Decolonisation through inclusive virtual collaboration

"There is an urgency to rethink internationalisation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have to ensure that all students can participate in internationalisation and prepare them for a world in which they have to navigate unknown spaces."

This challenge was posed by Professor Corli Witthuhn, the vice-rector of research and internationalisation at the University of the Free State (UFS) in South Africa.

Dr Lavern Samuels, the director of international education and partnerships at Durban University of Technology (DUT) in South Africa and chair of the director's forum of the International Education Association of South Africa, responded: "A coalition of the committed is required, bringing new voices to the table with respect for diversity and plurality, taking interdisciplinarity to new levels, with opportunities for research."

Both Witthuhn and Samuels were engaging with central themes of South Africa's Policy Framework for the Internationalisation of Higher Education, which became effective in November 2020.

This included curriculum internationalisation which is embedded in the broader curriculum transformation process and connecting the local and the global through internationalisation.

These topics are also poised to be seminal to post COVID-19 internationalisation in South Africa and beyond.

Curriculum decolonisation

The topics came to the fore during a webinar to consider the first year of the iKudu project, which is co-funded by the Erasmus+ programme of the European Union, and the UFS coordinates it.

The project draws on collaboration between five South African universities, UFS, DUT, the University of Limpopo, (UL) Central University of Technology (CUT), and the University of Venda (UNIVEN), with five European Universities, The Hague University of Applied Sciences, the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (AUAS), the University of Antwerp, Belgium, along with the University of Siena (US), Italy and Coventry University, UK.

The three-year project, which began at the end of 2019, is focused on offering space and action-orientated curriculum practices to question how collaborative online international learning (COIL) exchange can engage learners across our South-North institutions, and beyond, in internationalised and decolonised curricula.

Curriculum decolonisation is understood as a central aspect of curriculum transformation and COIL is viewed as one way of offering a fertile space in which to promote openness to knowledge pluralisation through diverse learners interacting and sharing knowledge perspectives.

The project, which was conceptualised in anticipation of the Policy Framework for the Internationalisation of Higher Education in South Africa, aims to contribute to developing a contextualised and comprehensive practice of internationalisation, embedded in the broader context of curriculum transformation.

This requires combining COIL with internationalisation at home (IaH) practices while acknowledging the overlap of and wider internationalisation of the curriculum (IoC) strategies at the interface of decolonisation of the curriculum.

It is of note that internationalisation and IaH are both contested concepts in the South African context.

What is at the heart of addressing this multi-conceptual practice is the curriculum, a complicated concept in itself, relating to the coming together of pedagogies, practices and learning communities as an active force of human educational experiences.

The project, therefore, examines how decolonisation promotes the need to revisit curricula to redress injustices done to the colonised, while IaH and IoC use cross-cultural engagement to inform understandings and challenge assumptions in the promotion of global relations.

iKudu is thus focused on how South-North institutional review and responses are required to move beyond the rhetoric of openness, pluralism, tolerance, flexibility, and transparency towards ways in which decolonisation and internationalisation are reflected in educational practice.

Internationalisation and COVID-19

The webinar was structured to alternate between panellists from the two hemispheres in a North-South conversation. Participants reflected on the various iKudu project activities to date, and what progress has been made at each of our institutions.

Eva Haug from AUAS and Dr Lesley-Anne Cooke from DUT presented on how virtual workshops have been used to progress understanding and to discuss the current state and potential of COIL virtual exchange projects at the participating universities.

Leolyn Jackson unpacked how the development of CUT's global engagement strategy had pre-empted the South African national policy framework for internationalisation. He shared the process which resulted in an institutionalisation strategy which creates and sustains a global learning environment.

In response, Bernard Smeenk from AUAS shared how, in Amsterdam, the faculty has dealt with the COVID-19 crisis, and has managed to upscale the discussion on COIL from a discussion within one faculty into an institution-wide concern.

Focusing on the curriculum, Professor Jan Crafford from UNIVEN discussed internationalisation as a common imperative, "where multi- and interdisciplinary content needs to come together to break down silos, where the synthesis of knowledge and application can be developed, and how this might enable graduates to be better prepared for the world."

Crafford explained how access to a contextualised curriculum must be a given to enhance the quality of graduate learning for local, national and international relevant learning.

In her contribution, Tiana van der Merwe from the UFS focused on the centrality of the curriculum for higher education and emphasised that Crafford's ideas challenge higher education institutions to transform curricula.

She challenged that decolonised curricula must position South African institutions as contributors to global knowledge who share local, South African and African perspectives.

Professor Nonceba Mbambo-Kekana from UL further articulated the external and institutional macro, meso and micro drivers at play which require critical review in considering the ways in which university practices can engage in the scaling up of comprehensive internationalisation.

In response, and from a UK perspective, it was shared that, while universities are increasingly explicitly working on decolonisation through curriculum review and research, and examining the intersection of internationalisation and equality and diversity agendas, concerns regarding the economic drivers for internationalisation remain.

Connecting locally and globally

Professor Joseph Francis, from UNIVEN, considered the imperative of universities to connect the local and global, not least by embracing community engagement in ways that connect local communities with students and academics globally.

In her response, Dr Alessandra Viviani, from US, acknowledged how European universities have much to learn from SA colleagues' local engagement practices wherein academics, students and NGOs come together in action-oriented participatory learning for group problem-solving.

Further, she noted how community engagement activities that occur locally might be possible to translate in online settings, questioning the potential as well as the limits of what meaningful and purposeful COIL exchange can achieve.

Altogether, what has been highlighted, is how the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing climate crisis and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, have all reinforced the need for those engaged in curriculum development to be able to think and work beyond disciplinary, national, and sectoral borders.

The overall need is to harness the significance of, and potential of what Ronald Barnett, in a blog, calls the “interconnectivity with the world”.

Teaching and learning strategies such as COIL, that involve international, technology-enabled collaboration when meaningfully and purposefully designed, offer the potential to prepare students for the complexities of life within the context of globalisation, write Jon Rubin and Sarah Guth.

Yet, while the global pandemic has prompted massive efforts worldwide to mobilise teaching and learning online for academic continuity, it is clear that such practices are not unproblematic in terms of access and quality.

Following from the higher education discourse, comprehensive internationalisation will require considered investment in education that engages with the most pressing questions facing our communities, societies and global challenges, engaging multiple voices and disciplinary perspectives.

This will necessitate a continued process of the university itself, always being in a state of 'becoming', according to Barnett.

Drawing on the 2020 article by Alfredo Moscardini, Rebecca Strachan and Tetyana Vlasova, what has been shown to date is how the iKudu project partners are engaging in dialogue in a continued attempt to show a willingness to be open, to engage in collaborative peer work to replace hierarchical models, and to share knowledge with less territorial approaches, adopting a more holistic and interdisciplinary lens.

iKudu colleagues are not assuming that COIL exchange can be a quick-fix, one-size-fits all solution. What will be required in the second year, 2021, is a continued critical questioning of what curriculum transformation means, not least in reviewing diversity and inclusion agendas, and in challenging mindsets that serve to create further divides and hierarchies.

Katherine Wimpenny is a professor of research in global education and theme lead for global learning: education without boundaries, in the Research Centre for Global Learning at Coventry University in England. Cornelius Hagenmeier is director of the Office for International Affairs at the University of the Free State in South Africa and serves on the board of directors of the African Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation. Lynette Jacobs is an associate professor of comparative and international education and head of research: South Campus for Open Distance Learning at the University of the Free State in South Africa. Jos Beelen is professor of global learning at The Hague University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands as well as visiting professor at the Centre for Global Learning at Coventry University in England. The webinar took place in December 2020.