Cara Skikne

Cultural differences in online learning by Brad Farnsworth


Brad Farnsworth is a member of the Studyportals Advisory Board and is the former Vice President for Global Engagement at the American Council on Education. He is currently Principal at Fox Hollow Advisory, which advises higher education institutions on international strategy.

In response to the prevalence of online learning during the pandemic, this year’s Global Student Satisfaction Awards include a new award category for online learning. Brad Farnsworth spoke to Studyportals Senior Editor Cara Skikne about navigating cultural differences in online classrooms and making sure international classrooms are inclusive.

Strategies to support international students 

There are two limitations that stand out when it comes to ensuring inclusivity in the classroom, and those are English language ability and a comfort level with speaking up in front of a large group. “You need to anticipate some of the problems that international students will have with English.”

Farnsworth says that even students who have a relatively strong grasp of the language often still find difficulty expressing their ideas spontaneously – something that is expected in Western classrooms: I’m talking about students who score extremely well on English proficiency exams. Their listening comprehension is excellent, their reading comprehension is excellent. They can write a sophisticated report.  It’s more the dynamic of a Western classroom where there’s a lot of colloquial language, people are not always speaking clearly, sometimes people are nervous.” 

The challenge of encouraging student participation is amplified in the online learning environment where it can be more difficult to gauge how engaged the class is and where not much is communicated through non-verbal feedback and body language. But some things have worked for Farnsworth: One thing I’ve done a lot of is ask the native speakers to repeat. The other thing you can do is say, watch the colloquialisms. Watch your speaking speed, be sure to pronounce every word clearly.”

Farnsworth suggests asking discussion questions in advance so that international students have some time to think about what they want to say in class. He also suggests starting the discussion in smaller groups where it can be more comfortable for students to test their ideas. “So, it’s kind of a scaffolding where you start out with a lower stress level, and then you build to it.  I think all things are even more relevant in the online environment.”

Other cultural differences can also come up in class. Power differentials between students and teachers in some cultures can mean some international students feel hesitant to approach their teachers during office hours. Farnsworth suggests making 15-minute meetings between students and instructors mandatory to discuss how to increase their comfort level in class.

Developing soft skills in international classrooms

Farnsworth repeatedly emphasizes the importance of learning how to speak in front of a large group. He believes that this soft skill is something that must be cultivated amongst students as part of their professional development.

“A phenomenon I’ve seen is that if you present questions in advance, the international students will diligently prepare and deliver a very carefully crafted response. But it’s the follow-up questions that are much harder to get used to. It’s the same issue in the work or social environment.”

How do you help these students develop these soft skills? “Create as many low stress environments as you can. Whether that is small group discussions with peers or getting online with a professor to get to know the students better.”

Farnsworth points out that these nuances are difficult to prepare for and can only be learnt by doing. To develop this ability, international students must also break the tendency to cluster together when studying abroad. “You’ve got to interact with native speakers,” he says.

“I think that there’s another misunderstanding about international students: that they are coming to the States or Western Europe to get a credential and that they want the clearest, fastest pathway to a university degree.  While there certainly is a kind of international student like that, there are also many, many international students who want a much broader extracurricular experience that includes meeting a lot of foreigners–and not just from the host country but from all over the world. These students are learning soft skills.” 


International content

With universities becoming increasingly multicultural, it becomes more important for educators to teach with inclusivity in mind. Including international content and asking international students about the experience in their own country are ways to bring international students into the discussion: “If you’re talking about currency crises in international finance, you’re going to have students in that classroom from Latin America who actually grew up and experienced a currency crisis.”

As illuminating as these discussions can be, they can also spur conflict inside the classroom: “most of what I teach has international content. I can be pretty brutal in my criticism of the policies of countries and in some cases that has offended students.” 

“They have to understand that’s part of the American education system, you are going to hear criticisms of decisions, and you don’t have to agree with everything the professor is saying. You can come to your own conclusions.”

Despite these stark cultural differences, Farnsworth has found that in his experience, many international students thrive in these dynamic settings. “In many ways, international students who come to the American classroom are not typical,” he says.

He adds that students who have grown up in such cultural environments are oftentimes attracted to the environment of the Western classroom. “It just takes them a while to get used to it.”

Farnsworth says: These are students who have grown up in a different classroom environment but found it lacking, so they really want something else. They like the idea of the give and take in the classroom and they like the idea of having more than one answer to a really challenging question. Some international students literally pull out their laptops and come up with information online that challenges what I’m saying in the classroom and in real time”.

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