Internationalising the curriculum – Future challenges

Much has been written about the purpose of internationalisation and what it means for universities, for students and for staff. My standpoint is that if internationalisation aims to enhance institutional and academic quality, the ultimate beneficiaries will be students and they should be at the heart of our efforts. We can do this, in part, through internationalising the curriculum.

Curriculum internationalisation is a response to the need to prepare graduates for work in the new reality of a globally interconnected world. Whether or not they plan to work overseas, today’s graduates, let alone those of the future, will be faced with increasingly international contexts and intercultural challenges as migration and a mobile workforce result in diverse, multicultural workplaces.

To prepare graduates effectively we must therefore incorporate global disciplinary perspectives into curricula and seek to develop students’ intercultural competence. It is acknowledged that the intercultural competence required to operate effectively in global contexts is equally important for increasingly diverse and multicultural local communities.

Thus the kind of diverse classrooms and learning spaces found in today’s universities are a resource that can be used purposefully to help develop the intercultural skills of all students.

Helping students to challenge their own identity, values, assumptions and stereotypes requires us to adopt an inclusive approach to curriculum and pedagogy, and to recognise and value the cultural insights that our students (and staff) can offer and that might otherwise be overlooked.

This is difficult enough in a traditional, campus-based environment, but in the rapidly evolving and dynamic world of international education, different learning contexts introduce still greater complexity. Even students who are essentially campus-based are studying in a range of modes or contexts.

Students should be seen as the main beneficiaries of internationalisation efforts in spite of an increasing trend to view internationalisation as a marker of institutional reputation or as a proxy for quality.

Firstly, they may be either full-time or part-time, possibly with some online, blended or distributed learning in addition to attendance on campus. Furthermore, students themselves may be:
  • • Studying in their home country for the whole programme.
  • • Studying in the home country with a period of work or study placement or volunteering abroad.
  • • Studying abroad for the whole programme.
  • • Following an international programme in a country different from the accrediting university (either at home or in a third country), for example, at a branch campus or through collaborative arrangements with a local institution.
Impact of online provision, challenges for internationalisation

Recent years have seen changes to the global flow of students. Although Western and English-speaking countries still predominate, countries in East and South East Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Southern Africa are progressively seen as recruiting countries.

At the same time, universities across Europe are delivering programmes in English to facilitate mobility and their numbers look set to grow. Global student mobility is becoming ever more complex and this trend is likely to continue.

However, other learning contexts are also becoming prevalent, with students following fully (or largely) online programmes:
  • • Studying fully accredited and assessed online programmes.
  • • Studying entirely online without assessment, for example MOOCs.
And finally there are those who are only looking for accreditation of learning, not following a formal programme of study at all, for instance through University of London external awards.

Each of these learning contexts brings its own challenge for curriculum internationalisation, which – while it has seen increased emphasis as the student experience takes centre stage – is not fully embedded even on home soil.

How much more difficult then to incorporate internationalisation of the curriculum into emerging forms of learning? When there is no ‘campus’ to ‘internationalise’, how can online programmes offer cultural insights or transform students’ global perspectives? When student mobility might mean travelling from one country to Vietnam to study for an Australian degree, what does ‘study abroad’ mean?

Yet distance and flexible learning programmes delivered online can be of significant advantage to students unable to attend standard programmes, as the success of the UK’s Open University attests – along with equivalent institutions around the globe.

With technological innovations, new pedagogies and approaches to learning will make the online offer more attractive, particularly for niche undergraduate programmes or more specialised courses at postgraduate level. This will provide greater flexibility for those unable to attend a campus-based programme, including those who work or have caring responsibilities.

Internationalising the online curriculum will thus bring new challenges for creative minds to address. Much has been written about MOOCs and how they will change the future of learning. They differ from other forms of online learning in potentially providing mass, free education that is largely uncertificated. It remains to be seen whether this kind of approach will prompt the demise of campus-based learning.

One key issue is whether following such programmes will become recognised by employers as an equivalent to fully certificated degree programmes.

We came a step closer to this in early December 2012, with the announcement of Coursera Career Services – only eight months after Coursera, one of the major MOOC-providing platforms, launched as a company in April 2012. The service claims to match committed students with companies and positions in line with their skills and interests.

If merely following a programme becomes valued by employers, as opposed to the requirement of evidencing achievement through assessment, then surely the face of learning may well be changed.

Internationalisation and new learning technologies

This will leave those of us interested in curriculum internationalisation with bigger dilemmas. In fact, what would internationalisation mean for a programme with students from all corners of the world, who have little or no interaction with one another or anything but a one-way relationship with the teacher?

If programmes with thousands of students worldwide are to retain the interest of their adherents, we must assume that questions of cultural bias or dominance will be addressed and that alternative perspectives on the subject at hand will be built in.

But can this be assumed? Do such programmes run the risk of reinforcing stereotypes rather than challenging them, or perpetuating Western cultural values and norms? In contrast, if they can tap into the diversity of the learner population for the benefit of all, perhaps there is the potential for some genuine intercultural learning.

The same can be said for campus-based programmes. The student benefits of international mobility or a fully-overseas education have been repeatedly reported in studies in recent years. An example of this is in respect to future employability.

Study, work or volunteering abroad has been demonstrated to enhance the transferable employability skills valued by employers. We have yet to see reported evidence of similar benefits for non-mobile students through curriculum internationalisation, even though there are many innovative approaches under way in different parts of the world.

Again, using the resources of a diverse student and staff population could be of considerable benefit for enhancing intercultural competence and the development of transferable skills.

While this is challenging enough on a domestic campus, it will be all the more difficult for offshore branch campuses or collaborative delivery with overseas partners. The students in these and future kinds of learning contexts will have enhanced expectations of an internationalised curriculum to facilitate their transition into global work environments.

One means by which pedagogy could respond to these challenges in the next 25 years is by taking advantage of technological advances, which are likely to increase rather than decrease in pace. By the end of that period, students will be communicating with one another in ways we cannot currently predict.

It will be interesting to see what technological advances in the coming years will mean for internationalisation, how changing approaches to communication will help to redefine curriculum and pedagogy, and how group work and student collaboration will be facilitated in ways we can only imagine.

I have argued that students should be seen as the main beneficiaries of internationalisation efforts in spite of an increasing trend to view internationalisation as a marker of institutional reputation or as a proxy for quality.

It will be interesting to observe whether the next 25 years will see us making the most of technological advancement and changing communication patterns to enhance the internationalisation of curricula, the student experience and learning outcomes for students. Internationalisation is a means to an end, not an end result. Students of the future will expect higher education to equip them with the tools to operate effectively in a globalised world, and international and intercultural competence will be one of those tools.

Perhaps in another 25 years this will be so ingrained in curricula and pedagogy that we will no longer need to agonise over such issues. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

* Elspeth Jones is professor emerita of the internationalisation of higher education and an international education consultant. She was previously international dean at Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK. She has published widely on comprehensive and value-driven internationalisation and is series editor of Internationalisation in Higher Education (Routledge). Her principal fields of research include transformational learning through international and intercultural experiences, the link between curriculum internationalisation and multiculturalism, and the role of internationalisation in enhancing student employability.

* This is an edited version of Elspeth Jones' article "Internationalisation and the student of the future" published in Possible Futures – The next 25 years of the internationalisation of higher education. The book was published by the European Association for International Education on the occasion of its 25th anniversary. The EAIE’s annual conference was held in Istanbul from 10-13 September 2013.