E-EQUALITY - A STUDY OF EQUALITY AND DISTANCE EDUCATION - Distance education experiences of Chinese higher education students in Finland during ...

 
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                                                        Shi Chen

    E-EQUALITY - A STUDY OF EQUALITY AND
                     DISTANCE EDUCATION
          Distance education experiences of Chinese higher
    education students in Finland during the COVID outbreak

                           School of Social Sciences and Humanities
                                                     Master’s Thesis
                                                          April 2021
ABSTRACT
Shi Chen: E-equality - a Study of Equality and Distance Education
Master’s Thesis
Tampere University
Master’s Degree Programme in Global Society: Nordic Studies
April 2021

    This master thesis focuses on students’ experiences of distance education and equality issues in higher
education. Thesis topic is scrutinized within the equality of resources and outcomes theories developed by
Rawls and Dworkin, and the distance education theories by Holmberg and Clark. The theoretical framework is
built combining those theories into “E-equality”. The data comprises of interviews with Chinese students
studying in Finland, and the analysis mainly focuses on their various experiences. According to the results,
students in higher education concentrated more on their individual needs which can be separated into three
categories, individual needs of themselves, resources, and others. The analytical framework of this study was
designed based on the above three needs, and then, they were further adopted to assist with the qualitative
data analysis.
    Findings firstly showed that in a student-centered system, students’ achievements rely on their ability of
self-control and self-study skills, but guidance from educators is also proved to be important because the
environment where distance education happens is beyond the educators’ control. In addition, appropriate
materials and tools could facilitate students’ learning process, such as lecture recordings, discussion forums,
and online synchronous meetings. Moreover, growth in the number of distance learners indicates that an
increasing number of students in higher education needs to manage both learning time and location to balance
their jobs and degrees. Thus, higher education institutions should consider special needs of individuals.
Unfortunately, educational resources are not only limited, but also unevenly distributed. Last but not the least,
tools and applications for distance learning and collaboration presents an obvious functional specification. For
example, students are getting used to discussing and chatting with social media on smartphones and
computers but switch to other tools for assignments.
    To conclude, this master thesis discussed distance education and equality issues from the perspective of
students, and also introduced a new concept, “E-equality”. On the one hand, the experiences of students could
give both policy-makers and educators an insight into the perception of audience of the distance education,
which might be of help when delivering an online distance program. On the other hand, it is also educators’
responsibility to help with the cultivation of students’ self-learning skills which has been proved to be critical for
successful learning in an online distance environment. Most importantly, under the circumstances of Covid-
19, the thesis might be able to provide some implications to deal with the existing and upcoming issues related
to distance education and equality issues.

Keywords: equality, educational equality, distance education, E-equality, higher education students

The originality of this thesis has been checked using the Turnitin OriginalityCheck service.

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TABLE OF CONTENT

1. INTRODUCTION: ....................................................................................................................................... 5

2. EQUALITY OF EDUCATION ................................................................................................................... 7

2.1 Concepts of equality ............................................................................................................................. 7
2.2 The importance of equality of education ......................................................................................... 8

3. EQUALITY IN DISTANCE EDUCATION ............................................................................................. 10

3.1 Concepts of distance education ...................................................................................................... 10
3.2 “E-quality” and equality ...................................................................................................................... 11
3.3 “E-equality”, the new meaning of equality in distance education .......................................... 15

4.METHODOLOGY ...................................................................................................................................... 16

4.1 Data gathering: qualitative interviews ............................................................................................ 16
4.1.1 Interviewees ......................................................................................................................................... 16
4.1.2 Ethics .................................................................................................................................................... 18
4.1.3 The interview process and data ........................................................................................................ 18
4.2 Qualitative content analysis .............................................................................................................. 19
4.2.1 Transcription systems of my interviews ........................................................................................... 20
4.2.2 Individual needs categories and coding procedures ..................................................................... 20

5. WHAT KIND OF EXPERIENCES HIGHER EDUCATION STUDENTS HAVE ABOUT
DISTANCE EDUCATION AND EQUALITY. ............................................................................................ 22

5.1 Finding 1: Learning motivation and learning environment ...................................................... 23
5.2 Finding 2: Using distance education technologies and tools to improve learning ........... 25
5.3 Finding 3: Teachers’ guidance on distance education .............................................................. 29
5.4 Finding 4: Flexibility of assignments and teamwork.................................................................. 31
5.5 Finding 5: Student-centered System and Self-study in Finland.............................................. 34

6. DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION ...................................................................................................... 36

Discussion .................................................................................................................................................... 36

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Conclusion ................................................................................................................................................... 42

7. REFERENCES(APA): ............................................................................................................................. 44

APPENDIX 1: ................................................................................................................................................ 48

APPENDIX 2 ................................................................................................................................................. 49

LIST OF APPENDICES

Appendix 1: Interview plan

Appendix 2: Data extracts in English-Chinese bilingual

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1. INTRODUCTION:

    Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) today represent a remarkable
social transformation. With rapidly developing technologies, such as smartphone, Artificial
Intelligence (AI), robotics, E-journal and Virtual Reality. We are participating in a new
information revolution, the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution (Schwab, 2017, p.6). With
the development of science and technology, the impact of distance education on the
processes of education has been important. The breakthroughs in learning technologies
make online learning and distance learning possible in the whole world. At the very
beginning of the rapid increase in distance education it was seen dangerous by a minority
of academics assuming that distance education could fully replace the traditional teaching
techniques (Dede, 1996; Moore, 1996). But there are still many examples of people are
trying to use the new techniques, such as digital communication to answer the dilemma of
increasing number of students and decreasing of resources (Daniel, 1998). In this way, it
can also promote learning outcomes ( Bischoff et al., 1996). Bates and Bates (2005, 10-
12) argue that online learning and distance learning are given strong support by
governments, the private sector, and students because of the economic competitiveness.
The economic competitiveness means knowledge-based economic, cost-effectiveness
and commercialization of education. Distance learning provides a solution with distance,
lifelong learning, and equity and access in being educated and better education. Which
can meet the requirements of economic competitiveness.

    The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO,2020)’s
reported about national education responses to COVID-19 in 2020. Over 1.5 billion
students at all levels faced school closure, 82% of the education systems were currently
using traditional media for distance education (i.e. Radio, TV), 75% of them used existing
national online learning platforms, 36% of them even supported to improve the ICT
environment at home. Additionally, 41% of them encouraged the private sector to provide
learning platforms and materials. This situation has provided an unprecedented
environment for distance education to develop.

    The world is facing the COVID-19 situation and the whole world is using different kinds
of distant education methods and technologies. According to Son et.al(2020), the COVID-
19 pandemic also has a negative impact on students. Therefore, it is necessary to develop

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interventions and preventive strategies for students, focusing on their needs and
experiences, in hope of providing a new reaction to the policy makers and educators.

    According to the Finnish National Agency for Education (FNBE) latest report, the data
proved that 23400 applicants who applied for the English joint application programme
starting autumn 2021. 14500 applicants are non-Finnish citizenships and 12500 are from
European Union and outside the EU. China is the second large amount of applicants
source than Finland. Studying in Finland is becoming a popular choice for Chinese
students.

    Therefore, this research aims to contribute to this growing area of research by exploring
what kind of experiences higher education students have about distance education and
equality. I focus on equality in higher education. I approached to this question by
conducting qualitative interviews with 11 Chinese students studying in Finland from August
2020/ to October 2020.

    The thesis is organized as follows: In chapter 2, I outline theoretical background and
literature review, which include equality theories by Dahrendorf, Rawls, Dworkin, and
Phillips; distance education theories by Keegan, Holmberg, and Bates & Bates. Then, I
move on to do the literature review mainly about previous studies on students during
distance education from the perspective of equality and distance education theories. In
chapter 3, I continue focusing on the worldwide equality and distance education studies
and together with Simonson’s idea about the equality’s meaning in distance education to
draw out the main argument of this thesis. In chapter 4, I address methodological issues
and how I collected and analyzed the interview data. In chapter 5, I present the core
findings of content analysis, and answer to my research question, what kind of
experiences higher education students have about distance education and equality. In
chapter 6, I I discuss the results in relation to previous theories and summarize the main
outcomes of the thesis. Finally, I draw some recommendations for the policy makers and
the educators.

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2. EQUALITY OF EDUCATION

2.1 Concepts of equality

    The academic literature review is full of different theories of equality. Gosepath (2011)
states four principles of equality—formal equality, proportional equality, moral equality, and
presumption of equality. As Rae (1981) points out, equality is an incomplete predicate that
generates a question about what aspect of equality, which means the discussion of
equality, should narrow down to more specific theory rather than just “equality”. Therefore,
this research is based on two more specific terms—equality of resources and outcomes.

    Equality of resources is represented by Rawls (1971) and Dworkin (1981), since some
congenital conditions are beyond people’s control, such as the gender, race, intelligence,
and social position. Equality of opportunity may also be insufficient because of these
congenital gifts. According to Dworkin (1981), individual’s abilities determine distribution of
resources. At the same time, social egalitarians believe that a basic requirement of the ideal
of social equality is that people should be in a non-dominant relationship, and the non-
domination is understood as one's ability to determine one's own living conditions on equal
terms with others (Skarveli, 2020). Dworkin (1998) believes that the inequalities are justified
in the free market. In the case of excessive redistribution cause a “slavery of the talented”,
societies and social polices need to compensate the inequalities based on different
congenital conditions. Rawls (1971) also argues that total equal distribution inevitably leads
to inefficiency, and therefore we should provide the greatest possible advantage to the
vulnerable groups based on “difference principle”. Skarveli (2020, 20) supports Dworkin’s
idea about equality, and he argues that people should be provided with as many
opportunities as possible, in order to insure against certain undesirable consequences of
one's real preferences and choices, and the principle of independence should not be violated.
    Equality of outcomes often appears together with equality of resources. According to
Phillips (2004), equalization of resources ignores the diversity of preferences and tastes and
ignores the human need for resources. But an individual could have a preference for two
distinct notions of equality: equality of resources and equality of outcome, or in more
specifically, equality of ex ante expected payoffs and equality of ex post payoffs (Saito, 2013).
As Phillips (2004) summarized, if we compare groups, equality of outcomes is a better
measure of equality. While equality of outcomes doesn't apply very well to comparing

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individuals. People have different characters, habits, and responsibility of themselves, which
will cause different outcomes. So, the equality of outcomes is the result that conforming to
the balance of one’s requirements and skills.
    We can extend these theories with education. Students choose to pursue different
outcomes, which means their requirements of equality of outcomes are very different. For
example, part-time students will ask for the same valid diploma as the regular students,
distance learning students will ask for the same quality as the face-to-face students. In this
way, to satisfy everyone’s equality need of outcomes, we should provide more opportunity
and resources for those who are in an unequal position. Which exactly what Rawls (1971)
suggested.

2.2 The importance of equality of education

    One of the United Nation (UN) sustainable development aims is to reduce inequalities
within and between countries. The UN also explains why equality is of great significance - it
can help a social economy to develop, ensure sustainable development, and enhance
people’s accomplishments and self-worth. Based on UNESCO's Constitution (1945), “The
Belief of its founders in full and equal opportunities for education for all...advance the ideal
of equality of educational opportunity...” emphasize educational equality. In 2003,
UNESCO's Director-General declared that equal opportunities for education are
fundamental to the achievement of human rights. Educational equality is one of the most
vital human right ideals around the world. Quality education is fundamental to gender
equality, human security, social development, and national progress.
    Many scholars have increasingly begun to lay emphasis on distance education and
educational equality (Skarveli, 2020). According to Walters (2000), the expansion of higher
education can cause both an increase and a decrease in educational equality in different
countries. The increase in educational equality is obvious in many countries. Regarding the
decrease of education equality, as stated by Walters, the elites might have the privilege or
use their private resources to circumvent egalitarian education. For instance, one of the main
sources of school funding is donations. Some of the elites’ children are admitted by
universities after they offered funding for the school, for instance, American actress Felicity
Huffman, who revised her daughter’s SAT grades to get into university.
    Studies about educational inequality in South Africa and Peru compared the distribution
of learning results under the parents’ inequality income and apartheid situation in these two

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countries, and the inequality in input provision and inequality in learning achievement
(Crouch, Gustafsson, & Lavado 2009). Then they demonstrated that education could be a
force for equality. Additionally, Burt and Park (2009) investigated educational inequality in
South Korea, concluding that South Korea’s education has been impacted by the colonial
period, which resulted in the unbalanced supply of education and the outflow of population.
After its economical takeoff, the centralized government pursued strict policies to balance
the allocation of educational resources. South Korea promoted education inequality by
focusing resources and ensuring that the policies were gradually popularized on every level
of the educational institution. These studies focus on different countries’ equality of
education and summarized several causes of inequality of education, such as parents’
inequality incomes, apartheid, and educational resources. But the distribution of learning
results is more equal than their parents’ income.
    Other researchers have started to divert their attention to distance education. Li, Zhou
and Fan (2014) explored the distribution of distance higher education in China. They
analyzed the changes in enrolment in different areas of China in distance higher education
and found that the equality in underdeveloped areas is decreasing. They concluded that the
student aid system can promote the equality of higher education, but distance education has
not been financially supported enough by the Chinese government. From their perspective,
students from underdeveloped areas are the potential beneficiaries of distance education,
but their access to distance higher education is limited owing to financial problems. They
also suggested that if distance education can get enough or equal scholarship and financial
support, it will foster equality of education (ibid.).

    Guri‐Rosenblit (2006) considered distance teaching universities (DTUs) as the promoters
of social equality. She described DTUs’ main policies, mechanisms, and measures to justify
the DTU system. In the meantime, she listed three advantages—reducing ordinary university
educational costs, providing students with higher quality learning experiences, and utilizing
technology for higher education. Then, she used many universities’ successful experiences
to support her ideas. For instance, there are many student soldiers at The Israeli Open
University. The DTUs’ public nature leads them to better control the quality of instruction.
Moreover, the DTUs’ students have their own tutorial and administrative support system,
including student tutors, instructors, and seminar meetings. This research can explain why
DTUs help promote equality of resources by paying more attention to teaching than
traditional universities and providing higher quality learning experiences to their students.

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Considering Dworkin’s (1981) equality of resources theory and the clienteles of DTUs (i.e.
students soldiers, encourages adults, part-time workers), DTUs do provide more information
for needy or vulnerable people.

  The world is suddenly providing so much more distance education than ever after the
Covid outbreak, and thus more research is focusing on how distance education is conducted
during the pandemic, such as Koçoglu and Tekdal (2020). They used the semi-structured
interview to analyze Turkey’s education activities during the pandemic, with a focus on
teachers’ view. They concluded several teachers’ advice about distance education, including
distance education infrastructure, providing enough materials for students, and distance
education teaching activities. Marinoni et.al (2020) mentioned that the International
Association of Universities(IAU) is also paying attention to the impact of COVID-19 on high
education. They also pointed out that not only they are investigating it the Institute of
International Education (IIE) in America, the European Association for International
Education (EAIE) and the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) in Europe are also studying it.

3. EQUALITY IN DISTANCE EDUCATION

3.1 Concepts of distance education

  To explain this research’s topic, some other concepts related to distance education and
equality should also be distinguished. Firstly, the differences between distance education
and virtual education require further clarification. Keegan (1996) proposed that distance
education can be time-asynchronous while virtual education must be time-synchronous.
Also, the former aims to provide courses at any time for even one student, whereas the
latter requires students to attend the virtual courses on time. But today, distance education
may involve virtual education. Clark (2020) stated that both asynchronous and
synchronous modes can exist in distance education. Given this, distance education is a
wider concept concerning virtual education. Secondly, distance education is different from
open education. According to Bates and Bates (2005), distance education cannot be open
since some universities’ distance courses must be taken only by their students.

     Holmberg (2005) pointed out a non-contiguous mediated communication between the
supporting platforms and students and divided this communication into two kinds, “one-
way traffic and two-way traffic”. One-way traffic means the supporting platforms provide

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pre-produced courses for the students, and then interact through the texts; two-way traffic
means a “real communication” between them, such as online meeting, telephone
interaction and email. He defined distance education as: “Covering the various forms of
study at all levels which are not under the continuous, immediate supervision of tutors
present which their students in lecture rooms or the same premises but which,
nevertheless, benefit from the planning, guidance and the teaching of a supporting
organization.”

     European countries have a long history of distance education. In some countries, open
distance learning universities provide most of the country's distance education programs,
such as France providing proprietary distance training for over 250,000 students(Keegan,
1994). Spain has the largest distance teaching university named Universidad Nacional de
Education a Distancia, with over 130,000 enrolled students (Simonson, et.al 2019).
Simonson and others (2019) also claimed that with the help of these technologies, existing
distance education and training organizations in Europe will continue to play a vital role in
education both within and outside the European Union.

3.2 “E-quality” and equality

  Emil (2001)combined distance education and equality with quality, known as “E-quality”.
Quality has become a relevant aspect in education, especially in distance education, which
determines the significance of educational quality in many countries. There is also a project
named Improving Educational Quality (IEQ), which is funded by the education office of the
United States Agency for International Development (USAID). This project mainly aims at
developing countries all over the world. A major assumption of IEQ is “Quality translates into
equitable learning situations that offer all children”, and offer “a fair chance to learn and to
use their educational experience” (Adams, 1993). Moreover, it was mentioned that the
opportunity of being accessed cannot guarantee quality. Then the definition of educational
quality is necessary. Adams (1993) suggested it can be defined as “include a combination
of inputs, processes, outputs, outcomes, and value-added, or their relationships ”. Emil
(2001) emphasized the meaning of e-quality, which is using new technology to support both
teachers and students, and providing opportunities for nontraditional students, such as
students with career needs(i.e. psychology, business). In some countries like Thailand
(Trakulphadetkrai, 2011), using TV channels in education can promote equality of
educational resources. The poorer areas’ students can use it to get higher-quality education.

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Tang and Carr-Chellman (2016) argued that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) can
potentially help address current issues of inequality by extending high-quality educational
resources from better institutions in China. Besides, a study by Ferdousi (2010) suggests
that distance education helps women in Bangladesh to get an opportunity to be educated,
which means that in some countries, distance education also fosters gender equality. This
is not an isolated phenomenon. Aktas et al. (2019) confirmed distance education helped
Turkey to guarantee the education of disadvantaged groups, especially women. Chen (2004)
proved that the development of ICT exerts a positive impact on gender equality, especially
in education and employment.

  Dahrendorf (1975) observed some important barriers, social and economic barriers and
social distance barriers. To remove social and economic barriers, financial support and
government policies should be taken into account. Moreover, he advocated the
dissemination of information to remedy the social distance barriers. Distance education
provides the possibility to eliminate social distance barriers by sharing information,
motivation or opportunities for every single one.
  Nash (2004) argued that three levels of barriers can cause some students unable to get
access to equal education. The first level is legal barriers. Institutions of high education
should select entrants based on their ability instead of their race, gender or ethnic origin.
For this, most developed countries have a completed law to regulate institutions’ behaviors.
The second level is an invisible barrier, which is caused by limitations of resources(i.e. family
finances, school classroom capacity), distance, physical attribute(i.e. disabilities) and race.
Governments are working to eliminate this barrier by policies, such as scholarships and
loans, boarding hostels, distance education and appropriate facilities for disabled people.
The third level barrier is inequality of educational opportunities. For example, the middle-
class and working-class have group differences in educational attainment, making the
former gain more educational qualifications than the latter. Given this, working-class
students should be given more access under this environmental factor, and whether this
solution will intensify inequality is still under discussion. Distance education can be a solution
to this situation by providing more equal education resources at the very beginning of their
study lives. If they can get more equal education resources in their primary schools, the third
level barrier can be eliminated to a certain extent, thereby reducing the gap of educational
qualification.

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Pugliese (1994) investigated students’ psychological variables in distance education,
including loneliness, fear of communication, and the ability to commute and control. The
results suggest that distance learning affects students positively, who don’t have many
social interaction skills, because it is easier for them to finish courses online compared to
face-to-face learning. Distance learning apparently minimizes the impact of social skills as
people can finish their assignment just by email or non-face-to-face conversation. It is a new
option for students who are afraid of communication or those who have special mental health
problems, such as social anxiety or Autism (ibid.).

 The COVID-19 pandemic has strongly impacted the world educational situation. Bayram
Gökbulut (2020) used phenomenology design as a research method and semi-structured
interviews as the data collection method, finding that students prefer distance education due
to their work. He also considered it as a good opportunity for the students who cannot attend
a school or who have some special needs. In the meantime, he highlighted the significance
of renewal, since their informatics education is out of date to keep up with the new technical
situation and needs.
  Marinoni et.al (2020) demonstrated that the risk of the growing inequality issue is a world
problem by the regional analysis. Their survey was based on 576 replies from 424
universities and Higher Education Institutions in 109 countries and regions and they
analyzed different regions’ situation. One of their results about equality is assignable,
pointing out that the pandemic exacerbates the inequality issue. For example, Africa had the
biggest disruption in their research and teaching activities, and the amount of teaching and
exams completely cancelled, or postponed in Africa was also higher than in other regions,
which in their opinion increased the gap between Higher Education Institutions in Africa and
the world.

 Fidalgo et, al(2020) compared bachelor students’ perceptions on distance education from
three different countries - Portugal, Ukraine and UAE. According to the findings, students
had a positive attitude towards distance education mainly due to the fact that they could
save their time by choosing study location and working at their own pace. The negative
attitudes were related mainly to difficulties in contacting the instructor or the peers. According
to the students’ answers, students from different backgrounds had varying needs for
distance education not only due to their learning skills but also their living environment.
Some students need to work at the same time to support their own educational fees, and

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thus need more flexible study hours.
     Although there are already plenty of distance degree programs, students are asking for
the equal resources and outcomes. An internet diploma is not as powerful as regular diploma.
Some countries separate them, and some do not recognize an internet diploma(i.e. China).
For instance, adult learners all voluntary start to study, and require more on getting
knowledge to apply to their work. According to Sullivan (2001), more women mentioned
family and children as the main reason for them to select distance education. They need to
balance work, study and family. However, they still ask for equal academic achievement like
other traditional students.
 Carswell et, al (2000) stated that distance learning increases interaction with fellow
students and tutors. The technology nowadays allows flexible feedback and communication
in distance learning than before (Emil, 2001). They don’t need to wait for the next class to
get the results or credits, or come back to school to get their grades before the holiday. Their
grades or teachers’ comments on their assignment are available online. On the contrary,
both teachers and students under a time lag can also be affected by unclear due. Even
though distance learning can support students by providing a flexible and convenient
interaction without time nor place dependency., every student has an individual learning
pace. Equality here means everyone can get his or her own desired outcomes rather than
identical pace or outcomes, and everyone can learn at his or her own pace by watching
recordings or discussing with friends or classmates.
  According to Moore and Kearsley (2011), plenty of universities are developing more
consummate distance education systems, including online courses and online platforms. In
the 2008-2009 school year, there were over 4 million students who were taking at least one
distance learning course. In 2020, impacted by the Covid, the number of students taking
distance learning courses naturally increased to over 1.5 billion (UNESCO2020). More
universities have begun to cooperate with others to establish online courses, such as the
MOOCs’ cooperation programme between Helsinki University and Peking University (Niemi
& Jia 2016) and the Finnish University Partnership for International Development (UniPID).
Burrage (2010) emphasized three phases of higher education for Martin Trow (1973), which
are respectively elite education, mass education and popularizing education. Mass
Education means providing knowledge for society and imparting technical knowledge to
professionals and technicians. Popularizing Education is open to the public and every
individual has equal access to be educated. Mass Education and Popularizing Education
can be associated with educational equality and equality of resources. Higher education is

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obvious Mass Education, with the purpose of sifting suitable students for every area. All
students should be provided equal and quality resources.

  Distance education has other benefits as well. As shown in Bates and Bates (2005)’s
opinion, lifelong learning and thus equality of education during life course can be enhanced
by distance learning. “Lifelong learning” is becoming more popular in recent years,
especially in Nordic Countries. For instance, Finland has a proverb saying “All age is learning”
since the 17th century”. It has been shown on Antikainen’ (2001) research that Finland and
Sweden have higher credentials on achieving lifelong learning than average among the 12
countries selected in his search. Hällsten (2011) also confirmed that lifelong learning can
promote both intragenerational and intergenerational equality with a moderate amount of
simplification. Similarly, Tang and Carr-Chellman (2016) also pointed out that MOOCs can
be used in the lifelong learning area in China. Distance education may provide a better way
for people who need lifelong learning to help them balance learning, family and work so that
they can take courses wherever and whenever they want.

3.3 “E-equality”, the new meaning of equality in distance education

  Based on previous theories and the research question of this essay, a new meaning of
equality in distance education is introduced, namely, E-equality. As Simonson et.al (2019,
28) stated in their book, if distance education is to be a successful and mainstream approach,
it is imperative that distance education systems are designed to permit equivalent learning
experiences for distant and local students. They consider distance education with equality,
and highlight that every learner should be provided with different, unequal, but equivalent
instructional strategies, education resources or individually prescribed activities as other
students(e.g. local students). That is E-equality’s meaning in distance education.

  In addition, E-equality also involves equal requirements and treatment. Equal
requirements not only mean equal educational prerequisites but also equal graduation
requirements to both distance learners and traditional-setting students. For example, if the
traditional master students in statistics require at least 25 credits of mathematic, then the
distance students should be expected the same or similar requirements. If the traditional
master students should gain at least 120 credits for graduation, then the distance students
should also be expected the same requirements. As aforementioned, some countries
separate normal diploma and Internet diploma. If distance learners take the same or

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similar courses and graduate in strict accordance with the regulations, they should be
treated as traditional students.

4.METHODOLOGY

  The research objective of this thesis is to identify what kind of experiences Chinese
students studying in Finland have on distance learning and equality in distance education.
I conducted 11 semi-structured interviews from Chinese students studying in Finland.
Gökbulut (2020, 141) agrees that semi-structured interview is a technique for a researcher
to determine the questions in advanced and develop them during the interview process. In
the case of missing answers, the interviewer can guide the interviewee with in-depth
questions according to the research purpose. As Holstein and Gubrium (1995) argue, both
interviewer and interviewee can be “meaning makers” during the conversational interview.
I can derive the direct interviewees’ experience, thus obtaining different perspectives on
distance education and equality. My research question is what kind of experiences higher
education students have about distance education and equality? To acquire deep and
culturally relevant information about the subject, the main interview language was
Chinese. I recorded the interviews, transcribed them in Chinese and finally translated them
in English. See the appendix 2 for the Chinese transcripts.

4.1 Data gathering: qualitative interviews

  My aim was to elicit knowledge about how Chinese students studying in Finnish
universities feel and experience distance education. Furthermore, I aimed at finding out,
what kind of experiences the interviewees have about distance education and equality, and
what kinds of needs arise from their experiences about distance education. For these
purposes, the qualitative semi-structured content interviews are a desirable and feasible
method of data gathering.

4.1.1 Interviewees

  In this sub-section, I present information about my interviewees’ selection criterion and
background information. The inclusion criteria of interviewees entailed Chinese students
studying in Finnish university, regardless of whether they are bachelor or master, using
English or Finnish to take courses, part-time or full-time study, living in any city in Finland.

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All the selected interviewees participated in using distance education because of the covid-
19 situation.
  Finally, eleven participants were interviewed. They were primarily found through Chinese
students union around all of Finnish cities. Five of them are from Tampere, three of them are
from Helsinki, the other three are from Oulu, Jyväskylä, and Joensuu. The interviewees
consisted of four women and seven men. All of them are university students, whose age
ranged between 20 and 28 years. I excluded one of the conducted interviews outside of the
analysis as a consequence of short answers and inadequate information. Thus, the final
table and paper only includes ten interviewees. There are five master students and five
bachelor students. In table 1 I present interviewees’ background information. I divided the
information into two tables. Table 1 comprises interviews using telephone or Zoom meeting,
whereas table 2 comprises interviews using Wechat voice messages, and an additional
interview by Wechat phone call. I will explain more in detail about the varying interview
methods in chapter 3.1.3.
Table 1: Background information of the interviewees using telephone or Zoom.

 interviewee       1            2                  3                   4                   5

 education        MA        BA(Double)             BA                  BA                 MA

                            Bioproduct
                                               Energy and                        Industrial energy
                Computer       and                                 Mechanical
     major                                    Environmental                       processes and
                Science     Processing                             Engineering
                                               Engineering                           sustainability
                            Engineering

     Work       Part-time    Part-time          Part-time           Full-time          Full-time

 Previous
                  yes           no                yes                  no                 no
experience
NOTE: BA for bachelor’s degree, MA for master’s degree. BA(Double) is a programme
between Finland’s and China’s universities, students can get two degree from both two
universities. Previous experience means whether they have participated in any distance
education before COVID-19. Attitudinal change means their attitude between all online
courses and now.
Table 2: Background information of interviewees using Wechat
 interviewee            6                 7                   8                  9                    10
 education             BA                MA                   BA                 MA                MA

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Mechanical and      Creative         Information and
                                                                      Computer
     major      Construction    Sustainability in   Communications                   Finance
                                                                       Science
                Engineering       Architecture        Technology
     Work        Part-time             no                 no             no             No
 Previous
                    no                yes                 no             yes           yes
experience

4.1.2 Ethics

 The data was ensured impartiality, my analysis and observation are honest and open,
and uphold research integrity. During interviews, I respected the interviewees’ privacy and
confidentiality. Everything I publish in this thesis has the participants’ consent. I made an
effort to follow the code of ethics. I explained carefully what the study was about, and I
would only use their answers in my master thesis. Their private information was
safeguarded, and I do not reveal any personal details in my thesis so that the anonymity of
the interviewees is guaranteed.

 During the covid-19 situation, the universities are mostly closed, and I needed to find a
solution to the social distance policy issued by the Finnish government during my
interviews. Most of the interviewees lived far from me. I sent them all the documents about
my thesis, including research notification and privacy notice. I asked everyone if they
allowed me to use their answers at the beginning of every interview. I got their permission,
and the answers are recorded. For reasons unknown to me, not all of them were ready to
print the documents, sign them and send them back to me. Instead, they insisted that the
oral consent was adequate for them. Although covid-19 provides me a really convenient
situation to search for interviewees - all their courses are moved online in Finland. My
choice is to respect my interviewees security needs and make them feel comfortable. I
was glad and lucky to gain their understanding and cooperation. I followed a very cautious
and prudent approach, trying to ensure that I was not consciously looking for evidence to
support my own personal views.

4.1.3 The interview process and data

  Because of the covid-19 situation, and because some of my interviewees are not living in
Tampere (where I am reside), five of the interviews were distance interviews conducted by

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phone and recorded. The other six interviews were conducted in Wechat. In the first stage,
I sent them a question as voice recording and they answered with voice recording. But after
doing some analysis work based on WeChat voice message, I found their answers are not
providing sufficient data and I cannot analyze the various experiences they are telling about.
Then I decided to do an additional phonecall interview to the five WeChat interviewees. The
reason I chose WeChat is that WeChat is the most popular communication software used
by Chinese students. It solves the problem of space effectively, and my interviewees were
willing to use WeChat to ensure security. I implemented and transcribed all of the interviews
in Chinese. The interviews ranged from 30 minutes to 40 minutes. I used semi-structured
theme interviews. By this, I mean I used the questions to lead the interviewees to talk about
their own experiences and attitudes. The interview plan is presented in English in Appendix
1. The data gathered from the interviews is valid and reliable for my research topic, but not
absolutely ideal. Because I have done the additional interviews, I decided to separate them
into two groups to analyze. The second group in Table 2 has a longer time horizon, which
means their attitudes will change in this process. They might have graduated, started to
work, went back to China, or other changes in their lives between the first and second stage
of the interviews.
  I made a conscious effort to create a more flexible interview for the participants, because
most of them preferred phonecall on WeChat. It makes them feel convenient and
comfortable by conducting the interview like that. Moreover, I started all of the interviews
with some warm-up and background questions, and the language I use is as relaxing as
possible to build our trust and make them feel more relax to share their experiences.

4.2 Qualitative content analysis

  I am using qualitative content analysis (Mayring, 2014) to analysis the data. Bernard
Berelson was the first person who introduced the empirical approach of content analysis to
the systematic study. Nowadays, it has been used all forms of communication, including the
study of political content in the news media, speeches, advertising, and more recently social
media and blogs (Neuendorf & Kumar, 2015). Qualitative content analysis is based on what
is defined by Krippendorff(1969), as “the use of replicable and valid method for making
specific inferences from text to other states or properties of its source”.
  I follow Mayring’s (2014) guidance of qualitative content analysis. He emphasizes four
main procedures while analyzing the data: definition, examples, category and coding rules.

19
The main idea is to give explicit definitions and coding rules for each category, and the
examples should also be related to them. Determining how a text passage can be coded
with the category.
 In addition, I also consult Simonson and other’s (2019) arguments about equality in
distance education. They pay more attention on students’ opinion, which is related to my
research setting. They describe in detail about how to make it more equal when the teacher
designs the distance learning courses, including access to resources (e.g. equipment,
resources), and previous knowledge (e.g. the code, software). They also mention about
copyright, which also caused some problems in my interviewees’ stories. I want to discuss
it in the end of my thesis, expecting to help policy-makers and teachers promote useful
policies and teaching skills.

4.2.1 Transcription systems of my interviews

 First of all, it is necessary to explain my data transcription. Transcription of the spoken
language in an interview into a text needs transcription rules to maximize the retention of
interview’s information. Mayring (2014) suggests seven transcription systems: selective
protocol, comprehensive protocol, clean read or smooth verbatim transcript, pure verbatim
protocol, international phonetic alphabet (IAP), protocol with special characters, and protocol
with comment column. In my transcription work, I only followed selective protocol, pure
verbatim protocol, and protocol with comment column. Selective protocol means I defined
those parts relevant to my research question on my interview, remove the extensive
introductory parts or the motivating parts. My interviews are open and kind of narrative.
Some of the interviewees talk about uncorrelated or repetitive content. The transcription
regards only those related on my research questions is important for me. Pure verbatim
protocol means I keep every utterance while doing my transcription, including fillers and
articulation. Protocol with comment column means I use a special column for all special
perception while transcribing. The last two systems helped me to understand my
interviewees’ attitudes towards equality and distance education. (pp.45-57)

4.2.2 Individual needs categories and coding procedures

 Inductive category assignment was first developed by Mayring (2014), which directly
summarizes the categories by the data itself, not from theoretical considerations, in the case
the researchers are biased based on their own preconceptions, which impacts the

20
description or understanding of the data. This method is also named “open coding” (Strauss
 & Corbin, 1990). In this thesis, the category formulation is based on “open coding”. The
 research question is What kind of experiences higher education students have about
 distance education and equality, which means the basic category rule should directly obey
 “equality”. Based on previous literature and data, it is narrowed down to just “individual
 needs” as the category rule in this thesis.
  After confirming the category rule, data coding was conducted, with five detailed categories
 found in total. During the process, this research first formulated a basic and abstractive
 category based on the very beginning of the interview data and checked the rest of the
 interview data regarding whether it could be subsumed to the category. Then, the revision
 was made if the name of the category was related to the category system, or if the category
 system fitted the research question. In the meantime, circulation checks were carried out to
 make sure important information was not ignored. During the process, some disconfirming
 evidence appeared as well, making it necessary to reconsider and recheck the whole data
 and the theoretical background. It guided new questions that were not anticipated at the
 beginning of this analysis.
 The whole analytical framework is illustrated in Table 3.
                               Table 3: analytical framework design
  Needs
                           Definition                      Coding rules               Findings category
 category
             The requirements or needs only focus                                     Finding 1. learning
                                                    All their answers are saying
                 on themselves, which means:                                       motivation and learning
Individual                                                   about “me”.
                To be sure their experiences are                                         environment
 needs of                                              All their answers are
                    because of themselves.                                            Finding 5. Student-
themselves                                             special, not for all the
              To be sure their needs are based on                                   centered System and
                                                              students.
                        their own lives.                                             Self-study in Finland
                                                    All their answers are saying
             The requirements or needs only focus    about tools or materials.
Individual                                                                         Finding 2. Improvement
                on education resources, such as:     All their answers cannot
 needs of                                                                          of tool usage on distance
                 Tools, teaching skills, learning   relate to human behaviors,
resources                                                                                 education
                           materials.                 such as personal hard-
                                                       working, other’s help.
Individual   The requirements or needs only focus   All their answers are saying     Finding 3. Teachers’
 needs of             on others, including:           about their needs from        guidance on distance
  others      Teachers’ help, communications with    teachers, classmates or              education

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classmates, cooperation.             teaching assistants.        Finding 4. Flexible option
                                                   All their answers are talking      of assignment and
                                                        about teamwork.                   teamwork
 All the categories are based on the data and summarization by the researcher of this thesis.
  According to the answers of the interviewees, five findings were reached based on the
most frequent keywords. The frequency of keyword occurrence manifests their attention to
the aspect of distance education. Chinese students studying in Finnish universities care
more about recording, learning environment, motivation, teamwork, asking questions,
discussion, help, and self-study. Based on qualitative content analysis coding rules, they are
separated into three categories along with five findings in Table 3. These five findings reflect
the three categories. The three categories include individual needs of themselves, individual
needs of resources and individual needs of others. As Saito (2013) stated, an individual will
have two distinct notions of equality, that is, equality of ex-ante expected pay-offs and
equality of ex-post pay-offs. But different people have different expectations and
requirements, which constitute their individual needs. According to my interviewees’
answers, they only mentioned three things - what I experienced myself, what I experienced
while using tools, and what I experienced with others. In this way, there were three
categories. During data analysis, this framework made it easier to code the data as the only
thing for the research to do was to confirm which kind of individual need the interviewees
mentioned according to the code rules made and then to reduce it to the main categories,
deducing a common finding based on the research question. Finally, all the data and
categories were checked in terms of their reliability. All in all, the researcher step-by-step
finished defining categories, collecting prototypical interviewees’ answers, and formulating
rules for distinguishing different categories, with certain revision during the whole analysis
process.

5. WHAT KIND OF EXPERIENCES HIGHER EDUCATION STUDENTS HAVE ABOUT
DISTANCE EDUCATION AND EQUALITY.

  In this chapter, the findings are presented based on the interviews with11 Chinese
students studying in Finnish Universities with their experiences on distance education. Then
in line with their answers and background information, distance education and equality are
further analyzed. In the beginning, there is an introduction of interviewees’ experiences
towards distance education and the main situation that almost every interviewee mentioned,

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which lays the foundation for exploring the relationship between their experiences and
inequality or equality.
  The aim of this chapter is to provide answers to the research question: what kind of
experiences higher education students have about distance education and equality. It is
noteworthy that all of the quotes presented in this chapter are translated from Chinese to
English. Even though the researcher carefully translated it, sometimes it was still hard to
find direct counterparts for all of the words, and thus some of the meanings may have
changed in this process. All the original answers are attached in Chinese in appendix 2.
  As claimed by Emil (2001), the interviewees in this research are the “traditional students”
as the “nontraditional distance learners”. Although distance education has been developed
for several years, it was not the main education method until 2020. At least the interviewees
in this research have not participated in any principal distance learning before. They are
more familiar with the traditional face-to-face teaching method, making them unavoidably
combine these two learning methods’ outcomes. On the other hand, there are still many
“nontraditional students” being as the “traditional distance learners”. In other words, they are
not those aged between 18-24 years old, moving directly from high school to university (Emil,
2001). Distance education’s flexible teaching method provides them with a possibility to
balance their work and studies. The findings below are about their experiences in distance
education.

5.1 Finding 1: Learning motivation and learning environment

 Almost all courses of the interviewees are online, except for two interviewees. Their
courses included chemistry basic courses, which required them to go to the school’s
laboratory to do some exercises and measurement. The theoretical courses were still online.
All interviewees mentioned learning motivation and learning environment, although their
attitudes towards distance education varied. They all thought that distance education is
lacking in these two aspects. The following extracts from the data demonstrate their thoughts
and experiences about motivation and environment.
Note: The letter “P” in extracts means participant.

                 Extract 1

                P1: “It's true that I have more time at my disposal, but I'm really much less
                productive after fully online classes, because it's all staying at home and

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there are so many influences that can distract you. For example, if I watch
                a recorded class, I can watch an hour-long video for half a day and stop for
                a while to engage in something else.”

                Extract 2

                P2: “… you gradually adapt to this distance education form, because of
                the pandemic, you can’t attend to school and sit in that time and focus on
                one thing in the classroom, which the environment and the context limit
                you to study only.”

 These two interviewees were mainly using telephone/face-to-face interview by the end of
July 2020. They only had about seven months’ experience in distance education. Both of
them indicated that they were not getting used to this new situation. This was the same case
for other interviewees, reporting that their schools did not prepare well for all courses as
online teaching. Students, educators, and institutions face the same situation.

                Extract 3

                P7: “For the negative part, for me is that distance learning has greatly
                reduced my motivation to learn. Or maybe it’s just an excuse for not
                wanting to study…comparing with face-to-face, distance learning is lack of
                learning environment.”

                Extract 4

                P8: “And because the teacher is not in front of me, distance learning
                makes it easier for me to get distracted and do other things with the
                computer (such as chatting or playing games)…I have very bad self-
                control, I can listen to the teacher while in the classroom.”

Most of the interviewees felt the lack of learning motivation and learning environment, which
caused the lack of interest in learning. Some of them also attributed their low motivation and

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