Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore

Cattolica International

Meet the experts. Stephen Connelly - GlobalEd Services

Many universities across the world have had to reformat their programs and courses, converting instruction to an online delivery system. In normal times this process would have taken years. In this suddenly immobile world we are currently experiencing, does promoting an international virtual learning experience make any sense?
Students around the world pursuing international exchange, study abroad and study tour programs when the pandemic struck faced difficult decisions about whether or not to continue with their experiences, or abort and return home. For some, the decision was made for them by either governments or institutions, but even in the face of border closures many students wanted to finish what they had started and stayed where they were. Others returned home but agreed to complete online studies with their host institutions, given they had a current enrolment and no real alternate study option. Either way, whether they stayed overseas or returned home but continued to study online with their host institution, as a general rule, students were not being offered specialist or custom-designed virtual international mobility experiences as such. They were simply being offered what every student around the world was being offered in lockdown – an enforced pivot from on-campus face-to-face teaching to online teaching mode with little preparation, regardless of content, method or learning objectives. Educators had to do the best they could with little notice, so my comments are in no way a criticism of their efforts, which in the instances I have observed at universities here in Australia have been heroic. What it has done, however, is start institutions thinking about continuing international virtual learning offerings in the second half of 2020, more as a temporary or stop gap measure while the world waits for life to return to some semblance of normality. The advantage of this is the time frame universities have to prepare those virtual offerings, in contrast to the sudden flip from on-campus to online earlier this year. More time means more opportunity to incorporate meaningful content, interactions and objectives into virtual offerings, so there is scope to improve the experience for students who choose to undertake their international study virtually. Of course, international virtual learning experiences are not new. Primary and secondary schools in Australia have for many years actively engaged in international classroom collaborations, connecting with school students in other parts of the world. Research at universities has always involved collaboration across borders, and HDR students the world over engage in virtual and physical international experiences as a matter of course. And virtual internships are becoming more widely available. But international student mobility is fundamentally an undergraduate activity, and for that global cohort the virtual mobility experience appears at the margins at best. COVID-19 gives pause to consider how this might change, but are we simply replacing physical with virtual experiences, or adding to our traditional mobility offerings? In Australia, almost a quarter of domestic undergraduate students participate in an outbound learning mobility experience, improving their intercultural skills, foreign language proficiency, as well as growing personally and enhancing their employability. But 75% of Australia’s domestic undergraduate students do not participate in any kind of mobility experience. That’s the obvious target cohort for virtual mobility, if programs can offer similar outcomes for participants. Can virtual mobility become a centrepiece of internationalisation at home strategies?

What would your recommendations be to students forced to complete their degree online on how to internationalize their curriculum?
If students are forced to complete their degrees online then I assume they are already at the end of their study program. They have a semester at best in which to incorporate some aspect of internationalisation, so their options will be limited. Universities around the world are already planning for some return to normality on campus in the second half of this year (mainly northern hemisphere institutions) or the first half of next year (southern hemisphere) so online options may start to take a back seat in terms of university planning and priorities. But for the sake of the exercise, let’s consider a student with one semester left, and confirmed to be studying remotely for that semester. Some universities in Australia have already confirmed they will teach online for the rest of the year, so there are students for whom this scenario is a reality. My response could therefore be construed as advice to a student in that predicament, and reflects my opinion, based on observation only, not on robust research. I’d therefore also suggest the student get advice from more informed sources!

Depending on their subject options, anything with international content or an international comparative component should be considered, and anything that can be studied directly with a partner institution of their home university could be an option if they can earn credits. If the student has enough general electives left in their study program, they should consider a virtual internship for credit. Given the whole world is now expert in working-from-home (WFH) there’s a good chance that a virtual internship next semester would be of better quality than the same option just a few short months ago. Tools such as Slack, Zoom and Teams to name a few have enhanced WFH norms considerably, so connection with colleagues, guidance from supervisors and collaboration with team-members is much more effective and less daunting or unusual than might previously have been the case. I’d be more confident of having a positive and enriching virtual internship experience right now than I would of a virtual study or mobility experience, notwithstanding the usual issues with internships (company preparedness, project appropriateness etc.).

Finally, any student completing their studies needs to think about how they differentiate themselves in their transition to the employment market, regardless of whether they do that immediately upon graduation or take a break between studies and work. If all else fails, and if incorporating meaningful virtual internationalisation experiences into their final semester of studies is not possible, I would consider post-study experiences that extend learning from the classroom to the real world, such as volunteering, or the international internship that wasn’t possible in 2020 but might be in 2021 if travel restrictions ease. Employers value problem-solving, communication and teamwork skills in graduates. Any student who approaches the final stage of their studies in these challenging times as a problem to solve and can communicate outcomes to audiences such as potential employers will fare well in the next stage of their life, whatever that brings.

STEPHEN CONNELLY is Director of i-graduate Australia, managing that company’s activities in Australia through his independent consulting firm, GlobalEd Services, which specialises in international education. He has worked in international education for 30 years, including at La Trobe, Swinburne and RMIT universities in senior and executive roles. He studied in Germany in the 1980s and worked in Malaysia in the 1990s. Stephen was President of IEAA for four years and is Chair of the Finance Committee of the ISEP board of directors, based in Arlington, Virginia. He received the IEAA Distinguished Contribution Award at the 2016 Australian International Education Conference.