Connecting with International Students
In This Chapter ▶ Going to school in the United States without leaving home ▶ Getting on the Internet ▶ Enjoying your time in class Not every online student logs in from within U.S. borders, and we acknowledge that a much bigger world is out there. This chapter deals with students who live in other countries and want to study at online schools based in the United States. Some of these students are U.S. citizens who live abroad and take online classes, while others are international students who seek the advantages an online education from the United States will give them. International students experience unique issues related to language, credentials, Internet access, time zones, and more.
Taking First Steps toward Going to a U.S.-Based Online School Following the awful events of September 11, 2001, the U.S. State Department began monitoring student visas a little more closely. Some believe this resulted in a decline in international student enrollment at schools in the United States, although the numbers may have been falling for other reasons. Nevertheless, the number of international students applying for admission to U.S. schools has been on the rise again for the past five years or so. According to the Institute of International Education, in 2007-08 more than 623,000 international students were enrolled in courses in the United States, comprising 3.9 percent of all college students. The majority of these are graduate students working on masters or doctoral degrees.
Ah, but these are students studying in the United States. What about those who didn’t cross the border? With online education, it’s possible to be an international student at a U.S. school without leaving home! In this section, we walk you through the initial steps you need to take to attend an online U.S.-based school: fully understanding the advantages of this type of education, proving English language competency, transferring credits successfully, and figuring out course costs and payments. Keep in mind that the other parts of the application process are identical to what U.S.-born students go through, as we explain in Part II of the book.
Getting a grip on the benefits of attending a U.S.-based online school Few argue that the United States is a leader in higher education, and this fact makes studying in the United States especially attractive to international students; the degree is valued in the marketplace. However, international students who can’t travel to the United States can reap many of the same benefits by studying online; in the end, the transcripts confirm that the degree is from an American institution.
Here are a few additional reasons why someone may want to stay in his home country and attend a U.S. school online rather than travel to the United States for school:
✓ It’s less expensive. If you don’t have to travel to the United States, find housing, and deal with the U.S. cost of living, you’ll probably be better off financially. While the United States isn’t the most expensive country in the world, studying online from your home country is less expensive than coming to the United States. Plus, if you have a job in your home country, you can keep it while studying, which means you won’t lose income. ✓ You can take a wide variety of courses. With the exception of the United Kingdom’s Open University, the United States has the broadest online catalog for courses in English. You can find almost anything you want within U.S. institutions. ✓ You get the benefit of learning from different cultures. While this isn’t the same as sitting across the table from coauthor Susan and having her introduce you to her native Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, you can learn a lot about U.S. culture from participating in an online course. Via peer-topeer communication and study groups, international students interact with U.S. counterparts in writing and through synchronous (real time) meetings. This interaction provides an opportunity to ask U.S. natives about what they think and why they behave as they do.
Proving language proficiency (if necessary) If English isn’t your first language or your previous education wasn’t in English, you may need to prove English proficiency as part of the admission process to an online school based in the United States. To find out whether you need to do so, first look at the school’s Web site. Most schools have a statement in their admissions section about whether they enroll international students and who to contact for further information. If you want an immediate answer while visiting the Web site, consider “chatting” in real time with a recruiter or an admissions person who can tell you what you need to know. There are two primary ways to prove English competency:
✓ Do well on college entrance exams. These may be required if you’re entering college for the first time, no matter where you’re from; see Chapter 6 for more about these tests. ✓ Take an exam specific to the English language. This is required if you’re transferring credits from a school outside the United States; see the next section for details on this process.
If you’re reading this book, you’re probably proficient enough in English, but if you’re struggling with the simple English in this text, imagine what academic work is like!
Schools in the United States generally accept test scores on English competency from several sources, including the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and a handful of other tests. Schools specify which tests they accept in their recruitment literature and on their Web sites. If you follow our advice and talk to a recruiter or admissions person, he can also verify this.
TOEFL and TSE exams TOEFL is the best known and most widely accepted measure of English language competency. It’s offered worldwide in many testing centers, and depending on where you need to go for the exam, you may take it as a paperbased test or an Internet-based test. A fee is involved, and both the format and fees vary from country to country.
TOEFL assesses your ability to read, write, and listen in English, and takes about four hours to complete. The Internet-based version of TOEFL also assesses your English speaking skills. Because the paper-based format doesn’t assess speaking skills, you may be asked to submit scores from the Test of Spoken English (TSE), an exam given by the same company. However, this is more common for on-campus students who apply for graduate teaching assistantships. In the world of online education, your speaking skills become less central.
To find out more about the exams and when and where they’re offered, visit the Educational Testing Service (ETS) site at http://www.ets.org. From there you can find information on both TOEFL and TSE.
When you take the TOEFL, you can indicate which schools you want to receive the results of your exam. Some schools use TOEFL results as a minimum requirement for acceptance, and if you don’t score above a given school’s set standard, you’re not considered for admission. (The highest score for the paper-based test is 677, whereas the highest Internet-based test score is only 120.) In some cases, the schools require just one number — your total score — for admission. In other cases, schools specify a minimum score for each skill area (reading, writing, listening, and possibly speaking, if you’re required to take the TSE). Do your homework and research the school before taking the exam! Find out their minimum accepted score and how they make decisions. Minimum acceptable scores are sometimes published in the recruitment literature and on Web sites, but a recruiter or admissions person can tell you more about how they make decisions.
TOEFL scores are only good for two years. Plan ahead, so you can use yours in a timely fashion.
Other measures of fluency The school you want to attend may ask for other tests as proof of your English competency. Here are three alternatives:
✓ Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC): This exam has a lot in common with TOEFL, namely because it’s published by the same company, ETS. However, the primary difference is that the TOEIC was developed to test the user’s ability to put English into practice on an everyday level in business. In other words, it tests everyday English rather than academic English. Nevertheless, it may be an alternative for proving English language competency for admission. You can find out more about TOEIC at http://www.ets.org. ✓ International English Language Testing System (IELTS): A British counterpart to TOEFL, this exam is partly managed by the University of Cambridge’s English as a Second or Other Language department, so it has an academic backing. The exam tests all four major skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. The IELTS is administered at various sites worldwide and is widely accepted as an alternative to TOEFL. See http://www.eilts.org for more information. ✓ EIKEN: This test is administered in Japan by the Society for Testing English Proficiency. A number of schools in North America are beginning to recognize this as proof of competency. Check out the Web site at http://stepeiken.org.
Learning English online Years ago, the first online course coauthor Susan developed was English as a second language. You can’t imagine how often she was asked, “Can you really learn English online?” Yes, you can! If you want to improve your skills in English, you have many online choices
available: ✓ You can find many free sites that support language development. One Language at http://www.1-language.com/ englishcourse/index.htm, Learn English Online at http://www.learnenglish-online.org/ and Real English at http://www.real-english.com/ are examples. Just be aware that you have to wade through a lot of advertisements on these sites, and some of the free sites are not updated frequently. Kind-hearted teachers typically author and maintain these sites with little institutional support. ✓ You can pay for a number of private courses through companies like English Online Classes at http://www.eslonlineclasses. com/ or Englishtown at http://www.englishtown.com/. These courses connect you with online tutors. Some include live
communication and Web conferencing. ✓ You can study through an accredited college program such as the one offered by Rio Salado College at http://www.riosalado.edu/ programs/eslonline/Pages/ default.aspx. These online courses are a little more challenging to find because if you search for “online English,” you may be directed to English degree programs — that’s not what you want. Also, you have to pay for these courses, but the advantage is that you’ll have the personal attention of the faculty. If you really want to learn a language, pay attention to all the major skills areas: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Look for opportunities to speak and write so you can put your skills to the test. Be wary of studying only grammar because that’s only part of the language. Unless you have identified a deficiency in one area, look for a balanced program for learning. Further, look for a site that includes asynchronous and synchronous communication. You need live communication to strengthen listening and responding skills. Real-life communication is never as rigid as the textbooks say, and you need to interact with real native speakers who will teach you new phrases and enrich your cultural understanding. Finally, you may wonder about the difference between American and British English. The languages’ vocabulary, spelling, and pronunciation are different. One isn’t better than the other — just different. However, if you’re planning to enroll in a U.S.-based school and first want to improve your English through an online program, you’ll want to choose American English.
Most of the Web sites we reference in the preceding list offer free tutorials and sample practice materials. Be sure to check them out to see what you can learn for free!
Transferring credits from schools abroad Whether you want to start a new academic degree at a U.S.-based online school or complete a degree you started earlier, you have to meet the academic requirements for admission. This includes having completed high school or college, depending on the degree you want to pursue online.
To begin with, the transcripts or documentation required by an online school depend on the program you apply to. Therefore, the first place to check is the school’s catalog. This is usually downloadable from the Web site, and the departmental requirements are specified in that document. You typically need a copy of your diploma and a transcript, no matter the program.
In addition to a copy of your original diploma and course transcript in your native language, you need to provide a word-for-word version translated into English. While some online schools say they accept “informal” translation, we advise you to have these documents professionally translated. In fact, some schools maintain a list of preferred translators or certified foreign credential evaluators, so they know the accuracy of the translation. You can find out who the preferred translators are by calling or e-mailing the admissions office.
The academic transcript lists the courses you completed and the grades you earned. Along with listing the courses and grades, most colleges also want an explanation of the grading scale. In other words, what did it take to earn a “B” in your country? This is so they can better compare you to U.S. applicants.
After you provide the transcripts, the institution evaluates each course to see how closely it matches the one they expect an American applicant to have taken. Listing the courses you took and the grades you earned isn’t enough; each and every course must also be described to the prospective school. This is typically done in a separate document prepared by the preferred translator or evaluator.
For example, if you’re a teacher in Mexico applying to an online school for a Masters in Education, the U.S. school would expect you to have completed a bachelors degree, including a course equivalent to “Foundations of Education.” In the United States, the foundations course looks at historical and contemporary issues in education and puts these in a context of education in a democracy. To appropriately examine these issues, American students are typically asked to read classic educational text as well as more current writings. See where this gets tricky? The translation of your coursework must adequately explain how your class in Mexico meets the same criteria as a U.S. course. This is why you need a certified academic document translator to help you.
We’re not suggesting that this review process is demeaning or nitpicky, but a different level of evaluation is associated with international documents. After all, you’re going to earn the new degree from a U.S.-based school, so you should expect to be held to the same standards as the other students.
Handling costs and payments You already know this because you live outside of the United States: Sometimes the U.S. dollar is strong and other times it’s weak, and this phenomenon directly impacts the exchange rate and how expensive products and services are. When you figure the cost for courses, carefully consider the strength of the U.S. dollar. Is it relatively weak or strong, and how does that determine the cost of a course? No one can predict the economy, but if you’re considering an entire degree that spans several years, you must plan ahead to be sure you have sufficient financial reserves. You figure your costs the same way a U.S.-born student does: Calculate the number of credits you need multiplied by credit hour costs and fees (don’t forget textbooks!). We discuss costs in more detail in Chapter 6.
Also, be sure to ask your recruiter or the admissions person working with you about how you need to pay. Does the school accept Visa or Mastercard? Must you request a bank transfer or money order? The more established schools have the process clearly worked out; less sophisticated schools may need you to help them understand how you can make payments. A Canadian friend had to explain to a small school in the United States that Canadians do, in fact, have Visa credit cards and that they work the same way the U.S. cards work!
Don’t forget your books! As you’re figuring costs, don’t forget the cost of buying textbooks and having them shipped to you. First, see whether they’re available as electronic books that you read from your computer. If you prefer a hard copy, can you purchase them from a retailer within your country? If you can, you’ll save money in shipping costs. In Chapter 7 we discuss the textbook-buying process and the alternatives that may be available to you in detail.
Accessing the Internet around the World Like any student, you need a reliable Internet connection to succeed in online education. Where and how you find these connections may present challenges most people don’t have in the United States, so we discuss these in the following sections.
Considering residential expenses How much does Internet service cost where you live? In the United States, a basic residential high-speed connection (cable or DSL) can range from $30 to $50 per month. Compared to Americans’ incomes and other expenses, this is relatively little money.
However, depending on where you live, Internet service may be much more expensive than in the United States. In western Africa, for instance, the same service costs well over $100 U.S. per month. In India, the costs are comparable to U.S. prices if you live in a metropolitan area. International students must determine the relative cost of a reliable residential high-speed Internet connection in figuring the overall cost of an online education from a U.S.based school.
If residential high-speed connection costs are a little pricey in your corner of the world, investigate the following home alternatives before registering for an online course or program. The best person to ask these questions of is the course instructor, but a recruiter may be able to give you answers, too:
✓ Ask whether you can use a dial-up connection. Assuming you have reliable phone service, this may be an option. If the course requires high speed because of video or audio, ask whether alternatives are available, such as transcripts you can read. ✓ Ask about how much work can be done offline and how much synchronous time you should expect. Can you download assignments, work on them offline and then connect for less time to upload? Will you be required to be online at specific times?
Getting connected outside your home If you can’t afford residential Internet service, what are your options in terms of connecting? For students living abroad, you may find that you can connect where you work or in more public areas such as Internet cafés or community centers. This section looks at some of the advantages and disadvantages of these locations.
Connecting at work If you work in a business that has a high-speed connection, ask your employer whether he can allow you to complete your coursework using company computers after working hours. This is a common solution for U.S.
online students whose future degrees directly relate to their professional lives. Here are some of the advantages to connecting via your workplace:
✓ You are focused on the coursework and not distracted by family or friends. Not that you want to rush, but you aren’t as likely to multitask because you want to finish your schoolwork and go home. ✓ Applying what you’re learning to your professional situation is easier when you’re sitting at work. Not only is your mind on business, but if you need to reference a policy or procedure, you have the resources at your fingertips.
Of course, connecting at work has a couple disadvantages, too.
✓ You may be expected to repay your company’s generosity through continued employment. In other words, don’t start looking for another job! ✓ You open yourself to privacy concerns and criticism. Whatever you do on the company’s computers is traceable. In theory, your boss could read what you write. As long as you’re happy with your employer and honest in your communication, this shouldn’t be a problem.
Connecting at Internet cafés, community centers, and universities In developed countries, people who don’t have residential service at home often connect through Internet cafés. If you live near an Internet café and can afford to pay for the service, this may be an option for completing your coursework.
Of course, you need to compare prices and determine whether this is affordable. You also need to consider whether you have your own laptop computer or need to use the café’s hardware. If you’re using their computer, it may not have the software you need for certain course aspects.
In developing countries, you may find a community center sponsored by a nonprofit organization where Internet skills are taught primarily to children. Although their services may target younger students, these organizations may allow you to access the Internet through their satellite connections if they understand that education is the purpose. Again, you need to consider whether you have your own equipment or need to use theirs, and to what extent you can do some work off-line to save connection time.
Finally, if you live near a major university in your country, you may want to ask about the possibility of connecting via their services. Of course, you need to explain why you’re taking a course from a U.S.-based school and not from their institution, but they may say yes if you can adequately explain how you and the community will benefit. A U.S.-based school on foreign soil, such as American University of Beirut, may be more likely to understand your situation.
Contact the U.S. Embassy in your country and ask what outreach programs or services they’re working on with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that serve the public. They may have programs or services available to you.
Being aware of restrictions Because of political and sociocultural differences, some Web-based resources may be restricted by your government. For example, coauthor Susan once shared a link to a video posted on YouTube with her graduate students in an education course. The student in an Arab country could not see the video because his Internet Service Provider had restricted access.
You must understand any restrictions prior to starting an online course so you can tell the instructor if you can’t access certain course materials; he can then provide alternative information. You’ll know you’re blocked when you can’t access the site or program and receive an error message. If you want a thorough explanation as to why you’re restricted, ask your Internet Service Provider, who can then interpret your government’s policies.
Making the Most of Your Class Time Once you get accepted by a school and find the Internet access you need, you still have a few details to work out. This section introduces you to a little information about how the U.S. system of education works, tips for navigating time differences, and pointers for joining study groups.
Understanding what’s different about classes in the United States The U.S. online education system may offer some surprises to folks who live elsewhere. Here are some differences you can expect from online education based in the United States:
✓ You may address your instructor by her first name. Americans tend to be a little more casual about relationships in higher education, and your instructor may ask you to call her by her first name (Susan), rather than her title (Dr. Manning). When your classes begin, ask your instructors how they prefer to be addressed.
✓ Given the nature of online education, your instructor may not be highly active in class discussions. He may opt to say less and ask the students to think for themselves. This is a very deliberate educational strategy and not because the teacher is lazy. ✓ Students are expected to speak up and to ask questions. If you don’t understand something, the instructor expects you to ask. Saying that instructions are confusing is not considered impolite. We recommend asking privately (see Chapter 10 for information on private communication methods), but be sure to follow through until you understand. ✓ American instructors expect students to deconstruct the ideas of experts. In other words, finding fault with a theory or piece of work from another scholar, your professor, or a famous author is not only permissible, it’s also how we believe students develop critical thinking. As long as you provide your reasoning, we appreciate dissent. (Remember, this country was founded by dissenters!) ✓ The definition of plagiarism is very strict in the United States. This is so important to the integrity of higher education that a portion of Chapter 13 is all about avoiding plagiarism. The U.S. system of education insists that other authors and works that help form your ideas must be acknowledged and cited. ✓ Americans are extraordinarily punctual. If a virtual meeting is scheduled for 7:00, the teacher will start talking at 7:00, not 7:10 or 7:20. Be prepared, and log in early! ✓ When working in student groups, U.S. students may have a different timeline for establishing trust and credibility. Because our educational system is fairly competitive, U.S. students may be less skillful at collaborating in small groups and find it difficult to trust other members. ✓ Not every U.S. student is comfortable with interpersonal conflict. In fact, when working with study groups, you may find students who ignore conflict or don’t handle it well. Don’t take it personally.
Adjusting for differences in time zones What time is it? What day is it? It all depends on where you are! Getting a handle on date and time are critical so you’re not late with meetings and assignments.
Handling synchronous class meetings Instructors may call virtual class meetings using synchronous (real time) communication or Web conferencing tools. These meetings usually give students the opportunity to interact in text and voice.
To ensure that you make all meetings on time, you first need to determine what time it is where you are compared to your instructor’s location. You probably already know about the World Clock Web site at http://www.timeand date.com/worldclock/. From this site you can enter the Meeting Planner, where you state your country and city and the location of the instructor. For example, if you live in Vietnam and the instructor is in Chicago and calls a 7 p.m. meeting on Wednesday, you need to be ready at 7 a.m. Thursday!
American culture is a very punctual culture. Plan to log in five minutes before the scheduled time so you’re not late to synchronous meetings.
Of course, synchronous class meetings may not be very convenient if you’re called to a meeting in the middle of the night. Politely explain the time difference to the instructor or your fellow students. We’re confident they will tell you to sleep through the meeting.
If you’re concerned about language and afraid you’ll be asked to speak in English, don’t be! In general, Americans are pretty forgiving when they hear accents and grammatical errors from speakers of other languages. If you’re more comfortable talking through text, let the instructor know in advance and make provisions to type in chat.
Figuring out assignment due dates Your assignment is due by midnight on Thursday. What does that mean if you live on the other side of the world? It probably means either the next day or a day ahead! Don’t be caught on the wrong day. Use the same world clock tool we suggest in the previous section to synchronize due dates.
Joining study groups One of the advantages of having a global economy is the richness of diversity, and the same can be said of study groups with students from around the world. Don’t be shy! Online education thrives on dialogue, and your unique perspective enriches everyone. If you’re presented with this opportunity, go for it!
Study groups may form for a specific task, as we discuss in Chapter 12. Or, they can be informal groups of students who agree to share notes and additional resources. In fact, the group may choose to maintain its own wiki or a separate group space in FaceBook. This provides another avenue for discussing what’s happening in the class without the instructor present.
You’ll find when you interact with your U.S. classmates that some seem more open to international students than others. The others aren’t necessarily snobby or deliberately racist; instead, they’re probably intimidated by their
own lack of knowledge about the world. The United States is a geographically large, ethnically diverse country, but there are still many homogeneous communities where students grow up interacting only with people like themselves. Consequently, they’re not sure whether asking about your country, culture, or habits is polite, and as a result, they appear aloof.
There’s no magic potion to make others like you, regardless of where you come from. However, here are a few reminders about the American culture that you may find helpful:
✓ We’re fairly informal with communication. Of course, you need to follow the protocol of the academic class, but typically you can address your classmates by their first names. ✓ It’s fine to ask questions like, “Are you married?” and “Do you have a family?” but it’s not okay to express disagreement with someone if their lifestyle doesn’t match your beliefs. ✓ We pepper our language with many idiomatic expressions. If you don’t know what something means, don’t be afraid to ask! For instance, to say someone runs a tight ship may not make sense in an education course, until you understand that it means the principal is strict. ✓ Generally speaking, we are punctual, so if a meeting is set to begin at 8 a.m., we really start at 8 a.m. ✓ Get to know us, and you’ll be surprised at the diversity! It really is hard to stereotype an American when you recognize our many ethnic and religious groups. ✓ We love jokes! Good, clean puns always catch our fancy.
If you have the chance to work in groups and are asked to select members, think about the students who display a natural curiosity and interest in your country. That welcoming behavior can make group work very pleasant as you exchange ideas. Have some fun together by sharing cultural information and being open with each other. Chapters 9 and 10 provide pointers on introducing yourself to your classmates and communicating clearly with them.