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Creating more effective online learning experiences for Chinese international students

July 21, 2020 |   Andrea Hoymann

With COVID-19 forcing schools, universities and other educational institutions to pivot quickly to online learning, there’s no doubt there has been many teething problems. Inexperience combined with the speed in which these new ways of learning have had to be adopted have meant less-than-optimal outcomes for both educators and students.

This shift to online has been particularly difficult for international students, including Chinese international students, who have to contend with inconvenient time zones, language difficulties and struggles accessing the material they need – not to mention the disappointment in having to miss out on their overseas experience.

Many institutions are likely hoping to ride out this speed bump until they can return to normalcy. But the reality is online learning is not going to go anywhere soon. Currently, online learning is an important tool in allowing international students to maintain their visas and keep up with their degrees, with countries like Canada changing visa rules to allow students to begin their programs in time for the fall 2020 academic year and have their online study units count towards post-graduate work permit eligibility. Institutions in the US are also fighting hard to continue allowing international students to take online-only classes on their current visas. And many institutions are likely to continue a blended approach even after students are permitted to return to classrooms and lecture halls.

So how can education institutions create more effective online learning experiences, particularly for their substantial numbers of Chinese international students?

Recently we were fortunate enough to host a webinar by Lisa Vincent, CEO of Savv-e and How Too, and Bronwyn Leong, manager at Savv-e, who bring with them decades of experience creating award-winning digital learning content and software for some of Australia’s most recognised brands, corporations, educational institutions and government agencies.

The hour-long webinar is well worth a watch, as it is in itself a prime example of how to deliver really engaging online learning. However, if you’re short on time or just need a refresher, here’s a rundown of their most salient points.

What is effective online learning?

First, it’s important to understand what makes up effective online learning.

Effective online learning is:

• a learning experience that transforms behaviours and understandings
• linked to outcomes
• based on learning science and learning principles which takes from fields such as human psychology and neurology
• a learning experience that that takes full advantage of the benefits and possibilities of the digital medium

Effective digital learning is not:

• taking materials (such as lectures or pdfs) and sticking them online in an ad hoc manner

It’s important to be thoughtful about how to curate content and design the learning experience in order to get the desired outcomes from your students.

Understanding learners

Having a deep understanding of your learners is a crucial step towards thoughtfully designed and effective online learning experiences that meets their needs.

Here are a few of the particular challenges facing Chinese international students, and how online learning can help to address these.

They may be anxious or overwhelmed

At the best of times, studying internationally can be an anxious and overwhelming time – and with the current pandemic, there’s no doubt anxieties are heightened, regardless of whether students are in their home or host country. Chinese international students may be contending with language barriers, which may make face-to-face learning and real-time workshops or webinars particularly difficult, as listening skills are often not as developed as reading skills.

How online learning can help

Online learning can present students with a safe learning environment. Written English is much easier for students than spoken English, as it is more likely to be grammatically correct and avoid slang words and phrases, and they have time to process the language. There are also translation tools immediately at hand to help them if they run into any comprehension troubles.

Another aspect that’s particularly important in the current environment is that online learning can be accessed at any time, particularly if the course is self-paced. That means students don’t need to worry about inconvenient time zones, and they can do their learning at the times of day that suit them best.

They may be unsure, or even resentful about their chosen path

Some Chinese international students may be studying a particular course at the direction of their parents, who often play a significant role in the decision-making process. They may feel the weight of expectation from their parents, who have invested significant amounts of money into their studies and expect their child to be grateful. This can lead to feelings of uncertainty and indifference, and perhaps even resentment – all of which can impact on how they engage with the learning material.

Online learning can help spark curiosity and create excitement in studies by quietly challenging learners’ assumptions and positively reframing situations. A number of learning strategies can be employed to engage students in such a way, including personalised learning, adaptive learning and, of course, gamification.

They learn differently

While Western education encourages robust discussion, posing queries and challenging ideas, typically Chinese education encourages listening to teachers and absorbing information without question. To Chinese students, therefore, asking questions and challenging ideas in class can be seen as disrespectful. Many Chinese international students can be shocked by the outspokenness of Western students and may remain quiet in classrooms or struggle to provide critical responses, which can be perceived as disengagement by peers.

The beauty of online learning is it’s accessible by everyone, and it’s a great way to introduce principles and concepts to scaffold the learning experience. Students are free from judgment from their teachers or peers, there’s no pass/fail, and they can move at a very comfortable pace. Online learning can also be used as knowledge checks, which can ensure that practice or revision of concepts can also be done at the student’s own pace, and they can repeat modules as many times as needed to cement their understanding.

Engaging learners

Now that we have a slightly better understanding of our learners, how do we engage them through online learning so that the concepts really stick?

As we said earlier, online learning should be grounded in learning science and principles. One learning theory model that Lisa particularly likes is the AGES model, which provides four key ingredients for creating a successful learning experience: attention, generation, emotion and spacing.


In an online learning environment, distractions are plentiful – your inbox, social media and Google are all right there at your fingertips, and students aren’t under the watchful eyes of their teachers so they have to be self-accountable and self-disciplined. If their attention wanders, they are not going to be absorbing the material as well.

In this environment, grabbing students’ attention is critical. Some ways to do this include saying something surprising, meaningful or relevant – and if you can do two or even all three at the same time, all the better.

For example, here’s a statistic you may find surprising: if you’ve learnt a musical instruments, you will demonstrate better working memory and have improved concentration and attention. Statistics and nuggets of information like this can help keep students focused and engaged.


Research shows that learning is much more effective when students take an active and creative role in the process, rather than just passively absorbing information.

Generation is about linking the material to the learner’s existing web of knowledge, as this helps to create strong connections with the material in the learners’ minds. This can be done through activities such as self-reflection, testing or providing challenges. For example, you can ask students to reflect on what they already know or believe about a concept, or what personal experiences they have that relate to the concept.


As neuroscience has shown, the more we feel about something, the more likely we are to remember it. Building in a level of emotion into your digital delivery, therefore, is key in terms of content retention and memory. This can be done using techniques like storytelling, music, humour, games and exercise.


One reason we tend to have our best ideas in the shower is because we have space from the problem at hand, and space to let our ideas flow.

Learning is not a ‘dump and run’; it's a process. Giving people rest and reactivation is a fundamental part of your learning delivery, because that will help create lasting memories. When you give students a break, you give them a chance to refresh and revisit the material in a new context, all of which helps build deeper memory.

Breaks can also allow people to take advantage of sleep, which reactivates neural circuits and allows us to forget irrelevant information, so we get deeper insights.

You can take advantage of this in your online learning design by creating small chunks of learning that people can complete in, say, 20-minute sittings. Students can then be given a break to apply that learning before coming back for the next module.

Thinking about how you can create space for regeneration and application will help you get much better outcomes for your learning.

Developing online learning experiences

Time to get down to brass tacks: actually building an effective online learning experience. There are five steps to follow to create online learning:

• Discover your organisational needs and learner personas/needs
• Define outcomes for the learner and organisation
• Design a solution that works
• Develop, iterate and refine
• Deliver learning when it’s needed


To develop an effective solution, you need to be clear about what the objectives and requirements are. In other words, what is your organisation trying to achieve? Is it to increase applications or sign-ups? Is it to decrease drop-outs?

The other thing to consider in this step is who you are designing for. It can be useful to develop learner personas, or characters that represent learners, so that you can keep them front-of-mind during the development process (particularly as they won’t be in the classroom in the same way as they are in face-to-face learning).


In this step, you need to define what you are trying to achieve for your learners. What do you want your learners to be able to think, feel and do as a result of the learning experience? An example might be wanting a learner to successfully complete the application process. Having that outcome well defined will help greatly with structuring the learning solution.


When it comes to design, it’s useful to keep the AGES model in mind. So, for example, if you’re developing a learning module to help with the application process, you might start with some stories from other people who've completed the process, talking about what they’ve been able to achieve and how their lives have been benefited, in order to generate some emotions. You might break the application process up into small chunks. You might give people a chance to share their own experiences. You might have interactive elements to make the learner an active participant. You might have regular knowledge checks to make sure people are on the right track and give them some positive reinforcement to keep them engaged.

Addressing each aspect of the AGES model will help you create an outcomes-focused structure that will help get the results you’re after.


Once you’ve developed your online learning module, it’s essential to test it (preferably with people similar to your targeted learner persona), get feedback, and then further iterate and refine. This will help you work out any kinks and make improvements.


Learners are much more motivated to learn something when it’s actually needed, so looking at ways to deliver the learning so that people can access it just when they need to apply it will give you a much better chance of achieving the outcomes you laid out.

To see all these concepts in action, check out this great sample module put together by Savv-e.

Self-paced or live virtual learning?

Another thing to consider during the development phase is whether to do a self-paced or live virtual learning experience. Both have their advantages – Lisa recommends using live virtual during those occasions when there’s more opportunity for social interaction (such as university tutorials) and using self-paced learning to teach content that is easier for students to pick up on their own, without interaction.

It’s also worth remembering that they can work well in combination. One university, for example, found that by giving students self-paced modules that covered foundational knowledge as homework for students to do prior to live tutorials, the students were able to come to tutorials well versed in the fundamentals. That meant tutors didn’t need to waste time going over basic concepts, and could instead take concepts further and ask students more complex questions, allowing students to develop a deeper understanding. The students were also better prepared to make the most of the social interaction element of the tutorial and could spend more time doing group work, so they could really benefit from the live aspect of the class.

The do's and don'ts of live virtual learning

Many teachers, lecturers and professors can make the mistake of thinking delivering a live virtual class is not too different to delivering a lecture in a classroom. This approach, however, can result in a less-than-stellar experience for everyone, with teachers going in ill prepared and students left completely disengaged.

Here are some tips to ensure your live virtual learning goes off without a hitch:

1. Be prepared

It’s worth spending some time familiarising yourself with the technology well before the class. You may, for example, want to run a “test class” with your colleagues, using any features you may want to use during the class, such as screen sharing, so you can make sure you know how everything works.

It’s also important to set a plan that addresses the objectives and learning outcomes you want to achieve. For example, if you normally write things on a whiteboard or have interactive elements to your class, how can you translate this to the online environment?

It’s also recommended that you log on several minutes before the class in order to test your internet connection, camera and microphone, and make sure it’s all working so you can start the class on time.

2. Set some etiquette rules

It’s a good idea to set some ground rules so that everyone knows what to expect and can get the most out of the experience. This might include things like:

• Mute yourself when you’re not speaking: There’s nothing worse than hearing someone discussing what to have for dinner while you’re trying to listen to the teacher.
• Find somewhere quiet to participate: It can be difficult to hear students if they are in a loud environment, so ask that students try their best to find a quiet spot to do the class.
• Have the camera on at all times: This helps the teacher engage and build rapport with the students, and also helps ensure the students are engaged in the class.
• No multitasking or distractions: Students may be tempted to check their email or social media, so it’s worth making it clear that this is a no-no.

3. Find ways to inject elements of social interaction

One disadvantage of online learning is there is less opportunity for the type of organic social interaction you might get from going to a lecture or tutorial. Injecting some social interaction will allow the students to connect and build a rapport with you and with each other, and therefore be more engaged with the class.

You could, for example, start the first class with an icebreaker activity so that everyone can have a laugh and get to know each other. This will make them more comfortable to ask questions and participate in discussions.

4. Look for moments of re-engagement

Students are not going to get a whole lot out of the teacher just reading out an hour-long lecture. It’s important to find ways to continually engage students and help them to participate. This can be done through storytelling, videos, chat responses, polls or discussion. You could even ask questions directly to quieter students to ensure they’re not being left out.

5. Follow up

One way to ensure information retention is to send some type of follow-up, whether it’s by email or some other forum, to summarise the content that was covered, along with any valuable insights that the students shared during the session.

6. Welcome feedback

Feedback is an untapped resource that can really help you to improve the way you deliver your learnings – not only are students best placed to say what’s working and what’s not, they are also digital natives, so they may have interesting ideas and insights that may not have otherwise occurred to you.

Online learning is here to stay

One sentiment voiced by both domestic and international students is online learning delivers an inferior experience, and this is reflected in the relatively high drop-out rate of online courses.

While it’s true that online learning cannot replicate the experience of living overseas and studying in the classroom, by mindfully designing online learning and continually looking for ways to improve, you can decrease the drop-out rate, improve student engagement, and set yourself apart from other educational institutions. Once students are back in the classroom, institutions can then continue to bolster the learning experience with online components, so students can get the best of both worlds.

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