Could ‘distance TNE’ become a growth area after COVID-19?

Transnational education (TNE), such as branch campuses and joint or dual degree programmes, has largely relied on international partnerships.

But since the COVID-19 pandemic has severely impeded international student mobility, hundreds and thousands of international students have been forced to temporarily undertake a particular type of TNE, distance education. Specifically, students participate in online courses delivered by an awarding institution and do not have a physical campus in their home country.

This mode usually does not involve a partner institution, although, in some cases, partner institutions may provide some assistance such as tutoring.

We call this type of TNE ‘distance TNE’. Scholars have argued that higher education institutions should envision TNE as a central segment of international higher education in the post-pandemic era, given that student mobility is expected to take years to recover. Our question is, does this statement hold true for distance TNE in particular?

Distance TNE cannot replace physical mobility

We gathered feedback from some first-year undergraduate international students who enrolled in the Global Direct programme at the University of Arizona in the United States. Students on this programme take asynchronous classes in their home countries at a reduced tuition cost.

To be clear, these classes were originally developed for domestic online students prior to the pandemic and have not been designed for international students.

We learned that international students were satisfied with their online learning experience overall, but at the same time most of them would still choose to study at the main campus in person if they could obtain a visa and felt the pandemic was under control in the US.

Based on our study, there are three concrete barriers to distance TNE compared to traditional international education that requires student mobility:

Time difference is a challenge. Even though the programme provides the flexibility for students to manage their studies in their own time, time differences remain a challenge because the deadlines for their assignments, their professors’ office hours and live Q&A meetings are still arranged according to the host institution’s time.

When students need an answer in a few hours, they often have to wait until the next morning to receive a response from their professor. In order to obtain more instant help, some students said they chose to sacrifice their regular sleep schedules and study during the night instead. Hence, time differences not only undermine students’ learning experiences, but also their well-being.

The social experience of university life is missing. Most Global Direct students from whom we received feedback reported that they felt isolated. Through taking asynchronous courses and limited online interaction with classmates, students have a much reduced social space in which they can get acquainted with their peers and make friends.

Many students have taken the initiative to reach out to their classmates and organise social media groups so that they can help each other out with their coursework or just chat. However, these groups do not always lead to meaningful conversations. Even if some groups are successful, they just don’t compare to in-person social settings.

One student said: “If I was on a college campus, I’d have more natural possibilities for interacting with people. Here I have to be like ‘Hi, I’m sorry to disturb you...’”

Working on-campus is on hold. For those international students who plan to be physically mobile, many envision working on campus as an essential part of their college experience and are eager to make money and become more financially independent. Also, working is a critical way for international students to socially and culturally integrate into the host institution.

However, new international students cannot engage in on-campus work until they arrive in the US. One student told us that she was determined to come to the US in spring 2021. One of the reasons was that she could potentially be working on campus over the following summer, which would be impossible if she did not come to the US until fall 2021.

Distance TNE has some benefits

Despite the disadvantages of distance TNE, we also recognise the value of this mode of education during non-crisis times. Here are some benefits:

Lower cost means wider access. One of the major advantages of distance TNE is its affordability, which allows for a wider range of international students, especially those from lower income countries, to participate in international education.

We spoke to a student who would choose the Global Direct programme even if there was not a pandemic. This student could not afford the regular international student tuition rates so she greatly appreciated the opportunity to start college at a much lower rate while she was looking for financial aid for her future studies in the US.

In addition, students who remain in their home country certainly save expenses on visa, travel and immunisations and generally have reduced living costs.

The flexibility means less crises during studies and lower dropout rates. Distance TNE can potentially free international students up from being physically present in the US and maintaining a full-time enrolment status at all times. If a family emergency happens, they do not have to discontinue their studies after returning home. If students want to take fewer courses in a semester for non-medical reasons, they can do so outside of the US.

In addition, if they need to return to their home country or go elsewhere to seek a job prior to the end of their last semester, they can finish their studies remotely.

Distance TNE can provide a safety net that reduces such potential crises and the stress resulting from immigration regulations and enhances students’ ability to continue their studies successfully.

Mobility-free international education opens up a different student market. While distance TNE is beneficial for international students who want to live in the host country, it is likely to be more popular among a different group of students who desire to enhance their academic credentials while remaining in their home country to live and work.

For these students, distance TNE programmes that offer part-time degrees, especially at the graduate level, would be appealing.

Overall, we believe that the COVID-19 crisis leads to opportunities for distance TNE to grow in the future. However, whether it can be successful depends on whether universities can take full advantage of the available technology to create learning materials and an environment that meet the needs of both physically mobile and immobile international students.

For mobile students who may only partially participate in distance TNE, universities certainly face challenges in developing more high-quality online courses and programmes across different academic disciplines while still maintaining relatively low tuition costs.

For the immobile students, universities need to make efforts to adapt the course content to different country contexts so that learning can be better applied in students’ local professional settings, and therefore, meet their career needs.

Lastly, for all international students, learning should be about much more than individual students’ engagement with course content and assessment. Universities should intentionally foster online learning communities by creating social spaces within and outside of the ‘classroom’ for meaningful professor-student and student-student interactions.

Xiaojie Li and John P Haupt are PhD students in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, United States. They also serve as graduate associates assessing the University of Arizona’s TNE initiatives.