Faculty Focus


Supporting International Students in the Online Environment

The online learning platform is gaining popularity worldwide. Ambient Insight found that 12 million post-secondary students currently take online courses and this number is expected to explode to 22 million by 2014 (cited in Nagel, 2009). This research is exciting for those of us committed to teaching in the online environment, but also presents many challenges.

One area of challenge I have personally experienced is the relational and learning aspects of teaching foreign students. I have had students from all over the world in my courses. While I enjoy the rich diversity of foreign students in the online environment, I realize that I do not always respond well or effectively relate course material to this population. This was brought to my attention when I received an email from a student that simply stated “have sent two emails with no response, reasons?” I handled this as any good instructor would and explained that I had not received the emails and did not find the phrasing of this most recent email professional. I received a response from this student profusely apologizing, explaining he was from a remote area of Africa, this was his first venture into online learning, and he desired to learn how to communicate by Western standards, and would I please teach him? I was mortified by the assumptions I had so quickly made regarding a student I had never met and knew little about.

I had a similar situation with another student I had labeled as “high maintenance.” This student could not complete an assignment independently. Every week I received multiple emails with questions about the assignments. Finally, frustrated, I recommended that we communicate verbally at the beginning of each week which may help with the understanding of requirements. A returned email indicated that this student lived in Romania, and course content was translated on her computer in her native language. Again, I was humbled by my naivety and embarrassed by my inability to look beyond my daily frustrations into the world of my students. These two incidents prompted the realization that I must start thinking outside the boundaries of the “Americanized” student.

There is anonymity in the online environment and therefore, the onus is on the instructor to deliver course materials in a manner by which all students have the opportunity to succeed. While I still have a long way to go in relation to meeting the needs of my foreign students, here are a few things I have learned:

  • Be slow to react and even slower in being offended by communications from students in your online courses.
  • If you are not already doing so, set up an introduction area in discussion board or create a wiki/blog and require students to introduce themselves prior to the start of class. Give them specific questions they must answer so you can get to know them better. Then, make sure you read the students’ posts so you understand their point of reference.
  • Be prepared that students not residing in or native to Westernized cultures will have unique learning needs. If they are English Language Learners (ELL) this adds another dimension that could prove difficult.
  • Working with a foreign student in the online environment may take a great deal of time and effort from the instructor. Be patient and compassionate, exercising as much flexibility as appropriate.

I apologized to my student from Africa for the assumptions I had made and rewrote the email he sent me in a more professional manner, so he could learn how to effectively communicate in the online environment. I continue to work closely with this student on assignments and the technology associated with online learning. It has been rewarding, but a huge undertaking. My hope is he will successfully complete my class and be better prepared for success in future classes. Recently, he wrote me an email thanking me for working closely with him in what has proved to be a challenging endeavor. He asked if he could affectionately refer to me as “Mum,” as that is how he has come to view me. I never anticipated the impact my extra time and attention would have on this particular student. Humbled once again, I responded that I would be honored to be called “Mum”.

Negal, D. (2009, October) Most college students to take classes online by 2014. Campus Technology, [Electronic Version]. Retrieved from

Tracey Pritchard, EdD is an assistant professor in the School of Education at Liberty University.