Email as a learning technology in the South Pacific: An evaluation
"Tenika, thank you for coming to see me. I’m concerned about your silence in class. 15% of your grade is based on class participation, and yet you never ask questions, express your opinions, or challenge the views of other students in class." Tenika Kepa, a Fijian MBA student studying in Boston looked down, embarrassed. "Dr. Smith, I’m sorry, in my country to ask a question in class is considered rude. Fijians do not like confrontation. When our people disagree, they remain silent. This is often misinterpreted by people who demand or expect that we tell them to their faces what we do not want. We want them to be sensitive enough to feel that we don't agree. This is part of our culture" (Woodward, 2000).
Student engagement, discourse, and interaction are valued highly in "western" universities. Educators from individualist cultures like America, Europe and Australia may recognize Dr. Smith’s frustration with Tenika’s "quietness" in class. International students from Asian collectivist cultures may also empathize with Tenika’s embarrassment at having to stand out against her group and express a personal opinion. With growing internationalization of western campuses, and rising distance learning enrolments, intercultural frictions are bound to increase.
There have been a number of papers that have examined the impact of cultural diversity and group interaction in computer-mediated communication environments. This paper will add to the body of knowledge by evaluating the effectiveness of e-mail as a communications medium, in facilitating meaningful class participation in two competing distance education institutions in Fiji: the University of the South Pacific and Central Queensland University. The South Pacific region, isolated, vast, and culturally diverse, presents an excellent research environment in which to study the effect of cultural differences and educational technology on distance learning.
This study addresses three research questions:
Hofstede’s (1991) well-known model categorizes different cultures according to five pairs of dimensions (Figure 1).
Though this research has been criticized as being somewhat simplistic and dated, it provides a useful starting point for exploring possible differences between people from different cultural backgrounds. No formal research has yet been completed to map Hofstede's model on the many cultures of the South Pacific. However certain patterns of behavior can be observed which make it broadly possible to locate South Pacific cultures on the dimensions of individualism, collectivism and power distance. (This will be covered in the Model Building section later in paper).
The literature has often cited difficulties in motivating students from Collectivist (as opposed to Individualistic) cultures to "speak up" in a face-to-face learning situation. Hofstede's evidence suggests that students from a collectivist culture prefer to listen, reflect, and discuss in person with peers, before preparing a written response. In many other collectivist cultures it would be considered undesirable for students to speak up in class, as communication is mostly teacher centered. In Fiji, lecturers have widely commented on the "quietness" of their students (Handel, 1998). It has also been noted that a lack of interaction is expected in some pacific cultural norms where the teacher is respected by the silence of the students (Matthewson et al, 1998).
However most research has been carried out by westerners, who tend to judge students against their own cultural background. (Jones, 1999). For example Chinese students from a collectivist culture have been found by some studies to adopt a rote learning approach, which is seen by their western individualist teachers as inferior (Samuelowicz, 1987). More recent studies (Watkins et al, 1991) have concluded that there is little evidence to support this belief and that Chinese students are no more likely to rely on rote learning than their Western peers.
Research on the effect of cultural differences has tended to focus on traditional face-to-face teaching, rather than distance education. We still do not understand fully the cultural contexts in which distance education programs are situated nor how distance students process materials, especially in a second language (Guy, 1991). A recent study(Anakwe, 1999) investigated the media preferences of students from collectivist versus individualist cultures and concluded that collectivist students were significantly less comfortable with computer-mediated interaction favoring face-to-face interaction. The study concluded that students from collectivist cultures would be less receptive to distance education than students from individualistic cultures. Students from individualistic cultures are also more willing to respond to ambiguous messages (Gudykunst, 1997), which may result in a different approach to email.
The purpose of this section is to discuss the South Pacific student in the context of Hofstede's research on cultural differences, and to construct models of distance learning, cultural differences, and educational technology at the two primary tertiary learning institutions on Fiji: the University of the South Pacific, and Central Queensland University.
The Hofstede dimensions of particular interest in this research were those of individualism versus collectivism, and high power distance versus low power distance. Hofstede’s work indicated a strong relationship between a country’s national wealth and the degree of individualism in its culture. Richer countries tend to have an individualistic style, whereas poorer countries are more collectivist. As a poor country grows richer it tends to move away from a collective pattern to an individualistic one. Additionally, people from a rural background tend to be more collectivist than those from an urban background. Therefore it was of interest to try and identify any differences in communication choices between students from an urban or a rural background.
A country that is collectivist is also likely to be a high power distance country, where the views of senior people tend not to be questioned. Pacific Island people fall into the high power distance with their system of chiefs, and the tradition of not questioning the chief’s decision. Society is also collectivist in nature with the custom of "Keri Keri" or not being able to refuse a favor that is asked of you by a member of your own in-group.
The Indo-Fijian students come from a different background. Previous work has classified India as a large power distance, collectivist country, however it scores much higher on the individualism index than most other poor countries. Indo-Fijians have lived in Fiji for at least three generations, and because they arrived as immigrants or through the Girmit (bought in labor) system they appear not to have the strong family ties that Fijians have. This can be easily observed on a visit to the countryside; Fijians always live and farm together in villages, whereas Indo-Fijian farms tend to stand-alone. Therefore though both groups of students are collectivists, the Pacific students would be expected to be more strongly collectivist than the Indo-Fijian students.
In a conflict situation, members of collectivist cultures are likely to use avoidance, intermediaries, or other face saving techniques. In the collectivist society, in-group-out-group distinctions will continue in education, so that students from different ethnic or clan backgrounds often form sub groups in class. They will work together on assignments, and there is often little interaction with students from different sub groups.
In the context of distance education this can make the experience of teaching summer school in an island center very different from main campus teaching, as the summer school students are all part of the same in-group. Within the region, variations in cultural attitudes towards technology have been commented on by various lecturers’ visiting regional centers. Two recent surveys of the distribution of information, and communication technology show marked variation in access to computers and the Internet between the different countries of the region. (Landbeck, 2000 and Lockwood, 2000).
The next part of this section will focus on understanding and modeling the differences between the University of the South Pacific (USP) and Central Queensland University (CQU).
The two institutions have a very different approach to education. The University of the South Pacific (USP) is owned and operated by 12 Pacific Island countries. USP serves a population base of over 1.8 million people, the member countries are scattered over 32 million square kilometers of ocean. Within the South Pacific region there is great diversity in culture, language, and economic circumstances, with over 200 languages spoken in the region (Landbeck and Mugler, 2000). USP was set up in 1966 as a dual mode institution to offer courses both on campus and by distance learning. In 2000 student enrolment reached 9118 (46% external). Like many Universities around the world (Daniel, 1996), USP is seeing rapidly growing student numbers, with first year classes in Mathematics and Computing Science rising to as high as 700 students on occasion.
Central Queensland University, based in Rockhampton, Australia, has recently opened a campus in Suva, Fiji. The campus has about 1,000 students from China, Korea, India, Bangladesh and Fiji. USP’s public relations office claims that more than 2,000 offers have been made to students for the 2001 school year. CQU Fiji has an electronic library that links to the CQU main library in Rockhampton. Every student has access to email and the Internet. The university has a policy of interactive system wide learning.
For the purpose of model building USP can be viewed as a traditional university where knowledge transfer tends to occur in a one-directional mode. As in many universities in the developing world it is traditional for educators to lecture, and students to listen and learn. Publicly questioning the teacher is considered rude. Knowledge flows from the "professor" or "lecturer" to the student. This model is familiar in the literature, and is sometimes called the container or transfer model of knowledge transfer, or migratory knowledge (Badaracco, 1991). An example of a "pure" container model might be traditional distance learning in a correspondence course. USP's model of distance learning is somewhat similar in that learning materials are packaged for students, and little interaction is anticipated between student and teacher. Figure 2 proposes an adaptation of the container model incorporating a bridging function (Jin et al, 1998) as well as components to reflect the affect of distance learning technology and cultural factors on knowledge transfer.
In contrast, Central Queensland University course pedagogy is every dependent on e-mail communication. 50% of grade is based on group exercises. Groups consist of 5-10 students from 12 countries. Students are assigned to groups by the course coordinator to maximize diversity. Students are required to post within group and between group evaluations to a listserv each week. (Romm, 2001; Jones, 1999). The teaching philosophy emphasizes the importance of student-student and student-teacher interaction by computer-mediated communication. A large percentage of a distance learning student's grade is based on team-work. Students are encouraged to learn from each other, as well as the teacher.
Weick's (1979) social construction model of learning and knowledge transfer appeared appropriate for CQU. Weick’s model represents knowledge as one part of a process. It considers knowledge, cognition, action, and communication as inseparable. "The term enactment captures this interrelationship among the different aspects of knowing, acting, communicating, and perceiving. In this model, knowledge takes on meaning as the entity interacts with its environment through communicating with other entities, acting (and thereby changing the environment), and interpreting cues arising from these interactions."
Figure 3 modifies an extension of Weick's work (Jin et al, 1998) to incorporate technological and cultural factors that might affect the success of a "social constructivist" view of distance education; as students in virtual teams from mixed cultures perceive that communication often is imperfect even when the students agree on a course of action. The problems associated with flawed communication often result in a breakdown in the knowledge transfer process. Badaracco (1991) notes this when he refers to "embedded knowledge, knowledge that resides in the relationships between and among individuals and groups".
The University of the South Pacific Survey
In 2000/2001 a questionnaire survey was carried out at USP to ascertain student use of email and the Internet, and to look at the differences in provision between rural and urban areas. A sample of almost 400 undergraduate students was surveyed; the majority of these were Fiji-based students studying on the main campus by face-to-face mode.
74% of the sample was full-time rather than part-time students. The majority (53%) of respondents was aged between 20 and 24, and approximately two thirds (66%) were male. The students were taking the full range of subjects offered as majors, but slightly over half the sample was studying for Computer Science and/or Information Systems majors. The majority of the sample (65%) were Fijian or Indo-Fijian, however some data were collected from summer schools conducted in Kiribati, Vanuatu the Solomon Islands, which gave a more representative sample of the USP students. The summer schools are also taught by face-to-face mode in intensive six week blocks. See Figure 4 for sample breakdown by country.
The questionnaire was anonymous, and due to the ethnic tension in Fiji at the time of the survey, students were not asked to identify their nationality, therefore no distinction can be made between Fijian and Indo-Fijian students in terms of cultural background. From observation roughly 75% of the students taking courses in Computer Science and Information Systems are Indo-Fijian. There are no significant numbers of other ethnic groups in the data from the regional centers.
About 90% of the students reported having access to email, and it was widely used mainly for social purposes. Over 65% of students use it more than 10 times per semester to contact friends. (See Table 1).
Table 1:Number of email messages sent to friends by students per semester (for whole student group)
Is email used to a more limited extent for purposes of teaching and learning? Less than 2% of students stated that they would choose email as their first choice method to ask a lecturer a question about a course. As illustrated in Table 2 below, for most students emailing a lecturer to ask a question would be their fourth choice method. The majority of students prefer to consult the lecturer face-to-face or to ask a fellow student. However students did not feel that they were at a disadvantage by choosing not to use email. Most (75%) of the students reported being able to get answers for questions they put to lecturers within a maximum of two days. It appears that many USP students have no real need to use email as their traditional methods of asking friends, or asking the lecturer face to face are proving effective.
Table 2: Ranking of email as a method of asking a lecturer a question, out of a choice of five methods (all students)
About half the students surveyed (46%) never use email to contact their lecturers, and of the remainder most use it fairly infrequently. 90% of students send 5 or less messages a semester. (See Table 3).
Table 3:Numbers of emails sent by students to lecturers (all students)
Email is not widely used by lecturers to contact students; about one third of students never received email from lecturers, and 50% received only between one and 5 messages per semester. (See Table 4) Many students did make the comment that they received email from their IS and CS lecturers but not from lecturers in other subjects: IS and CS students comprised the largest percentage of students who received ten or more messages per semester from their lecturers.
Table 4: Numbers of emails sent to students by lecturers (all students)
The majority of the CS and IS courses use web pages stored on the university Intranet to hold information such as lecture notes, and assignment details. The main teaching model used is of a one-way flow of information from teacher to student, and a very limited use of a two-way flow between students and lecturers. It was even less likely for students to use email to contact the administration; the majority (88.6%) never emailed administration.
The students did take advantage of the opportunity to access the Internet and the USP home page with 60% of students reporting that they accessed to the Internet and the USP homepage at least once or twice per semester. The students were unlikely to use the online journals available through the library; only about a quarter of students used this facility.
The Kiribati-based students had very limited access to email with 80% of students never using it, The 20% of students who did use email had access to it at home. Access to the Internet was even more limited with over 90% of students never using it. The Solomon Islands and Vanuatu students did have access to email at the USP center, and like the main campus students, they used email socially. However it was used in a much more limited way for contacting lecturers. When the data from the regions are compared with the rest of Fiji a clear contrast emerges, there is much less use of email away from the main center. (See Figures 5 and 6) This could be due to a number of reasons, less available technology in the regions, or cultural differences.
An independent samples T Test was carried out to compare the results for main campus on Fiji with the rest of the South Pacific. The results (Table 5) indicate that there does seem to be a significant difference between the two populations regarding the use of email. This is of interest as the main campus students are approximately 75% Indo-Fijian, a cultural group that would tend to be less collectivist than the students from the regional centers.
Table 5: T Test results comparing Fiji with the rest of the South Pacific (all students)
To further explore the relationship between students’ culture (within the collectivist dimension), and use of email, students were asked how often they sent and received email from lecturers; and how often they sent email to their friends.
According to Hofstede’s research those from a rural background should be more strongly collectivist than those from an urban background, so the responses were grouped into those students who had identified their homes as a village (rural), rather than a town or city (urban). All non-Fiji students were classified as rural, apart from those coming from Port Vila, Vanuatu, which was classified as a town. The Pearson chi –square test was used to examine the responses. The first tests were done on a data set that included the whole group of students. (Table 6).
Table 6: Chi-square results for all students
It was found that rural students are less likely to receive email from lecturers, and are less likely to send email to lecturers. The rural students were also far less likely to send email to their friends. Preliminary analysis suggests that email is used less by rural than urban students, but some questions are raised. Not only are rural students less likely to send email to their lecturers, they are also less likely to receive email, even though the overwhelming majority of lecturers would definitely be urban in background. Therefore it could be that the results are due to other factors such as less access to technology in the rural areas, rather than a difference in cultures.
As previously discussed the students in Kiribati have a very limited access to email, whereas other regional students in Vanuatu, and the Solomons do have a reasonable access. Therefore it was decided to exclude the Kiribati students from the data set, and run the tests again, to see if the same relationships would be found. (See Table 7).
Table 7: Chi-square results for all students except Kiribati
There seems to be a significant difference between emails received from lecturers by rural versus urban students. A rural student appears to be less likely to receive an email from their lecturer than an urban student. The results for both emails sent to lecturers and friends were not significant. Further examination indicates that neither rural nor urban students are likely to send emails to lecturers. (Table 8).
Table 8: Emails sent to lecturers by students (All students except Kiribati)
The number of emails sent to friends was analyzed. Again no significant relationship was found Rural and urban students used email fairly frequently to contact their friends. (Table 9) This appears to show that there is no difference between students of different collectivist cultural backgrounds, in the use of email for social purposes. The use of email for teaching and learning does seem to be low.
Table 9: Count of emails sent by students to friends (All students except Kiribati)
In order to discover whether this was due to cultural background or other factors, it was decided to examine the data set of main campus students. All main campus students should have similar access to technology. Therefore a comparison of those from a rural and an urban background, would not be influenced by such issues as less sophisticated technology, or a lack of access.
When the use of email by main campus students from rural and urban backgrounds was compared using Pearson chi-square, no significant relationships were found. (Table 10). These results tend to suggest that when students have an equal access to technology, their use of email will be similar independent of the extent of their collectivist cultural background.
Table 10: Chi-square results for main campus students from rural and urban backgrounds
The USP students surveyed were enthusiastic about the use of ICTs to improve teaching, and were keen for more courses to be offered by distance learning using USPNet. It has to be remembered that the sample was mainly of Computer Science and Information System majors, and that other students may not share these views.
The Central Queensland University Study
The following hypotheses were tested:
Central Queensland University makes use of a list server in all distance classes. Membership to the lists is open to the public, and students are warned that all their posts to the list are accessible to the public. Two semesters of student posts were analyzed covering the period: 16 July 2001 to 14 Dec 2001. As the University of South Pacific survey had focused on student use of email in information technology classes, a similar data set was chosen in CQU. The Faculty of Informatics and Communication at http://www.infocom.cqu.edu.au/Courses/ delivers business oriented and technology oriented computer classes. This study focused on 21 courses as outlined in Table 11.
Table 11: Courses included in CQU study
The names and email addresses of over 1500 individuals who had posted messages to the discussion lists were recorded. Students had email domain names from Australia, Brunei, Fiji, Hong Kong, Malaysia, New Guinea, Singapore, and Taiwan. The first step was to extract students from Australia and Fiji with an email domain of .fj or .au. Students with email addresses from hotmail, yahoo, etc. were not included. Several students participated in more than one class, but most names were unique.
The next step was to separate the teachers from the students. It was assumed that teachers and teaching assistants would be regular contributors to their class discussion list. After tabulating the number of posts by each remaining participant a small group of very frequent posters was investigated. This involved checking on each class syllabus for the names of teachers and assistants. A further check was carried out by searching for frequent poster email addresses on Google to determine whether they were affiliated professionally with CQU. This led to 42 further individuals being removed from the sample.
The final step was perhaps the most difficult and subjective of the steps taken to refine list. The purpose of the study was to compare students from collectivist and individualist cultures. It was decided therefore to remove "western" students from the Fiji sample, and to ensure that the Australian sample included only "western" students. In Fiji there were only a handful of students with "western" names who were removed. In Australia about 15% of students had names that appeared to several investigators to be Asian in origin. It was obviously impossible to tell whether these students had just arrived in Australia, or had lived there for generations. However, to avoid the possibility of confounding study findings with a mixed individualist/collectivist Australian sample, the individuals identified were excluded.
The remaining sample consisted of 653 students from Australia studying information technology classes, and 160 studying business information systems classes; and 47 students from Fiji studying information technology classes, and 7 studying business information systems classes. Given the small sample size of Fijian students, the sample of business IS classes and computer IT classes were combined.
Results and Discussion
The T-Test in Table 12 below suggests that Australian students send significantly more posts to their discussion board than Fijian students. This confirms H1 that Australian students (Individualist culture) would be more active in discussion lists than Fijian students (Collectivist culture).
Table 12: Comparison of list posting behavior by cultural background
The final stage of analysis focused on the content of messages posted to the discussion lists. A random sample of 260 messages was drawn from Australian and Fijian students. Message content was coded as either a question, an answer, or social. The CHI Square statistic in Table 13 suggests that there are quite significant differences between Fijian and Australian students' posting behavior.
Table 13: Comparison of list posting behavior by message type
As expected in H2 Australian students appear more ready to respond to questions than Fijian students. Fijian students volunteering fewer answers to the list. A plausible explanation might be because if their answer is inappropriate they feel anxious about "losing face" among their peer group. Another possibility could be that Fijian students view participation on the list as not directly affecting their grade, and will therefore see no reason to volunteer answers. As expected in H3, an analysis of Fijian messages confirmed that a large percentage of messages were social in nature; students seem to use the lists more for forming groups than Australian students. Further investigation of questions asked by Fijian students indicated a need for reduction in ambiguity about assignment specifications. This appears to support H3 that Australian students had proportionately far fewer questions, primarily technical in nature, or interestingly focusing on what they should take next semester.
The CQU analysis found evidence of a greater usage of email by students from an individualistic culture, as opposed to students from a collectivist culture. Collectivist students appear to send different types of messages. They tend to ask more questions than individualist students, and their questions are more likely to focus on group formation, and reduction of assignment ambiguity. The individualistic students are more likely to volunteer answers than the collectivist students.
The USP study suggested that collectivist students were more likely to use email to interact socially with their peers, than they were to use it for contacting their lecturers. The USP study compared the numbers of emails sent by students from the regions with students from the main centers. There was evidence of less usage of email by students from a rural background, but it was not conclusive, and the influence of other factors such as unequal access to technology could not be ruled out.
However as both studies were of a limited sample of individualist/collectivist students in the Pacific region, generalization of these findings should be treated with caution.
As no work seems to have been done to formally classify the different cultures of the South Pacific using Hofstede’s model, and this would obviously be a useful starting point for future studies.
The South Pacific covers a vast area and the process of collecting data is time consuming. The initial questionnaires in the survey were given out in November 2000 and since then the situation at USP has changed with the upgrading of the Internet connection from 256 kbps to 1mb. The introduction of the STUDENET intranet has also improved student access to lecture notes and email. As with all universities, USP’s use of technology is changing rapidly and data collected need to be constantly updated.
This quantitative survey suggests reluctance by students from a collectivist background to use email for teaching and learning, though there is a widespread social use of email. A useful follow up would be to carry out qualitative research, interviewing students and academics to gain a more in depth understanding of the reasons for some of the observed behaviors.
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