Toward understanding the study experience of culturally sensitive graduate students in American distance education programs

Sandra Elizabeth Walker Fernandez, Florida International University


The purpose of this research was to gain an understanding of the study experience of non-American graduate students living outside of the United States and formally engaged in graduate studies in an American Distance Education (DE) Program. These students have been labeled “culturally sensitive.” The nature of this study dictated a qualitative case study methodology using in-depth interviews to collect the data and the hermeneutic approach to understanding and description. This study aims at generating questions and hypotheses that will lead to further investigations that explore the need for cultural and contextual sensitivity in order to provide more equitable and accessible higher education for all. The study attempted to answer the question: What is the study experience of “culturally sensitive” graduate students in American DE Programs? The underlying issue in this study is whether education designed and provided by educators of different socio-cultural backgrounds from that of the students could be content relevant and instructionally appropriate, resulting in educational enhancement and/or prepare students to function adequately in their own communities. Participants in this study (n = 12) were engaged in Master's level (n = 2) and Doctoral level (n = 10) DE programs at American Universities, and were interviewed by E-mail, face-to-face, or using a combination of the two. Data analysis compared interviews and highlighted repetitive patterns. Interview data was triangulated with recent related literature and data from document reviews of archived E-mail conversations between students and their professors. The patterns that emerged were coded and categorized according to generative themes. The following themes were identified in order to analyze the data and confirmed through participant check-back: program benefits, communication, technology, culture and methodology, and reflectivity. Major findings in this study indicate that culture plays an important role in cross-cultural encounters for students in American DE programs vis-à-vis student perceptions as to whether their study needs were being met. Most notably, it was found that the coupling of cultural perceptual differences with transactional distance created a potential barrier to communication that could affect short-term success in American DE programs. To overcome this barrier, students cited good communication as essential in meeting student's needs, especially those communications that were supportive and full of detail and context and from a primary source (ex. directly from the professor). Evaluation was a particularly sensitive issue, especially when students were unaware of their professor's cultural and contextual intricacies and therefore were uncertain about expectations and intended meaning. CSGS were aware of their position and the American rather than global context in which they were participating. Students appear to have developed “extended identities”, meaning that they acculturated in varying degrees in order to be successful in their program but that their local cultural identity was not compromised in any way. For participants from Venezuela access to higher DE has been a limiting factor to participation, due to the high cost of technology and telephone lines for communication.

Subject Area

Higher education|Adult education|Continuing education|Educational software

Recommended Citation

Walker Fernandez, Sandra Elizabeth, "Toward understanding the study experience of culturally sensitive graduate students in American distance education programs" (1999). ProQuest ETD Collection for FIU. AAI9952373.