Arash Raeisi
THE INTERRELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CHOICE
OF COURSE OF STUDY ABROAD AND
PARTICIPATION IN ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS
Arash RAEISI
Centre for Digital Business
College of Business and Law
University of Salford, Salford, UK
Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the
Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, October 2013
0
Table of Contents
TABLE OF CONTENTS .....................................................................................................I
LIST OF TABLES ............................................................................................................. VI
LIST OF FIGURES ........................................................................................................VIII
APPENDICES.................................................................................................................... XI
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS ............................................................................................ XII
ABBREVIATIONS.........................................................................................................XIII
ABSTRACT .................................................................................................................... XIV
CHAPTER 1
INTRODUCTION TO THE RESEARCH ............................................ 1
1.1
Introduction ............................................................................................................................................ 1
1.2
The motivation for the research ........................................................................................................... 1
1.3
Research question .................................................................................................................................. 3
1.4 Research problem overview .................................................................................................................. 3
1.4.1
Trends in international student mobility ......................................................................................... 3
1.4.2
Choice and decision-making research in higher education ............................................................ 4
1.4.3
The role of Information Systems in choice and decision-making in higher education ................... 5
1.4.4
Application of semiotics in educational research and information systems research ..................... 6
1.5
Research aims ......................................................................................................................................... 8
1.6
Research objectives ................................................................................................................................ 8
1.7
Contributions to knowledge and practice ............................................................................................ 9
1.8
Thesis structure .................................................................................................................................... 11
1.9
Summary .............................................................................................................................................. 12
CHAPTER 2
2.1
‘COURSE IDENTITY’ AS A SEMIOTIC SIGN SYSTEM ............. 14
Introduction .......................................................................................................................................... 14
I
2.2
Semiotics defined.................................................................................................................................. 14
2.3 Saussurean and Peircean semiotic traditions .................................................................................... 15
2.3.1
Saussurean dyadic model of the sign ............................................................................................ 15
2.3.2
Peirce’s triadic model of the sign ................................................................................................. 17
2.3.3
Peirce’s representamen: paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations ................................................ 20
2.4
An overview of the term ‘identity’ in the social sciences .................................................................. 22
2.5
Introducing the concept of ‘course identity’ as a semiotic sign system ........................................... 23
2.6
Semiosis of ‘course identity’ ................................................................................................................ 24
2.7
The role and timing of the development and use of the semiotic model of course identity ........... 27
2.8
Conceptual framework ........................................................................................................................ 29
2.9
Summary .............................................................................................................................................. 30
CHAPTER 3
EXISTING BODIES OF KNOWLEDGE ........................................... 31
3.1
Introduction .......................................................................................................................................... 31
3.2
Marketing and education .................................................................................................................... 32
3.3 Choice and decision-making in higher education.............................................................................. 37
3.3.1
Stages involved in the process of decision-making about higher education ................................. 37
3.3.2
Factors influencing the choice of higher education ...................................................................... 39
3.4 Master of Business Administration .................................................................................................... 44
3.4.1
MBA in the United Kingdom ....................................................................................................... 44
3.4.2
MBA study modes ........................................................................................................................ 45
3.4.3
Accreditation bodies for the MBA ............................................................................................... 46
3.4.4
MBA curriculum .......................................................................................................................... 46
3.4.5
MBA admission requirements ...................................................................................................... 47
3.4.6
Tuition fees for the MBA ............................................................................................................. 47
3.4.7
Sources of information used during the MBA selection process .................................................. 48
3.4.8
Geographic and demographic data ............................................................................................... 49
3.4.9
Motivations for taking an MBA ................................................................................................... 51
3.4.10
Reasons for top choice of host country .................................................................................... 52
3.4.11
Criteria for selecting the institution ......................................................................................... 52
3.5 Online social networks ......................................................................................................................... 53
3.5.1
Potential terminological difficulties ............................................................................................. 53
3.5.2
Theoretical underpinnings ............................................................................................................ 54
3.5.2.1
The Sociological and psychological needs approach .......................................................... 54
3.5.2.2
Content-based approach ...................................................................................................... 57
3.5.2.3
The Co-creation and co-production approach ..................................................................... 58
3.5.2.4
Viral growth ........................................................................................................................ 59
3.5.3
Criticisms and controversies surrounding online social networks ................................................ 60
3.5.4
Geographic and demographic distribution of online social networks .......................................... 61
3.6
Online social networks and choice of higher education .................................................................... 64
II
3.7
Summary .............................................................................................................................................. 66
CHAPTER 4
4.1
RESEARCH DESIGN AND IMPLEMENTATION .......................... 67
Introduction .......................................................................................................................................... 67
4.2 Philosophical paradigms ..................................................................................................................... 68
4.2.1
Positivism ..................................................................................................................................... 69
4.2.2
Interpretivism ............................................................................................................................... 70
4.2.3
Critical .......................................................................................................................................... 71
4.2.4
Paradigm choice ........................................................................................................................... 72
4.3 Research method considerations ........................................................................................................ 75
4.3.1
Research method selection ........................................................................................................... 75
4.3.2
Defining case study research ........................................................................................................ 79
4.3.3
Interpretive case study .................................................................................................................. 79
4.3.4
Defining the case and unit of analysis .......................................................................................... 80
4.3.5
Case selection ............................................................................................................................... 81
4.4 Data considerations.............................................................................................................................. 82
4.4.1
Data type ...................................................................................................................................... 82
4.4.2
Data sources ................................................................................................................................. 83
4.5
Role of the researcher .......................................................................................................................... 86
4.6 Features of participating courses ........................................................................................................ 87
4.6.1
An overview of Course A ............................................................................................................. 87
4.6.2
An overview of Course B ............................................................................................................. 88
4.6.3
An overview of Course C ............................................................................................................. 89
4.7 Gaining access to site and data ........................................................................................................... 90
4.7.1
Gaining access in practice ............................................................................................................ 90
4.7.2
Participants consent ...................................................................................................................... 91
4.7.3
Confidentiality and anonymity ..................................................................................................... 92
4.8 Sampling ............................................................................................................................................... 93
4.8.1
Sampling strategy ......................................................................................................................... 93
4.8.2
Sample breakdown ....................................................................................................................... 93
4.9 Fieldwork .............................................................................................................................................. 95
4.9.1
Piloting the interview questions ................................................................................................... 95
4.9.2
Main study .................................................................................................................................... 95
4.10
Preparation for analysis ................................................................................................................. 96
4.11
Summary .......................................................................................................................................... 97
CHAPTER 5
ANALYSIS ............................................................................................. 98
5.1
Introduction .......................................................................................................................................... 98
5.2
Approach to analysis............................................................................................................................ 99
III
5.2.1
Data reduction .............................................................................................................................. 99
5.2.1.1
Semiotic analysis .............................................................................................................. 100
5.2.1.2
Categories and codes ........................................................................................................ 102
5.2.1.3
Filtering codes, representamens and interpretants ............................................................ 104
5.2.2
Data displays .............................................................................................................................. 105
5.2.3
Conclusion drawing/verification ................................................................................................ 106
5.3 Pilot study ........................................................................................................................................... 107
5.3.1
Paradigmatic identity of Course A ............................................................................................. 107
5.3.2
Syntagmatic identity of Course A as observed through online social networks ......................... 111
5.3.3
Perceived identity of Course A ................................................................................................... 119
5.4 Main study .......................................................................................................................................... 121
5.4.1
Course A..................................................................................................................................... 121
5.4.1.1
Paradigmatic identity of Course A .................................................................................... 121
5.4.1.2
Syntagmatic identity of Course A as observed through online social networks ............... 133
5.4.1.3
Perceived identity of Course A ......................................................................................... 145
5.4.2
Course B ..................................................................................................................................... 147
5.4.2.1
Paradigmatic identity of Course B .................................................................................... 147
5.4.2.2
Syntagmatic identity of Course B as observed through online social networks ............... 159
5.4.2.3
Perceived identity of Course B ......................................................................................... 172
5.4.3
Course C ..................................................................................................................................... 175
5.4.3.1
Paradigmatic identity of Course C .................................................................................... 175
5.4.3.2
Syntagmatic identity of Course C as observed through online social networks ............... 188
5.4.3.3
Perceived identity of Course C ......................................................................................... 204
5.5
Summary ............................................................................................................................................ 207
CHAPTER 6
6.1
FINDINGS AND DISCUSSION ........................................................ 208
Introduction ........................................................................................................................................ 208
6.2 Paradigmatic course identity ............................................................................................................ 209
6.2.1
Sources of information available during the course selection process ....................................... 210
6.2.2
Initial sources of information available during the course selection process ............................. 210
6.2.3
Core factors influencing selection of a course abroad ................................................................ 211
6.3 Syntagmatic course identity as observed through online social networks .................................... 217
6.3.1
Popularity of using online social networks during the course selection process ........................ 217
6.3.2
Stages at which online social networks are used during the course selection process ............... 219
6.3.3
Online social networks most commonly used during the course selection process .................... 220
6.3.4
Information-gathering methods using online social networks .................................................... 221
6.3.5
Information available on online social networks ........................................................................ 221
6.3.6
Information needed most from online social networks during the course selection process ...... 225
6.3.7
Benefits of using online social networks in course selection ..................................................... 225
6.3.8
Downsides of using online social networks in course selection ................................................. 233
6.4 Perceived course identity ................................................................................................................... 237
6.4.1
The level of influence of online social networks on final course selection decisions in comparison
with other sources ..................................................................................................................................... 238
6.4.2
A comparative view on the significance of online and offline sources on course selection
decisions ................................................................................................................................................... 241
IV
6.5
Summary ............................................................................................................................................ 244
CHAPTER 7
CONCLUSIONS .................................................................................. 245
7.1
Introduction ........................................................................................................................................ 245
7.2
Revisiting research aims and objectives ........................................................................................... 246
7.3
Semiotics applied to the choice of course of study and participation in online social networks . 247
7.4 The main overall findings from the research................................................................................... 256
7.4.1
Paradigmatic course identity ...................................................................................................... 256
7.4.2
Syntagmatic course identity as observed through online social networks .................................. 257
7.4.3
Perceived course identity ............................................................................................................ 260
7.5
Contributions to knowledge and practice ........................................................................................ 261
7.6 Evaluation of the use of the interpretive paradigm ........................................................................ 264
7.6.1
The fundamental principle of the hermeneutic circle ................................................................. 264
7.6.2
Contextualization........................................................................................................................ 265
7.6.3
Interaction between the researchers and the subjects ................................................................. 265
7.6.4
Abstraction and generalization ................................................................................................... 266
7.6.5
The Principle of Dialogical Reasoning ....................................................................................... 266
7.6.6
The principle of multiple interpretations .................................................................................... 270
7.6.7
The principle of suspicion .......................................................................................................... 270
7.7
Appropriate methodological choice .................................................................................................. 270
7.8 Limitations and future research opportunities ............................................................................... 272
7.8.1
Limitations ................................................................................................................................. 272
7.8.2
Suggestions for future work ....................................................................................................... 273
7.9
Final conclusions ................................................................................................................................ 274
APPENDICES.................................................................................................................. 276
REFERENCES ................................................................................................................ 295
V
List of Tables
TABLE 1 FACTORS THAT ENCOURAGE OR DISCOURAGE INDIVIDUALS TO SELECT
CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY (WHITEHEAD ET AL., 2006) ............................................................ 40
TABLE 2 INDIVIDUALS’ PREFERENCES FOR UNIVERSITY (SOUTAR AND TURNER, 2002) ....... 40
TABLE 3 A COMPARISON BETWEEN FACTORS INFLUENCING THE CHOICE OF PRE-1992 AND
POST-1992 UNIVERSITIES (BRIGGS, 2006) .................................................................................... 41
TABLE 4 FACTORS INFLUENCING UNIVERSITY CHOICES AND COURSE CHOICES (MARINGE,
2006) ...................................................................................................................................................... 42
TABLE 5 FACTORS INFLUENCING THE CHOICE OF HOST COUNTRY AND THE CHOICE OF
INSTITUTION ABROAD (MAZZAROL AND SOUTAR, 2002)....................................................... 43
TABLE 6 SOURCES OF INFORMATION, QS TOPMBA APPLICANT SURVEY 2011 .......................... 48
TABLE 7 HUMAN NEEDS SATISFIED BY EXPOSURE TO ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS .............. 55
TABLE 8 KEY DIFFERENCES BETWEEN STAKEHOLDER COLLABORATION IN PHYSICAL AND
ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORK ENVIRONMENTS (SAWHNEY ET AL., 2005).............................. 59
TABLE 9 ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS TOP REGIONS, RAW DATA FROM IGNITE SOCIAL
MEDIA (2012), DATA COLLATION AND ANALYSIS BY THE AUTHOR. .................................. 62
TABLE 10 GENDER BREAKDOWN OF ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORK USAGE, RAW DATA FROM
IGNITE SOCIAL MEDIA (2012), DATA COLLATION AND ANALYSIS BY THE AUTHOR. .... 63
TABLE 11 ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS AGE BREAKDOWN, RAW DATA FROM IGNITE SOCIAL
MEDIA (2012), DATA COLLATION AND ANALYSIS BY THE AUTHOR ................................... 63
TABLE 12 ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS EDUCATION BREAKDOWN, RAW DATA FROM IGNITE
SOCIAL MEDIA (2012), DATA COLLATION AND ANALYSIS BY THE AUTHOR .................... 64
TABLE 13 FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS FOR DETERMINING INQUIRY PARADIGMS (GUBA
AND LINCOLN, 1994) ......................................................................................................................... 68
TABLE 14 PARADIGM COMPARISON TABLE ADAPTED FROM CHUA (1986). AMENDMENTS TO
CHUA’S TABLE ARE ITALICISED. .................................................................................................. 74
TABLE 15 FOUR TYPES OF CASE STUDY DESIGN (YIN, 1994) ........................................................... 80
TABLE 16 SELECTION STRATEGIES FOR MULTI-CASE DESIGNS (SHAKIR, 2002) ........................ 81
TABLE 17 DATA TYPE CONSIDERATIONS FOR THE GIVEN RESEARCH ADAPTED AFTER
(SIEGEL AND DRAY, 2003). ADDITIONS ARE ITALICISED. ....................................................... 83
TABLE 18 LIST OF DOCUMENTS COLLECTED FOR THE CURRENT RESEARCH ........................... 85
TABLE 19 OVERVIEW OF DATA SOURCES AND RATIONALES BEHIND THEM ............................ 86
TABLE 20 PSEUDONYMS USED WITHIN THE CURRENT RESEARCH .............................................. 91
TABLE 21 THE FULL SAMPLE BREAKDOWN FOR THE CURRENT RESEARCH ............................. 94
TABLE 22 SCHEDULE FOR THE INTERVIEWS – MAIN STUDY .......................................................... 96
TABLE 23 AIMS OF THE ANALYSIS ....................................................................................................... 101
TABLE 24 MAJOR CATEGORIES AND CODES ..................................................................................... 103
TABLE 25 AN EXAMPLE OF HOW CODES, REPRESENTAMENS AND INTERPRETANTS ARE
SELECTED ......................................................................................................................................... 105
TABLE 26 THE DEMOGRAPHICS OF INTERVIEWEES – PILOT STUDY .......................................... 107
TABLE 27 STAGES AT WHICH ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS ARE USED DURING THE COURSE
SELECTION PROCESS – PILOT STUDY ........................................................................................ 113
TABLE 28 THE LEVEL OF INFLUENCE OF ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS ON FINAL COURSE
SELECTION DECISIONS IN COMPARISON WITH OTHER SOURCES – PILOT STUDY ........ 120
TABLE 29 THE DEMOGRAPHICS OF INTERVIEWEES – COURSE A ................................................ 121
TABLE 30 SUBSEQUENT CHANGES IN PERCEPTIONS ABOUT ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS –
COURSE A .......................................................................................................................................... 135
TABLE 31 STAGES AT WHICH ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS ARE USED DURING THE COURSE
SELECTION PROCESS – COURSE A .............................................................................................. 136
VI
TABLE 32 THE LEVEL OF INFLUENCE OF ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS ON FINAL COURSE
SELECTION DECISIONS IN COMPARISON WITH OTHER SOURCES – COURSE A .............. 146
TABLE 33 THE DEMOGRAPHICS OF INTERVIEWEES – COURSE B ................................................. 147
TABLE 34 SUBSEQUENT CHANGES IN PERCEPTIONS ABOUT ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS –
COURSE B .......................................................................................................................................... 162
TABLE 35 STAGES AT WHICH ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS ARE USED DURING THE COURSE
SELECTION PROCESS – COURSE B .............................................................................................. 163
TABLE 36 THE LEVEL OF INFLUENCE OF ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS ON FINAL COURSE
SELECTION DECISIONS IN COMPARISON WITH OTHER SOURCES – COURSE B .............. 174
TABLE 37 THE DEMOGRAPHICS OF INTERVIEWEES – COURSE C................................................. 175
TABLE 38 SUBSEQUENT CHANGES IN PERCEPTIONS ABOUT ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS –
COURSE C .......................................................................................................................................... 190
TABLE 39 STAGES AT WHICH ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS ARE USED DURING THE COURSE
SELECTION PROCESS – COURSE C .............................................................................................. 192
TABLE 40 THE LEVEL OF INFLUENCE OF ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS ON FINAL COURSE
SELECTION DECISIONS IN COMPARISON WITH OTHER SOURCES – COURSE C .............. 207
TABLE 41 CORE FACTORS INFLUENCING SELECTION OF A COURSE ABROAD ........................ 211
TABLE 42 INFORMATION AVAILABLE ON ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS THROUGH THE
DIFFERENT INFORMATION-GATHERING METHODS .............................................................. 223
TABLE 43 ONLINE AND OFFLINE SOURCES OF INFORMATION AVAILABLE DURING THE
COURSE SELECTION PROCESS ..................................................................................................... 243
TABLE 44THE ‘REPRESENTAMENS’ WITHIN CODES THAT CONSTITUTE THE PARADIGMATIC
COURSE IDENTITY .......................................................................................................................... 250
TABLE 45THE ‘REPRESENTAMENS’ WITHIN CODES THAT CONSTITUTE THE SYNTAGMATIC
COURSE IDENTITY .......................................................................................................................... 252
TABLE 46 THE ‘INTERPRETANTS’ WITHIN CODES THAT CONSTITUTE THE PERCEIVED
COURSE IDENTITY .......................................................................................................................... 255
TABLE 47 PRINCIPLES FOR INTERPRETIVE FIELD RESEARCH (KLEIN AND MYERS 199) ...... 264
VII
List of Figures
FIGURE 1 USE OF ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS DURING THE MBA SELECTION PROCESS. RAW
DATA FROM QS TOPMBA 2008-2012 SURVEYS, DATA COLLATION AND ANALYSIS BY
THE AUTHOR. ....................................................................................................................................... 2
FIGURE 2 LONG-TERM GROWTH IN THE NUMBER OF STUDENTS ENROLLED OUTSIDE THEIR
COUNTRY OF CITIZENSHIP, 1975-2010 IN MILLIONS. RAW DATA FROM OECD AND
UNESCO INSTITUTE OF STATISTICS, DATA COLLATION AND ANALYSIS BY THE
AUTHOR. ................................................................................................................................................ 4
FIGURE 3 THE LINGUISTIC SIGN AS TWO-SIDED ENTITY. ADAPTED FROM SAUSSURE, CITED
IN CHARLES BALLY AND ALBERT SECHEHAYE 1916 .............................................................. 16
FIGURE 4 PEIRCE’S SIGN MODEL (CHANDLER, 2007) ......................................................................... 18
FIGURE 5 PARADIGMS AND SYNTAGMS, (CHANDLER, 2007)........................................................... 21
FIGURE 6 PEIRCE’ TRIADIC MODEL IN CONJUNCTION WITH SAUSSURE’S CONCEPTS OF
PARADIGM AND SYNTAGM ............................................................................................................ 21
FIGURE 7 SEMIOTIC MODEL OF COURSE IDENTITY IN THE CONTEXT OF THIS RESEARCH ... 25
FIGURE 8 CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK ................................................................................................. 29
FIGURE 9 CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK: CHAPTER 3 .......................................................................... 31
FIGURE 10 7PS MARKETING MIX MODEL FOR HIGHER EDUCATION INSTITUTIONS (KOTLER
AND FOX, 1995) .................................................................................................................................. 34
FIGURE 11 MARKETING STRATEGY SYNTHESIS (AL-FATTAL, 2010) ............................................. 36
FIGURE 12 DECISION-MAKING PROCESS FOR HIGHER EDUCATION (CHAPMAN, 1986) ............ 38
FIGURE 13 MBA ENROLMENTS OF NON-NATIONALS AT BUSINESS SCHOOLS IN EUROPE,
RAW DATA FROM THE ASSOCIATION OF MBA’S (2010) REPORT, DIVERSITY ON THE
MBA, DATA COLLATION AND ANALYSIS BY THE AUTHOR................................................... 50
FIGURE 14 MBA ENROLMENTS OF NON-NATIONALS AT BUSINESS SCHOOLS IN THE UK, RAW
DATA FROM THE ASSOCIATION OF MBA’S (2010) REPORT, DIVERSITY ON THE MBA,
DATA COLLATION AND ANALYSIS BY THE AUTHOR.............................................................. 51
FIGURE 15 CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK: CHAPTER 4 ........................................................................ 67
FIGURE 16 THE SAMPLE BREAKDOWN FOR THE CURRENT RESEARCH ....................................... 94
FIGURE 17 CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK: CHAPTER 5 ........................................................................ 98
FIGURE 18 COMPONENTS OF DATA ANALYSIS: FLOW MODEL (MILES AND HUBERMAN, 1994)
............................................................................................................................................................... 99
FIGURE 19 SEMIOTIC MODEL OF COURSE IDENTITY IN THE CONTEXT OF THIS RESEARCH 101
FIGURE 20 SCREENSHOT OF QSR NVIVO ILLUSTRATING NODES ................................................ 104
FIGURE 21 AN EXAMPLE OF DATA DISPLAY FROM THE MAIN STUDY - COURSE B ................ 106
FIGURE 22 INITIAL SOURCES OF INFORMATION AVAILABLE DURING THE COURSE
SELECTION PROCESS – PILOT STUDY ........................................................................................ 108
FIGURE 23 OFFLINE SOURCES OF INFORMATION AVAILABLE DURING THE COURSE
SELECTION PROCESS – PILOT STUDY ........................................................................................ 109
FIGURE 24 ONLINE SOURCES OF INFORMATION AVAILABLE DURING THE COURSE
SELECTION PROCESS – PILOT STUDY ........................................................................................ 109
FIGURE 25 CORE FACTORS INFLUENCING SELECTION OF A COURSE ABROAD – PILOT STUDY
............................................................................................................................................................. 111
FIGURE 26 REASONS FOR NOT USING ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS – PILOT STUDY .............. 112
FIGURE 27 ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS MOST COMMONLY USED DURING THE COURSE
SELECTION PROCESS – PILOT STUDY ........................................................................................ 114
FIGURE 28 INFORMATION-GATHERING METHODS USING ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS –
PILOT STUDY .................................................................................................................................... 114
FIGURE 29 INFORMATION AVAILABLE ON ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS – PILOT STUDY ..... 116
VIII
FIGURE 30 INFORMATION NEEDED MOST FROM ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS DURING THE
COURSE SELECTION PROCESS – PILOT STUDY ....................................................................... 117
FIGURE 31 BENEFITS OF USING ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS IN COURSE SELECTION – PILOT
STUDY ................................................................................................................................................ 118
FIGURE 32 DOWNSIDES OF USING ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS IN COURSE SELECTION –
PILOT STUDY .................................................................................................................................... 119
FIGURE 33 INITIAL SOURCES OF INFORMATION AVAILABLE DURING THE COURSE
SELECTION PROCESS – COURSE A .............................................................................................. 122
FIGURE 34 OFFLINE SOURCES OF INFORMATION AVAILABLE DURING THE COURSE
SELECTION PROCESS – COURSE A .............................................................................................. 123
FIGURE 35 ONLINE SOURCES OF INFORMATION AVAILABLE DURING THE COURSE
SELECTION PROCESS – COURSE A .............................................................................................. 124
FIGURE 36CORE FACTORS INFLUENCING SELECTION OF A COURSE ABROAD – COURSE A 132
FIGURE 37 REASONS FOR NOT USING ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS – COURSE A .................... 134
FIGURE 38 ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS MOST COMMONLY USED DURING THE COURSE
SELECTION PROCESS – COURSE A .............................................................................................. 137
FIGURE 39 INFORMATION-GATHERING METHODS USING ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS –
COURSE A .......................................................................................................................................... 137
FIGURE 40 INFORMATION AVAILABLE ON ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS – COURSE A ........... 140
FIGURE 41 INFORMATION NEEDED MOST FROM ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS DURING THE
COURSE SELECTION PROCESS – COURSE A ............................................................................. 141
FIGURE 42 BENEFITS OF USING ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS IN COURSE SELECTION –
COURSE A .......................................................................................................................................... 143
FIGURE 43 DOWNSIDES OF USING ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS IN COURSE SELECTION –
COURSE A .......................................................................................................................................... 145
FIGURE 44 INITIAL SOURCES OF INFORMATION AVAILABLE DURING THE COURSE
SELECTION PROCESS – COURSE B .............................................................................................. 148
FIGURE 45 OFFLINE SOURCES OF INFORMATION AVAILABLE DURING THE COURSE
SELECTION PROCESS – COURSE B .............................................................................................. 149
FIGURE 46 ONLINE SOURCES OF INFORMATION AVAILABLE DURING THE COURSE
SELECTION PROCESS – COURSE B .............................................................................................. 150
FIGURE 47 CORE FACTORS INFLUENCING SELECTION OF A COURSE ABROAD – COURSE B 158
FIGURE 48 REASONS FOR NOT USING ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS – COURSE B .................... 161
FIGURE 49 ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS MOST COMMONLY USED DURING THE COURSE
SELECTION PROCESS – COURSE B .............................................................................................. 164
FIGURE 50 INFORMATION-GATHERING METHODS USING ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS –
COURSE B .......................................................................................................................................... 165
FIGURE 51 INFORMATION AVAILABLE ON ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS - COURSE B............ 167
FIGURE 52 INFORMATION NEEDED MOST FROM ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS DURING THE
COURSE SELECTION PROCESS – COURSE B.............................................................................. 169
FIGURE 53 BENEFITS OF USING ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS IN COURSE SELECTION –
COURSE B .......................................................................................................................................... 171
FIGURE 54 DOWNSIDES OF USING ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS IN COURSE SELECTION –
COURSE B .......................................................................................................................................... 172
FIGURE 55 INITIAL SOURCES OF INFORMATION AVAILABLE DURING THE COURSE
SELECTION PROCESS – COURSE C .............................................................................................. 177
FIGURE 56 OFFLINE SOURCES OF INFORMATION AVAILABLE DURING THE COURSE
SELECTION PROCESS – COURSE C .............................................................................................. 178
FIGURE 57 ONLINE SOURCES OF INFORMATION AVAILABLE DURING THE COURSE
SELECTION PROCESS – COURSE C .............................................................................................. 179
FIGURE 58 CORE FACTORS INFLUENCING SELECTION OF A COURSE ABROAD – COURSE C
............................................................................................................................................................. 187
IX
FIGURE 59 REASONS FOR NOT USING ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS – COURSE C .................... 189
FIGURE 60 ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS MOST COMMONLY USED DURING THE COURSE
SELECTION PROCESS – COURSE C .............................................................................................. 193
FIGURE 61 INFORMATION-GATHERING METHODS USING ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS –
COURSE C .......................................................................................................................................... 194
FIGURE 62 INFORMATION AVAILABLE ON ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS – COURSE C ........... 198
FIGURE 63 INFORMATION NEEDED MOST FROM ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS DURING THE
COURSE SELECTION PROCESS – COURSE C.............................................................................. 200
FIGURE 64 BENEFITS OF USING ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS IN COURSE SELECTION –
COURSE C .......................................................................................................................................... 202
FIGURE 65 DOWNSIDES OF USING ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS IN COURSE SELECTION –
COURSE C .......................................................................................................................................... 204
FIGURE 66 CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK: CHAPTER 6 ...................................................................... 208
FIGURE 67 DECISION-MAKING PROCESS FOR HIGHER EDUCATION (CHAPMAN, 1986) .......... 219
FIGURE 68 STAGE BY STAGE COMPARISON OF THE USE OF ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS
DURING THE COURSE SELECTION PROCESS ............................................................................ 220
FIGURE 69 LEVELS OF INFLUENCE OF ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS ON RESEARCH
PARTICIPANTS’ FINAL COURSE SELECTION DECISIONS. ..................................................... 239
FIGURE 70 CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK: CHAPTER 7 ...................................................................... 246
FIGURE 71 SEMIOTIC MODEL OF INSTITUTIONAL IDENTITY - ITERATION 1 ............................ 267
FIGURE 72 THE PRELIMINARY SEMIOTIC MODEL OF COURSE IDENTITY - ITERATION 2 ...... 268
FIGURE 73 THE IDEAL SEMIOTIC MODEL OF COURSE IDENTITY - ITERATION 3 ..................... 269
X
Appendices
APPENDIX 1 DISSEMINATION ACTIVITIES ......................................................................................... 277
APPENDIX 2 ETHICAL APPROVAL MEMORANDUM FOR THE CURRENT RESEARCH .............. 279
APPENDIX 3 INFORMATION SHEET FOR THE STUDY ..................................................................... 280
APPENDIX 4 RESEARCH PARTICIPANT CONSENT FORM ............................................................... 282
APPENDIX 5 REVOCATION OF CONSENT ........................................................................................... 283
APPENDIX 6 INTERVIEW GUIDE ........................................................................................................... 284
APPENDIX 7 A SAMPLE OF INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT .................................................................... 286
APPENDIX 8 CHRISTENSEN AND ASKEGAARD’ (2001) SEMIOTIC FRAMEWORK BASED ON
PEIRCE’S THEORY OF SIGN ........................................................................................................... 294
XI
Acknowledgements
One of the joys of completion is to look over the journey past and remember all the friends
and family who have helped and supported me along this long but fulfilling road. I am
particularly thankful to my supervisor Dr. Gordon Fletcher who was the key guide on this
journey and provided frequent, constructive and detailed feedback. Thanks are also due to
Dr. Frances Bell, Dr. Marie Griffiths, Dr. David Kreps, Dr. Maria Kutar, Professor Andrew
Basden, Dr. Aleksej Heinze and the rest of the staff at the University of Salford who are
not only mentors but dear friends. I could not have asked for better role models, each
inspirational, supportive, and patient. I could not be prouder of my academic roots and
hope that I can in turn pass on the research values and the dreams that they have given to
me. I would not have contemplated this road if not for my parents, who instilled within me
a love of creative pursuits, science and language, all of which finds a place in this thesis.
Last but not least, I would like to thank all the participants of this case study research: staff
and international MBA students.
XII
Abbreviations
The following abbreviations are used in this thesis:
AACSB – Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business
ABS – Association of Business Schools
AMBA – Association of MBAs
EFMD – European Foundation for Management Development
EQUIS – European Quality Improvement System
FCO – The Foreign and Commonwealth Office
GMAT – Graduate Management Admission Test
HE – Higher Education
IELTS – International English Language Testing System
IS – Information Systems
ISAC – The Information Systems work & Analysis of Change
IFIP – The International Federation for Information Processing
MBA – Master of Business Administration
OECD – Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
OSNs – Online Social Networks
QS TopMBA – Quacquarelli Symonds TopMBA
TOEFL – Test Of English as a Foreign Language
UCAS – The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service
UKBA – The UK Border Agency
UNESCO – United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
XIII
Abstract
This thesis examines how the choice of course of study abroad interrelates with
participation in online social networks, and provides an application of semiotics to research
in choice and decision making in higher education and information systems research. The
study itself is justified by the increasing need to consider students’ choice of course of
study as a separate phenomenon from their choice of institution or host country. Alongside
the adoption of a more nuanced view of student selection, the author also recognises the
need to understand the role of online social networks within the decision-making process
for selecting higher education courses. This work adopts an interpretivist philosophy and
utilises a comparative case study method, drawing upon semi-structured interviews with
international MBA students in addition to relevant documentation. The thesis finds a
strong interplay between the choice of course of study abroad and participation in online
social networks.
XIV
Chapter 1
Introduction to the Research
1.1 Introduction
This thesis examines how the choice of course of study abroad interrelates with
participation in online social networks. This study is justified by the need to examine the
choice of a course of study as a phenomenon distinct from the choices of institution and
host country (Maringe, 2006), and the need to understand the role of online social networks
in the process of decision-making about higher education from the perspectives of the
consumers of higher education services (Nyangau and Bado, 2012). Furthermore, this
study provides an application of semiotics to research in choice and decision making in
higher education and information systems research. Research in higher education to date
has tended to focus on the application of semiotics in the area of teaching and learning (e.g.
Bayne, 2008; Cunningham, 1984; Groisman et al., 1991; Gwyn-Paquette, 2001; Lemke,
1984, 1989; Presmeg, 1998; Ryan., 2011), and less attention has been paid to use of
semiotics in the area of choice and decision-making in higher education. Moreover, calls
have been made for the application of semiotics to the endeavour of understanding
information systems (Clarke, 1992, 2001a).
This chapter is structured in the following manner: The motivation for the research is
discussed in section 1.2, followed by the research question in section 1.3. The research
problem is identified and contextualized in section 1.4, followed by the research aims and
objectives in sections 1.5 and 1.6. This study will contribute to knowledge and practice in a
number of ways. The research contributions to knowledge and practice are discussed in
section 1.7. Finally, the structure of the thesis is presented in section 1.8 using chapter
headings and summaries.
1.2 The motivation for the research
The motivation for the research arose from my own experience as an international student
in the UK. In 2008, I created a Facebook page to connect full-time MBA students at the
University of Salford. Within the first four months, this Facebook page had reached 160
members including past and current students, higher education (hereinafter referred to as
‘HE’) aspirants and applicants interested in enrolling on the Salford MBA and members of
1
staff. I was particularly interested to have been contacted by several international HE
aspirants and applicants from different countries enquiring about the full-time MBA course
offered at the University of Salford. Some of these countries, including Brazil, Chile,
Mexico and Japan have never had a strong student presence in UK HE. It was interesting
to explain how the choice of course of study abroad interrelates with participation in online
social networks (hereinafter referred to as ‘OSNs’). In the context of this research, HE
aspirants are those who have an interest in studying but have not yet taken any active steps
other than conducting general research, which distinguishes them from the general public.
HE Applicants are those who have applied to one or more institutions but who have not yet
satisfied entry conditions and are not yet an enrolled student (or registrant) of an
institution.
My personal knowledge of the full-time MBA and universities offering this course in the
UK was the basis for selecting this course as the case study. However, the intention of this
research is to provide a set of findings and conclusions that could equally apply to any HE
course in the UK, and potentially beyond. The selection of the UK full-time MBA as the
case study was also motivated by the secondary data collected from Quacquarelli Symonds
(QS) TopMBA, which is the leading global career and education network for ambitious
professionals looking to further both their personal and professional development. A
comparison of QS TopMBA surveys from 2008 to 2012 reveals an increasing trend in use
of OSNs during the MBA selection process (
Figure 1). The list of OSNs presented in QS TopMBA surveys is not fully comprehensive
but recognizes the most popular OSNs.
Online social networks usages during the
MBA selection process (%)
Figure 1 Use of online social networks during the MBA selection process.
Raw data from QS TopMBA 2008-2012 surveys, data collation and analysis
by the author.
2
1.3 Research question
Leading on from both my motivations and the gaps identified, this study will be centred on
the following key question:

How does the choice of course of study abroad interrelate with participation in
online social networks?
1.4 Research problem overview
The research problem is identified and contextualized in this section, which is divided into
four parts. Part one outlines the recent trends in international student mobility and the need
for HE institutions to market themselves in a climate of international competition. Parts
two and three highlight the need to examine the choice of course of study as a phenomenon
distinct from the choices of institution and host country, and the need to find out the role
that OSNs may play in course selection decisions of HE aspirants and applicants. Part four
provides an overview of the application of semiotics in educational research and
information systems (hereinafter referred to as ‘IS’) research.
1.4.1 Trends in international student mobility
The HE market is well established as a global phenomenon (Hemsley-Brown and Oplatka,
2006), and around the world individuals have more options for HE studies than they ever
had before (Kramer and Easton, 2007). In the context of increasing competition for homebased and overseas students, HE institutions now recognise that they need to market
themselves in a climate of international competition (Hemsley-Brown and Oplatka, 2006).
Data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) 2012
survey reveals that a contemporary environment of budgetary cuts and increasing
competition is forcing many institutions to become more strategic and deliberate in their
recruitment efforts. Effective international recruitment practices are dependent more than
ever on a deep understanding of student mobility patterns and decision-making processes
(OECD, 2012).
The number of students travelling internationally for educational purposes continues to
grow (OECD, 2012). Over the past three decades, the number of students enrolled outside
their country of citizenship has risen dramatically, from 0.8 million worldwide in 1975 to
4.1 million in 2010, more than a fivefold increase (OECD, 2012). The rise in the number of
students enrolled abroad since 1975 stems from various factors, from an interest in
3
promoting academic, cultural, social and political ties between countries, to a substantial
increase in global access to tertiary education, to reduced transportation costs (OECD,
2012). The internationalisation of labour markets for highly skilled individuals has also
given people an incentive to gain international experience as part of their studies. The
increase in the number of foreign students can be associated with the increase in tertiary
enrolment worldwide. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 177 million students participated in formal tertiary
education around the world in 2010, an increase of 77 million students since 2000, or 77%
(UNESCO, 2011). During this same period, the number of foreign students increased from
2.1 to 4.1 million students, an increase of 99%. Consequently, the proportion of overseas
students amongst tertiary students grew by more than 10% between 2000 and 2010 (Figure
2).
Figure 2 Long-term growth in the number of students enrolled outside their
country of citizenship, 1975-2010 in millions. Raw data from OECD and
UNESCO Institute of Statistics, data collation and analysis by the author.
4.5
4.1
4
3.5
3
3
2.5
2.1
2
1.7
1.5
1
1.3
0.8
1.1
1.1
0.5
0
1970
1975
1980
1985
1990
1995
2000
2005
2010
1.4.2 Choice and decision-making research in higher education
A considerable amount of literature has been published on choice and decision-making in
HE. The decision to enter HE is a complex process (Litten, 1982; Stein et al., 2009).
Studies of influences on the choices of HE were initially conducted in the 1970s and 1980s
by researchers including Miller and Radner (1975), Hanson and Litten (1982), Chapman
(1984) and Kotler and Fox (1985). The decision to enter HE may be regarded as a multistage process involving a series of decisions finally resulting in enrolment in a course
4
(Cosser, 2009; Hossler et al., 1989). Different theoretical models have been developed by
scholars over the last decade to capture these complex decision-making processes (e.g.
Arambewela and Hall, 2006; Cubillo et al., 2006; Gatfield and Chen, 2006; Kitsantas,
2004; Srikatanyoo and Gnoth, 2002).
According to Maringe (2006, p. 469), “broadly, there are three levels at which choice and
decision-making research in HE has been conducted. First is the global level, which shows
why individuals select to study abroad, second is the national level where individuals’
choice of university is the main focus. The third level which has received relatively little
attention is the choice of course of study”. Research to date has focused largely on the
choice of institution (e.g. Price et al., 2003; Soutar and Turner, 2002; Whitehead et al.,
2006) and host country (e.g. Mazzarol and Soutar, 2002; Shanka et al., 2005), and less
attention has been paid to the choice of course of study as a separate phenomenon. The
current research investigates the choice of course of study as a phenomenon distinct from
the choices of institution and host country.
1.4.3 The role of Information Systems in choice and decision-making in
higher education
IS are becoming ubiquitous in people’s daily life (Pereira, 2010). Pereira (2010, p. 1) states
that “nowadays more and more people rely on IS to help them in their daily life. Whether
for work or entertainment, IS are gaining an increasingly ubiquitous presence in people’s
life”. As a result, there is a critical need for researchers and practitioners to learn how to
increase the benefits obtained from IS (Burton-Jones and Grange, 2012). Intuitively, much
of the benefits stem from how effectively IS are used (Burton-Jones and Grange, 2012). It
is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that the most heavily studied topic in IS research has
been when and why people use IS (Burton-Jones and Grange, 2012; Venkatesh et al.,
2003). However, despite a great deal of research on when and why IS are used, very little
research has examined the role of modern IS, such as OSNs, in choice and decision making
in higher education. The intersection of OSNs and choice and decision making in higher
education represents a promising space for future IS research.
IS researchers have demonstrated considerable interest in measuring personal intentions in
traditional IS adoption where the usage experience does not depend on other users (Davis
5
et al., 1989). In OSNs in contrast, social interaction and connection is the objective
(Cheung et al., 2011). The digital innovations of the last decade have made it possible for
audiences to talk back and talk to each other effortlessly (Deighton and Kornfeld, 2009).
Indeed, the rise of OSNs has fundamentally changed the ways in which people
communicate with each other, how they gather information about products, and how they
obtain and consume them (Hennig-Thurau et al., 2010). Beer and Burrows (2007) refer to
OSNs as “a new rhetoric of democratisation”, pointing to the way in which they are
constructed rather than conceptualising OSNs as a democratising force. From this
perspective, OSNs present opportunities for our thoughts to be heard, our videos to be
seen, and our music to be listened to (Beer and Burrows, 2007).
Studies of information seeking have found that most people prefer informal, personal
forms of information to formal information and this also holds true for HE aspirants and
applicants (O’Connor and Lundstrom, 2011). According to Fagerstrøm and Ghinea (2013),
OSNs provide a significant opportunity for HE institutions to exchange the notion of
customers as passive with a view of them as active agents, in which HE aspirants and
applicants are invited to use their own initiative rather than simply reacting to
predetermined marketing activities. Nyangau and Bado (2012) argue that most research on
the usefulness of OSNs has been conducted from an administrative perspective, from the
standpoint of admissions officers. However, it is important to understand the role of OSNs
in the process of decision-making about HE from the perspectives of the consumers of HE
services (Nyangau and Bado, 2012). The current research contributes to the fields of IS and
choice and decision making in HE by providing both researchers and practitioners with
insight into the role of OSNs in course selection from the perspectives of the consumers of
HE services.
1.4.4 Application of semiotics in educational research and information
systems research
Meaning in the commercial world is essential in the sense that marketers are continually
seeking to strategically facilitate meanings that contribute positively to brand image,
likelihood of purchase and customer satisfaction (Mick et al., 2004). For their part,
consumers are continually acquiring, using and sharing experiences in accordance with the
meanings they attribute to products, adverts and purchase sites (Mick et al., 2004). Over
6
the last two decades, marketing and consumer researchers have taken a more intense
interest in meaning (Belk, 2002) and in this respect a number of studies have, to varying
degrees, been based on semiotics (e.g. Holbrook and Hirschman, 1993; McQuarrie and
Mick, 1999; Nöth, 1988; Oswald, 2012; Thompson and Haytko, 1997; Umiker-Sebeok,
1987). Research in HE to date has tended to focus on the application of semiotics in the
area of teaching and learning (e.g. Bayne, 2008; Cunningham, 1984; Groisman et al.,
1991; Gwyn-Paquette, 2001; Lemke, 1984, 1989; Presmeg, 1998; Ryan., 2011), and less
attention has been paid to use of semiotics in the area of choice and decision-making.
Moreover, calls have been made for the use of semiotics to better understand IS (Clarke,
1992, 2001a). Semiotics has been mentioned in a number of IS papers (e.g. Land, 1985;
Rzevski, 1985; Tully, 1985) as being relevant to the IS discipline. There is considerable
debate about what constitute the core criteria that define semiotics, and this appears to
discourage many IS scholars and practitioners from applying semiotic approaches, even
though some acknowledge its potential relevance (Clarke, 1992). The fundamental nature
of semiotics, its multiple theoretical traditions and its diverse applications may account for
the slow infusion of semiotics into the IS discipline (Clarke, 1992). However, “the
transdisciplinary nature of semiotics makes it eminently suitable for the study of IS
precisely because it [semiotics] is concerned with examining the ways meanings are made”
(Clarke, 1992, p. 67). Clarke (1992) argues that:
“…semiotics examines the processes of the production and consumption of
meanings and their underlying mechanisms through the analysis of patterns or
signs and how they articulate and inform the meanings attached to self and
others. Semiotics also proposes that rules or social conventions govern the
choices and constraints that determine expressions of meaning in specific
cultural, social, economic and historical contexts. The study of the production
of meanings and values, that is the way these are institutionalized within
organizations and become constitutive of our own subjectivity, is highly
relevant to the information systems discipline.”
(Clarke, 1992, p. 67)
This study contributes to the fields of IS and choice and decision making in HE by
illustrating how semiotics can be utilised to analyse the make-up and the interrelationships
which constitute a given phenomenon. Semiotics can be used in the analysis of the
development, use and application of IS in organizational, institutional and social contexts
and their influence in these contexts. Semiotics can be also used to analyse the popularity
7
of educational services among consumers of HE services. This can help institutions in
designing, branding and positioning their educational services.
1.5 Research aims
This study seeks to achieve a number of primary and secondary aims. The primary aim is:
 To explain how the choice of course of study abroad interrelates with participation
in online social networks.
The secondary aim is:
 To provide an application of semiotics to research in choice and decision making in
higher education and information systems research.
1.6 Research objectives
In order to answer the research question in section 1.3 and achieve the aims of the research,
three research objectives were formulated. The research objectives derived from a review
of relevant literature and semiotic concepts. Based on semiotic concepts, this research
introduces the concept of ‘course identity’ as a semiotic sign system, and utilises the
semiotic model of course identity as a theoretical framework to analyse the
interrelationship between selection of a course abroad and participation in OSNs, and also
to guide the fieldwork and subsequent analysis. The rationale behind the research
objectives is discussed in detail in Chapter 2.
The objectives were to obtain sufficient data in order to:

Define the ‘paradigmatic course identity’.
This objective enabled identification of the sources of information that international
HE aspirants and applicants use during the course selection process, and to discover
whether OSNs are among these sources. This objective also helped to reveal the
core factors influencing selection of a course abroad. Results from this objective
contributed to the discussion of findings, particularly discussions surrounding the
significance of online and offline sources on course selection decisions and the
level of influence of OSNs on final course selection decisions in comparison with
other sources.
8

Define the ‘syntagmatic course identity’ as observed through online social
networks.
This objective contributed to an understanding of the popularity of using OSNs as
part of the course selection process, the stages at which OSNs are used during the
course selection process, OSNs most commonly used during the course selection
process, information-gathering methods employed when using OSNs, what
information is available on OSNs, information needed most from OSNs during the
course selection process, and the benefits and downsides of using OSNs for
individuals’ course selection decisions.
 Compare and contrast the levels of influence of ‘paradigmatic course identity’ and
‘syntagmatic course identity’ on the ‘perceived course identity’.
This objective supported comparison of the level of influence of OSNs on final
course selection decisions with other sources of information available during the
course selection process.
The main sources of information used in this study are interviews, complemented by
reports collected from QS TopMBA, Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAT),
Association of MBAs (AMBA), Ignite Social Media and eMarketer. The primary data
were collected through semi-structured interviews with 33 international students studying
on three distinct MBA courses in the UK. It was felt that international students could be
expected to have a full understanding of the course selection process as prior to becoming
a student an individual would pass through ‘aspirant’ and ‘applicant’ stages. Each of the
three research objectives apply independently to each of the three participating courses,
however, the intention of this research is to provide a set of findings and conclusions that
could equally apply to any HE course in the UK, and potentially beyond.
1.7 Contributions to knowledge and practice
This study contributes to knowledge and practice in the following ways:

This study contributes to the field of IS in two areas. First, despite a great deal of
research on when and why IS are used (e.g. Burton-Jones and Grange, 2012;
Venkatesh et al., 2003), very little research has examined the role of modern IS,
9
such as OSNs, in choice and decision making in higher education. The intersection
of OSNs and choice and decision making in higher education represents a
promising space for future IS research. Second, calls have been made for the use of
semiotics to better understand IS (e.g. Clarke, 1992, 2001a). This study illustrates
how semiotics can be utilised to analyse the make-up and the interrelationships
which constitute a given phenomenon. Semiotics can be used in the analysis of the
development, use and application of IS in organizational, institutional and social
contexts and their influence in these contexts.

This study contributes to the field of choice and decision making in HE in three
areas. First, research in choice and decision making in HE has focused largely on
the choice of institution (e.g. Price et al., 2003; Soutar and Turner, 2002;
Whitehead et al., 2006) and host country (e.g. Mazzarol and Soutar, 2002; Shanka
et al., 2005), and less attention has been paid to the choice of course of study as a
separate phenomenon. This study focuses on the choice of course of study as a
phenomenon distinct from the choices of institution and host country. Second,
research in HE to date has tended to focus on the application of semiotics in the
area of teaching and learning (e.g. Bayne, 2008; Cunningham, 1984; Groisman et
al., 1991; Gwyn-Paquette, 2001; Lemke, 1984, 1989; Presmeg, 1998; Ryan., 2011),
and less attention has been paid to use of semiotics in the area of choice and
decision-making. This study illustrates how semiotics can be utilised to analyse the
make-up and the interrelationships which constitute a given phenomenon.
Semiotics can be used to analyse the popularity of educational services among
consumers of HE services. Third, this study introduces the concept of ‘course
identity’ and uses this concept as a theoretical framework to analyse the
interrelationship between selection of a course abroad and participation in OSNs.
The introduction of the concept of ‘course identity’ is a direct contribution to
knowledge, while also providing a theoretical framework which enables
practitioners and scholars to acknowledge the externally oriented aspects of the
course in the same way that teaching and learning represent the internal practices
and theorisation of the course.
10

This study also contributes to the field of semiotics. This study utilises Peircean
semiotics
in
conjunction
with
Saussurean
semiotics
to
analyse
the
phenomenon under study. Utilising Peircean Semiotics in conjunction with
Saussurean semiotics in studying semiotic sign systems is a direct contribution to
knowledge.
The research contributions to knowledge and practice are discussed in detail in section 7.5.
The following section provides an outline of the remaining chapters of this thesis in order
to introduce the reader to the structure of this research project.
1.8 Thesis structure
The remaining chapters of this thesis are organized as follows:
Chapter 2 ‘Course identity’ as a semiotic sign system
This chapter introduces the concept of course identity as a semiotic sign system. It begins
with a review of Saussurean and Peircean semiotic traditions. Following this, a triadic
model of the sign will be developed that will act as a basis for introducing the concept of
course identity. The semiotic model of course identity will be used as a theoretical
framework to analyse the interrelationship between selection of a course abroad and
participation in OSNs, and also to guide the fieldwork and subsequent analysis. The
chapter concludes with discussion of a conceptual framework that will be used at the
beginning of succeeding chapters to put the chapters in context and highlight the specific
issues addressed therein. This chapter is aimed particularly at researchers in the areas of
educational research, IS and social semiotics.
Chapter 3 Existing bodies of knowledge
This chapter discusses the relevant literature and secondary data drawn from various
sources, which provides a context for the research project. Guided by the research question
and the semiotic model of course identity developed in Chapter 2, the focus of this review
is specific to choice and decision-making in HE and to OSNs. The literature and secondary
data discussed in this chapter contribute to the analysis of the research data and the
discussion of findings.
11
Chapter 4 Research design and implementation
This chapter appraises the main philosophical assumptions, research methods and data
collection techniques. Based on the given research setting, the research question and my
epistemological viewpoint, decisions made in relation to the research process are explained
and justified. Following this, the chapter provides a detailed account of the way in which
this research was implemented in practice.
Chapter 5 Analysis
This chapter presents the analysis of the findings. It begins with a detailed discussion of the
approach to analysis adopted in this research followed by presentation of the analysis of
the data from the pilot study and the main study. This chapter is aimed particularly at
researchers interested in semiotic analysis of texts.
Chapter 6 Findings and discussion
This chapter is concerned with answering the research question for this study. It presents
and discusses the findings that emerged from the data analysis and how these relate to the
literature. Findings that support the literature are identified, as are differences, enabling the
current work to contribute new insights. This chapter provides both researchers and
practitioners with insights into how the choice of course of study abroad interrelates with
participation in OSNs. The findings suggest several courses of action for education
marketers and policy makers who wish to invest in their student recruitment strategies.
Chapter 7 Conclusions
This chapter presents the conclusions of the study. It reviews the research aims and
objectives, and summarises the overall findings of the research. This chapter is also
concerned with the principles used to guide the conduct and evaluation of the study. The
thesis closes by highlighting the limitations of the study, future study directions and the
overall conclusions of the study.
1.9 Summary
This chapter has laid the foundation for this research. It has explained the research question
that forms the foundation of the study. The aims and research objectives have been
12
introduced and contributions to the body of knowledge briefly discussed. The next chapter
will discuss the theoretical framework of the study.
13
Chapter 2
‘Course Identity’ as a Semiotic Sign System
2.1 Introduction
This chapter introduces the concept of ‘course identity’ as a semiotic sign system. The
semiotic model of course identity is used as a theoretical framework to study and analyse
the interrelationship between selection of a course abroad and participation in OSNs, and
also to guide the fieldwork and subsequent analysis. Semiotics is a huge field, and
therefore no treatment of it can claim to be comprehensive (Chandler, 2007). There are
divergent schools of thought in semiotics, and there is remarkably little consensus among
contemporary theorists regarding the scope of the subject, core concepts or methodological
tools (Chandler, 2007).
This chapter concludes with a conceptual framework that will be used at the beginning of
succeeding chapters to put the chapters in context and highlight the specific issues
addressed therein. This will also provide the reader with a holistic view of the research
process and how the individual sections relate to each other. The following section
provides an overview of the field of semiotics.
2.2 Semiotics defined
The shortest definition of semiotics is that it is “the science of signs” (Silverman, 2011) or
“the study of signs” (Chandler, 2007). “Signs take the form of words, images, sounds,
odours, flavours, acts or objects, but such things have no intrinsic meaning and become
signs only when we invest them with meaning” (Chandler, 2007, p. 13). “Anything can be
a ‘sign’ as long as someone interprets it as ‘signifying’ something-referring to or standing
for something other than itself” (Chandler, 2007, p. 13). We interpret things as signs
largely unconsciously by relating them to familiar systems of conventions. It is this
meaningful use of signs which is at the heart of the concerns of semiotics (Chandler,
2007). In his book Foundations of the Theory of Signs, Charles Morris wrote: “human
civilization is dependent upon signs and systems of signs, and the human mind is
inseparable from the functioning of signs-if indeed mentality is not to be identified with
14
such functioning” (Morris, 1938, p. 1). According to Morris, “it doesn’t seem fantastic to
believe that the concept of sign may prove as fundamental to the sciences of man as the
concept of atom has been for the physical sciences or the concept of cell for the biological
sciences” (Morris, 1938, p. 42). Charles Sanders Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure are
regarded as the co-founders of semiotics (Chandler, 2007; Innis, 1985). They established
two dominant contemporary models of what constitutes a ‘sign’. Saussurean semiotics has
heavily influenced Continental European semiotics, especially in France (e.g. Barthes,
1967; Durand, 1987; Mick et al., 2004). Peircean semiotics is based strongly on logic
(Atkin, 2010). In marketing and consumer research, some of the earliest influences of
Peircean semiotics were studies by Holbrook and Hirschman (1993), Verba and Camden
(1987), Kawama (1985) and Kloepfer (1987). The following section discusses the key
concepts of Saussurean and Peircean semiotic traditions.
2.3 Saussurean and Peircean semiotic traditions
This section begins with a review of the sign theories of Saussure and Peirce. Following
this, based on Saussure’s concepts of ‘paradigm’ and ‘syntagm’, the value of Peirce’s
‘representamen’ (i.e. the signifying element of Peirce’s sign theory) is discussed in terms
of its definition in relation to its ‘paradigmatic’ and its ‘syntagmatic’ relations. This section
concludes with a triadic model of the sign that acts as a basis for introducing the concept of
course identity as a semiotic sign system.
2.3.1 Saussurean dyadic model of the sign
In 1916, Bally and Sechehaye published a book entitled ‘Course in General Linguistics’,
on the basis of notes taken from Saussure's lectures in Geneva. According to Saussure,
“language is a system of signs that express ideas, and is therefore comparable to a system
of writing, the alphabet of deaf-mutes, symbolic rites, polite formulas, military signals,
etc.” (Bally and Sechehaye, 1916, p. 16). Saussure’s model of the sign is of the dyadic
tradition. Focusing on linguistic signs (such as words), Saussure defines a sign as being
composed of a ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’ (Figure 3). The signifier is the form which a sign
takes. In relation to linguistic signs, this meant a non-material form of the spoken word.
Subsequent semioticians have treated the signifier as the material (or physical) form of the
sign, something which can be seen, heard, felt, smelt or tasted (Chandler, 2007). For
Saussure, the signified is one of the two parts of the sign such that Saussure’s signified is
15
the mental concept represented by the signifier (and not a material thing). This does not
exclude the capacity for signs to reference physical objects in the world as well as abstract
concepts and fictional entities, however the signified is not itself a referent in the world
(Chandler, 2007). The relationship between the signifier and the signified is referred to as
‘signification’, and this is represented in the Saussurean diagram by arrows. The horizontal
broken line marking the two elements of the sign is referred to as ‘the bar’ (Chandler,
2007).
Figure 3 The linguistic sign as two-sided entity. Adapted from Saussure,
cited in Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye 1916
Signified
Signifier
Sign
Contemporary commentators tend to describe the signifier as the form which the sign
takes, and the signified as the concept to which it refers. Saussure makes the distinction in
these terms:
“…a linguistic sign is not a link between a thing and a name, but between a
concept [signified] and a sound pattern [signifier]. The sound pattern is not
actually a sound; for a sound is something physical. A sound pattern is the
hearer's psychological impression of a sound, as given to him by the evidence
of his senses. This sound pattern may be called a 'material' element only in
that it is the representation of our sensory impressions. The sound pattern may
thus be distinguished from the other element associated with it in a linguistic
sign. This other element is generally of a more abstract kind: the concept...”
(Saussure 1983, p. 66)
Signs in the Saussurean semiotic tradition are organized in two ways: as paradigms and as
syntagms (Realubit and Lilia, 2011). A syntagm is an orderly combination of interacting
signifiers within the same paradigm and a paradigm is a set of associated signifiers which
are all members of some defining category (Chandler, 2007). The semiotic paradigms
differ depending on the context in which they are initiated. In the context of the current
research, paradigms are online and offline sources of information available to international
HE aspirants and applicants during the course selection process. The concepts of
16
‘paradigm’ and ‘syntagm’ will be discussed in further detail in section 2.3.3. The following
section provides an overview of Peirce’s triadic model of the sign.
2.3.2 Peirce’s triadic model of the sign
Contemporaneously with Saussure, the pragmatist philosopher and logician Charles
Sanders Peirce formulated his own model of the sign (Chandler, 2007). Peirce’s analysis of
signs and of semiotics has become an indispensable starting point for a number of later
sign theories including those of linguists such as Vološinov, Bühler, Jakobson, Langer,
Levi-Strauss, Bateson, Morris and Barthes (Innis, 1985). Whilst for the linguist Saussure
semiology is a science that studies the role of signs in social life, in Peircean semiotics the
formal doctrine of signs is closely related to logic. Peirce spent the greater part of his
intellectual life developing semiotics in the form of a methodologically aware, general,
quasi-formal theory (Innis, 1985). Peirce’s framework is logical in the sense ultimately
derived from scholastic philosophy, where logic is understood as the general theory of
representation, that is, a theory of the ways in which a mental product is able to veridically
reflect or mirror the world (Innis, 1985). In contrast with Saussure’s model of the sign as a
self-contained dyad (i.e. signifier and signified), Peirce offers a triadic (three-part) model.
In his semiotic writings from the late nineteenth century, Peirce describes the signifying, or
semiosis, as a dynamic relation between three elements: object, representamen and
interpretant. The representamen is similar in meaning to Saussure’s signifier whilst the
interpretant is similar in meaning to the signified. Peirce describes the relations as follows:
“A sign, or representamen, is something which stands to somebody for
something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates
in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed
sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. The sign
stands for something, its object. It stands for that object, not in all respects,
but in reference to a sort of idea, which I have sometimes called the ground of
representamen”.
(Peirce 1931-58, p. 228)
According to Chandler (2007), the sign as a whole is a unity of what is represented
(object), how it is represented (representamen) and how it is interpreted (interpretant). To
qualify as a sign, all three elements are essential. The Peircean model is illustrated in the
following figure.
17
Figure 4 Peirce’s sign model (Chandler, 2007)
Interpretant
‘Sign’
Representamen
Object
Each element of the Peirce’ triadic model of the sign will be discussed in turn.
Representamen (the signifying element)
There are some potential terminological difficulties here because as noted by Atkin (2010),
we appear to be saying that there are three elements of a sign, one of which is ‘sign’. This
is confusing and does not fully capture Peirce’s idea. According to Atkin (2010, p. 2),
“strictly speaking, for Peirce, we are interested in the signifying element, and it is not the
sign as a whole that signifies. In speaking of the sign as the signifying element, then, he is
more properly speaking of the sign restricted to those elements most crucial to its
functioning as a signifying element of the sign”. Peirce uses numerous terms for the
signifying element including ‘representamen’, ‘representation’, and ‘ground’. In the
current research, that element of the sign responsible for signification is referred to as the
‘representamen’. Peirce’s idea of the sign as a whole and the sign as the representamen, is
best made clear in an example by Atkin (2010):
“Consider, for instance, a molehill in my lawn taken as a sign of moles. Not
every characteristic of the molehill plays a part in signifying the presence of
moles. The colour of the molehill plays a secondary role since it will vary
according to the soil from which it is composed. Similarly, the sizes of
molehills vary according to the size of the mole that makes them, so again, this
feature is not primary in the molehill’s ability to signify. What is central here
is the causal connection that exists between the type of mound in my lawn and
moles: since moles make molehills, molehills signify moles. Consequently,
primary to the molehill’s ability to signify the mole is the brute physical
connection between it and a mole. This is the signifying element [or the
representamen] of the sign.”
(Atkin, 2010, p. 2)
18
For Peirce, then, it is only some elements of a sign that enable it to signify its object, and
when speaking of the signifying element of the sign (i.e. the representamen) it is this
qualified sign that he is referring to (Atkin, 2010).
The object
The object is something beyond the sign to which it refers (Chandler, 2007). Cousins
(2012, p. 149) argues that “ the object is what the representamen stands for, and in Peirce's
scheme this is an actual referent in the world, the thing itself—material object, event,
mental state—rather than a concept of it”. Atkin (2010) states that not every characteristic
of the object is relevant to signification and only certain features of an object enable a sign
to signify it. Going back to the earlier example about moles and molehills, the object of the
sign (i.e. the molehill) is the mole.
The interpretant
The interpretant is the sense made of the sign (Chandler, 2007). Atkin (2010) proposes that
the interpretant is the understanding we reach of some sign/object relation, which is more
properly thought of as the translation or development of the original sign. In our earlier
example, the interpretant is the understating we reach of the relationship between moles
and molehills. The interpretant provides a translation of the sign, allowing us a more
complex understanding of the sign’s object. Indeed, Liszka (1996) and Savan (1988) both
emphasize the need to treat interpretants as translations, with Savan even suggesting that
Peirce should have called it the “translatant” (Savan, 1988).
The most obvious difference between the Saussurean and Peircean models is that the latter
is triadic rather than dyadic (Chandler, 2007). Peirce’s model of the sign features a third
term; an object (or referent) beyond the sign itself. Saussure’s signified is not an external
referent but an abstract mental representation. Although Peirce’s object is not confined to
physical things and, like Saussure’s signified, can include abstract concepts and fictional
entities, the Peircean model explicitly allocates a place for materiality and for a reality
outside the sign system which Saussure’s model does not directly feature (Chandler, 2007).
For Peirce the object is not just another variety of “interpretant” (Bruss, 1978), but is
crucial to the meaning of the sign: ‘meaning’ within his model includes both ‘reference’
19
and (conceptual) ‘sense’, or more broadly, representation and interpretation. Peircean
semioticians argue that the triadic basis for his model enables it to operate as a more
complete model of the sign than the Saussurean dyadic model can (Bruss, 1978). In the
current research, Peirce’s triadic model is adopted as it clearly features the object beyond
the sign itself. However, based on Saussure’s concepts of ‘paradigm’ and ‘syntagm’, it will
be argued that the value of Peirce’s representamen (i.e. the signifying element of Peirce’s
sign theory) is determined by its ‘paradigmatic’ and its ‘syntagmatic’ relations. This is
justified by Chandler’s (2007, p. 84) claim that “the value of a sign is determined by both
its paradigmatic and its syntagmatic relations” and that “syntagms and paradigms provide a
structural context within which sign makes sense”. This will be discussed in greater detail
in the following section.
2.3.3 Peirce’s representamen: paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations
Saussure emphasizes that meaning arises from the differences between signifiers (or
representamens in Peircean semiotics); these differences are of two kinds: syntagmatic and
paradigmatic (Realubit and Lilia, 2011). Culler states that “paradigmatic relations are the
oppositions between elements that can replace one another...syntagmatic relations define
combinatory possibilities; the relations between elements that might combine in a
sequence” (Culler, 1976, p. 40). Chandler (2007) proposes that a syntagm is an orderly
combination of interacting representamens within the same paradigm and that a paradigm
is a set of associated representamens which are all members of some defining category.
“The value of a sign is determined by both its paradigmatic and its syntagmatic relations”
(Chandler, 2007, p. 84). “Syntagms and paradigms provide a structural context within
which a sign makes sense” (Chandler, 2007, p. 84). In the context of linguistic sign
systems, according to Chandler (2007, p. 84), “the plane of the syntagm is that of the
combination of ‘this-and-this-and-this’ as in the sentence ‘the man cried’ [Figure 5], while
the plane of the paradigm is that of the selection of ‘this-or-this-or-this’ (e.g. the
replacement of the last word in the sentence ‘the man cried’ with ‘died’ or ‘sang’)”.
20
Figure 5 Paradigms and Syntagms, (Chandler, 2007)
the
boy
died
man
cried
Paradigmatic axis
sang
Syntagmatic axis
Based on Chandler’s (2007, p. 84) argument that “the value of a sign is determined by both
its paradigmatic and its syntagmatic relations”, and that “syntagms and paradigms provide
a structural context within which sign makes sense”, it could be argued that the value of
Peirce’s representamen is determined by both its paradigmatic and its syntagmatic
relations. As illustrated in Figure 6, the ‘representamen’ in Peirce’s triadic model can be
divided into ‘paradigmatic representamen’ and ‘syntagmatic representamen’.
Figure 6 Peirce’ triadic model in conjunction with Saussure’s
concepts of paradigm and syntagm
Interpretant
‘Sign’
Representamen
 Paradigmatic
 Syntagmatic
Object
Semiotic paradigms differ depending on the context in which they are initiated. For
example, in the context of media studies, Chandler (2007) argues that the medium or genre
is also paradigm, and particular media texts derive meaning from the ways in which the
medium and genre used differs from the alternatives. In the context of the current research,
paradigms include online and offline sources of information available to international HE
21
aspirants and applicants during the course selection process, for example family members
and friends, education agencies, OSNs, ranking websites, accreditation bodies, the British
Consulate website, amongst others. Syntagmatic relations in the context of the current
research refers to the orderly combination of interacting representamens within OSNs only
(i.e. the same paradigm), and paradigmatic relations refers to a set of representamens
which are all members of different sources of information (i.e. different paradigms).
Saussure’s concepts of paradigm and syntagm enable a distinction to be made between
representamens within OSNs and representamens within other sources of information
available during the course selection process. In the forthcoming sections the triadic model
of the sign illustrated in Figure 6 will be used as a logical tool to introduce the concept of
course identity as a semiotic sign system. However, prior introducing the concept of course
identity, the following section provides an overview of the term ‘identity’ and its diffusion
in the social sciences.
2.4 An overview of the term ‘identity’ in the social sciences
‘Identity’ comes from the Latin root ‘idem’, meaning ‘the same’, and has been used in
English since the sixteenth century (Gleason, 1983). According to Brubaker and Cooper
(2000, p. 2), “identity and cognate terms in other languages have a long history as technical
terms in western philosophy, from the ancient Greeks through contemporary analytical
philosophy”. The introduction of the term ‘identity’ into social analysis and its initial
diffusion in the social sciences and public discourse occurred in the 1950s (Gleason, 1983).
Erik Homburger Erikson, a Danish-German-American developmental psychologist, was
the key figure who brought the term ‘identity’ into circulation through his discussion of
identity crises in adolescence (Gleason, 1983). Erikson was Sigmund Freuds’s student
(Langley, 2000), and like others among Freud’s followers, Erikson initially felt that his
own theory was simply an elaboration of Freud’s own psychoanalytic theory (Langley,
2000).
In recent years, scholars within a range of social science and humanities disciplines have
taken an intense interest in questions concerning identity (Fearon, 1999). However, Fearon
(1999) argues that despite this vastly increased and wide-ranging interest in identity, the
term itself remains something of an enigma. The Oxford English Dictionary (Website,
2012) gives the definition of the term ‘identity’ as “the fact of being who or what a person
22
or thing is” or “the characteristics determining who or what a person or thing is”. Fearon
(1999, p. 2) notes that “our present idea of identity is a fairly recent social construct, and a
rather complicated one at that. Even though everyone knows how to use the term properly
in everyday discourse, it proves quite difficult to give a short and adequate summary
statement that captures the range of its present meaning”.
A broad review of literature from the disciplines of psychology, sociology, social
anthropology and philosophy reveals that the term ‘identity’ is complex and different
meanings are evident in different contexts. Examples of the application of the term
‘identity’ in different contexts include: national identity (Ranganathan, 2003), cultural
identity (Williams et al., 2002), political identity (Allen and Bagozzi, 2001), place identity
(Proshansky et al., 1983), sexual identity (Brewster and Moradi, 2010), ethnic identity
(Phinney, 1990), gender identity (Baker, 1980), age identity (Kaufman and Elder, 2002,
2003), family identity (Gillis, 1996), language identity (Block, 2007), religious identity
(Griffith and Griggs, 2001), work identity (Buche, 2006), corporate identity (Rekom,
1997), brand identity (Gylling and Lindberg-Repo, 2006), digital identity (Hovav and
Berger, 2009) and online identity (Hovav and Berger, 2009; Kim et al., 2011). Based on
the triadic model of the sign illustrated in Figure 6, the following section introduces the
concept of ‘course identity’ as a semiotic sign system and provides a semiotic model of
course identity in the context of this research.
2.5 Introducing the concept of ‘course identity’ as a semiotic sign system
According to Fearon (1999, p. 33), “individuals are not the only entities that can be
described as having identities, whether in ordinary language or social science writing. So
too, can states, churches, firms, political parties, universities, indeed, particularly any
corporate actor”. In the current research it is assumed that a course of study can be
described as having an identity and that it can be treated in ordinary language and social
scientific practice as a metaphorical individual with will and agency. The multidisciplinary
nature of the term ‘identity’ can lead to various definitions of the concept of course
identity. The definition proposed in this research is: “the means by which a course
distinguishes itself from other courses”. The concept of course identity attaches meaning to
the course in its totality. It is this course identity that influences course selection decisions
of international HE aspirants and applicants.
23
For course identity to qualify as a semiotic sign system all three elements of the sign
including ‘object’, ‘representamen’ and ‘interpretant’ are essential. The course identity is a
synthesis of what is represented (object), how it is represented (representamen) and how it
is interpreted (interpretant). The development and diffusion of course identity can be
viewed from internal and external stakeholder perspectives. The initial development of
course identity starts with internal stakeholders of the course, from the assumptions and
beliefs held by internal stakeholders such as policy makers, course designers, course
directors, marketing and student recruitment specialists, and reflects the identity that these
internal stakeholders wish to acquire for the course. Assumptions and beliefs of internal
stakeholders influence the initial formation of course identity. These assumptions and
beliefs determine, for example, the tuition fees for the course, the mode of study, and the
course structure and curriculum. The course identity as shaped by internal stakeholders is
then communicated in the form of the ‘representamen’ to external stakeholders through a
variety of resources (e.g. official university websites, OSNs, education agencies, ranking
websites, family and friends) from which external stakeholders such as international HE
aspirants and applicants generate certain perceptions, or ‘interpretants’ about the course.
The semiosis of course identity can lead to different elements of the sign (i.e. object,
representamen and interpretant) depending on the context. The flexibility of the concept of
course identity makes it a powerful logical concept that can be utilised by researchers in
different contexts. The introduction of the concept of course identity as a semiotic sign
system is a direct contribution to knowledge. It is also valuable as a theoretical framework
which enables practitioners and scholars to acknowledge the externally oriented aspects of
the course in the same way that teaching and learning represent the internal practices and
theorisation of the course. The following section discusses the semiosis of course identity
in the context of this research.
2.6 Semiosis of ‘course identity’
The concept of course identity is perceived as a semiotic sign system (i.e. as a whole).
Guided by the research question in section 1.3, the semiosis of course identity led to two
representamens (or signifying elements), two objects, and one interpretant (Figure 7).
24
Figure 7 Semiotic model of course identity in the context of this research
Perceived course identity
Interpretant
‘Course identity’
Representamen
 Paradigmatic
 Syntagmatic
 Paradigmatic course identity
 Syntagmatic course identity
as observed through OSNs
Object
 Course of study
 OSNs
The elements of the semiosis of course identity will be discussed in turn.
The representamen (the signifying element of course identity)
The representamen, or the signifying element, of course identity is determined by both its
paradigmatic and its syntagmatic relations as discussed below:

Paradigmatic course identity is the overall identity of the course communicated in the
form of the ‘representamen’ to international HE aspirants and applicants through a
variety of resources (e.g. official university websites, education agencies, family and
friends) from which international HE aspirants and applicants generate certain
perceptions, or ‘interpretants’, about the course.

Syntagmatic course identity as observed through OSNs is the identity of the course
communicated in the form of the ‘representamen’ to international HE aspirants and
applicants only through OSNs, from which international HE aspirants and applicants
generate certain perceptions, or ‘interpretants’, about the course.
25
The object
The semiosis of course identity in the context of the current research led to two objects:

Course of study is the object for both ‘paradigmatic course identity’ and
‘syntagmatic course identity’.

OSNs is the object for the ‘syntagmatic course identity’.
The interpretant
The interpretant is the course identity perceived by international HE aspirants and
applicants. It is this identity of the course that influences final course selection decisions of
international HE aspirants and applicants. I refer to this identity as ‘perceived course
identity’. Just as with the representamen/object relation, Peirce believes the
representamen/interpretant relation to be one in which the representamen determines the
interpretant (Atkin, 2010). Therefore, the perceived course identity is determined by the
paradigmatic course identity and the syntagmatic course identity (i.e. the two signifying
elements of course identity).
In order to answer the research question in section 1.3 and achieve the aims of the research,
three research objectives were formulated. The research objectives derived from a review
of relevant literature and the semiosis of course identity discussed in this section. The
objectives were to obtain sufficient data in order to:

Define the paradigmatic course identity.

Define the syntagmatic course identity as observed through OSNs.

Compare and contrast the levels of influence of paradigmatic course identity and
syntagmatic course identity on the perceived course identity.
The following section provides an overview of the role and timing of the development and
use of the semiotic model of course identity in the context of this research.
26
2.7 The role and timing of the development and use of the semiotic
model of course identity
The semiotic model of course identity is used as a theoretical framework to study and
analyse the interrelationship between selection of a course abroad and participation in
OSNs, and it has driven the design of the method and the subsequent analysis of the
interview data, amongst others.
The theoretical framework presented in Figure 7
strengthened the current research in a number ways, the details of which are as follows:

To contextualize the study within the current body of knowledge
The theoretical framework developed in section 2.6 helped to connect the
researcher to the relevant literature and secondary data, which provided a context
for the research. Guided by the research question and the semiotic model of course
identity, the focus of the literature review was specific to choice and decisionmaking in higher education and to OSNs, of which a full account is given in
Chapter 3.

To formulate the research objectives
In order to answer the research question in section 1.3 and achieve the aims of the
research,
three research objectives were formulated.
The
research
objectives
derived from a review of relevant literature and the semiosis of course identity. The
objectives were to obtain sufficient data in order to: define the paradigmatic course
identity, define the syntagmatic course identity as observed through OSNs, and
compare and contrast the levels of influence of paradigmatic course identity and
syntagmatic course identity on the perceived course identity.

The choice of research paradigm and research methods
Semiotics gave the researcher a basis for the choice of research paradigm and
research methods. Semiotics, as a textual analysis approach, is commonly used
under interpretive research methodology as a means of understanding meanings in
texts (Imbeau, 2009; Wharton, 2013). According to Imbeau (2009, p.262),
“semiotic analysis in its conventional form is a qualitative-interpretive practice
since it rests upon the assumption that meaning is not a fixed and self-contained
entity that can be analysed as an objective property”. In ontological terms, an
27
interpretive semiotic approach aims to document a research setting by identifying,
exploring and explaining the relationships and dependencies between different
themes. This subjective interpretation results in a methodology that relies a rich
descriptions of actors studied in their everyday settings.

To guide the fieldwork
The theoretical framework helped the researcher in guiding the fieldwork. Guided
by the semiotic model of course identity, the interview questions grouped under
three major categories: ‘paradigmatic course identity’, ‘syntagmatic course
identity’, and ‘perceived course identity’. The aim of data collection was to obtain
sufficient data in order to achieve the objectives of the research.

To structure and analyse the interview data
Since the research question in this study is concerned more about how meaning is
generated within a network of concepts rather than the content of a discourse,
semiotic analysis is an ideal candidate for such as endeavour (Imbeau, 2009). Signs
and relations are the key elements of semiotic analysis. The interview data as a
whole can be seen as a triadic sign system made of object, representamen and
interpretant. In the context of this research, this triadic sign system is the course
identity and the semiotic model of course identity is used to structure and analyse
the interview data in Chapter 5. A full account on the semiotic analysis and how it
is utilised to structure and analyse the interview data is given in section 5.2.
The semiotic model of course identity presented in Figure 7 has been revised a number of
times as a result of the use of evaluative principles for interpretive filed studies proposed
by Klein and Myers (1999) to guide the progress of the study. The ideal semiotic model of
course identity has been developed prior to commencing the fieldwork in light of the
‘principle of dialogical reasoning’ which requires sensitivity to possible contradictions
between the theoretical preconceptions guiding the research design and actual findings
with subsequent cycles of revision (Klein and Myers, 1999). The key points at which the
semiotic model of course identity has been altered as a result of study are discussed in
detail in section 7.6.5.
28
2.8 Conceptual framework
A conceptual framework has been developed to illustrate diagrammatically the main
themes being investigated and their interrelationships. These themes are connected using
“cross links” (Novak and Cañas, 2008), which are labelled to indicate their relationships.
At the top of the conceptual framework is a “focus question” (Novak and Cañas, 2008).
This aids in differentiating the conceptual framework or map from others and provides a
context for the assumptions adopted for this work. This conceptual framework will be used
at the beginning of succeeding chapters to place the chapters in context and highlight the
specific issues addressed therein. This will also provide the reader with a holistic view of
the research process and how the individual sections relate to each other.
Figure 8 Conceptual framework
Research Question: How does the choice of course of study abroad interrelate with participation in OSNs?
Relevant literature and secondary data
Research design and its implementation
Analysis
Perceived course identity
Interpretant
‘Course identity’
Representamen
 Paradigmatic
 Syntagmatic
 Paradigmatic course identity
 Syntagmatic course identity as observed
through OSNs

Object
 Course of study
 OSNs
Findings and discussion, development of ideas/beliefs
Conclusions, contributions to knowledge and practice
29
Usually qualitative work is described as starting from an inductive position, seeking to
build up theory, with the conceptual framework being “emergent”, because existing
literature and theories might mislead (Miles and Huberman, 1994). However, Miles and
Huberman (1994) also note that researchers have some idea of what will feature in the
study, a tentative rudimentary conceptual framework, and it is better to have some idea of
what you are looking for/at even if that idea changes over time. This is particularly true for
time-constrained or inexperienced researchers (Miles and Huberman, 1994). In this respect
building a framework involves generating a number of general constructs that force the
investigator to identify the variables and relationships of greatest concern (Miles and
Huberman, 1994).
2.9 Summary
This chapter has discussed the theoretical framework of the study. Based on semiotic
concepts, the chapter has introduced the concept of course identity as a semiotic sign
system. The semiotic model of course identity is used as a theoretical framework to study
and analyse the interrelationship between selection of a course abroad and participation in
OSNs, and also to guide the fieldwork and subsequent analysis. The chapter has concluded
with discussion of a conceptual framework that will be used at the beginning of succeeding
chapters to place the chapters in context and highlight the specific issues addressed therein.
The next chapter will review the relevant literature and secondary data drawn from various
sources.
30
Chapter 3
Existing Bodies of Knowledge
3.1 Introduction
As highlighted below, this chapter discusses the relevant literature and secondary data
drawn from various sources, which provides a context for the research. Guided by the
research question and the semiotic model of course identity presented in Figure 7, the
focus of this review is specific to choice and decision-making in HE and to OSNs. The
literature and secondary data discussed in this chapter contribute to the analysis of the
research data in Chapter 5 and the discussion of findings in Chapter 6.
Figure 9 Conceptual Framework: Chapter 3
Research Question: How does the choice of course of study abroad interrelate with participation in OSNs?
Relevant literature and secondary data
Research design and its implementation
Analysis
Perceived course identity
Interpretant
‘Course identity’
Representamen
 Paradigmatic
 Syntagmatic
 Paradigmatic course identity
 Syntagmatic course identity as observed
through OSNs

Object
 Course of study
 OSNs
Findings and discussion, development of ideas/beliefs
Conclusions, contributions to knowledge and practice
To begin, it is important to shed some light on the broad context of marketing in education,
for which a general overview is given in section 3.2. The marketing mix models designed
31
specifically for HE institutions (e.g. Ivy and Naude, 2004; Kotler and Fox, 1995) are
holistic strategy models that address marketing issues from the perspective of the
institution. In other words, the marketing mix model shows just one side of the formula of
an effective marketing strategy (Al-Fattal, 2010). There is therefore a need for a means to
explore “student choice”, and this is approached in the current research in the context of
the “course selection decisions of international HE aspirants and applicants”.
The decision to enter HE is a complex process and involves various stages and various
factors that influence the choice of HE (Litten, 1982; Stein et al., 2009). Section 3.3
discusses models of decision-making processes for HE and provides a review of factors
that influence the choice of HE. A review of the literature in section 3.3 reveals that
research to date has tended to focus on the choice of institution and host country, and less
attention has been paid to the choice of course of study as a distinct phenomenon.
The primary data for the current research are collected from three distinct full-time MBA
courses in the United Kingdom. Section 3.4 provides an overview of the MBA in the UK
and presents the secondary data collected from various sources. The secondary data
presented in section 3.4 provides a basis for comparison of the primary data that is
collected to define the paradigmatic identities of the three participating MBA courses,
which is discussed in Chapter 5, although it does not fully account for the interrelationship
between the choice of MBA and participation in OSNs.
Section 3.5 reviews the existing literature on OSNs in relation to theoretical underpinnings,
criticisms and controversies surrounding them, and their geographic and demographic
distribution. The secondary data in section 3.5.4 contribute to a greater understanding of
OSNs and the discussion of findings in Chapter 6.
The chapter concludes with a review of recent studies that focus on OSNs and choice of
HE.
3.2 Marketing and education
Making a direct comparison between a university and a business would have been
shocking a few decades ago (Kotler and Fox, 1995). However, Kotler and Fox (1995)
32
argue that in order to educate students, HE institutions rely on money from tuition fees and
donations to pay teachers’ salaries and the other expenses of operating their programmes.
The aim of such institutions is to impart knowledge and skills that will improve the lives
and work opportunities of their graduates. Businesses, in contrast, aim to make a profit,
defined in narrowly financial terms. Education and business have been considered distinct
“worlds”, with little or nothing in common (Kotler and Fox, 1995). There has been
considerable debate over whether HE institutions should be involved in marketing (Bartlett
et al., 2002; Bok, 2004; Newman et al., 2010). One controversy is over the labelling of
students as “customers” and courses as “products” (Cuthbert, 2010; Owens and Loomes,
2007; Szorenyi-Reischl, 1998). In an exploratory study, Conway et al. (1994) find that the
majority of institutions tended to be predominantly product-driven, with their products
defined narrowly as their courses, or in some instances more broadly as ‘education’.
Academics often resist these commercial imperatives and voice misgivings about viewing
students as customers and courses as products (Sharrock, 2000; Winter and Sarros, 2002).
According to Bay and Daniel (2001), institutions should not regard the student as a
customer, because the ‘student as customer’ paradigm may encourage institutions to focus
on short-term, narrowly-defined student satisfaction, rather than meeting the long-term
needs of a range of stakeholders. Svensson and Wood (2007) argue that students are
citizens of the university community, and that the customer metaphor is inappropriate to
describe students’ relationships to universities. In contrast, East (2001) argues that there is
a need to analyse students’ perspectives in the light of customer expectations about quality
of service, particularly as mature students, whether local or international, expect a high
standard of service delivery (Mavondo et al., 2000).
Marketing is now at the forefront of activities for most HE institutions (Fagerstrøm and
Ghinea, 2013). Today’s consumers of HE are increasingly active information seekers and
are no longer dependent solely on information from the institution (Fagerstrøm and
Ghinea, 2013). There is a number of articles which encourage institutions to use marketing
mix models to increase, not only enquiries regarding courses, but also applications, and
indeed enrolment (e.g. Bayne, 2008; Cunningham, 1984; Groisman et al., 1991; GwynPaquette, 2001; Ivy, 2008; Lemke, 1984, 1989; Presmeg, 1998; Ryan., 2011). The
marketing mix is a set of controllable marketing tools that an institution uses to produce
the response it wants from its various target markets. “It consists of everything that the
33
university can do to influence the demand for the services that it offers” (Ivy, 2008, p.
289). Kotler and Fox (1995) have developed a version of a marketing mix specifically
tailored to HE institutions, and their model consists of seven marketing tools, the “7Ps”:
programme, price, place, promotion, processes, physical facilities, and people (Figure 10).
There are suggestions for other elements to be included in the marketing mix, for example,
Ivy and Naude’s (2004) “7Ps” and Ivy’s (2008) “7Ps” comprising: programme, prospectus,
price, prominence, people, promotion and premiums. All these models have similar
component elements; nonetheless, they are clustered and grouped differently (Al-Fattal,
2010). According to Al-Fattal (2010), the marketing mix model proposed by Kotler and
Fox (1995) encompasses all of the elements mentioned by other models.
Figure 10 7Ps marketing mix model for higher education institutions (Kotler and Fox,
1995)
Course of study
Price
Place
Promotion
Processes
Physical Facilities
People
This section briefly reviews Kotler and Fox’s (1995) marketing mix model. The first
element of the marketing mix model is the ‘course of study’. The most basic decision an
institution makes is what courses it will offer to its students, alumni, donors, and other
markets and publics (Kotler and Fox, 1995). An institution’s mix of offerings establishes
its identity, positions the institution vis-à-vis other institutions in the minds of consumers,
and determines how consumers will respond. Universities with similar courses will find
their markets and public differentiating between them on the basis of their courses and
their quality (Kotler and Fox, 1995). The second element of the marketing mix is ‘price’.
The price element is principally related to tuition fees (Al-Fattal, 2010). Pricing has major
influence on marketing strategies as most students and their parents are concerned about
34
the financial implications of attending university (Pugsley, 2004). The third element of the
marketing mix is ‘place’. This element refers to the system of delivery and channels of
service distribution (Brassington and Petitt, 2006). According to Kotler and Fox (1995),
the basic service-delivery question for an institution is, how can we make our courses and
services available and accessible to our target consumers? Kotler and Fox (1995) argue
that the location and scheduling of courses can determine their success. Offering a high
quality, appropriately priced course is not enough (Kotler and Fox, 1995), as students may
avoid classes in rundown, dangerous urban areas because the surroundings are unpleasant
and unsafe (Kotler and Fox, 1995). Likewise, they may avoid rural campuses that seem
isolated and boring (Kotler and Fox, 1995). The fourth element of the marketing mix is
‘promotion’. Promotion captures an institution’s ability to communicate with its markets.
Kotler and Fox (1995) argue that developing good courses and services, pricing them
attractively, and making them readily available to target consumers is not enough to
successfully market them. The institution must also inform consumers and others about its
goals, activities and offerings and motivate them to take an interest in the institution.
Palmer (2001) breaks down promotion into four distinct elements: advertising, sales
promotion, public relations and personal selling. There are various sets of tools within each
of these elements which are available to an institution for communicating with its
customers, including web-advertising, search engine optimisation, direct mail, educational
show exhibits, open days and conferences (Al-Fattal, 2010; Blumenstyk, 2006;
Constantinides and Stagno, 2011; Constantinides and Stagno, 2012; Fagerstrøm and
Ghinea, 2013). The fifth element of the marketing mix is ‘processes’. Processes refer to the
way an institution does business, and relate to the whole administrative system (Kotler et
al., 2002). Processes are how things happen in an institution, including the management,
enrolment, teaching, learning, social and even sports activities (Al-Fattal, 2010). Processes
may be of little concern to customers of manufactured products, however nonetheless they
are of critical concern to high contact services such as education (Palmer, 2001). For this
reason, it is recommended that institutions take into consideration how their services are to
be offered. For example, teaching methods and assessment systems are aspects which HE
aspirants and applicants enquire about most (Ivy and Naude, 2004). The sixth element of
the marketing mix is ‘people’. ‘People’ refers to all teaching and administrative staff
through which the service is delivered, and through which customer relations are built
(Kotler and Fox, 1995). ‘People’ also includes the institution’s past and current students as
35
HE aspirants and applicants tend to ask about and check with past and current students on
their views (Al-Fattal, 2010). The final element of Kotler and Fox’s (1995) marketing mix
model is ‘physical facilities and evidence’, which refers to the physical, tangible resources
which an institution makes available to customers ranging from brochures to infrastructure
including buildings and teaching facilities (Al-Fattal, 2010). Physical facilities, as an
element of the mix, play a major role as it is the means by which an institution is likely to
increase the tangibility of its offering, particularly because there is usually little of a
tangible nature which can be inspected before purchase (Gibbs and Knapp, 2002).
The marketing mix models designed specifically for HE institutions (e.g. Ivy and Naude,
2004; Kotler and Fox, 1995) are holistic strategy models that address marketing issues
from the perspective of the institution. In other words, the marketing mix model shows just
one side of the formula of an effective marketing strategy (Al-Fattal, 2010). There is
therefore a need for a means to explore “student choice” (Figure 11), and this is
approached in the current research in the context of the “course selection decisions of
international HE aspirants and applicants”.
Figure 11 Marketing strategy synthesis (Al-Fattal, 2010)
Marketing
mix
Effective
marketing
strategy
Student
choice
Maringe (2006) suggests that a useful way of understanding a market is to investigate the
choice and decision-making processes of HE aspirants and applicants. It is apparent from
the discussion above that understanding the course selection decisions of HE aspirants and
applicants is crucial to developing an effective marketing strategy. The focus of the
following section is on choice and decision-making of students entering HE.
36
3.3 Choice and decision-making in higher education
The field of choice and decision-making, or what Kotler and Fox (1985) call “consumer
buying behaviour” studies how individuals, groups and organizations select, buy, use and
dispose of goods or services to satisfy their needs and desires, and what factors affect this
behaviour (Kotler and Armstrong, 2009). As the aim of marketing is to satisfy consumers’
needs and desires, researching choice and decision-making in HE may be of value in
guiding policy makers and admissions officers in institutions towards more effective
approaches to marketing their courses and institution (Whitehead et al., 2006). Briggs
(2006) suggests that if universities are able to predict where HE aspirants and applicants
will come from, scarce resources can be focused on marketing in geographic areas that will
give the highest return.
The following section is divided into two parts. It begins with a discussion of the stages
involved in the process of decision-making about HE, followed by discussion of the factors
that influence the choice of HE.
3.3.1 Stages involved in the process of decision-making about higher
education
The literature in this section develops an understanding of the stages involved in the
process of decision-making about HE, which feeds into the analysis of the research data in
Chapter 5 and the discussion of findings in Chapter 6.
Different models have been developed in recent decades to capture the complex decisionmaking processes of HE aspirants and applicants (e.g. Chapman, 1986; Hanson and Litten,
1982; Jackson, 1982; Kotler and Fox, 1985). Jackson’s (1982) and Chapman’s (1986)
models are the best-known theoretical models and therefore I will briefly review these.
Jackson’s (1982) model proposes that there are three stages prior to making a choice of
HE. The first is ‘the preference’ stage where, it is suggested, academic achievement has the
strongest correlation with educational aspirations. The second stage is ‘the exclusion stage’
whereby an individual goes through a process of eliminating a number of options for HE
studies. The final stage is ‘the evaluation stage’ where an individual is faced with different
choices from which makes her or his final choice, using a rating scheme (Jackson, 1982).
37
Chapman’s (1986) model consists of five stages as illustrated in Figure 12.
Figure 12 Decision-making process for higher education (Chapman, 1986)
Pre-search behaviour
Search behaviour
Application decision
Choice decision
Matriculation decision
The ‘pre-search behaviour’ stage begins with recognizing the possible need for and
desirability of acquiring a higher level of education, with demographic factors playing a
major influencing role. Pre-search activities involve assessment of the costs and benefits
associated with pursuing HE studies in general (Chapman, 1986). Given the recognition of
the possible need for a higher level of education, individuals continuously scan their
environment for sources of information and in doing this they become aware of key
information sources and what kind of content those sources provide. The ‘search
behaviour’ stage is characterized by extensive and active acquisition of information on
potential HE options. According to Chapman (1986), ‘knowledgeable others’ are consulted
in depth and with great frequency. ‘Knowledgeable others’ may include family members
and friends attending universities. At this stage individuals enquire directly with a number
of universities to get information. HE selection is an important milestone, and as such
extensive and involved search efforts are to be expected (Chapman, 1986). The search
behaviour stage ends when the decision is made about which institutions to apply to.
Chapman (1986) argues that at this point the pursuit of a HE becomes serious and the
number of university alternatives has been narrowed down to a few. During the
‘application decision’ stage individuals narrow their focus to those options that they are
38
more interested in and to which they are more likely to be admitted. By definition, the
‘choice decision’ stage involves all those universities to which an individual is offered a
place. It is important to note that this is another point where some uncertainty enters into
the applicant’s selection process, namely, the uncertainty with regard to whether an
applicant will be admitted to a university (Chapman, 1986). The choice decision phase
usually ends with the selection of a specific university to attend. The last stage in
Chapman’s (1986) model is the ‘matriculation decision’. At this stage the applicant arrives
for registration, however many turn the offer down again after a few days in the institution,
reflecting the early post-purchase feelings applicants often have at the time of committing
themselves to the institution (Maringe, 2006). Most universities aim to provide exciting
welcome week activities and a variety of support services to fulfil students’ needs as far as
possible, in order to retain students beyond the initial few weeks. The following section
provides an overview of factors that influence the choice of HE.
3.3.2 Factors influencing the choice of higher education
The literature in this section contributes to a greater understanding of the factors
influencing the choice of HE, and contributes to the analysis of the research data in
Chapter 5 and the discussion of findings in Chapter 6. A review of the literature in this
section reveals that the research to date has tended to focus on the choice of institution and
host country, and less attention has been paid to the choice of course of study as a distinct
phenomenon.
In a quantitative study, Whitehead et al. (2006) sought to identify the factors that
encourage or discourage the choice of a given university. Their study focused on the
University of Cambridge as a prestigious UK university. The authors suggest that the
course structure has the greatest impact on encouraging or discouraging selection of the
University of Cambridge. Individuals are dissuaded from applying to Cambridge because
of the bureaucratic “hassle” involved (Whitehead et al., 2006). However, there are
challenges to this interpretation which include the difficulty of gaining a place, the fear of
not “fitting in” and the applicant’s belief that they would have to work too hard to succeed
once at Cambridge (Whitehead et al., 2006). The findings from Whitehead et al. (2006) are
presented in Table 1.
39
Factors that discourage
individuals to select
Cambridge
Factors that encourage
individuals to select
Cambridge
Table 1 Factors that encourage or discourage individuals to select Cambridge
University (Whitehead et al., 2006)
Really liking the course structure in the subject I wanted to study
Liking the way the course is structured in the subject I wanted to study
Getting a place at Cambridge will be regarded as an achievement
The earning power of a Cambridge degree
Believing that a degree from Cambridge will greatly enhance my career prospects
The fact that the University of Cambridge is very prestigious both nationally and internationally
Liking the way the teaching is organized, particularly the college-based supervision system
The fact that I will make contacts with influential people
The fact that I would meet a lot of interesting people
Being confident that I would fit in at Cambridge
Seeing Cambridge city as an attractive place to be at university
The fact that I did not really like the content of the course in the subject I wanted to study
The fact that I did not really like the way the course was structured in the subject I wanted to
study
The fact that I would have to be interviewed before being offered a place
The possibility that I might have to sit further tests or examinations in order to be considered
The possibility that I would have to send in some of my academic work for consideration
The difficulty of actually getting a place because of the high number of applicants
Being worried about not fitting in with the other students at Cambridge
Findings the whole application process overly complicated and confusing
The feeling that I would have to work too hard academically in order to succeed while at
Cambridge
In another study, Soutar and Turner (2002) examined the choice of university using a form
of conjoint analysis. The results from their quantitative study indicate that the four most
important determinants of university preferences are course suitability, academic
reputation, job prospects, and the quality of teaching. Soutar and Turner’s (2002) findings
provide support for the study conducted by Whitehead et al. (2006), suggesting that the
course of study itself is the most important factor in determining choice of institution.
Soutar and Turner’s (2002) findings are presented in Table 2.
Individuals’ preferences
for university
Table 2 Individuals’ preferences for university (Soutar and Turner, 2002)
Course suitability
Academic reputation
Job prospects
Quality of teaching
Campus atmosphere
Type of university (is a new university or traditional university)
Distance from home
Family opinion
Ability to articulate/transfer units between further education and higher education
Friends at the university
In an exploratory study, Briggs (2006) identified the factors influencing the choice of
university in Scotland, suggesting that this is largely determined by ten factors. The top
40
three factors are academic reputation, distance from home and location. Briggs (2006)
distinguishes between factors identified for post-1992 universities1 in Scotland (or ‘new’
universities) and pre-1992 universities2. Respondents from pre-1992 universities saw
academic reputation as the overriding influential factor and, not surprisingly, factors that
related to academic quality, including academic reputation, quality of faculty and teaching
reputation, also feature strongly. Significantly, respondents from two of the three post1992 universities considered entry requirements as the most influential factor in the choice
of university. Briggs’s (2006) findings are presented in Table 3.
Academic reputation
Distance from home
Location
Own perception
Social life nearby
Quality of faculty
Graduate employment
Teaching reputation
Entry requirements
Information supplied
Post-1992 Universities
Pre-1992 Universities
Table 3 A comparison between factors influencing the choice of pre-1992 and post1992 universities (Briggs, 2006)
Entry requirements
Distance from home
Location
Academic reputation
Own perception
Graduate employment
Social life nearby
Teaching reputation
Quality of faculty
Information supplied
One of the few studies that investigates the choice of course of study as a phenomenon
distinct from the choice of institution, is that of Maringe (2006). However, unlike the
current research, Maringe’s (2006) study focuses on the choice of course of study within
one’s own country. In the quantitative study, Maringe (2006) explores the factors
influencing choice of university and course of study in England. His findings suggest that
career considerations have the greatest impact on the choice of course of study and few
courses are selected because they are perceived to be easy. Among the external influences,
Maringe (2006) argues that school teachers have the strongest influence on the choice of
course of study, while parents have the least. Formal career guidance in schools is
considered of much less value in influencing the choice of course of study, especially for
males. Maringe’s (2006) findings are presented in Table 4.
1
In the United Kingdom the post-1992 universities formed from polytechnics or colleges of higher
education.
2
Pre-1992 universities include ancient universities founded between the 12th and 16th centuries and the large
civic universities chartered at the beginning of the 20th century before World War I.
41
Factors influencing
course choices
Factors influencing university choices
Table 4 Factors influencing university choices and course choices (Maringe, 2006)
Course of study (e.g. field of study, majors, course structure and degree
organisation)
Price (e.g. fees, flexibility in payment, effort needed to qualify, opportunities
sacrificed, distance from home, transport and living costs, opportunities for part
time work)
Place (e.g. campus accommodation, degree credits, facilities, racial diversity,
residential requirements, class sizes)
Prominence (e.g. institutional reputation, staff reputation, press reviews by national
newspapers, institutional websites, league tables)
Promotion (e.g. advertising in local and national press, publicity about academic
research, publicity about teaching excellence, electronic media and networking
communications)
Prospectus (e.g. the university prospectus, course booklets)
People (e.g. gender composition, tutors credentials, alumni and contacts, graduate
profiles)
Career opportunities
Ability and performance in subject
Advice from teachers
Interest in subject
Staff profiles
Course prestige
Friends on course
Advice from careers
Advice from parents
Easy course to do
Selecting amongst options for HE study abroad is a complicated process as compared with
selecting HE within one’s own country (Nicholls et al., 1995). There is scarce literature
analysing the choice of HE abroad (Cubillo et al., 2006). The studies conducted by
Mazzarol and Soutar (2002) and Shanka et al. (2005) are among the few that focus on the
choice of host country and the choice of institution abroad.
In a mixed methods study, Mazzarol and Soutar (2002) identify the factors influencing the
choice of host country and institution aboard. Mazzarol and Soutar (2002) base their
findings on primary data collected from international students from Indonesia, Taiwan,
China and India. The authors argue that economic and social forces within the home
country serve to push individuals abroad, however, the decision about which host country
to select is dependent on a variety of factors. Investigations of the factors that motivate the
decision to study overseas highlight four influences: a perception that an overseas course is
better than a local one, ability to gain entry to local programmes, lack of course availability
in the home country, a desire to gain a better understanding of the West, and an intention to
migrate after graduation (Mazzarol and Soutar, 2002). The findings from Mazzarol and
Soutar (2002) are presented in Table 5.
42
Table 5 Factors influencing the choice of host country and the choice of institution
abroad (Mazzarol and Soutar, 2002)
Main categories
Factors influencing
individuals’ decision
to study overseas
The importance of
knowledge and
awareness of the host
country
The importance of
recommendations
from friends and
relatives
The importance of
cost issues
The importance of
environment
The importance of
social links and
geographic proximity
Factors influencing
choice in selection of
institution
Factors
Overseas course better than local
Desire to gain a better understanding of the West
Difficult to gain entry at home. This factor is related to a student’s ability to gain
entry to local programs.
Course not available at home
Intention to migrate after graduation.
Quality of education in the host country
Host qualification recognized
Easy to obtain information on host
Knowledge of host country
Reputation of institution
Parents/relatives recommended
Agents recommendation
Established population of overseas students
Job opportunities
Institutions government run
Safe (low crime) environment
Low racial discrimination
Entry qualifications accepted
Lower cost of living
Lower fees
Lower travel cost
Quite-studious environment
Comfortable climate
Exciting place to live
Friends/relatives study there
Friends/relatives live there
Geographic proximity
Has a reputation for quality
Was willing to recognize my previous qualifications
Has a reputation for quality and expertise of its staff
Has a large number of international students enrolled
Has links to other institutions known to me
Has a strong alumni through which I learnt about it
Offers qualifications that will be recognized by employers
Offers a broad range of courses
Makes use of the latest information technology
Has a reputation to being responsive to students needs
Is well known for innovation in research and teaching
Has a large campus and excellent facilities
Offers flexible entry throughout the year
Is financially stable
In another quantitative study focusing on the choice of host country, Shanka et al. (2005)
find that the proximity of the host country where the institution is located to individuals’
home countries, in addition to the cost of living, quality and variety of courses, friends who
43
study there, family recommendation and safety of the education destination are the main
factors which influence selection of the host country. Shanka et al. (2005) suggest that
individuals have different preferences with respect to host country based on where they
come from and their cultural backgrounds. For example, cost of living is the most
important factor for those coming from Malaysia and other Asian countries, proximity to
the home country is uppermost for those from Singapore and Indonesia, and quality and
variety of education is most important among those coming from outside of Asia (Shanka
et al., 2005).
3.4 Master of Business Administration
The primary data for the current research are collected from three distinct full-time MBA
courses in the United Kingdom. This section provides an overview of the MBA in the UK
and presents secondary data collected from various sources. The secondary data presented
in this section provides a basis for comparison of the primary data that is collected to
define the paradigmatic identities of the three participating MBA courses in Chapter 5,
although it does not fully account for the interrelationship between the choice of MBA and
participation in OSNs.
3.4.1 MBA in the United Kingdom
The MBA as a course was introduced for the first time in the US, and the course title
‘MBA’ was in use within management education from the 1960s. It has been argued that
“management education emerged in the military institution at West Point and then within
the development of the Pennsylvania railroad in the middle of the 19th century” (Currie and
Knights, 2003, p. 28). The history of the growth of the MBA in the UK has been somewhat
dissimilar to the US. As noted by Mant (1981), the main growth in British management
education occurred after World War II in two phases, as a result of industrial nations’ need
to have skilled managers available for the administration of business and industry in
Britain. Two reports produced during the 1960s, the Robbins Report (Robbins, 1963) and
Franks Report (Franks, 1963), highlighted the importance of British Management
education. In 1963 Lord Franks (Franks, 1963) was asked to give advice on the choice of
suitable universities for introducing management education. “The Franks report proposed
the establishment of two business schools, finally settling on London and Manchester as
locations” (Lock, 1996). Manchester Business School took its first students in 1965 and the
44
first London MSc (the course was retitled as an MBA in 1985) started in 1966 (Lock,
1996). Today, more MBA students are graduated from UK than the rest of Europe put
together (British Council, 2005). According to the QS TopMBA 2011 Applicant Survey,
the UK is the second most popular MBA study destination after the US, followed by
France, Spain, Canada, Australia, Germany, Switzerland, Singapore, Italy and the
Netherlands. The MBA is a widely accepted qualification in business management,
recognized around the globe (Kang and Sharma, 2012) and it offers business schools both
academic status and credibility within the business community (Golzen, 1995). The
following sections present the secondary data collected from various sources.
3.4.2 MBA study modes
There are a number of different formats of varying duration in which the MBA may be
studied: full-time, part-time, distance learning, blended learning and modular. The fulltime MBA is an intensive one-year course usually starting in September and is suited to
those who wish to either take a career or significantly change direction in their career
(British Council, 2005). A high percentage of full-time MBA students are from overseas
and it is not unusual to find many different nationalities represented on a course (British
Council, 2005). The part-time MBA usually takes around 3 to 4 years to complete,
however the part-time option is not available to international students (British Council,
2005). Many students now successfully study for their MBA through distance learning and
most distance learning courses require attendance at workshops and residential weekends,
often held at different locations throughout the world, and may take three to five years to
complete (British Council, 2005). The blended learning MBA is the most flexible option,
allowing students to take courses at their own pace and in formats of their choosing (oncampus or online classes, or a combination of the two). The modular MBA is available for
UK and EU students only and is highly flexible in its format, typically designed around
one week teaching blocks complemented by self-directed study (British Council, 2005).
There are several entry points for the modular MBA each year and students take an
average of three years to complete it (the minimum is two years and the maximum eight).
A varied set of elective modules in the modular MBA enables students to focus on areas of
particular interest or relevance to them. All modules are self-contained and students can
also choose when to do them (British Council, 2005). The latest data from the Association
of MBAs (AMBA) reveals that in 2010 there were 12,375 graduations from MBA courses
45
in Europe, among which 48.67 % were full-time MBA, followed by 22.26% part-time,
10.02% distance learning, 15.97% blended learning and 4.46% modular modes of study.
3.4.3 Accreditation bodies for the MBA
Most UK MBA courses are now accredited by one or more accreditation bodies, each of
whom stipulate a core curriculum which must be covered. One of the consequences of
accreditation is the development of a form of league table for business schools, which is
able to be used by both employers and those who are interested in doing an MBA.
Widespread external accreditation has therefore standardised much of the course structure
across different MBAs, although not around the teaching styles and delivery formats,
which remain extremely diverse (e.g. Brocklehurst et al., 2007). The Association of MBAs
(AMBA) is the international authority on postgraduate business education, which was
established in 1967. Apart from providing loans for students and organising seminars,
events and opportunities to network, one of the AMBA’s main functions is to provide a
system of accreditation for MBA courses that operates with the aim of ensuring a certain
level of quality. The Association of Business Schools (ABS) was formed in 1992 as a
result of the merger between the former Council of University Management Schools and
the Association for Management and Business Education. ABS is concerned with the full
range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses in business schools including the MBA.
The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) is a global, nonprofit membership organization of HE institutions, businesses, and other entities devoted to
the advancement of management education. Established in 1916, AACSB provides its
members with a variety of products and services to assist them with the continuous
improvement of their business courses and schools (AACSB Website, 2012). The
European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS) is the leading international system of
quality assessment, improvement, and accreditation of HE institutions in management and
business administration. EQUIS is run by the European Foundation for Management
Development (EFMD) based in Brussels, Belgium.
3.4.4 MBA curriculum
Almost all MBA courses have three components: a core taught course, a range of electives
chosen by the student as relevant to his or her career path, and a dissertation or work-based
project (British Council, 2005). The taught component is made up of core subjects needed
46
to understand the operations of any organisation, including: accountancy and financial
management, operations management, marketing, organisational behaviour, human
resource management, information technology and strategy. Some MBA courses are
specially designed for particular industries (such as finance or retailing), or sectors (such as
the public sector) (British Council, 2005). In a study jointly conducted by Durham
Business School and AMBA in early February 2009, respondents were asked to rate the
importance of a number of topics within their MBA, from 1: very unimportant to 5: very
important. The most important topics, with the highest average out of 5, were: Business
Policy and Strategy (4.37), Organizational Theory (3.93), Change Management (3.86),
External factors affecting organizations (3.94) and Leadership and Entrepreneurship (3.91).
Those which received the lowest average ratings were: Sustainability (2.72), Corporate
Governance (2.94) and Corporate Social Responsibility (2.74).
3.4.5 MBA admission requirements
The minimum qualification MBA applicants could be asked for is an honours degree or a
professional qualification (British Council, 2005). Usually an MBA will also require three
years’ management experience prior to entry, although there are a few UK business
schools that will accept newly qualified graduates or which value any work experience at
all. A few business schools offer a preliminary qualification that can be converted to an
MBA after the candidate has gained the necessary experience. Business schools require
applicants to have a good understanding of both written and spoken English (IELTS level
6-7) and, depending on the overall profile of the candidate, some strongly encourage all
full-time MBA applicants to take the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT),
which is especially advised for overseas candidates. However, if the applicant’s entrance
profile is good the business school may not insist on the GMAT (British Council, 2005). A
few schools in the UK do not rely on the GMAT at all, and several more use it at their
discretion in the light of their knowledge about an applicant’s overall profile. Applicants’
characteristics are also important, and an academic reference and several essays may also
be part of the requirement (British Council, 2005).
3.4.6 Tuition fees for the MBA
Studying for an MBA involves a significant investment of time and money (AMBA,
2010), and it is therefore to be expected that international HE aspirants and applicants want
47
to compare and contrast full-time MBA courses in different countries in order to reduce the
uncertainly associated with their decision-making, and to select an MBA which best suits
their needs. Regardless of the delivery format, the direct and indirect costs of an MBA to
individuals and organisations can be very high. Tuition fees for MBA courses in the UK
start from £10,000 for a full-time course of 12-16 months in length. MBA courses at what
are considered the most prestigious business schools in the UK can routinely cost £53,900
for full-time courses of 15-21 months in length, and taking into account the opportunity
costs of missing a year of working, this makes an MBA an extremely expensive
undertaking. Therefore, for both sponsoring corporations and individuals, the MBA is
clearly viewed as a major investment of time and money.
3.4.7 Sources of information used during the MBA selection process
QS TopMBA 2011 data reveals that ranking websites such as the Financial Times,
BusinessWeek, TopMBA and Economist have vied for top place in the league table of
MBA ranking websites. QS TopMBA 2011 data shows that OSNs such as Facebook and
LinkedIn are also among the online sources used during the course selection process.
Table 6 Sources of Information, QS TopMBA Applicant Survey 2011
Online sources
Google
TopMBA.com/Scorecard
GMAC.com
Businessweek
FinancialTimes.com
Economist.com
Facebook
LinkedIn
Yahoo!
Studyabroad
WSJ.com
MSN
Timesonline.com
Studylink.com
Other
Chasedream.com
AMEInfo.com
Myspace
Bait
2011
77%
47%
41%
39%
34%
31%
22%
22%
13%
12%
11%
5%
5%
4%
4%
4%
1%
1%
1%
Rankings
Financial Times
Bloomberg Businessweek
QS TopMBA career Guide/TopMBA.com
The Economist
QS World University Rankings
U.S News and World Report
The Wall Street Journal
Academic Ranking of World Universities
National Rankings in destination country
Other
America Economia
Webometrics Ranking Web of World Universities
CHE/DAAD
Far Eastern Economic Review
2011
62%
52%
47%
45%
39%
27%
26%
14%
12%
3%
3%
3%
2%
1%
48
3.4.8 Geographic and demographic data
The very nature of the MBA as an internationally recognised, post-experience generalist
degree attracts a wide spectrum of individuals from a variety of backgrounds (AMBA,
2011). This enriches the classroom experiences and broadens the perspectives of students
who will go on to become leaders and influential decision-makers in the increasingly
diverse global economy (AMBA, 2010). On average, 70% of total MBA applicants and
students in Europe and UK are male and 30% are female. The average age of entering fulltime MBA students is 30. Due to the nature of the MBA, which is a post-experience
generalist degree, it is unsurprising to find the average ages of students are in the 30s. Fulltime students are the youngest, whilst those studying by the more flexible modular,
distance and blended delivery modes are the oldest (AMBA, 2010). On average, on a
global scale, the majority of MBA applicants have between 0 to 4 years’ work experience.
MBA applicants’ employment backgrounds are diverse (AMBA, 2010). On a global scale,
the most common employment backgrounds are: finance, technology, consulting,
engineering, manufacturing/production, education, telecoms, government/public sector,
consumer goods, energy/environment/ utilities, retail/wholesale, media/advertising and
non-profit/charity (AMBA, 2010).
As shown in Figure 13, European business schools have a large proportion of foreign
nationals enrolling in MBAs, with 82% of the total non-national pool coming from outside
the region. In contrast, students from Europe do not comprise a large percentage of the
enrolment pool at MBA courses outside the Europe. 71% of the total foreign student
population enrolling in MBA in Europe studied in the UK. This is followed by France
(11%), Spain (7%), the Netherlands (3%) and Greece (2%).
49
Figure 13 MBA enrolments of non-nationals at business schools in Europe, raw data
from the Association of MBA’s (2010) report, Diversity on the MBA, data collation
and analysis by the author
Denmark, 0.36%
Germany, 0.39%
Belgium,
1.17%
Cyprus, 0.89%
Finland, 0.08%
Greece, 2.42%
France, 11%
Ireland, 0.38%
Italy, 0.92%
Netherlands, 3.28%
Portugal, 0.05%
Spain , 6.53%
Switzerland, 1%
UK, 71.45%
The UK is a popular host country for most Indians and Europeans. As shown in Figure 14,
UK MBA courses are most popular for those from India (18.99%), Europe (16.80%),
Africa (14.48%), Asia (14.23%), the Middle East (11.12%), North America (10.17%),
China and Hong Kong (6.98%), Eastern Europe and Russia (5.17%), Central and Latin
America (1.05%) and Australasia (0.96%). 3.
3
142 accredited MBA courses in the UK which reported figures on international students.
50
Figure 14 MBA enrolments of non-nationals at business schools in the UK, raw data
from the Association of MBA’s (2010) report, Diversity on the MBA, data collation
and analysis by the author
Asia, 14.23%
Europe, 16.80%
Australasia, 0.96%
China & Hong Kong,
6.98%
Eastern Europe &
Russia, 5.17%
Middle East, 11.12%
India, 18.99%
North America ,
10.17%
Africa, 14.48%
Central & Latin America,
1.05%
3.4.9 Motivations for taking an MBA
The QS TopMBA 2010 applicant survey is the largest survey of the perceptions and
aspirations of MBA applicants ever conducted. The 68,000 applicants who registered for
the QS World MBA Tour in the fall of 2009 and spring 2010 were surveyed and responses
received from 3,895 (5.7%). Those surveyed were from Asia Pacific (36.3%),
Africa/Middle East (18.3%), Latin America (17.6%), Eastern Europe (17.4%), Western
Europe (5.5%) and US/Canada (4.8%). The QS TopMBA 2010 applicant survey reveals
that an MBA remains a vocational degree for individuals seeking to further their careers
with an MBA qualification, although a quarter of MBA applicants seek an MBA primarily
for the purpose of education. Data from QS TopMBA shows that improving career
prospects is the most important motivator for taking an MBA in 2010, followed closely by
learning new skills, attaining a leadership position, building a professional network and
enabling a career change. For the first time, in 2010, starting one’s own business was as
important a motivator as boosting salary (QS TopMBA, 2010). In another study jointly
conducted by Durham Business School and AMBA in early February 2009, an electronic
51
questionnaire was sent to 158 accredited business schools, and MBA alumni who were
current members of AMBA. Findings revealed that career progression remains the single
most important motivator for taking an MBA, followed in descending order by personal
development, gaining more detailed knowledge and improving skills, broadening
knowledge/skills and gaining credibility.
3.4.10 Reasons for top choice of host country
QS TopMBA 2010 data reveals that international recognition of qualifications remains the
single most important reason for selecting a host country. This is followed by cultural
interest and lifestyle, scholarship/financial aid availability, career opportunities after
graduation, improving language skills, developing a network, family connections, and the
visa situation. The availability of scholarships and bursaries has increased in importance in
recent years (QS TopMBA, 2010). The increase in need for financial aid and scholarships
is partly as a result of more difficult access to credit, as well as the increasing rarity of
companies financially supporting their staff to study for an MBA (QS TopMBA, 2010).
3.4.11 Criteria for selecting the institution
QS TopMBA 2010 data reveals that, MBA applicants around the world will choose a
particular institution if they are offered a scholarship, with other selection criteria for an
institution being the reputation of the institution, the career placement record, the academic
background of staff, return on investment, affordability, teaching style, school
specialisations, recent school ranking, the profiles of students/alumni, whether it is
attended and respected by peers, employer’s recommendation, the course length and the
convenience of its location. However, in each region there are big differences in what
makes an MBA applicant select an institution, with North Americans selecting institutions
based on reputation (first), career placement record (second), return on investment (third)
and student/alumni profile (fourth), with MBA rankings (fifth), and this is the only region
in which rankings feature in the top five factors (QS TopMBA, 2010). Interestingly, the
quality of faculty is far less important to North Americans than to HE aspirants and
applicants from any other region. The availability of scholarships and bursaries are a
primary factor in institution selection for MBA applicants from Asia, Africa, Eastern
Europe and Latin America.
52
The next section reviews some of the existing literature on OSNs.
3.5 Online social networks
The primary aim of this study is to explain how the choice of course of study abroad
interrelates with participation in OSNs. Guided by the research question in section 1.3, the
focus of this section is specific to OSNs. The literature in this section contributes to a
greater understanding of OSNs, to the analysis of the research data in Chapter 5 and to the
discussion of findings in Chapter 6. It must be acknowledged that there are potential
challenges arising from the terminology used to describe new media in the literature, and
this is discussed in the following section.
3.5.1 Potential terminological difficulties
While a variety of terminologies have been suggested to describe the new media, the term
‘online social networks’ is used in the current research. Popular terms to describe new
media include “social software” (e.g. Bächle, 2006; Fuchs et al., 2010; Shirky, 2003),
“read/write Web” (e.g. Bridgewater and Borrelli, 2008), “social computing” (e.g.
Parameswaran and Whinston, 2007) and “Web 2.0” (e.g. O'Reilly, 2005). There is still
huge disagreement about just what these terminologies mean. The term Web 2.0 is slightly
different in that it includes more technologies within its scope and does not bind itself
closely with the social aspect (O'Reilly, 2005; Parameswaran and Whinston, 2007). The
decision to use the term ‘online social networks’ in the current research is influenced by
existing studies which suggest that OSNs support pre-existing social relations and are used
to maintain existing offline relationships or solidify offline connections (boyd and Ellison,
2007). These relations may be weak ties, but typically there is some common offline
element among individuals (boyd and Ellison, 2007).
There are many types of creative new media. In the current research, the term ‘online
social networks’ is used as an umbrella term to cover those categories of new media (e.g.
social networking sites, blogs, sharing for videos, sharing for photos) which allow
individuals to log on, create a profile, connect with others, see what information others
have posted and contribute information. The decision to use the term ‘online social
networks’ as an umbrella term is influenced by several sociological and psychological
similarities identified in both literature and the primary data collected for the current
research. For example, a number of research participants stated that they used video
53
sharing websites, such as YouTube, and social networking sites, such as Facebook, to
acquire information about different courses. There are arguably several sociological and
psychological similarities between YouTube and Facebook, which both allow individuals
to log on, create a profile, connect with others, see what information others have posted
and contribute information. The following section discusses the theoretical underpinnings
of OSNs.
3.5.2 Theoretical underpinnings
A review of the literature reveals that there are four major theoretical perspectives
developed by scholars to explain OSNs. They include the sociological and psychological
needs approach, the content-based approach, the co-creation and co-production approach,
and viral growth. This categorization is inspired by the work of Fisher et al. (2011),
Prahalad and Ramaswamy (2004), Wigand et al. (2008), Kuznetsov (2006) and
Gangadharbatla (2010). The theoretical perspectives discussed in this section will
contribute to the discussion of findings in Chapter 6.
3.5.2.1 The Sociological and psychological needs approach
Early in the history of communications research, an approach was developed to study the
‘gratifications’ which attract and retain audiences for the kinds of media and the types of
content which satisfy their social and psychological needs (Simoni and Balla, 1977). This
approach to mass communication argues that individuals bend the media to their needs
more readily than the media overpower them, and therefore that the media are at least as
much agents of diversion and entertainment as of information and influence (Katz et al.,
1973). The selection of media and content, and the uses to which they are put, are
influenced considerably by an individual’s social role and psychological predisposition
(Katz et al., 1973). Katz et al. (1973) developed a comprehensive list of sociological and
psychological needs said to be satisfied by exposure to mass media:

Needs related to strengthening information, knowledge, and understanding, which
can be called cognitive needs.

Needs related to strengthening aesthetic, pleasurable and emotional experience, or
affective needs.
54

Needs related to strengthening credibility, confidence, stability, and status, which
combine both cognitive and affective elements and can be labelled integrative
needs.

Needs related to strengthening contact with family, friends, and the world. These
can also be seen as performing an integrative function.

Needs related to escape or release of tension, which we define in terms of the
weakening of contact with self and one’s social roles.
(Katz et al., 1973)
One can identify a number of changes in the context of communication with the invention
of the Internet. Behaviour on the Internet, as in other areas of life, is motivated by our
desires to fulfil our basic human needs, and OSNs have allowed us to satisfy these needs in
more complex ways (Wigand et al., 2008). A review of the literature reveals that a number
of human needs can be said to be satisfied by use of OSNs. These are listed in Table 7.
Table 7 Human needs satisfied by exposure to online social networks
Human needs
Need for autonomy
Need for entertainment
Need for relatedness or need to belong
Exhibitionism
Voyeurism
Need to acquire information
Need to acquire goods
Need for competence-related feedback
Altruistic needs
Authors
Kuznetsov (2006)
Wigand et al. (2008)
Gangadharbatla (2010)
Fisher et al. (2011)
Fisher et al. (2011)
Wigand et al. (2008)
Wigand et al. (2008)
Wigand et al. (2008)
Kuznetsov (2006)
In terms of the “need for autonomy”, the freedom to make independent decisions attracts
many individuals to the arena of OSNs (Kuznetsov, 2006). With respect to the “need for
entertainment”, Wigand et al. (2008) argue that the need for entertainment is a behaviour
that is strongly represented on the Internet, entire sites and applications have been
developed and used to meet the need to be entertained. Previous research has shown that
being playful and entertained in the context of the Internet leads to fulfilment of different
basic human needs, depending upon an individual’s personality characteristics (e.g. Ryan
et al., 2006a). For instance, players who engage in Multi-Player Gaming may find that they
have their need for relatedness satisfied (Ryan et al., 2006b). As regards to the “need for
relatedness”, OSNs allow members not only to find out information, but also to connect to
55
others by linking to their profiles, joining and creating groups, and to send public and
private messages to their friends (Gangadharbatla, 2010). For decades social and
personality psychologists have argued that people have an intrinsic motivation to affiliate
and bond with each other (e.g. Carvallo and Pelham, 2006; Maslow, 1968; McClelland,
1987; Murray, 1938). OSNs offer a space in which people can address the need to belong
by using functionalities that enable conversations and information-gathering, along with
the possibility of gaining social approval, expressing opinions, and influencing others
(Gangadharbatla, 2010). Therefore, individuals’ attitudes and behaviour in relation to
OSNs may stem from their need to belong. Gangadharbatla (2010) argues that the need to
belong can be understood on the basis of a fundamental orientation towards interpersonal
relations, in which there are three basic needs which underlie individuals’ group-seeking
behaviour:

Inclusion, which pertains to the need to belong to or include others in a circle of
acquaintances.

Affection, or the need to love or be loved by others.

Control, which encompasses the need to exert power over others or give power
over the self to others.
(Gangadharbatla, 2010, p. 8)
Joining OSNs can meet all three of the above needs (Gangadharbatla, 2010). In terms of
the “need for exhibitionism” and the “need for voyeurism”, Fisher et al. (2011) argue that
the architecture and the culture of OSNs promote digital emotional exhibitionism and
associated voyeurism, with individuals projecting their (sometimes imagined) identities in
the dynamic and free floating digital world and offering opportunities for others to look in
an observe them. Individuals demonstrating exhibitionism, for example, upload photos,
post comments, and update statuses in the hope that others will view and interact with their
displays (Fisher et al., 2011). Individuals exhibit voyeuristic behaviour when they access
this content and engage in new social exchanges about it (Fisher et al., 2011). Motivations
for exhibitionism on OSNs could possibly include self-validation, the desire to manage
one’s self-identity, the development of new relationships, and the desire to exert social
control (Calvert, 2004). With respect to the “need to acquire information”, “need to
acquire goods” and “need for competence-related feedback”, Wigand et al. (2008) argue
56
that an individual may decide to purchase an item because they believe it will make them
fit in with others (in order to better relate to others) or may seek information on the Internet
about average scores on a test in order to compare themselves with others (i.e. the need for
competence-related feedback). Finally, in terms of “altruistic needs”, many contributions
to OSNs can be characterized as altruistic acts (Kuznetsov, 2006). An individual who acts
out of altruism aims solely to benefit others without any intent to gain or improve his or
her own situation (Kuznetsov, 2006). For example, many contributions to Wikipedia can
be characterized as altruistic acts, and Wikipedians who are motivated by altruism invest
time and effort into their work without any desire for compensation except for the
satisfaction of sharing their knowledge (Kuznetsov, 2006).
3.5.2.2 Content-based approach
Research shows that individuals frequently rely on the open information resources
available on the Web (e.g. Gardner and Eng, 2005; Holliday and Li, 2004). OSNs exhibit a
rich variety of information sources (Roth et al., 2008). In addition to the content itself,
there is a wide array of non-content information available, such as links and consumer
product ratings and reviews (Agichtein et al., 2008). User-generated content comes from
those who voluntarily contribute data (Krumm et al., 2008), and for content suppliers the
process can be rewarding through the recognition they receive for their contributions
(Krumm et al., 2008). User-generated content is among the largest and fastest growing
aspects of OSNs (Fisher et al., 2011), in part because user-generated content is relatively
inexpensive to create (Fonio et al., 2007; Krumm et al., 2008). The character of much usergenerated content is dynamic, fluid and always open to adaptation (Munar, 2010). The lack
of full control over one’s own production is part of the essence of user-generated content,
and this assumption of lack of control over user-generated content is part of the system
architecture of OSNs (Munar, 2010). Clever et al. (2007) argue that contrary to the
expectations one would usually have in relation to incentives for creating and sharing
content, users of OSNs are not motivated by remuneration but by a variety of reasons
including enjoyment of the creative process, a desire to entertain others, a desire to express
themselves, to share experiences and document their lives, and a desire to be part of OSNs,
thereby making new friends and staying in touch with old ones. Moreover increased
availability of platforms for the creation of user-generated content (e.g. for creating,
57
editing and hosting content) are bringing down the entry barriers to creating content
(Clever et al., 2007).
3.5.2.3 The Co-creation and co-production approach
Today’s consumers are increasingly active information seekers and are no longer
dependent on information from organisations (Fagerstrøm and Ghinea, 2013).
Furthermore, consumer-to-consumer communications provide consumers with an
alternative source of information and different perspectives (Fagerstrøm and Ghinea,
2013). The co-creation of value provides a shift from an organisation-centric view to a
more balanced view of an organisation and its clients interacting and co-creating
experiences with each other (Prahalad and Ramaswamy, 2004). Co-creation and coproduction in OSNs have recently become important topics of discussion in IS literature,
for example in Fisher et al. (2011) and Sawhney et al. (2005). Co-creation allows
stakeholders to actively co-construct their own consumption experiences through
individualized interaction and the unique value is in the co-creation experience itself
(Fisher et al., 2011). This is a shift in perspective from creating value for stakeholders to
creating value with stakeholders where the knowledge, resources and equipment possessed
by stakeholders are complementary (e.g. Normann and Ramirez, 1993; Wikstrom and
Normann, 1994). Co-created value provides mutual benefits for both the organization and
stakeholders. Organizations benefit from a large membership of stakeholders who can
provide a range of benefits, such as brand awareness and idea generation, while
stakeholders benefit from the ability to better fulfil their needs and interests. Sawhney et al.
(2005) distinguish between the traditional conceptualisation of stakeholder engagement in
physical environments and the idea of co-creation in OSNs. Their findings are presented in
Table 8.
58
Table 8 Key differences between stakeholder collaboration in physical and online social
network environments (Sawhney et al., 2005)
Traditional notion of stakeholder
engagement in physical environments
Innovation
perspective
Role of the
stakeholder
Direction of
interaction
Intensity of
interaction
Richness of
interaction
Size and
scope of
audiences
Co-creation notion of stakeholder
engagement in OSN environments
Organization centric
Stakeholder centric
Passive-stakeholder voice as an input in
creation and testing of products/services
One-way interaction with stakeholders
Active stakeholders as partners in the
innovation process
Two-way dialogue with stakeholders
One-off contingent basis
Continual dialogue
Focus on inter-organizational knowledge
Focus on social and experiential knowledge
Direct interaction with current stakeholders
Direct as well as mediated interactions with
stakeholders
Sawhney et al. (2005) argue that in the physical world, communicating (and absorbing)
rich information requires physical proximity and interactions between different individuals.
These constraints limit the number of stakeholders that the organization can have a
dialogue with. Moreover, the organization can interact with a large number of stakeholders
through surveys, but this type of interaction does not allow for rich dialogue. According to
Sawhney et al. (2005), OSNs allow the organization to engage with a much larger number
of stakeholders without significant compromises to the richness of the interactions. This
makes stakeholders highly involved in the joint experience of co-creation.
3.5.2.4 Viral growth
Online viral growth is said to be the electronic version of traditional word-of-mouth
(Bidgoli, 2004). Word-of-mouth can be defined as the sharing of information (Bashar and
Wasiq; Ltifi and Gharbi, 2012; Wahab and Norizan, 2012). Word-of-mouth is a successful
method of sharing information because it fosters familiarity, connection, care and trust and
because many individuals like to share information for a variety of reasons, including
sharing experiences in order to help others (Abedniya and Mahmouei, 2010). According to
Abedniya and Mahmouei (2010, p. 140), “viral messages can reach and potentially
influence many receivers, and are usually perceived by consumers to be more reliable and
credible than firm-initiated ones, since the senders of viral are mostly independent of the
market”. The spread of a message on OSNs is similar to the spread of a virus (Fisher et al.,
2011). On OSNs viral messages are actively transmitted in the form of information on
59
services, new features or benefits of services (Fisher et al., 2011). OSNs are particularly
suited for the spread of viral messages as many individuals can join them easily and free of
charge (Abedniya and Mahmouei, 2010), and the “social network” element embedded in
them makes it easy to transmit a message to a large group of individuals (Kaplan and
Haenlein, 2011). Research has shown that individuals have many different motivations for
spreading messages about organizations, including extreme satisfaction or dissatisfaction
with the organization (Anderson, 1998; Bowman and Narayandas, 2001; Dichter, 1966;
Maxham and Netemeyer, 2002; Richins, 1983), commitment to the organization (Dick and
Basu, 1994), length of the relationship with the organization (Wangenheim and Bayón,
2004), and novelty of the product or service (Dahl and Moreau, 2007). Ho and Dempsey
(2010) examine individuals’ motivations for passing on a viral message, identifying four
potential motivations including: the need to be part of a group, the need to be
individualistic, the need to be altruistic, and the need for individual growth. Ho and
Dempsey (2010) find that those individuals who are more individualistic and/or more
altruistic tend to forward more viral messages than others. The following section provides
an overview of the criticisms and controversies surrounding OSNs.
3.5.3 Criticisms and controversies surrounding online social networks
The growth of OSNs has also met criticisms on a range of issues. Trust and online privacy
are most important areas of concern for critics (Acquisti and Gross, 2006; Dwyer et al.,
2007). A review of the literature reveals that users disclose a lot of information on OSNs,
and they are often not particularly aware of privacy options or of who can view their
profiles (Acquisti and Gross, 2006). It is not well understood how concerns about privacy
and trust influence interactions within OSNs and further research is needed in order to
“understand the development of relationships in the online social environment and the
reasons for differences in behaviour on different sites” (Dwyer et al., 2007, p. 339). In
their online survey of Facebook and MySpace users, Dwyer et al. (2007) find that in online
interactions trust is not as necessary in the building of new relationships as it is in face to
face encounters. Dwyer et al. (2007, p. 339) suggest that “in an online site, the existence of
trust and the willingness to share information do not automatically translate into new social
interactions”.
The co-creation of value and viral growth in OSNs can be risky because organizations have
previously relied on business models focused on creating a tangible product and/or service
60
and if an organization fails to provide a positive experience for stakeholders negative
consequences can occur, such as negative publicity among stakeholders (Wesch, 2008).
Co-creation of value with stakeholders requires organizations to become more directly
involved with them. Much of the concern surrounding the online viral growth concerns the
inability to control the viral message where anonymous individuals can post and edit a
viral message (e.g. Payne et al., 2011). Unfortunately, in many cases, the motivations of
the creator of the viral message are often ambiguous and this ambiguity can cause
significant problems (Payne et al., 2011). The following section discusses the geographic
and demographic distribution of OSNs.
3.5.4 Geographic and demographic distribution of online social networks
The secondary data presented in this section are collated and analysed by the author. The
secondary data in this section contributes to a greater understanding of OSNs, and
contributes to the analysis of the research data in Chapter 5 and the discussion of findings
in Chapter 6. Data from the Ignite Social Media (2012) report reveals that there are five
global OSNs: Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr, Twitter and YouTube. Table 15 provides a list
of OSNs and their relative popularities in different regions. This list is not complete,
however it recognizes the most important OSNs. Based on a simple design, broad
demographic appeal and a focus on connecting, Facebook has become the largest OSN
globally (Nielsen Report, 2009; eMarketer Report, 2010). Facebook has the greatest reach
in the UK, followed by Italy, Australia and USA (Nielsen Report, 2009).
61
62
Venezuela
Top Regions
Badoo.com
Bebo.com
Digg.com
Douban.com
Facebook.com
Fark.com
Flickr.com
Flixster.com
Fousquare.com
Friendster.com
Habbo.com
Hi5.com
Hyves.nl
Identi.com
IMVU.com
IndianPad.com
Kaixin001.com
Last.fm.com
Linkedin.com
Livejournal.com
Meetup.com
Metafilter.com
Mixi.jp
Multiply.com
MySpace.com
Netlog.com
Newsvine.com
Ning.com
NK.pl
Odnoklassniki.ru
Plaxo.com
Plurk.com
QQ.com
Reddit.com
Renren.com
Reunion.com
Skyrock.com
Sonico.com
Stumbleupon.com
Tagged.com
Taringa.com
Tribe.com
Tuenti.com
Tumblr.com
Twitter.com
Vkontakte.ru
Wayne.com
Weibo.com
Wer-kennt-wen.de
Xanga.com
Yelp.com
YouTube.com
Global
Algeria
Argentina
Armenia
Australia
Belarus
Belgium
Brazil
Bolivia
Cambodia
Canada
Chile
China
Colombia
Croatia
Czech Republic
Ecuador
Estonia
Ethiopia
Fiji
Finland
France
Georgia
Germany
Hong Kong
India
Indonesia
Ireland
Israel
Italy
Jamaica
Japan
Kuwait
Laos
Malaysia
Mexico
Myanmar
Netherlands
New Zealand
Norway
Pakistan
Peru
Philippines
Poland
Portugal
Puerto Rico
Russian Federation
Singapore
Slovenia
South Africa
Spain
Switzerland
Taiwan
Thailand
Trinidad and Tobago
Tunisia
Turkey
Turkmenistan
Ukraine
United Arab Emirates
United Kingdom
United States
Table 1 Online social networks top regions, raw data from Ignite Social Media (2012), data collation and analysis by the author.
Data from the Ignite Social Media 2012 report shows that, on average, the proportion of
males using OSNs (51%) is slightly greater than that of females (49%). However, there is a
significant difference between the proportions of males and females using different OSNs
as shown in Table 10.
Table 10 Gender breakdown of online social network usage, raw data from Ignite Social
Media (2012), data collation and analysis by the author.
Badoo.com
Bebo.com
Digg.com
Douban
Facebook.com
Fark.com
Flickr.com
Flixster.com
Fousquare.com
Friendster.com
Habbo.com
Hi5.com
Hyves.nl
Identi.com
IMVU.com
Kaixin001.com
Last.fm.com
Linkedin.com
Livejournal.com
Meetup.com
Metafilter.com
Mixi.jp
Multiply.com
MySpace.com
Netlog.com
Newsvine.com
Female Male
52%
48%
69%
31%
33%
67%
21%
79%
61%
39%
23%
77%
54%
46%
50%
50%
60%
40%
57%
43%
66%
34%
60%
40%
57%
43%
45%
55%
70%
30%
19%
81%
50%
50%
45%
55%
52%
48%
57%
43%
50%
50%
57%
43%
50%
50%
65%
35%
48%
52%
45%
55%
Ning.com
NK.pl
Odnoklassniki.ru
Plaxo.com
Plurk.com
QQ.com
Reddit.com
Renren.com
Reunion.com
Skyrock.com
Sonico.com
Stumbleupon.com
Tagged.com
Taringa.com
Tribe.com
Tuenti.com
Tumblr.com
Twitter.com
Vkontakte.ru
Wayne.com
Weibo.com
Wer-kennt-wen.de
Xanga.com
Yelp.com
YouTube.com
Female
60%
31%
21%
52%
50%
21%
24%
23%
25%
55%
60%
52%
64%
42%
52%
57%
59%
57%
21%
48%
71%
81%
69%
55%
52%
Male
40%
69%
79%
48%
50%
79%
76%
77%
75%
45%
40%
48%
36%
58%
48%
43%
41%
43%
79%
52%
29%
19%
31%
45%
48%
Overall gender breakdown (average)
Male
51%
Female
49%
OSNs are most popular, on average, among 25-34 year olds, with a 33% penetration, and
least popular among those aged 56 and over. The proportion of users in different age
groups differs from one OSN to another. This is illustrated in Table 11.
Table 11 Online social networks age breakdown, raw data from Ignite Social Media
(2012), data collation and analysis by the author
0-17 18-24 25 -34 35-44 45-54 55-64 56 +
Badoo.com
Bebo.com
Digg.com
Douban
Facebook.com
Fark.com
Flickr.com
Flixster.com
Fousquare.com
Friendster.com
Habbo.com
Hi5.com
Hyves.nl
Identi.com
IMVU.com
Kaixin001.com
Last.fm.com
Linkedin.com
Livejournal.com
Meetup.com
Metafilter.com
Mixi.jp
Multiply.com
MySpace.com
Netlog.com
Newsvine.com
10%
24%
4%
0%
7%
1%
4%
6%
1%
11%
50%
7%
0%
0%
34%
0%
8%
1%
5%
1%
3%
0%
5%
11%
4%
1%
12%
18%
10%
19%
11%
5%
9%
9%
8%
14%
11%
12%
0%
12%
17%
10%
15%
3%
17%
4%
8%
73%
12%
18%
9%
2%
23%
21%
26%
71%
24%
24%
26%
25%
32%
30%
12%
50%
34%
28%
23%
80%
21%
17%
27%
21%
21%
11%
26%
28%
44%
13%
23%
18%
35%
6%
22%
38%
29%
31%
36%
23%
11%
15%
40%
41%
12%
6%
26%
34%
27%
34%
35%
10%
26%
20%
16%
37%
21%
15%
16%
4%
26%
16%
19%
19%
15%
17%
10%
11%
26%
19%
11%
4%
21%
28%
14%
25%
20%
6%
18%
17%
16%
25%
8%
3%
6%
0%
8%
12%
10%
7%
6%
3%
6%
4%
0%
0%
2%
0%
7%
13%
8%
12%
10%
0%
9%
4%
7%
15%
3%
1%
3%
0%
2%
4%
3%
3%
2%
2%
0%
1%
0%
0%
1%
0%
2%
4%
2%
3%
3%
0%
4%
2%
4%
7%
0-17 18-24 25 -34 35-44 45-54 55-64 56 +
Ning.com
NK.pl
Odnoklassniki.ru
Plaxo.com
Plurk.com
QQ.com
Reddit.com
Renren.com
Reunion.com
Skyrock.com
Sonico.com
Stumbleupon.com
Tagged.com
Taringa.com
Tribe.com
Tuenti.com
Tumblr.com
Twitter.com
Vkontakte.ru
Wayne.com
Weibo.com
Wer-kennt-wen.de
Xanga.com
Yelp.com
YouTube.com
5%
3%
2%
1%
0%
2%
2%
0%
2%
9%
4%
3%
8%
6%
5%
0%
6%
4%
1%
0%
0%
0%
7%
2%
10%
10%
5%
6%
2%
16%
12%
14%
19%
3%
20%
7%
15%
15%
18%
7%
40%
26%
12%
10%
6%
20%
0%
24%
5%
13%
24%
72%
31%
14%
36%
71%
29%
73%
15%
42%
62%
27%
32%
53%
23%
36%
26%
27%
32%
32%
68%
48%
26%
22%
23%
27%
8%
46%
30%
38%
7%
35%
5%
29%
20%
13%
27%
16%
12%
28%
24%
23%
29%
49%
26%
8%
22%
22%
32%
23%
21%
10%
11%
29%
10%
6%
12%
3%
31%
9%
11%
17%
24%
9%
23%
0%
12%
18%
7%
24%
4%
30%
16%
24%
21%
10%
2%
3%
16%
0%
2%
6%
0%
14%
0%
2%
8%
4%
2%
11%
0%
5%
8%
1%
9%
0%
0%
4%
12%
7%
3%
0%
1%
8%
0%
0%
2%
0%
6%
0%
1%
3%
1%
0%
3%
0%
2%
2%
0%
3%
0%
0%
1%
3%
3%
Overall age
breakdown
0-17
5%
18-24
13%
25-34
33%
35-44
25%
45-54
16%
55-64
6%
56+
2%
63
On average, 46% of individuals using OSNs have some college education, followed by
Bachelor’s degree (20%), graduate degree (11%), high school (11%) and less than a high
school diploma (11%) (Table 12).
5%
2%
8%
55%
7%
9%
9%
9%
7%
5%
2%
3%
0%
0%
1%
56%
7%
16%
7%
11%
11%
3%
8%
3%
8%
13%
Ning.com
NK.pl
Odnoklassniki.ru
Plaxo.com
Plurk.com
QQ.com
Reddit.com
Renren.com
Reunion.com
Skyrock.com
Sonico.com
Stumbleupon.com
Tagged.com
Taringa.com
Tribe.com
Tuenti.com
Tumblr.com
Twitter.com
Vkontakte.ru
Wayne.com
Weibo.com
Wer-kennt-wen.de
Xanga.com
Yelp.com
YouTube.com
Graduate degree
7%
9%
31%
6%
16%
50%
27%
23%
33%
13%
3%
8%
22%
23%
4%
9%
20%
40%
24%
36%
34%
50%
18%
9%
18%
38%
Bachelors degree
Graduate degree
64%
60%
45%
13%
56%
31%
46%
50%
52%
59%
42%
65%
66%
77%
58%
12%
52%
33%
44%
42%
41%
25%
49%
69%
51%
38%
Some College
Bachelors degree
16%
8%
7%
16%
11%
7%
9%
9%
6%
9%
4%
13%
12%
0%
5%
15%
9%
8%
11%
9%
8%
12%
13%
8%
10%
8%
High School
Some College
8%
21%
8%
10%
10%
3%
9%
9%
2%
14%
49%
11%
0%
0%
32%
8%
12%
3%
14%
2%
6%
10%
12%
11%
13%
3%
Less than HS diploma
High School
Badoo.com
Bebo.com
Digg.com
Douban
Facebook.com
Fark.com
Flickr.com
Flixster.com
Fousquare.com
Friendster.com
Habbo.com
Hi5.com
Hyves.nl
Identi.com
IMVU.com
Kaixin001.com
Last.fm.com
Linkedin.com
Livejournal.com
Meetup.com
Metafilter.com
Mixi.jp
Multiply.com
MySpace.com
Netlog.com
Newsvine.com
Less than HS diploma
Table 12 Online social networks education breakdown, raw data from Ignite Social
Media (2012), data collation and analysis by the author
8%
47%
6%
2%
8%
22%
9%
11%
3%
13%
9%
6%
8%
15%
7%
36%
11%
6%
7%
4%
11%
19%
11%
4%
12%
9%
6%
38%
9%
6%
19%
6%
18%
10%
13%
19%
8%
10%
18%
10%
0%
6%
8%
50%
10%
16%
14%
9%
8%
10%
54%
29%
22%
44%
38%
19%
34%
17%
51%
54%
62%
55%
75%
58%
52%
64%
57%
51%
21%
55%
16%
53%
59%
36%
51%
20%
8%
29%
34%
16%
6%
42%
5%
26%
14%
6%
23%
5%
7%
21%
0%
20%
25%
17%
21%
7%
14%
13%
38%
18%
9%
10%
5%
11%
32%
34%
9%
49%
10%
6%
4%
8%
2%
2%
10%
0%
6%
10%
5%
10%
50%
0%
8%
14%
9%
Education breakdown
Less than HS
diploma
High School
11%
Some College
46%
Bachelor’s
Degree
Graduate
Degree
20%
11%
11%
The following section reviews recent studies that focus on OSNs and choice of HE.
3.6 Online social networks and choice of higher education
Existing studies confirm that HE institutions can benefit from OSNs in a number of
domains including academic publishing (e.g. Kaye et al., 2013; Pochoda, 2010; Swan and
Carr, 2008; Thompson, 2005), distance education (e.g. Kesim and Agaoglu, 2007;
Poellhuber et al., 2013), knowledge management (e.g. Mason and Ford, 2013), libraries,
repositories and archiving (e.g. Maness, 2006), and teaching and learning (e.g. Dunn,
2013; Tess, 2013; VanDoorn and Eklund, 2013). Recent studies suggest that HE
institutions show an increased interest in the potential of OSNs as tools for student
recruitment (Constantinides and Stagno, 2011; Constantinides and Stagno, 2012). In a
64
quantitative study, Barnes and Mattson (2010) examined the use of OSNs among
admissions officers at American HE institutions. Their findings suggest that the use of
OSNs among admissions officers continues to increase and the majority of admissions
officers use at least one form of OSN. In a more recent study, Barnes and Lescault (2011)
find that Facebook is the most popular OSN among admissions officers for recruitment
purposes, followed by YouTube and Twitter.
Nyangau and Bado (2012) argue that most research on the usefulness of OSNs for student
recruitment has been conducted from an administrative perspective, from the standpoint of
admissions officers. However, it is important to understand the role of OSNs in the process
of decision-making about HE from the perspectives of the consumers of HE services
(Nyangau and Bado, 2012). The current research provides both scholars and practitioners
with insights into how OSNs are currently being utilised by international HE aspirants and
applicants during the course selection process.
The role of OSNs in the process of decision-making about HE is a relatively new
phenomenon and not much academic literature exists in this area. Research conducted by
Fagerstrøm and Ghinea (2013), Stageman (2011), Constantinides and Stagno (2011) and
Stagno (2010) are among the few recent studies that have addressed the role of OSNs in
the choice of institution. Fagerstrøm and Ghinea (2013) find that the conversion rate for
applicants who use OSNs is considerably higher than those who do not use OSNs.
According to Fagerstrøm and Ghinea (2013), OSNs provide a significant opportunity for
institutions to exchange the notion of customers as passive with a view of them as active
agents, in which applicants are invited to use their own initiative rather than simply
reacting to predetermined marketing activities.
In another study, Stageman (2011) suggests that incoming freshmen find universitysponsored OSNs useful in helping them to establish two-way communications with
university officials, building a network of friends, establishing a personal identity, and
making a smooth transition from home life to campus life.
In a quantitative study, Stagno (2010) investigates the use of OSNs by 403 students in the
Netherlands and the role that OSNs played in their decision-making processes in choosing
65
a particular university. Stagno (2010) finds that the majority of participants had at least one
OSNs profile and that the most widely used OSNs were Facebook and YouTube. However,
Stagno (2010) also finds that OSNs were last on the list of sources of information used by
the participants. Instead, students still tend to use university websites and brochures as
primary sources of information. Stagno (2010) perceives this as a failure in universities’
marketing strategies. Stagno (2010) argues that having a presence on OSNs is not a
marketing strategy in itself; instead institutions should develop a clear marketing strategy
for OSNs, define their goals, and make decisions based on them.
Within the same line of research, Constantinides and Stagno (2011) investigate the use of
OSNs by 400 Danish students and the role that OSNs played in their decision-making
processes for choosing a particular university. Constantinides and Stagno (2011) find that
OSNs play a secondary role in the choice of institution, and that the impact of OSNs on the
choice of institution is relatively low in comparison with other sources of information such
as family and friends (Constantinides and Stagno, 2011). A possible explanation for the
low importance of OSNs could be the lack of relevant content, due to the low levels of
engagement with OSNs by universities as public relations and direct marketing tools.
(Constantinides and Stagno, 2011). Creating attractive OSN applications and staying
connected with users are major challenges for HE institutions (Constantinides and Stagno,
2011). The authors further argue that this requires the allocation of resources, an
organizational structure which somehow supports OSN use and a consistent policy that
keeps the content up to date (Constantinides and Stagno, 2011).
3.7 Summary
This chapter has discussed the relevant literature and secondary data drawn from various
sources, which has provided a context for the research project. Guided by the research
question, the focus of the review has been specific to choice and decision-making in HE
and to OSNs. The literature and secondary data discussed in this chapter contribute to the
analysis of the research data in Chapter 5 and to the discussion of findings in Chapter 6.
The next chapter will discuss the research design and it will provide a detailed account of
the way in which this research was implemented in practice.
66
Chapter 4
Research Design and Implementation
4.1 Introduction
The previous chapter discussed the relevant literature and secondary data drawn from
various sources. This chapter is concerned with the research design and its implementation,
as outlined in Figure 15.
Figure 15 Conceptual Framework: Chapter 4
Research Question: How does the choice of course of study abroad interrelate with participation in OSNs?
Relevant literature and secondary data
Research design and its implementation
Analysis
Perceived course identity
Interpretant
‘Course identity’
Representamen
 Paradigmatic
 Syntagmatic
 Paradigmatic course identity
 Syntagmatic course identity as observed
through OSNs

Object
 Course of study
 OSNs
Findings and discussion, development of ideas/beliefs
Conclusions, contributions to knowledge and practice
The chapter begins with a review of the philosophical assumptions, the three research
paradigms; positivist, interpretive and critical, and discusses their application in the current
research. The interpretive paradigm will be adopted for this work and this decision will be
67
justified in this chapter. Selection of the case study method as an appropriate research
method will be discussed and justified. A detailed comparison will be made between case
study and other qualitative research methods, followed by defining the case and unit of
analysis, and discussion of case selection. Following this, the options for data collection
are examined and decisions in the context of this research explained. From section 4.5, the
chapter provides a detailed account of the way in which this research was implemented in
practice. There is discussion of my role as a researcher, the features of participant cases,
gaining access to sites and data, data collection, fieldwork, and preparation for analysis.
4.2 Philosophical paradigms
A philosophical paradigm can be considered a set of fundamental beliefs that represent a
worldview that define, for its holder, the nature of the world, an individual’s place in it and
the possible relationships to that world and its parts (Guba and Lincoln, 1994). Moreover,
it has been argued that the fundamental beliefs of inquiry paradigms can be summarised by
the responses given to three inextricably linked questions; the ontological, epistemological
and the methodological question (Bryman, 2008; Guba and Lincoln, 1994; Locke et al.,
2010; Silverman, 2011). These questions are shown in Table 13.
Table 13 Fundamental questions for determining inquiry paradigms (Guba and Lincoln,
1994)
1. The ontological question. What is the form and nature of reality and, therefore, what is there that can
be known about it? For example, if a “real” world is assumed, then what can be known about it is “how
things really are” and “how things really work.” Then only those questions that relate to matters of
“real” existence and “real” action are admissible; other questions, such as those concerning matters of
aesthetic or moral significance, fall outside the realm of legitimate scientific inquiry.
2. The epistemological question. What is the nature of the relationship between the knower or would-be
knower and what can be known? The answer that can be given to this question is constrained by the
answer already given to the ontological question; that is, not just any relationship can now be
postulated. So if, for example, a “real” reality is assumed, then the posture of the knower must be one of
objective detachment or value freedom in order to be able to discover “how things really are” and “how
things really work.”
3. The methodological question. How can the enquirer (would-be knower) go about finding out whatever
he or she believes can be known? Again, the answer that can be given to this question is constrained by
answers already given to the first two questions; that is, not just any methodology is appropriate. For
example, a “real” reality pursued by an “objective” inquirer mandates control of possible confounding
factors, whether the methods are qualitative (say, observational) or quantitative (say, analysis of
covariance).
(Guba and Lincoln, 1994: 108).
68
Ontology, epistemology and methodology offer a framework for thinking, and facilitate the
exposition of my characteristics as a researcher that, in turn, set the boundaries for what is
deemed to be legitimate inquiry. The two disciplinary domains encompassed by this
research, those of IS and educational research, have a common social background
(Mahmood, 2005), making the findings of the current research relevant to both. Although
the current research is interdisciplinary, shared underlying philosophical principles unite
the two domains, and provide a coherent structure for a contribution to knowledge.
Research in both IS and education is founded on three philosophical paradigms:
positivism, interpretivism and critical research (e.g. Klein and Myers, 1999; Mack, 2010;
Oates, 2006; Orlikowski and Baroudi, 1991; Taylor and Medina, 2013). The following
section discusses the three philosophical paradigms and justifies the chosen option.
4.2.1 Positivism
The two main characteristics of positivism are the assumptions that the world is ordered
and that it can be studied objectively (Oates, 2006). Proponents of positivism assert that
scientific knowledge is only obtainable from data that can directly experienced and verified
between independent observers (Bullock et al., 1988; Orlikowski and Baroudi, 1991;
Susman and Evered, 1978). Referring to Table 13, it can be argued that in terms of
ontology the positivist researcher is assumed to be objective and detached from the objects
of research. Epistemologically, at the heart of this assumption is the belief that it is
possible to collect objective data, which represents the real world. Methodologically
positivism is based on reductionism and repeatability of studies (Oates, 2006). Despite its
success in the natural sciences, it has been suggested that the positivist paradigm is not the
only, or indeed always the most appropriate basis for IS and educational research (e.g.
Galliers and Land, 1987; Mack, 2010). The positivist paradigm has been criticised for
applying the scientific method to research of human affairs (Mack, 2010). For example, in
the context of educational research, Mack (2010) argues that uniform causal links that can
be established in the study of natural science cannot be made in the world of the classroom
where teachers and learners construct meaning. According to Galliers and Land (1987), the
phenomena that can be studied under laboratory conditions are limited and that there are
difficulties in reproducing a ‘real world’ environment. Galliers and Land (1987) suggest
that a study of the influence of decision-making aids on the decision-making behaviour of,
for example, a manager can only be properly studied in a real world decision-making
69
environment, which may, for instance be noisy and stressful. Moreover, Galliers and Land
(1987) propose that the requirement to give variables values, leads to the elimination of
factors that are difficult to assign value to.
4.2.2 Interpretivism
In contrast to positivism, the interpretive position considers the methods of natural science
to be inappropriate where human beings are concerned, mainly because different people
will interpret the same situation differently (Braa and Vidgen, 1999). A fundamental
premise of the interpretivist paradigm is that social reality is not fixed, rather it is
subjective and always subject to interpretation (Denzin, 1989; Hughes and Sharrock,
1997). Walsham (1993) argues that research of an interpretive nature adopts the position
that our knowledge of human action is a social construction, and therefore an objective
reality cannot be discovered by researchers or replicated by others. Theories about reality
are ways of making sense of the world and shared meanings that occur are a form of
intersubjectivity rather than objectivity (Walsham, 1993). Referring to Table 13, in
ontological terms interpretivists aim to document a research setting by identifying,
exploring and explaining the relationships and dependencies between different themes.
This subjective interpretation results in a methodology that relies a rich descriptions of
actors studied in their everyday settings. Interpretivists assume that reality cannot be
studied without reference to the social actors involved, including both the research subjects
and the researcher (Orlikowski and Baroudi, 1991; Walsham, 1993, 1995a, 1995b):
“In this view, value-free data cannot be obtained, since the enquirer uses his
or her preconceptions in order to guide the process of enquiry, and
furthermore the researcher interacts with the human subjects of the enquiry,
changing the perceptions of both parties. Interpretivism contrasts with
positivism, where it is assumed that the objective data collected by the
researcher can be used to test prior hypotheses or theories”
(Walsham, 1993:76)
However, interpretivism is not without critique. For example, Mack (2010) argues that one
of the limitations of interpretive research is that it abandons the scientific procedures of
verification and therefore results cannot be generalized to other situations. However, from
an interpretive position, the validity of an extrapolation from one case or cases to others
depends not on the representativeness of such cases in a statistical sense, but on the
70
plausibility and cogency of the reasoning used in describing the results from the cases, and
in drawing conclusions from them (Walsham, 2006).
4.2.3 Critical
Having discussed the positivist and interpretive paradigms, I will briefly discuss the third
paradigm, namely the critical paradigm. When considering the critical paradigm from an IS
perspective the following can be observed:
"IS research can be classified as critical if the main task can be seen as being
one of social critique, whereby the restrictive and alienating conditions of the
status quo are brought to light. Critical research seeks to be emancipatory in
that it aims to help eliminate the causes of unwarranted alienation and
domination and thereby enhance the opportunities for realizing human
potential. ”
(Klein and Myers, 1999, p. 69)
“…to make this possible, critical theorists assume that people can consciously
act to change their social and economic conditions. They do, however,
recognize that human ability to improve their conditions is constrained by
various forms of social, cultural, and political domination as well as natural
laws and Resource limitations...”
(Klein and Myers 1999, p. 69)
Therefore, similar to interpretivism, the critical paradigm rejects positivist assumptions and
starts from the epistemological assumption that social reality is shaped by individuals.
However, unlike the interpretive approach, which places great emphasis on subjectivity,
the critical paradigm holds that there are also objective aspects of reality that influence our
perceptions, in the form of political, economic and cultural powers (Oates, 2006). Critical
research is seen by some researchers as too theoretical and esoteric and as such has been
criticized for asking unanswerable questions (Alvesson and Deetz, 2000). Richardson and
Robinson (2007, p. 265) argue that “critical research is likely to remain the preference of a
minority of IS researchers for the foreseeable future”. Avgerou (2005, p. 103) attributes
this to the “emphasis on methodological accountability [that] may well inhibit criticality”.
Moreover, Cecez‐Kecmanovic et al. (2008) argues that the low use of critical research is
related to researchers’ background knowledge, beliefs, and positions, as well as to the
structures that support such research:
71
“Being ‘critical’ in IS research also means subscribing to a much broader
historical, social and political view of the IS discipline and the role of IS
across all institutional levels of society. Critical research draws attention to
the ways in which economic and managerial interests, ideologies and
discourses, assisted by educational and research funding institutions, shape
and construct IS research.”
(Cecez-Kecmanovic, 2008, p. 123)
4.2.4 Paradigm choice
The preceding sections have outlined the main principles surrounding the three
philosophical paradigms and the resulting differences in their characteristics. This section
discusses the choice of paradigm as the analytical framework for the current research. The
choice of paradigm must be approached with an open mind, since there is no one paradigm
that is superior to others (Mahmood, 2005), and moreover there are also options for multiparadigm research projects (Mingers, 2001). The choice of paradigm is usually based on
the given research question (s), the context, the tradition of the discipline and the
researcher’s willingness to take risks and challenge the traditional beliefs both of the
discipline and themselves (Oates, 2006).
The research question for this study is How does the choice of course of study abroad
interrelate with participation in OSNs? In other words, it is concerned with how certain
events take place. This is likely to lead to multiple explanations and therefore does not
favour a positivist epistemological position, which assumes that there should be one
generalisable explanation of the truth. A positivist approach to the domains encompassed
by this research, those of IS and educational research, is possible but would not be able to
provide the desired richness in explanation and account for the messiness of the real life
situation. The critical and the interpretive epistemological positions are more suitable.
However, the current research is misaligned with the critical paradigm because there is no
interest in the challenging of power structures for this research. This leaves the interpretive
paradigm as the most appropriate option.
At the start of this research project my worldview tended towards the belief that it is
possible to find a single solution to any problem, and ontologically I subscribed to the
belief in an objective world (associated with the positivist paradigm). However, in the
initial stages of this research and through exposure to the literature on philosophical
paradigms my worldview shifted to recognise that the current situation is subjective and
dependent on individuals. My epistemological viewpoint is influenced by the interpretive
72
standpoint, which is therefore adopted for this work. Table 14 indicates the alignment
between my philosophical beliefs in relation to the research and the interpretive paradigm.
73
Table 14 Paradigm comparison table adapted from Chua (1986)4. Amendments to Chua’s table are italicised.
Paradigm
Positivist
Interpretive
Critical
This research
Assumptions
A. Beliefs about knowledge
Epistemological
(nature of the
researcher-research
relationship)
Theory is separate from observations that may be
used to verify or falsify a theory.
Hypothetico-deductive account of scientific
explanation accepted.
Scientific explanations of human intention
sought. Their adequacy is assessed via the
criteria of logical consistency, subjective
interpretation, and agreement with actors'
common-sense interpretation.
Criteria for judging theories are temporal and
context-bound.
Researcher believes in
subjective reality and
actor’s common sense
interpretations.
Methodological
(how can the
enquirer find out)
Quantitative methods of data analysis and
collection which allow for generalization
favoured.
Ethnographic work, cases studies, and
participant observation encouraged.
Historical, ethnographic research and case studies
more commonly used.
Subscribes to pragmatist
beliefs in real life case
studies.
Social reality is emergent, subjectively created,
and objectified through human interaction.
Human beings have inner potentialities which are
alienated (prevented from full emergence)
through restrictive mechanisms.
Human interaction is
essential to understanding
social reality.
All actions have meaning and intention that are
retrospectively endowed and that are grounded
in social and historical practices.
Social order assumed. Conflict mediated
through common schemes of social meanings.
Human intention, rationality, and agency are
accepted, but this is critically analysed given a
belief in false conscious-ness and ideology.
Fundamental conflict is endemic to society.
Conflict arises because of injustice and ideology
in the social, economic, and political domains
which obscure the creative dimension in people.
Reflexive examination of
actions and social
practices.
Theory seeks only to explain action and to
understand how social order is produced and
reproduced.
Theory has a critical imperative: the
identification and removal of domination and
ideological practices.
Aims to acquire
explanations of the
situation studied.
B. Beliefs about physical and social reality.
Ontological (form of
nature and reality)
Human intention
and rationality
Societal
order/conflict
Empirical reality is objective and external to the
subject. Human beings are also characterized as
passive objects; not seen as makers of social
reality.
Single goal of utility-maximization assumed for
individuals and firms. Means-end rationality
assumed.
Societies and organizations are essentially stable;
in the context of choice and decision-making in
higher education, "dysfunctional" conflict may be
managed through the design of appropriate
information systems control.
C. Relationship between theory and practice
In the context of choice and decision-making in
higher education, information systems specify
means, not end. Acceptance of extant institutional
structures.
Assumes social order.
4
Chua’s (1986) original ideas are based on the accounting discipline. Due to the acceptance of Chua's work in information systems and educational research, it is assumed
that on a philosophical level the accounting discipline is similar to the information systems and education disciplines, allowing us to build on Chua's views and modify
these to the main paradigmatic characteristics for information systems and educational research.
74
4.3 Research method considerations
Having discussed the philosophical foundations of this work in the interpretive paradigm, I
will now discuss the choice of research method. It is important to clarify the terminology
used in association with research methods, particularly since in the field of IS and
educational research the term “method” is often assumed to have the same meaning as
“methodology” (Dillon and Wals, 2006; Venters, 2003). Methodology is primarily
concerned with the theoretical underpinnings of a method (Venters, 2003). Thus, research
methodology operates at a higher level of abstraction level that research method. This
section begins with a review of research methods in interpretive IS and educational
research, and discusses the main options for the current research, then goes on to discusses
the chosen methodology and its variations in detail.
4.3.1 Research method selection
Research methods used in interpretive IS and educational research include: design and
creation, experiments, surveys, ethnographies, case studies and action research (e.g.
Hohmann, 2006; McMillan and Schumacher, 2009; Oates, 2006). In the following section
each of these methods is explored in relation to its suitability for the research question.
The design and creation method involves development of a software artefact or a software
development method (Oates, 2006), and as neither of these elements are applicable to the
current research this option is dismissed. Usually relying on the use of quantitative data
and statistical methods, experiments aim to make generalizations and devise laws or
theories (Oates, 2006). Experiments are usually carried out in controlled environments
such as laboratories, where the intervention effects can be certain to stem from specific
changes (Kaplan and Duchon, 1988). In the current research, experiments are rejected
because of the social complexity of the given research setting; and because we are dealing
with social phenomena, culture, amongst others, which are difficult to control. It would not
be possible to state exactly which variable caused which effect. Survey research, unlike
experiments, is not able to confirm causal relationships between variables, but rather
suggests general associations between them (Oates, 2006). Researchers select a
representative data sample which allows the testing of a hypothesis, using statistics
(Stycos, 1981). Similar to experiments, surveys also aim to establish generalizations,
75
usually relying on the positivist paradigm (Oates, 2006). Although an interpretive survey
could lend itself to the current research, a survey would not be able to provide a deep
understanding of the phenomenon under investigation, as the current research focuses on a
contemporary phenomenon where exploration is an essential component of the process.
Grounded theory has grown in importance and recognition since the seminal work of
Glaser and Strauss (1967). Martin and Turner (1986, p. 141) define grounded theory as an
“inductive theory discovery methodology that allows the researcher to develop a
theoretical account of the general features of the topic while simultaneously grounding the
account in empirical observations of data”. Criticisms of grounded theory include charges
of naive inductionism (Bryant, 2002; Goulding, 2001) and limitations on a priori
knowledge (Bryant, 2002; Goulding, 2001). In grounded theory the literature review is
conducted after the emergence of substantive theory (Eisenhardt, 1989) and it is then, and
not before theory generation, that data from the extant literature contributes to the study
(Eisenhardt, 1989). Glaser (1998) cannot be more specific in this regard:
“Grounded theory’s very strong dicta are; a) don’t do a literature review in
the substantive area and related areas where the research is done, and b)
when the grounded theory is nearly completed during sorting and writing up,
then the literature search in the substantive area can be accomplished and
woven into the theory as more data for constant comparison.”
(Glaser, 1998)
Grounded theory does not fit with the current research since it lacks emphasis on
preliminary literature review, which, was needed to help identify the research problem.
The three research methods considered in most depth are ethnography, action research and
case study. Ethnography, unlike experiments and surveys, is generally used in interpretive
research, and to some extent in critical research (Miles and Huberman, 1994). Concerned
primarily with the understanding of culture and the differing interpretations that people
have of the same situations, ethnographers rely on ‘thick descriptions’ of situations and
also acknowledge their own influence on the situation (Goulding, 2005). Ethnographies
usually require the researcher to spend a long period of time in the field and emphasize
detailed, observational evidence (Myers, 1997; Yin, 1994). The longer duration required
by the ethnographic method was not my primary concern to use this method as for most
76
people the best time to do ethnographic research is during one’s doctoral studies (Myers,
2008). The predominant method of data collection in ethnography is through participant
observation, where an ethnographer aims to become part of the subject group and records
observations without making any kind of analysis (Myers, 2008). This is evident in a study
conducted by Orlikowski and Baroudi (1991) in which they studied a large multinational
software consulting firm, employing participant observation as the primary method of data
collection. The ethnographic method does not fit with the current research since in-depth
interviews were needed, as the primary method of data collection, in order to allow me to
explore the research participants’ complex course selection decisions and to collect
detailed information on their experiences with OSNs.
Action research was at first an attractive method. Action research can be traced back to
Lewin’s (1946) work (Blichfeldt and Andersen, 2006). Lewin (1946) perceives action
research as a way in which researchers can bridge the gap between theory and practice
(Dickens and Watkins, 1999). Lewin emphasized change and the investigation of change
as key contributions of action research (Hendry, 1996). Action research has been criticized
for its lack of methodological rigor (Cohen and Manion, 1980) and its lack of distinction
from consulting (Avison, 1993). Several authors argue that action research should rely on
the case-study method in order to enhance the acceptability of action research as a research
method (e.g. Blichfeldt and Andersen, 2006; Cunningham, 1993). Action research does not
fit the current research, since it lacks an emphasis on my ability to control processes and
outcomes as well as the freedom to pick and select problems.
Case study is defined as a research method which involves empirical investigation of a
particular contemporary phenomenon within its real world context using multiple sources
of evidence (Robson, 2002; Yin, 1994). The main sources of information for case studies
are interviews that are complemented by documents such as reports (Myers, 1997). The
case study method was used by Walsham (1993) in a study of a building society in the
United Kingdom. The principal method of data collection was in-depth interviews with a
range of organizational participants. Similar to action research and ethnography, it is
difficult to generalise results from case studies. However, case researchers do not
experience this difficulty to the same extent, because case researchers have opportunities to
select the contexts that facilitate analytical generalization i.e. generation of abstractions
77
based on empirical material (Blichfeldt and Andersen, 2006). A further difference between
case study, action research and ethnographic methods relates to the researcher’s stance on
how and to whom they disseminate their results. Action researchers and ethnographic
researchers have an obligation to feed data back to the participant community with which
they collaborated to identify and solve a practical problem (Blichfeldt and Andersen,
2006). In privileging a particular target audience, action researchers and ethnographic
researchers may neglect the other relevant audiences (Blichfeldt and Andersen, 2006).
Although case study researchers may disseminate their findings to those who participated
in the study, findings are primarily targeted at the academic community (Blichfeldt and
Andersen, 2006). Action research and ethnography are fundamentally about telling a story
as it happens. Blichfeldt and Andersen (2006) argues that apart from storytelling, case
study researchers also try to enrich and expand our understanding of phenomena beyond
the level at which individual stories are constructed. Action researchers leave it to the
reader to decide “what can be taken from the story” (Coghlan, 2002), whereas case study
researchers seek to arrive at analytical generalizations of their work. The case study
method therefore seems to be an appropriate method for the given research question and
fits with my epistemological viewpoint. The choice of case study method for the current
research is further justified for the following reasons:

The research question is of “how” type. It has been well argued in the existing
literature that case studies are more appropriate to research questions of the “how”
and “why” types (Yin, 1994).

A further distinction among case study and other research methods is the extent of
the researcher’s control over and access to actual behavioural events (Yin, 1994).
The current research takes place in a real-world context in which I have not been
able to control course selection decisions and participation in OSNs, and, as noted
by Yin (1994), this is a criterion of case studies.

The phenomenon that the current research seeks to explain is contemporary,
according to Yin (1994), this is another criterion of case studies.
The remaining subsections in this section expand upon the methodology through a more
detailed discussion of the case study method adopted for the current research.
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4.3.2 Defining case study research
The origin of the term ‘case study’ is linked to that of ‘case history’ (Hamel et al., 1993).
The latter is widely used in clinical fields such as psychology and medicine (Hamel et al.,
1993). “Sociological case studies have proved to be investigations of particular cases”
(Hamel et al., 1993, p. 1). Seminal case studies in sociology have been popularized in
social science for their rich, thick descriptions of phenomena in specific contexts. Whyte’s
(1995) Street Corner Society is the classic case study that examined the subculture of a
Chicago neighbourhood. Case study research was subsequently taken up by other
disciplines as a method of teaching in professional schools of social work, law, business
administration, and other social sciences (Berg, 2004; Reinharz, 1992).
Through the work of researchers such as Yin (1994), Benbasat et al. (1987) and Walsham
(1993, 1995a, 1995b) case studies are accepted as a legitimate and useful method of IS
research. The case study is also one of the most frequently used research methods in
educational research (e.g. Hamilton and Corbett-Whittier, 2012; Merriam, 1985; Merriam,
1998). Criticisms of the case study method tend to focus on the non-representativeness and
lack of statistical generalizability arising from the work, and concern over the lack of rigor.
However, Walsham (1993, p. 15) argues that “from an interpretive position, the validity of
an extrapolation from an individual case or cases depends not on the representativeness of
such cases in a statistical sense, but on the plausibility and cogency of the logical reasoning
used in describing the results from the cases, and in drawing conclusions from them”. The
following subsection provides an overview of the type of case study adopted for the current
research.
4.3.3 Interpretive case study
Case study research can be positivist, interpretive, or critical, depending upon the
underlying philosophical assumptions of the researcher (Myers, 1997). The type of case
study adopted for the current research is interpretive in-depth case study. According to
Walsham, one of the pioneers of the interpretive case study, “the most appropriate method
for conducting empirical research in the interpretive tradition is the in-depth case study”
(Walsham, 1993). Drawing on the work of Kling (1987), Giddens (1977) and Pettigrew
(1990), Walsham (1993) uses the interpretive case study method to provide detailed
interpretations of three in-depth case studies of IS in specific organizational and cultural
contexts.
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In interpretive case studies, the researcher is directly involved in the process of data
collection and analysis (Creswell, 2007; Klein and Myers, 1999; Morse, 1994), however,
in the latter, the researcher, through a close interaction with the actors, becomes a
“passionate participant” (Guba and Lincoln, 1994, p. 115). Even though this could be
regarded as a pitfall, it provides an opportunity to gain a deep insight into the problem
under study because an interpretive explanation documents the [participant’s] point of
view and translates it into a form that is intelligible to readers (Andrade, 2009; Neuman,
1997). Indeed, interpretive research makes it possible for the researcher to present their
own constructions as well as those of the participants (Andrade, 2009; Guba and Lincoln,
1994; Walsham, 1995a).
4.3.4 Defining the case and unit of analysis
The case study method adopted for the current research is the multi-case, embedded
design. Yin (1994) categorizes case studies into four main types as shown in Table 15.
Table 15 Four types of case study design (Yin, 1994)
Single-case study
Holistic design
Multi-case study
Embedded design
The first pair of categories consists of single-case study and multi-case study. The second
pair, which can be combined with either of the first pair, refer to the unit, or units, of
analysis to be covered, and distinguishes between holistic and embedded (more than one
focus) design (Yin, 1994). Single and multi-case studies demand different design
considerations and within these case studies there may be unitary or multiple units of
analysis (Yin, 1994). The case study method therefore contains four types of designs based
on the different permutations: 1) single-case, holistic design; 2) single-case, embedded
design; 3) multi-case, holistic design; 4) multi-case, embedded design.
In relation to single versus multi-case study categories it was necessary to evaluate whether
the primary data for the current research should be collected from a single course offered at
one university or several courses offered at different universities. Investigating a greater
number of courses, in multiple universities, and over a longer period of time, would
80
present a wider and a more saturated perspective on the phenomenon under investigation,
therefore I decided to collect the primary data from three distinct courses offered at three
universities in the UK (i.e. multi-case study). It is suggested that multiple cases increase
the methodological rigor of the study through “strengthening the precision, the validity and
stability of the findings” (Miles and Huberman, 1994). Yin (1994) argues that “evidence
from multiple cases is often considered more compelling”. In relation to the case study
design, a decision had to be made about whether the research problem should focus on a
holistic unit or embedded units of analysis. There may be subunits of analysis incorporated
within the multi-case study, such that the research design comprises more than one
research focus (Yin, 1994). These subunits often offer the possibility for extensive analysis
(Nielsen, 2004). The semiosis of course identity in Chapter 2 led to identification of three
subunits that deserve particular attention: ‘paradigmatic course identity’, ‘syntagmatic
course identity’ and ‘perceived course identity’.
4.3.5 Case selection
Methodological guidelines for case selection differ between single and multiple case
designs (Shakir, 2002). When the study involves more than one case, the focus shifts to the
external validity of the case inquiry (Shakir, 2002). External validation, in terms of the
limited generalizability of the findings can be established through the replication logic
which applies to the multiple case study design (Creswell, 2007; Yin, 1994). The two
approaches for establishing the replication logic in a multiple case design are “literal
replication” and “theoretical replication” (Shakir, 2002) as shown in Table 16.
Table 16 Selection strategies for multi-case designs (Shakir, 2002)
Literal replication
Theoretical replication
 Cases selected to predict similar results
 Cases selected to predict contrasting results
 When rival theories are grossly different
 When rival theories have subtle differences or to increase
the degree of certainty of results
 Three to four cases
 Two (or three) sets of three to four cases to pursue two
(or three) patterns of theoretical replications
The approach adopted for the current research is theoretical replication. Shakir (2002)
argues that the theoretical replication approach should be used when cases have different
81
settings and are expected to achieve different results. In the current research, the decision
was made to select the MBA courses on the basis of a range of measures including course
ranking, ranking of the university offering the course and geographical location. This
provided a better chance of identifying patterns of difference or similarity. Features of the
participant courses in this research are discussed in section 4.6.
4.4 Data considerations
So far this chapter has outlined the philosophical foundations of this work, which is
grounded in interpretivism. This discussion sets out the paradigm which, together with the
research question and research setting, informed the choice of research method;
interpretive case study. This section further expands on the methodology through
discussion of the types of data and data sources used in the current work. However, before
this matter is explored in more detail, it is prudent to raise a point of clarification.
Interpretive research is often equated with qualitative methods and this association is
widespread. However, this combination of philosophy and methodological choice is not
the only possibility, and this highlights a popular misconception in IS and educational
research. There are examples of interpretive research which use quantitative methodology
(Kaplan and Duchon, 1988; Orlikowski and Baroudi, 1991) and positivist research based
upon qualitative methodology (Wastell et al., 2001).
4.4.1 Data type
Interpretive case study research tends to be labelled as qualitative research (Myers., 1994;
Walsham and Waema, 1994). The pragmatic roots of interpretive case study imply the use
of interviews as the primary method of data collection (Myers, 1997). However, interviews
can be of different types, for example, semi-structured and unstructured interviews are
usually non-numeric, and structured interviews are usually numeric (Bryman, 2010;
Fredriksson and Larsson, 2012; Jaakkola, 2010; Rowley et al., 2010). This leads to the
basic differentiation between qualitative and quantitative data. The latter is primarily
concerned with numbers and the former with words (Miles and Huberman, 1994). A more
elaborate differentiation between qualitative and quantitative data can be made in relation
to their use within a research method (Siegel and Dray, 2003). This has been done below in
the form of a table that compares qualitative and quantitative data in the context of
research characteristics and relates this to the imperatives of the current research. As
82
shown in Table 17, there are a number of characteristics that are associated with both types
of data. Overall, it appears that the characteristics of qualitative data align more closely
with the current research.
Table 17 Data type considerations for the given research adapted after (Siegel and
Dray, 2003). Additions are italicised.
Method,
design
Sampling
Data analysis
Quantitative
Predetermined
Qualitative
Ad hoc, opportunistic
Large, representative,
random
 Standardized measures
allow efficient data
reduction
 Facilitates combining
and comparing across
cases
Small, strategic
Evaluation of
quality
Standards of quality exist,
looks objective, degree of
support for inferences open
to scrutiny
Focus
 Questions should be
specified in advance
based on theory
 Must be narrowed,
sometimes ridiculously,
to isolate variables, or it
takes “black box”
approach
 Understanding “what?”
 Numerical Abstractions
 Characterizing the
population
Aimed at
Values
Statistical validity
 Volume of raw data
overwhelming, often of unclear
pertinence
 Data reduction not straightforward
 Data not standardized across
cases
Inferences can seem too come
from “invisible” intuitions, hard
to assess quality
 Open the possibility you don’t
know the right questions to ask
in advance
 Broad, holistic, explanatory,
tries to grasp complex
interactions of factors
 Understanding “how” and
“why”?
 Realistic representations
 Characterizing the “design
space”.
Practical implications
This research
Ad hoc, opportunistic
with limited level of
predomination
Small, only three courses
are examined
Semiotic analysis,
drawing on participants’
beliefs
Quality is based on
participants’
interpretations and
related literature
Explores complex course
selection decisions and
collects detailed
information on
participants’ experiences
with OSNs.
Research question focus
on understanding of
“How”?
Emphasis on practical
implications
4.4.2 Data sources
The main sources of information for case studies are interviews that are complemented by
documents such as reports (Myers, 1997). The principle sources of information used in this
study are interviews, complemented by reports collected from QS TopMBA, Graduate
Management Admission Council (GMAT), Association of MBAs (AMBA) and Ignite
Social Media. According to Yin (1994), interviews are an essential source of case study
evidence because most case studies are about human affairs or behavioural events. The
83
following section discusses the approach to interviewing and the documentation used in the
current research.
Semi-structured interviews
There are three key types of interview based on the degree of structure imposed by the
researcher: structured, unstructured and semi-structured (Oates, 2006). In structured
interviews, only predetermined questions are asked (Bade, 2011). In contrast, unstructured
and semi-structured interviews use general questions in no specific order and encourage
participants to converse (Bade, 2011). This means that participants can raise the issues that
are important to them and so divulge their own terms of reference (Polft and Hungler,
1993). Both semi-structured and unstructured interviews allow interviewees to speak their
minds and so they are used where the primary purpose is discovery, rather than checking
(Oates, 2006). They are therefore used for in-depth investigations, especially those aimed
at exploring personal accounts and feelings (Oates, 2006). Given the exploratory nature of
the current research, both semi-structured interviews and unstructured interviews were
appropriate options. I decided to use semi-structured interviews in order to provide some
structure to encourage focus on the research topic whilst permitting scope for exploration
of new insights. Semi-structured interview permits prompting and probing during the
actual interview to check meaning and encourage elaboration of participants’ views (May,
1993).
Interviews have limitations, which include the risk of participants telling the researcher
what they think she/he wants to hear, resulting in bias and false consensus (Miles and
Huberman, 1994). The researcher can also steer participants by asking leading questions
and/or emphasising a certain theme or topic. The actual data collection and interpretation is
subject to three judgmental heuristics in relation to ‘representativeness’, ‘availability’, and
‘weighting’ (Miles and Huberman, 1994). Hence, the researcher has to be on their guard
when it comes to interpreting events, checking extreme cases and be generally critical of
the data collection process with the aim of managing these potential biases.
Documentation
The primary data in this work is complemented by the secondary data collected from
various sources. The secondary data presented in section 3.4 provides a basis for
comparison of the primary data that is collected to define the paradigmatic identities of the
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three participating MBA courses in Chapter 5, although it does not fully account for the
interrelationship between the choice of MBA and participation in OSNs. The secondary
data in section 3.5.4 contributes to a greater understanding of OSNs and to the discussion
of findings. Secondary data can be generated from a setting or be relevant to research
questions about it (Lofland and Lofland, 1995). Secondary data are commonly used to
describe the research setting in terms of individual, group, organizational and
environmental factors (Rousseau and Fried, 2001), thereby giving shape to the issues being
studied. I used a range of relevant secondary data, which were manually scrutinised for
their relevance and stored for later reference. A list of secondary data collected for this
work is presented in the table below.
Table 18 List of documents collected for the current research
QS Top MBA
Applicant survey 2011
QS Top MBA
Applicant survey 2010
Graduate Management Admission Council
Application Trends Survey 2011
Graduate Management Admission Council
Application Trends Survey 2010
Association of MBAs
Diversity On The MBA 2010
Association of MBAs
The Post Downturn MBA 2008
Association of MBAs
Economic Downturn Survey 2009
Association of MBAs
The MBA Employment Market 2009
Association of MBAs
Criteria for the Accreditation
Association of MBAs
Career Survey 2008
Association of MBAs
Intake and Graduate Survey 2010
Association of MBAs
Intake and Graduate Survey 2007
Ignite Social Media
Social Network analysis 2012
Ignite Social Media
Social Network analysis 2011
Ignite Social Media
Social Network analysis 2010
eMarketer Report
Robust Outlook for UK Ad Spend Growth 2012
eMarketer Report
Social Network Ad Spending 2010
Summary of data sources
The semi-structured interviews undertaken in the current research and secondary data were
guided by a rationale template shown in Table 19.
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Table 19 Overview of data sources and rationales behind them
Data sources
Why?
How?
To explore research participants’ complex
course selection decisions and to collect
detailed information on their experiences with
OSNs.
Interviews were conducted with
33 international students
studying on Courses A, B and C.
To provide a basis for comparison with the
primary data and to describe the research
setting.
The raw data collated and
analysed by the author.
Course A5- Individual
interviews (pilot) × 3
Course A - Individual
interviews × 10
Course B- Individual
interviews × 10
Course C- Individual
interviews × 10
Secondary data
(documents)
Literature
To get a better appreciation of general issues
surrounding choice and decision-making in
HE and OSNs.
Literature search was conducted
in the University of Salford
library, via electronic database
searches.
4.5 Role of the researcher
I am an international student studying in the UK. In 2008 I created a Facebook page to
connect full-time MBA students at the University of Salford and within the first four
months it had reached 160 members. I was particularly intrigued that I had been contacted
by several international HE aspirants and applicants from different countries enquiring
about the full-time MBA course offered at the University of Salford. Some of these
countries, including Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Japan have never had a strong student
presence in UK HE. Therefore, it was interesting to examine how the choice of course of
study abroad interrelates with participation in OSNs.
In the current research I became both an ‘insider’ and an ‘outsider’ researcher. Insider
research refers to research conducted with populations of which the researcher is also a
member (Dwyer and Buckle, 2009; Kanuha, 2000), so that the researcher shares an
identity, language, and experiential base with the study participants (Asselin, 2003; Dwyer
and Buckle, 2009). In contrast, outsider research refers to research where researchers do
not belong to the group under study (Breen, 2007). I became an insider researcher when I
5
Course A, Course B and Course C are pseudonyms used to protect the anonymity of three participating
courses in the current research. The pseudonyms used within the current research are shown in Table 20 on
page 86.
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decided to conduct research with other international students in the UK, and an outsider
researcher with respect to my research with those international students who used OSNs
during the course selection process. As an international student, I have been through the
course selection process at various times, but I had never used OSNs as a source of
information. I became more aware of my status as an outsider researcher when I was asked
by some of my participants whether I used OSNs during my own MBA selection process.
The majority of participants in my research did not seem to perceive this as an impediment
to the research process and they did not express concern about my outsider status or
question my capacity to appreciate their experiences with OSNs. The external stance of the
outsider researcher is thought to offer a different lens through which to capture
participants’ experiences (Merry et al., 2011). Spicer et al. (2004) argue that in general,
outsider researchers are perceived as unbiased and their findings are more likely accepted
by the public.
In the case of my role as an insider researcher, I realized that I sometimes shared
experiences, opinions, and perspectives with my participants, and at other times I did not.
This was not due to seeing myself sometimes as an outsider instead of an insider, rather, it
was because populations are not homogeneous, so differences are to be expected. The
status of insider frequently allows researchers more rapid and more complete acceptance
by their participants (Dwyer and Buckle, 2009), and therefore, participants may be more
open and as a result there may be a greater depth to the data gathered.
4.6 Features of participating courses
The primary data for this research are collected from three distinct full-time MBA courses
offered at three universities in the UK. This section provides a general overview of these
three courses. The information presented in this section is gathered from administrative
staff and official University websites. For confidentiality purposes, those characteristics
which could make the courses easily identifiable are not discussed.
4.6.1 An overview of Course A
Course A is offered at a post-1992 university (or new university). In the UK, post-1992
universities formed from polytechnics and colleges of HE. According to ranking websites,
Course A ranks roughly in the middle of the MBA rankings in the UK. The city in which
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this course is taught is small and it is not among the most internationally recognized British
cities. The city infrastructure is average and the cost of living such as accommodation and
transportation is lower than in larger and more internationally-recognized cities. The
duration of this course is one year, and the student intake is around 25 students each year.
Course A is accredited by AMBA. The fees for this course are not expensive but not cheap
and previous alumni are eligible to receive a scholarship to a value of 10% to 20% of
tuition fees. There are also other types of scholarships available such as the Vice
Chancellor’s scholarship of £5,000 and a £1,000 bursary for students from certain
countries designated by the World Bank as ‘low’ and ‘low to middle’ economies.
Applicants are required to have a degree in any discipline, or alternative professional
qualifications of an equivalent level, plus at least three years’ managerial or professional
work experience. International applicants are usually required to have an IELTS score of
6.5. The course curriculum is organized into three parts. Taught modules are delivered in
stage one and students will be assessed through examinations, multiple choice tests and
coursework. Modules taught during stage two tend to adopt a more problem-based learning
approach to learning and assessment. The skills are put into practice during stage three of
the course where students carry out a project within the organisation. Students are also
offered a two weeks residential at an overseas location.
4.6.2 An overview of Course B
Course B is offered at a post-1992 university and it is an average within the MBA rankings
in the UK. Unlike Course A, Course B is offered in a large, internationally-recognized
British city. The city infrastructure is modern and the cost of living is average when
compared to other large and internationally-recognized British cities. The duration of
Course B is one academic year and the student intake is around 50 students each year.
Course B is accredited by AMBA and the fees for this course are not expensive but not
cheap, and similar to the fees for Course A. There are a number of scholarships and
bursaries available for international students including British Council Chevening
Scholarships, and a limited number of scholarships of up to £1,500 per person that are
available to self-funded students who have accepted their offer and confirmed their place.
Applicants are required to have a good honours degree in any subject from a UK
University, or an equivalent academic or professional qualification, plus a minimum of
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three years management experience and an IELTS score of 6.5. The course curriculum is
organized into three parts. During the first stage students are introduced to core concepts in
management and they are assessed through group assessments, dissertation (or
consultancy) project and examinations. Students select optional units during the second
stage, and subject material becomes more applied in the second semester and the course
considers different aspects of strategic management. In the final stage students complete
either a consultancy project based in a real organization, or a dissertation.
4.6.3 An overview of Course C
Course C is offered at a pre-1992 university. In the UK, pre-1992 universities include
ancient universities founded between the 12th and 16th centuries and the large civic
universities chartered at the beginning of the 20th century before World War I. Course C is
among the top ranked MBA courses in the world. The city in which Course C is offered is
large and it is among the most internationally-recognized British cities. The city
infrastructure is modern and the cost of living is average when compared to other large
cities in the UK. The duration of Course C is usually longer than one year and the student
intake is around 100 students each year. Course C is accredited by several accreditation
bodies including AMBA, AASCB and EQUIS. The fee for Course C is very high in
comparison with Course A and Course B. There are a number of scholarships and
bursaries available for international students including a £10,000 scholarship awarded on
individual merit, for which all applicants are automatically considered. Previous alumni are
also eligible to receive a scholarship to a value of 10% to 20% of tuition fees.
Course C is very competitive and the admissions requirements are high. Applicants are
usually required to have a first class honours degree, or the equivalent, from any academic
discipline. Students who do not have a first class degree may be eligible for a place if they
have significant managerial experience with a strong record of achievement. International
applicants are usually required to have an IELTS score of 7 and pass the Graduate
Management Admission Test (GMAT). The course curriculum is organized into three parts
and students are involved in practical projects at different stages. Stage one is focused on
strengthening students’ interpersonal, teamwork and communication skills. The intensive,
flexible core curriculum during the first stage gives students a foundation of broad
management skills. Stage two includes practical projects and taught modules. During the
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third stage, students complete several entrepreneurship projects. At different stages
students can also travel internationally as part of consulting for multinational companies.
4.7 Gaining access to site and data
Before data collection could begin, a number of steps needed to be taken in order to gain
access to the research setting, in order to obtain ethical approval and to gain consent from
participants. This section considers these issues in turn and elaborates the implementation
of the research protocol in practice.
4.7.1 Gaining access in practice
Despite being in academia and having broad access to the target universities, there was a
need to redefine this access in view of my role as a researcher. I obtained a formal ethical
approval memorandum from the Research Ethics panel at the University of Salford (see the
copy of ethical approval memorandum in Appendix 2). Agreement was acquired from the
three participating institutions by contacting administrative staff and course directors. I
already had support from one of the participating institutions, which was beneficial in
facilitating communications with course directors and administrators at the other two
institutions. According to Punch (1994), having the backing of a well-regarded academic
institution can be beneficial to gaining access.
Approvals to undertake the study were gained from each university subject to conditions
about maintaining an informal but close working relationship with the course directors. In
order to minimize the access problem, I ensured minimal interruptions to participants’
working patterns and to protect the confidentiality of the participating institutions, courses
and interviewees. The pseudonyms used for the participating institutions, courses and
interviewees are presented in Table 20.
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Table 20 Pseudonyms used within the current research
Courses
Institutions
Course A
University A
Interviewees
Pilot study
PS1 – PS3
Main study
A01 – A10
Course B
University B
Main study
B01 – B10
Course C
University C
Main study
C01 – C10
One formal element of the agreement to participate related to the exact procedure by which
international students will agree, and whether they will feel pressured by their institutions
to participate in the research. It was agreed that administrative staff and course directors
should not be involved directly in asking students to take part in the research, and that I
should contact the students directly. I obtained permission from University A to contact
international students via an internal mailing list held by their postgraduate office. The
replies to this email came directly to me, so that members of staff did not know who was
participating in the research. The information sheet for the study was attached to the email
(see the copy of the information sheet in Appendix 3). The information sheet stated,
amongst other things that, I am looking for volunteers, participation or non-participation
would not be communicated to members of staff, details of what the research is about and
what participants would be asked to do. The main communication opportunity at
University B was through my attendance at one of the MBA teaching sessions. This was a
regular session every weekday and an ideal forum for two way communication with
international MBA students. The course director at University B asked me to deliver a
short presentation about my research and include explanation about what I would want
from the international students. The meeting presented a valuable opportunity to circulate
the information sheet, and to request that the international students contact me if they were
willing to participate. Staff at University C introduced me, by way of email, to their MBA
student representative in order that they could facilitate an introduction to the international
students. The MBA student representative at University C acted as one of my key contacts,
and he assisted me with the circulation of information sheets and scheduling of interviews.
4.7.2 Participants consent
A vital component of the ethical discourse on research involving human subjects is the
process of informed consent, which recognizes the autonomy of research subjects by
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sharing the power of decision-making with them (Frankel and Siang, 1999). In the current
research, it was made clear to participants that their participation was entirely voluntary.
Consent forms were given, a few days before the interviews, to those international students
who had agreed to participate (see the copies of research participant consent form and
revocation of consent in Appendix 4 and Appendix 5).
4.7.3 Confidentiality and anonymity
Harm to human subjects can occur due to invasion of subjects’ privacy and the violation of
confidentiality (Frankel and Siang, 1999). Invasions of privacy may occur when research
participants do not have control over the personal information revealed during the research
process. Frankel and Siang (1999) argue that privacy provides individuals with some
protection against harmful or unpleasant experiences, against punishment and exploitation
by others, against embarrassment or lowered self-esteem and against threats to their
integrity and autonomy as individuals. Invasions of privacy can increase the likelihood of
harm because they deprive the individual of that protection (Kelman, 1997). In the current
research, confidentiality and anonymity issues were addressed in consultation with
interviewees at a preparatory meeting prior to the study commencing. My need to use a
voice recorder, to maintain field notes and interview transcripts, and what these would
comprise, were discussed. In view of my plans to store field notes and interview transcripts
securely, it was considered acceptable to use pseudonyms for the interviewees. It was
acknowledged that some conversations might be of a sensitive nature, such as a comment
about a lecturer, although in practice, this happened rarely. Where this did happen, I did
not note the name of the member of academic staff in order to protect their anonymity, and
instead I referred to them as ‘a member of academic staff’. Interview transcripts were
stored separately from consent forms. Digital voice recordings were individually password
protected and stored in a password-protected folder on my laptop. I agreed with
participants that research data in the form of recordings and transcripts would only be
accessed by me. Interviews were usually held in library meeting rooms at the respective
universities. It was further agreed that interviewees would have the right to request
amendment of what they had said, cut out sensitive text completely or withdraw from the
research at any time without having to give any reason. Having given assurance to
participants and gained their trust in the ways described, no requests to make omissions
from my records were received.
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4.8 Sampling
This section is divided into two, the first part discusses the sampling strategies employed,
and the second is concerned with the sample breakdown.
4.8.1 Sampling strategy
This interpretive research attempts to understand the phenomenon under study through the
meanings that international students assign to it. However, as the potential research
population was very large there was a need to select a subset of it. The research population
can be described as a set of people, products, firms, and markets, which is of concern to the
reader (Dillon et al., 1994). In the current research, non-probability sampling was applied
through a combination of ‘convenience sampling’ and ‘purposive sampling’. I used the
convenience sampling technique initially followed by purposive sampling. I circulated an
information sheet to all of the 180 international students studying on Courses A, B and C.
Through this document, international students were invited to take part in the research. 55
international students volunteered to participate in the research. Subjects were selected on
the basis of their nationality to ensure that as many diverse nationalities as possible are
presented. It can therefore been seen that although I focused on recruiting available
subjects (convenience sampling), specific types of individuals (i.e. on the basis of their
nationality) were also recruited for the study, such that the sampling approach was also
purposive in nature (Babbie, 2004; Goodwin, 1995; Rossouw, 2003). Convenience
sampling is one of the most commonly used sampling techniques (Russell and Gregory,
2003). In convenience sampling, participants are primarily selected on the basis of ease of
access for the researcher and, secondarily, for their knowledge of the subject matter
(Russell and Gregory, 2003).
4.8.2 Sample breakdown
In total, 33 international students were selected representing 22 countries from four
continents: Europe (France, Germany, Latvia and Turkey); America (Brazil, Chile,
Argentina, Bahamas, Mexico and USA); Asia (Japan, China, Hong Kong, Thailand, India,
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia); Africa (Egypt, Cameroon, Mali, Nigeria and Zimbabwe). The
sample breakdown for the current research is presented in Figure 16. A full breakdown is
given in Table 21.
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Figure 16 The sample breakdown for the current research
North Europe, 3%
Southeastern Europe,
3%
Southeast Asia, 3%
West
Europe,
6%
North America, 6%
East Asia, 9%
Central America &
Caribbean, 3%
South America, 9%
South Asia, 33%
Southern Africa, 3%
Western Africa,
12%
Central Africa, 3%
Northern Africa, 3%
West Asia, 3%
Table 21 The full sample breakdown for the current research
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4.9 Fieldwork
Having discussed the sampling choices made, the following section describes the
procedures followed for both the pilot study and the main study.
4.9.1 Piloting the interview questions
I conducted a pilot study to test the interview questions with three international students
studying on Course A. The pilot study took place over a one week period starting on 16th
June 2011. The pilot study deemed a success as no questions were misunderstood and no
amendments needed to be made to the interview guide (see the copy of interview guide in
Appendix 6). At the beginning of each interview session, I prepared the room environment
as much as possible to ensure seating was comfortable and appropriately placed with other
furniture to encourage conversation. The risk of interruptions was minimized by
conducting interviews in library meeting rooms at the respective universities. I adopted a
friendly but professional manner. The study information sheet was again given to
interviewees to read and questions were invited. Once satisfied, interviewees handed in
signed consent forms. All interviewees were happy to have their interviews voice recorded.
I explained that the interview would be informal and I offered reassurance that they should
take their time and not worry about pausing to think whilst the digital voice recorder was
running. Interviewees were encouraged to elaborate their responses fully and not to be
selective. At this point the digital voice recorder was positioned and a sound check
performed. Interviewees were encouraged to relax and ignore the equipment as much as
possible. The first questions had been designed to encourage them to ease into the
conversation. Interviews lasted between approximately 40 minutes and 1 hour and were
timed to suit students’ availability. Notes were taken on ideas and points of interest arising
from the interviews. These are known as “analytical memos” and aid the process of
making sense of the data (Kaplan et al., 2005). I regularly referred to the analytical memos
and compared them with emerging findings. This is a process that is sometimes forgotten
when immersed in the process of data collection (Hammersley and Atkinson, 1995).
4.9.2 Main study
The main fieldwork was conducted between 25th June 2011 and 9th December 2011.
Individual appointments were made to meet with 30 international students studying on
Courses A, B and C. Similar considerations were made for the main study as when
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undertaking the pilot study. The same interview guide and sequence of questions were used
as in the pilot study. The interview schedule is presented in Table 22.
Table 22 Schedule for the interviews – Main study
Participating
courses
Course A
Course B
Course C
Number of
interviewees
10
10
10
From
Until
25th June 2011
30th September 2011
5th November 2011
30th July 2011
14th October 2011
9th December 2011
4.10 Preparation for analysis
The purpose of data preparation is to organize the data to facilitate easier retrieval for
analysis. In the current research, the qualitative data are in the form of words, that is,
language in the form of extended text. Data in the form of words are not usually
immediately accessible for analysis, and require some processing (Miles and Huberman,
1994). Therefore the following steps were carried out:

All 33 voice recordings were transcribed personally. Transcribing was usually done
within 24 hours of the interview and a maximum of 48 hours after. Transcription
took between six to eleven hours to complete, depending on the length of each
recording (see a sample of interview transcript in Appendix 7).

I got to know my data by reading and re-reading the interview transcripts and
comparing the interview transcripts with analytical memos. One hard copy of each
transcript was printed and I examined each line. This process of immersion in the
data is recognized as valuable in highlighting persistent themes or phrases within
the data (Morse and Field, 1996). Bogdan and Biklen (1992) recommend reading
over data several times in order to begin to develop a coding scheme.

All interview transcripts were anonymised by assigning each one a code, in the
form of a number known only to me, and were stored separately from the consent
forms. Transcripts and digital recordings were individually password protected and
stored in a password-protected folder on my laptop.

Copies of transcripts were sent to participants to check, amend any errors and
elucidate any of the inaudible words highlighted. This also served to promote
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participants’ sense of control over the data (McDonnell et al., 2000). The use of a
quality digital recorder and microphone resulted in clear recording.
A full account on the method of data analysis employed in the current research is given in
Chapter 5.
4.11 Summary
This chapter has been concerned with the research design and implementation, with
particular reference to the needs of the current research. The discussion started at a high
level of abstraction with philosophical paradigms, then moved on to research methods and
the details of data collection. The development of an appropriate research design has taken
into account the research question, research context, traditions within choice and decisionmaking research in HE and IS research, possible data collection tools and the researcher’s
epistemological viewpoint. The decision was taken to adopt an interpretivist philosophy
and to use the case study method, drawing on qualitative data from semi-structured
interviews in addition to relevant documentation. This chapter has been also concerned
with detailed description of the implementation of the research process. The main themes
discussed were the role of the researcher, features of participant cases, gaining access to
sites and data, sampling, fieldwork and preparation for analysis. The next chapter will
present the analysis of the findings.
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Chapter 5
Analysis
5.1 Introduction
This chapter presents the analysis of the findings as highlighted in Figure 17. It begins with
a detailed discussion of the approach to analysis adopted, followed by presentation of the
analysis of the data from the pilot study and the main study. This chapter is aimed
particularly at researchers interested in semiotic analysis of texts.
Figure 17 Conceptual Framework: Chapter 5
Research Question: How does the choice of course of study abroad interrelate with participation in OSNs?
Relevant literature and secondary data
Research design and its implementation
Analysis
Perceived course identity
Interpretant
‘Course identity’
Representamen
 Paradigmatic
 Syntagmatic
 Paradigmatic course identity
 Syntagmatic course identity as observed
through OSNs

Object
 Course of study
 OSNs
Findings and discussion, development of ideas/beliefs
Conclusions, contributions to knowledge and practice
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5.2 Approach to analysis
The analysis was informed by a number of texts on qualitative and semiotic analysis,
particularly the work of Miles and Huberman (1994), Chandler (2007), Cobley (2001),
Innis (1985), Merrell (1995), Zeman (1977) and Jakobson (1971a, 1971b). Due to the
complex nature of qualitative analysis, the three stages of qualitative analysis identified by
Miles and Huberman (1994) were adopted to provide the structure for the analysis. As
shown in Figure 18, the three stages identified by Miles and Huberman (1994) are; data
reduction, data displays, and conclusion drawing/verification. These will each be discussed
in turn.
Figure 18 Components of data analysis: flow model (Miles and Huberman, 1994)
Data collection period
DATA REDUCTION
Anticipatory
During
Post
DATA DISPLAYS
During
Post
= ANALYSIS
CONCLUSION DRAWING / VERIFICATION
During
Post
5.2.1 Data reduction
Data reduction sharpens, sorts, focuses, discards, and organizes data in such a way that
final conclusions can be drawn and verified (Miles and Huberman, 1994). Data reduction
occurs continuously throughout the life of any qualitatively-oriented project (Miles and
Huberman, 1994). Even before the data are collected, anticipatory data reduction is
occurring as the researcher decides (often without full awareness) which cases, which
research questions, and which data collection approaches to select.
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The structure of this section is as follows: First the method of textual analysis employed to
analyse the interview transcripts is described. In doing this, Peirce’s theory of signs and the
semiotic model of course identity developed in Chapter 2 are revisited. Secondly, there
will be a discussion of how categories and codes are developed. Finally, there will be a
discussion of how codes, representamens and interpretants are identified within the text.
5.2.1.1 Semiotic analysis
Semiotic analysis is a qualitative method (Danesi, 2007; Hamed and El-Bassiouny, 2013)
often employed in the analysis of texts (Chandler, 2007; Opeibi and Oluwasola, 2013;
Short, 2005). Semiotic analysis is the way by which people seek to analyse and identify
hidden messages and meanings in texts (Danesi, 2007). A ‘text’ may be verbal, non-verbal,
or both (Chandler, 2007). The term ‘text’ usually refers to a message which has been
recorded in some way (e.g. writing, audio and video-recording) so that it is physically
independent of its sender or receiver (Chandler, 2007). In the context of this research, the
term ‘text’ refers to interview data recorded in the form of transcripts.
Peirce’s theory of signs is used as a method of textual analysis to analyse the interview
transcripts. At the heart of Peirce’s theory of signs is the idea of interpretation (Short,
2007). Peirce’s theory of signs is distinctive and innovative for its breadth and complexity,
and for capturing the importance of interpretation to signification. (Atkin, 2010). In
Peircean semiotics, the sign as a whole is a unity of what is represented (object), how it is
represented (representamen) and how it is interpreted (interpretant) (Chandler, 2007). The
interview transcripts as a whole can be seen as a triadic sign system made of object,
representamen and interpretant. In the current research, this triadic sign system is the
‘course identity’. The semiotic model of course identity developed in chapter 2 was used to
structure the analysis of interview transcripts – see Figure 19.
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Figure 19 Semiotic model of course identity in the context of this research
Perceived course identity
Interpretant
‘Course identity’
Representamen
 Paradigmatic
 Syntagmatic
Object
 Paradigmatic course identity
 Syntagmatic course identity
as observed through OSNs
 Course of study
 OSNs
Guided by the research question and the research aims, the aims of the analysis, as outlined
in Table 23, are threefold. Each of the three research objectives apply independently to
each of the three participating courses of study, however, the intention of this research is to
provide a set of findings and conclusions that could equally apply to any HE course in the
UK, and potentially beyond.
Table 23 Aims of the analysis
Research objectives
Define the paradigmatic course identity
Aims of the analysis
First, to discover the ‘representamens’ within codes
that constitute the paradigmatic course identity.
Define the syntagmatic course identity as observed
Second, to discover the ‘representamens’ within codes
through online social networks
that constitute the syntagmatic course identity.
Compare and contrast the levels of influence of
Third, to discover the ‘interpretants’ within codes that
paradigmatic course identity and syntagmatic
constitute the perceived course identity.
course identity on the perceived course identity
Like any method of textual analysis, such as rhetorical analysis or content analysis, there
are strengths and limitations with semiotic analysis (Anderson et al., 2006).
In terms of strengths, semiotic analysis is invaluable for looking beyond the manifest
content of texts (Chandler, 2007). Semiotic analysis helps researchers to explore behind
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or beneath the surface of what is observed in order to discover the underlying
organizational relations (Chandler, 2007). The more obvious the structural organization of
a text may seem to be, the more difficult it may be to see beyond such surface features,
however searching for what is hidden beneath the obvious can lead to fruitful insights
(Chandler, 2007). With respect to drawbacks, semiotic analysis is heavily dependent upon
the skill of the analyst; thus a researcher with considerable experience is more likely to
generate a more comprehensive and informed analysis than a less experienced researcher
(Anderson et al., 2006).
In the following section, I describe how categories and codes were developed in this study.
5.2.1.2 Categories and codes
The process of coding and category development was in itself part of the analysis process.
Technically, coding has associations with semiotics (Miles and Huberman, 1994). The
production and interpretation of texts depends upon the existence of codes or conventions
for communication (Jakobson, 1971a). Codes provide a framework within which the
elements of a sign make sense (Jakobson, 1971a). The concept of the code is fundamental
to the current research as the elements of course identity are not meaningful in isolation,
but only when they are situated within codes. Guided by the semiotic model of course
identity developed in section 2.6, the codes grouped under three major categories:
‘paradigmatic course identity’, ‘syntagmatic course identity’, and ‘perceived course
identity’ (Table 24). I refined the draft coding schemes on several occasions so that some
codes were subsumed into others or further broken down into smaller groupings.
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Table 24 Major categories and codes
Paradigmatic course identity
Initial sources of information
Sources of information available
Offline sources of information
Online sources of information
Core factors influencing selection of a course abroad
Syntagmatic course identity as observed through OSNs
Participants did not use OSNs
Reasons for not using OSNs
Subsequent changes in perceptions about OSNs
Participants used OSNs
Stages at which OSNs are used during the course
selection process
OSNs most commonly used during the course selection
process
Information-gathering methods using OSNs
Information available on OSNs
Information needed most from OSNs during the course
selection process
Benefits of using OSNs for individuals’ course
selection decisions
Downsides of using OSNs for individuals’ course
selection decisions
Perceived course identity
The level of influence of OSNs on final course selection decisions in
comparison with other sources of information.
PAI
PAI.FSI
PAI.SIA
PAI.SIA.OFF
PAI.SIA.ONL
PAI.CF
SYI
SYI.PDU
SYI.PDU.RNU
SYI.PDU.SCP
SYI.PUS
SYI.PUS.S
SYI.PUS.MCU
SYI.PUS.IGM
SYI.PUS.IAO
SYI.PUS.INM
SYI.PUS.BOC
SYI.PUS.DOC
PEI
PEI.LIF
The original coded interview transcripts were imported into NVivo to ensure consistency
and accuracy. NVivo is a qualitative data analysis software produced by QSR
International. NVivo has been designed for qualitative researchers working with very rich
text-based and/or multimedia information, where deep levels of analysis on small or large
volumes of data are required (QSR Website, 2012). The ‘codes’ are referred to as ‘nodes’
in NVivo. Creating nodes enabled cataloguing of ideas and collecting of material by topic
or case. As shown in Figure 20, NVivo supported the organisation of categories and nodes
into hierarchies, moving from general to more specific topics. NVivo proved to be a highly
efficient means of managing and retrieving information in the form of a database. It also
proved to have two additional advantages, in confirming impressions concerning common
patterns and relationships between nodes, and it also assisted in uncovering additional links
for further exploration. Several advantages of NVivo have been recognized in the
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literature, for example, the software’s capacity to handle large volumes of data and provide
analytical tools that support a variety of analysis processes (Bazeley, 2007).
Figure 20 Screenshot of QSR NVivo illustrating Nodes
5.2.1.3 Filtering codes, representamens and interpretants
The act of discovering codes, representamens and interpretants within the text demanded
that I apply an analytical lens and use different types of filter. In addition to the
preliminary review of literature, the selection of codes, representamens and interpretants
were derived from my research participants (i.e. taken directly from the transcribed data).
Furthermore, my level of personal involvement as an insider or outsider researcher filtered
my selections, as did the types of questions I asked, the detail and structuring of field
notes, the gender and race/ethnicities of research participants. An example of how codes,
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representamens and interpretants were selected for this study are presented in Table 25.
The data in Table 25 comes from an international student who describes the information
that was available about Course B on OSNs, and how influential OSNs were on his final
course selection decision in comparison with other sources. All quotations cited in this
chapter are exact transcriptions of international students’ own words. I made no attempt to
correct diction or grammar, although I have attempted to split the student’s responses into
logical sentence units.
Table 25 An example of how codes, representamens and interpretants are selected
Representamen (s)
(or ‘R’)
In comparison with other sources of
information, how influential were OSNs on
your final course selection decision?
Category
Code
Syntagmatic course identity
Information available on OSNs: SYI.PUS.IAO




The quality of teaching [R1]
Information on assessment [R2]
The level of student support and care [R3]
Personalities and attitudes of academic and
administrative staff towards students [R4]
 Information on exams and assignments [R5]
Perceived course identity
The level of influence of OSNs on final course
selection decisions in comparison with other
sources of information: PEI.LIF
Interpretant
(s)
(or ‘I’)
“…If I want to rate how influential they
[OSNs] have been in selecting [Course B] I
would say 50% in my case…” (B05)
Code Category
Researcher
“…I found information on teaching quality
and assessment and how easy it is to pass
the exams and assignments…I wanted to find
these information more and that is why I
searched more about these information…I
also found information on student service
and attitude of lecturers, and if they are
helpful or nice, there are lots of comments
about these things on OSNs …” (B05)
Participant
What information was available on OSNs?
Participant
Analysis
Researcher
Questions and Responses
OSNs have a moderate influence on final
course selection decisions [I1]
5.2.2 Data displays
The second major flow of analysis activity is through data displays (Miles and Huberman,
1994). I used data displays to enhance the ability to draw and verify valid conclusions. As
with data reduction, the creation and use of displays has not been separate from analysis in
the current research. According to Miles and Huberman (1994), for qualitative researchers,
105
the typical mode of display has been extended and unreduced text. However, extended and
unreduced text alone is a weak and cumbersome form of display, and is difficult for
analysts to manage because it tends to be spread over multiple pages and not easy to see as
a whole (Miles and Huberman, 1994). Miles and Huberman (1994) argue that valid
analysis requires, and is driven by, displays that are focused enough to permit a view of the
full data set in the same location, and arranged systematically to answer the research
questions at hand. An example of the data display used in the current research is presented
in Figure 21.
Figure 21 An example of data display from the main study - Course B
OSNs most commonly used
during the course selection
process
Facebook (Global)
www.facebook.com
Orkut (Global)
www.orkut.com
Pagalguy (India)
www.pagalguy.com
LinkedIn (Global)
www.linkedin.com/
PowerApple (China)
www.powerapple.com
QQ (China)
www.qq.com
5.2.3 Conclusion drawing/verification
The drawing of conclusions and their verification involves interpreting data and answering
research question (s) (Miles and Huberman, 1994). The research question in the current
research is “how does the choice of course of study abroad interrelate with participation in
OSNs?” Combining semiotic analysis with use of NVivo, and using data displays enhance
the ability to draw and verify valid conclusions that could equally apply to any HE course
in the UK, and potentially beyond.
Having discussed the approach to analysis adopted for this work, the remainder of this
chapter presents the analysis of the data from the pilot study and the main study.
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5.3 Pilot study
A pilot study was conducted to test the interview questions with three international
students studying on Course A. The pilot study took place over a one week period starting
on 16th June 2011, and was deemed a success. No questions were misunderstood and no
amendments were made to the interview guide. The findings from the pilot study are
included in the overall findings of the research in Chapter 6. The demographics of pilot
study interviewees are presented in the table below.
Male
Turkey
Bachelor's degree
3
PS2
30
Single
Female
Brazil
MSc
10
PS3
28
Married
Female
India
MSc
3
professional
position
Marketing
manager
Sales
Manager
Lecturer
Industry
Single
years of work
experience
Marital status
27
Country
Age
PS1
Gender
Interviewees
The highest level of
education before
MBA
Table 26 The demographics of interviewees – Pilot study
Retail
Pharmaceutical
Higher education
In line with the aims of the analysis, as shown in Table 23, this section is divided into
three. The first subsection presents ‘representamens’ within codes that constitute the
paradigmatic identity of Course A. The second subsection presents ‘representamens’
within codes that constitute the syntagmatic identity of Course A as observed through
OSNs. Finally, the third subsection presents ‘interpretants’ within codes that constitute the
perceived identity of Course A.
5.3.1 Paradigmatic identity of Course A
This section presents ‘representamens’ within codes that constitute the paradigmatic
identity of Course A. The ‘paradigmatic identity of Course A’ is the overall identity of this
course, communicated to international HE aspirants and applicants in the form of the
representamen through a variety of resources from which international HE aspirants and
applicants generate certain perceptions (or interpretants) about Course A. Following the
stages of qualitative analysis outlined by Miles and Huberman (1994), data displays will be
used to support the drawing and verification of valid conclusions.
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Initial sources of information
Responses to the interview question ‘how did you first find out about [Course A]?’ include
comments that suggest there are two representamens (or ‘R’ as abbreviation of the
representamen) within code PAI.FSI. Participants first heard about Course A from their
family members [R1], or from friends [R2] who have previously studied at University A. The
following comments capture these two representamens.
“…I first heard about this course from my wife because she studied here
previously…” (PS1)
“…one of my friends graduated from this university, he told me for the first
time about this course...” (PS2)
Figure 22 Initial sources of information available during the course
selection process – Pilot study
Initial sources of information
Family members who have previously studied at
University A
Friends who have previously studied at
University A
Offline sources of information
Responses to the interview question ‘what offline sources of information did you use to
obtain information about [Course A]?’ include comments that suggest there are three
representamens within code PAI.SIA.OFF. They include family members who have
previously studied at University A [R1], friends who have previously studied at University A
[R2]
, and education agencies
[R3]
. The following comment captures some of these
representamens.
“…one of my friends graduated from this university, he told me for the first
time about this course…I also contacted some education agencies back
home…I first heard about this course from my wife because she studied here
previously…” (PS1)
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Figure 23 Offline sources of information available during the course
selection process – Pilot study
Offline sources of information
Family members who have previously
studied at University A
Friends who have previously studied at
University A
Education agencies
Online sources of information
Responses to the interview question ‘what online sources of information did you use to
obtain information about [Course A]?’ include comments that suggest there are three
representamens within code PAI.SIA.ONL. They include information obtained via email
exchanges with the MBA director [R1], electronic course brochures [R2], and OSNs [R3].
“…I downloaded the online version of MBA brochure from the official
Website. I contacted admission office and MBA director via email…I also used
OSNs…” (PS1)
“…I also used OSNs to contact current and past MBA students, and I looked
at their online profiles…” (PS3)
Figure 24 Online sources of information available during the course
selection process – Pilot study
Online sources of information
Information obtained via email
exchanges with the MBA director
Electronic course brochures
OSNs
Core factors influencing the choice of Course A
Responses to the interview question ‘why did you select [Course A] as your preferred
course of study abroad?’ include comments that suggest there are seven representamens
within code PAI.CF. These representamens will be discussed in turn.
 Future job and career prospects after graduation [R1]
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PS1 stated that studying for an MBA helps him to be competitive in the international job
market and to develop his career towards more senior managerial positions.
“…I believe the MBA is a really suitable course for international students who
want to be competitive in the international job market…MBA helps me to
develop my career towards managerial positions…” (PS1)
 One-year course duration [R2]
The one-year duration of Course A was perceived as an advantage by PS2. This participant
stated that her employer would only sponsor a one-year MBA and no longer, as she would
be able to return to work more quickly.
“…I selected this course because it is only 1 year course…my employer back
home only sponsored a one-year MBA because I can return to work
quicker…” (PS2)
 The UK education system is internationally recognised [R3]
The preliminary findings indicate that the USA and Canada are also popular education
destinations, however, PS1 decided to study for his MBA in the UK because the UK
education system is well known worldwide.
“…at first I wanted to go to the USA or Canada because I have some relatives
who live in those countries. Then I found lots of positive information on the
reputation of British HE…” (PS1)
 The UK MBA is more practice-based than those of other popular study
destinations [R4]
PS3 suggested that the UK MBA is more practice-based than the MBA in other popular
study destinations such as the USA.
“…the course structure and curriculum of the MBA in the UK is more practice
based in compare to other popular study destination such as the USA…”
(PS3)
 The cost of accommodation in the city is low [R5]
PS2 stated that the cost of accommodation in the city in which Course A is offered is low
in comparison with large and internationally recognized British cities.
“…this city is small and the cost of accommodation is cheaper in compare to
large and famous British cities” (PS2)
 Accreditation by AMBA [R6]
The following comment captures the AMBA accreditation of Course A as a representamen
that determined PS3’s course selection decisions.
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“…I had several offer letters but this course was the only course which was
accredited by AMBA...” (PS3)
 Lower admission requirements than high ranked MBA courses in terms of work
experience and academic background [R7]
PS3 selected Course A because she believed it would be easy for her to fulfil admission
requirements for this course. This participant stated that Course A had lower admission
requirements in terms of work experience and academic background.
“…I don’t have very strong professional and academic background and it
wasn’t possible for me to select a very high ranked MBA, this was one of the
main reasons that I decided to select the MBA from this university…” (PS3)
Core factors influencing the choice of Course A are displayed in the following figure.
Figure 25 Core factors influencing selection of a course abroad – Pilot Study
Core factors influencing the choice of
Course A
Future job and career prospects after
graduation
One-year course duration
The UK HE system is internationally
recognised
The UK MBA is more practice-based
than those of other popular study
destinations such as the USA
The cost of accommodation in the city is
low
Accreditation by AMBA
Lower admission requirements than high
ranked MBA courses in terms of work
experience and academic background
5.3.2 Syntagmatic identity of Course A as observed through online social
networks
This section presents ‘representamens’ within codes that constitute the syntagmatic identity
of Course A as observed through OSNs. This identity of Course A is communicated in the
form of the representamen to international HE aspirants and applicants through OSNs,
111
from which international HE aspirants and applicants generate certain perceptions (or
interpretants) about Course A.
Participants did not use OSNs
PS1 from Turkey was the only participant who did not use OSNs during the course
selection process. PS1’s reasons for not using OSNs and subsequent changes in his
perceptions about OSNs are discussed below.
Reasons for not using OSNs and subsequent changes in perceptions
about OSNs
PS1’s responses to the interview question ‘why didn’t you use OSNs during the course
selection process?’ include comments that suggested there were two representamens within
code SYI.PDU.RNU. They include privacy concerns
[R1]
and the participant’s cultural and
personality traits discouraged him from using OSNs
[R2]
. PS1 stated that OSNs endanger
individuals’ career prospects by exposing their personal life, for example through personal
photos, to future employers or head-hunters. Moreover, this participant did not use OSNs
because he did not want to contact people he has never met. PS1 indicated that other
people in his country have a similar approach to OSNs.
“…I don’t want my future employer or head hunters to see my personal
photos, especially when I know these days there are many head-hunters and
employers who seek information on candidates on OSNs… I don’t like to
contact people I never met before… It is my personal characteristic…this is
also because of my cultural background…I also think other people in my
country will do the same…” (PS1)
Figure 26 Reasons for not using online social networks – Pilot study
Reasons for not using OSNs
Privacy concerns
Participants’ cultural and personality
traits discourage them from using
OSNs
PS1’s responses to the interview question ‘do you still have the same approach towards
OSNs?’ included comments that suggest his perceptions towards OSNs changed
[R1]
while
he was studying MBA in the UK. PS1 stated that students are more honest in their
responses and it is always better to have insights from students as official sources only
portray positive information.
112
“…but now I am changed because I learnt about OSNs while I have been
doing my MBA in the UK…It is always better to have insights from students,
because you have the official information from the recruitment and marketing
team which is always very positive…” (PS1)
Participants used OSNs
Two out of three research participants in the pilot study used OSNs during the course
selection process: PS2 from Brazil and PS3 from India. Although the sample size for the
pilot study was small, this finding revealed the popularity of OSNs as a source of
information.
Stages at which OSNs are used during the course selection process
The literature in Chapter 3 contributes to a greater understanding of the stages involved in
the choice of HE. Chapman’s (1986) model is used in the current research to discuss the
different stages at which international HE aspirants and applicants use OSNs during the
course selection process. Chapman’s (1986) model was discussed in section 3.3.1 and
therefore I do not intend to repeat it here.
Responses to the interview question ‘at what stages in your course selection process did
you use OSNs?’ include comments that suggest there are two representamens within code
SYI.PUS.S. They include the search behaviour stage [R1] and the choice decision stage [R2].
PS2 used OSNs at the search behaviour stage, and PS3 used OSNs at the search behaviour
and choice decisions stages.
“…after when I decided to do my MBA, I used OSNs to search for different
MBA courses and to find information on them...OSNs helped me to shortlist
my MBA options…”. (PS2)
“…I used OSNs to make my final decision” (PS3)
Table 27 Stages at which online social networks are used during the course
selection process – Pilot study
Interviewees
The search behaviour stage
The choice decision stage
PS2
PS3
✓
✓
✓
113
OSNs most commonly used during the course selection process
Responses to the interview question ‘can you please name all the OSNs that you used to
obtain information about [Course A]?’ include comments that suggest there are two
representamens within code SYI.PUS.MCU. They include Facebook [R1] and LinkedIn [R2].
“…I met some people on the LinkedIn and Facebook who did their MBA in
this university… Facebook was still new for me in Brazil. However, I could
find more information on Facebook than other OSNs. I found several
Facebook pages and groups for this course…” (PS2)
Figure 27 Online social networks most commonly used during the course
selection process – Pilot study
OSNs most commonly used
during the course selection
process
Facebook (Global)
www.facebook.com
LinkedIn (Global)
www.linkedin.com
Information-gathering methods using OSNs
Reponses to the interview question ‘how did you gather information using OSNs?’ include
comments that suggest there are two representamens within code SYI.PUS.IGM.
Participants obtained information by viewing online profiles
[R1]
, or reading comments
from other users [R2].
Figure 28 Information-gathering methods using online social networks – Pilot study
Information-gathering methods
using OSNs
Viewing online profiles
Reading comments from other
users
Information available on OSNs
Responses to the interview question ‘what information was available on OSNs?’ include
comments that suggest there are ten representamens within code SYI.PUS.IAO. By
114
viewing online profiles, PS2 acquired information on the nationality
[R1]
and ages
[R2]
of
other HE aspirants and applicants interested in Course A.
“…I could get lots of information on the people who wanted to attend this
course, I looked at their profiles on the LinkedIn and Facebook, I just wanted
to know what countries they are coming from and how old they are…” (PS2)
PS2 stated that by viewing online profiles she obtained information about the professional
backgrounds [R3] and the age range of past and current students [R4].
‘…I also checked the profiles of past and current students to get information
on their aging profile and working experience…” (PS2)
By reading comments from other users, PS3 acquired information about the studentfriendliness of the city
[R5]
, cost of living in the city
[R6]
, social life in the city [R7],
university accommodation and privately rented accommodation available in the city
the diversity of past and current students
[R9]
and sports facilities in the city
[R10]
[R8]
,
.
“…there were several useful comments on how to rent an apartment in this
city and availability of student accommodation...comments on how student
friendly the city is…what is the social life here…I found some comments that
there are many students studying in this university from different
nationality…the cost of living for me was very important, I didn’t want live in
a very expensive place, I read some comments that past students were happy
with the cost of living here and this city isn’t a very expensive city…apart from
studying I wanted to find out what sports facilities are available here in the
city…” (PS3)
115
Figure 29 Information available on online social networks – Pilot study
Information available on OSNs
By viewing online profiles
By reading comments from other
users
Nationalities of other HE aspirants
and applicants interested in Course
A
Ages of other HE aspirants and
applicants interested in Course A
Student-friendliness of the city
Cost of living in the city
Social life in the city
Professional backgrounds of past and
current students
The age range of past and current
students
University accommodation and
privately rented accommodation
available in the city
The diversity of past and current
students
Sports facilities in the city
The information needed most from OSNs during the course selection
process
Responses to the interview question ‘what is the information that is needed most during the
course selection process that you search for on OSNs?’ include comments that suggest
there are three representamens within code SYI.PUS.INM. They include information about
the student visa and application process
graduation
[R2]
[R1]
, future job and career prospects after
and how University A can support them in finding a job
[R3]
. PS2 was not
clear about the student visa and she faced difficulties in obtaining up to date information
from the UK Border Agency (UKBA). It is evident from the data that the main challenge
was to stay updated with the latest changes relating to the student visa and application
process.
“…I had several problem with the visa application process, the immigration
rules were changing really fast and I was very confused…that would be good
if the university could provide some information on the student visa on OSNs
and how students can apply for the Visa, other students can also share their
experiences about Visa process…” (PS2)
“…the crucial information that was missing was what kind of opportunities
you have after doing your MBA here, is it too easy or too difficult to find a job
here or what kind of opportunities you are open to, does the university offer
116
any placement assistants , what role does the university play in helping you to
find a job after graduation…” (PS3)
Figure 30 Information needed most from online social networks during the
course selection process – Pilot study
The information needed most from OSNs
during the course selection process
The student visa and
application process
Future job and career
prospects after the
completion of the
course
How University A can
support students to find
a job
Benefits of using OSNs in course selection
Responses to the interview question ‘what are the benefits of using OSNs in comparison
with other sources?’ include comments that suggest there are five representamens within
code SYI.PUS.BOC. OSNs facilitate connections between and information sharing with
past and current students [R1], and other HE aspirants and applicants interested in Course A
[R2]
. PS2 claimed that OSNs helped her to contact a past MBA student from her own
country, Brazil. Speaking to this person significantly helped PS2 to gain more confidence
in selecting Course A. In terms of connections and information sharing, PS3 stated that
OSNs helped her to get to know about other HE aspirants and applicants, and to acquire
information that would not normally be available via other sources.
“…OSNs such as Facebook allowed me to contact other people… I tried to
contact someone from my country, because when you contact somebody from
your country you feel more comfortable…I was looking the name of people in
the group, there were many different names, with the name you can see if the
person is from your country or no, and I remember I contacted a person with a
very South American name…I just wanted to contact somebody that is neutral,
and somebody that is from my country, because when you contact somebody
you want somebody to be honest with you , you really want to have a real
feedback , you want to know the truth…” (PS2)
Unlike official sources, such as the Financial Times that only provide general information
on MBA courses, PS3 claimed that OSNs helped her to gather detailed information about
Course A
[R3]
and to send direct messages to past and current students
[R4]
. PS3 also noted
that it was very easy to access the information available on OSNs [R5].
117
“…I can personalize more through Facebook…I can get more insights, I can
get the information that I want, I can make specific questions for people, if I
look at a table in full-time I can get some insights, but maybe, this table isn’t
going to answer all my questions. For example I want to know if this course
going to teach specifically leadership, maybe I cannot have this answer in fulltime because it is very, how I can say, it is very superficial. They just give
some data…some numbers some figures, but through Facebook I can explore
more, I can personalize my questions…moreover it was really easy to access
the information, some of them were posted on the wall and it was also very
easy to contact other people…” (PS3)
Figure 31 Benefits of using online social networks in course selection – Pilot study
Benefits of using OSNs in course
selection
They facilitate connections between
and information sharing with past and
current students
They facilitate connections between
and information sharing with other
HE aspirants and applicants
They help individuals to gather
detailed information about the course
They help to send direct messages to
past and current students
It is easy to access information on
OSNs
Downsides of using OSNs in course selection
Responses to the interview question ‘what are the downsides of using OSNs in comparison
with other sources?’ include comments that suggest there are two representamens within
code SYI.PUS.DOC. PS2 stated that it was difficult to distinguish between advertising
messages and more neutral information
[R1]
. In some instances, this participant became
doubtful about Course A when she saw members of staff posting positive comments or
uploading photos and videos. PS2 suggested that photos and videos uploaded by students
are more reliable than those uploaded by members of staff.
“…you have to be careful who you are talking to on OSNs, for example if you
talk with a member of staff, you have to be a little bit carful because they only
pose things that are beneficial for the course to attract new students, it is like
advertising…It was difficult to distinguish between neutral messages and
advertising messages, you have to see who is the person putting the photos…if
a member of staff put a lot of advertising you just become a little bit
suspicious…” (PS2)
118
PS2 could not completely rely on all of the information available on OSNs and she
perceived the information on OSNs as potentially unreliable
[R2]
. PS2 claimed that OSNs
have their own benefits and drawbacks similar to other sources of information.
“… sometimes the information on the Internet isn’t reliable. I would
recommend my friends to use different sources, including OSNs, Financial
Times, education fairs. I would say yes use OSNs, but just be very careful to
analyse what people say…” (PS2)
Figure 32 Downsides of using online social networks in course selection – Pilot study
Downsides of using OSNs in course selection
Users cannot completely rely on all of the
information available on OSNs
Difficult to distinguish between advertising
messages and more neutral information
5.3.3 Perceived identity of Course A
This section presents ‘interpretants’ within codes that constitute the perceived identity of
Course A. The perceived identity of Course A is determined by the paradigmatic identity of
Course A and the syntagmatic identity of Course A, and influences the final course
selection decisions of international HE aspirants and applicants.
The level of influence of OSNs on final course selection decisions in
comparison with other sources
Responses to the interview question ‘how influential were OSNs on your final course
selection decisions in comparison with other sources?’ include comments that suggest
there are two ‘interpretants’ (or ‘I’ as abbreviation of the interpretant) within code PEI.LIF.
These representamens will be discussed in turn.
 OSNs have a strong influence on final course selection decisions [I1]
PS2 did not gain much insight from official sources, such as education agencies. This
participant indicated that she did not trust information provided through official sources
and wanted to acquire less biased feedback from past and current students who had already
119
experienced studying Course A. PS2 also stated that Course A was not listed in ranking
websites, and without OSNs she could not get access to much information on this course.
“…OSNs Influenced my final decision a lot…I didn’t get so much information
and insight from university website...the information that come from the
university is always biased because they want to sell the course, they always
say the course is the best…I wanted to talk to people who has already
experienced the course…so when you contact ex-students you can have a real
feedback, it is more close to the reality…so I would say OSNs such as
Facebook really influenced my decision…OSNs were very important because
this course isn’t in the ranking websites, so I could not get so much
information…so it was necessary to contact other people to get more
insights…” (PS2)
 OSNs have a moderate influence on final course selection decisions [I2]
OSNs had a moderate influence on PS3’s final course selection decision. PS3 became more
confident in selecting Course A only when she saw the presence of Course A on OSNs.
This participant was not fully convinced by the information provided through official
sources such as official university websites and education agencies, and she used OSNs to
clarify areas where she had information gaps.
“…they influenced my decision 60%…as I said earlier I become more
confident only when I started finding the presence of this course on OSNs, and
when I started getting to know people…that is exactly when my decision was
influenced…after the proposal by the consultant and going through the official
Website I was not completely convinced, I was convinced only we I spoke to
students online…” (PS3)
Table 28 The level of influence of online social networks on final course selection
decisions in comparison with other sources – Pilot study
Interviewees
Strong level of influence
PS2
✓
PS3
Moderate level of influence
✓
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5.4 Main study
The data for the main study were collected from 30 international students studying on
Courses A, B and C. This section begins with the analysis of the data collected from
Course A. This is followed by the analysis of the data collected from Course B. Finally, the
analysis of the data collected from Course C is presented.
5.4.1 Course A
A sample of 10 international students studying on Course A was selected for the main
study. The demographics of interviewees are presented in the table below.
Marital status
Gender
Country
The highest level
of education
before MBA
years of work
experience
25
28
32
26
Single
Single
Married
Married
Male
Male
Female
Male
India
India
India
Zimbabwe
BA
BA
BA
MSc
4
6
10
6
Business consultant
IT team leader
Assistant Manager
Business Developer
A05
A06
35
45
Married
Married
Female
Female
Nigeria
Hong Kong
HND
MA
12
18
A07
29
Married
Female
BA
5
A08
45
Single
Male
United
States
Nigeria
15
A09
A10
28
29
Married
Single
Male
Female
Nigeria
India
Professional
accountancy
BA
BA
Internal auditor
Self-employed
/Accountant
Sales
development/broker
Consultant
4
10
Marketing executive
Chief Executive
Officer (CEO)
Industry
Age
A01
A02
A03
A04
professional
position
Interviewees
Table 29 The demographics of interviewees – Course A
Consulting
IT
IT
Real States/
property
Finance
Finance
Consumer
Goods
Consulting
Pharmaceuticals
Engineering
In line with the aims of the analysis this section is divided into three. The first subsection
presents ‘representamens’ within codes that constitute the paradigmatic identity of Course
A. The second subsection presents ‘representamens’ within codes that constitute the
syntagmatic identity of Course A as observed through OSNs. Finally, the third subsection
presents ‘interpretants’ within codes that constitute the perceived identity of Course A.
5.4.1.1 Paradigmatic identity of Course A
This section presents ‘representamens’ within codes that constitute the paradigmatic
identity of Course A. The paradigmatic identity of Course A is the overall identity of this
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course communicated in the form of the representamen to international HE aspirants and
applicants through a variety of resources from which international HE aspirants and
applicants generate certain perceptions (or interpretants) about Course A.
Initial sources of information
Responses to the interview question ‘how did you first find out about [Course A]?’ include
comments that suggest there are four representamens within code PAI.FSI. Several
participants first heard about Course A from education agencies [R1], from friends who have
previously studied at University A
at University A
[R3]
[R2]
, from family members who have previously studied
, or from newspaper advertisements
[R4]
. The following comments
capture some of these representamens.
“...since my knowledge was on the UK MBA low I went to the agent and the
agent had a list of all full-time MBA courses which are accredited by
AMBA...” (A01)
“…from my friends who did their MSc here before. Well, if you talk about
MBA in general I always had a plan to do MBA, my friend in the UK
suggested that we have good universities here…” (A05)
“…I found about it [Course A] myself through searching online, I went to
[University A official website], I didn’t know anyone who was studying MBA
in the UK…” (A04)
“…I only knew about [Course A] because of my husband who came here for
surveying course…” (A07)
“…I saw the advertisement in a newspaper back home. I was thinking of the
MBA at the time and I said ok let’s select this MBA…” (A08)
Figure 33 Initial sources of information available during the course
selection process – Course A
Initial sources of information
Education agencies
Family members who have
previously studied at University A
Friends who have previously
studied at University A
Newspaper advertisements
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Offline sources of information
Responses to the interview question ‘what offline sources of information did you use to
obtain information about [Course A]?’ include comments that suggest there are six
representamens within code PAI.SIA.OFF. They include education agencies
who have previously studied at University A
studied at University A
the admissions office
[R3]
[R5]
[R1]
, friends
[R2]
, family members who have previously
, newspaper advertisements
[R4]
, telephone conversations with
, and telephone conversations with the MBA administrator
[R6]
.
The following comments capture these representamens.
“…I contacted my consultant back home…second source was my friends
living in and around this city…” (A02)
“…offline sources were from friends, students here and some of them are
already graduated….I called [University A] directly and I also called some
members of staff and got some information” (A04)
“…the agencies that were doing marketing for universities…also my friend,
because he used to live here for 11 years…my friend knows about the
education system in the UK, I used to ask my friend how good is the education
system, what is the cultural background…” (A05)
“…I called the MBA administrator and she gave me some information about
the course…” (A08)
Figure 34 Offline sources of information available during the course
selection process – Course A
Offline sources of information
Education agencies
Friends who have previously
studied at University A
Family members who have
previously studied at University A
Newspaper advertisements
Telephone conversations with the
admissions office
Telephone conversations with the
MBA administrator
Online sources of information
Responses to the interview question ‘what online sources of information did you use to
obtain information about [Course A]?’ include comments that suggest there are eight
representamens within code PAI.SIA.ONL. They include OSNs [R1], ranking websites such
as the Financial Times
[R2]
, the official university website
[R3]
, information obtained via
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[R4]
email exchanges with the admissions office
accreditation bodies’ websites such as AMBA
exchanges with the MBA administrator
[R7]
, electronic course brochures
[R6]
[R5]
,
, information obtained via email
, e-journals such as the Guardian, Newsweek
and WhichMBA [R8]. The following comments capture these representamens.
“…I have been through many sites like pagalguy…I looked for this course on
Facebook and Orkut, this is the basic tendency, whenever you hear about
something that you aren’t sure of and you want to find more details you use
these sites…”(A02)
“…I looked at Financial Times rankings…I also checked the MBA world
ranking. I used to search guardian.co.uk to check for the ranking…” (A05)
“…I looked at [University A official website] and I saw some testimonies from
students, saying some nice things… I checked the official Website…via email I
contacted admissions staff and I downloaded the online course brochure...”
(A04)
“…I looked at Financial Times, Newsweek and WhichMBA. I also emailed the
MBA administrator…I think I got some information from AMBA website…”
(A09)
Figure 35 Online sources of information available during the course selection
process – Course A
Online sources of information
OSNs
Ranking websites (e.g. the Financial Times,
MBA world rankings)
The official university website
Information obtained via email exchanges
with the admissions office
Electronic course brochures
Accreditation bodies’ websites (e.g. AMBA)
Information obtained via email exchanges
with the MBA administrator
E-journals (e.g. the Guardian, Newsweek,
WhichMBA).
Core factors influencing the choice of Course A
Responses to the interview question ‘why did you select [Course A] as your preferred
course of study abroad?” include comments that suggest there are thirty representamens
within code PAI.CF. These representamens will be discussed in turn.
124
 Future job and career prospects after graduation [R1]
A number of participants, particularly those from IT backgrounds, noted that they had been
in the same position within their industry for many years, and they had gone as far as they
could with their technical expertise and did not know how to develop further so they could
be promoted. A01, A02 and A03 stated that studying for an MBA helps them to have a
better understanding of the business and to raise their profiles and marketability. A01 noted
that business studies related courses such as the MBA are very popular amongst
employers, and studying these courses will help him to find a job more easily.
“…I thought that studying business related courses is something that is
popular among future employers and I thought it is easier to find a job with an
MBA degree…” (A01)
“… I wanted to have a complete overall picture of how a business functions
and for that I needed to get back to school. So getting back to basics is very
essential when you are trying to do something beyond your expertise…I spent
around 6 years in IT industry, I had a feeling that I was not growing beyond
the technical expertise which I have gained all thorough my career…” (A02)
“…I was working as an assistant manager, in corporate world, especially in
India, when you have to grow to the next level or to the managerial level you
look for a qualification which is more than a graduation level which is the
MBA. So I wasn’t getting enough response from the interviewers and I thought
this is the time I should go for a postgraduate degree and improve my
profile…” (A03)
 Lower tuition fees than other accredited MBA courses [R2]
A01, A02 and A04 stated that the tuition fees for Course A were lower than for other
AMBA accredited courses.
“…I was looking at the tuition fees…out of all AMBA accredited courses,
[Course A] was among the cheapest ones…” (A01)
“…I have to say that [Course A] was true value for money…” (A02)
“…the tuition fees for [Course A] is more suitable to my income and it was
cheaper than other MBAs…” (A04)
 Class sizes are not too large [R3]
A10 gave positive feedback about class sizes on Course A. This participant stated that
during an education fair she was told that the class size on Course A was average and it
was about 20 students.
“…in the education fair I attended they said that [Course A] has an average
class size and the number of students is about 20…” (A10)
 The institution supports students with job hunting [R4]
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A03 was told by her consultant that University A supports students with job hunting.
“…the consultant was saying good things about [University A], they were
saying that this university supports students in job hunting…’(A03)
 The academic staff are supportive [R5]
A06 noted that her friends who had done undergraduate degrees at University A were
satisfied with the level of support they received from the academic staff.
“…Some of my friends did their BSc here, they really liked the academic
staff…they told me that teachers were very supporting...” (A06)

Learning outcomes from the full-time MBA are better than with other study modes
[R6]
A01 noted that the learning outcomes from the full-time MBA are better than with other
study modes. He stated that the full-time MBA facilitates learning from other students
through in class discussions and variety of team activities.
“…learning outcomes from full-time MBA are more than other study modes
such as a part-time MBA… during full-time MBA you also learn from other
students and you have many in class discussions and a variety of team
activities…” (A01)
 The full-time MBA has a greater impact on personality development [R7]
It was discovered that the full-time MBA has a greater impact on personality development
in comparison with other study modes. A02 noted that he did not see much difference, in
terms personality development, in some of his colleagues who had studied part-time MBA.
“…some of my colleagues studied part-time MBA, I didn’t see much difference
in them after completing their MBA, the only difference was just gaining a
certificate!...I mean difference in terms of their personality after having an
MBA…” (A02)
 The full-time MBA is more highly valued by employers [R8]
A03 believes employers value the full-time MBA more than other study modes, and
candidates who have studied a full-time MBA have better chances in finding a job.
“…in my country, full-time MBA has more weightage than the part-time
MBA…I have interviewed many candidates and I was specifically told by my
managers to consider candidates who have full-time MBA…I knew if I’m
going to study an MBA it is going to be a full-time MBA not part-time which
makes me incompetent in compare to other job candidates…” (A03)
 The full-time MBA is shorter in duration [R9]
A05, A06 and A08 stated that the full-time MBA is shorter in duration and therefore they
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can return to their professional life more quickly.
“…the part-time would have taken me out of the office for three years and I
didn’t want that, I wanted a course with a shortest possible time, so I could go
back to my professional life sooner...” (A05)
“…full-time MBA is quicker…and I wanted to come back to industry faster....”
(A06)
“…I had a limited period, within that period I could only do a full-time
MBA… part-time or distance learning would take minimum two years...”
(A08)
 The full-time MBA allows students to focus intensively, and without interruption,
on their academic development [R10]
A04 and A05 noted that studying and working at the same time is distracting and stressful,
and therefore studying full-time for an MBA helps them to focus on their studies.
“…I didn’t want to get distracted, I know if I was both studying and working
that would be very distracting…” (A04)
“… in my country I have heard that people doing part-time MBA and working,
they aren’t able to cope with stress…” (A05)
 The MBA in the UK is shorter in duration than the MBA in other popular study
destinations [R11]
The findings reveal that the USA, Australia, Canada, Spain, France and South Africa are
among popular study destinations. A01, A03 and A10 decided to study in the UK because
the UK full-time MBA is shorter in duration than the MBA in other popular study
destinations.
“…I had also two other countries in mind, USA and Australia. I chose UK
because UK full-time MBA is shorter in duration...if I wanted to do MBA in
the USA I had to spend two years…” (A01)
“…my preferred countries were USA, UK, Australia and Canada, but the UK
is the only country that you can do 12 months full-time MBA…” (A03)
“…I wanted to study my MBA in the UK because you can do one-year MBA
here…” (A10)
 The UK education system is internationally recognised [R12]
A02 decided to study for his MBA in the UK because the UK education system is held in
high esteem and well recognized worldwide.
“…the educational system in the UK is very popular, for a person like me who
has over 5 years working the UK MBA was tailor-made…” (A02)
127
 The UK MBA attracts more experienced candidates than other popular study
destinations [R13]
A01 noted that the UK MBA attracts more experienced candidates than other popular
study destinations. A01 believes being in a class in which students have sufficient work
experience is important.
“…the MBA in the USA is for everybody even if you don’t have working
experience, but the UK MBA is only for the experienced people … I thought
being in a class in which students have sufficient work experience is very
important...” (A01)
 Geographical proximity to the home country [R14]
A04 preferred UK to other popular study destinations due to its geographical proximity to
his country.
“…I also thought about Canada, they have some good MBAs. I think UK was
still my preference because it was closer to my home country…5 to 6 hours
flight…but USA takes 12 hours, I was concerned about the travelling time and
cost...” (A04)
 Studying in the UK provides the opportunity for students to visit other European
countries [R15]
A01 stated that studying in the UK allows him to travel to other European countries.
“…I like UK a lot, because I like to go to other countries in the Europe, and I
felt that in Europe you will have more chances to travel to other countries…
”(A01)
 The MBA in the UK is less expensive than the MBA in other popular study
destinations [R16]
A02 stated that the MBA in the UK is less expensive than the MBA in other popular study
destinations.
“…definitely cost was a huge factor in considering an MBA from UK, the UK
MBA is less expensive than other popular countries...” (A02)
 International students and their dependents are allowed to work in the UK [R17]
A03 and A05 decided to study their MBA in the UK as they and their dependents are
allowed to work in the UK.
“… your dependents can work in the UK and you can also work here, so you
can recover the fees if you really want to …” (A03)
“…in the UK I have the opportunity to work for 20 hours a week, I can
therefore apply my knowledge by working somewhere…” (A05)
 Familiarity with British culture [R18]
128
A04 decided to study for his MBA in the UK because he was familiar with British culture.
“…I was not familiar with the Canadian and American cultures…I am more
familiar with British culture…” (A04)
 Studying in the UK helps students to improve their English language skills [R19]
A09 stated that studying in the UK helps him to improve his English language skills.
“…I chose UK specifically because of the language, I know how to speak
Spanish, but I wanted to improve my English…” (A09)
 Friends and relatives in the destination country [R20]
A05 decided to do her MBA in the UK because her friends and relatives were living in the
UK.
“…I have my family and friends over here in the UK, so you have a sense of
belonging...” (A05)

UK is a culturally and ethnically diverse society [R21]
A05 and A09 decided to study in the UK because UK is a culturally and ethnically diverse
society.
“…one main reason is cultural diversity, I found that people over here are
coming from different countries…so you have more opportunities to work with
other people...” (A05)
“…I would like to live with and study with people from different countries,
India, china, Europe in general.” (A09)
 The city has a good transport system [R22]
A06 believes the city in which Course A is offered has a good transport system.
“…first I wanted to go to another city in the UK but then after discussions I
had with my friends I decided to move here because of its good transportation
system...” (A06)
 The city is culturally and ethnically diverse [R23]
A03 indicated that the city in which Course A is offered is culturally diverse.
“…this city is culturally diverse and I saw this as a good opportunity to get to
know different cultures…” (A03)
 Accreditation by AMBA [R24]
A01 and A02 selected Course A because it is accredited by AMBA and its quality is
therefore assured.
“…I chose only those MBA courses which were AMBA accredited, I heard
that AMBA accreditation assures that the quality of education is
good…”(A01)
129
“…accreditation was crucial for me, as you know that is the basic
accreditation which every business school strive for their MBA courses
…when I realised [Course A] is accredited I started being more interested…”
(A02)
 Lower admission requirements than high ranked MBA courses in terms of work
experience and academic background [R25]
A02, A03 and A10 selected Course A because the entry requirements for this course were
lower than those of high ranked MBA courses in terms of work experience and academic
background.
“…when I realised that it requires lots of efforts and you have to be really
extraordinary to apply for high ranked MBA courses, I started narrowing
down my list and thinking about an average MBA such as [Course A]…”
(A02)
“…there were many business schools that were asking for GMAT exams, this
University didn’t ask for GMAT…” (A03)
“...I didn’t want to take GMAT, I am not too confident with mathematics and I
was very sure that I am not going to get a very high mark, that is why I wanted
to come here…” (A10)
 The availability of scholarships and bursaries [R26]
A01 and A02 selected Course A because they were offered the Vice-Chancellor
scholarship and the scholarship for non-EU students.
“…another factor that really motivated me was the Vice-Chancellor
scholarship…” (A01)
“…they were also recognising the talent and offering several other
scholarships for international students, I was fortunate and I was one of them
who was picked for vice chancellor scholarship. This was worth about 5,000
pounds, deducted from my annual fees...” (A02)
 The course structure and curriculum [R27]
A04 stated that the course structure and curricula of the UK MBA courses is similar to
those of MBA courses offered in his country.
“...another factor was the way MBA was run here in the UK, the way the MBA
in the UK was run was similar to back home…” (A04)
 The focus on entrepreneurship [R28]
A10 selected Course A because of its emphasis on entrepreneurship.
“…also because they were offering an MBA for entrepreneurship so that was
another thing…” (A10)
 Availability of international exchange programmes [R29]
130
A03 selected Course A because of the availability of an international exchange
programme. This participant perceived this as an opportunity to visit other European
countries.
“…I saw there was an opportunity for you to be an exchange student … I
thought that was a good one to go somewhere else in the Europe...” (A03)
 Enhanced business knowledge [R30]
A06 and A08 decided to study for an MBA predominantly in order to boost their
knowledge and understanding about business in general.
“…I wanted to learn more about the business, although I did my Master and
BSc in business studies which specialized in finance, but I still wanted to know
more...” (A06)
“…I wanted to study MBA to get some basic topic and knowledge of business
and basic skills of what business is and current trends going on in business
locally and internationally…” (A08)
Core factors influencing the choice of Course A are displayed in the figure below.
131
Figure 1Core factors influencing selection of a course abroad – Course A
Core factors influencing the choice of Course A
Future job and career prospects after graduation
Lower tuition fees than other accredited MBA courses
Class sizes are not too large
The institution supports students with job hunting
The academic staff are supportive
Learning outcomes from the full-time MBA are better than with other study modes
The full-time MBA has a greater impact on personality development
The full-time MBA is more highly valued by employers
The full-time MBA is shorter in duration
The full-time MBA allows students to focus intensively, and without interruption, on their
academic development
The MBA in the UK is shorter in duration than the MBA in other popular study
destinations
UK education system is held in high esteem and well recognized worldwide
The UK MBA attracts more experienced candidates than other popular study destinations
Geographical proximity to the home country
Studying in the UK provides students with the opportunity to visit other European
countries
The MBA in the UK is less expensive than in other popular study destinations
International students and their dependents are allowed to work in the UK
Familiarity with British culture
Studying in the UK helps students to improve their English language skills
Friends and relatives in the destination country
UK is a culturally and ethnically diverse society
Availability of international exchange programmes
The city has a good transport system
Accreditation by AMBA
The availability of scholarships and bursaries
Lower admission requirements than high ranked MBA courses in terms of work
experience and academic background
The course structure and curriculum
The focus on entrepreneurship
132
Enhanced business knowledge
The city is culturally and ethnically diverse
5.4.1.2 Syntagmatic identity of Course A as observed through online social
networks
This section presents ‘representamens’ within codes that constitute the syntagmatic identity
of Course A as observed through OSNs. This identity of Course A is communicated in the
form of the representamen to international HE aspirants and applicants through OSNs,
from which international HE aspirants and applicants generate certain perceptions (or
interpretants) about Course A.
Participants did not use OSNs
Four out of ten research participants did not use OSNs during the course selection process:
A03 from India, A05 from Nigeria, A06 from Hong Kong and MBA 08 from Nigeria.
Their reasons for not using OSNs and subsequent changes in their perceptions about OSNs
are discussed below.
Reasons for not using OSNs and subsequent changes in perceptions
about OSNs
Responses to the interview question ‘why didn’t you use OSNs during the course selection
process?’ include comments that suggest there are four representamens within code
SYI.PDU.RNU. They are as follows: OSNs can be a distraction and time-consuming
no further information was required
[R2]
[R1]
,
, OSNs are not perceived as a valid source of
information [R3] and participants’ personality traits discouraged them from using OSNs [R4].
These representamens will be discussed in turn.
 OSNs can be a distraction and time-consuming [R1]
A05 and A08 had the opportunity to use OSNs during the course selection process, but did
not because they view OSNs as distracting and time-consuming.
“…I saw a Facebook page for [Course A] but I never thought of getting into
that. Because I have the notion that the kind of discussions you have on these
sites is waste of time, for example people eat something and share it with the
world!…” (A05)
“…because I believe that these sites take most of your time…” (A08)
 No further information was required [R2]
A05 and A06 already had all of the information they needed in order to make their final
course selection decisions. These participants stated that the information they had acquired
from official sources, such as the official university website, exceeded their expectations
and they were happy to select Course A.
133
“…I had all the information I needed to make my decision, and I only used
university website…I didn’t use OSNs just because I was happy with the
information I collected from official university website …”. (A05)
“…the information I got from official websites were above my expectations…I
was very sure to select [Course A]…”. (A06)
 OSNs are not perceived as a valid source of information [R3]
A08 believes OSNs are not a valid source of information, as a result this participant
preferred to use official sources instead.
“…for me OSNs aren’t valid sources, if I want to research on a particular
thing I rather go to their main website directly…” (A08)
 Participants’ personality traits discouraged them from using OSNs [R4]
A03 and A08 indicated that they simply do not like OSNs and they are not big fans of
them.
“…I am not into these sites, I just don’t like them!...” (A03)
“…I am not a big fan of them presently…I registered on Facebook, because
some people forced me to do so…when I came here career advisor told us that
LinkedIn is the best, and you have to get into the LinkedIn. But if you ask me
now to open my LinkedIn account probably I have forgotten my password…”
(A08)
Figure 37 Reasons for not using online social networks – Course A
Reasons for not using online OSNs
No further information was
required
OSNs can be a distraction and
time-consuming
Participants’ personality traits
discouraged them from using
OSNs
OSNs are not perceived as a valid
source of information
Responses to the interview question ‘do you still have the same approach towards OSNs?’
include comments that suggest there are two representamens within code SYI.PDU.SCP.
These representamens will be discussed in turn.
 Changed perceptions of OSNs [R1]
Three out of four research participants who did not use OSNs indicated that their
perceptions about using OSNs had since changed such that they would now consider using
134
them. A03, A05 and A06 stated that through OSNs they were able to contact past and
current students and other HE aspirants and applicants interested in Course A, and also
acquire information on the course structure and curriculum, assignments, academic and
administrative staff, fees, professional level of students attending the course, diversity of
past and current students, and job opportunities.
“…if I was on OSNs I would have been more informative than what I’m now…
next time I will definitely consider using OSNs not only for selecting MBA but
any kind of decisions that I have to take…about MBA I would have tried to get
information on complexity of the course, the contents of the module and about
tutors, professional level of students, diversity of students and maybe job
opportunities…” (A03)
“…I would definitely join OSNs in order to ask questions from previous MBA
students. I would be looking at their overall experience here, I would be
looking at quality of lectures and any issues they had with assignments and
group works. I would be looking at how they could use their MBA
qualification, could they get a job...” (A05)
“…I would definitely use them now…that would be great if before joining this
course I could know more about this course… I could get information on fees,
place, environment….” (A06)
 Perceptions did not change [R2]
There was one participant whose perceptions about OSNs did not change. A08 indicated
that he still prefers to use official sources of information. This participant stated that he
gets enough information from official sources of information and therefore does not feel he
needs to use any other.
“…I still prefer to use official sources. The information from official websites
meets my expectations…” (A08)
Table 30 Subsequent changes in perceptions about online social networks –
Course A
Interviewees
Changed perceptions of OSNs
Perceptions did not change
A03
✓
A05
✓
A06
A08
✓
✓
Participants used OSNs
Six out of ten research participants used OSNs during the course selection process: A01,
A02 and A10 from India, A04 from Zimbabwe, A07 from United States and A09 from
Nigeria.
135
Stages at which OSNs are used during the course selection process
Responses to the interview question ‘at what stages in your course selection process did
you use OSNs?’ include comments that suggest there are two representamens within code
SYI.PUS.S. These representamens will be discussed in turn.
 The search behaviour stage [R1]
The search behaviour stage is characterized by extensive and active acquisition of
information about the course of study. All participants who used OSNs during the course
selection process stated that OSNs allowed them to acquire information on Course A. The
following comment by A01 captures this representamen.
“…prior selecting this course I used OSNs to get information on different
MBA courses in the UK, I used Facebook and Orkut and started getting
information from the students...” (A01)
 The choice decision stage [R2]
At the choice decision stage, an individual makes his/her final course selection decision
and selects one course of study. A01, A04, A09 and A10 claimed that OSNs helped them
in their final course selection decisions. The following comments by A04 capture this
representamen.
“…I used OSNs to help me to make my final decision, it was when I had two
options in my mind and I was trying to get information to help me to select the
best one…” (A04)
Table 31 Stages at which online social networks are used during the course
selection process – Course A
Interviewees
A01
The search behaviour stage
✓
The choice decision stage
✓
A02
✓
A04
✓
A07
A09
✓
✓
A10
✓
✓
✓
✓
OSNs most commonly used during the course selection process
Responses to the interview question ‘can you please name all the OSNs that you used to
obtain information about [Course A]?’ include responses that suggest Facebook [R1], Orkut
[R2]
and Pagalguy
[R3]
are popular OSNs to use during the course selection process.
Pagalguy is an Indian OSN which is mainly managed by Indian students who provide
feedback on various courses. Pagalguy is particularly targeted at course-related feedback.
“…we have our own OSNs in India and it is very famous it is called pagalguy.
It is the forum for all the MBA aspirants in respect of where you want to do
136
your MBA, so all the Indian students who want to do their MBA collaborate
on this site and they keep asking questions…I also looked at Facebook and
Orkut….” (A02)
“…I looked at Facebook to see what people say about [Course A]… (A07)
Figure 38 Online social networks most commonly used during the course selection
process – Course A
OSNs most commonly used during the
course selection process
Facebook (Global)
www.facebook.com
Orkut (Global)
www.orkut.com
Pagalguy (India)
www.pagalguy.com
Information-gathering methods using OSNs
Reponses to the interview question ‘how did you gather information using OSNs?’ include
comments that suggest there are five representamens within code SYI.PUS.IGM.
Participants obtained information via a variety of means, including viewing online profiles
[R1]
, reading comments from other users
[R2]
, viewing photos and watching videos
contacting users directly via private messages
participants posted publicly
[R5]
[R4]
[R3]
,
, and reading responses to questions
.
Figure 39 Information-gathering methods using online social networks – Course A
Information-gathering methods using
OSNs
Viewing online profiles
Reading comments from other users
Viewing photos and watching videos
Contacting users directly via private
messages
Responses received to questions posted
publicly by participants
137
Information available on OSNs
Responses to the interview question ‘what information was available on OSNs?’ include
comments that suggest there are nineteen representamens within code SYI.PUS.IAO. By
viewing online profiles, A07 obtained information about the nationality [R1] and ages [R2] of
other HE aspirants and applicants interested in Course A.
“…I got to know other people who were interested in selecting this course, I
wanted to know what kind of students were there in terms of their age and
nationality…” (A07)
By reading comments from other users, a number of participants acquired information
about university accommodation and privately rented accommodation available in the city
[R3]
, class sizes
[R4]
, the city in which Course A is offered
current students’ levels of satisfaction with Course A
[R5]
[R7]
, the institution
[R6]
, past and
and new building and campus
construction projects [R8].
“…the first information I was looking for was about the accommodation,
because when you go to a new country it [accommodation] is very
important…one interesting factor was that the class size is average almost 20
… I also started to get information on this city…” (A01)
“…by reading existing comments on the wall I found that previous students
and current students had good experience with the course and they are happy
here at [University A]…” (A02)
“…I was also reading something about a new building under construction...”.
(A04)
By reading comments from other users, A07 and A10 acquired information on the
transport system of the city
[R11]
[R9]
, tuition fees
[R10]
and the course structure and curriculum
.
“…I was purely concerned with transportation system, tuition fees and course
structure …” (A07)
Through viewing photos and watching videos uploaded on OSNs, A10 obtained
information about the diversity of past and current students [R12].
“…I looked at the photos and videos to find out the diversity of students,
because I wanted to share my experiences with people from different countries
…”. (A10)
By contacting users directly via private messages, A01 and A10 acquired information
about university accommodation and privately rented accommodation available in the city
[R13]
, the course structure and curriculum [R14], the institution [R15] and the city [R16].
138
“…I started sending messages to students…the first information I was looking
for was about the accommodation…I got feedback that the university
accommodation is very nice…” (A01)
“…I was scared about how the city is going to be…I obtained city related and
course related information… I was asking how was the course plan and
course structure, and how the results are going to be distributed, and I
remember I contacted some students and they said don’t worry...” (A10)
From responses received to questions posted publicly by participants, A01 and A10
obtained information about the course structure and curriculum
[R17]
, the city
[R18]
university accommodation and privately rented accommodation available in the city
, and
[R19]
.
“…I just posted my questions on Facebook and there were some students who
were answering my questions, for example I posted that hello, I am planning
to do my MBA, is there anybody who can help me and give me some
information on the course structure and the city? Two students replied to my
question and we then became friends…” (A01)
“…I remember people were trying to help me with my answers. I mainly found
the information on the course structure and different types of
accommodation…” (A10)
139
Information available
on OSNs
Figure 2 Information available on online social networks – Course A
By viewing online
profiles
Nationalities of other
HE aspirants and
applicants interested
in Course A
The age range of
other HE aspirants
and applicants
interested in Course
A
By reading comments
from other users
University
accommodation and
privately rented
accommodation
available in the city
The city
Past and current
students’ levels of
satisfaction with
Course A
The city’s transport
system
The course structure
and curriculum
Through viewing
photos and watching
videos
Class size
By contacting users
directly via private
messages
The diversity of past
and current students
From responses
received to questions
posted publicly by
participants
University
accommodation and
privately rented
accommodation
available in the city
Information about the
institution
The course structure
and curriculum
New buildings and
campus construction
projects
Information about the
institution
Tuition fees
Information about the
city
The course structure
and curriculum
The city
University
accommodation and
privately rented
accommodation
available in the city
140
The information needed most from OSNs during the course selection
process
Responses to the interview question ‘what is the information that is needed most during the
course selection process that you search for on OSNs?’ include comments that suggest
there are four representamens within code SYI.PUS.INM. They include information about
university accommodation and privately rented accommodation available in the city
leisure activities in the city [R2], the course structure and curriculum
[R3]
[R1]
,
and the quality of
Course A [4].
“…I wanted to get more information on the local accommodation and not only
student accommodation… I also didn’t get much information on the course
structure....” (A01)
“…I wanted to get more information on the quality of the MBA and if they
meet my expectations...” (A04)
“…I think they could focus more on course structure, such as the modules
covered in the first and second semesters…I know they have this information
very systematically on the leaflet, but they should make it more transparent
and easier to access...” (A10)
Figure 41 Information needed most from online social networks during the course
selection process – Course A
The information needed most from
OSNs during the course selection
process
University accommodation and
privately rented accommodation
available in the city
Leisure activities in the city
The course structure and curriculum
The quality of Course A
Benefits of using OSNs in course selection
Responses to the interview question ‘what are the benefits of using OSNs in comparison
with other sources?’ include comments that suggest there are nine representamens within
code SYI.PUS.BOC. A10 stated that OSNs strengthen an individual’s confidence in
selecting the course
[R1]
and that they are less biased and a more credible source of
information than official sources [R2]. A10 was not sure about choosing Course A until she
141
managed to find more information about it via OSNs and met other HE aspirants and
applicants who were interested in Course A.
“…OSNs such as Facebook assisted me to be more confident in selecting this
course…mostly students were answering the questions so I was getting these
answers from those who have already experienced this course and it was not
from staff or other official sources…I wasn’t sure about this course, and then I
saw one page that the owner was one of the previous students, there was a lot
of members…I just realized oh! Maybe this MBA is good, there are many
people there, I can try to contact some of these people, asking information on
the course… and then I remember that it was very busy, a lot of people posted
comments and this course is good and this place is good…” (A10)
A02 and A04 indicated that the information provided on OSNs was less biased and more
credible than the information provided through official sources such as education agencies
and the official university website. A02 and A04 perceived the information provided by
past and current students to be particularly valuable as those people had already
experienced the course.
“…I think the comments on OSNs were not that much biased same as official
website… when my consultant was proposing this course, I was not really sure
because I had never heard about it, also the Information on their website was
not appealing…I started getting feeling that maybe there is something wrong
or maybe my consultant is just trying to force something on me, when I
searched on OSNs I started to feel more confident about his course…” (A02)
“……the information which you get on OSNs Is directly from students which
makes it more credible because consultants aren’t the ones who really
experienced the MBA…so the information was actually coming from direct
source which is the students…the information was more reliable and more
credible than any other sources available…” (A04)
A10 believes OSNs are more interactive than official sources of information such as
ranking websites
[R3]
, and moreover, OSNs help HE aspirants and applicants to gather
detailed information about Course A [R4].
“…OSNs were more interactive and they helped me to collect detailed
informaiton, I was posting questions and I was getting replies from several
students, even from staff including MBA director and MBA administrator…
through sites such as Facebook you have interactions with people, what kind
of interaction I’m going to have with the Financial Times or other official
sources. I can only read a table statistics on Financial Times…” (A10)
A04 and A10 stated that it was easy for them to access and use OSNs from their home
countries [R5], and they did not need any additional skills in order to use them.
“…it was easy to access OSNs from my home country…” (A04)
142
“…it was very easy to access OSNs from India...” (A10)
A02 and A09 claimed that OSNs allowed them to find out about past and current students’
personal views and experiences of the MBA course
from different countries
[R7]
[R6]
, obtain feedback from students
and contact other students from their home countries [R8].
“…when I browsed through the official university website they just gave me
general information on the course such as tuition fees, what are the
requirements and what to expect from academic point of view. But when I
browsed through Facebook, I found more individualist information, or
information and comments from students’ point of views…” (A02)
“…the most important thing that make them [OSNs] so different and quite
resourceful is the fact that you get to know different students from different
countries and cultures…you also get to know students from the same country
as yours, you know how students from your country think and how it fits with
their cultures and their beliefs...” (A09
Finally, A10 believes OSNs enable faster replies to enquiries in comparison with official
sources of information [R9].
“…I was getting answers on OSNs much faster than official sources of
information, and some of my doubts were cleared…” (A10)
Figure 42 Benefits of using online social networks in course selection – Course A
Benefits of using OSNs in course selection
They strengthen individuals’ confidence in
selecting the course
They are less biased and a more credible
source of information than official sources
They are more interactive than official
sources of information
They help individuals to gather detailed
information about Course A
It is easy to access and use OSNs
They help to find out about past and
current students’ personal views and
experiences of the MBA course
They help to obtain feedback from students
from different countries
They allow individuals to contact other
students from their home countries
They enable faster replies to enquiries in
comparison with official sources of
information
143
Downsides of using OSNs in course selection
Responses to the interview question ‘what are the downsides of using OSNs in comparison
with other sources?’ include comments that suggest there are four representamens within
code SYI.PUS.DOC. A04 and A10 found it difficult to distinguish between posts made on
OSNs by members of staff and those made by students
[R1]
and users cannot completely
rely on all of the information available on OSNs, as some information on OSNs can be
biased
[R2]
. The findings indicate that the information provided by members of staff is
perceived as advertising. A04 and A10 did not contact academic and administrative staff
via OSNs as they believed information provided by them is only ever positive.
“…I didn’t trust Facebook enough …I felt that some of the comments on
Facebook could be biased...” (A04)
“…I think OSNs could also be negative if a member of staff starts answering
the queries…and they can push you to select the course…they are trying to
sell the MBA, so you should be careful who you contact on OSNs…” (A10)
A04 believes some users are apprehensive about sharing information via OSNs [R3].
“…because some students don’t know me very well they don’t feel comfortable
to give me the correct information on OSNs… I just felt some of the students
on OSNs were current students and they did not want to say something which
is not nice about the course…” (A04)
A07 and A09 indicated that on some occasions past and current students’ personal views
could negatively influence the course selection decisions of HE aspirants and applicants
[R4]
.
“…some students talk negatively on OSNs based on their own experiences…if
one person had a bad experience or a personal issue with the course then
he/she can negatively influence HE aspirants and applicants…” (A07)
“…you only read what people think about the course and what they have
experienced, and it might be in line with their cultures and where they are
from…it might be in conflict with your own culture…” (A09)
144
Figure 43 Downsides of using online social networks in course selection – Course A
Downsides of using OSNs in course
selection
It is difficult to distinguish between posts
made on OSNs by members of staff and
those made by students
Users cannot completely rely on all of the
information available on OSNs, as some
information on OSNs can be biased
Some users are apprehensive about
sharing information via OSNs
On some occasions, past and current
students’ personal views could negatively
influence the course selection decisions
of HE aspirants and applicants
5.4.1.3 Perceived identity of Course A
This section presents ‘interpretants’ within codes that constitute the perceived identity of
Course A. The perceived identity of Course A is determined by the paradigmatic identity of
Course A and the syntagmatic identity of Course A, and influences the final course
selection decisions of international HE aspirants and applicants.
The level of influence of OSNs on final course selection decisions in
comparison with other sources
Responses to the interview question ‘how influential were OSNs on your final course
selection decisions in comparison with other sources?’ include comments that suggest
there are three interpretants (or ‘I’ as abbreviation of the interpretant) within code PEI.LIF.
These representamens will be discussed in turn.
 OSNs have a strong influence on final course selection decisions [I1]
A01, A09 and A10 stated that OSNs had a strong influence on their final course selection
decisions. Even though these participants obtained a significant amount of information
from official sources, they were not fully confident in selecting Course A on the basis of
this information alone and used OSNs to enhance their confidence.
“…minimum 70% to 80% OSNs influenced my final course selection
decisions, because they boosted my confidence, even though I could get lots
and lots of information from the official university website, I was not confident
with them, but if a student on OSNs says this course is great this makes me
very confident…” (A01)
145
“…OSNs definitely influenced me, I received a lot of positive comments about
this course and it made me very confident that I wanted to come and do my
MBA here, so the answer is yes, OSNs helped me a lot…” (A09)
“…I would say between 70% to 80% OSNs helped me to finalize my options,
and to be 100% confident in selecting this course. I could change my mind if
somebody would tell me this course isn’t very good…” (A10)
 OSNs have a moderate influence on final course selection decisions [I2]
OSNs had a moderate influence on A02’s final course selection decision in comparison
with other sources.
“…I believe OSNs have been 50% influential in selecting [Course A], because
if somebody would give a bad feedback I would not consider selecting this
course …” (A02)
 OSNs have a low level of influence on final course selection decisions [I3]
A04 and A07 stated that OSNs had a low level of influence on their final course selection
decisions. A04 and A07 stated that the information available on OSNs is biased in much
the same way as official sources of information are, and they could not find enough
information about Course A and students’ experiences of the course on OSNs.
“…not very much. The information on OSNs is just same as official sources
such as the official university website. I just felt it is going to be the same
thing…I didn’t really trust those comments…” (A04)
“…they didn’t influence much because as I said earlier there were not much
information available on the course or students’ experiences…” (A07)
Table 32 The level of influence of online social networks on final course selection
decisions in comparison with other sources – Course A
Interviewees
Strong level of influence
A01
✓
Moderate level of influence
Low level of influence
✓
A02
A04
✓
A07
✓
A09
✓
A10
✓
146
5.4.2 Course B
A sample of 10 international students studying on Course B was selected for the main
study. The demographics of interviewees are presented in the table below.
years of work
experience
professional
position
Single
Married
Male
Male
India
Cameroon
MSc
Bachelor
6
6
B03
B04
26
33
Single
Married
Male
Male
Pakistan
Latvia
Bachelor
MSc
4
14
Software engineer
Finance reporting
officer
Business consultant
Self-employed
B05
B06
B07
28
30
30
Married
Married
Married
Female
Male
Female
MSc
MSc
Bachelor
6
5
4
Operations manager
Sales manager
Librarian
B08
B09
B10
25
30
31
Single
Married
Single
Male
Female
Male
China
Argentina
Saudi
Arabia
India
Germany
Mexico
Consulting
Real
states/property
Consulting
Retail
Education
Bachelor
MSc
Bachelor
6
4
7
Finance manager
Project manager
Finance Manager
Finance
Media
Finance
Industry
Marital status
28
29
Country
Age
B01
B02
Gender
Interviewees
The highest level
of education
before MBA
Table 33 The demographics of interviewees – Course B
IT
Finance
In line with the aims of the analysis, this section is divided into three. The first subsection
presents ‘representamens’ within codes that constitute the paradigmatic identity of Course
B. The second subsection presents ‘representamens’ within codes that constitute the
syntagmatic identity of Course B as observed through OSNs. Finally, the third subsection
presents ‘interpretants’ within codes that constitute the perceived identity of Course B.
5.4.2.1 Paradigmatic identity of Course B
This section presents ‘representamens’ within codes that constitute the paradigmatic
identity of Course B. The paradigmatic identity of Course B is the overall identity of this
course communicated in the form of the representamen to international HE aspirants and
applicants through a variety of resources from which international HE aspirants and
applicants generate certain perceptions (or interpretants) about Course B.
Initial sources of information
Responses to the interview question ‘how did you first find out about [Course B]?’ include
comments that suggest there are five representamens within code PAI.FSI. Participants
first heard about Course B from friends who have previously taken Course B
[R1]
, from
147
friends living in the UK
[R2]
, from family members who have previously studied at
University B [R3], from ranking websites [R4], or from education agencies [R5].
“…I first heard about [Course B] from a friend of mine who had studied
[Course B]…” (B02)
“…the first time I heard about this course was when I discussed this with my
friend who has been living in the UK…” (B03)
“…the choice of [Course B] was actually influenced by my husband who is
studying here…” (B05)
“…I looked at ranking sites and I searched the subjects for me and my
husband…then we found [Course B]…” (B07)
“…I heard about his course from an education agency back home in India…”
(B08)
Figure 44 Initial sources of information available during the course selection process
– Course B
Initial sources of information
Friends who have previously taken
Course B
Friends living in the UK
Family members who have previously
studied at University B
Education agencies
Ranking websites
Offline sources of information
Responses to the interview question ‘what offline sources of information did you use to
obtain information about [Course B]?’ include comments that suggest there are five
representamens within code PAI.SIA.OFF. They are as follows: education agencies
family members who have previously studied at University B
[R2]
[R3]
[R4]
with the admissions office
previously taken Course B
, friends living in the UK
[R5]
[R1]
,
, telephone conversations
and friends who have
. The following comments capture some of these
representamens.
“…the first time I heard about this course was when I discussed this with my
friend who has been living in the UK…” (B03)
148
“…I first heard about [Course B] from a friend of mine who had studied
[Course B]…” (B02)
“…the MBA brochure of the university, after when I contacted the staff they
sent me a brochure...” (B04)
“…I heard about his course from an education agency back home in India…”
(B08)
Figure 45 Offline sources of information available during the course selection
process – Course B
Offline sources of information
Education agencies
Family members who have
previously studied at University B
Telephone conversations with the
admissions office
Friends living in the UK
Friends who have previously taken
Course B
Online sources of information
Responses to the interview question ‘what online sources of information did you use to
obtain information about [Course B]?’ include comments that suggest there are nine
representamens within code PAI.SIA.ONL. They include the British Council website
the British Consulate website
[R2]
[R1]
,
, information obtained via email exchanges with the
admissions office [R3], accreditation bodies’ websites [R4], e-journals [R5], OSNs [R6], ranking
websites
[R7]
, the UK Border Agency website
[R8]
and the official university website [R9].
The following comments capture some of these representamens.
“…I first looked at the ranking sites, I searched for the UK MBA rankings, I
used Guardian ranking, it was Guardian University League table… I used
sites such as Facebook and Orkut…and there is one famous Indian one which
is called “Pagalguy”…” (B01)
“…I read about [Course B] on some e-journals and British Council in
particular… I looked at the university website and various ranking websites
such as Financial Times… I also looked at AMBA website to see if this course
is accredited …” (B02)
149
“…online sources such as OSNs, I used a Chinese one which is called “Power
Apple”. It is the biggest and the most famous Chinese community in the UK…I
also used Facebook, QQ and Renren”…” (B05)
“…I visited UK Border Agency website in Argentina, they have a list of all the
universities and courses. Also I looked at British Council website…” (B06)
Figure 46 Online sources of information available during the course selection process –
Course B
Online sources of information
The British Council Website
The British Consulate Website
Information obtained via email exchanges
with the admissions office
Accreditation bodies’ websites (e.g. AMBA)
E-journals
OSNs
Ranking websites
The UK Border Agency Website
The official university website
Core factors influencing the choice of Course B
Responses to the interview question ‘why did you select [Course B] as your preferred
course of study abroad?” include comments that suggest there are thirty-six
representamens within code PAI.CF. These representamens will be discussed in turn.
 Lower tuition fees than other average ranked MBA courses [R1]
B01 and B10 indicated that the tuition fees for Course B were lower in comparison with
other average ranked MBA courses. These participants stated that the low tuition fees for
Course B were one of the main motivating factors in selecting this course.
“…one of the factors that motivated me to do my MBA here was the fee
factor… the fee for [Course B] was lower in compare to other average ranked
MBA courses…” (B01)
“…one of the important reasons was the tuition fees of this course which was
lower than other courses, the tuition fees was very important for me...” (B10)
 Lower tuition fees than other accredited MBA courses [R2]
150
B08 noted that the tuition fees for Course B were lower than for other AMBA accredited
courses in the UK.
“…the tuition fees for [Course B] was better in compare to other AMBA
accredited courses in the UK and I had to go for a bigger loan if I wanted to
consider studying other high ranked MBAs…” (B08)
 Future job and career prospects after graduation [R3]
B02 and B09 stated that studying for an MBA course, such as Course B, would help them
to progress to the managerial level and to achieve their career objectives.
“…I come from Cameroon and in my country there is a serious lack of
managerial skills, and managers are really lacking in most private sectors, I
thought an MBA would be an ideal thing for me to do in order to achieve my
career goals…” (B02)
“…I want to improve my career…I want to change the structure of the
company I am working for…I have lots of responsibilities…I wanted to do an
MBA to have more power to manage and change…” (B09)
 The prestige of the MBA course [R4]
B05 and B08 believe the MBA is perceived as a prestigious postgraduate course, and this
was one of the main factors in selecting Course B.
“…I already got MSc and I wanted to do a more prestigious course and that
was the reason I wanted to study MBA. Generally, MBA is categorized as a
better degree than MSc…” (B05)
“…your practical experience is important, but besides that you need a
prestigious course such as the MBA which can push you more up...” (B08)

Whether the institution has a multicultural environment [R5]
B02 indicated that University B is well-known for having a multicultural environment.
“…the multicultural environment of [University B] was important for me,
[University B] is one of the well-known business schools for having a
multicultural environment in the UK and this was really important for me and
I saw it as an opportunity to meet different students from different countries
and different environments…” (B02)

High quality of teaching [R6]
B05 had received a positive feedback on the quality of teaching at University B.
“…I think the teaching quality in here [University B] is high…” (B05)

Campus infrastructure and new buildings [R7]
B09 liked the campus infrastructure and new buildings.
“…I also really liked their new location, their new building…so I found their
new building very interesting… (B09)
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 Friendliness and courtesy of staff during the admission process [R8]
B04 and B09 indicated that the friendliness and courtesy of staff during the admission
process was an important factor in selecting Course B.
“… I also contacted the MBA administrator here and people have been really
welcoming and polite…” (B04)
“…the staff were very friendly when I contacted them and I found them
friendlier than other universities…” (B09)
 The full-time MBA is shorter in duration than other study modes [R9]
B01 and B10 noted that the full-time MBA is shorter than the part-time MBA and they
would not be able to spend three years studying a part-time MBA.
“…I had the option to do part-time MBA but considering my age I am 28
years old, I could not invest 3 years of my life on part-time MBA...” (B01)
“…because full-time MBA is only one-year and I believe the part-time is
almost three years, so definitely the time was very important...” (B10)
 The full-time MBA enhances in-class participation and interaction with lecturers
and other students [R10]
B02 noted that full-time MBA, such as Course A, enhances in-class participation and
enhances interaction with lecturers and other students.
“...full-time MBA gives me some direct participation in class and gives me the
opportunities to discuss with people from various background and also gives
me direct relationship with lectures which to me is the added advantage in
compare to other MBA modes…” (B02)
 The full-time MBA is culturally diverse [R11]
B02 believes that there is a greater diversity of students from different backgrounds
studying the full-time MBA than in other MBA study modes.
“...I think there are more diverse students from different backgrounds studying
full-time MBA in compare to other MBA modes…” (B02)
 The full-time MBA allows students to focus intensively, and without interruption,
on their academic development [R12]
B04 and B08 indicated that they are able to concentrate more on studying when they study
full-time.
“… I just wanted to focus on the MBA, and I think when I do it full-time I can
concentrate more on my studies…” (B04)
“…. I think when you do your Master degree such as the MBA you need to
allocate a good amount of time so I think it is necessary to select full-time
MBA...” (B08)
152
 The full-time MBA is more highly valued by employers [R13]
B04 stated that full-time MBA is more highly valued by employers in comparison with
other study modes.
“…I also think full-time MBA degree has better value and image especially for
employers…” (B04)
 The UK Border Agency only allow international students to apply for full-time
courses [R14]
B07 stated that the UK Border Agency only allow non-EU students to study full-time
courses.
“…because the UK only allows me to study full-time course and not PT…”
(B07)
 Shorter duration in comparison with other full-time MBA courses [R15]
B01 and B05 selected Course B because the duration of the course was shorter than other
full-time MBA courses.
“…for me 1 year course is more preferred and I can’t spend more than 1 year
without working…” (B05)
“…my basic concern was that I need to do an MBA in a short duration and
learn from it and apply it as soon as possible when my mind is still fresh...”
(B01)
 High quality of education in the UK [R16]
B01 and B10 decided to study their MBA in the UK because of the UK’s high quality of
education.
“…the influencing factor to select UK among other countries was the high
quality of education in the UK…” (B01)
“…the quality of education in the UK is very high, in Mexico they focus a lot
on where you study…basically quality of education in the UK has been really
important in selecting my MBA here...” (B10)
 UK qualifications are recognized all over the world [ R17]
B10 and B02 noted that UK qualifications are recognized all over the world.
“…in the country that I come from, the UK certificate is much more valid in
compare to other certificates, for example Spain…” (B10)
“…in the Cameroon the UK degree is really valuable and it has been always a
cultural thing and in Cameroon we always believe in the UK degrees…”
(B02)
 It is easier to find a job in the UK after graduation [R18]
B01 indicated that it is easier to find a job in the UK after graduation.
153
“…in terms of future job opportunities, I thought I would have more chances
to find jobs if I do my full-time MBA here in the UK...” (B01)
 UK qualifications are highly valued by employers [R19]
B02 believes UK qualifications are highly valued by employers and there is a perception
that UK graduates are better than graduates from other countries.
“…employers believe that graduates or degrees from UK are better than
others because UK is the best place you can study…” (B02)
 The visa application process is easier for the UK than other popular study
destinations [R20]
B03 indicated that the visa application process for the UK is easier in comparison with
other popular study destinations.
“…UK was the easiest one for me to obtain the student visa…for overseas
students the most important thing is how easy they give you the student visa
and invite you to do an MBA in their country…” (B03)
 Preference for British culture [R21]
B04 and B06 decided to study their MBA in the UK because they were interested in British
culture.
“…also the local British culture is important for me…I like the British
culture…” (B04)
“… It has more to do with the history of the country...I like the way how
British people think and I think it is better than USA…what really
distinguished UK from other countries I think is the culture and history…”
(B06)
 Studying in the UK helps students to improve their English language skills [R22]
B04 and B10 stated that they decided to do their MBA in the UK because they wanted to
improve their English language skills.
“…I used to live in other countries and I already know how to speak German
and Spanish very well, I wanted to come to England to do my MBA to improve
my English language knowledge…” (B04)
“…first of all I wanted to improve my English language, so basically this was
the most important reason to study in an English speaking country…” (B10)
 Studying in the UK provides the opportunity for students to visit other European
countries [R23]
B04 believes studying in the UK provides students with the opportunity to visit other
European countries.
154
“…also I have the possibility of visiting other countries close to Britain…”
(B04)
 Ability to work whilst studying [R24]
B01 and B08 noted that they are allowed to work in the UK whilst studying and the
chances of finding a part-time job are higher in the UK than in other popular study
destinations.
“…because for me as an international student the most important thing is
getting a job and working experience…” (B01)
“…and you have also more chances to get part time job here...” (B08)
 The city is culturally diverse [R25]
B01 indicated that the city in which Course B is offered is friendly and has a lot of cultural
activities on offer.
“…also this city is a cultural friendly city, this was very important for me…”
(B01)
 The city is an education hub [R26]
B02 selected Course B because the city in which Course B is offered is an education hub.
“…I have always considered this city to be hub when it comes to the education
in the UK, and also a good place for study…” (B02)
 The city is large [R27]
B04 noted that the city in which Course B is offered is the five largest cities in the UK and
it is well recognized internationally.
“…this city is among top 5 biggest cities in the UK…” (B04)
 The city does not have a high cost of living in comparison with other large cities
[R28]
B04 and B06 indicated that, unlike other large British cities, the cost of living in the city in
which Course B is offered is relatively inexpensive.
“…this city is less expensive than other big cities in the UK…” (B04)
“…I then started to think about the cities and I eliminate some of them and
finally I had two cities including this city. I chose this city because the living
cost here is cheaper in compare to others…” (B06)
 The city is internationally recognised [R29]
B04 and B09 noted that the city in which Course B is offered is internationally recognised.
“…this city is famous…here we have several famous sports teams and this city
is well known internationally…” (B04)
155
“…when I present my MBA certificate to a German company they would know
where this city is…so the name of this city was also very important in selecting
this course…” (B09)
 Nightlife and leisure activities in the city [R30]
B10 noted that there are more leisure activities in the city in which Course B is offered in
comparison with other large British cities.
“…I like the nightlife here in this city, this city is full of students, I went to
other cities as well, I was comparing different cities, and definitely this one is
much better to have fun and so many activities you can do here…” (B10)
 Accreditation by AMBA [R31]
B04 and B08 selected Course B because it is accredited by AMBA and therefore its quality
is assured.
“… [Course B] is accredited by AMBA and this was really important for
me…” (B04)
“…I had several offer letters from UK universities but only AMBA
accreditation was very important for me… AMBA accreditation was still the
main reason to select [Course B]…” (B08)
 Lower entry requirements than high ranked MBA courses [R32]
B09 selected Course B because the entry requirements for this course (in terms of
work experience, academic background) were lower than those of high ranked
MBA courses.
“…I saw that the MBA admission requirements for high ranked MBA courses
are very difficult, I didn’t have enough time to do preparation… I was only
working in Germany and I didn’t have time to study for the GMAT …I also
thought even If I have my GMAT it would be still difficult to fulfil their
requirements for work experience and academic background…” (B09)
 The availability of scholarships and bursaries [R33]
B09 selected Course B because she was offered scholarship.
“..I seriously considered this course because this university gave me
scholarship...” (B09)
 The course structure and curriculum [R34]
B02 found the structure and curriculum of Course B better than high ranked MBA courses
in terms of the modules covered.
“…I was looking for a general MBA, the high ranked MBA courses were
specialized in one specific thing such as only finance or only marketing and
this makes the manager to only be specialized in one specific thing, but here
156
the MBA was a general MBA which covers many things such as sales,
marketing, HRM…” (B02)
 To enhance knowledge about business and management in general [R35]
B01 wanted to study for an MBA predominantly in order to boost his knowledge and
understanding about business and management in general.
“…because I was doing software engineering I had a few modules on
management such as project management and I found that I needed more
knowledge about management science because I was only from technical
background …” (B01)
 Course perceived as easy to complete to earn the MBA degree [R36]
B05 and B07 selected Course B because they believed it would be easy for them to
complete the course and earn the MBA degree.
“…I just wanted to get the degree … for me the degree is important and here
is much easier to get the degree than other well-known business schools…”
(B05)
“…I didn’t want to go for a high ranked MBA because it would be more
difficult to study…I don’t want to study an MBA course which is very
difficult…” (B07)
Core factors influencing the choice of Course B are shown in the figure below.
157
Figure 3 Core factors influencing selection of a course abroad – Course B
Core factors influencing the choice of Course B
Lower tuition fees than other average ranked MBA courses
Lower tuition fees than other accredited MBA courses
Future job and career prospects after graduation
The prestige of the MBA course
Whether the institution has a multicultural environment
High quality of teaching
Campus infrastructure and new buildings
Friendliness and courtesy of staff during the admission process
The full-time MBA is shorter in duration than other study modes
The full-time MBA enhances in-class participation and interaction with lecturers
and other students
The full-time MBA is culturally diverse
The full-time MBA allows students to focus intensively, and without interruption
on their academic development
The full-time MBA is more highly valued by employers
The UK Border Agency only allow international students to apply for full-time
courses
Shorter duration in comparison with other full-time MBA courses
High quality of education in the UK
UK qualifications are recognized all over the world
It is easier to find a job in the UK after graduation
UK qualifications are highly valued by employers
The visa application process is easier for the UK than other popular study
destinations
Preference for British culture
Studying in the UK helps students to improve their English language skills
Studying in the UK provides students with the opportunity to visit other
European countries
Ability to work whilst studying
The city is culturally diverse
The city is an education hub
The city is large
The city does not have a high cost of living in comparison with other large cities
The city is internationally recognised
Nightlife and leisure activities in the city
Accreditation by AMBA
Lower entry requirements than high ranked MBA courses
The availability of scholarships and bursaries
The course structure and curriculum
To enhance knowledge about business and management in general
Course perceived as easy to complete to earn the MBA degree
158
5.4.2.2 Syntagmatic identity of Course B as observed through online social
networks
This section presents ‘representamens’ within codes that constitute the syntagmatic identity
of Course B as observed through OSNs. This identity of Course B is communicated in the
form of the representamen to international HE aspirants and applicants through OSNs,
from which international HE aspirants and applicants generate certain perceptions (or
interpretants) about Course B.
Participants did not use OSNs
Five out of ten research participants did not use OSNs during the course selection process:
B02 from Cameroon, B04 from Latvia, B06 from Argentina, B07 from Saudi Arabia and
B10 from Mexico. Their reasons for not using OSNs and subsequent changes in their
perceptions about OSNs are discussed below.
Reasons for not using OSNs and subsequent changes in perceptions
about OSNs
Responses to the interview question ‘why didn’t you use OSNs during the course selection
process?’ include comments that suggest there are seven representamens within code
SYI.PDU.RNU. These representamens will be discussed in turn.
 OSNs can be a distraction and time-consuming [R1]
B10 stated that OSNs are very time consuming and he prefers face-to-face communication
instead.
“…I think OSNs are very time consuming and instead of wasting your time on
OSNs you should spend more time in talking to people face to face…” (B10)
 No further information was required [R2]
B04 did not use OSNs because he was satisfied with the information he had already
obtained from official sources.
“…I was happy with the information I got from official sources and it was
enough for me to make my decision. I already had the information such as
course structure, fees, staff, etc…” (B04)
 OSNs are not perceived as a valid source of information [R3]
B02 and B07 believe OSNs are not a valid source of information. B02 and B07 used
official sources such as the official university website because they knew where exactly the
159
information was coming from.
“…I am familiar with OSNs but I didn’t use them because I don’t use them
when it comes to decision-making…I want to use a source that I know where
exactly the information is coming from…so for me the information provided
on OSNs such as Twitter or Facebook aren’t valid enough because anybody
can post on these sites...” (B02)
“…I know OSNs, but I don’t use them…because I think if I use official sources
such as the official university website, I will get the right information but if I
go to sites such as Facebook or Twitter I might get wrong information from
students...” (B07)
 Did not know how to use OSNs [R4]
B06 did not know how to use OSNs, and therefore did not use them during the course
selection process.
“…I didn’t totally understand the function of OSNs and how I should use
them…but now I have better understanding of them …” (B06)
 Participants’ cultural traits discouraged them from using OSNs [R5]
B06 indicated that in his country, Argentina, it is more common to call or email a person,
and OSNs are not a common method of communication.
“…In Argentina when we want to contact a friend we just call or send an
email, I really didn’t use OSNs…” (B06)
 Privacy concerns [R6]
B06 and B10 were concerned about the privacy issues surrounding OSNs, particularly as
they did not want to expose their personal life, such as their photos, online.
“…I don’t use OSNs because I don’t like people to enter in my private life, I
never post my photos on Facebook. I am concerned about privacy issues of
these sites…” (B06)
“…I think it isn’t good to put lots of information on these sites in public...”
(B10)
 Lack of time to use OSNs due to late application [R7]
B10 indicated that he applied late so he had no time to research the course using OSNs.
“…I would definitely check it on OSNs, but I didn’t do it because I didn’t have
time…I was very late to apply for admission…” (B10)
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Figure 48 Reasons for not using online social networks – Course B
Reasons for not using online OSNs
OSNs can be a distraction and timeconsuming
No further information was required
OSNs are not perceived as a valid
source of information
Did not know how to use OSNs
Participants’ cultural traits
discouraged them from using OSNs
Privacy concerns
Lack of time to use OSNs due to late
application
Responses to the interview question ‘do you still have the same approach towards OSNs?’
include comments that suggest there are two representamens within code SYI.PDU.SCP.
These representamens will be discussed in turn.
 Changed perceptions of OSNs [R1]
Four out of five research participants who did not use OSNs indicated that their
perceptions about using OSNs had since changed such that they would now consider using
them. B04 and B07 noted that OSNs could be useful for collecting supplementary
information, although their main focus would still be on official sources. B04 believes
unlike OSNs, the information available from official sources of information is more
reliable and provided responsibly. B04 stated that on some occasions personal views
expressed on OSNs could negatively influence the course selection decisions of HE
aspirants and applicants.
“…I can find quite supplementary and interesting information on OSNs…I
would still concentrate more on official websites, because the information on
official website is written responsibly…on OSNs students give their own
personal comments about a module or whole course, for example an unhappy
student can have a negative influence on those who are interested in selecting
the course…” (B04)
“…OSNs could give you more insights and more knowledge about people
experiences with the course, for example I could ask past or current students
about their experiences with the examinations and assignments, and how easy
they were to pass…” (B07)
161
 Perceptions did not change [R2]
There was one participant whose perceptions about using OSNs did not change. B02 stated
that he still prefers to use official sources of information and will not make decisions based
on information available on OSNs.
“…my perceptions aren’t changed…I personally don’t trust OSNs …but there
are many people who use them to contact past and current students, and to
obtain information…I believe OSNs are important to meet the public, but then
it isn’t valid and good enough to make decisions on the basis of information
collected from OSNs …” (B02)
Table 34 Subsequent changes in perceptions about online social networks –
Course B
Interviewees
B02
Changed perceptions of OSNs
Perceptions did not change
B04
B06
B07
B10
✓
✓
✓
✓
✓
Participants used OSNs
Five out of ten research participants used OSNs during the course selection process: B01
and B08 from India, B03 from Pakistan, B05 from China and B09 from Germany.
Stages at which OSNs are used during the course selection process
Responses to the interview question ‘at what stages in your course selection process did
you use OSNs?’ include comments that suggest there are three representamens within code
SYI.PUS.S. These representamens will be discussed in turn.
 The pre-search behaviour stage [R1]
The pre-search behaviour stage begins when an individual hears about a course of study for
the first time. B01 and B05 first heard about Course B on OSNs through searching for
keywords on OSNs including ‘MBA in the UK’, and contacting their friends who had
studied in the UK.
“…at very early stages… some of my friends were studying here in the UK
and I contacted them on OSNs ...” (B01)
“…I searched in Facebook and Chinese OSNs which is called Power Apple
for MBA courses in the UK and I found this course…” (B05)
 The search behaviour stage [R2]
162
The search behaviour stage is characterized by extensive and active acquisition of
information about the course of study. All participants who used OSNs stated that OSNs
allowed them to acquire information on Course B. The following comments by B01 and
B03 capture this representamen.
“…I basically searched for my preferred courses on Facebook and Orkut
….once I had a list of my preferred MBA courses, I sent private messages to
students asking questions about how much is the fees and job opportunities…”
(B01)
“…I used it [OSNs] before I officially applied for admission. I tried to search
through LinkedIn, Facebook and to get in touch with past and current students
…” (B03)
 The choice decision stage [R3]
At the choice decision stage, an individual makes his/her final course selection decision
and selects one course of study. B01 and B08 claimed that OSNs helped them in their final
course selection decisions.
“…I would say, OSNs really assisted me to select [Course B], because I met
people who have already done their MBA here…” (B01)
“…I used them [OSNs] to help me in selecting between two options, [Course
B] and the other MBA offered at the other university close to here…” (B08)
Table 35 Stages at which online social networks are used during the course
selection process – Course B
Interviewees
B01
The pre-search behaviour stage
✓
The search behaviour stage
✓
The choice decision stage
✓
B03
B05
B08
B09
✓
✓
✓
✓
✓
✓
OSNs most commonly used during the course selection process
Responses to the interview question ‘can you please name all the OSNs that you used to
obtain information about [Course B]?’ include comments that suggest Facebook [R1], Orkut
[R2]
, Pagalguy
[R3]
, LinkedIn
[R4]
, Power Apple
[R5]
, and QQ
[R6]
are popular OSNs to use
during the course selection process. ‘Pagalguy’ is an Indian OSN which is mainly managed
by Indian students who provide feedback on various courses and institutions. ‘Power
Apple’ and ‘QQ’ are popular Chinese OSNs and managed by Chinese students.
163
“…I used OSNs such as Facebook and Orkut…and there is a famous Indian
site Pagalguy…...” (B01)
“…I tried to search it [Course B] through LinkedIn and Facebook to get in
touch with students…” (B03)
“…I used many different online sources for example I visited Pagalguy in
India…” (B09)
“…I used a Chinese OSNs community which is called Power Apple… back
home in China I think QQ is the most important one, QQ is like a Facebook in
China…” (B05)
Figure 49 Online social networks most commonly used during the course selection
process – Course B
OSNs most commonly used
during the course selection
process
Facebook (Global)
www.facebook.com
Orkut (Global)
www.orkut.com
Pagalguy (India)
www.pagalguy.com
LinkedIn (global)
www.linkedin.com/
PowerApple (China)
www.powerapple.com
QQ (China)
www.qq.com
Information-gathering methods using OSNs
Reponses to the interview question ‘how did you gather information using OSNs?’ include
comments that suggest there are five representamens within code SYI.PUS.IGM.
Participants obtained information via a variety of means, including reading comments from
other users
[R1]
, contacting users directly via private messages
[R2]
, viewing online profiles
[R3]
, responses received to questions posted publicly by participants [R4] and viewing photos
[R5]
.
“…I read different posts and I also contacted some members
individually…once I had a list of my preferred MBAs, then I sent private
messages to past and current MBA students…” (B01)
“…I used to post my questions on walls in public, for example, I’m coming to
do my MBA if anybody can give me some feedback…” (B03)
“…I only looked at existing comments from students…I also looked at the
profiles of students…” (B08)
164
“…I found some general information on the graduation and some photos
posted by past students…” (B09)
Figure 50 Information-gathering methods using online social networks – Course B
Information-gathering methods using
OSNs
Contacting users directly via private
messages
Reading comments from other users
Responses received to questions
posted publicly by participants
Viewing online profiles
Viewing photos
Information available on OSNs
Responses to the interview question ‘what information was available on OSNs?’ include
comments that suggest there are thirteen representamens within code SYI.PUS.IAO. By
viewing online profiles, B08 was able to make contact with past and current students and
get contact details, such as email addresses so he could communicate with them privately
[R1]
.
“…I could find information such as email addresses of students, so I could
contact these students…it was very important to contact these people before
coming here…” (B08)
By reading comments from other users, B01 and B05 obtained information about past and
current students’ levels of satisfaction with Course B
[R3]
, future job and career opportunities
backgrounds
[R5]
, the quality of teaching
[R4]
[R6]
[R2]
, the reputation of the institution
, the lecturers’ academic and professional
, information on assessment
[R7]
, the level of
student support and care [R8], lecturers’ personalities and attitudes towards students [R9] and
information on exams and assignments [R10].
“…I found more general information such as one student had a very good
experience here, he had fun here…so the comments on OSNs were mainly
about students’ personal experiences…I used those comments for some basic
purposes such as fees, location, reputation, jobs...I also read a comment that
lecturers here are very friendly and friendlier than other universities…” (B01)
“…I found information on teaching quality and assessment and how easy it is
to pass the exams and assignments…I wanted to find these information more
165
and that is why I searched more about these information…I also found
information on student service and attitude of lecturers, and if they are helpful
or nice, there are lots of comments about these things on OSNs …” (B05)
Through viewing photos uploaded on OSNs, B09 obtained information about the
graduation ceremony and what it involves [R11].
“…I found some general information on the graduation and how it is carried
out via looking at some photos posted by students…” (B09)
By contacting users directly via private messages, B01 acquired information about the
location of the institution within the city
[R12]
. B01 noted that students’ feedback on
location was positive, for example, B01 was told that University B is located very close to
the city centre.
“…I found information on location of [University B]… they said location is
good, and it is very close to city centre… people said it is a good place and it
is very friendly…” (B01)
From responses received to questions posted publicly by participants, B01 acquired
information on the tuition fees for Course B [R13].
“…I also posted a question on wall…I asked about tuition fees…” (B01)
166
Information available
on OSNs
Figure 4 Information available on online social networks - Course B
By viewing online
profiles
To make contact with
past and current
students and get
contact details, such
as email addresses
By reading comments
from other users
Through viewing
photos and watching
videos
Past and current
students’ levels of
satisfaction with
Course B
The reputation of the
institution
Future job and career
opportunities
The lecturers’
academic and
professional
background
The quality of
teaching
Lecturers’
personalities and
attitudes towards
students
Exams and
assignments
By contacting users
directly via private
messages
Information about the
graduation ceremony
and what it involves
From responses
received to questions
posted publicly by
participants
The location of the
institution within the
city
Information on the
tuition fees
Information on
assessment
The level of student
support and care
167
The information needed most from OSNs during the course selection
process
Responses to the interview question ‘what is the information that is needed most during the
course selection process that you search for on OSNs?’ include comments that suggest
there are nine representamens within code SYI.PUS.INM. They include information about
the city [R1], photos and videos of students, particularly from their day-to-day course related
activities and student life in general
professional backgrounds
[R3]
[R2]
, information on the lecturers’ academic and
, information about university accommodation and privately
rented accommodation available in the city [R4], information about food [R5], information on
the graduation completion rate
information on study trips
[R9]
[R8]
[R6]
, information about the climate and weather
[R7]
,
and information about the course structure and curriculum
.
“…I wanted to get some information on this city…I think there is a huge need
to provide information about the city in terms of living, accommodation, foods,
weather and many other things…I also wish I could find more information on
course structure…in their website they have some video clips of lectures, and I
think that would be really good if they could also have similar videos on OSNs
…” (B03)
“…I wanted to know what proportion of students each year can graduate
successfully, and get the degree…I also wanted to find information on course
structure, and more information on lecturers and their backgrounds…”(B05)
“…nobody talked about international trips we have, such as going to Prague
for 7 days which is the capital and largest city of the Czech Republic…nobody
mentioned this on OSNs …” (B08)
168
Figure 52 Information needed most from online social networks during the course
selection process – Course B
The information needed most from OSNs
during the course selection process
Information about the city
Photos and videos of students, particularly
from their day-to-day course related
activities and student life in general
Information on the lecturers’ academic and
professional backgrounds
University accommodation and privately
rented accommodation available in the city
Information about food
Information on the graduation completion
rate
Information about the climate and weather
Information on study trips
Information about the course structure and
curriculum
Benefits of using OSNs in course selection
Responses to the interview question ‘what are the benefits of using OSNs in comparison
with other sources?’ include comments that suggest there are nine representamens within
code SYI.PUS.BOC. B01 and B08 indicated that it was very easy for them to access and
use OSNs [R1].
“..it was very easy to use them, couple of years ago I was not really familiar
with OSNs …” (B01)
“…they were very easy to access and use…” (B08)
B01 and B05 stated that OSNs strengthened their confidence in selecting Course B [R2], and
they were a less biased and more credible source of information than official sources
[R3]
,
and that OSNs facilitate connections between and information sharing with past and
current students [R4].
“…I really can’t trust the information from official sources but I can trust the
information provided by students…some students told me don’t select specific
courses because they didn’t have good experiences… talking to other people
on OSNs had a huge impact on my MBA selection decision and selecting this
course, I was more confident…” (B01)
“…comments left on OSNs are more subjective and personal, they are
fact…so I was able to explore in details the fact and reality of this course by
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looking at these subjective comments… also you can contact many other
people and get the latest information available from students…” (B05)
B09 claimed that OSNs helped her to find out about past and current students' academic
and professional backgrounds
[R5]
and to obtain feedback from students from different
countries [R6].
“…you can gain an insight into past and current students’ academic and
professional backgrounds…you can contact people from many different
countries and obtain the latest information…” (B09)
B08 and B09 claimed that, unlike official sources, OSNs helped them to find out about
past and current students’ personal views and experiences of the MBA course [R7].
“…I think there is a huge difference between comments that you get from
students on OSNs and what you read on official website…comments are more
personal on OSNs ...” (B08)
“…Facebook or other OSNs were interesting because the information
provided was more on the personal level…you get more student focus view on
OSNs…” (B09)
B01 and B05 claimed that OSNs allowed them to send direct messages to past and current
students [R8] and to gather detailed information about Course B [R9]
“…on OSNs you can search more detailed information…wider subjective
information…” (B05)
“…some students said don’t select specific MBA courses because they didn’t
have good experiences…as a result OSNs helped me to ask the questions I
wanted to know and they had huge impact on my MBA selection decision…”
(B01)
170
Figure 53 Benefits of using online social networks in course selection – Course B
Benefits of using OSNs in course selection
It is easy to access and use OSNs
They strengthen an individual’s confidence in
selecting the course
They are less biased and a more credible
source of information than official sources
They facilitate connections between and
information sharing with past and current
students
They help to find out about past and current
students' academic and professional
backgrounds
The help to obtain feedback from students
from different countries
They help to find out about past and current
students’ personal views and experiences of
the MBA course
They help to send direct messages to past and
current students
They help individuals to gather detailed
information about Course B
Downsides of using OSNs in course selection
Responses to the interview question ‘what are the downsides of using OSNs in comparison
with other sources?’ include comments that suggest there are four representamens within
code SYI.PUS.DOC. B01 and B03 found it difficult to distinguish between posts made on
OSNs by members of staff and those made by students [R1]. B01 and B03 claimed that they
could not completely rely on all of the information available on OSNs and they perceived
the information on OSNs as potentially unreliable [R2].
“…regarding disadvantages I would say inaccuracy, I could not rely on all
the information…” (B01)
“…I think the information you get from journals or the official university
website is what it claims it should be. Because on OSNs everyone can post
something, if I had a bad experience with [Course B] I post something which
isn’t really representing the reality of the course… anybody can post a
comment online and it is difficult to verify these comments, I really could not
identify the source or the person who was responsible for some comments, it
could be a marketer or a member of staff trying to sell the course…” (B03)
B05 and B01 indicated that students’ personal views could sometimes result in negative
preconceptions about the MBA course and negatively influence the course selection
decisions of HE aspirants and applicants [R3].
171
“…disadvantages I think preconception, comments are more subjective and
depends on personal views of people, and people may have different views
about something…” (B05)
“… because sometimes you find people who say alright I have done a course
in a university, I only know one university and I only suggest you that...but you
have to compare different universities or MBA courses…you can’t purely rely
on people’s personal opinions…” (B01)
B01 noted that OSNs should not be used as the only source of information during the
course selection process [R4].
“…personal opinion does matter, OSNs are important but they should not be
the sole source of information…they should not be used as the only source of
information, they should be used besides the official sources…” (B01)
Figure 54 Downsides of using online social networks in course selection – Course B
Downsides of using OSNs in course selection
It is difficult to distinguish between posts
made on OSNs by members of staff and those
made by students
Personal views expressed on OSNs can result
in negative preconceptions about the MBA
course and negatively influence the course
selection decisions of HE aspirants and
applicants
Users cannot completely rely on all of the
information available on OSNs, as some
information on OSNs can be biased
OSNs should not be used as the only source
of information during the course selection
process
5.4.2.3 Perceived identity of Course B
This section presents ‘interpretants’ within codes that constitute the perceived identity of
Course B. The perceived identity of Course B is determined by the paradigmatic identity of
Course B and the syntagmatic identity of Course B, and influences the final course
selection decisions of international HE aspirants and applicants.
The level of influence of OSNs on final course selection decisions in
comparison with other sources
172
Responses to the interview question ‘how influential were OSNs on your final course
selection decisions in comparison with other sources?’ include comments that suggest
there are four ‘interpretants’ within code PEI.LIF. These representamens will be discussed
in turn.
 OSNs have a strong influence on final course selection decisions [I1]
B01 stated that OSNs had a strong influence on his final course selection decision. B01
believes OSNs were influential in his decision to select Course B because he was able to
contact past and current students on OSNs and get their feedback on Course B.
“…I would say they have been really influential in selecting [Course B],
because I met people who have already done their MBA here and they gave
me feedback on this course...” (B01)
 OSNs have a moderate influence on final course selection decisions [I2]
OSNs had a moderate influence on B05’ and B08’ final course selection decisions. B05
stated that if somebody had said that the exams and assignments were difficult she would
not have selected Course B. B08 also stated that he had not been aware that the course
included international trips until he used OSNs.
“…If I want to rate how influential they [OSNs] have been in selecting
[Course B] I would say 50% in my case, because if somebody would say the
exams and assignments are really hard I would not come here to study…”
(B05)
“…I would say 50%. I didn’t know everything about this course until I spoke
to a student on Facebook, that person told me about the international
travelling….when I contacted somebody on OSNs and she told me about these
international trips, then I become interested in selecting this course…this was
the information that I didn’t get from my agent and official sources…” (B08)
 OSNs have a low level of influence on final course selection decisions [I3]
B03 noted that OSNs had a low level of influence on his final course selection decision. He
stated that OSNs could have been more influential if University B had invested in a
presence on popular OSNs.
“..they could be really influential but they didn’t influence my decisions so
much, it can be in the future if university invest more in them…until now OSNs
have not been utilized effectively by [University B]…” (B03)
 OSNs have no influence on final course selection decisions [I4]
B09 stated that OSNs had no influence on her final course selection decision.
“...they had no influence on my decisions, no influence at all!...” (B09)
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Table 36 The level of influence of online social networks on final course selection
decisions in comparison with other sources – Course B
Interviewees
Strong level of
influence
B01
✓
Moderate level of
influence
No influence
✓
B03
B05
✓
B08
✓
B09
Low level of
influence
✓
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5.4.3 Course C
A sample of 10 international students studying on Course C was selected for the main
study. The demographics of interviewees are presented in the following table.
India
India
Bachelor
BSc
5
9
C03
C04
C05
C06
C07
35
28
37
29
28
Single
Single
Single
Single
Single
Male
Male
Male
Male
Female
India
Japan
Bahamas
Chile
Thailand
MSc
Bachelor
Bachelor
Master
Bachelor
9
4
9
3
4
C08
C09
31
30
Single
Married
Male
Male
Mali
Egypt
Master
Bachelor
7
6
C10
29
Single
Male
France
Master
5
IT consultant
2nd officer
(merchant navy)
IT consultant
Accountant
Finance manager
Finance Manager
Supply chain
support manager
Sales Manager
Customer service
advisor
International
product manager
Industry
Male
Male
professional
position
Single
Single
years of work
experience
Marital status
26
28
Country
Age
C01
C02
Gender
Interviewees
The highest level
of education
before MBA
Table 37 The demographics of interviewees – Course C
IT
Arm forces
IT
Hospitality/Travel/Tourism
Hospitality/Travel/Tourism
Finance
Consumer goods
Oil and Gas
Telecommunications
Media
In line with the aims of the analysis, this section is divided into three. The first subsection
presents ‘representamens’ within codes that constitute the paradigmatic identity of Course
C. The second subsection presents ‘representamens’ within codes that constitute the
syntagmatic identity of Course C as observed through OSNs. Finally, the third subsection
presents ‘interpretants’ within codes that constitute the perceived identity of Course C.
5.4.3.1 Paradigmatic identity of Course C
This section presents ‘representamens’ within codes that constitute the paradigmatic
identity of Course C. The paradigmatic identity of Course C is the overall identity of this
course communicated in the form of the representamen to international HE aspirants and
applicants through a variety of resources from which international HE aspirants and
applicants generate certain perceptions (or interpretants) about Course C.
Initial sources of information
Responses to the interview question ‘how did you first find out about [Course C]?’ include
comments that suggest there are eight representamens within code PAI.FSI. C03, C06 and
175
C07 first heard about Course C at education fairs [R1], from education agencies [R2], or from
friends who have previously taken Course C [R3].
“…I attended a few MBA fairs back home organized by various agencies and
[University C] was one of participants…” (C03)
“…the first time I heard about [Course C] was in an MBA fair conducted in
HYAT hotel in Santiago…I attended this fair to find out about different
MBAs...” (C06)
“…from my friend, he studied here before for the MBA…” (C07)
C01 and C04 first heard about Course C from newspaper advertisements
[R4]
, and from
friends in their home country who were also interested in studying abroad [R5].
“…my friend’s wife was applying for some colleges abroad…I always used to
help them in searching for different business schools abroad. …I got to know
[Course C] accidentally when I was helping this friend…” (C01)
“…actually I think it [University C] was advertised in a newspaper back
home, I saw an advertisement that [University C] is coming to Japan…”
(C04)
Others first heard about Course C through ranking websites such as the Financial Times
[R6]
and from friends who have previously studied at University C [R7].
“…I was reviewing ranking websites for MBA courses in the UK, I don’t
remember exactly what sources but maybe Financial Times…” (C05)
“…the first thing that you do when you want to do an MBA is looking at
ranking sources…I used Financial Times as the first source of information…”
(C08)
“…It was about four years ago when one of my friends was applying for this
university…so it was from a friend of mine…” (C02)
C09 indicated that if he had not used OSNs he would not have known about Course C. C09
stated that he made a friend via an OSN who was studying in the city in which Course C is
offered, and this friend had recommended Course C.
“…it [OSNs] was essential, because what happen is that I knew someone who
was studying in this city so I was introduced to him through Facebook…so if it
wasn’t for this connection through Facebook I would never know about
[Course C]. As I said earlier I was using Facebook to connect with this person
before even I applied for MBA…” (C09)
176
Figure 55 Initial sources of information available during the course selection
process – Course C
Initial sources of information
Friends who have previously taken
Course C
Education agencies
Ranking websites
OSNs
Friends in their home country who
were also interested in studying abroad
Friends who have previously studied
at University C
Education fairs
Newspaper advertisements
Offline sources of information
Responses to the interview question ‘what offline sources of information did you use to
obtain information about [Course C]?’ include comments that suggest there are six
representamens within code PAI.SIA.OFF. They include friends who have previously
studied at University C
education fairs
abroad
[R5]
[R4]
[R1]
, education agencies
[R2]
, newspaper advertisements
[R3]
,
, friends in their home country who were also interested in studying
, and friends who have previously taken Course C [R6]. The following comments
capture some of these representamens.
“…I participated in some MBA fairs back home…there was also one
education consultancy in Delhi called Chopras…Chopras provided lots of
information on this course…” (C02)
“…my friend had studied [Course C] before…he recommended this course… I
also attended some education fairs and I talked to admission team in
person…” (C07)
177
Figure 56 Offline sources of information available during the course selection
process – Course C
Offline sources of information
Friends who have previously studied at
University C
Education agencies
Newspaper advertisements
Education fairs
Friends in their home country who were
also interested in studying abroad
Friends who have previously taken
Course C
Online sources of information
Responses to the interview question ‘what online sources of information did you use to
obtain information about [Course C]?’ include comments that suggest there are nine
representamens within code PAI.SIA.ONL. They include OSNs
brochures
website
[R2]
[R5]
, accreditation bodies’ websites
[R3]
, e-journals
[R4]
, the official university website [R6], ranking websites
and Commonwealth Office (FCO) website
[R8]
[R1]
, electronic course
, the British Council
[R7]
, the British Foreign
and the Universities and Colleges
Admissions Service (UCAS) Website [R9].
“…I looked at full-time and Forbes… well I used the UK British Foreign and
commonwealth office (FCO) Website…I also checked UCAS and British
council website…” (C05)
“…ranking sites such as Financial Times…then online magazines such as QS
TOP MBA…official website of [University C]… then you have OSNs such as
Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn , YouTube…I discovered lots of information on
[Course C] on OSNs… I also got information from accreditation bodies such
as AMBA…”(C02)
“…I used the official GMAT Website… I first started looking at the ranking
websites such as Financial Times and Forbes…I also used LinkedIn,
Facebook and Pagalguy to find students who were studying in here and to see
if they have left any comments…”(C01)
“…I downloaded the MBA brochure online…I used a lot of French websites
and English websites about MBA courses or executive education and some ejournals as well…” (C10)
178
Figure 57 Online sources of information available during the course selection
process – Course C
Online sources of information
OSNs
Electronic course brochures
Accreditation bodies’ website (e.g. AMBA)
E-journals (e.g. QS TopMBA)
The British Council website
The official university website
Ranking websites (e.g. the Financial Times
and Forbes)
The Universities and Colleges Admissions
Service (UCAS) website
The British Foreign & Commonwealth Office
(FCO) website
Core factors influencing the choice of Course C
Responses to the interview question ‘why did you select [Course C] as your preferred
course of study abroad?” include comments that suggest there are thirty-six
representamens within code PAI.CF. These representamens will be discussed in turn.
 Future job and career prospects after graduation [R1]
C01 and C02 stated that studying for an MBA, such as Course C, helps them to develop
their career towards more senior managerial positions.
“…I have engineering background and I have five years work experience in
the IT industry…my job role was changing from technical jobs to managerial
positions, moving from coordinating and development to team management
and project management, so I thought it was the time to go for an MBA to
enhance my skills, because I wanted to take these managerial
opportunities…” (C01)
“…I have been serving in Navy for a few years and there was no progression
in my career…then I thought probably an MBA would be a good opportunity
to leverage and make a transition to something interesting…” (C02)
 The prestige of the MBA course [R2]
C07 decided to study for an MBA because of the prestige of the MBA course. C07
believes the MBA as a prestigious professional degree helps gradates to achieve their
179
career objectives.
“…Because of the course itself, it is kind of management thing and it covers
many areas…the main reason was only because the prestige of an MBA allows
graduates to achieve their career objectives…” (C07)
 Class sizes are not too large [R3]
C01 selected Course C because class sizes are not too large.
“…they have also very good class size, not too big that you can’t network with
people, and not very small that you are very restricted…” (C01)
 The reputation of the institution [R4]
C08 selected Course C because University C has a good reputation.
“…I chose this course because of the brand and the reputation of [University
C]… brand is important…” (C08)
 Teaching methods [R5]
C04 stated that University C has a very strong focus on group activities.
“…[University C] has a very strong focus on group activities and from day
one they put you in groups or teams…” (C04)
 The full-time MBA helps students to fully focus on their education [R6]
C01 and C09 stated that it would be difficult to work and study at the same time and
therefore studying full-time for an MBA helps them to fully focus on their education.
“…I wanted to allocate more time for studying…it would be really difficult to
work and study at the same time…” (C01)
“…it is just terrible to go to work and study at the same time, you never get
the full benefits of either studying or working…” (C09)
 The full-time MBA gives students more networking opportunities [R7]
C01 indicated that a full-time MBA gives him more opportunities to network with other
students.
“…I always thought you are able to make a better network in a classroom
environment when you spend more time with your colleagues…a full-time
MBA usually attracts the best candidates from different parts of the world …”
(C01)
 The full-time MBA gives students easier access to academic staff and resources [R8]
C05 stated that the full-time MBA gives students easier access to staff and resources.
“…I definitely wanted to do it full-time...when you are studying full-time you
have more access to academic staff and resources…”(C05)
 The full-time MBA is more highly valued by employers [R9]
180
C08 believes the full-time MBA is more highly valued by employers in comparison with
other study modes.
“…for employers a full-time MBA is different than part-time MBA, people
have different perceptions about a full-time MBA than other modes of
study…” (C08)
 Duration more than a year [R10]
Course C was preferred by C03 and C08 because it is more than one year. C03 and C08
noted that the longer duration of Course C helps them to allocate more time for studying
and to improve their English language knowledge.
“…I wanted to do reasonably longer MBA and most of the MBA courses in
Europe are between 10 to 12 months… there are some top ranked MBA
courses in the UK with short duration…even though there were better than
[Course C] but I didn’t select them because their duration was shorter…”
(C03)
“…I thought if I do an MBA which is more than one-year I can stay here
more, and I can improve my English…one-year MBA would be very difficult
for me because my English was not that much good at that time…” (C08)
 Familiarity with the working culture in the UK [R11]
C01 had previously worked for British companies and he was already familiar with
working culture in Britain.
“…I am from India, for the last two and half years I was working in the USA
and I interacted with people from the UK and I got used to the working culture
of the UK…I already knew how people and companies work in this country…”
(C01)
 The structure of the UK MBA [R12]
C01 stated that the structure of the UK MBA is better than that of MBA courses offered in
other popular study destinations such as the USA.
“…the structure of MBA courses in the UK appeals more to me than MBA
courses in USA…” (C01)
 The quality and the reputation of the UK education system [R13]
C03 and C06 stated that the UK education system is held in high esteem and its quality is
internationally recognised.
“…I felt that the recognition of the UK MBA is higher in compare to other
countries …” (C03)
“…I chose UK because the quality of education in the UK is very high…most
people know a few very well-known institutions in the UK so I suppose the
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perception is that the UK education is very good and it has a very good
quality...” (C06)
 UK MBA students have greater work experience than MBA students in other
countries [R14]
C03 stated that UK MBA students have greater work experience than MBA students in
other popular study destinations.
“…the students who go to MBA in India, they don’t have as much as
experience, generally it is between one to two years…because I was
experienced, I had to rule out the option of doing it in India, then my options
boiled down to the UK…” (C03)
 Preference for British culture [R15]
C05, C07 and C10 were more interested in British life style than that of other popular
study destination. Participants from commonwealth countries in particular had a strong
cultural affinity with the UK.
“…well I think the UK for the fact that the country I come from is a
commonwealth country so we have some cultural linkages with the UK…”
(C05)
“…I like the culture in the UK more than USA…” (C07)
“…British culture is really different from the French culture, basically if you
are really good at doing something you can be promoted in the UK very fast,
here in the UK you can meet somebody who is top manager and he is only in
his early 30th...” (C10)
 UK is a culturally and ethnically diverse society [R16]
C06 decided to study for an MBA in the UK because the UK is a culturally and ethnically
diverse society.
“…I thought that the UK is closer to Asia and Middle East, and I will have
more opportunity to meet different people and more diverse type of people…”
(C06)
 Distance between the home country and the UK [R17]
C09 and C10 decided to study in the UK because UK is closer to their home countries.
“…I considered USA first, but it was too far from my country…that is why I
wanted to study somewhere in Europe…” (C09)
“…UK isn’t very far from Paris, just 3 hours train, and 1 hour flight…” (C10)
 The city is large [R18]
C05 stated that the city in which Course C is offered is large and he wanted to study in and
182
experience living in a large city.
“… I wanted to do an MBA in a big city…this city to me was very attractive
because it is a large city…” (C05)
 The city does not have a high cost of living in comparison with other large cities
[R19]
C10 noted that the city in which Course C is offered has a reasonable cost of living in
comparison with other large cities in the UK.
“…the cost of living here in this city is cheaper and it is very important
because I am not working full time and I have to pay for my fees and other
expenses…” (C10)
 The city is not too crowded [R20]
C05 stated that the city in which Course C is offered is not too crowded.
“…other big cities in the UK are very crowded, this city was a better city for
me…” (C05)
 The city is a hub for business and finance [R21]
C06 noted that the city in which Course C is offered is a hub for business and finance.
“…this city is a strong hub of business and finance and I thought this city is a
good place to do my MBA…” (C06)
 The city is lively and vibrant [R22]
C07 stated that the city in which Course C is offered is lively and vibrant.
“…and also the social life is better in this city and the city is very lively…”
(C07)
 Course C is accredited by AMBA, AACSB and EQUIS [R23]
C03 selected Course C because it is accredited by AMBA, AACSB and EQUIS
“…accreditation of the course was very important for me, this course is
accredited by AMBA, AACSB and EQUIS…” (C03)
 High level of work experience of past and current students [R24]
C03 and C04 selected Course C because the work experience of past and current students
was greater in comparison with those on MBA courses offered in other popular study
destinations such as the USA.
“…average work experience is 1 to 2 years in business schools in
India…because I was very experienced, I had to eliminate the option of doing
my MBA in India and choose this course…” (C03)
183
“…MBA students at this school have an average work experience which is far
greater than MBA courses in USA…” (C04)
 Higher ages of past and current students [R25]
C04 selected Course C because the average age of past and current students was higher in
comparison with those on MBA courses offered in other popular study destinations such as
the USA.
“…I thought that people who are attending this course are much more
experienced in life than people who attend courses in the USA…” (C04)
 The diversity of past and current students [R26]
C01, C06 and C09 stated that Course C attracts diverse students from different countries.
for example, according to C09, students from the previous MBA class came from 40
different countries.
“…looking at the history of [course C,] they always seem to attract diverse
students from different parts of the world, the last year MBA students were
from 39 nationalities...” (C01)
“…there are diverse types of students studying this course, you have people
from many different countries and I found this very important to expand my
networks…” (C06)
“…the other really great thing about [Course C] is the diversity of the
students, this is one of those few courses that students come from more than 40
different countries in the world and this is amazing…” (C09)
 High ranking and reputation of Course C [R27]
C01 and C09 selected Course C because it is highly ranked and it has a good reputation
worldwide.
“…[Course C] is very well placed in the ranking and it has a very good
history of return in investment… this course is ranked among top MBA
courses in the UK and in the world…” (C01)
“…in Financial Times ranking website, there were 5 UK MBA courses listed
among top 10 MBA courses in the world… [Course C] was one of them …”
(C09)
 The course structure and curriculum [R28]
C02 and C05 liked the structure of Course C as it is based on learning by practice, and it
gives students the opportunity to work on different projects whilst studying.
184
“…I like the structure of [Course C], lots of focus on different projects, and I
saw this as an opportunity to put our academic learning into practice…”
(C02)
“…I was very attracted to the unique structure of [Course C], I didn’t find any
other course that had a mixture of consultancy projects…” (C05)
 Friends and relatives studying at the institution [R29]
C09 selected Course C because his friends and relatives were studying at University C.
“…particularly I was looking for Course C because I have relatives here in
this University, my uncle is here…” (C09)
 Studying for an MBA helps students to enhance their knowledge and skills in
management and leadership [R30]
C09 and C10 decided to study Course C in order to enhance their knowledge and skills in
subjects such as management and leadership.
“…I have already studied economics in school and I took some courses in
business, but I didn’t have that global understanding of what business is, and I
never studied management in-depth…” (C09)
“…I really didn’t have business background, I didn’t study back home in
France, I studied in the university which was very different, I studied
philosophy and I never studied leadership and management…” (C10)
 Studying for an MBA helps students to improve their English language skills [R31]
C08 and C10 selected Course C in order to improve their English language skills.
“…my first language is French and I said that if I have to do an MBA it
should be in an English country…” (C08)
“…and I wanted to improve my English, I used to work for international
companies and English was the business language. I was not very confident
with my English and that is why I essentially targeted English business
schools…” (C10)
 Studying in the UK provides the opportunity for students to visit other European
countries [R32]
As Course C is offered in Europe, C01 perceived studying Course C as an opportunity to
visit other European countries.
“…I like to travel, so I wanted to travel around and to live in Europe and to
see different countries. Being in UK allows me to visit different countries in
Europe in a very short period of time…” (C01)

Studying for an MBA helps students to build a global network [R33]
C01 noted that studying for an MBA, such as Course C, helps him to build and expand his
global network, particularly in Europe.
185
“… I didn’t want to do an MBA in India because I already have a good
network there and I wanted to build a global network, for that reason I
decided to study here…” (C01)
 Work placement opportunity [R34]
C03 selected Course C because it offers a work placement opportunity.
“…then the placement was important…in picking this course my primary
consideration was the reputation and the placement prospects...” (C03)

The possibility of working in the UK after graduation [R35]
C08 and C10 stated that studying in the UK gives them the opportunity to stay and work
after graduation.
“…I have an option to stay here after my MBA...” (C08)
“…the second point was that I didn’t want to study in France because I am
French and I wanted to look for the jobs in the UK and it is easier to have a
job here…” (C10)

Familiarity with British culture and the British education system [R36]
C09 selected Course C because he was familiar with British culture and the British
education system.
“…When I did my high school I went to a British school in Egypt so I was
familiar with British culture and the education system…” (C09)
Core factors influencing the choice of Course C are displayed in the following figure.
186
Core factors influencing the choice of Course C
Figure 5 Core factors influencing selection of a course abroad – Course C
Future job and career prospects after graduation
The prestige of the MBA
Class sizes are not too large
The reputation of the institution
Teaching methods
The full-time MBA helps students to fully focus on their education
The full-time MBA gives students easier access to academic staff and resources
Full-time MBA gives students more networking opportunities than other study modes
The full-time MBA is more highly valued by employers
Duration more than a year
Familiarity with the working culture in the UK
The structure of the UK MBA
The quality and the reputation of the UK education system
UK MBA students have greater work experience than MBA students in other
countries
Preference for British culture
UK is a culturally and ethnically diverse society
Distance between the home country and the UK
The city is large
The city does not have a high cost of living in comparison with other large cities
The city is not too crowded
The city is a hub for business and finance
The city is lively and vibrant
Course C is accredited by AMBA, AACSB and EQUIS
High level of work experience of past and current students
Higher ages of past and current students
The diversity of past and current students
High ranking and reputation of Course C
Course structure and curriculum
Friends and relatives studying at the institution
Studying for an MBA helps students to enhance their knowledge and skills in
management and leadership
Studying for an MBA helps students to improve their English language skills
Studying in the UK provides the opportunity for students to visit other European
countries
Studying for an MBA helps students to build a global network
Work placement opportunities
187
The possibility of working in the UK after graduation
Familiarity with British culture and the British education system
5.4.3.2 Syntagmatic identity of Course C as observed through online social
networks
This section presents ‘representamens’ within codes that constitute the syntagmatic identity
of Course C as observed through OSNs. This identity of Course C is communicated in the
form of the representamen to international HE aspirants and applicants through OSNs,
from which international HE aspirants and applicants generate certain perceptions (or
interpretants) about Course C.
Participants did not use OSNs
Three out of ten research participants did not use OSNs during the course selection
process: C04 from Japan, C06 from Chile and C10 from France. Their reasons for not
using OSNs and subsequent changes in their perceptions about OSNs are discussed below.
Reasons for not using OSNs and subsequent changes in perceptions
about OSNs
Responses to the interview question ‘why didn’t you use OSNs during the course selection
process?’ include comments that suggest there are five representamens within code
SYI.PDU.RNU. These representamens will be discussed in turn.
 No further information was required [R1]
C06 did not require further information on Course C, and therefore did not use OSNs
during the course selection process.
“…I didn’t need more information, I didn’t really look for more information
on [Course C]…” (C06)
 Did not know how to use OSNs [R2]
C06 and C10 did not know how to use OSNs, otherwise they would have used them to
acquire information on Course C.
“…I suppose the main reason is that I was not really a heavy user of OSNs.
But right now I am much more comfortable and more experienced user, and I
know how to research on them…” (C06)
“…I didn’t much know about OSNs and I was not aware that I can find
information on them about [Course C], if I knew about OSNs and their
potential, and if I had time I would definitely join OSNs to ask questions about
[Course C]…” (C10)
 Lack of time to use OSNs due to late application [R3]
C10 indicated that he applied late so he had no time to research the course using OSNs.
188
“…no I didn’t, because before I come here I didn’t have much time to go on
Facebook. As I said I changed from MSs to MBA and I really didn’t have
much time to get research on OSNs…” (C10)
 Official sources provide greater insight [R4]
C04 believes official sources, such as the official university website, give greater insight in
comparison with OSNs.
“…for me official sources such as the website gave me more insight about
how the course was actually structured…” (C04)
 OSNs are not a valuable source of information [R5]
C04 did not consider OSNs a valuable source of information.
“…I didn’t use them because I really didn’t consider them as a valuable
source of information…I didn’t think that OSNs would be a very valuable
source of information…I just was not sure what values they can add, I didn’t
see them to be necessary for me…” (C04)
Figure 59 Reasons for not using online social networks – Course C
Reasons for not using online OSNs
No further information was required
Did not know how to use OSNs
Lack of time to use OSNs due to late
application
Official sources provide greater insight
about the course
OSNs are not a valuable source of
information
Responses to the interview question ‘do you still have the same approach towards OSNs?’
include comments that suggest there are two representamens within code SYI.PDU.SCP.
The representamens will be discussed in turn.
 Changed perceptions of OSNs [R1]
Two out of three participants who did not use OSNs indicated that their perceptions about
using OSNs had since changed such that they would now consider using them. C06
believes that OSNs provide more accurate and honest information than official sources of
information, but this still depends who you communicate with on OSNs. C06 stated that it
is easier to find past and current students on OSNs, and to obtain background information
on them.
189
“…I now use OSNs to get information on any important topics that I am
researching about, I think OSNs provide more accurate results when you look
for specific topics than using only official sources. So if you find right
community or right kind of people on OSNs such as Twitter then they would
lead you to the kind of information that you want to find… you have the
opportunity to contact previous students or current students on OSNs…it is
easier to obtain the background information and profile of past students…”
(C06)
C10’s perceptions about OSNs had also changed since he had attended IT lectures as part
of Course C. Prior starting Course C, C10 did not know that OSNs were a source of
information.
“…I will definitely use OSNs to help me in MBA selection decisions. As I said
I didn’t know if there are any information on [Course C] on OSNs, if I knew it
I would definitely use them to obtain more information…before coming here I
didn’t really trust OSNs, but when we had IT lectures in our first term I really
saw the potential of these sites and how useful they can be for sharing
information, especially getting research about something…” (C10)
 Perceptions did not change [R2]
C04’s perceptions about using OSNs remained the same. C04 stated that it is still difficult
for him to trust information from OSNs. C04 believes that the contacts provided by
University C were adequate and he did not need to find further information on Course C.
“…I think OSNs aren’t really reliable, for example if you ask about the quality
of teaching, some people would say good and some would say no…I had two
options, I could obtain information on past students’ experiences on
Facebook, or I could do it through those people who were introduced by
[University C] during the admission process…the contacts provided by
[University C] were good enough and I didn’t really feel lacking information
and going on OSNs to find out more about this course…” (C04)
Table 38 Subsequent changes in perceptions about online social networks –
Course C
Interviewees
C04
Changed perceptions of OSNs
Perceptions did not change
C06
C10
✓
✓
✓
Participants used OSNs
Seven out of ten research participants used OSNs during the course selection process: C01,
C02 and C03 from India, C05 from Bahamas, C07 from Thailand, C08 from Mali and C09
from Egypt.
190
Stages at which OSNs are used during the course selection process
Responses to the interview question ‘at what stages in your course selection process did
you use OSNs?’ include comments that suggest there are four representamens within code
SYI.PUS.S. These representamens will be discussed in turn.
 The pre-search behaviour stage [R1]
C09 heard of Course C for the first time through OSNs. C09 stated that one of his
Facebook friends used to study at University C and C09 heard about Course C for the first
time through this friend.
“…OSNs such as Facebook were essential…because I knew someone who was
studying at [University C] so I was introduced to him through Facebook…if it
wasn’t for this connection through Facebook I would never know about
[Course C]...” (C09)
 The search behaviour stage [R2]
All participants who used OSNs during the course selection process stated that OSNs
allowed them to acquire information on Course C. The following comments by C03 and
C05 capture this representamen.
“…when I decided to study an MBA course, I used OSNs as a tool to search
for different MBA courses in the UK and obtain information on past students’
experiences…’ (C03)
“…prior selecting [Course C] I used OSNs to obtain information on MBA
courses in the UK...” (C05)
 The application decision stage [R3]
At the application decision stage, individuals focus down onto a few course options that
they are interested in and to which they are more likely to be admitted. C03 and C07
claimed that they used OSNs to focus down onto a few course options that they were
interested in and to which they were more likely to be admitted.
“…before I applied for the MBA here, I used OSNs to shortlist my options…
my initial list was made from full-time and after that I needed to do more
research on them…” (C03)
“…I used OSNs when I wanted to shortlist my preferred courses…” (C07)
 The choice decision stage [R4]
C01, C02, C03, C05 and C08 claimed that OSNs helped them in their final course selection
decisions.
“…they [OSNs] had a significant influence on finalizing which MBA course to
select…” (C01)
191
“…I used Pagalguy before I applied for admission…Pagalguy assisted me to
select my preferred MBA course…” (C03)
“…I had several options and I was considering different high ranked MBAs…I
used mainly YouTube to watch videos about the city, business school and the
MBA, if I wouldn’t watch those videos I would be a little bit hesitant or
uncomfortable about making my final decision…” (C05)
“…when I had several options, OSNs helped me to select the best option…”
(C08)
Table 39 Stages at which online social networks are used during the course
selection process – Course C
Interviewees
The pre-search behaviour stage
C01
C02
C03
C05
C07
C08
C09
✓
The search behaviour stage
✓
✓
✓
✓
✓
✓
✓
The application decision stage
✓
The choice decision stage
✓
✓
✓
✓
✓
✓
✓
OSNs most commonly used during the course selection process
Responses to the interview question ‘can you please name all the OSNs that you used to
obtain information about [Course C]?’ include comments that suggest there are seven
representamens within code SYI.PUS.MCU. They are as follows: Beatthegmat
Pagalguy
[R2]
, LinkedIn
[R3]
, Facebook
[R4]
, Twitter
[R5]
and YouTube
[R6]
[R1]
,
. Beatthegmat.com
is one of the world's largest OSNs for MBA applicants, serving over 2 million people each
year.
“…I went to different OSNs, one was Beatthegmat, which was the MBA
network, and there is also a very popular Indian OSNs which is Pagalguy…I
also used LinkedIn and Facebook to find students who were studying here and
to see if people have left any comments…” (C01)
“…I checked official websites very often and then you have those OSNs fan
pages on Facebook , Twitter, LinkedIn , YouTube… later on I discovered that
there are lots of information on [Course C] on Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube
and Twitter…” (C02)
“… I looked at YouTube to get a sense of how this city looks like…for me it
was very important to get a sense of environment, so I looked at some videos
on YouTube to see if people posted things about this city…” (C05)
“…I tried to do research by asking five alumni fom Thailand through
Facebook and YouTube…” (C07)
“…I would say at that time I only used LinkedIn… I didn’t use other OSNs
such as Facebook, or Twitter…” (C08)
University C also owns a popular blogging site
[R7]
. Participants stated that this blogging
192
site is for individuals who are offered a place. C02 noted that this blogging site has the
characteristics of an OSN in that it allows individuals to log on, create a profile, connect
with others, see what information others have posted, and contribute information.
“…we were asked to join the MBA blogging site which is owned by
[University C], it is more like a closed OSNs. On this blogging site you have
all the classes listed…It is like an internal OSNs, you can post comments or
contact people…also staff are there and you can get information on them as
well…” (C02)
“…then there is school’s own portal which I got some information from, it is
the MBA blogging site owned by [University C], so this portal is for students
who have been offered a place, I used this portal after when I was offered a
place here, I was still an applicant, I was not officially a registered student…”
(C03)
“…I used the MBA blogging site owned by the business school, before I come
here I went on it and just read the comments of the people…” (C08)
Figure 60 Online social networks most commonly used during the course selection
process – Course C
OSNs most commonly used during the
course selection process
Facebook (Global)
www.facebook.com
Beatthegmat (Global)
www.beatthegmat.com/
Pagalguy (India)
www.pagalguy.com
LinkedIn [R] (global)
www.linkedin.com/
Twitter (Global)
www.twitter.com
YouTube (global)
www.youtube.com
Course C blogging site, owned by
University C (Global)
Information-gathering methods using OSNs
Reponses to the interview question ‘how did you gather information using OSNs?’ include
comments that suggest there are six representamens within code SYI.PUS.IGM.
Participants obtained information via a variety of means, including viewing online profiles
[R1]
, reading comments from other users
via private messages
[R5]
[R4]
[R2]
, viewing photos
[R3]
, contacting users directly
, responses received to questions posted publicly by participants
, and watching videos [R6].
193
“…I went on OSNs to see the profiles of people who studied in this school…I
also read existing comments…I contacted a few past students directly on
OSNs, and then I got insights before actually applying for this course…”
(C01)
“…I contacted some students on OSNs, and I also posted my questions on the
wall…” (C02)
“…I contacted previous students on Pagalguy, you can also post a question
yourself and expect somebody answer that question…If you just go to
Pagalguy there is a search option, so if you just type in [Course C], you see
all the search results…” (C03)
“…I read the existing comments on the videos on YouTube…comments were
from past and current students as well as staff… you can contact people
directly on YouTube…you can post your questions on a video…” (C05)
“…I went to the MBA blogging site owned by [University C]…my approach to
collect data was just to read those posts and comments…” (C08)
“…I saw many photos and the photos from this city and all the events that past
students had participated…” (C09)
Figure 61 Information-gathering methods using online social networks – Course C
Information-gathering methods using
OSNs
Viewing online profiles
Reading comments from other users
Viewing photos
Contacting users directly via private
messages
Responses received to questions
posted publicly by participants
Watching videos
Information available on OSNs
Responses to the interview question ‘what information was available on OSNs?’ include
comments that suggest there are forty-two representamens within code SYI.PUS.IAO. By
viewing online profiles, C01 found information on the age range of past and current
students [R1].
“…before actually applying for this school, I looked at what was the aging
profile of the students…” (C01)
194
By reading comments from other users, participants found information on: studentfriendliness of the city
[R2]
, social life in the city
[R3]
, sports facilities in the city
[R4]
, the
course structure and curriculum [R5], class sizes [R6], course ranking [R7], average salary after
graduation
[R8]
, students’ work experience
[R9]
, university accommodation and privately
rented accommodation available in the city [R10], student-friendliness of the university [R11],
social and leisure activities in the city [R12], student life on and off campus [R13], and events
and exhibitions [R14].
“…I found many information through reading the comments on OSNs such as
how student friendly the city is, class size, student experience, average work
experience, average salary… apart from the usual things such as ranking I
wanted to find out what sports facilities are available here in the city… I was
mainly looking for the availability of student accommodation and how student
friendly the university is…what else is going on in the city and what is the
social life here…I wanted to find out what was the culture over here and what
things you could do in the city…” (C01)
“…I found information on the social life in this city and the school life…”
(C08)
“…the students were talking about the project content and about the course
in general…one thing that really got my attention on the blogging site was
that MBA students attended an event related to media…and it was amazing to
read their blogs on how they organized the event and who came and the
calibre of the speakers who came and the experience of students that really
got my attention…” (C09)
Through viewing photos uploaded on OSNs, C05 and C09 obtained information about the
city
[R15]
, the diversity of past and current students
[R16]
, social and leisure activities in the
city [R17] and national and international trips during the course [R18].
“…I looked at many photos online, I could get some information on this
city…also by looking at photos I could see lots of information such as the
diversity of people attending the course and what they were doing…I saw lots
of students’ photos and the photos from this city and all the events they
participated in the city…for example they went to a trip from school to
Brathay…when you come to an MBA you not only coming for the lectures, you
want to also visit companies and you want to go to different trips and to
improve your experience and skills…” (C09)
“…I found some nice images of this city on OSNs …” (C05)
By contacting users directly via private messages, participants obtained information about
the course structure and curriculum
[R19]
, tuition fees
[R20]
, teaching and learning style at
University C [R21], academic staff [R22], facilities and resources [R23], admission process (e.g.
interview)
[R24]
, past and current students’ experiences of the course
[R25]
, past and current
195
students’ experiences of the institution [R26], and work placement opportunities [R27].
“…I contacted some people directly online and I sent them private messages, I
got information such as fees, what is the education style, how is the faculty
and how was the facilities…” (C01)
“…I managed to speak to some students on the internal OSNs we have for
[Course C]…also staff are there and you can also get information on the
staff…” (C02)
“…I asked some students what are the course strengths in terms of
specialization in finance, consultancy….there is lots of information on
Pagalguy, I contacted some students to see what have been their interview
experience…I contacted some past students to see how did they found the
MBA…what was their opinions about the school…” (C03)
From responses received to questions posted publicly by participants, C02 and C03 found
information about the course structure and curriculum
the quality of teaching
[R31]
[R28]
, the city [R29], tuition fees
[R30]
,
, university accommodation and privately rented
accommodation available in the city [R32], information about the climate and weather of the
city [R33] and social and leisure activities in the city [R34].
“…the MBA blogging site owned by [University C] is like an internal OSNs, I
posted my questions on the wall, asking questions about the course structure,
the city, quality of teaching, accommodation…” (C02)
“…I posted some questions on the wall about the accommodation, quality of
teaching, how is it like living in this city, course structure, about the fees, this
city weather…about how active the city is, night life and all those things…”
(C03)
By watching videos uploaded on OSNs, C05 and C07 found information about the city
[R35]
, the institution
[R36]
, the course structure and curriculum
[R37]
, social and leisure
activities in the city [R38], information about the climate and weather of the city [R39], exams
and assignments
[R40]
, learning outcomes from the course
[R41]
and university
accommodation and privately rented accommodation available in the city [R42].
“….I used mainly YouTube to watch videos about the city…I used YouTube to
fill in gaps of my knowledge about what this place was like and the course
structure and curriculum…if I wouldn’t watch those videos I would be a little
bit hesitant or uncomfortable about making my final decision…so they showed
a very good picture of the university people enjoying themselves, and some of
the social life and student life I think they were pretty much selling the city as
the place to do an MBA and to come and study here…most of the videos I
looked at were official videos and some others were not official and they were
posted by students and they were more around looking at the city and what the
weather was like…” (C05)
“….watching the videos assisted me to get information on the social life here
in this city and if the city is lively…I found information on the course structure
196
and curriculum…basically they discussed about the course works… I also
found some information the possible accommodation opportunities…” (C07)
197
Information available
on OSNs
By viewing online
profiles
By reading comments from other
users
Figure 6 Information available on online social networks – Course C
The age range of past
and current students
Through viewing photos
By contacting users directly
via private messages
From responses received to
questions posted publicly by
participants
Through watching
videos
Student-friendliness of
the city
General information
about the city
The course structure
and curriculum
The course structure
and curriculum
General information
about the city
Social life in the city
The diversity of past
and current students
Information on the
tuition fees
General information
about the city
In-depth information
about the institution
Sports facilities in the
city
Social and leisure
activities in the city
The Teaching and
learning style at the
institution
Information on the
tuition fees
The course structure
and curriculum
The course structure
and curriculum
National and
international trips
during the course
Information about
academic and
administrative staff
The quality of teaching
Information on class
sizes
Facilities and resources
University
accommodation and
privately rented
accommodation
available in the city
Information on course
ranking
The admission process
(e.g. interview)
Information about the
climate and weather of
the city
Average salary after
completion of the
course
Students’ work
experience
University
accommodation and
privately rented
accommodation
available in the city
Past and current
students’ experiences
of the course
Past and current
students’ experiences
of the institution
Social and leisure
activities in the city
Social and leisure
activities in the city
Information about the
climate and weather of
the city
Exams and assignments
Learning outcomes
from the course
University
accommodation and
privately rented
accommodation
available in the city
Work placement
opportunities
Student-friendliness of
the university
Student life on and off
campus
Social and leisure
activities in the city
Information on events
and exhibitions
198
The information needed most from OSNs during the course selection
process
Responses to the interview question ‘what is the information that is needed most during the
course selection process that you search for on OSNs?’ include comments that suggest
there are seven representamens within code SYI.PUS.INM. They include information on
student visas
[R1]
, the latest news from UKBA
[R2]
and information about university
accommodation and privately rented accommodation available in the city [R3].
“…they did have a small problem in the Visa application process and it
wasn’t really clear, although their admission group has set up their own
blogging site and students can join to ask their immigration queries but the
regulations keep changing fast and the information there wasn’t the most up to
date information. That would be good if the university could provide some
information on the Visa application process on…the school was helpful in
giving us information on student accommodation but I think they could have
assisted us more in finding accommodation, before the course starts some
students were facing difficulties in finding accommodation…” (C01)
C02 and C03 wanted to watch promotional videos featuring academic staff and the course
director talking about Course C
[R4]
, and find detailed information about the course
structure and curriculum [R5].
“…I think basically more about some interviews with people, like the dean of
the business school, MBA director, those are few things would be nice to have
on OSNs such as Facebook or the MBA blogging site owned by the
University…” (C02)
“…for example, the course structure in details, what was in each term or
semester…” (C03)
C03 and C07 wanted to find details of work placements
current students’ experiences of the course
[R7]
[R6]
and information on past and
.
“…information on placements such as how many work placements we have,
this information was not available on Pagalguy…” (C03)
“…maybe the students’ experiences…it was difficult to find students’
experiences with the course…I just wanted to find more student experience to
make a comparison but I could not find…” (C07)
199
Figure 63 Information needed most from online social networks during the course
selection process – Course C
The information needed most from OSNs
during the course selection process
Information on student visas
University accommodation and privately rented
accommodation available in the city
Detailed information about the course structure
and curriculum
The latest news from UKBA
Promotional videos featuring academic staff
and the course director talking about Course C
Details of work placement opportunities
Information on students' experiences of the
course
Benefits of using OSNs in course selection
Responses to the interview question ‘what are the benefits of using OSNs in comparison
with other sources?’ include comments that suggest there are thirteen representamens
within code SYI.PUS.BOC. C02 and C07 stated that OSNs are less biased and a more
credible source of information than official sources [R1] and that OSNs are more interactive
than official sources of information [R2].
“…the main difference is the information I got on YouTube is the mixture of
bad and good information, but on official website is only good and positive
information on the course, so I think the information from OSNs such as
YouTube is more valid...” (C07)
“…I think the HE aspirants and applicants have more opportunity to be more
interactive when they use OSNs…” (C02)
C01 and C07 claimed that OSNs allowed them to send direct messages to past and current
students
[R3]
, and to gather in-depth information about the institution, students, and
academic and administrative staff [R4].
“…OSNs were really helpful in finding out detailed information on what
students do in their time outside the school and how they interact amongst
themselves...” (C01)
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“…I think OSNs such as YouTube and Facebook have advantages because I
can find people and alumni, and I can contact people personally to ask
question…” (C07)
The findings reveal that it was easy for participants to access and use OSNs from their
home countries [R5].
“…it was very easy to use OSNs back home…it was very easy to find
information on [Course C] on OSNs…” (C01)
C02 and C09 claimed that OSNs allowed them to obtain feedback from students from
different countries
[R6]
, receive faster replies to their queries
customers’ perspective
[R8]
[R7]
, acquire information from
, and gather information on a real time basis [R9].
“…I think the likelihood for me to get a response from somebody on OSNs
such as Facebook or the MBA blogging site owned by [University C] is very
high, because most people or brands respond very quickly, it is for the world
to see…people can track whatever you are doing on OSNs such as Facebook
or the MBA blogging site owned by [University C] on a real time basis…”
(C02)
“…I think you get more of candid view in OSNs because most of the official
websites or the ranking sites have the same information that is taken from
official website itself, so you get to see the same information on the school in
all official sources…but on OSNs you can get information from the customer
sides, you can contact past and current students…OSNs gave me definitely
more confidence in my decision-making process and in selecting [Course
C]…it was amazing, so all these random people from different countries
replied to me although I wasn’t friends with them…I just found them on OSNs,
the advantage then is OSNs made the connection easier, OSNs helped me in
finding and connecting with very “random” people…” (C09)
C02 and C03 stated that OSNs allowed them to double-check the information provided in
official sources
[R10]
. C03 noted that unlike official sources which only focus on facts and
figures about the course, OSNs provide richer and more in-depth information about the
course [R11].
“…you can also double check what school says by checking with other
students, for example you can check how well school has been doing in past
and what are the experiences of past students…” (C02)
“…official sources such as Financial Times are very objective so they give
you all the quantitative information on different schools such as what is
average age, GMAT scores etc. where I found most of the value in OSNs is
getting kind of the qualitative information, so that is something…” (C03)
C03 claimed that the information acquired from OSNs was less biased and more
independent information than official sources
[R12]
, and OSNs provided a platform to
compare and contrast the information from the various sources [R13].
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“…you get very independent information on OSNs, because people who you
speak to on OSNs they don’t have any motivation to give you wrong
information, but if you speak to school officials you can’t get honest feedback
as they work for the school…some people give you good feedback and some
bad feedback, you then have the chance to compare what is good and what is
bad…” (C03)
Figure 64 Benefits of using online social networks in course selection – Course C
Benefits of using OSNs in course selection
They are less biased and a more credible
source of information than official sources
They are more interactive than official
sources of information
They allow to send direct messages to past
and current students
They help individuals to gather in-depth
information about the institution, students
and members of staff
It is easy to access and use OSNs
They enable faster replies to enquiries in
comparison with official sources of
information
They help to obtain feedback from students
from different countries
They help individuals to acquire information
from the customers’ perspective
They help individuals to gather information
on a real time basis
They help to double-check information
provided in official sources
The information acquired from OSNs is
perceived as less biased and more
independent information than official sources
Unlike official sources which only focus on
facts and figures about the course, OSNs
provide richer and more in-depth information
about the course
They provide a platform to compare and
contrast the information from the various
sources
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Downsides of using OSNs in course selection
Responses to the interview question ‘what are the downsides of using OSNs in comparison
with other sources?’ include comments that suggest there seven representamens within
code SYI.PUS.DOC. C05 and C07 could not completely rely on all of the information
available on OSNs and they perceived the information on OSNs as potentially unreliable
[R1]
. C05 and C07 stated that it was difficult for them to distinguish between advertising
messages and more neutral information [R2].
“…one of the disadvantages perhaps is because it is unedited there is no way
to understand whether the information is correct or if people want to destroy
the reputation of the school, there is really no way in OSNs environment to tell
whether people are telling you the truth…” (C05)
“…but then again most of the videos uploaded onto OSNs are just adverts for
the university…” (C07)
Participants stated that the information on ONSs tends to be biased
[R3]
and that a single
unhappy student can negatively influence the course selection decisions of HE aspirants
and applicants [R4]. A number of participants also indicated that unlike official sources, it is
difficult to verify the accuracy of information on OSNs [R5].
“…One of the disadvantages is that the information on OSNs tends to be
biased…and if one student has a bad experience due to some reason so he/she
can post this bad experience all across the Web and this information may not
be even true but this can influence HE aspirants and applicants all across the
Web…”(C01)]
“…maybe a negative comment from an unsatisfied student can have negative
impact on HE aspirants and applicants’ selection decision and destroy the
image of the university and the course…” (C08)
“…the possible disadvantages, I think OSNs you get a view of only certain
persons and what they talk about is based on their own experiences…could be
one negative thing that made them give negative feedback and this may
influence HE aspirants and applicants wrongly…” (C09)
Participants believed that the freedom to share information on OSNs has the potential to
damage the reputation of the course and the institution
[R6]
, and they argue that OSNs
should not be used as a primary source of information [R7].
“…first of all I think one damaging aspect of Facebook is that it is free for
everyone to post comments and share opinions. Although institutions may
have the option to delete bad comments but even if a bad comments stay for 2
hours it can still destroy the image of the university and the MBA…” (C02)
“…you should be more careful if you are looking for some specific
information, if you use for example Pagalguy as a primary source to select
school you miss some other schools, because you don’t have the overall
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picture of everything…some schools aren’t even discussed on OSNs…once
you have an overall idea about the MBA then I think for secondary research
you can utilise OSNs such as Pagalguy…” (C03)
“…OSNs might not provide a complete picture of the course they may provide
sort of one side of the views…” (C05)
“…maybe one student really like the course and give an untrue positive
feedback on the course and this can misdirect HE aspirants and applicants…”
(C08)
Figure 65 Downsides of using online social networks in course selection – Course C
Downsides of using OSNs in course
selection
Users cannot completely rely on all of the
information available on OSNs, as some
information on OSNs can be biased
Difficult to distinguish between advertising
messages and more neutral information
The information on ONSs tends to be biased
A single unhappy student can negatively
influence the course selection decisions of
HE aspirants and applicants
Unlike official sources, it is difficult to
verify the accuracy of information on OSNs
The freedom to share information on OSNs
has the potential to damage the reputation of
the course and the institution
Some information provided on OSNs may
be incomplete and OSNs should not be used
as a primary source of information
5.4.3.3 Perceived identity of Course C
This section presents ‘interpretants’ within codes that constitute the perceived identity of
Course C. The perceived identity of Course C is determined by the paradigmatic identity
of Course C and the syntagmatic identity of Course C, and influences the final course
selection decisions of international HE aspirants and applicants.
The level of influence of OSNs on final course selection decisions in
comparison with other sources
Responses to the interview question ‘how influential were OSNs on your final course
selection decisions in comparison with other sources?’ include comments that suggest
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there are four ‘interpretants’ within code PEI.LIF. These representamens will be discussed
in turn.
 OSNs have a strong influence on final course selection decisions [I1]
C01 and C09 stated that OSNs had a strong influence on their final course selection
decisions. C01 stated that OSNs had a significant influence on determining his preferred
course of study. C01 noted that prior starting the course, OSNs helped him to acquire a
good understanding of what to expect in terms of the institution and other students
attending the course. C09 stated that in the absence of OSNs, he would not have known
about Course C. C09 indicated that he made a friend via an OSN who used to study in the
city in which Course C is offered, and this friend had recommended Course C.
“…they did have a significant influence on finalizing which school to go to,
because I was able to get to know a lot of students…I already knew what the
class was going to look like before actually committing to join the school…I
met some of them outside or on OSNs and interacted with each of them…so
OSNs was very significant…” (C01)
“…I am very honest, it [OSNs] was essential, because what happen is that I
knew someone who was studying in this city so I was introduced to him
through Facebook…so if it wasn’t for this connection through Facebook I
would never know about [Course C]. As I said earlier I was using Facebook
to connect with this person before even I applied for MBA…” (C09)
 OSNs have a moderate influence on final course selection decisions [I2]
C03, C05 and C08 stated that OSNs had a moderate influence on their final course
selection decisions. C03 stated that prior to use OSNs, he had a reasonable idea about
Course C and its reputation from official sources such as ranking websites, however, he
still wanted to verify the information he got from official sources using OSNs. C03
claimed that OSNs helped him to shortlist his MBA options and select Course C as his
preferred course of study.
“…I would say, I had a fair idea about the reputation of [Course C] from
going to all these official and ranking sites such as Financial Times,
Businessweek, Forbes, so they can’t all tell you lies! I had a general idea I just
wanted somebody to confirm what these official sites are telling me, I wanted
to actually speak to somebody who had studied MBA previously here… I
would say maybe I was sure about 50% that I want to study my MBA in one of
the seven institutions that I had selected. Now where I think OSNs would have
made a very important difference on my final decision-making is when I was I
basically stuck because all these schools are rated so closely, so I think the
opinions expressed in OSNs may have made me think about some of these
schools, which one is the best...” (C03)
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C05 claimed that OSNs helped him to gain more confidence in selecting Course C. C05
was sure about studying for an MBA in the UK but did not know much about other
students attending UK MBA courses, and he also did not know much about UK cities.
OSNs such as YouTube allowed C05 to watch videos about the city in which Course C is
offered and to get to know about MBA students attending the course.
“…I gained more confidence from OSNs such as YouTube, so If I would rate it
from on scale 1 to 5 , with 1 being the most influential, I would probably say
2.5…if I was not able to see or get the better sense for the city and for the
environment and for the people who actually go to school here I would be a
little bit hesitant or uncomfortable about making my final decision, I mean I
had made up my mind already that I wanted to do an MBA, I had made up my
mind that I wanted to do it in the UK, but I didn’t know anything about this
city as a city in compare to any other places in the UK, so I used YouTube to
fill in the gaps of my knowledge about what this place was like…” (C05)
C08 stated that OSNs are very different from official sources such as university and
ranking websites. Prior to using OSNs, C08 had already made up his mind about his
preferred courses, and he used OSNs only as a means to shortlist his options.
“…I would say OSNs are very different, when you use OSNs you have already
made up your mind about your preferred MBA courses and you just want to
select the best on…in my view official sources such as Financial Times and
Businessweeks are only marketing tools and your future employers care about
these official sources…” (C08)
 OSNs have a low level of influence on final course selection decisions [I3]
OSNs had a low level of influence on C07’s final course selection decision. C07 found the
videos uploaded onto OSNs such as YouTube boring, and as a result her decision-making
was mainly based on information she had acquired from official sources.
“…from the scale of 1 to 5, 1 very good and 5 very bad, I think it will be 4 out
of 5, I would go for 4 because to be honest it isn’t interesting the videos they
made, it is so boring, so my decision-making was mainly based on data
collected from official sources. So my main decision was 80% to 90% based
on the official data I collected…” (C07)
 OSNs have no influence on final course selection decisions [I4]
OSNs had no influence on C02’s final course selection decision. C02 stated that he had
used OSNs more for fun than for gaining information. C02 believes that he would never
base a life changing decision, such as choosing an MBA, on the information provided on
OSNs such as Facebook.
“…as I said I only used Facebook or the MBA blogging site owned by
[University C] couple of times, I think not very influential, for me OSNs have
206
been more for fun not for getting a serious information…so I would not base a
life changing decision on the information I collected from OSNs such as
Facebook. I rather to follow official website and exchange some emails with
people…in my opinion each person has a very unique query and a very unique
response so I would not use OSNs to make any life changing decisions…”
(C02)
Table 40 The level of influence of online social networks on final course selection
decisions in comparison with other sources – Course C
Interviewees
Strong level of
influence
C01
✓
Moderate level of
influence
Low level of
influence
✓
C02
C03
✓
C05
✓
✓
C07
✓
C08
C09
No influence
✓
5.5 Summary
This chapter presented the analysis of the findings. It began with a detailed discussion of
the approach to analysis adopted in this research followed by presentation of the analysis
of the data from the pilot study and the main study. The next chapter will present and
discuss the findings that emerged from the data analysis and how these relate to the
literature.
207
Chapter 6
Findings and Discussion
6.1 Introduction
This chapter is concerned with answering the research question for this study. It presents
and discusses the findings that emerged from the data analysis and how these relate to the
literature (Figure 66). Findings that support the literature are identified, as are differences,
enabling the current work to contribute new insights. This chapter provides both
researchers and practitioners with insights into how the choice of course of study abroad
interrelates with participation in OSNs. The findings suggest several courses of action for
education marketers and policy makers who wish to invest in their student recruitment
strategies.
Figure 66 Conceptual framework: Chapter 6
Research Question: How does the choice of course of study abroad interrelate with participation in OSNs?
Relevant literature and secondary data
Research design and its implementation
Analysis
Perceived course identity
Interpretant
‘Course identity’
Representamen
 Paradigmatic
 Syntagmatic
 Paradigmatic course identity
 Syntagmatic course identity as observed
through OSNs

Object
 Course of study
 OSNs
Findings and discussion, development of ideas/beliefs
Conclusions, contributions to knowledge and practice
208
The primary aim of this study has been to explain how the choice of course of study abroad
interrelates with participation in OSNs, and the secondary aim has been to provide an
application of semiotics to research in choice and decision making in HE and IS research.
In order to answer the research question in section 1.3 and achieve the research aims in
section 1.5, three research objectives were formulated. The objectives derived from a
review of relevant literature and semiosis of course identity in Chapter 2. The primary data
for this work were collected through semi-structured interviews with 33 international
students studying on three distinct MBA courses in the UK. Each of the three research
objectives applies independently to each of the three participating courses of study,
however, the intention of this research is to provide a set of findings and conclusions that
could equally apply to any HE course in the UK, and potentially beyond.
This chapter is structured according to the research objectives. Section 6.2 discusses the
paradigmatic course identity. Section 6.3 is concerned with the syntagmatic course identity
as observed through OSNs. Section 6.4 and final section will discuss the levels of influence
of paradigmatic course identity and syntagmatic course identity on the perceived course
identity.
6.2 Paradigmatic course identity
The first objective of this study was to define the paradigmatic course identity. This
enabled identification of the sources of information that international HE aspirants and
applicants use during the course selection process, and to discover whether OSNs are
among these sources. This objective also helped to reveal the core factors influencing
selection of a course abroad. Results from this objective contributed to the discussion of
findings, particularly discussions surrounding the significance of online and offline sources
on course selection decisions and the level of influence of OSNs on final course selection
decisions in comparison with other sources.
This section is broadly divided into three, the first part discusses the sources of information
available to international HE aspirants and applicants during course selection, the second
discusses the sources of information that international HE aspirants and applicants initially
use during the course selection process, and the third is concerned with the core factors
influencing selection of a course abroad.
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6.2.1 Sources of information available during the course selection
process
This study has shown that international HE aspirants and applicants use a number of online
and offline sources during the course selection process, and that OSNs are among the
online sources used. Offline sources of information include family members and friends
who have previously studied at the same institution, family members and friends who have
previously taken the same course, education fairs, education agencies, newspaper
advertisements, leaflets received in the post, telephone conversations with the admissions
office, telephone conversations with a course administrator or course director, family
members and friends living in the UK, and friends in their home country who are also
interested in studying abroad.
Online sources of information include OSNs, electronic course brochures, information
obtained via email exchanges with the admissions office, information obtained via email
exchanges with a course administrator or course director, ranking websites (e.g. the
Financial Times and Forbes), the official university website, accreditation bodies’ websites
(e.g. AMBA for management courses), e-journals (e.g. Guardian and Newsweek), the
British Council website, the British Consulate website, the UK Border Agency website, the
British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) website, and the Universities and
Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) website.
6.2.2 Initial sources of information available during the course selection
process
This study has shown that the majority of international HE aspirants and applicants find
out about a course of study for the first time through their family members and friends who
have previously studied at the same institution, family members and friends who have
previously taken the same course, education agencies, newspaper advertisements, friends
living in the host country, ranking websites, and education fairs. These findings are
similar to those reported by Maringe (2006), Whitehead et al. (2006) and Soutar and
Turner (2002), who argue that the family members and friends have significant impact on
individuals’ HE decisions. According to Chapman (1986), ‘knowledgeable others’ are
consulted with great frequency and in depth during the early stages of the course selection
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process. Chapman (1986) argues that ‘knowledgeable others’ can include family members
and relatives, friends, alumni, and acquaintances attending particular universities.
This study found that OSNs are not usually among the initial sources of information
consulted by international HE aspirants and applicants during the course selection process.
In this research there was only one participant who indicated that he had first heard about a
course of study through his friends on OSNs.
6.2.3 Core factors influencing selection of a course abroad
This study found several core factors that influence selection of a course abroad. The
factors discovered fall into 14 categories including future job and career prospects after
graduation, entry requirements, financial considerations of taking the course, the host
country, the city, ranking and accreditation, past and current students, the course structure
and curriculum, the institution, academic and administrative staff, personal development,
the mode of study, perceived difficulty of completing the course, and course prestige
(Table 41).
Table 41 Core factors influencing selection of a course abroad
Future job and career prospects after graduation
Entry requirements
Financial considerations
of taking the course
The host country
Work experience
Academic background
IELTS/TOEFL scores
The cost of accommodation
Tuition fees
The availability of scholarships and bursaries
The reputation and popularity of the host country’s education system
Whether there is the opportunity to stay and work at the host country after
graduation
Whether international students and their
dependents are allowed to work
Regulations on student visas
The visa application process
Documents required for the student visa
Existing social links in the host
Friends living in the host country
country
Family members living in the host
country
Geographical proximity
Distance between the home country and
the host country
Familiarity with the culture and
customs
Familiarity with the work culture
The culture and society of the host
country
Cultural and ethnic diversity
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Travel opportunity
The city
Ranking and
accreditation
Past and current
students
The course structure and
curriculum
The institution
Academic and
administrative staff
Personal development
Mode of study
Perceived difficulty of
completing the course
The prestige of the course
Interest in learning more about the
culture of host country
Opportunities to visit other countries
close to the host country
The city’s transport system
Cultural and ethnic diversity
Whether or not the city is a business and education hub
The geographical size of the city
The cost of living
International recognition of the city
Social and leisure activities
Population
How vibrant and lively the city is
Privately rented accommodation options
Ranking of the course in league tables
Accreditation of the course
The average work experience
The average age
The diversity of past and current students
The modules covered
The degree of focus on practice
The availability of international exchange programmes
The institution’s help and support with job hunting
Whether the institution has a multicultural environment
The quality of teaching
Teaching methods
University accommodation
Campus infrastructure
The reputation of the institution
Class sizes
Existing social links at the institution Friends studying at the institution
Family members studying at the
institution
Level of support provided by academic and administrative staff
Friendliness and courtesy of academic and administrative staff during the
admission process
To improve the language skills
To enhance knowledge and understanding of the modules taught
Learning outcomes from the course
The duration of the course
Degree of in-class participation and interaction with academic staff and other
students
Degree of students’ focus on studying
Regulations on student visas
How easy or hard it is to complete the course and earn the degree
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The research to date has tended to focus on the factors influencing the choice of institution
(e.g. Price et al., 2003; Soutar and Turner, 2002; Whitehead et al., 2006) and host country
(e.g. Mazzarol and Soutar, 2002; Shanka et al., 2005). One of the few studies that
investigates the choice of course of study as a phenomenon distinct from the choice of
institution, is that of Maringe (2006). However, unlike the current research, Maringe’s
(2006) study focuses on the choice of course of study within one’s own country. The
factors identified by Maringe (2006) include interest in a given subject, course prestige,
performance in a given subject, career opportunities, staff profiles, perception that the
course is easy to complete, friends doing the same course, advice from teachers, advice
from parents, and advice from careers services. There are a few similarities between the
factors discovered in the current research and the factors discovered by Maringe (2006)
including course prestige, career opportunities, staff profiles, perception that the course is
easy to complete, and friends doing the same course. The core factors discovered in the
current research will be discussed in turn.
Future job and career considerations after graduation
This study found that future job and career considerations are an important factor
influencing selection of a course abroad. Several research participants noted that they had
been in the same position within their industry for several years, and they had gone as far
as they could with their technical expertise and did not know how to develop further so
they could be promoted. The findings of the current research support Maringe’s (2006, p.
472) argument that “career considerations have the greatest impact on students’ choice of
course of study”. Thus, “students choose subjects they intend doing at the university
primarily on consideration of future job opportunities and on the basis of their assessed
ability in those subjects” (Maringe, 2006, p. 473).
Entry requirements
International HE aspirants and applicants select courses based on their entry requirements
in terms of work experience, academic background and IELTS/TOEFL scores. Several
participants in this study selected Courses A and B because the entry requirements for these
courses were lower than high ranked MBA courses. In earlier research, entry requirements
were identified as a factor influencing the choice of institution (e.g. Briggs, 2006) and also
host country (e.g. Mazzarol and Soutar, 2002).
213
Financial considerations of taking the course
Financial considerations relate to the cost of accommodation, tuition fees and the
availability of scholarships and bursaries. Financial considerations have a major influence
on selection of a course abroad as most international HE aspirants and applicants and their
parents are concerned about the financial implications of studying abroad. In earlier
research, the importance of financial considerations as a selection factor was supported by
studies focusing on the choice of host country (e.g. Shanka et al., 2005).
The host country
According to Cubillo et al. (2006), the decision to acquire a product or a service can be
positively influenced by the country offering that product or service. Cubillo et al. (2006,
p. 109) argue that “due to the prestige image of certain countries in higher education,
students tend to believe that higher education offered in these countries is high quality”.
Therefore, one of the factors considered by international HE aspirants and applicants is the
status conferred by studying in these countries (Bourke, 2000; Cubillo et al., 2006). This
study found that the host country and city in which the course is offered are major factors
influencing selection of a course abroad. It is also influenced by the reputation and
popularity of the host country’s education system, whether there is the opportunity to stay
and work at the host country after graduation, regulations on student visas, existing social
links in the host country, for example friends and family members studying there,
geographical proximity to the home country, opportunities to visit other countries close to
the host country, the culture and society of the host country, familiarity with the culture
and customs, familiarity with the work culture, cultural and ethnic diversity, and interest in
learning more about the culture of the host country.
The city in which the course is offered
The city in which the course is offered is the other major factor influencing selection of a
course abroad. This study found that selection of a course abroad is influenced by the city’s
transport system, its cultural and ethnic diversity, whether or not the city is a business and
education hub, the geographical size of the city, the cost of living, international recognition
of the city, social and leisure activities, population, and how vibrant and lively the city is.
According to Cubillo et al. (2006), the city represents the environment in which the service
will be produced and consumed. Cubillo et al. (2006) argue that since education is a
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complex service jointly produced by multiple different roles and groups, the physical
environment is made up of the institution’s facilities and the city as a whole. In this way,
students’ perceptions about the destination city as well as the host country can influence
the decision process (Cubillo et al., 2006).
Ranking and accreditation
Another determinant of selection of a course abroad is the ranking of the course in league
tables (e.g. the Financial Times) and by accreditation bodies (e.g. AMBA, ABS, AASCB
and EQUIS for management courses).
Past and current students
The profiles of past and current students of the course is another factor influencing
selection of a course abroad. This study found that selection of a course abroad is
influenced by the average age, average working experience, and the diversity of past and
current students.
The course structure and curriculum
According to Eggins (1992), course structure has an effect upon the student’s experience
and therefore impacts on the opportunity for them to develop a range of personal skills and
qualities. This study found that selection of a course abroad is influenced by the modules
covered, the degree of focus on practice, and the availability of international exchange
programmes.
The institution
This study found that selection of a course abroad is influenced by the institution’s help
and support with job hunting, whether the institution has a multicultural environment, the
quality of teaching, teaching methods used at the institution, campus infrastructure, the
reputation of the institution, class sizes, and existing social links at the institution, such as
friends and family members studying there. In earlier research, the institution was
identified as an important factor influencing HE choices (e.g. Bourke, 2000; Gutman and
Miaoulis, 2003).
215
Academic and administrative staff
This study found that the level of support provided by academic and administrative staff
and their friendliness and courtesy during the admission process has a direct impact on
selection of a course abroad. According to Samuel and Burney (2003), academic staff are
in a privileged position to influence classroom atmosphere and to create environments
where students learn effectively.
Personal development
Students are not only buying degrees, they are buying the benefits that degree can confer
(Binsardi and Ekwulugo, 2003). The current research found that international HE aspirants
and applicants also choose to study abroad in order to improve their language skills and
their knowledge and understanding of the modules taught. Several participants in this study
stated that they wanted to study for an MBA predominantly in order to boost their
knowledge and understanding about business and management in general.
Mode of study
The mode of study plays an important role in deciding on which course to study abroad.
International HE aspirants and applicants associate the mode of study with learning
outcomes from the course, the duration of the course, degree of in-class participation and
interaction with academic staff and other students, future job and career prospects, degree
of students’ focus on studying, and regulations on student visas. Several participants in this
study preferred to study a full-time course because the learning outcomes from the fulltime course are better than with other study modes, the duration of the full-time course is
shorter, it enhances in-class participation and interaction with academic staff and other
students, and there is a perception that graduates will be more likely to find a job with a
full-time degree. In terms of regulations on student visas, participants indicated that
international students have no options but to study full-time and are not permitted to study
through other study modes.
Perceived difficulty of completing the course
The findings of this study do not support Maringe’s (2006) argument that few courses are
selected because they are perceived to be easy. The current research found that some
international HE aspirants and applicants select courses that are easier to complete. Several
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participants in this research stated that they selected Courses A and B only because they
perceived it was easier for them to complete these courses and earn an MBA.
Course prestige
The study found that the prestige of the course is an important factor influencing selection
of a course abroad. Several participants in this study perceived the MBA course to be
prestigious and highly valued by employers. In earlier research, it was found that having an
MBA is perceived as a passport to senior managerial roles and seen as a means to fast track
careers (Baruch and Peiperl, 2000; Kang and Sharma, 2012).
6.3 Syntagmatic course identity as observed through online social
networks
The second objective of this study was to define the syntagmatic course identity as
observed through OSNs. This objective contributed to an understanding of the popularity
of using OSNs as part of the course selection process, the stages at which OSNs are used
during the course selection process, OSNs most commonly used during the course
selection process, information-gathering methods employed when using OSNs, what
information is available on OSNs, information needed most from OSNs during the course
selection process, and the benefits and downsides of using OSNs for individuals’ course
selection decisions. These will each be discussed in turn.
6.3.1 Popularity of using online social networks during the course
selection process
The findings of this study suggest that international HE aspirants and applicants show an
increased interest in the use of OSNs during the course selection process. Results from the
primary data collected from 33 international MBA students reveal that users of OSNs
outnumbered non-users. In total, 20 research participants used OSNs and 13 did not. This
finding is in agreement with Stagno’s (2010) finding that shows majority of HE aspirants
and applicants use OSNs and they have at least one OSN profile.
Despite the growing interest in using OSNs, there are still a number of factors that
discourage international HE aspirants and applicants from using OSNs, including privacy
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concerns, cultural and personality traits which make them averse to using OSNs, they do
not perceive a need for further information, OSNs are not perceived as a valid source of
information, they do not know how to use OSNs, they do not have enough time to use
OSNs for research due to late admission, and they have already been put in contact with
past or current students on the course by the university. In terms of the privacy concerns
and cultural and personality traits, this study found that some international HE aspirants
and applicants perceive OSNs as a threat to their future job and career prospects because
OSNs can expose their personal life to future employers and head-hunters, through
personal photos for example. Trust and online privacy are significant areas of concern for
critics of OSNs. Several studies revealed that users on OSNs disclose a considerable
amount of information, and tend not to be very aware of their privacy options or who can
view their profile (e.g. Acquisti and Gross, 2006; Dwyer et al., 2007). This study found
that some international HE aspirants and applicants do not use OSNs because they prefer
not to contact or to be contacted by people who they have never met. A number of
participants in the current research suggested that this is partly related to their cultural
backgrounds and their personality traits. Some international HE aspirants and applicants do
not use OSNs because they have already acquired all of the information they need from
other sources, such as education agencies or official university websites. This study found
that some international HE aspirants and applicants prefer to use official sources rather
than OSNs because individuals can post and edit messages anonymously on OSNs, and it
is therefore difficult to identify senders and their intentions.
It was later discovered that the perceptions of ten out of thirteen research participants who
did not use OSNs during the course selection process had changed after studying in the
UK. A number of participants indicated that they had learnt more about OSNs while
attending IT classes as part of their course, and they now recognize the potential of OSNs
as a valuable source of information. Some participants stated that if they had previously
appreciated the potential value of OSNs they would have contacted students and obtained
information about the course structure and curriculum, assignments, academic and
administrative staff, fees, the diversity of past and current students, and job opportunities
through OSNs.
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6.3.2 Stages at which online social networks are used during the course
selection process
The literature in Chapter 3 contributed to a greater understanding of the stages individuals
go through when making decisions about HE. Different models have been developed by
scholars over recent decades to capture HE aspirants and applicants’ complex decisionmaking processes (e.g. Chapman, 1986; Hanson and Litten, 1982; Jackson, 1982; Kotler
and Fox, 1985). Chapman’s (1986) model is the best-known theoretical model, and was
discussed in section 3.3.1, and is shown below in Figure 67. Chapman’s (1986) model is
used in the current research to discuss the different stages at which international HE
aspirants and applicants use OSNs during the course selection process.
Figure 67 Decision-making process for higher education (Chapman, 1986)
Pre-search behaviour
Search behaviour
Application decision
Choice decision
Matriculation decision
This study found that international HE aspirants and applicants use OSNs at the pre-search
behaviour stage, search behaviour stage, application decision stage and choice decision
stage. At the pre-search behaviour stage, three research participants (15%) noted that their
initial motivations to study came from their friends on OSNs who had already studied
abroad. At the search behaviour stage, all twenty research participants (100%) who were
users of OSNs claimed that OSNs allowed them to search for and acquire information
about different courses. At the application decision stage, three participants (15%) claimed
that they used OSNs to focus down onto a few course options that they were interested in
and to which they were more likely to be admitted. At the choice decision stage, seven
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participants (35%) claimed that OSNs helped them to make their final course selection
decisions and select one course of study. The following figure displays a stage by stage
comparison of the use of OSNs during the course selection process based on the primary
data collected for this work (Figure 68).
Figure 68 Stage by stage comparison of the use of online social networks during the
course selection process
100%
100%
90%
80%
70%
60%
50%
40%
35%
30%
20%
15%
10%
15%
0%
Pre search
Search behaviour
behaviour stage
stage
Application
decision stage
Choice decision
stage
6.3.3 Online social networks most commonly used during the course
selection process
This study found a number of OSNs used by international HE aspirants and applicants
during the course selection process. They include Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter,
Pagalguy, Orkut, PowerApple, and QQ. Pagalguy is an Indian OSN which is mainly
managed by Indian students for sharing their experiences of studying abroad. Orkut is a
popular OSN in Brazil. PowerApple and QQ are popular OSNs amongst Chinese students.
However, the findings of the current research support Stagno’s (2010) argument that the
most widely used OSNs among HE aspirants and applicants are Facebook and YouTube.
The secondary data presented in Chapter 3 contributed to a greater understanding of OSNs
and the discussion of findings in this section. Data from Ignite Social Media revealed that
Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube have global reach. Based on a simple design,
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broad demographic appeal and a focus on connecting individuals, Facebook has become
the largest OSNs globally (Nielsen Report, 2009). Facebook has the greatest reach in the
UK out of all other countries (Nielsen Report, 2009) and it is becoming the premier
destination for marketers (eMarketer Report, 2010; 2012).
6.3.4 Information-gathering methods using online social networks
This study found that international HE aspirants and applicants can acquire information on
OSNs via a variety of means including viewing online profiles, reading comments from
other users, viewing photos, watching videos, contacting users directly via private
message, and reading responses to questions they have posted publicly. The kind of
information international HE aspirants and applicants can acquire via OSNs varies,
depending upon the method of information-gathering used. The following section
discusses the information available on OSNs using each method.
6.3.5 Information available on online social networks
The findings of the current research suggest that international HE aspirants and applicants
frequently rely on the open information resources available on OSNs. OSNs have
demonstrated their potential to leverage a vast amount of user-generated content. In earlier
research, Krumm et al. (2008) find that user-generated content comes from those who
voluntarily contribute data. According to Krumm et al. (2008), for content suppliers, the
process can be rewarding because it allows them to receive recognition for their
contributions. For an individual, besides the potential to inform or entertain, the content
provides access to data from other individuals. According to Fisher et al. (2011), usergenerated content is among the largest and fastest growing aspects of OSNs, in part
because it is relatively inexpensive to acquire and users do not require significant technical
skill to produce content (Fonio et al., 2007; Krumm et al., 2008). Clever et al. (2007) argue
that contrary to usual expectations about incentives for providing and creating content,
users on OSNs are not motivated by remuneration but by a range of interests such as being
creative and wanting to entertain others, self-expression, sharing experience and
documenting their lives, being part of OSNs to make new friends and staying in touch with
old ones, and moreover the lower costs and increased availability of platforms for the
creation of user-generated content (i.e. for creating, editing and hosting content) are
bringing down the entry barriers (Clever et al., 2007).
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In section 6.3.4, it was highlighted that international HE aspirants and applicants can
acquire information on OSNs via different methods, and this section discusses the
information available on OSNs using each method of information-gathering.
Viewing online profiles
By viewing online profiles, international HE aspirants and applicants can acquire
information on the professional backgrounds, contact details, ages and nationalities of past
and current students and other HE aspirants and applicants interested in the course.
Reading comments
By reading comments from other users it is possible to acquire information on the studentfriendliness of the city, cost of living, social life in the city, university accommodation and
privately rented accommodation available in the city, sports facilities, the city’s transport
system, student life on and off campus, the diversity of past and current students, class
sizes, new buildings and campus construction projects, the reputation of the institution,
exams and assignments, the quality of teaching, the level of student support and care at the
institution, future job and career prospects, average salary after graduation, the lecturers’
academic and professional backgrounds, personalities and attitudes of academic and
administrative staff towards students, tuition fees, the course structure and curriculum, past
and current students’ levels of satisfaction with the course, and information on events and
exhibitions.
Viewing photos
Through viewing photos uploaded on OSNs, international HE aspirants and applicants can
acquire information about the diversity of past and current students, the graduation
ceremony and what it involves, social and leisure activities in the city, and national and
international trips organized by the school.
Watching videos
By watching videos uploaded on OSNs it is possible to find information on social and
leisure activities in the city, information about the climate and weather of the city, the
course structure and curriculum, learning outcomes from the course, exams and
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assignments, and university accommodation and privately rented accommodation available
in the city.
Contacting users directly via private messages
By contacting users directly via private messages it is possible to find out about past and
current students’ personal experiences of the course and of the institution, university
accommodation and privately rented accommodation available in the city, the location of
the institution within the city, the teaching and learning style at the institution, facilities
and resources, and the admission process (e.g. interview).
Responses received to questions posted publicly
From responses received to questions posted publicly by international HE aspirants and
applicants it is possible to acquire information about the course structure and curriculum,
university accommodation and privately rented accommodation available in the city,
tuition fees, the quality of teaching, information about the climate and weather of the city,
and social and leisure activities in the city. Table 42 presents the information available on
OSNs through the different information-gathering methods.
Table 42 Information available on online social networks through the different
information-gathering methods
Information-gathering
methods using OSNs
Information available on online social networks
Past and current students
Viewing online profiles
Other international HE
aspirants and applicants
interested in the course
Professional backgrounds
Contact details
Ages
Nationalities
Professional backgrounds
Contact details
Ages
Nationalities
Student-friendliness of the city
The cost of living
Social life in the city
Privately rented accommodation options
Reading comments
from other users
The city
Sports facilities
The city’s transport system
Student life on and off campus
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The institution
Future job and career
prospects
Academic and administrative
staff
Financial considerations of
taking the course
Past and current students
Viewing photos
The institution
National and international trips organized by the
institution
Social and leisure activities
Weather information
Social and leisure activities
Learning outcomes from the course
Exams and assignments
University accommodation
Past and current students’ personal experiences
of the course
Past and current students’ personal experiences
with the institution
Admission process (e.g. interview)
University accommodation
The location of the institution within the city
The teaching and learning style
Facilities and resources
Academic and professional backgrounds of staff
The city
The course structure and
curriculum
The institution
The institution
Academic and administrative
staff
The institution
Reading responses to
questions international
HE aspirants and
applicants have posted
publicly
Levels of satisfaction with the course
Learning outcomes from the course
Exams and assignments
The diversity of past and current students
The graduation ceremony and what it involves
Past and current students
Contacting users
directly via private
messages
Academic and professional backgrounds of staff
Personalities and attitudes of staff towards
students
Tuition fees
The course structure and
curriculum
Past and current students
The city
Watching videos
University accommodation
The diversity of past and current students
Class sizes
New buildings and campus construction projects
The reputation of the institution
Teaching quality
The level of student support and care at the
institution
Events and exhibitions
Average salary after graduation
The city
Financial considerations of
taking the course
The course structure and
curriculum
University accommodation
Weather information
Social and leisure activities available
Privately rented accommodation options
Teaching quality
Tuition fees
Learning outcomes from the course
Exams and assignments
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6.3.6 Information needed most from online social networks during the
course selection process
This study found that the information that is needed most during the course selection
process that international HE aspirants and applicants search for on OSNs includes
information about student visas and the application process, future job and career prospects
after graduation, the institution’s help and support with job hunting, university
accommodation and privately rented accommodation available in the city, detailed
information about the course structure and curriculum, promotional videos featuring
academic staff and the course director talking about the course, past and current students’
experiences of the course, details of work placements, photos and videos of students,
particularly from their day-to-day course related activities and student life in general,
information about food, the climate and weather of the city, information on study trips, and
information about lecturers, particularly their academic and professional backgrounds.
The findings of this study suggest that many international HE aspirants and applicants are
unclear about the student visa process and the main challenge is to stay updated with the
latest changes relating to student visas and the application process. By sharing such
information on OSNs, institutions can support international HE aspirants and applicants
during the visa application process. Sharing such information also encourages other
students to share their ideas and experiences on OSNs.
6.3.7 Benefits of using online social networks in course selection
Promoting courses via OSNs is an excellent way for higher education institutions to
broaden their exposure to international HE aspirants and applicants at a much lower cost
than traditional student recruitment practices such as participating in education fairs or
working with education agencies. Establishing a presence on most commonly used OSNs
including Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, Pagalguy, Orkut, PowerApple, and QQ,
can help higher education institutions to target more international HE aspirants and
applicants and make their brands of their institutions more visible. The findings presented
in this section and section 6.3.8 are aimed at an audience of both researchers and
practitioners including education marketers, student recruitment specialists, course
directors and policy makers who are seeking a conceptual understanding of the benefits
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and downsides of using OSNs during the course selection process from the perspectives of
consumers of higher education services. This study found that using OSNs brings a number
of benefits to international HE aspirants and applicants, these will each be discussed in
turn.

OSNs strengthen students’ confidence in selecting the course.
OSNs help international HE aspirants and applicants to contact past and current
students from their home countries and speaking to these people significantly help
them to gain more confidence in selecting their preferred course of study. Some
international HE aspirants and applicants are not sure about choosing their
preferred course until they manage to obtain more information via OSNs and meet
other people who are also interested in the same course. The findings of this study
suggest that even though international HE aspirants and applicants can obtain a
significant amount of information from official sources, they are not fully confident
in selecting their preferred course on the basis of this information alone and they
use OSNs to enhance their confidence. The findings indicate that some
international HE aspirants and applicants do not know much about other people
interested in selecting the course, and they also do not know much about the cities.
OSNs allow international HE aspirants and applicants to watch videos about the
city in which their preferred course is offered and to get to know about students
attending the course.

The information acquired from OSNs is perceived as less biased and more
independent information than official sources.
The findings indicate that some international HE aspirants and applicants do not
trust the information provided through official sources such as education agencies
and the university official website and they want to acquire less biased feedback
from past and current students who have already experienced studying the course.
A number of research participants claimed that when their education agents
suggested studying a particular course they started to develop a feeling of distrust
and of a lack of autonomy as they had little or no information about that course.
The findings indicate that the information available on OSNs is more credible to
international HE aspirants and applicants than the information available through
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official sources since the information on OSNs is largely shared by the consumers
of higher education services and those who have provisory experienced studying
the course.

OSNs facilitate gathering of in-depth information about the institution, past
and current students and academic and administrative staff.
OSNs help international HE aspirants and applicants to gather in-depth information
about the institution, students and members of staff. The findings suggest that, by
reading comments from other users and watching videos uploaded on OSNs, it is
possible to acquire in-depth information about the institution in terms of sports
facilities available in the institution, the location of the institution within the city,
student accommodation, class sizes, new buildings and campus construction
projects, the reputation of the institution, the quality of teaching, and the level of
student support and care at the institution. Several participants claimed that through
viewing online profiles and photos uploaded on OSNs they acquired information on
the professional backgrounds, contact details, ages and diversity of past and current
students. OSNs provide a platform for international HE aspirants and applicants to
interact with academic and support staff in an informal and friendly manner.
Besides obtaining information on the lecturers’ academic and professional
background, international HE aspirants and applicants have an opportunity to
evaluate the friendliness and supportiveness of academic and administrative staff
during the course selection process which in turn has a significant impact on their
final course selection decisions.

OSNs facilitate gathering of in-depth information about other HE aspirants
and applicants interested in the course
The rise of OSNs has enabled consumers of higher education services to take a
more active role during the course selection process and reach, and be reached by,
almost everyone and anytime. Besides facilitating interaction with past and current
students who have experienced studying the course, OSNs allow international HE
aspirants and applicants to interact with other HE aspirants and applicants
interested in the same course as them. Several participants claimed that, by viewing
online profiles, they acquired information on the nationality, professional
background and ages of other HE aspirants and applicants interested in the same
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course as them. This is perceived as an advantage by international HE aspirants and
applicants as it provides an opportunity for them to assess the quality and
popularity of the course based on academic and professional backgrounds of other
HE aspirants and applicants. The findings indicate that as HE aspirants and
applicants interact with each other, either consciously or subconsciously, their
course selection decisions are likely to be influenced by the displayed emotions of
one another.

OSNs are easy to access and use.
The majority of OSNs are user-friendly and easy to work with, and international
HE aspirants and applicants usually do not need any additional skills in order to use
them. The findings suggest that among the most commonly used OSNs during the
course selection process, Facebook is perceived as the most user-friendly and
Twitter the least. It generally takes less experienced international HE aspirants and
applicants longer to get to know the Twitter rules. A number of participants
claimed that upon joining the Twitter, they did not know who to follow and how it
works really. Some participants stated that Twitter might be more user-friendly but
there is definitely that barrier to entry for basic users, which has more to do with
the concept than interface or the functionalities. Facebook was the most commonly
used OSNs by participants in the current research during the course selection
process. Facebook was launched by Mark Zuckerberg, along with his college
roommates, in February 2005. Facebook was initially only intended for
Harvard students, but eventually expanded to include students at other Boston
colleges, Ivy League universities, and Stanford. Facebook is used by international
HE aspirants and applicants for a variety of purposes. The findings suggest that the
majority of international HE aspirants and applicants use Facebook at the search
behaviour stage to search for and acquire information about different courses.
International HE aspirants and applicants can acquire information on Facebook via
a variety of means including viewing online profiles of past and current students or
other HE aspirants and applicants interested in the course, reading comments from
other users, viewing photos and videos uploaded on Facebook particularly from
past and current students’ day-to-day course related activities and student life in
general, contacting users directly via private message, and reading responses to
questions they have posted publicly.
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
OSNs enable individuals to contact others from their own country or other
countries, and provide a platform to compare and contrast different
viewpoints.
OSNs help international HE aspirants and applicants to contact past and current
students from their own countries. The findings suggest that speaking to these
people significantly help international HE aspirants and applicants to gain more
confidence in selecting their preferred course of study. Studying abroad involves a
significant investment of time and money, and it is therefore to be expected that
international HE aspirants and applicants want to compare and contrast courses and
different viewpoints in order to reduce the uncertainly associated with their
decision-making, and to select a course which best suits their needs.

OSNs enable faster replies to enquiries in comparison with official sources of
information.
The findings suggest that OSNs enable faster replies to enquiries in comparison
with other contact channels available to international HE aspirants and applicants
during the course selection process. International HE aspirants and applicants can
simply post their course related enquiries on the wall and other users can directly
reply with a comment or send a private message. Data from eDigitalResearch, an
online market research company, reveals that OSNs is the quickest and most
reliable form of customer contact, with around 80 percent of consumers hearing
back from a brand they recently contacted within 12 hours through OSNs platforms
(eDigitalResearch, 2013). A separate study by social media analytics company
Simply Measured reveals that companies tend to provide faster responses on social
media platforms. On Twitter, for example, a consumer query is handled within an
average of 5.1 hours. Additionally, 10% of companies take less than one hour to
respond via social media (SimplyMeasured, 2013).

They allow international HE aspirants and applicants to send direct messages
to past and current students and other HE aspirants and applicants interested
in the course.
Several participants claimed that OSNs allowed them to send direct messages to
past and current students and other HE aspirants and applicants interested in the
course. Most social media have some sort of messaging system in place since their
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inception; however, in order to block spams, some OSNs such as Twitter, restrict
their users to only sending direct messages to their friends. The findings suggest
that Facebook and LinkedIn are the most popular OSNs among international HE
aspirants and applicants in terms of sending direct messages to users during the
course selection process. Some participants claimed that LinkedIn is particularly
well suited for sending direct messages (or ‘InMail’, a direct messaging system
built into the LinkedIn network). Since LinkedIn is a professionally oriented
platform and it is more likely that users will positively respond to direct messages.
International HE aspirants and applicants can especially benefit from direct
messages through LinkedIn because LinkedIn guarantees an answer to any InMail
sent. If the users do not receive a response, they get their messaging credit back. In
spite of the popularity of Facebook among international HE aspirants and
applicants, Facebook is perceived as a more personal network and users are
sometimes put off when international HE aspirants and applicants contact them via
the network.

They help individuals to gather information on a real time basis.
International HE aspirants and applicants demand fast, transparent, and easy to
understand information. The findings suggest that during the course selection
process international HE aspirants and applicants increasingly use OSNs to obtain
information on a real-time basis. Various OSNs provide an opportunity for support
and information on a real-time basis. Features such as ‘News Feed’, ‘Status’,
‘Trending Topics’ allow international HE aspirants and applicants to receive
information about what users are doing, watching or thinking, and provide
opportunities for them to comment and interact based on what is shared.

They help individuals to acquire information from the customers’ perspective.
The findings suggest that an advantage of using OSNs during the course selection
process is to gain valuable advice from past and current students who have already
experienced studying the course. Several participants claimed that they did not trust
information provided through official sources, such as educational agencies and
university official websites, and they wanted to acquire less biased feedback from
past and current students. Through their suggestions, positive and negative
reactions about courses, past and current students on one hand show their interest
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about courses and on the other hand present their need which has to be fulfilled.
This is not only free advertising that can benefit higher education institutions in
terms of their student recruitment activities, but international HE aspirants’ and
applicants’ interests in selecting courses are more likely to increase.

OSNs are more interactive than official sources of information. Unlike official
sources that only focus on facts and figures about the course, OSNs give
individuals the means to interact with each other
The findings show that OSNs are more interactive than official sources of
information. OSNs allow course related information to become viral and
International HE aspirants and applicants reading the posts of others are able to
engage with them by contributing their views on the topic while sharing it with
others. Interactivity has long been considered a key element of new media
(Boczkowski, 2002; Chung, 2007; de Sola Pool, 1983; Deuze & Dimoudi,
2002; Jenkins, 2006; McMillan, 2002b). Lievrouw and Livingstone argue that new
media “give users the means to generate, seek, and share content selectively, and to
interact with other individuals and groups, on a scale that was impractical with
traditional mass media” (2002, p. 9). Moreover, researchers have indicated that the
expanded possibilities for audience participation are related to increased
involvement in the public sphere (Bucy & Gregson, 2001; Hardy & Scheufele,
2005; Robinson, 2006;Shah, Cho, Eveland, & Kwak, 2005).

OSNs help to confirm information provided by official sources.
The findings suggest that OSNs help international HE aspirants and applicants to
evaluate the accuracy of information provided through official sources such as
education agencies and university official websites. Several participants stated that
they did not trust information provided though official sources and wanted to
acquire less biased feedback from past and current students who had already
experienced studying the course. A number of participants also claimed that their
preferred course of study was not listed in ranking websites, and without OSNs
they could not get access to much information about their preferred course of study.

OSNs are perceived as less marketing-driven than official sources of
information.
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OSNs are usually perceived by international HE aspirants and applicants as a
medium that is less marketing driven than official sources of information such as
the university official website. Some participants claimed that OSNs allowed them
to communicate with ‘real’ people and hear the ‘real’ stories of those who had
experienced studying the course. A number of participants stated that for them it
was difficult to distinguish between neutral information and advertising messages
provided through official sources, and they had to use OSNs to help them to
confirm information provided through official sources.
The findings in this section support previous research on why individuals use OSNs.
Wigand et al. (2008) argue that behaviour on the Internet, as in the rest of our lives, is
motivated by our desire to fulfil our basic human needs and OSNs have allowed us to
satisfy these needs. The findings of the current research indicate that OSNs can satisfy
international HE aspirants and applicants’ needs in several ways, including the need for
autonomy (Kuznetsov, 2006), the need for relatedness or the need to belong
(Gangadharbatla, 2010), exhibitionism needs (Fisher et al., 2011), voyeurism needs (Fisher
et al., 2011), the need to acquire information (Wigand et al., 2008), and the need for
feedback about competence (Wigand et al., 2008).
In terms of the need for autonomy, Kuznetsov (2006) argues that the freedom to make
decisions independently attracts many individuals to the arena of OSNs. The current
research found that unlike official sources, the independence and the anonymity of OSNs
boost individuals’ levels of assurance when selecting the course of study. In terms of the
need for relatedness or the need to belong, OSNs allow international HE aspirants and
applicants not only to find out information about courses, but also to connect through
others by linking to their profiles, joining and creating groups, and to send public and
private messages to past and current students or other HE aspirants and applicants
interested in the course. For decades social and personality psychologists have argued that
people have an intrinsic motivation to affiliate and bond with each other (e.g. Maslow,
1968; McClelland, 1987; Murray, 1938). OSNs offer a space in which people can address
the need to belong by using services provided that enable conversations and informationgathering, along with the possibility of gaining social approval, expressing opinions, and
influencing others (Gangadharbatla, 2010). Therefore, international HE aspirants and
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applicants’ attitudes and behaviour with regard to OSNs may stem from their need to
belong.
In a study conducted by Fisher et al. (2011), it has been demonstrated that the architecture
and the culture of OSNs promote digital emotional exhibitionism and associated
voyeurism, with individuals projecting their (sometimes imagined) identities in the
dynamic and free floating digital world and offering opportunities for others to look in and
observe them. This study found that OSNs allow past and current students or HE aspirants
and applicants to satisfy their exhibitionism and voyeurism needs. In terms of
exhibitionism needs, for example, they can upload photos, post comments, and update
statuses in the hope that others will view and interact with their displays. In terms of
voyeurism needs, they exhibit voyeuristic behaviour when they access user-generated
content and engage in social exchanges about it. According to Calvert (2004), motivations
for exhibitionism on OSNs include self-validation, the desire to manage one’s self-identity,
the development of new relationships, and the desire to exert social control.
In terms of the need to acquire information, the need to acquire goods and the need for
feedback about competence, Wigand et al. (2008) argue that an individual may decide to
purchase an item because they believe it will make them fit in with others (in order to
better relate to others) or may seek information on the Internet about average scores on a
test in order to compare themselves with others (i.e. the need for feedback about
competence).
6.3.8 Downsides of using online social networks in course selection
Responses to the interview question ‘what are the downsides of using OSNs in comparison
with other sources?’ included a set of contradictory findings to those reported in section
6.3.7. These contradictory viewpoints help practitioners such as marketing and student
recruitment specialists to acknowledge different perspectives on the role of OSNs during
course selection process, which in turn help them in designing, implementing and
evaluating marketing campaigns on OSNs. The findings suggest that using OSNs brings a
number of downsides to international HE aspirants and applicants, these will each be
discussed in turn.
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 Difficulty of distinguishing between advertising messages and information that
is more neutral.
The findings suggest that, in some instances, it is difficult for international HE
aspirants and applicants to distinguish between advertising messages and more
neutral information available on OSNs. In some occasions, international HE
aspirants and applicants become doubtful about the course when they see members
of staff post positive comments or upload photos and videos. The findings indicate
that the photos, videos and posts uploaded by students are more reliable than those
uploaded by members of staff. While many international HE aspirants and
applicants click onto advertising messages posted by members of staff that they
find interesting or useful, some international HE aspirants and applicants avoid
these adverting messages because of their perceived lack of trustworthiness. When
international HE aspirants and applicants perceive that there is excessive
advertising they will find it difficult to differentiate between advertisements that
they are interested in and those that they are not, which may result in disregarding
all messages on OSNs. These findings are supported by Johnson and Kaye (1998)
who suggest that advertising has less credibility when it is viewed in a medium that
is not perceived as being trustworthy. Advertising avoidance due to scepticism is
supported by Obermiller, Spangenberg and MacLachlan (2005) who argue that
consumers are not motivated to process information when they are sceptical about
the message.
 Users cannot completely rely on all of the information available on OSNs, as
some information on OSNs can be biased.
The findings suggest that some international HE aspirants and applicants cannot
completely rely on all the information available on OSNs and they perceive the
information on OSNs potentially unreliable. Some bias remarks are very clear such
as adverting messages posted by members of staff about the student friendliness of
the institution offering the course or its reputation for quality and expertise of its
staff. Several participants claimed that most information shared by members of
staff on OSNs is biased and evaluating information for level of bias is an important
part of being educated on what international HE aspirants and applicants are
reading. Every higher education institution wants to increase student enrolment; as
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a result, they often try to attract international students. Such students are attractive
because they are required to pay high tuition and are viewed as serious, dedicated
students. Some participants claimed that, in order to avoid bias, they contacted
several users on OSNs and they used official sources of information such as the
University official websites and ranking websites.
 Personal views expressed on OSNs could negatively influence the course
selection decisions of HE aspirants and applicants.
The findings suggest that on some occasions personal views expressed on OSNs
can negatively influence the course selection decisions of international HE
aspirants and applicants. For example, a single unhappy student can negatively
influence the course selection decisions of others. The use of OSNs for brand
management and student recruitment activities is not without its risks for higher
education institutions, and they should accept risks such as handing over a part of
their brand’s management and reputation to past and current students. If anyone
from these groups feels they have been unfairly treated, they can use OSNs to air
their grievances in public, which, in turn, can negatively influence the course
selection decisions of international HE aspirants and applicants.
 Unlike official sources, it is difficult to verify the accuracy of information on
OSNs.
The growing popularity of OSNs has made findings course related information
easier and faster for international HE aspirants and applicants. Much of the
information on OSNs is valuable; however, OSNs also allow rapid and widespread
distribution of false and misleading information. A number of participants stated
that international HE aspirants and applicants should carefully consider the source
of information they find on OSNs and check that information with the information
available through other sources such as university official websites, ranking
websites and education agencies. Using multiple sources of information can help
international HE aspirants and applicants to decide whether the course related
information they find on OSNs is likely to be reliable.
 In relation to the uncontrollable nature of the spread of information via OSNs,
OSNs have the potential to damage the reputation of the course and the
institution.
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The development of OSNs as a global, free and open resource is a constant
challenge. The dynamic and decentralized nature of OSNs offers new opportunities
for communication and free expression as well as new threats. The use of OSNs
like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and LinkedIn present multiple challenges to both
students and higher education institutions. Even if the institution's course
offerings and other matters affecting course selection decisions are excellent,
individuals may still post inappropriate comments on OSNs and severely damage
the reputation of the course and the institution in general. On some occasions,
personal views expressed on OSNs are biased and they can negatively influence the
course selection decisions of international HE aspirants and applicants. For
example, a single unhappy student can negatively influence the course selection
decisions of others. Setting up an OSN account is easy, but managing it is a time
consuming investment many higher education institutions hesitate to make.
Successful OSNs campaigns count on interaction between the institution and its
students. This means higher education institutions have to set aside time each day
to post engaging information, ideas and respond to comments their followers leave.
 Some information provided on OSNs may be incomplete.
A number of participants claimed that some information provided on OSNs are
basic and do not quite represent a full picture of the course. In particular,
international HE aspirants and applicants should be aware that some information
may contain errors or may have become out-of-date. A number of participants
stated that some information they obtained through OSNs comprised general
statements based on past and current students’ personal experiences with the course
and, in some instances, they had to contact the admission office to confirm some
unclear points.
 It is difficult to distinguish between posts made on OSNs by members of staff
and those made by students.
The findings suggest that some international HE aspirants and applicants find it
difficult to distinguish between posts made on OSNs by members of staff and those
made by students, and international HE aspirants and applicants cannot completely
rely on all of the information shared by members of staff on OSNs as some
information can be biased. The findings indicate that the information provided by
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members of staff is perceived as advertising to promote the course and to attract HE
aspirants and applicants. Some participants claimed that they did not contact
academic and administrative staff via OSNs as they believed information provided
by them is only ever positive.
 Some users are apprehensive about sharing information via OSNs.
The findings suggest that some users are apprehensive about sharing information
with HE aspirants and applicants via OSNs. Some participants claimed that this
could be driven by fear to share information with strangers due to privacy reasons
and the fear of sharing course related information and other matters directly
affecting course selection decisions of HE aspirants and applicants.
The findings of this study indicate that the freedom to share information on OSNs can, on
some occasions, harm the course identity. Research has shown that individuals have many
different motivations for spreading messages about organizations, including extreme
satisfaction or dissatisfaction (Anderson, 1998; Bowman and Narayandas, 2001; Dichter,
1966; Maxham and Netemeyer, 2002; Richins, 1983), commitment to the organization
(Dick and Basu, 1994), length of the relationship with the organization (Wangenheim and
Bayón, 2004), and novelty of the product or service (Dahl and Moreau, 2007).
A review of the literature in Chapter 3 revealed that co-creating value with customers and
exploiting the potential of OSNs for viral spread of messages within an organisational
marketing strategy can be risky (e.g. Payne et al., 2011; Wesch, 2008). Organizations have
previously relied on models of marketing that focus on creating a tangible product and/or
service, and if an organization fails to provide a positive experience for stakeholders there
may be negative consequences, such as negative publicity among stakeholders (Wesch,
2008). Consequently, co-creating value with stakeholders (i.e. past and current students or
HE aspirants and applicants interested in the course) requires institutions to become more
directly involved with them.
6.4 Perceived course identity
The third objective of this study was to compare and contrast the levels of influence of
paradigmatic course identity and syntagmatic course identity on the perceived course
identity. This objective enabled comparison of the level of influence of OSNs on final
237
course selection decisions with other sources of information available during the course
selection process.
6.4.1 The level of influence of online social networks on final course
selection decisions in comparison with other sources
In the current research, seven out of twenty research participants who had used OSNs
during the course selection process indicated that OSNs had a strong influence on their
final course selection decisions in comparison with other sources. Some research
participants had a good idea of what to expect in terms of other students attending the
course and about the institution because of the information they had acquired through
OSNs. Even though it is possible to acquire a considerable amount of information from
sources such as education fairs, official university websites, ranking websites and
education agencies, a number of research participants were not fully confident about
finalizing their course selection decisions on the basis of this information alone and used
OSNs to enhance their confidence. It was also discovered that not all of the research
participants trusted the information provided through official sources of information and
wanted to acquire information directly from students who had experienced the course.
Seven out of twenty research participants who had used OSNs during the course selection
process indicated that OSNs had a moderate influence on their final course selection
decisions. Prior using OSNs some research participants had a reasonable idea of which
were their preferred courses because they had already obtained some information from
sources such as ranking websites, friends and family, university websites, education
agencies and education fairs, and wanted to be more certain that they have made the right
decision and to verify the information they already had with that available on OSNs. For
example, prior to using OSNs, participants had already decided to study Course B but they
did not know much about the other students taking Course B, or the city in which Course B
was offered. OSNs such as Facebook and YouTube allowed them to watch videos about
the city in which Course B was offered and to get to know the other students on the course.
Four participants out of twenty who had used OSNs during the course selection process
noted that OSNs had a low level of influence on their final course selection decisions,
which were mainly based on information they had already collected from official sources
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such as university and ranking websites. Some research participants stated that the
information available on OSNs could be as biased as information from official sources.
Finally, two participants out of twenty who had used OSNs during the course selection
process stated that OSNs had no influence on their final course selection decisions. They
stated that they would never make a life changing decision, such as the choice of a course
abroad, based on the information provided on OSNs. A number of participants believe that
each person has a unique query and a unique response, therefore other people’s personal
experiences of the course cannot meet their information needs. Because this kind of
information is a significant driver for use of OSNs they believe that it is not advisable to
use OSNs to make life changing decisions. Figure 69 presents levels of influence of OSNs
on research participants’ final course selection decisions.
Figure 69 Levels of influence of online social networks on research participants’
final course selection decisions.
No influence ,
10%
High level of
influence , 35%
Low level of
influence , 20%
Moderate level of
influence , 35%
A comparison of information available on OSNs (Table 42) and core factors influencing
selection of a course abroad (Table 41) revealed that almost all of the information that the
participants obtained through OSNs fits within seven categories of factor that influence
239
selection of a course abroad. They include future job and career prospects after graduation,
financial considerations of taking the course, past and current students, the course structure
and curriculum, the institution, the city, and academic and administrative staff. There are
several possible explanations for why the information available on OSNs is less relevant to
other categories of factor which include entry requirements, the host country, ranking and
accreditation, course prestige, personal development, and the mode of study. In Chapter 3,
it was highlighted that the decision to enter HE may be regarded as a multi-stage process
involving a series of decisions finally resulting in enrolment in a HE course. Existing
studies confirm that the effect of the host country’s image, personal motivations and course
prestige are significant motivating factors at the pre-search behaviour stage (Cubillo et al.,
2006; Mazzarol and Soutar, 2002; Shanka et al., 2005) that begins with recognizing the
possible need for and desirability of acquiring a HE (Chapman, 1986). The current
research has shown that OSNs are largely used at the search behaviour and choice decision
stages (Figure 68). The findings indicate that at the search behaviour and choice decision
stages, international HE aspirants and applicants use OSNs to acquire information on
future job and career prospects after graduation, financial considerations of taking the
course, past and current students, the course structure and curriculum, the institution, the
city, and academic and administrative staff. A review of the literature in Chapter 3 revealed
that factors such as the quality of the institution, financial issues, campus life, and the city
in which the course is offered are key factors at the search behavior stage (Cabrera and La
Nasa, 2000; Choy et al., 1998; Hossler et al., 1999). Factors related to the choice phase are
both economic and sociological in nature (Cabrera and La Nasa, 2000; Choy et al., 1998;
Hossler et al., 1999). Economic factors are implicated in the process whereby an individual
estimates the costs and benefits of attending a course, whereas the sociological factors
relate to individuals’ socioeconomic characteristics and academic preparation, both of
which may predispose an individual to enroll at a specific type of institution (Cabrera and
La Nasa, 2000). A possible explanation for why the information available on OSNs is less
relevant to finding out about entry requirements, ranking and accreditation, and the mode
of study is that international HE aspirants and applicants can easily obtain these kinds of
information from official sources such as ranking websites and official university websites,
and as such there is no need to use OSNs to acquire or verify such information.
The findings of this study suggest that OSNs could be a highly influential source of
information during the course selection process if universities invest in a presence on
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popular OSNs and provide more information about courses, however until now OSNs have
not been utilised effectively by all institutions. These findings are similar to those reported
by Constantinides and Stagno (2011) and Stagno (2010). Stagno (2010) perceives this as a
failure in universities’ marketing strategies. Having a presence on OSNs is not a marketing
strategy in itself; instead institutions should develop a clear marketing strategy for OSNs,
making decisions on the basis of well-defined goals (Stagno, 2011). Constantinides and
Stagno (2011) argue that one possible explanation for the low importance of OSNs as a
source of influence in comparison with other sources could be the lack of relevant content.
This is due to the poor engagement with such tools as public relations and direct marketing
tools by universities. Creating and implementing effective OSN marketing campaigns and
staying connected with users are major challenges for HE institutions (Constantinides and
Stagno, 2011). This requires the allocation of resources, and an organizational structure
and consistent policy that ensure the content is kept up to date and that make use of
customer input.
6.4.2 A comparative view on the significance of online and offline
sources on course selection decisions
The findings suggest that online sources have significantly influenced the information
search behaviour of international HE aspirants and applicants during the course selection
process. Many international HE aspirants and applicants regularly consult online sources
for information on courses such as information on past and current students, the city, the
institution, future job and career prospects, academic and administrative staff, financial
considerations of taking the course, the course structure and curriculum, amongst others.
Online sources such as OSNs have several distinctive features that directly influence
course selection decisions of international HE aspirants and applicants. Online sources can
improve the course selection process by enabling international HE aspirants and applicants
to sort and group information (e.g. sort courses by tuition fees and the city, categorise
courses by rankings), and by enabling them to access peer opinions and recommendations.
Therefore, it is likely that, for the same international HE aspirant and applicant, online and
offline decisions take place under different sets of information. The findings suggest that,
potentially, there is more course related information available online. With more available
information, international HE aspirants and applicants are likely to devote more cognitive
effort to their course selection processes because they can see the potential for realizing the
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additional benefits (e.g. more informed or improved course choices) through additional
effort. Additional information, combined possibly with greater effort, will improve the
quality of course selection decisions, which in turn, is likely to result in an experience that
delivers higher satisfaction when the choices made online than offline.
Online sources such OSNs could also offer alter expectations of international HE aspirants
and applicants about the course, if they have more information about the course beforehand
(including visual information), they know what type of service they will get and are less
likely to be surprised or angry at the service received, than when they make a course
choice offline. For example, the findings show that through viewing photos uploaded on
OSNs, international HE aspirants and applicants can acquire information about the
diversity of past and current students, the graduation ceremony and what it involves, social
and leisure activities in the city, and national and international trips organized by the
school. By watching videos uploaded on OSNs it is possible to find information on social
and leisure activities in the city, information about the climate and weather of the city, the
course structure and curriculum, learning outcomes from the course, exams and
assignments, and university accommodation and privately rented accommodation available
in the city.
The online environment could also decrease satisfaction because of the perceived lack of
information trustworthiness. The growing popularity of online sources has made findings
course related information easier and faster for international HE aspirants and applicants.
Much of the information on online sources is valuable; however, some online sources such
as OSNs also allow rapid and widespread distribution of false and misleading information.
The findings suggest that some international HE aspirants and applicants cannot
completely rely on all the information available online and they perceive the online
information potentially unreliable. Some bias remarks are very clear such as adverting
messages posted by members of staff on OSNs. The findings suggest that on some
occasions personal views expressed on online sources can negatively influence the course
selection decisions of international HE aspirants and applicants. For example, a single
unhappy student can negatively influence the course selection decisions of others.
242
With the ongoing emphasis on maximizing student recruitment campaigns by using online
tools, higher education marketers and student recruitment specialists should still remember
that some international HE aspirants and applicants prefer to use offline sources of
information. This study has shown that international HE aspirants and applicants use
numerous offline and online sources during the course selection process (Table 43) and
OSNs is only one of them. Higher education institutions must carefully blend both online
and offline interactions to effectively communicate with international HE aspirants and
applicants.
Table 43 online and offline sources of information available during the course selection
process
Online sources of information
Offline sources of information
 Online social networks
 Education fairs
 Electronic course brochures
 Education agencies
 Information obtained via email exchanges
 Family members and friends who have
with the admissions office
 Information obtained via email exchanges
with a course administrator or course
director
 Ranking websites (e.g. the Financial Times
and Forbes)
 The official university website
 The UK Border Agency website
previously studied at the same institution
 Family members and friends who have
previously taken the same course
 Friends in their home country who are also
interested in studying abroad
 Leaflets received in the post
 Telephone conversations with the admissions
office
 E-journals (e.g. Guardian and Newsweek)
 Newspaper advertisements
 The British Council website
 Family members and friends living in the UK
 The British Consulate website
 Telephone conversations with a course
 Accreditation bodies’ websites (e.g. AMBA
administrator or course director
for management courses)
 The British Foreign and Commonwealth
Office (FCO) website
 The Universities and Colleges Admissions
Service (UCAS) website
Online communication is definitely becoming more integrated with our daily activities, but
it has not replaced international HE aspirants’ and applicants’ needs for face-to-face
interaction. The challenge then for higher education institutions is to find the appropriate
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balance between online and offline channels. Chances are international HE aspirants and
applicants will use multiple offline and online channels and switch in and out of those
channels several times through their course selection processes. For example, international
HE aspirants and applicants might see newspaper advertisements that reference OSNs
channel for those with a specific interest or need. They then spend time using OSNs to
contact past and current students who have already experienced studying the course and
build connections with other international HE aspirants and applicants interested in the
course. From there, international HE aspirants and applicants may take course related
information and recommendations and finalise their course preferences.
6.5 Summary
This chapter has presented and discussed the findings that emerged from the data analysis
and how the findings relate to the literature. This has allowed the current work to
contribute new insights. The chapter has provided researchers, and particularly
practitioners, with insights into how the choice of course of study abroad interrelates with
participation in OSNs. This chapter was structured according to the research objectives.
The first section discussed the paradigmatic course identity. The second section was
concerned with the syntagmatic course identity as observed through OSNs. The third and
final section discussed the levels of influence of paradigmatic course identity and
syntagmatic course identity on the perceived course identity. The next chapter will present
the conclusions of the study.
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Chapter 7
Conclusions
7.1 Introduction
This thesis examined how the choice of course of study abroad interrelates with
participation in OSNs. This study was justified by the need to examine the choice of
course of study as a phenomenon distinct from the choices of institution and host country
(Maringe, 2006), and the need to understand the role of OSNs in the process of decisionmaking about HE from the perspectives of the consumers of HE services (Nyangau and
Bado, 2012). The previous chapter was concerned with answering the research question for
this study, and presented and discussed the findings that emerged from the data analysis
and how these related to the literature. The findings add to our understanding of how the
choice of course of study abroad interrelates with participation in OSNs, which will serve
as a basis for future studies. The findings suggest several courses of action for education
marketers and policy makers who wish to invest in their student recruitment strategies.
This chapter presents the conclusions of the study, as highlighted in Figure 70. The
structure of this chapter is as follows: the research aims and objectives are revisited in
section 7.2. This is followed by a full semiotic examination of choice of course of study
and participation in OSNs in section 7.3 and the main overall findings from the research in
section 7.4. This study contributes to knowledge and practice in a number of ways, and
these are discussed in section 7.5. Section 7.6 is concerned with the principles used to
guide the conduct and evaluation of this research. The research method is then appraised is
section 7.7. The final section of the chapter reflects on the limitations of this work. Bearing
in mind these limitations, suggestions are made for future work.
245
Figure 70 Conceptual framework: Chapter 7
Research Question: How does the choice of course of study abroad interrelate with participation in OSNs?
Relevant literature and secondary data
Research design and its implementation
Analysis
Perceived course identity
Interpretant
‘Course identity’
Representamen
 Paradigmatic
 Syntagmatic
 Paradigmatic course identity
 Syntagmatic course identity as observed
through OSNs

Object
 Course of study
 OSNs
Findings and discussion, development of ideas/beliefs
Conclusions, contributions to knowledge and practice
7.2 Revisiting research aims and objectives
The primary aim of this study was to explain how the choice of course of study abroad
interrelates with participation in OSNs, and the secondary aim was to provide an
application of semiotics to research in choice and decision making in HE and IS research.
Based on semiotic concepts, this research introduced the concept of ‘course identity’ as a
semiotic sign system, and utilised the semiotic model of course identity as a theoretical
framework to study and analyse the interrelationship between selection of a course abroad
and participation in OSNs, and also to guide the fieldwork and subsequent analysis. The
objectives were to: (1) define the paradigmatic course identity, (2) define the syntagmatic
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course identity as observed through OSNs, and (3) compare and contrast the levels of
influence of paradigmatic course identity and syntagmatic course identity on the perceived
course identity.
7.3 Semiotics applied to the choice of course of study and participation
in online social networks
Semiotics has always been implicit within informatic domains including computing
science and IS (Clarke, 2007). The realisation of the semiotic nature of IS has been
apparent in the earliest work in semiotics applied to the informatic domains, for example
see Langefors (1973). Langefors (1973) proposed the research project that developed into
the Information Systems work & Analysis of Change (ISAC) methodology which had as
its definition of elementary information the triadic sign developed by Peirce. Since the
mid-1990s there has been a broad application of semiotic concepts within IS (Clarke,
2007). These include, for example, Human Computer Interaction (e.g. Buarque, 1997;
Merkle, 2002), text analysis and computational text semiotics (e.g. Rieger, 1981),
hypersystems and hypermedia (e.g. Andersen, 1997; Clarke, 2001b), agent-based systems
and associated methodologies (e.g. Chong and Liu, 2001) and system evolution (e.g.
Clarke, 1996).
Semiotics has been considered by a number of IS academics to be necessary advance in IS
theory (e.g. Clarke, 2007; Land, 1985; Rzevski, 1985; Tully, 1985). Along with
psychology and sociology, semiotics is considered to be a foundation discipline for IS by
the International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP) (Falkenberg et al., 1998).
The IFIP FRISCO report justifies the IS area scientifically by placing it in a more general
context, comprising semiotics, system science, organisation science, as well as computer
science. Thereby, the concepts of the IS area become “rooted” or “anchored”, that is,
related to concepts of these other areas (Falkenberg et al., 1998). “Semiotics examines the
processes of production and consumption of meanings in organisations, institutions and
society, and their underlying mechanisms” (Clarke, 2007, p. 75) by means of what Pap
(1991, p. 47) refers to as a “…systematic analysis of patterns of interpretive behaviour”.
Although often acknowledged, “meaning is central to any definition of an Information
System” (Clarke, 2007, p. 75). While the concept of meaning and meaning making is
difficult to define, semiotic theory can assist by emphasising the distinctions between
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‘information’, ‘meaning’ and ‘sense’ (Nöth, 1995). Eco (1976) provides a broad definition
of semiotics as the study of all cultural processes as processes of communication.
According to Clarke (2007), cultural processes are interpreted to include organisational
contexts and processes thereby providing a link between systems and organisations.
There is considerable debate about what constitute the core criteria that define semiotics,
and this appears to discourage many IS scholars and practitioners from applying semiotic
approaches, even though some acknowledge its potential relevance (Clarke, 1992). The
fundamental nature of semiotics, its multiple theoretical traditions and its diverse
applications may account for the slow infusion of semiotics into the IS discipline (Clarke,
1992). However, “the transdisciplinary nature of semiotics makes it eminently suitable for
the study of IS precisely because it [semiotics] is concerned with examining the ways
meanings are made” (Clarke, 1992, p. 67). The current research contributes to the field of
IS by illustrating how semiotics can be utilised to analyse the make-up and the
interrelationships which constitute a given phenomenon. Based on Saussurean and
Peircean sign theories, this study introduced the concept of ‘course identity’ as a semiotic
sign system. The semiotic model of course identity developed in Chapter 2 was used as a
theoretical framework to analyse the interrelationships between selection of a course
abroad and participation in OSNs, and also to guide the fieldwork and data analysis. The
theoretical framework presented in Figure 7 strengthened the current research in a number
ways as follows (the details of which are given in section 2.7): to contextualise the study
within the current body of knowledge, to formulate the research objectives, the choice of
research paradigm and research methods, to guide the fieldwork, and to structure and
analyse the interview data.
The concept of course identity, as a whole, was perceived as a semiotic sign system.
Guided by the research question, the semiosis of course identity led to two representamens
and one interpretant. Based on Chandler’s (2007, p. 84) argument that “the value of a sign
is determined by both its paradigmatic and its syntagmatic relations”, and that “syntagms
and paradigms provide a structural context within which sign makes sense”, it was argued
that the value of the signifying element of the course identity is determined by both its
paradigmatic and its syntagmatic relations. The ‘paradigmatic course identity’ is the
overall identity of the course communicated in the form of the ‘representamen’ to
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international HE aspirants and applicants through a variety of resources from which
international HE aspirants and applicants generate certain perceptions, or ‘interpretants’,
about the course. Guided by the research question and research objectives, the first aim of
the analysis was to discover the representamens within codes that constitute the
paradigmatic course identity. In total, nine representamens were identified within code
PAI.FSI, twelve within code PAI.SIA, thirteen within code PAI.SIA.ONL and fourteen
within code PAI.CF. Table 44 presents the representamens within codes that constitute the
paradigmatic course identity.
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Codes
PAI.SIA.ONL




PAI.CF
 Family members who have previously studied at the
same institution[R1]
 Friends who have previously studied at the same
institution[R2]
 Family members who have previously taken the same
course[R3]
 Friends who have previously taken the same course[R4]
 Education fairs[R5]
 Education agencies[R6]
 Newspaper advertisements[R7]
 Leaflets received in the post[R8]
 Telephone conversations with the admissions office[R9]
 Telephone conversations with a course administrator or
course director[R10]
 Family members and friends living in the UK[R11]
 Friends in their home country who are also interested in
studying abroad[R12]
Categories
Online sources of information
Representamens
 Family members who have previously studied at the
same institution[R1]
 Friends who have previously studied at the same
institution[R2]
 Family members and friends who have previously taken
the same course[R3]
 Friends who have previously taken the same course[R4]
 Education agencies[R5]
 Newspaper advertisements[R6]
 Friends living in the host country[R7]
 Ranking websites[R8]
 Education fairs[R9]
Core factors influencing selection of a course
abroad
PAI.FSI
Codes
PAI.SIA
Initial sources of information
Categories
Offline sources of information
Table 2 The ‘representamens’ within codes that constitute the paradigmatic course identity
Paradigmatic course identity









Representamens
Online Social Networks[R1]
Electronic course brochures[R2]
Information obtained via email exchanges with the admissions office [R3]
Information obtained via email exchanges with a course administrator or
course director[R4]
Ranking websites (e.g. the Financial Times and Forbes) [R5]
The official university website[R6]
Accreditation bodies’ websites (e.g. AMBA for management courses) [R7]
E-journals (e.g. Guardian and Newsweek) [R8]
The British Council website[R9]
The British Consulate website[R10]
The UK Border Agency website[R11]
The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) website[R12]
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) website[R13]
 Future job and career prospects after graduation[R1]
 Entry requirements[R2]
 Financial considerations of taking the course[R3]
 The host country[R4]
 The city[R5]
 Ranking and accreditation[R6]
 Past and current students[R7]
 The course structure and curriculum[R8]
 The institution[R9]
 Academic and administrative staff[R10]
 Personal development[R11]
 The mode of study[R12]
 Perceived difficulty of completing the course[R13]
Course prestige[R14]
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The value of the course identity, as a semiotic sign system, is determined by both its
paradigmatic and its syntagmatic relations. Saussure’s concepts of paradigm and syntagm
enabled a distinction to be made between representamens within OSNs and representamens
within other sources of information available during the course selection process. Chandler
(2007) proposes that a syntagm is an orderly combination of interacting representamens
within the same paradigm and that a paradigm is a set of associated representamens which
are all members of some deifying category. Semiotic syntagms differ depending on the
context in which they are initiated. Syntagmatic relations in the context of the current
research refer to the orderly combination of interacting representamens within OSNs only
(i.e. the same paradigm). The ‘syntagmatic course identity’ is the identity of the course
communicated in the form of the ‘representamen’ to international HE aspirants and
applicants only through OSNs, from which international HE aspirants and applicants
generate certain perceptions, or ‘interpretants’, about the course. The second aim of the
analysis was to discover the ‘representamens’ within codes that constitute the syntagmatic
course identity. In total, seven representamens were identified within code SYI.PDU.RNU,
two within code SYI.PDU.SCP, four within code SYI.PUS.S, eight within code
SYI.PUS.MCU, six within code SYI.PUS.IGM, forty within code SYI.PUS.IAO, thirteen
within code SYI.PUS.INM, thirteen within code SYI.PUS.BOC, and eight within code
SYI.PUS.DOC. Table 45 presents the representamens within codes that constitute the
syntagmatic course identity
251
 Changed perceptions of OSNs [R1]
 Perceptions did not change [R2]
 Pre-search behaviour stage[R1]
 Search behaviour stage[R2]
 Application decision stage[R3]
 Choice decision stage[R4]







Facebook[R1]
LinkedIn[R2]
YouTube[R3]
Twitter[R4]
Pagalguy[R5]
Orkut[R6]
PowerApple[R7]
 QQ[R8]
SYI.PUS.IGM













SYI.PUS.IAO
SYI.PDU.
SCP
 Privacy concerns[R1]
 Cultural and personality traits which make international
HE aspirants and applicants averse to using OSNs[R2]
 International HE aspirants and applicants do not
perceive a need for further information[R3]
 OSNs are not perceived as a valid source of
information[R4]
 International HE aspirants and applicants do not know
how to use OSNs[R5]
 International HE aspirants and applicants do not have
enough time to use OSNs for research due to late
admission[R6]
 International HE aspirants and applicants have already
been put in contact with past or current students on the
course by the university[R7]
Informationgathering
methods using
OSNs
Syntagmatic course identity
Categories
Codes
Information available on OSNs
Representamens
SYI.PUS.S
SYI.PDU.RNU
Codes
SYI.PUS.MCU
Reasons for not using OSNs
Subsequent
changes in
perceptions
about OSNs
OSNs most commonly Stages at which
used during the course OSNs are used
selection process
during the course
selection process
Table 3 The ‘representamens’ within codes that constitute the syntagmatic course identity
Categories
















Representamens
Viewing online profiles[R1]
Reading comments from other users[R2]
Viewing photos[R3]
Watching videos[R4]
Contacting users directly via private message[R5]
Reading responses to questions they have posted publicly[R6]
Academic and professional backgrounds of staff[R1]
Admission process (e.g. interview) [R2]
Ages of other international HE aspirants and applicants interested in the
course[R3]
Ages of past and current students[R4]
Average salary after graduation[R5]
Class sizes[R6]
Contact details of other international HE aspirants and applicants
interested in the course[R7]
Contact details of past and current students[R8]
Events and exhibitions[R9]
Exams and assignments[R10]
Facilities and resources[R11]
Learning outcomes from the course[R12]
National and international trips organized by the institution[R13]
Nationalities of other international HE aspirants and applicants interested
in the course[R14]
Nationalities of past and current students[R15]
New buildings and campus construction projects[R16]
Past and current students’ levels of satisfaction with the course[R17]
Past and current students’ personal experiences of the course [R18]
Past and current students’ personal experiences with the institution[R19]
Personalities and attitudes of staff towards students[R20]
Privately rented accommodation options[R21]
Professional backgrounds of other international HE aspirants and
applicants interested in the course[R22]
List continued on next page
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Syntagmatic course identity
 Information about student visas and the application
process[R1]
 Future job and career prospects after graduation[R2]
 The institution’s help and support with job hunting[R3]
 University accommodation and privately rented
accommodation available in the city[R4]
 Detailed information about the course structure and
curriculum[R5]
 Promotional videos featuring academic staff and the
course director talking about the course[R6]
 Past and current students’ experiences of the course[R7]
 Details of work placements[R8]
Codes

SYI.PUS.INM
Categories










SYI.PUS.BOC
SYI.PUS.IAO

















SYI.PUS.INM
Information needed most from OSNs
during the course selection process
Information available on OSNs

Representamens
Professional backgrounds of past and current
students[R23]
Social and leisure activities available in the city[R24]
Social life in the city[R25]
Sports facilities available in the city[R26]
Student life on and off campus[R27]
Student-friendliness of the city[R28]
Teaching quality[R29]
The city’s transport system[R30]
The cost of living[R31]
The diversity of past and current students[R32]
The graduation ceremony and what it involves[R33]
The level of student support and care at the
institution[R34]
The location of the institution within the city[R35]
The reputation of the institution[R36]
The teaching and learning style[R37]
Tuition fees[R38]
University accommodation[R39]
Weather information[R40]
Benefits of using OSNs for individuals’ course selection decisions
Codes
Information
needed most from
OSNs during the
course selection
process
Categories







Representamens
Photos and videos of students, particularly from their day-to-day course
related activities and student life in general[R9]
Information about food[R10]
The climate and weather of the city[R11]
Information on study trips[R12]
Information about lecturers, particularly their academic and professional
backgrounds[R13]
OSNs strengthen students’ confidence in selecting the course[R1]
The information acquired from OSNs is perceived as less biased and more
independent information than official sources[R2]
OSNs facilitate gathering of in-depth information about the institution,
past and current students and academic and administrative staff[R3]
OSNs facilitate gathering of in-depth information about other HE
aspirants and applicants interested in the course[R4]
OSNs are easy to access and use[R5]
OSNs enable individuals to contact others from their own country or other
countries, and provide a platform to compare and contrast different
viewpoints[R6]
They enable faster replies to enquiries in comparison with official sources
of information[R7]
They allow international HE aspirants and applicants to send direct
messages to past and current students and other HE aspirants and
applicants interested in the course[R8]
They help individuals to gather information on a real time basis[R9]
They help individuals to acquire information from the customers’
perspective[R10]
OSNs are more interactive than official sources of information. Unlike
official sources that only focus on facts and figures about the course,
OSNs give individuals the means to interact with each other[R11]
OSNs help to confirm information provided by official sources [R12]
OSNs are perceived as less marketing-driven than official sources of
information[R13]
253
Syntagmatic course identity
Codes
SYI.PUS.DOC
Downsides of using OSNs for individuals’
course selection decisions
Categories
Representamens





Difficulty of distinguishing between advertising messages and information that is more neutral [R1]
Users cannot completely rely on all of the information available on OSNs, as some information on OSNs can be biased [R2]
Personal views expressed on OSNs could negatively influence the course selection decisions of HE aspirants and applicants [R3]
Unlike official sources, it is difficult to verify the accuracy of information on OSNs[R4]
In relation to the uncontrollable nature of the spread of information via OSNs, OSNs have the potential to damage the reputation of the course and the
institution[R5]
 Some information provided on OSNs may be incomplete[R6]
 It is difficult to distinguish between posts made on OSNs by members of staff and those made by students[R7]
 Some users are apprehensive about sharing information via OSNs[R8]
254
The ‘interpretant’ is the course identity perceived by international HE aspirants and
applicants. It is this identity of the course that influences final course selection decisions of
international HE aspirants and applicants. I referred to this identity as ‘perceived course
identity’. Just as with the representamen/object relation, Peirce believes the
representamen/interpretant relation to be one in which the representamen determines the
interpretant (Atkin, 2010). Therefore, the perceived course identity is determined by the
paradigmatic course identity and the syntagmatic course identity (i.e. the two signifying
elements of course identity). The ‘interpretant’ is the meaning that an international HE
aspirants and applicants actually ascribes the course of study (the object) as a consequence
of associating it with the ‘paradigmatic course identity’ and the ‘syntagmatic course
identity’ (the signifying elements of the course identity). For example, a course of study
(the object) might be presented as a highly ranked course on the Financial Times or OSNs,
which leads to perception of the course as being prestigious, which in turn has a significant
impact on international HE aspirants’ and applicants’ final course selection decisions.
According to North (2012), a sign can influence perception of an object because it
activates the person’s broader knowledge of the world, which in turns becomes associated
with the object.
The third aim of the analysis was to discover the ‘interpretants’ within codes that constitute
the perceived course identity. Responses to the interview question ‘how influential were
OSNs on your final course selection decisions in comparison with other sources?’ included
comments that suggest there are four ‘interpretants’ within code PEI.LIF. The following
table presents the ‘interpretants’ that constitute the perceived course identity.
Table 46 The ‘interpretants’ within codes that constitute the perceived course identity
Perceived course identity
Codes
Interpretants (or ‘I’ as abbreviation of the interpretant)
 OSNs have strong influence on final course selection decisions[R1]
PEI.LIF
The level of influence of
OSNs on final course
selection decisions in
comparison with other
sources of information.
Categories
 OSNs have a moderate influence on final course selection decisions[R2]
 OSNs have a low level of influence on final course selection decisions[R3]
 OSNs have no influence on final course selection decisions[R4]
255
7.4 The main overall findings from the research
The findings that emerged as a result were presented and discussed in relation to the
literature in Chapter 6. In this section, however, I wish to draw out the main overall
findings from the research. This section is structured according to the research objectives.
7.4.1 Paradigmatic course identity
This objective enabled identification of the sources of information that international HE
aspirants and applicants use during the course selection process, and to discover whether
OSNs are among these sources. This objective also helped to reveal the core factors
influencing selection of a course abroad. Results from this objective contributed to the
discussion of findings, particularly discussions surrounding the significance of online and
offline sources on course selection decisions and the level of influence of OSNs on final
course selection decisions in comparison with other sources.
This study has shown that international HE aspirants and applicants use a number of online
and offline sources during the course selection process, and that OSNs are among the
online sources used. The majority of international HE aspirants and applicants find out
about a course of study for the first time through friends and family members who have
previously studied the course or studied at the institution, education agencies, newspaper
advertisements, friends and family members living in the host country, ranking websites,
and education fairs. This study found that OSNs are not usually among the initial sources
of information used during the course selection process.
There are several core factors that influence selection of a course abroad. The core factors
identified in this research fall into 14 broad categories including future job and career
prospects after graduation, entry requirements, financial considerations of taking the
course, the host country, the city, ranking and accreditation, past and current students, the
course structure and curriculum, the institution, academic and administrative staff, personal
development, the mode of study, perceived difficulty of completing the course, and course
prestige. The research to date has tended to focus on the factors influencing the choice of
institution (e.g. Price et al., 2003; Soutar and Turner, 2002; Whitehead et al., 2006) and
host country (e.g. Mazzarol and Soutar, 2002; Shanka et al., 2005). One of the few studies
256
that investigates the choice of course of study as a phenomenon distinct from the choice of
institution, is that of Maringe (2006). However, unlike the current research, Maringe’s
(2006) study focuses on the choice of course of study within one’s own country. There are
a few similarities between the factors discovered in the current research and the factors
discovered by Maringe (2006) including course prestige, career opportunities, staff
profiles, perception that the course is easy to complete, and friends on the same course.
7.4.2 Syntagmatic course identity as observed through online social
networks
This objective contributed to an understanding of the popularity of using OSNs as part of
the course selection process, the stages at which OSNs are used during the course selection
process, OSNs most commonly used during the course selection process, informationgathering methods employed when using OSNs, what information is available on OSNs,
information needed most from OSNs during the course selection process, and the benefits
and downsides of using OSNs for individuals’ course selection decisions.
This study found that international HE aspirants and applicants show an increased interest
in the use of OSNs during the course selection process. Despite the growing interest in
using OSNs, there are still a number of factors that discourage international HE aspirants
and applicants from using OSNs, including privacy concerns, cultural and personality traits
which make them averse to using OSNs, they do not perceive a need for further
information, OSNs are not perceived as a valid source of information, they do not know
how to use OSNs, they do not have enough time to use OSNs for research due to late
admission, and they have already been put in contact with past or current students on the
course by the university.
Chapman’s (1986) model was used in the current research to discuss the different stages at
which international HE aspirants and applicants use OSNs during the course selection
process. This study found that the majority of international HE aspirants and applicants use
OSNs at the ‘search behaviour stage’ to help them to search for and acquire information
about different courses. This is followed by the ‘pre-search behaviour stage’, ‘application
stage’ and ‘choice decision stage’.
257
There are several popular OSNs used by international HE aspirants and applicants during
the course selection process, including Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, Pagalguy,
Orkut, PowerApple, and QQ. This study found that international HE aspirants and
applicants can acquire information on OSNs via a range of means, including viewing
online profiles, reading comments from other users, viewing photos, watching videos,
contacting users directly via private message, and reading responses to questions they have
posted publicly. The kind of information international HE aspirants and applicants can
acquire via OSNs varies, depending upon the method of information-gathering used. The
kind of information available via each method of information-gathering was discussed in
detail in section 6.3.5.
This study found that the information that is needed most during the course selection
process that international HE aspirants and applicants search for on OSNs includes
information about student visas and the application process, future job and career prospects
after graduation, the institution’s help and support with job hunting, university
accommodation and privately rented accommodation available in the city, detailed
information about the course structure and curriculum, promotional videos featuring
academic staff and the course director talking about the course, past and current students’
experiences of the course, detailed information on work placements, photos and videos of
students, particularly from their day-to-day course related activities and student life in
general, information about food, the climate and weather of the city, information on study
trips, and information about lecturers, particularly their academic and professional
backgrounds.
A comparison of information available on OSNs and core factors influencing selection of a
course abroad revealed that almost all of the information that the research participants
obtained through OSNs fits within seven categories of factor that influence selection of a
course abroad. They include future job and career prospects after graduation, financial
considerations of taking the course, past and current students, the course structure and
curriculum, the institution, the city, and academic and administrative staff. There are
several possible explanations for why the information available on OSNs is less relevant to
other categories of factor which include entry requirements, the host country, ranking and
accreditation, course prestige, personal development, and the mode of study. This study
258
found that OSNs are largely used at the search behaviour and choice decision stages.
Existing studies confirm that the effect of the host country’s image, personal motivations
and course prestige are significant motivating factors at the pre-search behaviour stage
(Cubillo et al., 2006; Mazzarol and Soutar, 2002; Shanka et al., 2005) that begins with
recognition of possible need for and desirability of acquiring a HE (Chapman, 1986). A
possible explanation for why the information available on OSNs is less relevant to finding
out about entry requirements, ranking and accreditation, and mode of study is that
international HE aspirants and applicants can easily obtain these kinds of information from
official sources such as ranking websites and official university websites, and as such there
is no need to use OSNs to acquire or verify such information.
This study found that using OSNs can provide a number of benefits for international HE
aspirants and applicants, including building students’ confidence in selecting the course;
they are less biased and a more credible source of information than official sources; they
facilitate gathering of in-depth information about the institution, students and members of
staff; they facilitate acquisition of information on the academic and professional
backgrounds of past and current students and other HE aspirants and applicants interested
in the course; they facilitate acquisition of information on the nationality and the age range
of past and current students and other HE aspirants and applicants interested in the course;
they are easy to access and use; they enable individuals to contact others from their own
country or other countries; they provide a platform to compare and contrast different
viewpoints; they enable faster replies to enquiries in comparison with official sources of
information; they allow individuals to send direct messages to past and current students
and other HE aspirants and applicants interested in the course; they help them to gather
information on a real time basis; they help individuals to acquire information from the
customers’ perspective; they are more interactive than official sources of information,
unlike official sources which only focus on facts and figures about the course, OSNs
provide richer and more in-depth information; they help to confirm information provided
through official sources; and finally, they are perceived as less marketing-driven than
official sources of information.
On the other hand, this study found that using OSNs has several downsides for
international HE aspirants and applicants including, the difficulty of distinguishing
259
between advertising messages and more neutral information; some information available
on OSNs being unreliable and tending to be biased; the potential negative influence of
personal views expressed on OSNs on course selection decisions; the difficulty of
verifying the accuracy of information; the freedom to share information on OSNs, which
can damage the reputation of the course and institution; the incompleteness of some
information available on OSNs; the difficulty of distinguishing between posts by members
of staff and those made by students; and finally, the apprehensiveness of some students
about sharing information on OSNs.
7.4.3 Perceived course identity
This objective supported comparison of the level of influence of OSNs on final course
selection decisions with other sources of information available during the course selection
process.
In this research the majority of participants who had used OSNs during the course selection
process indicated that OSNs had moderate to strong level of influence on their final course
selection decisions in comparison with other sources. Even though it is possible to acquire
a considerable amount of information from sources such as education fairs, official
university websites, ranking websites and education agencies, nevertheless a number of
research participants were not fully confident about finalizing their course selection
decisions on the basis of this information alone and used OSNs to enhance their
confidence. It was also discovered that not all of the research participants trusted the
information provided through official sources and wanted to acquire information directly
from students who had experienced the course.
In contrast, a few research participants indicated that OSNs had little to no influence on
their final course selection decisions, and that their final course selection decisions were
primarily based on information they had collected from official sources such as university
and ranking websites. Some research participants also stated that the information available
on OSNs could be biased in the same way as information from official sources.
The findings of this research suggest that OSNs could be a highly influential source of
information if universities invest in a presence on popular OSNs and provide more
260
information about courses. These findings are similar to those reported by Constantinides
and Stagno (2011) and Stagno (2010). Constantinides and Stagno (2011) argue that one
possible explanation for the low importance of OSNs as a source of influence could be the
lack of relevant content, which Stagno (2010) perceives as a failure in universities’
marketing strategy.
7.5 Contributions to knowledge and practice
This study contributes to knowledge and practice in a number of ways. For each
contribution, the structure will address the four dimensions of contribution: new insight,
audience, literature and use, as proposed by Walsham (2006):
“…construct our piece to aim at a particular type of audience or audiences. In
addition, we can ask to what literature we are aiming to contribute. Thirdly,
what does the piece of written work claim to offer that is new to the audience
and the literature? Finally, how should others use the work?”
(Walsham, 2006, p. 326)

This study contributes to the field of IS in two areas. First, despite a great deal of
research on when and why IS are used (e.g. Burton-Jones and Grange, 2012;
Venkatesh et al., 2003), very little research has examined the role of modern IS,
such as OSNs, in choice and decision making in higher education. The intersection
of OSNs and choice and decision making in higher education represents a
promising space for future IS research. This contribution is aimed towards
researchers and practitioners in the area of IS, and it contributes to the literature
relating to use of OSNs in the context of choice and decision-making in HE. The
key issues identified in this work can guide the development of OSN campaigns for
courses in terms of selecting popular OSNs, identifying the target audience and
determining the type of information to share via OSNs. Second, calls have been
made for the use of semiotics to better understand IS (e.g. Clarke, 1992, 2001a).
This study illustrates how semiotics can be utilised to analyse the make-up and the
interrelationships which constitute a given phenomenon. Semiotics can be used in
the analysis of the development, use and application of IS in organizational,
institutional and social contexts and their influence in these contexts. This
contribution is particularly aimed towards IS researchers and it contributes to the
literature relating to theories in IS.
261

This study contributes to the field of choice and decision making in HE in three
areas. First, research in choice and decision making in HE has focused largely on
the choice of institution (e.g. Price et al., 2003; Soutar and Turner, 2002;
Whitehead et al., 2006) and host country (e.g. Mazzarol and Soutar, 2002; Shanka
et al., 2005), and less attention has been paid to the choice of course of study as a
separate phenomenon. This study focuses on the choice of course of study as a
phenomenon distinct from the choices of institution and host country. This
contribution is aimed at an audience of both researchers and practitioners, such as
education marketers and policy makers, who are seeking a conceptual
understanding of course selection as a phenomenon distinct from the choices of
institution and host country. This also contributes to the literature relating to choice
and decision-making in HE and, in a broader context, the marketing of HE. The key
issues identified in this work can guide the branding, strategic marketing and
competitive positioning of courses. Second, research in HE to date has tended to
focus on the application of semiotics in the area of teaching and learning (e.g.
Bayne, 2008; Cunningham, 1984; Groisman et al., 1991; Gwyn-Paquette, 2001;
Lemke, 1984, 1989; Presmeg, 1998; Ryan., 2011), and less attention has been paid
to use of semiotics in the area of choice and decision-making. This study illustrates
how semiotics can be utilised to analyse the make-up and the interrelationships
which constitute a given phenomenon. This contribution is particularly aimed
towards researchers and it contributes to the literature relating to theories in choice
and decision-making research in HE. For example, semiotics can be used to analyse
the popularity of educational services among consumers of HE services. This can
help institutions in designing, branding and positioning their educational services.
Third, the introduction of the concept of ‘course identity’ is a direct contribution to
knowledge, while also providing a theoretical framework which enables
practitioners and scholars to acknowledge the externally oriented aspects of the
course in the same way that teaching and learning represent the internal practices
and theorisation of the course. The concept of ‘course identity’ was used as a
theoretical framework in this research to study and analyse the interrelationship
between selection of a course abroad and participation in OSNs, and it guided the
design of the method and the subsequent analysis of the interview data, amongst
262
others. This contribution is aimed at an audience of both researchers and
practitioners, such as education marketers and policy makers, and it also
contributes to the literature relating to theories of choice and decision-making in
HE. The use of the concept of ‘course identity’ strengthened the current research in
a number ways as follows, the details of which are given in section 2.7:
o To contextualize the study within the current body of knowledge
o To formulate the research objectives
o The choice of research paradigm and research methods
o To guide the fieldwork
o To structure and analyse the interview transcripts

This study also contributes to the field of semiotics. This study utilised Peircean
semiotics
in
conjunction
with
Saussurean
semiotics
to
analyse
the
phenomenon under study. Utilising Peircean Semiotics in conjunction with
Saussurean semiotics in studying semiotic sign systems is a direct contribution to
knowledge. In his dyadic model of the sign, Saussure emphasizes that meaning
arises from the differences between signifiers (or ‘representamen’ in the Peircean
tradition); these differences are of two kinds: syntagmatic and paradigmatic. A
syntagm is an orderly combination of interacting signifiers within the same
paradigm, which forms a meaningful whole, and syntagmatic relations are the
various ways in which constituent units within the same paradigm may be
structurally related to each other (Chandler, 2007). A paradigm is a set of
associated signifiers which are all members of some defining category, but in
which each signifier is significantly different (Chandler, 2007). In the current
research, it is argued that the value of Peirce’s representamen is determined by both
its paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations. Syntagms and paradigms provide a
structural context within which Peirce’s representamen makes sense. This
contribution is aimed at an audience of researchers in the field of social semiotics,
particularly researchers interested in studying Peircean and Saussurean semiotic
traditions. This also contributes to the literature relating to studies in semiotic
263
theory and methodology. The triadic model of the sign developed in Chapter 2 can
be used to analyse semiotic sign systems in a wide range of disciplines.
7.6 Evaluation of the use of the interpretive paradigm
In order to assess the quality of interpretive research, there are a number of different
methods that can be adopted (Klein and Myers 1999; Miles and Huberman 1994). The
evaluative principles for interpretive field studies proposed by Klein and Myers (1999) are
widely accepted in the fields of IS (Walsham 2006) and educational research (Fisher, 2006;
Santonen, 2009), and are therefore used in this work. The principles, presented in Table 47,
were also used to guide the progress of the study as I wanted to be aware of the evaluation
criteria whilst conducting the study.
Table 47 Principles for interpretive field research (Klein and Myers 199)
The fundamental principle of the hermeneutic circle
The principle of contextualization
The principle of interaction between the researchers and the subjects
The principle of abstraction and generalization
The principle of dialogical reasoning
The principle of multiple interpretations
The principle of suspicion
In addition to the evaluation principles for interpretive research stated above, a number of
other steps were taken during the research process. The content of this work was the
subject of a process of continues evaluation, as evidenced through a number of conference
presentations and publications (see dissemination activities, Appendix 1)
7.6.1 The fundamental principle of the hermeneutic circle
This principle states that all human understanding is achieved by iterating between
considering the interdependent meanings of parts and the whole that they form (Klein and
Myers, 1999). This principle of human understanding is fundamental to all the other
evaluation principles for interpretive research (Klein and Myers, 1999). The ‘whole’ in the
current research refers to “explaining how the choice of course of study abroad interrelates
with participation in OSNs”. Consequently, it is possible to develop a better understanding
264
of this phenomenon through its parts and their interrelationships. Therefore, to understand
this phenomenon more thoroughly, its constituents and their interrelationships were drawn
out of the literature and the semiotic model of course identity developed in Chapter 2. The
fieldwork further focussed upon gathering data about the elements of the semiotic model of
course identity. It is, however, important to note that it is difficult to understand the totality
of ‘the whole’ in both theory and practice. The problem therefore, was determining when
there was ‘a whole’ that was useful and when data collection and theory development
could therefore stop. Data collection was stopped when it became clear that nothing of
great significance was being added to as a result of additional data, that is, when theoretical
saturation had been reached (Eisenhardt, 1989; Strauss and Corbin, 1994).
7.6.2 Contextualization
This principle requires critical reflection on the social and historical background of the
research setting, so that the intended audience can understand how the situation under
investigation emerged (Klein and Myers, 1999). By enabling the reader to situate the study,
contextualization offers the opportunity for improved understanding of the phenomenon
and how it emerged. The interrelationship between choice of course of study abroad and
participation in OSNs, as the central concern of this study, can be seen as a phenomenon
which needs to be understood contextually. From this point of view, the entire study is
perceived as concerned jointly with the process and its context. In order to improve the
accuracy of the reporting of the context, various sources of data were used to avoid
misunderstandings, whether this was through cross-checking of interviews or
documentation. I identified documentation of relevance to the study by some manual
process. These documents contributed to a greater understanding of OSNs and the three
cases selected for the study.
7.6.3 Interaction between the researchers and the subjects
This principle requires critical reflection on how the research materials (or “data”) were
socially constructed through the interaction between the researchers and participants (Klein
and Myers, 1999). This principle required me to explicitly consider my role and those of
the participating international students in the development of the research. The case study
method used in the current research clearly implies that there should be interaction
between the researcher and research participants in developing the outcomes. The
265
interaction between the researcher and the subjects (international students) was discussed
as part of research design and implementation in Chapter 4. This focused on the data types
and sources. In terms of the field study the aim was for data collection, reporting and
analysis to be as faithful as possible to the various viewpoints of participating international
students. This was achieved by cross checking interpretations with participants with the
aim of developing shared meanings for the data in question. The findings of this study
therefore comprise my own interpretations and those of the international students who
were involved in the study. However, as different people interpret data in different ways,
this leads to multiple realities (Kaplan and Duchon, 1988). This study aimed to
communicate and emphasis these diverse realities in order to explain how the choice of
course of study abroad interrelates with participation in OSNs.
7.6.4 Abstraction and generalization
This principle involves relating the idiographic details revealed by data interpretation
through application of the “fundamental hermeneutic principle” and the “principle of
contextualization” to general theoretical concepts that describe the nature of human
understanding and social action (Klein and Myers, 1999). Abstraction and generalization
are not prerequisites for interpretive studies, however, the current research nevertheless
offers opportunities to relate ideas to multiple situations, although it is important to point
out that these are not characterised as universal laws as associated with positivist studies
(Denzin, 2001). Instead, the current research offers generalizations that relate to the
development of concepts and theory which may be intersubjectively understood to be
useful (Walsham, 1995b). These generalizations relate to the further development of our
understanding of selection of a course abroad, as a phenomenon distinct from the choices
of institution and host country, and also our understanding of the role of OSNs in the
course selection decisions of international HE aspirants and applicants. These
generalizations also relate to the application of semiotics and the concept of course identity
in choice and decision-making research in HE and IS research. The contribution in this
respect was outlined in Section 7.5.
7.6.5 The Principle of Dialogical Reasoning
This principle requires sensitivity to possible contradictions between the theoretical
preconceptions guiding the research design and actual findings (“the story which the data
266
tell”) with subsequent cycles of revision (Klein and Myers, 1999). First, it is suggested that
the researcher should make the philosophical assumptions of the research as transparent as
possible and relate the strengths and weaknesses of these assumptions to the work at hand.
In Chapter 4, the philosophical (interpretivist) underpinnings of this study are clearly
articulated and critiqued. Moreover, the challenges of the interpretivist approach are
referred to in this evaluation section, for example in relation to the idea that it is the
researcher who has the final say about what aspects of the data are interpreted and written
down, and how. This principle also suggests that the research findings may not support the
researcher’s initial theoretical preconceptions and that the researcher must be aware of the
need to revise these as necessary. There are four key points at which theoretical
preconceptions were altered as a result of the study:
1. This study initially intended to explain how the choice of HE institution abroad
interrelates with participation in OSNs. Christensen and Askegaard’s (2001) semiotic
framework was used to study this phenomenon through analysing the parts and
interrelationships which comprise it. In 2001, Christensen and Askegaard published a
paper in which they adopted Peirce’s triadic model of object, representamen and
interpretant, to demonstrate the advantages of theoretical consistency and to stimulate
self-reflection among scholars who use the notions of “corporate identity” and
“corporate image” (see Christensen and Askegaard’ (2001) semiotic framework,
Appendix 8). The semiotic model that was initially developed for the current research
consisted of two objects, one representamen, and one interpretant (Figure 71). The
“institutional identity” was defined as both the sign (i.e. as a whole) and the
representamen (i.e. the signifying element).
Figure 71 Semiotic model of institutional identity - Iteration 1
Institutional image
Interpretant
“Institutional
identity”
Representamen
Institutional identity: the
identity represented via
OSNs and other sources
Object
 The institution
 OSNs
267
This was the source of the first contradiction between the loose theoretical propositions
about the choice of institution abroad and the shift towards choice of course of study
abroad. It was during the literature review process that my position shifted. A review of
the literature reveals that research to date has tended to focus on the choice of
institution and host country, and less attention has been paid to the choice of course of
study as a distinct phenomenon. Therefore, the interrelationship between the choice of
course of study abroad and participation in OSNs represented a potentially more
relevant and theoretically rewarding area of investigation than the interrelationship
between the choice of institution abroad and participation in OSNs.
2. This shift in position led to a review of various theories of choice and decision-making
in HE. Based on Peirce’s triadic model of sign, the concept of course identity was
introduced as a semiotic sign system. The semiotic model of course identity initially
consisted of two objects, one representamen, and one interpretant as shown in Figure
72.
Figure 72 The preliminary semiotic model of course identity - Iteration 2
Perceived course identity
Interpretant
“Course identity”
Representamen
Course identity: the
identity represented via
OSNs and other sources
Object
 The course of study
 OSNs
The course identity was initially defined as both the sign and the representamen. The
course identity as the representamen was defined as the identity of the course
268
represented to international HE aspirants and applicants via OSNs and other sources of
information available to them during the course selection process.
3. The semiotic model of course identity was revised further before the fieldwork
commenced. There was a need to compare and contrast the identity of the course
represented via OSNs with the identity represented via other sources of information
available during the course selection process. This resulted in further theoretical
revision. Based on the Saussurean concepts of paradigm and syntagm, the
representamen in Peirce’s triadic model was divided into paradigmatic representamen
and syntagmatic representamen. As a result, course identity, as the representamen, was
divided into paradigmatic course identity and syntagmatic course identity as observed
through OSNs. The ideal semiotic model of course identity was therefore developed in
light of this in Section 2.6, and is shown in Figure 73.
Figure 73 The ideal semiotic model of course identity - Iteration 3
Perceived course identity
Interpretant
‘Course identity’
Representamen
 Paradigmatic
 Syntagmatic
Object
 Paradigmatic course identity  Course of study
 Syntagmatic course identity as  OSNs
observed through OSNs
4. Finally, as the study progressed and theoretical preconceptions were further refined, a
final conceptual framework was produced (see section 2.8).
269
7.6.6 The principle of multiple interpretations
This principle requires sensitivity to potential differences in interpretations among
participants, which are typically expressed in multiple narratives of the same sequence of
events under study (Klein and Myers, 1999). This principle requires the researcher to
examine the influences of social context upon actions. This entails seeking out multiple
viewpoints and the reasons why individuals hold particular viewpoints. The whole basis of
this thesis is the idea that there are multiple realities that may influence the
interrelationship between choice of course of study abroad and OSNs, making this one of
the most important principles for this research. Consequently, a broad range of viewpoints
have been highlighted in the literature review, and more particularly in the fieldwork. The
three cases selected for this study (i.e. Course A, Course B, and Course C) illustrate
differing viewpoints across the 33 international students who participated. Where
differences in perspective have arisen, the aim has been to find out about, and tell the story
of why this may have been, or was perceived to have been the case.
7.6.7 The principle of suspicion
This principle requires sensitivity to possible “biases” and systematic “distortions” in the
narratives collected from participants (Klein and Myers, 1999), and I was aware of
potential bias while collecting empirical data. I was aware of the potential that participants
might respond in the way that they expected I wanted them to respond. Sensitivity to such
bias was maintained throughout all aspects of the research, including the selection of cases,
the acknowledgment of differing participant viewpoints, the use of multiple data collection
sources and the multiple stages of data analysis. Potential sources of bias were also
minimised by ensuring that research participants were independent and by informing the
participants that their responses would remain confidential. In the following section the
research method will be appraised.
7.7 Appropriate methodological choice
There is consensus that methodological choices should be commensurate with the research
aims and objectives (Silverman, 2011). Therefore, an interpretive case study method was
undertaken in order to better explain how the choice of course of study abroad interrelates
with participation in OSNs. A survey, for example, would not have been able to provide
rich insights into the research participants’ complex course selection decisions and their
270
experiences with OSNs. Prior to deciding on an interpretive case study method other
research methods were considered and found to be ill fitting for reasons discussed in
section 4.3. In this section, I wish to draw out the main points.
The other research methods considered as possible alternatives were ethnography and
action research. Ethnography, unlike experiments and surveys, is generally used in the
interpretive paradigm, and to some extent in the critical paradigm (Miles and Huberman,
1994). Ethnographies usually require the researcher to spend a long period of time in the
field and they emphasize detailed, observational evidence (Myers, 1997; Yin, 1994). The
longer duration required by the ethnographic method was not my primary concern to use
this method as for most people the best time to do ethnographic research is during one’s
doctoral studies (Myers, 2008). The predominant method of data collection in ethnography
is participant observation, where an ethnographer aims to become a part of the group being
studied and records observations without conducting any analysis (Myers, 2008). The
ethnographic method did not fit with the current research since in-depth interviews were
chosen as the primary means of data collection because they would enable me to explore
participants’ complex course selection decisions and to collect detailed information on
their experiences with OSNs.
Action research was an attractive method at first. Lewin (1946) emphasizes change and the
investigation of change as key contributions of action research (Hendry, 1996). Action
research has been criticized for its lack of methodological rigor (Cohen and Manion, 1980)
and its lack of distinction from consulting (Avison, 1993). Several authors argue that
action research should use the case-study method in order to enhance the acceptability of
action research as a research method (e.g. Blichfeldt and Andersen, 2006; Cunningham,
1993). Action research did not fit the current research, since it lacks emphasis on the
researcher’s ability to control processes and outcomes as well as the freedom to select
problems.
As with case studies, it is difficult to generalise results from action research and
ethnography. However, case researchers do not experience this difficulty to the same
extent, because case researchers have opportunities to select the contexts that facilitate
analytical generalization i.e. generation of abstractions based on empirical material
271
(Blichfeldt and Andersen, 2006). A further difference between case study, action research
and ethnographic methods relates to the researcher’s stance on how and to whom they
disseminate their results. Action researchers and ethnographic researchers have an
obligation to feed data back to the participant community with which they collaborated to
identify and solve a practical problem (Blichfeldt and Andersen, 2006). In privileging a
particular target audience, action researchers and ethnographic researchers may neglect the
other relevant audiences (Blichfeldt and Andersen, 2006). Although case study researchers
may disseminate their findings to those who participated in the study, findings are
primarily targeted at the academic community (Blichfeldt and Andersen, 2006). Action
research and ethnography are fundamentally about telling a story as it happens. Blichfeldt
and Andersen (2006) argues that apart from storytelling, case study researchers also try to
enrich and expand our understanding of phenomena beyond the level at which individual
stories are constructed.
7.8 Limitations and future research opportunities
The previous section was concerned with the principles used to guide the conduct and
evaluation of the study. It is believed that this was an acceptable interpretive case study
that conforms to the expectations derived from the evaluative principles for interpretive
research. I will now focus on the limitations of the current study and potential future
research opportunities that emerge from the research.
7.8.1 Limitations
This thesis subscribes to interpretive beliefs and the principles of case study research,
therefore, it will not be able to withstand positivist scrutiny. Each data collection technique
used in the current study has associated limitations. The use of interviews and
documentation, and the focus on three specific MBA courses offered in the United
Kingdom again limit the findings. This work, like other interpretive arguments, is based on
my perceptions as a researcher and is therefore, according to my epistemological
viewpoint, subjective, which could imply a severe limitation to the work. However, the
author does not accept that this need be the case. If the findings that grow out of a detailed
analysis of three UK MBA courses can equally be applied to any HE course in the UK,
and potentially beyond, then subjective work need not be considered limited in its
applicability.
272
7.8.2 Suggestions for future work
This thesis provides a number of insights in relation to the interrelationship between
selection of a course abroad and participation in OSNs. Furthermore, it provides a number
of insights with regard to the application of semiotics in choice and decision-making
research in HE and IS research. However, a number of issues remain that could benefit
from further academic study which was outside the scope of this research. It is impossible
to draw out all aspects worthy of further investigation, instead those considered
particularly interesting, relevant and significant are listed below:

The data collection process in this study used an exploratory approach that aimed to
collect detailed information on the research participants’ complex course selection
decisions and on their experiences with OSNs. A potential follow up study would be to
devise a positivist student survey that would be able to analyse the weightings of core
factors that influence selection of a course abroad or of the information that is needed
most during the course selection process that international HE aspirants and applicants
search for on OSNs.

This study sought to focus on the interrelationship between the selection of a course
abroad and participation in OSNs. The findings of this research provide direction for
researchers interested in studying how course selection within one’s own country
interrelates with participation in OSNs.

The data for the current research were collected from three MBA courses offered in the
United Kingdom. Thus, future research could include other courses at different levels,
offered in other popular study destinations.

More research is needed on the application of semiotics in choice and decision-making
research in HE and IS research. Future research could include the sign theories of
linguists such as Vološinov, Bühler, Jakobson, Langer, Levi-Strauss, Bateson, Morris
and Barthes.

Greater understanding is needed with respect to the concept of course identity as a
semiotic sign system. The semiosis of course identity can lead to different elements of
the sign (i.e. object, representamen and interpretant) depending on the context. The
273
flexibility of course identity as a semiotic sign system makes it a powerful logical
concept that can be utilised by researchers in different contexts.

Issues related to using Peircean semiotics in conjunction with Saussurean semiotics in
studying semiotic sign systems are a further area for exploration. This study argued that
the value of Peirce’s representamen is determined by both its paradigmatic and
syntagmatic relations, and Saussure’s concepts of paradigm and syntagm provide a
structural context within which Peirce’s representamen makes sense. Future
research could explore this possibility in greater detail.
7.9 Final conclusions
The primary aim of this study has been to explain how the choice of course of study abroad
interrelates with participation in OSNs, and the secondary aim has been to provide an
application of semiotics to research in choice and decision making in HE and IS research.
In order to answer the research question and meet the aims of the research,
three research objectives were formulated. The objectives derived from a review of
relevant literature and semiotic concepts. The semiotic model of course identity was used
as a theoretical framework to study and analyse the interrelationship between selection of a
course abroad and participation in OSNs, and also to guide the fieldwork and subsequent
analysis.
The first objective of this study was to define the paradigmatic course identity. This
objective enabled identification of the sources of information that international HE
aspirants and applicants use during the course selection process, and to discover whether
OSNs are among these sources. This objective also helped to reveal the core factors
influencing selection of a course abroad. Results from this objective contributed to the
discussion of findings, particularly discussions surrounding the significance of online and
offline sources on course selection decisions and the level of influence of OSNs on final
course selection decisions in comparison with other sources. The second objective was to
define the syntagmatic course identity as observed through OSNs. This objective
contributed to an understanding of the popularity of using OSNs as part of the course
selection process, the stages at which OSNs are used during the course selection process,
OSNs most commonly used during the course selection process, information-gathering
274
methods employed when using OSNs, what information is available on OSNs, information
needed most from OSNs during the course selection process, and the benefits and
downsides of using OSNs for individuals’ course selection decisions. The third objective
of this study was to compare and contrast the levels of influence of paradigmatic course
identity and syntagmatic course identity on the perceived course identity. This objective
enabled comparison of the level of influence of OSNs on final course selection decisions
with other sources of information available during the course selection process.
The findings of this study add to our understanding of how the choice of course of study
abroad interrelates with participation in OSNs and serve as a basis for future studies. The
findings suggest several courses of action for education marketers and policy makers who
wish to invest in their student recruitment strategies. The findings suggest that OSNs could
be an influential source of information for international HE aspirants and applicants
selecting a course abroad if universities invest in a presence on popular OSNs and provide
more information about their courses. Having a presence on OSNs is not a marketing
strategy in itself; instead, institutions need to develop a clear marketing strategy for OSNs
based on clearly defined goals. This requires the allocation of resources, and an
organizational structure and consistent policy that ensure the content is kept up to date and
that make use of customer input.
275
Appendices
276
Appendix 1 Dissemination activities
According to Hearn and White (2009) “the knowledge gained by research is often trapped
at the point of origin, caught in the language of research, or simply isolated from those who
apply that knowledge - the practitioners in the field. Likewise, tacit knowledge from the
field rarely reaches the researchers or those making decisions”. In order to relate the
research findings to practical applications and policy-making, throughout the research
process I considered various dissemination activities:
Journal Articles
Raeisi, A. and Fletcher, G. (2013). “The interrelationship between choice of course of
study abroad and participation in online social networks”. Manuscript submitted for
journal publication (copy on file with author).
Raeisi, A. (2013). “Factors influencing course selection decisions of international higher
education aspirants and applicants: the case of UK full-time MBA”. Manuscript
submitted for journal publication (copy on file with author).
Papers in Published Conference Proceedings
Raeisi, A. (2010). The use of online social networks for marketing higher education.
Proceedings of the tenth Salford Postgraduate Annual Research Conference. 10 (1).
P. 312-329
Presentations
Raeisi, A. (2010). Marketing strategies in online social networks for higher education
institutions (webcast presentation). The Centre for Information Management,
University of Bath.
Raeisi, A. (2011). Introducing the concept of ‘course identity’ as a semiotic sign system.
4th
Annual
Information
Studies
Postgraduate
Symposium.
Manchester
Metropolitan University.
Raeisi, A. (2011). The use of online social networks for marketing higher education.
Salford Postgraduate Annual Research Conference. University of Salford.
277
Posters
Raeisi, A. (2010). The use of online social networks for marketing higher education. ISOS.
University of Salford.
Workshops
Raeisi, A. (2011). Online social networks for enterprise. Researcher Enterprise
Development Salford. University of Salford.
Raeisi, A. (2011). Online social networks supporting enterprise activities. The enterprise
café. Researcher Enterprise Development Salford. University of Salford.
Projects
Researcher Enterprise Development Salford. The Engineering and Physical Sciences
Research Council – EPSRC. Investigators: C Costa, D Roberts, A Raeisi, J Condie,
E Jackson, C Mydlarz.
278
Appendix 2 Ethical approval memorandum for the current research
279
Appendix 3 Information sheet for the study
Arash Raeisi
ISOS Research Centre
Room 517, Maxwell Building,
University of Salford,
Salford M5 4WT
t: +44 (0) 7753266331
Email address | [email protected]
Information Sheet
Dear student,
My name is Arash. I am studying at the doctoral level at the University of Salford, Greater
Manchester, in the fields of information systems and educational research. I am in the
middle of my research, for which I need to collect data regarding how the choice of course
of study abroad interrelates with participation in online social networks. There are many
types of creative new media. The term ‘online social networks’ is used as an umbrella term
to cover those categories of new media (e.g. social networking sites, blogs, sharing for
videos, sharing for photos) which allow individuals to log on, create a profile, connect with
others, see what information others have posted and contribute information.
If you decide to volunteer, you will be asked to participate in one interview. Interviews
will last approximately 45 minutes to 1 hour and will be timed to suit your availability. The
interview will seek information on your course selection process and your experiences with
online social networks. With your permission, I will tape record the interviews. The
interviews will be recorded and then transcribed. You may choose to replay the recording
and read the transcripts for clarification and correction. Please be assured that all your
comments will remain completely confidential and will be based only in aggregate with all
other responses. Your name will be anonymised and a code will be associated with your
responses. This code will be used for your interview transcript and in any publications.
Your details and associated code will be kept securely and separately from interview data.
It is necessary to keep your details on record associated with your code in order to enable
you to withdraw consent at any time, and to enable further communication with you.
280
You have the right to agree, participate in the study, and still withdraw from the research at
any time without giving any reason. Please feel free to discuss any concerns or questions
with me either over email or face-to-face, both prior to the interview and at any time
afterwards. Any communication will remain anonymous, including discussion of concerns
and questions. These will remain private and not be treated as research data.
If you have questions or concerns about this study, please contact me on any of my contact
details on top right hand corner of this page.
Yours faithfully
Arash Raeisi
281
Appendix 4 Research participant consent form
Arash Raeisi
ISOS Research Centre
Room 517, Maxwell Building,
University of Salford,
Salford M5 4WT
t: +44 (0) 7753266331
Email address | [email protected]
Research participant consent form
By completing this form and leaving your signature, you are indicating that you have read
the information sheet, and have made a decision to participate in the study.
Thank you.
Title of project:
The interrelationship between choice of course of study abroad and participation in online
social networks.
Name of Researcher: Arash Raeisi
Name of Supervisor: Dr Gordon Fletcher
I confirm that I have read and understood the information sheet for the above study
and what my contribution will be.
I have been given the opportunity to ask questions (face to face, via telephone and
e-mail)
I agree to the interview being tape recorded
I understand that my participation is voluntary and that I can withdraw from the
research at any time without giving any reason
I agree to take part in the above study
YES/NO
YES/NO
YES/NO
YES/NO
YES/NO
Name of participant:
Signature:
Date:
282
Appendix 5 Revocation of consent
Arash Raeisi
ISOS Research Centre
Room 517, Maxwell Building,
University of Salford,
Salford M5 4WT
t: +44 (0) 7753266331
Email address | [email protected]
Revocation of consent
You have the right to withdraw your consent at any time. If you decide to withdraw your
consent please forward the consent withdrawal to Arash Raeisi, Room 517, Maxwell
Building, University of Salford, Salford M5 4WT. Alternatively, you can fill in this form
and return scanned copy via email to <[email protected]>.
Title of project:
The interrelationship between choice of course of study abroad and participation in online
social networks
Name of Researcher: Arash Raeisi
Name of Supervisor: Dr Gordon Fletcher
I hereby wish to withdraw my consent to participate in the research outlined above.
Name:
Signature:
Date:
283
Appendix 6 Interview guide
Date of Interview
Time of Interview
Place of interview
Interview ID
Name of Participant
Course/University
Email address
Contact number
Gender
Country
City
Income
The highest level of education
Age
Marital status
How many years of work
experience do you have?
What is your current or previous
professional position?
Which industry? (Please tick boxes which apply)
Finance
Media
Engineering
Information
technology
Consulting
Health/
Medical
Non-profit
R and D/
science
Consumer goods
Telecommunications
Hospitality/
Travel/Tourism
Pharmaceuticals
Public sector
Legal
Retail
Entertainments/
Leisure
Defence/
Security/Rescue
Other
Energy/
Environmental/
Utilities
Agricultural/
Fishing/Forestry
Logistics/
Transportations
HR/
Recruiting/
Training
Real states/
Property
284
Outline draft of interview questions
Paradigmatic course identity
A. How did you first find out about this course?
B. What offline sources of information did you use to obtain information about this
course?
C. What online sources of information did you use to obtain information about this
course?
D. Why did you select this course as your preferred course of study abroad?
Syntagmatic course identity as observed through OSNs
Participants did not use OSNs
E. Why didn’t you use OSNs during your course selection process?
F. Do you still have the same approach towards OSNs?
Participants used OSNs
G. At what stages in your course selection process did you use OSNs?
H. Can you please name all the OSNs that you used to obtain information about this
course?
I. How did you gather information using OSNs?
J. What information was available on OSNs?
K. What is the information that is needed most during the course selection process that
you search for on OSNs?
L. What are the benefits of using OSNs in comparison with other sources?
M. What are the downsides of using OSNs comparison with other sources?
Perceived course identity
N. How influential were OSNs on your final course selection decisions in comparison
with other sources?
285
Appendix 7 A sample of interview transcript
Date of Interview
Time of Interview
Place of interview
Interview ID
8 July 2011
Afternoon, 12:37
University A, Business School, Room 208
PS2
Name of Participant
Course/University
Email address
Contact number
Gender
Country
City
Income
The highest level of education
Age
Marital status
How many years of work
experience do you have?
What is your current or previous
professional position?
Which industry? (Please tick boxes which apply)
Finance
Media
Engineering
Information
technology
Consulting
Health/
Medical
Non-profit
Course A/University A
----Female
Brazil
Sao Paulo
--MSc
30
Single
10
Sales Manager
R and D/
science
Consumer goods
Telecommunications
Hospitality/
Travel/Tourism
Pharmaceuticals
Public sector
Legal
Retail
Entertainments/
Leisure
Defence/
Security/Rescue
Other
Energy/
Environmental/Utilities
Agricultural/
Fishing/Forestry
Logistics/
Transportations
HR/
Recruiting/Training
Real states/
Property
286
How did you first here about Course A?
One of my friends graduated from this university, he told me for the first time about this
course because this friend used to live here. She also told me about other courses in other
cities, but those are sort of distance away, so I looked at all these course and that is how I
decided to select this course.
What offline sources of information did you use to obtain information about Course
A?
It was this friend and I called the admissions office. I called the admission office directly
and I spoke to one of the school advisors on the phone. I do not remember the name of the
person, but I spoke to somebody on the phone asking questions. My conversation took an
hour and half on the phone and I was told about what to except and what the course
involves and what I'm expected and what are the objectives and what they expect me to
achieve at the end of it. I did the same for other universities. So mainly was my friend and
admissions office.
What online sources of information did you use to obtain information about Course
A?
Ok, first of all, the Internet was really useful for me to get information, so I went online, I
used Google search engine to search for the key term [Course A], I found university
website and I also went to official website to look for the information about this course. I
used a number of online sources of information to get information on [Course A] and to
have a good understanding of [Course A] and what I should expect. There were also other
sources, when I searched in Google I also came up with several pages in Facebook and
online ranking websites such as the Financial Times. Facebook came into play for me in
2010, just before I started doing MBA, OSNs such as Facebook only alighted me more,
you know, it gave me more…I wouldn't say I used it like quite a lot but I did, I looked at
using them in terms of trying to influence me, because what they do, they provide
information, you get criticisms of what people think about it. It was mainly Facebook, by
the way, I also met someone on the LinkedIn who said he was graduated from here, and he
had MSc. So these people told me that this course is good.
287
Why did you select Course A as your preferred course of study abroad?
First of all, I decided to select [Course A] because the tuition fees was reasonable and it
was also cheaper than other accredited MBA courses in the UK. As an international
student, I know in order for me to manage to get a good job is to be well educated; MBA
helps me to develop my career towards managerial positions. It helps me to enhance my
knowledge in managing people. That is why I needed to take an MBA in order to develop
my career and knowledge. Moreover, back home where I come from, an MBA from UK is
very prestigious and employers take it very serious and valuable. The UK HE is very
famous in my home country and it is very easy to find a job back home when you have
your certificate from the UK. I could also do the MBA in Brazil, but what stopped me from
doing an MBA in Brazil was the quality of education back home, it is not as good or as
famous as the UK. I selected this course because it is only 1-year course. I am only here in
the UK for 1 year and I have to go back home, my employer back home only sponsored a
one-year MBA because I can return to work quicker . I had options to study in other
countries such as the USA and Canada but the duration of the full-time MBA is only oneyear in the UK which is shorter than those countries , it is very difficult to find one-year
MBA in the USA and Canada. I always wanted to improve my English language, so this
was also a good opportunity for me…I wanted to live in an English speaking country in
order to improve my English language knowledge. The other reason was that, because I
think, the selection of MBA applicants in the UK is much more serious than other
countries. Back home where I come from, MBA students do not usually have three years
managerial work experience, but UK MBA students have at least three years managerial
work experience. The average age of UK MBA students is also higher than MBA students
in other countries such as the USA. This was a positive point for me. I also really like this
city, [the city in which Course A is offered] is really nice and this city is small and the cost
of accommodation and transportation is cheaper in comparison with large and famous
British cities. My friend also graduated from here, he gave me good feedback on this
university, this friend told me that this university has several advantages such as good
student social life, average class-sizes, great cultural and ethnic diversity and good student
accommodation.
288
You said you used OSNs during your course selection process, at what stages in your
course selection process did you use OSNs?
I made a lot of research about which kind of course I would select. It is difficult to
remember now, ha-ha, but I think it was after when I decided to do my MBA, I used OSNs
to search for different MBA courses and to find information on them. I had different
options, I did not know really which course was better, they were all very similar, and
OSNs helped me to shortlist my MBA options. As I told you earlier, one of my friends
graduated from this university, he told me for the first time about this course.
Can you please name all the OSNs that you used to obtain information about Course
A?
Well when I decide to look for [Course A] on OSNs, I looked for few OSNs . Orkut is very
famous in that part of the world in that time and of course Facebook is also very famous
now , so I had lots of friends on Orkut, so I started looking for different groups on Orkut or
any other students living in and around [the city in which Course A is offered] , so Orkut
was my first source and then I went on Facebook, honestly, Facebook was not that famous
, that popular, when I was in Brazil that time, so as soon as I went on to these OSNs the
first thing I done was looking for any group. So that is exactly how I started looking for
different groups available on OSNs. I met some people on the LinkedIn and Facebook who
did their MBA in this university. I tried to find some information on this course on the
Orkut because Facebook was still new for me in Brazil. However, I could find more
information on Facebook than the Orkut, ha-ha, I found several Facebook pages and
groups for this course.
How did you gather information using OSNs?
I mainly looked at students’ online profiles and I read some comments.
What information was available on OSNs?
Actually, Orkut did not give so much insight for me; it gave me a kind of general
appearance about the course. Facebook and LinkedIn were helpful, I could get lots of
information on the people who wanted to attend this course, I looked at their profiles on
the LinkedIn and Facebook, and I just wanted to know what countries they are coming
from and how old they are. I saw many people contacting the group admins, I think I saw
289
another person from Brazil, I saw other people from India. When I saw that there are all
the people contacting group admins, for international applicants who are outside, we are
just a little bit worried if you are going to have enough students, do you understand? So if
you see a lot of people contacting the administrator of the group or the page, it seems that
there are lot of people interested in the course and I could see if we are going to have
enough students. As soon as I decided to select this course as one of my options, I went
online to check the profiles of the people who studied here to get more information, it was
very important for me to see what kind of students study here. I looked at what was the
aging profile of the students, their working experience. I also found so many photos
uploaded by students. These photos gave me so many information about members of staff
and how friendly they are with people, I do not remember if it was Facebook or LinkedIn,
these photos gave me so much information, I also could gain an overall, understanding
about the city and the campus infrastructure. I also contacted one of the HE aspirants and
applicants, to see how was his feedback on the academic quality of the course and if he
could share with me. So I contacted this person and I asked him if he got any feedback, I
don’t remember where he was from, I think he was Indian, yes he was Indian, and I
remember that he didn’t have good feedback on the academic quality of this course, he
seemed to be not happy with the course, anyway, I thought the course is still reasonable, I
knew it isn’t a top MBA but it is still ok, ha-ha. I had better insights when I talked to
students, when I asked them more details about the course, because I was very worried if
the course was good and if it has a good academic quality. Let me also tell you this, I was
very worried about the course structure, and I wanted to know if it was very theoretic, or if
it was practical. Therefore, I contacted students to ask these questions, I was feeling more
confident when I spoke to some of the students.
In your view, what is the information that is needed most during the course selection
process that international HE aspirants and applicants search for on OSNs?
I was wishing to find more information on the student visa. I had several problems with the
visa application, the immigration rules were changing fast and I was very confused, it was
very hard to fill the application form, it was complicated for me. I think that would be good
if [University A] could provide some information on the student visa on OSNs and how
students can apply for the visa; other students can also share their experiences about visa
process. I was also facing many problems to find accommodation in [the city in which
290
Course A is offered], university didn’t help me so much. To be honest the University was
helpful in giving us information only about student accommodation but they could have
assisted us more in finding private accommodation. Finding accommodation wasn’t only
my problem, before the course starts some students found it difficult to find
accommodation, that would be great if [University A] could have more information on the
student accommodation on OSNs, this could really help students to speak to each other and
help each other in finding accommodation. Some mature students really do not like to live
in the student accommodation, if the university had linked up with a few agencies or
people like that that would be much easier for us to find a place.
What are the benefits of using OSNs in comparison with other sources?
When I looked at the Facebook I remember there was not only one page, there were other
pages, it seemed to be for the students from previous years, then I saw some of the pages
didn’t have so much things there, it was not so busy. There was nobody writing, it was a
little bit, how can I say, old! You know…I was not sure about this course, and then I saw
one page that the owner was one of the previous students, there was many members, many
members there. I just realized oh! Maybe this MBA is good there are many people there, I
can try to contact some of these people, asking information about this course, I became
very happy, and then I remember that it was very busy, many people posted comments and
this course is good and this place is good. I then told to myself I can try to contact some of
these people, asking information about the course, because one thing is for you to get
information from university, another thing is to get information from students, the clients,
they can give better feedback because people who work in the university they want to sell
the course to you. And then I remember that I tried to contact someone from my country,
because when you contact somebody from your country you feel more comfortable, and
then I remember that I was looking the name of the people in the group, there were many
different names, with the name you can see if the person is from your country or no, and I
remember I contacted a person with a very South American name, her name was Nair
Carminhato , Nair Carminhato is a very popular South American name. I just wanted to
contact somebody that is neutral, and somebody that is from my country, because when
you contact somebody you want somebody to be honest with you , you really want to have
a real feedback , you want to know the truth.
291
Other advantages because through Facebook you interact with people, what kind of
interaction I am going to have with the Financial Times or other official sources. I can only
read a table statistics on the Financial Times. Ok, let me put it this way, Facebook allowed
me to contact other people, if I am in touch with other people ex-students I can interact
more. Also, I can personalize more through Facebook, let me put it this way, I can get
more insights, I can get the information that I want, I can make specific questions for
people, if I look at the table in Financial Times I can get some insights, but maybe, this
table isn’t going to answer all my questions. For example, I want to know if this course
going to teach specifically leadership, maybe I cannot have this answer in Financial Times
because it is very, how I can say, it is very superficial. They just give some data that is not
beneficial for you, some numbers some figures, but through Facebook I can explore more,
I can personalize my questions.
What are the downsides of using OSNs in comparison with other sources?
The disadvantage is that, you have to be careful who you are talking to, for example if you
are talking with, let’s suppose, the person who is the administrator on the LinkedIn or
Facebook…I think if it is a member of staff, you have to be a little bit carful because they
only pose things that are beneficial for the course to attract new students, it is like
advertising, so this is something you have to be very careful. You have to be careful to
analyse information on OSNs , of course everything that you find on the Internet you have
to look with two eyes. You have to see who is the person who is administrator. For me it
was difficult to distinguish between neutral messages and advertising messages, you have
to see who is the person putting the photos, promoting the course, if a member of staff put
a lot of advertising you just become a little bit suspicious, this person is selling a lot the
course! There is something behind, do you understand? You have to be careful to analyse
the information on OSNs; of course, everything that you find on the Internet you have to
look carefully. Also sometimes, the information on the Internet is not reliable. I would
recommend my friends to use different kind of sources, including OSNs, Financial Times,
and education fairs. I would say yes use OSNs, but just be very careful to analyse what
people say.
292
How influential were OSNs on your final course selection decisions in comparison
with other sources?
A lot! Because the first thing…the information I got from Website I did not get so much
information and insights. I am talking about the official university website. OSNs
influenced my final decision a lot. To be honest, I did not get so much information and
insight from university website and it was only advertising about the course. Because they
are going to say that, the course is good. The information that come from the university is
always biased because they want to sell the course, they always say that the course is the
best, I just wanted to see the other side, I wanted to talk to the people who really
experienced the course, what they think about the course. Therefore, when you contact exstudents you can have a real feedback, the feedback is closer to the reality, so I would say
Facebook really influenced my decision because I could contact ex-student. For me, OSNs
such as Facebook was only a gate to connect me to other students. Because in Facebook
you also have to look with two eyes whatever you see in the Internet you have to see with
two eyes. Nevertheless, Facebook is the gate to connect you with other people. In addition,
Facebook was very important because this course is not in the ranking table, so I could not
get so much information. Therefore, it was necessary to contact other people to get more
insights. That is why Facebook was very important. However, I would again recommend
my friends to use different sources and not only OSNs.
293
Appendix 8 Christensen and Askegaard’ (2001) semiotic framework based on
Peirce’s theory of sign
In 2001, Christensen and Askegaard published a paper in which they adopted Peirce’s
triadic model (i.e. object, representamen and interpretant) to demonstrate the advantages of
theoretical consistency and to stimulate self-reflection among scholars who use the notions
of corporate identity and corporate image. Christensen and Askegaard (2001) argue that
the “object” is the organization as it really is and the “representamen” is the corporate
identity, it is the organization’s formal profile and other representations of the organization
including rumours and unplanned publicly. The “interpretant” is the corporate image, it is
the general impression and estimation of the organization among its various audiences, or,
as the Christensen and Askegaard (2001) put it, it is the organizational reputation.
294
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