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English language and IT learning challenges in Australian offshore campuses

Beena Giridharan
Foundation Programme (English)
Curtin University of Technology, Sarawak Campus

Judith Guevarra Enriquez
School of Engineering
Curtin University of Technology, Sarawak Campus

Australian universities have long enjoyed the patronage of students from East Asia, especially from Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia. They have established themselves in being able to cater to the educational needs of the students. In recent years, Australian universities have shifted their focus to internationalisation, which in turn has seen the establishment of offshore campuses within Malaysia. One such university is the Curtin University of Technology in Miri, Sarawak. Such 'transfer' of education is not without its challenges, given the variation in educational background and learning context of the Malaysian students, in comparison to their Australian counterparts.

Specific challenges in an offshore campus like Curtin's relate to competency in the English language and limited IT exposure of the students. In general, Malaysian students have acquired a low level of English proficiency, due to the fact that Bahasa Melayu (BM) is the medium of instruction used in the school system, both at primary and secondary levels. English language is taught only as a second language and IT, which is not a compulsory subject, is imparted either in BM or English.

This paper presents the challenges facing lecturers in the offshore classroom scene, in both the teaching of English and IT skills. The offshore curriculum assumes that students have attained the required English proficiency. This overlooks the known educational context of learning of the students, which finds them unable to cope, adapt and perform within a 'foreign' curriculum. The challenge of the English language has its negative consequences, specifically with regards to students' ability to think with the computer, which undeniably 'speaks' largely in English. Thus, the computer fails as a tool in fully assisting the students in their learning.


Introduction

Australian universities have long enjoyed the patronage of students from East Asia, especially from Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia. They have established themselves in catering to the educational needs of Asian students. In the past two decades, Australian universities have shifted their focus to internationalisation, which in turn has seen the establishment of four offshore campuses within Malaysia. One such university is the Curtin University of Technology campus established in 1998 in Miri, Sarawak. Such 'transfer' of education is not without its challenges, given the variation in educational background and learning context of the Malaysian students, in comparison to their Australian counterparts.

This paper presents the challenges facing lecturers in the offshore classroom scene, in both the teaching of English and IT skills. The offshore curriculum assumes that students have attained the required English proficiency. This overlooks the known educational context of learning of the students, which finds them unable to cope, adapt and perform within a 'foreign' curriculum. The challenge of the English language has its negative consequences, specifically with regards to students' ability to think with the computer, which undeniably 'speaks' largely in English. Thus, the computer fails as a tool in fully assisting both the teachers and learners in teaching and learning.

It begins its discussion with the educational background of Malaysian students followed by their cultural background. The challenges that these factors bring to the classroom scene of an offshore campus in the teaching of the English language and of IT skills will follow. Lastly, it concludes in proposing that educational policies should be able to look into these challenges of teaching and learning wherein the educational process is not in any way similar to a production line wherein 'parts' are coming from Australia and the 'products' are assembled with the 'foreign parts' in Malaysia.

Educational differences

Our studies on learners' English language proficiency and IT competency at Curtin University of Technology, Sarawak, Malaysia has brought to our attention challenges that may not be easily resolved, firstly due to the general arrangement of the courses of study from the main campus to the offshore campus wherein what is largely communicated to the local community is 'get a foreign degree in your home country' and secondly, the adaptation to adoption process or synergy between the two campuses takes on a slow process of integration and 'enculturation' largely due to the educational differences in terms of background and national school systems where learners are 'products' from. Two aspects of educational differences between the main and offshore campuses in the educational process involved are presented in this section. These are: 1) the learner's educational background; and 2) cultural background. These demonstrate the challenges to penetrate the context of learning of Malaysian learners so as to understand and effectively respond to their educational needs and preferences. These are also factors to consider in the implementation of a curriculum designed outside the educational environment of those who are directly involved in the whole educational process of internationalisation.

Learners' educational background

In Malaysia, except for Computer Education and the English language subjects, students' background of study is solely based on Bahasa Melayu before they enter tertiary level. The Computer Education subject is only offered in a number of private and government schools, in some it is compulsory and in others not at all.

The table below provides the different national examinations of the educational system in Malaysia from primary to secondary levels.

Table 1: National examinations in the Malaysian educational system

Primary SchoolSecondary School
Standard 3Lower One Assessment (PMT)
Standard 6Primary School Achievement Test (UPSR)
Form IIILower Secondary Assessment (PMR)
Form VMalaysian Certificate of Education (SPM)
Form VIMalaysian Higher School Certificate (STPM)

After PMR, students are screened into their respective streams of either Science or Business or Art depending on their overall results. Those with relatively high marks are streamed into Science. Those with relatively average marks go into Commerce. And those with relatively low marks end up in the Art stream.

At Curtin, students would generally have an English subject and for those who do not meet the required English competency level are required to go through an Intensive English program before proceeding with higher level subjects.

Students have different levels of IT competency, depending largely from which school they came from. And the availability of computers at home is largely for the purpose of playing games and not as a learning tool.

Cultural background of language learners

In both learning a new language and using a new tool, the learning process changes how one perceives the world around him and how s/he relates to his/her social and cultural environment. Brown (2000) states that culture establishes a behaviour for each person which is distinct. Social factors play an important role, wherein the emphasis is that the learning of a new language and skill is undeniably a social activity within the socio-cultural environment of the learners themselves. The level of success and engagement in using a new language and skill largely depends on the 'need' each presents in the social interactions of individuals or even as means to cope and respond to the immediate demands of society.

In terms of second language learning (L2), this is particularly important as the learning of L2 is also seen as the acquisition of a second culture. A study with a sample of 42 pre-university students at Curtin (Giridharan: forthcoming) on L2 acquisition has shown that learners with culture dominance and negative attitudes to learning had poor input and lower interactions. Hence, they were unsuccessful in language proficiency. The multi-cultural composition of the classroom also exhibits linguistic diversity and students have been known to use a 'wide range of non-mainstream English language structures to reflect their socio-linguistic identities' (Wheeler:1999, p47).

L2 learners differ greatly in how fast they learn a second language and in the type of proficiency they can acquire, depending on their learning styles, aptitudes or personalities (Ellis: 1994). Thus, L2 is partly determined socially. Social factors have a great impact on L2 proficiency. The learners' socio-economic class and ethnic backgrounds have been seen to affect the nature and the extent of the input to which they are exposed.

In an international setting, L2 is challenged by the maintenance of the mother tongue. At the pre-university level, there is reluctance on the part of L2 learners to use English as a medium of communication outside the classroom. In a study conducted by Giridharan (forthcoming), it was seen that L2 learners in whom there was evidence of cultural dominance were seen to be lacking in initiative in using English to communicate with their peers.

In terms of IT, the use of a tool requires a skill that has to be learned. It demands the inter-relationship of the cognitive purpose of the subject with his physical coordination. How do you teach someone to use a hammer or how to swim? Or, how do you teach someone to use a computer? The learner must have his 'hands on' the computer or the hammer. In short, he will learn by doing, by hammering, swimming and computing. And the use of a tool depends on our perceived self efficacy. Learners do not merely engage cognitively within the design of the tool but within their perceived self efficacy.

Self efficacy refers to personal beliefs or perception about one's specific capabilities to learn or perform actions at designated levels, which is in part dependent on the learner's abilities (Bandura: 1997; Schunk: 2000). This efficacy has diverse effects in learning tasks involving IT use. Efficacy can influence choice and engagement/participation given an activity. For example, "...students with low efficacy for learning may avoid tasks; those who judge themselves efficacious should participate more eagerly... Students who feel efficacious about learning generally expend greater effort and persist longer than students who doubt their capabilities, especially when they encounter difficulties" (Schunk: 2000, p109).

Levels of self efficacy have been influenced by (ie. Bandura: 1986):

  1. Computer exposure

  2. Computer related task
Thus, given the above factors on perceived self efficacy highlights once again the significance of exposure or need of the skill and the social support or acceptance it represents for the learners in their socio-cultural environment.

Challenges of curriculum transfer

It is within the socio-cultural factors identified in the previous section on both language and IT competency that challenges are inevitably present in an offshore campus like Curtin. The 'transfer' of the curriculum may not be easily 'plugged' into these factors, which determine students' aptitudes, attitudes and learning styles.

English language

At both primary and secondary levels, Malaysian learners have been exposed to learning rote (Ahmad: 1998), which may have been ingrained into the school system through the existence of tuition centres to generally assist students with the different national examinations. At tertiary level, the same learners have to cope using a second language in a problem oriented curriculum. In essence, there is a lack of the 'conscious' or 'deliberate' learner, who is able to reflect on, firstly, what they have learned and secondly, on the language through which their learning has taken place (Moore: 2000). The general lack of readership in the Malaysian students heightens the perspicacity of their lack of language proficiency. Students in Malaysia regard learning as an academic task, hence the exercise does not lead to any significant social development (Pandian: 2000). Pandian's (2000) study on the reading habits of secondary and tertiary level students in Malaysia reveals that 80.1% of university students are reluctant readers of English language materials (p6). The combined effects of poor reading practices and a reproductive approach are reflected in the classroom.

Furthermore, the 'foreign' curriculum is oblivious of the role of interference, that is, the interfering effects of the native language, which may be BM or Chinese in this case, on the target (L2) language. Native language interference has been identified as the most immediately noticeable source of error among L2 learners. Another factor that is assumed to be non-existent in the implementation process of a 'foreign' curriculum would be anxiety, which according to Horowitz, et. al. (1996 cited by Brown : 2000, p151) can be categorised into three factors:

  1. Communication apprehension, arising from learners' inability to adequately express mature thoughts and ideas;
  2. Fear of negative social evaluation, arising from a learner's need to make a positive social impression on others;
  3. Test anxiety, or apprehension over academic evaluation.
Once again, the above factors may determine the kind of teaching and learning strategies suitable for the Malaysian context, which are not readily identified within the externally fixed curriculum.

IT skills

The survey results conducted in Curtin Sarawak Malaysia in 2000 among first year Business students (Enriquez: 2000) has shown that only 5 out of 45 had a computer subject in primary school and only 23 in their secondary school. Besides, the average number of years the sample has been using computers is 7. This limitation, even just in the aspect of a large proportion of years spend studying has passed without really using computers, may demonstrate a limited perception as well within their socio-cultural context, wherein the availability of computers is not as widespread as the technical rhetoric of globalisation.

Seven years of computer use may present a substantial experience. However, given the factors that affect self efficacy, the quality and not the quantity makes the difference in past computer experience in the completion of a set of task requirements.

Conclusion

This paper has presented the socio-cultural factors that influence the teaching of the English language and IT skills in an Australian offshore campus. Challenges faced have exposed that:
Concerns about the extent to which the externally fixed curriculum and imposed educational policies may impede the development of what teachers perceive as good educational practice are very real and cannot be ignored (Moore: 2000, p44).
Thus, educational policies should be able to look into these challenges of teaching and learning. In terms of English language, according to Hull as cited by Moore (2000), the language of the curriculum may impede teachers to move beyond curriculum constraints, which are mostly socio-cultural in nature as mentioned in the previous sections, into areas that might offer opportunities for the development of learning skills and strategies. In terms of IT skills, if students' level of perceived efficacy is relatively low due to lack of 'quality' experience in using IT in their learning task, then the technology both fails in assisting the teacher in the classroom and in facilitating students' learning.

References

Bandura, A. (1986). Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood: Prentice Hall.

Brown, H. D. (2000). Principles of Language and Teaching, 4th Ed, New York: Longman.

Ellis, N. C. (1994). Implicit and explicit language learning - an overview. In Ellis, N. C. (Ed), Explicit Learning of Languages. London: Academic Press.

Enriquez, J. G. (2000). The socialization of IT into the curriculum: Issues and approaches. Paper presented at the International Conference on Teaching and Learning Online, Guangzhou, China 10-12 January 2001.

Giridharan, B. (forthcoming). The background of L2 learners and their acquisition process: A pilot study.

Horowitz, E. K, Horowitz, M. B. and Cope, J. (1986). Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety. Modern Language Journal, 70.

McIntyre, P. D. and Gardner, R. C. (1989). Anxiety and second language learning: Toward a theoretical classification. Language Learning, 39.

Moore, A. (2000). Teaching and Learning: Pedagogy, Curriculum and Culture. London: Routledge-Falmer.

Pandian, A. (2000). A study on readership behaviour among multi-ethnic, multilingual Malaysian students. Paper presented at the Seventh International Literacy and Education Research Network (LERN) Conference on Learning, RMIT University, Melbourne 5-9 July 2000.

Schunk, D. H. (2000). Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective. New Jersey: Merrill.

Wheeler, S. R. (1999). Language alive in the classroom. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.

Authors: Beena Giridharan, Lecturer, English Language Faculty, Curtin University of Technology
beena@curtin.edu.my
Judith Guevarra Enriquez, Lecturer, Engineering, Curtin University of Technology, Sarawak, Malaysia
judith@curtin.edu.my

Please cite as: Giridharan, B. and Enriquez, J. G. (2002). English language and IT learning challenges in Australian offshore campuses. In Focusing on the Student. Proceedings of the 11th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 5-6 February 2002. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2002/giridharan.html


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