Creativity, cooperation can overcome obstacles to international education

Global university networks, enhanced by technology, will offer students more flexibility over where to study, says Youmin Xi

February 12, 2021
Empty arrivals board illustrating Australia’s closed borders, international students
Source: iStock

Pandemic-induced travel restrictions. Technical challenges in providing secure, equal access to online education. Financial difficulties. Ongoing recessions. The rise of anti-globalisation. It is clear that international education faces steep challenges, and university managers could perhaps be forgiven for wondering whether it is worth all the trouble – if it remains viable at all.

But it is. Even now, the world remains inextricably linked. The internet and mobile phones reach the remotest corners of the world, multinational enterprises continue, entertainment and other cultural exports are shared, family members live abroad. Incidents like the pandemic or international conflicts may be disruptive, but they can never cut off ties among people and countries for good. In the long run, humans have a strong desire for mutual understanding and exchange of ideas.

Through international education, students learn first-hand that the contributions of different cultures to their ways of thinking can form something new and better. This experience and understanding not only opens opportunities for our graduates, but also enables them to be the world citizens who are our best hope for solving global problems.

In addition, international education is a strong tool for preparing people who can thrive in an era of constant change. Advanced technology, such as artificial intelligence, cutting-edge robotics, virtual reality and big data, will bring challenges along with advantages. By its nature, international education trains people to go beyond their comfort zones, and innovation is a natural result of multiple cultures coming together to learn and solve problems.

It is true that restrictions still impede the on-site education of international students around the globe. However, institutions like mine have already proved we can deliver education online to our students regardless of their location. Before last spring semester, in a period of three weeks, we rolled out an online platform capable of serving 6,000 to 8,000 simultaneous users, and then moved 490 courses online.

A semester of full digital instruction also proved to us that there are aspects of online education that are advantageous to students. For example, surveys showed us that being able to watch a recorded class on demand is highly valued as it makes it easier for our students, the majority of whom are Chinese, to review and take notes; all our modules are taught in English. In another example, our department of architecture found that when design reviews were held online, students benefited from the input of international experts – who would otherwise be prevented from participating by the time and money involved in travelling to China.

In the autumn semester, with 10 per cent of students still unable to physically be at our campus, we introduced HyFlex blended learning, simultaneously teaching students on-site with others online – and recording lectures for all of them to subsequently review.

The lessons learned will inform the XJTLU Learning Mall, an innovative educational platform for lifelong learners that we plan to open to the global public in May. Like customers of a shopping mall, visitors to our “storefronts” will fill their educational needs from resource providers, innovators and researchers. Such new forms of online educational delivery are flexible and will remain feasible even in the face of obstacles such as transportation restrictions.

We continue to face many unknowns, such as when international travel will be more open and how well the coronavirus can be controlled worldwide. I believe these ongoing challenges provide us with the opportunity to continue the innovation sparked by the initial outbreak. And I believe that cooperation will be a hallmark of education innovations in the years to come. Institutions of higher education will form global networks, making agreements to provide students with more flexibility in choosing where to study on the path to earning their degrees.

In a recent article in Knowable Magazine, economic historian Harold James of Princeton University said: “The Covid crisis is coming at an odd moment when there’s an enormous amount of technological change afoot…and some of it actually increases globalisation. It’s really a radical shift in what globalisation is about.”

He is right. Crises are often opportunities to foster innovation and make the impossible possible. Despite uphill battles, international education must and will advance.

Youmin Xi is executive president of Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University.

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