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Diversity in Expectations of Quality and Assessment in Online Learning – Part 1 of 2 – The Asian and European Context

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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American and European cultures have similar values regarding the work-life-study balance, whereas there are no related statements in the Asian context.  The most striking difference emerged when researchers analyzed the learning preferences of the Asian students. 


The posting below is the first of a two-part posting that looks at the differences in expectations of quality and assessment in online learning within the Asian, European and American contexts. This posting looks at the Asian and European contexts and the next posting will look at the American context. It is from Chapter 9 – Diversity in Expectations of Quality and Assessment, by Albert Sangra, Stella Porto, and Insung Jung in the book Culture and Online Learning: Global Perspectives and Research, edited by Insung Jung and Charlotte Nirmalani Gunawardena. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102.

Copyright © 2014 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Diversity in Expectations of Quality and Assessment in Online Learning – Part 2 of 2 – The American Perspective



Tomorrow’s Teaching and Leaning

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Diversity in Expectations of Quality and Assessment in Online Learning – Part 1 of 2 – The Asian and European Context 


Quality of online learning is a complex and multidimensional issue (Jung, 2011).  This is partly due to the extremely diverse range of definitions of online learning (Sangra, Vlachopoulos, & Cabrera, 2012) and the various interpretations of quality in the context of online learning (Abdous, 2009; Dondi, Moretti, & Nascimbeni, 2006).  If one considers quality as a means of achieving the aims of different participants in the teaching and learning process, then the three dimensions of online quality assessment, proposed by Harvey and Knight (1996), should be considered. 

According to Harvey and Knight, the first dimension of quality assessment can be conducted at different levels within the organization.  The institutional level relates to the mission and institutional objectives, whereas the program or course level evaluates learning objectives and online support programs.  Another level of quality assessment can happen with the disaggregated elements of online learning such as content, learning materials, teaching strategies, support services, library systems, and so on (Sangra, Guardia, & Gonzalez-Sanmamed, 2007). 

The second dimension relates to stakeholders.  Both Ehlers (2004) and Twigg (2001) examined quality in e-learning initiatives from various stakeholder perspectives, including that of students relative to their progress, performance, and level of satisfaction and that of teachers, examining their degree of interest and effectiveness.  Administrators may focus on cost-effectiveness and learning outcomes. 

The third dimension is the approach to quality assessment.  In this case, it may be difficult to talk about quality without focusing on a particular area or unit of analysis.  Thus, four approaches can be taken: (a) a technological approach, which focuses on the whole set of technical requirements, devices, and software being used for online learning; (b) an economic approach, which looks into cost-benefit and financial results of online learning; (c) an educational approach, which values learning progress and the performance of online learners; and finally (d) a global approach, which aims at striking a balance between the aforementioned approaches. 

Considering the complexity and value-laden nature of quality, this chapter will explore the diversity of expectations, experiences, and meanings of quality and assessment in online learning at different levels (institutional, program, and course levels) and from different perspectives (students, teachers, and administration).  It highlights similarities and differences in assessing the quality of online learning in three cultural contexts (Asia, Europe, and the United States) and offers implications of such concepts for online learning providers. 

The Asian Context 

Quality is a relative concept and may be viewed differently by different stakeholder groups.  For example, in a study employing a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods, Cashion and Palmieri (2002) reported that 357 Australian learners who were in online vocational education and training programs rated flexibility as the number one factor in assessing the quality of online learning, whereas it was rated far lower by online instructors.  On the other hand, factors such as induction, communication with teachers and other students, and a hybrid of face-to-face and online learning were deemed less important by learners while being cited as highly important by most instructors.  Although the instructors believed that the learners would demand much training and support, learners did not indicate a need for a considerable amount of orientation or initial support to study online. 

Differences in the view of quality in online education are also observed in various cultures.  In the context of Asia, Jung (2012) surveyed over 1,600 Asian distance learners across 11 countries and 1 territory and identified several factors that learners considered important in assessing the quality of online education.  Well-structured course materials that follow clear development guidelines and incorporate learners’ needs were viewed as most critical (see chapter 16).  Unlike Asian learners, European learners tend to perceive didactic and collaborative learning as a key quality factor in online learning, as discussed in the following section.  A study conducted by Ehlers (2004) with experienced European online learners revealed that European learners focused on collaboration, online discussions, interactive tutor support, and didactics, which include provision for frequent feedback on individualized tasks.  This may indicate that a majority of Asian learners, compared with their European and other counterparts, tend to perceive distance education as a form of independent study.  As such, they value clearly organized course content with easy-to-follow directions, while taking little account of value-added elements of online learning, such as collaborative activities and interactions.  This may explain why many online courses in Asia make relatively little use of interactive functions and collaborative learning (Latchem & Jung, 2009). 

A 2-year action research, investigating the effects of scaffolding strategies for wiki-based online learning activity in a multicultural language class, found that students from different cultures held different beliefs and views of collaborative online learning (Jung & Suzuki, 2014).  They observed intense debates in European groups, a fair division of labor in American groups, and no evidence of editing their paper together by the Korean groups.  Although it was not possible to confirm that these variances were a consequence of cultural differences, it might be inferred that the cultural and perhaps educational differences influenced the different work patterns online.  Literature (e.g., Eriksen & Fossum, 2000) generally supports that Europeans value public discussion of important social issues.  This may explain the intensity of the European online learners’ interactions.  Americans are known for their values of fairness for all and responsibilities from all, which may explain the more equal distribution of responsibilities among the American group members.  Although these so-called Western groups focused on both the process and the product of wiki-based collaborative writing and editing, the Korean group failed to use the wiki editing function.  Instead, the learners met in person, worked in a word processor, and copied their final report into the wiki.  As argued by Park (2010) and Kim, Cho, and Kim (2010), Korean school culture tends to value outputs (e.g., scores in examinations and final school grades) and ignore the learning processes.  This may help to explain the trends observed in the Korean groups. 

The output-focused or examination-centered learning culture in Asia stems from Confucian philosophy.  For centuries, examination has been the most important method of measuring people’s abilities and virtues.  The rationale is said to promote fairness, based on merit, rather than one’s family background or political influence.  Although many Asian schools and universities have introduced other ways of selecting their students, such as recommendations and family contributions, examinations and tests, in a variety of formats, still prevail when schools grant admission to new students.  One could argue that these entrance examinations may have affected the teaching and learning culture, as well as learners’ behaviors, in the Asian educational system.  As Latchem and Jung (2009) reported, multiple-choice tests given at the end of each course are [E2] still a common way of assessment in many Asian distance universities.  Online teaching is theory based, focusing primarily on memorization rather than developing higher order cognitive abilities or collaborative skills.  Jung, Kudo, and Choi (2012) found that online collaboration presented psychological challenges for Japanese learners.  One could argue that Asian learners, who focus on output rather than process, experience more stress in collaborative online learning environments.  These students might consider learning processes such as building virtual relationships with other students, waiting for others’ responses, and making group decisions unnecessary to acquire a good grade on the final examination. 

Another important cultural dimension in education, highlighted by multiple studies, is that of plagiarism.  Dryden (1999) found that Japanese students and faculty tended to view plagiarism as inappropriate but not a big deal.  Rinnert and Kobyashi (2005) also confirmed that Japanese students did not perceive plagiarism as unacceptable.  Compared with American students, they lacked understanding on how to properly cite their work.  Possible reasons for the high rate of plagiarism among Asian students include external pressure to succeed (or getting a good grade), time limitation to complete their work, or simply a lack of knowledge about plagiarism (Banford & Sergiou, 2005).  With the sharp increase in plagiarism in an online environment, it is becoming more important to break old habits of Asian students and offer systematic training for properly citing sources. 

The European Context 

Online learning and the concept of quality are interpreted differently in the European context.  Although one of the first universities to offer online learning was in Europe (Sangra, 2001), higher education institutions in Europe are usually very suspicious and critical of innovative teaching and learning approaches.  The discourse revolves primarily around the pros and cons of online learning, compared with face-to-face teaching. 

From the learners’ perspective, seven fields of quality in e-learning have been identified by Ehlers (2004): tutor support; collaboration; technology; cost expectations and benefits; information transparency of provider and course; course structure and presentation; and didactics, a method of systematic instruction.  Cabrera (2008) examined graduate students’ perception of an online educational process and pointed out several elements of the online learning process that were crucial for their learning experience: the teachers, the learning materials, the assessment, their peers, and the student services.  Furthermore, Ralston-Berg (2009) highlighted organizational issues and the need for clarifying student expectations.  He explained that interaction requirements, grading policy, logical navigation instructions, directions on how to access resources, timing, and the array of online activities are important considerations from the students’ perspectives.  Flexibility and accessibility of resources and information are the two most valued benefits of online learning according to Haywood, Macleod, Haywood, Mogey, and Alexander (2004).  They argued that online learning fits better with their overloaded duties and helps them to save time.  On the contrary, technology requirements are usually considered as a barrier to online learning from the students’ point of view (Lao & Gonzales, 2005). 

Introduced by Sharpe and Benfield (2005), emotionality and time management are two interesting aspects related to perceptions of the online learning experience.  Because both relate to students and teachers, they are considered in a permanent dialogic relationship.  Emotionality is a concern given its link to isolation, alienation, and frustration.  Sharpe and Benfield pointed out regarding the reaction of the students facing a changing pedagogy, “It is not easy to move students from traditional passive attitudes to interactions of socialization and information sharing or peer feedback” (p. 5).  However, other studies, such as that of Cabrera (2008), have indicated that the e-learner experienced enhanced self-esteem and developed the “joy of learning” (Cleveland-Innes, 2012). 

Issues of time and time management can produce concerns: Students may feel under pressure because of time constraints, and they may also need to readapt their study patterns.  Given the novelty of online learning, teachers are often uncertain about the amount of time that should be allocated for students to complete the online learning activities and achieve the desired learning outcomes. 

Availability, accessibility of course material, and flexible study at a time and pace suited to the student are the three main advantages of online learning identified in Voce’s (2007b) survey at the University College London in the United Kingdom.  Flexibility is of particular importance, as it allows students to balance their studies alongside other commitments, such as family and work.  In challenging socioeconomic situations, this flexibility appears to be a trigger for development.  It is worth noting that students were more in favor of asynchronous communication between student and teacher (72%) than of synchronous communication.  On the other hand, Voce pointed out the drawbacks, which include lack of contact and interaction, technical issues, and Internet accessibility.  Particularly, students complained about the fact that online learning reduces the amount of student-teacher interactions, and they were concerned about the wait time for responses.  Interestingly, the same survey indicated the students’ concern about the potential distractions of using the Internet to study.  Despite the Net generation’s multitasking characteristic, European students indicate a focused concentration while studying as an important factor affecting the success in online learning.

The perceptions of teachers are quite similar to those of students regarding the benefits of online learning: availability and accessibility of courses in terms of “anytime, anywhere” and ability to work at your own pace (Voce, 2007a).  The perceived drawbacks are also similar.  Both students and teachers consider technical issues as relevant; however, teachers are much more concerned about their own and students’ technical skills.  They contended that students and teachers are lacking the skills needed to foster an efficient and beneficial online learning environment.  Other concerns relate to pedagogical reservations, regarding limited materials available both online and offline, and students’ expectations of teacher availability.  Regarding online learning activities, surveyed teachers gave more importance to the distribution of learning materials (84%) than any other activities.  This reflects the traditional European teaching methodology that focuses less on multimedia and interactive materials (37%) and collaborative activities and group work (37%).  In respect of communication, there is coincidence with the students’ view, rating asynchronous higher than synchronous. 

Given the novelty of online teaching and learning, the field of assessments offers many opportunities and much room for innovation.  Currently, most online courses have either an online exam or a face-to-face exam at the end of the course.  The search for computer-based solutions, addressing the concerns of plagiarism and cheating, is falling short of offering assessment systems that can solve the problem.  Although unusual at this point, some online programs are using a continuous assessment system.  The latest trend has been the use of e-portfolios (Barbera, Guardia, & Vall-Ilovera, 2009; Joint Information Systems Committee, 2008), helping to develop alternative assessment methods in online learning, which is likely to be the best way of assessing learning in the online learning environment.  Some studies have suggested that few students (34%) consider online exams as beneficial (Voce, 2007b).  New trends can encourage innovative online learning assessments, moving away from the replication of face-to-face structures and habits.  The kinds of activities that students prefer are online revision and practice exercises (even if they are not contributing toward a final mark), online submission of course work, and the receipt of progress reports.  Contrary to what has been said previously, peer assessment is not perceived as highly beneficial (37%).  Although the assessment culture is moving to continuous assessment models, peer-to-peer assessment still has a long way to go in the European context. 

References for both Parts 1 and 2.

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