Learning in an online distance education course: Experiences of three international students


  • Zuochen Zhang University of Windsor
  • Richard Kenny Athabasca University




distance education, online learning, CMC, international students


This case study explores the learning experiences of three international students who were enrolled in an online master’s program offered by a large university in Canada. The aim of the study was to understand the international students’ experiences with, and perspectives on, the online learning environment. Findings indicate that previous education and especially language proficiency strongly impacted the learning of these students in this environment. Non-native English speakers required considerably more time to process readings and postings and to make postings themselves. Their lack of familiarity with the details of North American culture and colloquial language made it difficult to follow much of the course discussion. They also tended to avoid socializing in the course, which left them at the periphery of course activities. Based on these findings, the authors make the following recommendations for designers and instructors of online courses: 1) Raise the English language proficiency requirement for graduate admissions into online programs because the text-based communication in a CMC space requires interpreting messages without non-verbal cues; 2) Ensure that online distance education course designers are aware of the needs and expectations of international students; and 3) Combine the design principles from both traditional and constructivism theories.

Author Biographies

Zuochen Zhang, University of Windsor

Zuochen Zhang, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor with Faculty of Education at the University of Windsor. He teaches ICT literacy courses to undergraduate and graduate students, and research methods to graduate students. His research interests include ICT integration into school curriculum, ICT for development, e-learning, and international education.

Richard Kenny, Athabasca University

Rick Kenny is an Associate Professor with the Center for Distance Education at Athabasca University in Alberta, Canada. He has Ph.D. in Educational Technology from Syracuse University and 40 years experience in education at the K-12 and university levels. He has been an instructional designer with both the Calgary Board of Education and the University of British Columbia and has held faculty positions at the University of Ottawa and Athabasca. Rick teaches instructional design, learning theory, and research methods. His research interests include (in order of recent activity!) mobile learning applications and strategies, e-Portfolios, instructional design and change agency, and emerging technologies to foster higher-order thinking. He is also a past editor of the one of CNIE’s journals, the Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology.



How to Cite

Zhang, Z., & Kenny, R. (2010). Learning in an online distance education course: Experiences of three international students. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 11(1), 17–36. https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v11i1.775



Research Articles