physical move to another country or university campus, my research project is novel in that I Skype interviewed distance learners who engaged with another culture from the comfort of their own homes.
Mind the culture gap!
Previous studies have focussed on culture shock whereas my findings highlighted that distance learning may help reduce some of the barriers of being ‘culturally different’ that might exist in traditional universities. For example, distance learning allows students to benefit from a degree of anonymity as others can’t see your face (which is great for me if I’m teaching with a bad hair day!). In addition, some students felt that they benefitted from the more personalised, detailed tutor feedback and 1:1 support which isn’t always possible at other universities.
Possibly contrary to popular belief, the students I spoke to did not experience huge issues with language or everyday tasks like finding their way around / trying new foods which you might expect when joining a traditional university. One of the themes which emerged from my data analysis was ‘Cultural revelations’ – bumps in the road to be negotiated and overcome rather than a roadblock or shock. The cultural differences felt through studying online were subtler but still affected the students. For example, East Asian cultural values such as deference to authority and group harmony overspilled into tutorial behaviour. Feeling more passive rather than openly critical in discussions led students to feel as though they couldn’t always ask questions or would rather e-mail these than ask at the time. A specific cultural value known as ‘kiasu’ which was raised by Malaysian-Chinese students may encourage students to be ‘afraid to lose’ or ‘afraid of not getting the best’. In one sense, this is great for distance learning as students with this attitude or worldview want to succeed and achieve highly. Conversely, it could create another layer of pressure for the distance learning student who is also juggling study with work and family commitments and possibly health or medical issues.
Both – if not well understood – could result in misinterpretation by those who teach and support students from different cultural backgrounds. They could see the student as not fully engaging or participating when actually they are enjoying learning. On the other hand, having the ability to engage online may help minimise barriers as some students prefer this as they can use the chatbox rather than their voice and have a bit more control over their interactions and time to process and prepare.
How does internationalisation in higher education benefit everyone?
The first group of people to benefit from internationalisation in higher education are the students themselves. Students with different cultural identities have the opportunity to learn about another culture, to broaden their worldview, enhance their confidence and the same can be true for students from the host culture. Encountering and having interactions with students who reside across the world can help create a more open and accepting attitude towards others. The second group are the staff who work tirelessly to teach and support students from all different cultural backgrounds. By better understanding the experiences of those we teach, we can better serve them. The third group are the institutions - encouraging staff and students from all different backgrounds to join forces e.g. teaching and research collaborations between universities and allowing cultural exchange can help universities gain in international reputation. As the number of universities going borderless grows, so does the importance of learning more about what helps and hinders students from different cultural backgrounds.
Whether a student resides in Milton Keynes or Malaysia, I hope that that they are able to be proud of who they once were, who they are now and that their OU study helps them become who they want to be.