Features May/June 2021

UX and the Online Classroom

Creating an Inclusive Experience for International and Non-Native, English-Speaking Students

By Meghalee Das | STC Student Member


Higher education in the United States is witnessing an “internationalization” of curricula, faculty, and students, says Rebecca Theobald of the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. According to the Institute of International Education (IIE), there are over a million foreign students in the United States as of Fall 2020. However, in spite of their growing presence, these students are consciously or unconsciously expected to behave like model minorities and follow the norms of the dominant members of the community. As a result, the needs of international students often remain unnamed, and the challenges they face persist inconspicuously, unless they are momentarily the center of any news related to immigration. One such instance was when the international students present in the United States faced the risk of deportation if they attended classes online during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the order was rescinded after national outcry, these incidents can cause tremendous mental strain; this, of course, is in addition to the challenges of bringing distinctive linguistic, social, and cultural differences to predominantly white universities.

As a technical communicator, I study how technology, human mediation, and empathy can be combined to facilitate an inclusive user experience (UX) for marginalized groups. In this article, I share contextual information that can help educators gain insight into the world of international students. I also use UX research strategies like user analysis, environment analysis, and task analysis to make recommendations related to class policies and technologies that can assist online instructors to create a culturally-sensitive and inclusive environment for international and non-native, English-speaking students. Many of these strategies can be applied in any educational context; however, they are particularly relevant to online educators and program administrators in the Global North, who have international students in their classes, as well as UX researchers and practitioners working with intercultural audiences.


Enrollment of international students has been growing consistently in the United States, as educational institutions open doors to global talents, welcome new perspectives, encourage cross-cultural experiences, and promote diversity. Besides the intangible academic and cultural value, international students also have economic value. According to NAFSA: Association of International Educators, they contributed $38.7 billion to the U.S. economy in 2019–2020, created over 500,000 jobs in the United States, and many of them are highly sought-after graduates, especially by organizations in STEM fields.

As a foreign-born woman of color in the United States who is a student, researcher, and an instructor of Technical Communication, I am conscious of how international students’ value is often measured in economic terms, sometimes at the expense of their humanity. My own positionality also makes me acutely aware of the differences in culture, language, social norms, worldview, educational conventions, communication infrastructure, and technology orientation between the Global North and Global South, where more than 70 percent of international students in the United States come from.

While face-to-face classes allow more opportunities for mutual interaction among students, the format of online classes tends to heighten these differences. Moreover, unprecedented circumstances like the COVID-19 pandemic have led to international travel bans, closure of U.S. embassies, and non-issuance of student visas. Uncertain immigration rules regarding online classes, social isolation, and negative rhetoric targeting immigrants in a charged political environment create conditions that affect the cognitive and emotional state of international students. This issue concerns not just educators and advocates of cross-cultural education, but also national leaders, including those present at the 2021 World Economic Forum.

How Can UX Research Help?

According to usability.gov, “UX focuses on having a deep understanding of users, what they need, what they value, their abilities, and also their limitations.” UX includes the entire experience of a user with a product, and by observation, analysis, and feedback, researchers attempt to find out if users found the interaction meaningful and valuable. Thus, to create an inclusive learning environment for international students from the Global South, who are also likely to be non-native speakers of English, online instructors first need to understand their students from the user’s perspective. This form of empathy mapping is the first step towards design thinking, which Donald Norman refers to as “spend[ing] time determining what basic, fundamental (root) issue needs to be addressed.”

I have presented my research on international students’ experience in online classes at conferences, and am currently expanding it to a more comprehensive study through user journey maps, site visits, and emotion assessment. The following UX research methods can help online instructors identify their students’ challenges, desires, needs, and capabilities to create a user-centered, inclusive course, and use the appropriate technologies and tools to deliver the class.

User Analysis

Just like knowing your audience is the starting point of any UX research, instructors and program administrators must analyze international students’ needs, goals, and motivations to facilitate learning and aid participation. While international students are not a homogenous entity—each brings different backgrounds, cultures, languages, technological expertise, and priorities—there are some common elements that can help you create a user profile. If you have an international student in your class, reflect on these questions, or ask the student directly:

  • What are the key immigration rules that an instructor, principal investigator, or program administrator needs to know about you as an international student?
  • What motivates you, and what is your goal in studying at an American university?
  • What is your technological knowledge and skill level?
  • Is English your first language, or are you a non-native English speaker?
  • Are your cultural norms significantly different from American customs and practices?
  • How has COVID-19 affected your cognitive and emotional state?
  • Do you have a mentor beyond the class, either on campus or within the program?

The answers will help you make decisions on class policies, instruction delivery, and tools. For example, the Department of Homeland Security says that international “undergraduate students must take at least 12 credit hours per term,” and graduate students in most universities have to take at least nine every semester. This adds additional pressure on top of the usual rigors of school; they cannot drop a course or take a gap year. Also, they can only take one online class, something to keep in mind when planning instruction delivery methods. Besides being occupied with a full class load, international students can be very goal-oriented and motivated to succeed, especially after leaving their friends and family for the sake of a better education, and paying high fees compared to schools in their home countries.

Another way of understanding a student’s cultural characteristics is by researching their cultural dimensions scores based on a worldwide survey conducted by social psychologist Gerard Hofstede. These scores should not be used to generalize the population of an entire nation, but rather as a starting point to familiarize ourselves with the needs and expectations of people we have not encountered before. For example, if you have students from “collectivist” and “high power distance” cultures, they may hesitate to participate verbally in class, ask questions, or interrupt anyone because their values are more community-based, with greater emphasis on maintaining hierarchies. To facilitate student engagement, you can allow different forms of participation in your class policy, and encourage use of features like chat, emojis, GIFs, raising hand, polls, breakout rooms, etc. on video conferencing platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Most international students only get a one-day orientation and may not be accustomed to American educational expectations or social etiquette. By being empathetic to their emotional state, linguistic, technological, and cultural differences, you can be an effective mentor.

If students are non-native speakers of English, allow the use of e-dictionaries like Youdao, which offer acoustic translations and screen word recognition to translate words and sentences. Some international students also use dictionary pens and app-based scanners to read books. These steps can help them engage with digital materials. University resources like writing centers can help them review their written work. Lastly, consider adding multimodal assignments like podcasts, speeches, vlogs, graphics, or presentation of artifacts to allow international students to share their culture, and express themselves in non-textual forms dominated by Euro-centric standards.

Environment Analysis

While international students can be present in the United States, they may also be in their home countries, attending classes from different time zones, sometimes logging into their online classes in the middle of the night. Moreover, as U.S. embassies were closed and international flights were banned during the COVID-19 pandemic, many students were not able to get visas, or enter the United States. In fact, the IIE 2020 report says that one in five international students studied online from abroad in Fall 2020.

When students attend classes from their home countries, their telecommunication infrastructure, technology, and internet options may be different from students in the United States. In his article “Online Education in an Age of Globalization: Foundational Perspectives and Practices for Technical Communication Instructors and Trainers,” Kirk St.Amant of Louisiana Tech University also stresses on the importance of factors like access, design, scheduling, and language, which are crucial for successful global online instructional delivery. To understand the learning environment of your international students, ask the following questions:

  • Are you located in the United States, or taking classes from your home countries?
  • If you are not in the United States, what time zone are you in, and are you aware of U.S. time zones?
  • Do you use different date and time formats?
  • Do you have access to communication and remote learning technologies?
  • How does COVID-19 affect your travel plans, immigration status, class format, and residency requirements?
  • What other disruptions are you facing that might affect your learning?

Some of these questions may seem trivial, such as date and time formats, but they can create logistical disruptions if not clarified. In India, I use the date/month format instead of month/date used in the United States, and not all countries follow daylight saving time.

There could be more significant disruptions that are unthinkable in the Global North. For example, riots in my hometown in India in December 2019 led to no internet for more than two weeks. Even when we have Wi-Fi, we may have power outages for hours. I know someone from the Middle East who was unable to attend classes because of air strikes. What seems dramatic to some is a reality for many.

Also, consider how far some of these students have travelled to get quality education in an alien environment. Some students can’t go home due to travel bans, financial issues, and civil unrest. After looking forward to going home for five years, COVID-19 travel restrictions have had a profound effect on my mental health. It was the kindness of my professors that helped me cope with this. Empathy and environmental analysis play a vital role in understanding users’ cognitive and emotional states.

Task Analysis

According to the Neilsen Norman Group, task analysis is the “broad practice of learning about how users work (i.e., the tasks they perform) to achieve their goals.” It can help instructors identify the international students’ goals, outline all the tasks students have to do to meet their goals, and analyze if students faced any barriers in executing any task. To conduct a task analysis, you can draw upon your findings from the user and environment analysis, conduct contextual inquiry to observe the users, or conduct interviews. Here are some questions and talking points to help you analyze tasks:

  • What goals does an international student have in terms of the course?
  • What key tasks does the student need to perform to meet the goals of a scenario (for example, logging in to the classroom, participating in breakout rooms, etc.)?
  • What other tasks do students have to do to meet their goals (for example, muting and unmuting the microphone, sharing their screen, using the chat box, etc.)?
  • What errors do students make, if any, and with what frequency?
  • Are they able to correct any errors, or did they fail to successfully complete the task?
  • How long did it take to complete the task?
  • What was their cognitive state (thoughts, decisions) and emotional state (feelings, mood) while performing these tasks?
  • Were students able to meet all their goals?
  • Did you identify the real problem(s) when users were unable to complete any task?

Task analysis and design are closely related. Once you identify the real problem, you can decide how to design your course on a learning management system, select video conferencing features or collaboration tools, and modify any course policies like participation and attendance, syllabus, and assignment prompts. For example, if an international student is a non-native speaker of English, and is having difficulty in following what you say in class, enable the auto-captioning feature in the video conferencing platform, PowerPoint slides, and lecture videos, along with a transcript that they can read at their own pace. Recording classes helps students who are unable to enter the online class due to power or Wi-Fi failure. Uploading smaller audio files also makes it easier to access in countries with slower internet speed.


User, environment, and task analysis are just some UX research methods that can help you get a more holistic picture of an international and non-native English-speaking student’s experience. This, along with an empathetic attitude, lies at the heart of understanding these students and the unique challenges they face, and can help you to design course elements and delivery methods.

Software developers and testers who make learning, collaboration, or communication platforms for a global user market can also incorporate these takeaways in their product research and development. In the early days of the pandemic, I had mentioned at a conference how some of the icons on the Zoom home page could be confusing to international users, and also that they must add more emojis. At the time of writing this article, Zoom has already added new icons and emojis, which shows how responsive they are to the needs of their users.

When educators and decision makers translate diversity and inclusion statements into concrete practices, they send the message that each individual’s voice and story matters. Identifying and acknowledging the exclusive challenges faced by marginalized groups, such as international and non-native, English-speaking students, is the one of the first steps towards creating an environment of inclusivity.

MEGHALEE DAS (Meghalee.Das@ttu.edu) is a PhD student in technical communication and rhetoric at Texas Tech University. She is interested in intercultural technical communication, UX, digital rhetoric, social justice, and inclusive pedagogical practices.



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Hofstede Insights. “Country Comparison.” 2020. Accessed 7 April 2021. https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/.

Institute of International Education. “Fall 2020 International Student Enrollment Snapshot Reports,” 2020. Accessed 7 April 2021.

Norman, Donald A. 2013. The Design of Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books.

Rosala, Maria. 2020. “Task Analysis: Support Users in Achieving Their Goals.” Nielsen Norman Group. Accessed 21 February 2021. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/task-analysis/.

St. Amant, Kirk. 2007. “Online Education in an Age of Globalization: Foundational Perspectives and Practices for Technical Communication Instructors and Trainers.” Technical Communication Quarterly 16, no. 1: 13–30. https://doi.org/10.1080/10572250709336575.

Theobald, Rebecca B. 2008. “Internationalization: Institutions, People and Programmes in Colorado.” Journal of Geography in Higher Education
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