Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. April 2006

15.1. Transnational Activism, (Cyber-)Cultural (Re-)Presentations and Global Civil Society
Herausgeber | Editor | Éditeur: On-Kwok Lai (Kwansei Gakuin University, Japan)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Innovations and Knowledge Transfers through Online Learning: Cultural Representation and Identity of Social Work Students in Chinese Communities

Yu-cheung Wong (Department of Social Work and Social Administration, University of Hong Kong)


1. Introduction

Advancement in information technology has accelerated the development of the twin brothers - information society and knowledge economy in very recent years; they are both the cause and consequences of the recent waves of globalization. In relatively developed economies, the transformation in the knowledge economy is crucial and urgent. Becoming or transforming oneself into a knowledge worker is one important avenue for individuals to share the benefits of the new knowledge economy. Naturally, higher education has an important role to play in educating and re-educating young members of society as well as the existing work force. Using information technology in the education/re-education process apparently has great benefits for higher education institutions and students. Many attempts have been made in recent years, with varied degrees of success. Recent discussions have focused on learning theories associated with the new learning environment, which relied heavily on the use the information and communication technology to deliver teaching contents. Concerns about emotions, cultures and other factors not directly related to the intellectual/cognitive content of the subject matter have been growing. This paper outlines such concerns and presents the experience of teaching in the new learning environment for Chinese social work students residing in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Recommendations are made to improve the teaching and learning experience and areas for future studies.


2. Knowledge Workers and Higher Education

Drucker (2001) considers that in the knowledge economy, the nature of work, in terms of types of knowledge and skills needed and the relationship between the employees and employers have changed. Most of the employees are owners of the "means of production" - their own knowledge. The traditional core "knowledge worker", doctors, clerics, teachers, lawyers, is accompanied by a new rank of knowledge technologists, e.g. software programmers, x-ray technicians, physiotherapists, ultrasound specialists, psychiatric case workers, dental technicians, etc., who earn their income by using their knowledge instead of their skills. Knowledge workers have to obtain their "means of production" through formal education and long hours of practice and they have to up-date their knowledge regularly and frequently over the long years in their career. Formal as well as continuing education is a growing "business" in the developed as well as the developing world. The use of an e-learning environment is in growing demand. To be effective in any learning environment, be it in the traditional classroom, in apprenticeship, or in the new e-learning environment, it is necessary to have a pedagogical approach, or a theory to explain how learning occurs and make the best out of, or modify the learning environment accordingly.

Concomitant to the rise of knowledge economy, great demands have been placed on the higher education sector, which plays a pivotal role in producing the workforce for the knowledge economy. One immediate impact is in the growth in the number of degree holders(1) graduating from universities and many of these degree holders are not young adults. Instead, many have a full-time job while studying to a degree for the first time or coming back to up-grade their knowledge and academic qualifications. Their needs and work schedule are very different from that of the ordinary students, who are mostly in their late-teens. There are growing numbers of private universities (for e.g. Phoenix university), or continuation education units of traditional universities to tap this growing market. Though some over-optimistic attempts went bust with the burst of the dotcom bubble in the late 1990s (for e.g. Fathom & Temple University, see "Higher Ed Inc," 2005), privately funded universities are aggressive in using the online learning environment to deliver their courses. However, such enthusiasm is not common among traditional universities for the simple reason that faculty have little incentive in investing in online teaching because there is little relevance, except for a few, to the major yardstick that measures their performance - research output and publications.

Apart from the incentive issues, to teach in a new environment demands, on the parts of teachers, to understand the major features, constraints of the environment and how learning can effectively occur in such an environment. In other words, there is a need to have a better understanding of the new learning environment and a theory about how learning occurs among learners or students.

To the first question, most literature describes certain common characteristics such as flexibility in terms of time and space, autonomy in choosing the space and sequence of learning, accessibility to ever expanding and updating knowledge through links to external resources, connectivity through which experts and graduates can contribute conveniently, e.g. through chat room or forums, etc.


3. Theory ab out e-Learning

Currently a growing amount of literature points to the constructivist theory of learning and considers that online environments are good for learning (Brenda, 2005; Brooks & Brooks, 1993; Bigge & Shermis, 1999; Hughes & Daykin, 2002; Jonassen, Peck, & Wilson, 1999; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Phillips, 2000; Steffe & Gale, 1995). In brief, constructivists contend that learners should take an active part to construct in their mind the knowledge of the subject they studied. The knowledge so constructed should be tested in different contexts using authentic cases in order to verify whether the knowledge they constructed can be adequately applied in different contexts. On the other hand, the constructivist theory values the contribution of peers in enabling their co-learners in knowledge construction through comparison, clarification, discussion and debate. The role of the teacher changes from the knowledge giver to the facilitator, organizing learning materials, conducting learning activities, creating a conducive learning atmosphere through presenting clear expectations and providing adequate support for students’ learning, designing and administering assessment methods that are close to the way they expect students to learn in the process.

The online learning environment contains features that are quite commensurate with the constructivist learning theory. Comparison studies have tested that this new way of teaching is as effective as the traditional classroom teaching (Wong, 2003); for the flexibility and autonomous features of the online learning environment enable students to follow their own pace and interest in knowledge construction. The embedded communication features in most online learning environments (such as WebCT, eCollege, Blackboard) provide tools that enable teachers and learners to compare, clarify, discuss and debate with each other. Given the widely applied instant messaging applications such as MSN and AOL IM, and a host of commercially available free chat rooms, email facilities, keeping in touch with students and teachers will never be a problem in an online learning environment. Bringing in experts and tapping resources in real-life can easily be achieved via the internet. There will never be a shortage of authentic applications and an opportunity for testing knowledge. The role of the teacher in selecting learning materials, authentic cases, challenging yet encouraging students’ knowledge construction becomes more crucial in the outcome of learning. Twigg (2001) suggests that the following pedagogical advantages can be derived from online teaching: 1) individualization of students (with emphasis on the importance students’ learning style); 2) improving the quality of student learning; 3) increasing access to higher education (the more virtual the delivery mode, the more accessible); 4) reducing costs of teaching and learning (restructuring how course are developed and offered); 5) sustaining innovation (the need for a new kind of institutional research to ‘determine the most efficient and effective paths for different kinds of learners in particular curricula or courses’).


4. Socio-Cultural Concerns in the New Environment

So far, it seems that constructivist learning theory and online learning environment becomes very promising. However, many students still like to attend lecturers and sometimes pay a comparatively greater amount of money to attend courses simply to obtain knowledge that they could easily acquire through the internet. This is puzzling. Perhaps, wanting to see others, feeling being part of something visible are human instincts that older cohorts have deeply embedded in their (our) minds through earlier experience (it is not sure whether the future cohorts, who grow up in this great internet age can do away with this tendency completely). Recent research have turned to other psycho-social aspects such as social presence (Swan, 2002; Tu, 2001), emotions (Redden, 2003; Glazer, 2002; MacFadden, Maiter, & Dumbrill, 2002, MacFadden, 2005) and culture (Wong, 2004) that are not adequately attended to during the early stage of developing teaching in online learning environment.

Social presence, which is referred to as "the degree of feeling, perception, and reaction of being connected to another intellectual entity" (Tu, 2002), and the role emotion plays in learning process has pointed to areas that are not easy to address in an online environment. In classrooms, facial and body cues, such as sleepy eyes, isolated sitting, constant movement and private chats, will bring in useful feedback about whether students are interested in or whether they can follow the course content. Web-based learning does not allow such information to be available naturally during the course of teaching. In the earlier stages of designing and delivering web-based course materials, matters concerning content, cognitive aspects, technical issues, and means of assessment have been major concerns. Increasing, the socio-cultural as well as emotional dimensions in learning process have caught the attention of the educators as well.

Similar to traditional classroom instruction, online learning has been predominantely perceived as a rational/cognitive exercise for students. However, literature in learning indicates that emotion plays an important role in the way students approach learning. For e.g. Norman (2002) suggests that positive affect, such as excitement and happiness, broadens the thought process and leads to creative reasoning, while a negative affect, such as fear and anxiety, focuses the mind and leads to concentration. However, positive emotions might also lead to distraction and negative emotions can make it harder to do even simple tasks.

The online learning environment, which is also characterized by a lack of facial cues and an abundance of technical problems, such as a lack of feedback, dead links, slow connections, computer crash, lengthy materials, might result in confusion, frustration, anger and disappointment. However, the impact of emotions on the outcome of learning is seldom adequately explored, if not ignored. MacFadden (2005) attempts to develop a "constructivist, emotionally-oriented (CEO) model of web-based learning which emphasizes safety, challenge, and new thinking, and offers several strategies to enhance the emotional experience of learners." (p.79)

Cultural characteristics, which relate closely to social presence and emotional disposition, have also caught the attention of researchers in understanding online learning behaviour. Among others, the Confucian Heritage Culture (CHC), which have a significant influence in East Asian societies (Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, and Japan), have also been widely discussed. Most western scholars who have come into contact with students from CHC are puzzled by their passivity in class and discussions; but they nevertheless perform very well in assessments and especially in examinations (Watkins & Biggs, 2001). Passivity might be a virtue in traditional classroom using traditional understanding of teaching and learning (teachers transmit knowledge to students and ensure their retention through examination), but it is a problem from the constructivist learning perspective. In online learning environment, passivity means that students do not take an active part in expressing what knowledge they have constructed in their mind, and thus offer little avenue for their classmates (co-learners) to compare, clarify, discuss and debate with them. Similarly they contribute little to the learning of others.

To put it briefly, firstly, in CHC societies, teachers, parents, and probably students, attach great importance to education. To this, the long history of success in imperial examination, which has ended only a hundred years ago in China, as the major means for upward mobility for peasants to serve in the officialdom, plays an important role. Secondly, CHC stresses memorizing and replicating the content for better understanding a subject. Nevertheless, memorizing is taken by many students as more important than understanding. Thirdly, CHC stresses respect for adults and authority. They might feel insecure if the knowledge they come across does not come from or have the sanction of the teacher. This feature does not fit well with the constructivist theory of learning and it can be envisaged that students will feel insecure if they and their classmates together have to construct their own knowledge. Fourthly, CHC stresses harmony and induces a peculiar emphasis on face-saving, which stems from a strong sense of shame and guilt for doing something improper (Chan, 1999). Showing disagreement with others, especially in public, is not considered proper. Students might refrain from making comments to others and thus impede the process and outcome of learning. hier


5. Online Teaching Initiatives in Social Work Teaching in The University of Hong Kong (HKU)

The author has experience in conducting several online courses over the past seven years, mostly related to policy and information technology. All of them have a course website providing course information and course materials. Some of the course websites were built using the WebCT course development tool provided by the university in Hong Kong in which the author serves. Some of the courses involve international collaboration. One course uses the chat room to conduct weekly meeting with students residing in Shanghai, the other courses targeted local students in Hong Kong using a bulletin board for teaching and learning. Table 1 presents the courses offered in the Dept. of Social Work & Social Administration, HKU since 1998 (Table 1).

Table 1: Online courses offered by Dept. of Social Work & Social Administration


No. of Times

Target students


Number of students


(In addition to a course website)

Social Policy Issues


Hong Kong

BSW, B.Soc.Sc.

Average 20

Bulletin Board + F2F tutorials

Comparative Social Policy


Hong Kong

BSW, B.Soc.Sc., MSW

Average 18

Bulletin Board + F2F tutorials

Information technology in human services




Average 25

Chat Rooms + F2F presentations

*BSW is the Bachelor of Social Work (full-time) Programme which prepares students to become registered social workers; B.Soc.Sc. is Bachelor of Social Sciences Programme; MSW is the Master of Social Work Programme which is offered in both a full-time and part-time mode, which prepare students to become registered social workers

** All except the first course involve teachers outside Hong Kong

We have conducted focus group interviews to understand the learning experience of the students in one of the course "Social Policy Issues". Students expressed that "contribution to discussion was stressful," "they preferred answering question than asking one," "it’s important to probe students with stimulating questions," "it’s easier to express disagreement online than in face-to-face situations." A quasi experiment was conducted to compare students studying in online environment and traditional classroom in the course mentioned (Wong, 2003). The findings indicate that there is no significant difference between the overall performances of the students in either mode of learning. However, the perception of the students in the online mode are more positive in terms of "student cohesiveness," "task orientation," "innovation," and "individualization". The differences are statistically significant but there is no apparent difference between students’ satisfaction about learning in the two modes of teaching and learning.

In the courses taught through chat rooms in collaboration with a teacher from USA, the students, who mainly resided in Shanghai, China, consistently rated highly on the following items in two consecutive years: " The format of this course encouraged students to learn," "Overall, the learning environment in this course is better than most courses," "My instructor was more available in this course than in other courses," "Working with other students in this course was easier than working with students in most courses," "I am more satisfied with class discussion in this course than in other courses." The students rated very low on the item "I often felt the need for face-to-face communication in this course." (Wong & Schoech, 2005)


6. Lessons Learned and Recommendations

The following lessons were learned in offering these online courses over the years; some are more relevant to teachers internationally.

  1. A combination of bulletin board and face-to-face tutorials are viable when students are able to meet locally
  2. Chat is a viable delivery medium for international social work courses
  3. Language and cultural barriers are difficult to overcome when teaching internationally
  4. Technical difficulties are a major concern and difficult to handle remotely (Wong & Schoech, 2005)

The followings are the recommendations to teaching in online learning environment.

  1. Identify the "quiet" students and intervene at an earlier stage. Students who are quiet in the beginning are likely to remain quiet throughout the course. It is useful to let students know that teachers notice their performance in the course and are concerned about their progress in learning. If possible, discuss with those students to identify the difficulties they encountered in the new learning environment and address them at an earlier stage. Encouraging students to describe their emotional state through using verbal description and emotional icons is useful for students to express their feeling and allow teachers and classmates to react appropriately.
  2. Have a clearer personal identification in CMC. Students prefer to use handles in computer mediated communications (CMC). Handles (or nicknames), however, do not easily offer themselves for identifying particular persons even though students know both before joining a course. It is good to include some face-to-face sessions if possible in the beginning, or at least ask the students to introduce themselves, show others their own homepages, their favorite websites in CMC, etc. It’s also good to include instant messaging functions in the e-learning environment to allow them to know who else is online at the same time and talk with each other if they want. Sometimes, the students will take the initiative to exchange emails, instant message handles, etc.
  3. The use of language is an issue. Although English is a second language in most regions of CHC, writing and speaking in English is still challenging for many. In fact, the online learning environment gives students more time to prepare their messages before posting them, than speaking up in a traditional classroom does. Students still require more encouragement in the beginning. Avoid lengthy messages in the beginning, give more appreciation to students’ effort, state clearly the expectations (e.g. content is more important than language skills) that are useful to engage students.
  4. Require teachers to perform different roles. Being a facilitator of learning is the key role for teachers subscribing to the constructivist learning perspective in an online learning environment. The presence of the teacher is important, though lengthy lecturing messages discourage students to take an active part in learning, especially among students from CHC regions. Instead, setting clearer expectations, giving encouragement for better participation, probing with stimulating questions, pointing to inconsistencies in students’ knowledge of reality, keeping discussion in focus are more important tasks.
  5. Don’t overlook technical issues - Technical problems, such as poor connectivity, shut down of server, and dead-links frustrate students’ learning. It is important to test and re-test the system and check the proper links in the course website. Use reliable, low-tech options. For example audio and video in chat rooms are interesting features but they are very unreliable in a chat room with more than a handful of persons. Keep a watch for new communication tools to improve communications.


7. Conclusion

Learning online has established itself as a viable learning environment. It is particular promising when a growing number of knowledge workers need to obtain their qualifications and update their knowledge at different stages of their career. Students in traditional universities benefits from it too, though not the way optimists have envisaged. However, to deliver the course effectively in the new learning environment, having a theory about learning that is compatible with it, is essential. Constructivist theory, with its stress on learners and their peers in the knowledge construction process appears to suit this new learning environment better. However, issues related to socio-cultural aspects of the society and learner are drawing more attention and we have to find better ways to address those issues in order to achieve better learning process and outcome in the new learning environment.

© Yu-cheung Wong (Department of Social Work and Social Administration, University of Hong Kong)


(1) According to an OECD report (OECD, 2005), participation in tertiary education grew in all OECD countries between 1995 and 2003. In half of the OECD countries with available data, the number of students enrolled in tertiary education increased by over 30% (OECD, 2005, p. 246). A majority of young people - 53% on average - will undertake at least some tertiary education at university level or equivalent during their lifetimes (p.14). In Australia, Finland, Hungary, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Poland and Sweden, more than 60% of young people enter tertiary-type A (traditional degree) programmes (OECD, 2005, p.242).


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15.1. Transnational Activism, (Cyber-)Cultural (Re-)Presentations and Global Civil Society

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Yu-cheung Wong (Department of Social Work and Social Administration, University of Hong Kong): Innovations and Knowledge Transfers through Online Learning: Cultural Representation and Identity of Social Work Students in Chinese Communities. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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