iBusiness, 2010, 2, 311-316
doi:10.4236/ib.2010.24040 Published Online December 2010 (http://www.scirp.org/journal/ib)
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. iB
E-Business Education: A Phenomenographic Study of
Online Engagement among Accounting, Finance and
International Business Students
Nattavud Pimpa
School of Management, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.
E-mail: Nattavud.pimpa@rmit.edu.au
Received September 15th, 2010; revised October 21st, 2010; accepted November 23rd, 2010.
This paper examines online engagement in the business learning context among international and local students in
Australia. Online engagement among business students and lecturers has long been criticized as the key problems in
adopting online materials and methods in business education. In examining factors affecting online engagement in
business education, the data was collected from undergraduate students in finance, accounting and international busi-
ness undergraduate students. Moreover, learning and teaching techniques that enhance the quality of online engage-
ment were also investigated in this study. Key factors include the nature of the course, technical aspects from the insti-
tutions and cultural backgrounds from the students. This study also finds roles of key stakeholders in business education
such as lecturers, technicians and policy makers contributing to the level of online engagement among business stu-
Keywords: Business Education, Online Engagement, International Education
1. Introduction
One important facet of globalisation is technology de-
velopment. Advancement in technology contributes sig-
nificantly to the new ways of learning and teaching in all
sciences including business studies. Like other disci-
plines, the implementation of online element in the busi-
ness education has been one of the most critical aspects
worldwide. Due to its effectiveness in promoting flexi-
bility in learning, most universities and business schools
attempt to improve the synergism of electronic aspects
into their business curriculum. The development of
online system for business education has improved the
way lecturers construct the pedagogy for business
courses. It also improves student’s learning experiences
Previous studies discussed the benefits of using online
system in teaching and learning in business, economics,
and management [2]. At the same time, many commen-
tators argue that the technologisation of education marks
a profound change in teaching and learning resulting in a
“pedagogical challenges and technology” [3,4], “the
transformation of tertiary pedagogy in the context of
communications technologies’ [5] and learning culture [4]
in the local and global business education context. In
terms of the fundamental benefits of online learning in
the business courses, online learning systems provide
higher education institutions with a ‘platform’ and
‘space’ for a macro-scale implementation for instructivist
pedagogy [6,7].
In the context of learning and teaching in international
business, however, researchers have proposed a number
of problems and challenges when using electronic forms
of education. Previous research study by Raelin and
Schemerhom (1994) claims that for online business
courses to be effective, faculty and the administration
need to integrate program planning, monitoring, man-
agement, and resource allocation and careful selection of
learning materials. They also need to offer students
pre-entry guidance, personal communication and feed-
back. Identification of the importance of these factors
lends strong support to the belief among online educators
that distance learning courses that are offered online are
not a cheap or discounted method of delivery, if the
courses are to be established and delivered properly [8].
The literature in the area of business education identi-
fies the key objectives and benefits of adopting online
approach in business education. Lewandowski [9] ex-
E-Business Education: A Phenomenographic Study of Online Engagement among Accounting,
Finance and International Business
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. iB
pressed that online approach in business education com-
plement traditional business education by employing a
learning platform. It may help in self-evaluation, critical
thinking and knowledge sharing among the members of
learning community. Ledru (2002) also cited that online
learning immerse the learners in technological and busi-
ness domains. Thus, students are prepared to the world of
work. They will master the technology prior to the
graduation. Moreover, online system also helps students
to maintain regular communication and contacts with
their teachers and peers wherever they are in the world
[10]. A good example of this benefit is mentioned as
Online business education can enhance further educa-
tion programs in order to capitalize on the distance
learning markets for executive managers, who are mo-
bile, demanding, and not very free to access education”
[3]. It can be claimed that the body of literature supports
the benefits of online education in business learning.
In terms of factor affecting online learning, previous
studies identified four categories that may be potential
problems in business education. They are: institutional
or organisational, technological, pedagogical and cul-
tural. Institutional issues and their interaction with tech-
nology can have a profound effect on culturally diverse
students. Conole [11] and Hannon and D’Netto [12] re-
ported issues such as institutional support for online
education, communication between students and institu-
tions and guidance from the institution can promote a
strong level of online engagement by students. As online
learning in business involves a number of activities, peo-
ple, and processes, it is important for universities and
lecturers not to see it as “culture-neutral”. Lecturers
should be concerned with how cultural differences are
managed in virtual learning. There are dangers in simply
transferring traditional face-to-face learning methods to
an online system. Previous studies make extensive ref-
erence to the access, speed, system, and clarity of infor-
mation and communication technology for the promotion
of students’ engagement in online education [12]. Finally,
cultural factors such as the students’ linguistic back-
ground, approach to learning, and communication style
also play a pivotal role in students’ readiness and will-
ingness to engage in online learning.
Given the abovementioned issues, this paper aims to
identify factors that impact on engagement with and the
effectiveness of, online education among international
business students. The outcomes from this project will
help educators and researchers in learning and teaching
online for international business program to better un-
derstand the issues of diversity underpinning students’
experience in online education and training. This under-
standing will provide long-term benefit for higher educa-
tion institutions that offer international business program
to student from diverse backgrounds.
2. Phenomenographic Study: The
The methodology used in carrying out this research was
phenomenography, which aims to understand the various
ways in which different people experience, perceive or
understand the same phenomenon [13]. Phemonenography
is a qualitative research approach in which the interview is
the most important and significant research method. The
outcome of phenomenographic research is therefore a list,
or description, of the qualitative variation in the ways the
sample participants experience, understand, perceive or
conceptualise an object of study, a concept or an activity.
To achieve this objective, qualitatively, semi-structured
individual interviews were used to probe the stages in-
volved in students’ conceptual development and their ap-
proaches to problem solving.
This study adopted phenomenographic because this
approach helps develop a descriptive framework based
on the two elements of meaning and structure. Meaning
is represented in categories of description that regroup
logically the views of the participants, simultaneously
contrasting differences and clustering similarities. Struc-
ture is represented within each category and in an out-
come space that indicates the relationships between the
categories. The structural elements of each category and
the outcome space are typically most useful for develop-
ing understanding of the phenomenon investigated [4].
The participants in this study include 27 undergraduate
students (6 accounting, 8 finance and 13 international
business students) in the bachelor of business degree
programme at one University of technology in Australia.
Snowball technique was used to recruit the participants
in this study. All of them are final year students in the
bachelor of business program. The participants are local,
international, and exchange students. It was expected by
the researcher that their cultural and learning back-
grounds will add to the diverse life stories of the partici-
pants. This aspect will enhance a key concept of phe-
nomenology approach.
Personal interviews were conducted by the researcher
at the main campus of the university. All participants in
this study volunteered to participate in the study because
they would like to contribute to the development of
online learning system of the university.
Data Analysis
The interviews were transcribed verbatim from the au-
dio-recorder. In analysing the data, qualitatively distinct
categories were identified that described the students’ ap-
proaches to online engagement. Transcripts of the stu-
E-Business Education: A Phenomenographic Study of Online Engagement among Accounting,
Finance and International Business
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. iB
dents’ interviews were examined independently by the
researcher, looking for both similarities and differences
among them, selecting significant statements and compar-
ing these statements in order to find cases of variation or
agreement and thus grouping them accordingly.
Through the data analysis process, using only a sample
of the interview transcripts, initial categories were de-
veloped that described students’ approaches to prob-
lem-solving and stages of conceptual development. Once
this initial categorisation was complete, the researcher
met with other research fellows to discuss their catego-
ries and their interpretation of the answers. The catego-
ries were then revised until the researcher reached a
consensus about the final set of categories. With these
categories in mind the interview transcripts were re-
examined, to determine if the categories were suffi-
ciently descriptive and indicative of the data. This itera-
tive data analysis procedure is consistent with the phe-
nomenographic approach.
3. Results
The analysis of the data revealed the personal back-
grounds, experiences, and levels of engagement in online
accounting, finance and international business education
vary between individual students. The following themes
indicate a conceptual change path undergone by most
participants in this study. The findings relate to the fol-
lowing five themes of conceptions of online engagement
in international business education:
3.1. The Nature of the Business Courses
All participants in this study admitted that they were fa-
miliar with (and saw the real values of) online engage-
ment. This point is the key factors that support interna-
tional management students to engage in the online more
often than accounting and finance students. The fact that
most courses are practical helps students to engage fre-
quently with their academic community. In this situation,
each individual participant reflected upon their experi-
ences as an observer of the global community (PA-1).
Stories related international business (such as current
affairs, daily conversation, global products or services
and other daily live activities) were incorporated into
online conversation or case analysis among business
students in this study. This aspect is perceived as touch-
able (PA-2), intellectually rigorous (PA-3), stimulating
(PA-3), and connected to the competitive forces that de-
termine business decision making (PA-4). Each partici-
pant was asked to identify his/her most interesting ex-
perience in international business online engagement.
Most students felt they could relate (PA-5) well to both
theories and practices, such as international modes of
entry and the products or services that are related to their
daily lives (i.e., luxury apparel, airlines, hotels, computer
and electronic appliances, and souvenirs). They admitted
that most lecturers would add to practical experiences in
the lectures, and encourage students to discuss (PA-2)
each point of learning in the online forum. Face-to-face
lecture that encourages lively discussions seems to pro-
vide an avenue for further discussion online and facilitate
the process of student learning during the course.
A number of participants describe the nature of finance
course as time-consuming in study in the class and online
system, having several foci in one course. The problem
that most students in this study discussed was the fact that
most financial courses encourage the use of various ‘fi-
nancial models’ and students feel that finance is a col-
lection of models, decision-making and rules, and lacking
in interlinks (PA-6) among the models and theories. The
use of online discussion among students and teaching staff
helps students to spend more time on thinking about the
links between financial models and theories and better
understand the nature of the course.
The results also show that the nature of accounting
course is critical. The use of online platform to discuss
process and complication in auditing, ethics and tech-
niques in cash-flow methods is appropriate for the nature
of students. Most accounting students in this study ad-
mitted that learning about taxation, international finance
and management accounting requires the combination
(PA-7) of online and face-to-face modes of learning and
The method of learning and teaching (in both face-to-
face and online classes), which encourages the use of
industrial experiences and case studies of international
organisations, was frequently mentioned by the partici-
pants of this study. When real-life examples are used in
discussions, the participants expressed they feel more
‘knowledgeable’ and stimulated by way of online dis-
cussion. The practical examples from industry could fos-
ter lively online discussion in various international busi-
ness topics. One example raised a few times by partici-
pants in this study is of globalisation and global consum-
ers. The theoretical concepts of globalisation are dis-
cussed in almost all international business classes and
one of the obvious effects is the transformation of global
consumers. All participants mentioned their contribu-
tions to the forum by using their personal experiences
with global brands (i.e., ING, Qantas, Samsung), global
products (iPad, Kindle, teeth whitening gel), global ser-
vices (airlines, education, tourism and hospitality, medi-
cal). The references of the ‘global factors’ promotes not
only lively online participation among local Australian
students, but also the conversations extending hard theo-
E-Business Education: A Phenomenographic Study of Online Engagement among Accounting,
Finance and International Business
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. iB
ries to touchable topics of among students from different
backgrounds and among students and lecturers.
3.2. Technical Aspects in Online Business
Technical aspects that all participants in this study raised
include the combinations of problems from both institu-
tional and lecturer factors. Participants in this study felt,
for the most part, the online environment consists of a
multiplicity of tools, but is generally poor in design and
guidance (TAI-1). There is often no clear indication
(TAI-1) of how learning activities and information re-
sources (content) are interwoven (TAI-2). Their stories
of technical and institutional aspects express more nega-
tive than positive experiences. All participants each re-
flected back to their first year in the program when they
enrolled in courses such as foundation to international
business, micro economics, or foreign languages. Some
of them were required to engage in various online teach-
ing and learning activities. Most participants articulated
that a lack in proper training (TAI-1) for new students of
both local and international students) significantly un-
dermined the perceived quality of the course and their
levels of engagement in the online forums. One partici-
pant in this study expressed that institutional policy
‘forces’ (TAI-3) their lecturers to design online teaching
and learning activities, rather than the strong intention to
improve students’ learning experiences.
The findings also showed that lecturers who have the
capacity to respond effectively to differences in learner
needs, curriculum or situation, are perceived as encour-
agers of students to engage in online learning. All par-
ticipants in this study admitted that when the lecturers
are able to draw selectively from an extensive repertoire
of resources and strategies (in order to motivate learners
and to encourage active learning); they are enthusiastic
to engage in an online forum. This finding concurs with
those from previous studies, reporting that students at-
tending a class with a lecturer who has a positive attitude
towards online education, and who promotes technology
in teaching, are likely to experience more positive learn-
ing outcomes.
In terms of the positive aspects of technical and insti-
tutional supports, all participants reflected upon the
‘quick and broad access’ (TAI-4) and ‘varieties’ and
‘quality’ in services (TAI-5) provided to them through-
out their education. The quick access to the system, qual-
ity of the interface, and access to the database and other
forms of online resources support students’ online en-
gagement in the sense that they are not impeded by the
technical boundaries of the learning experiences. The
well-designed international business course should syn-
chronize with “various means of navigation.” The system
that provides a variety of resources can facilitate the use
of industrial and global examples in online discussions.
The last aspect of this conception is the informal in-
teraction among the learning community. All participants
reflected upon their experiences on the similar account-
ing, finance and international business courses that en-
courage informal interaction among their group members.
Institutional policies that support this informal connec-
tivity and interaction (TAI-6) include “wi-fi hot spots”
throughout the university, the combination of student
online and face-to-face discussion groups, and the use of
e-international media in the form of entertainment or
current affairs to discuss the content (in particular in for-
eign language classes).
3.3. Cultural Factors in Business Education
The interaction of different cultures may be a challenge
and could create difficulties in the learning and engaging
process in the context of business education. Hence there
are several factors business educators must be aware of
before conducting business education among students of
diverse backgrounds. Various aspects of culture, such as
Australian and non-Australian concepts of learning, stu-
dents views to the world, perception of space in learning
from Australian and non-Australian contexts, were re-
vealed by the participants in this study.
Demographic backgrounds and experiences of the par-
ticipants in this study were frequently mentioned as a key
factor enhancing their online engagement behaviour in
accounting, finance and international business course.
Most participants in this study are diverse in both cul-
tural and academic backgrounds. Students from Chinese,
Korean, Indonesian, and Vietnamese backgrounds re-
flected upon their extreme active participation and en-
gagement in various forms of online teaching and learn-
ing in courses such as international management, global
financial management, accounting for SMEs, global
marketing, and international human resources manage-
ment. Students who speak English as a second language
confirmed that the use of online resources (such as
course materials, journal articles, discussion board, and
wiki) is extremely helpful for their learning experiences
and thinking process. In most international business
courses, this cohort prefers having a combination of
face-to-face and online teaching and learning because it
creates ‘collaboration’ (SB-1), ‘harmony’ (SB-2), and a
‘challenging’ (SB-3) ambiance in the online forum. Fur-
thermore the concept of being formal or informal (SB-2)
in online engagement, in language and style, was fre-
quently mentioned by the participants in this study.
Most of finance and accounting students in this study
E-Business Education: A Phenomenographic Study of Online Engagement among Accounting,
Finance and International Business
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. iB
are international students from East Asian nations (China,
South Korea and Japan). They agreed that the culture of
‘collectivism’ plays a pivotal role in promoting online
engagements among them. They feel more comfortable
to discuss some serious issues such as taxation, ethics or
international financial systems in the online with their
friends because they feel more ‘safe’ in the sense of not
loosing their faces in the public arena.
Furthermore, how students engage in learning is also
influenced by personal experiences within particular
cultural contexts. The findings from this study reveal that
student reactions to the social constructivist learning en-
vironments differ, depending on not only their prior ex-
periences, but also according to the distinct communica-
tion (SB-4) norms across cultures. Phrases such as ‘being
polite in your writing’, ‘not being too expressive or emo-
tional’, ‘writing with a proper style’, and ‘challenging
your team in the discussion’ were mentioned when all
participants reflected upon the problems in online en-
gagement. In this regard, cultural aspects therefore fla-
vour students’ expectations of the online learning envi-
ronment. In this study, Australian and international
groups share similarities in being proactive in the online
teaching and learning, relying upon their lecturers at the
beginning of the class and subsequently becoming more
autonomous in online contribution, and tending to be
more casual in language but focussed in content for
online teaching and learning.
The references to local and international cultural back-
ground are another aspect that the participants mentioned
frequently in this study. All participants feel that it is more
appropriate to refer more to Australian rather than non-
Australian contexts, although the nature of the course is
international. Two Anglo-Australian students and one
Asian-Australian student in this study expressed their
needs to know more about non-Australian products,
brands, consumers, management styles, and cultural ref-
erences. However, all international and exchange stu-
dents in this study mentioned how awkward it could be
to mention their hometown brands, products, or case
studies. They felt the disconnection of cultural references
of Australia and their home countries may cause confu-
sion in the discussion forum. This is a typical example of
cultural mismatch in students’ expectation.
4. Implications
This study identifies three key aspects that affect the
level of online engagements among business students
from three disciplines. There are a number of similarities
that promote the high level of engagement among busi-
ness students. Institutional factors seem to play a pivotal
role in this context. The nature of the course, the links
between academic and personal backgrounds and the
institutional supports seem to foster the quality of online
engagement among the participants in this study. This
study also indicates online education can be a powerful
tool in accounting, finance and international business
education. This tool has the potential both to support
effective education programmes and to expose students
to the implications of online networks. It is evident,
though, that lecturers need to upgrade their skills in order
to keep in touch with the technological, pedagogical, and
cultural developments that are taking place. As this study
illustrates, the online and traditional classroom teaching
methods should be seen as an extra dimension in educa-
tion which can facilitate the lecturer's learning objectives
while benefiting the students. In this study, accounting
students seem to be more familiar with the use of online
technology in their learning. One of the reasons is per-
sonal familiarity and technical training and awareness
raising from the business schools or University. Thus, it
is strongly suggested to all universities to create the
mindset of electronic resource among their students from
the beginning of their university’s life.
The combination of both individual and group-based
online activities is encouraged if we need to stimulate
students to be more active. Since the practical aspect of
international business course is one of the key factors
encouraging students to be more proactive in the online
forum, online group work should be encouraged. Work-
ing in groups of two or three students is an active learn-
ing technique frequently used in many face-to-face
classes; it can also be successfully used in online courses.
If the students are expected to work in online teams, stu-
dents should be informed of other team member’s details,
access to and technological aspects of the online forum,
and the expectations of the lecturer. Furthermore, make
sure that the expectation for the international business
online work is to allow individual ideas, perspectives,
and experiences to be heard and collectively considered
by the team. The idea of agreeing to disagree will be
learnt through these experiences.
The trends of digitization and technology in business
in education seem inevitable. It is, thus, crucial for policy
makers and business educators to understand the nature
of the curriculum, new technology, learning environ-
ments and the nature of students. Such understanding
will contribute to the quality and effectiveness in imple-
menting technology in business education in both local
and international levels.
5. Acknowledgements
This project is funded by the Accounting and Finance
Association of Australia and New Zealand (AFAANZ)
E-Business Education: A Phenomenographic Study of Online Engagement among Accounting,
Finance and International Business
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. iB
through the 2008 AFAANZ research grant scheme.
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