Why edtech is key for engaging international students

As higher education enters the blended learning era, institutions can use technology and creativity to enrich the learning environment

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26 Jan 2022
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Embedding edtech into teaching and learning can widen participation and create a stimulating and supportive experience for international students, industry experts say.

With the Covid-19 pandemic accelerating the move to blended learning, higher education leaders say it is essential to foster an engaging online experience.

James Pitman, managing director for the UK and Europe at Study Group, a leading provider of international education, says blended models could provide a richer experience to students while widening participation in international markets.

“There are a lot of international students who – for whatever reason, whether it’s financial, cultural, whatever – just don’t want to have the full immersive experience on the campus in the UK or the US or wherever it’s going to be,” Pitman says.

“A blended online solution is far more attractive. You’re actually widening the pool of potential students very, very significantly. And I think that’s particularly pertinent in some really important developing markets, like India, which is very price sensitive. Our belief is that you can harness digital education in a blended way to make it affordable and a really good proposition for a potentially huge market, which otherwise would not be served in any other way.”

Charlotte von Essen, director of academic engagement at insendi, an educator-developed learning platform that was acquired by Study Group in 2020, says universities should focus on getting “the right technology ecosystem” to suit the needs of different student groups.

“You might have some learners that are fully online. You might have some that are studying blended programmes. You might have some that are studying on campus but want access to online resources,” von Essen says. “You have to be able to choose the right technology for the right audience and the right purpose. That’s a decision that takes a lot of care and consideration.”

As well as an interactive, “pedagogically rich” learning experience, universities have to offer international students an online platform with all the course architecture they would need, von Essen says. This should include course information, access to grades, assessment information, careers support and welfare care.

“International students are looking for a space that is commensurate with the physical space of going to university,” von Essen says. “Just as you would go to a fantastic bricks and mortar institution, you would have an equivalent digital space that you can jump into and feel that you have the same kind of architecture. It’s thinking about the online space as a rich space that people can go to.”

Simon Guy, pro vice-chancellor global and institutional lead for digital, international and sustainability at Lancaster University, says universities have realised the need to move away from the “lift and shift” model, where traditional lecturers were simply posted online.

“The old ‘talk and chalk’ approach of speaking at your audience for an hour just doesn’t work online,” he says. “We have to think about getting that content over in new ways, whether it’s short videos, quizzes, the chat function or other ways to create interaction. You have to start breaking the content up and really imagining the experience on the other side of the camera.”

Lancaster University, which works with Study Group on pathways programmes for international students, has a global focus with campuses in China, Germany, Ghana and Malaysia.

Guy says platforms such as insendi can connect students across different campuses and time zones, as well as encouraging interaction and community building through features like online student forums.

“Extending interaction beyond the classroom is absolutely key. So students feel like they aren’t just getting the content, but they can get involved in that peer-to-peer learning experience as well,” he says. “We’re not there yet, but platforms like insendi are really helping to accelerate us on that journey and starting to enrich the learning environment.”

There are also creative solutions to help international students feel part of the university community and to support the global networking component of their education.

“In online learning, we see that community, social learning and social engagement are absolutely paramount, but not necessarily easy things to achieve,” von Essen says. “Universities can’t be afraid to try new things. They should be experimenting with new ways of trying to foster and engender interaction between people.”

In addition to student forums, the insendi platform offers pair and group breakout spaces to facilitate team-based learning and nurture a sense of community.

“What we find is that relationships sometimes take longer to establish online, but when they do, they’re quite strong. And students, particularly international students, come back to their teams and their groups as a kind of almost surrogate family,” von Essen says.

“They can share ideas, feel there’s a lot of psychological safety there and engage in a meaningful way that has real impact on their learning. We really think that social learning and community-based learning is critical to success.”

Find out more about insendi, a Study Group Company.

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