International students’ digital experiences – Challenging assumptions

International education has for some time, even before the pandemic, used digitalisation as a complementary tool to face-to-face engagements between students, service providers and researchers.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which saw universities worldwide migrate most, and in some cases all, of their courses and services to online environments, has prompted higher education thought leaders and institutions to accelerate their digital education strategies with notions of the digital campus being activated as a necessary alternative to face-to-face teaching, learning and service delivery.

Almost immediately, however, the efficacy of service delivery to domestic and international student communities was called into question. Institutions started to realise that the diverse student body was engaging with the digital environment in different ways.

Two key assumptions of practice and policy were being challenged. First, that students love digital and online engagement and would all take to online or remote education easily. And second, that there is a one-size-fits-all approach or platform when engaging with a diverse range of students.

What institutions have learned in the last year is that the diversity of students’ digital experiences needs to be recognised if higher education wants to engage successfully with new generations of students in the digital environment.

As we expect institutions to continue to build on their digital campuses, research on the digitalisation of international education needs to take on more nuances and challenge all assumptions.

As the COVID-19 pandemic played out, we were writing the recently published book Digital Experiences of International Students: Challenging assumptions and rethinking engagement.

To complement the collection in this book, we are also currently editing a ‘Digitalisation of International Education’ special issue, focusing on the associated disruptions and opportunities that challenge the sector.

Our own work and that of the contributing authors for our book reveal that students are struggling with a tremendous overload of information covering everything from study to well-being over a plethora of platforms such as learning management systems (LMS) and social media sites.

Additionally, students have been experiencing the digital space in a variety of ways and using different platforms, thus showing diversity in their behaviours and experiences.

By looking at the digital experiences of international students, the authors in our book provide both broad and nuanced understandings of the challenges faced by international students in the complex digital environments they occupy.

Through a mix of conceptual, empirical and practice-based discussions around the digital experiences of international students, authors highlight the vibrancy of the international education space. They also present opportunities for further conceptual and practical development of frameworks and ideas in this evolving space.

The authors, whose experiences with international students are across different education destinations, reveal the heterogeneity of student digital experiences. This raises some key considerations for institutions and service providers to rethink practices and to adopt diversified approaches to communicating with, and empowering, students.

The authors highlight a number of key points for continued research and innovative practice:

• The book reveals that institutions should not assume that all international students are ‘digital natives’ just because they use popular social media platforms. The experiences, skills and attitudes of international students are highly heterogenous and a one-size-fits-all approach does not account for the diversity of individual needs.

• Developing and curating online learning resources is the norm for many institutions. However, in the same way that institutions recognise the diverse needs of international students in the face-to-face classroom, they should also recognise the diverse needs of international students in the online environment. This means that putting teaching and learning resources online requires careful consideration of how students engage with online platforms, with each other and with faculty members in the digital space.

• Professional development for international educators in international student digital experiences is essential. The foci of this professional development include understanding the way students navigate learning in the digital environment; how institutions engage with alumni and support transitioning communities, including a recognition that what constitutes a community can vary between different groups of students; and the potential of social media to support transitioning.

• Beyond the classroom, the digital space is particularly important for international students’ socialisation, as well as for their soft skills and identity development and well-being.

• Finally, the digital journeys of international students do not stop when they graduate but continue even when they are alumni, with their online experiences in the host country affecting the ways in which they continue to seek information after returning home.

The authors’ research and practice observations reveal that international students as well as domestic students continue to struggle with their institutions’ digital environments and tend to revert to digital environments that they are familiar with. This means the potential for new international connections and interactions will continue to be limited if these digital experiences are not carefully designed, curated and shared with international students.

Based on these insights, we argue that the online strategies of institutions and service providers need extensive auditing to ensure that there are no further assumptions that:

1) All students will effectively find information and resources as long as they are online.

2) Students will easily flock to their institution’s digital environment, given that there are so many other options.

3) Domestic-international engagement will happen automatically online.

Therefore, we propose that institutions and service providers must attend closely to the cultural and lived experiences that impact on how students from diverse countries interact and engage in the online space.

In particular, an institution’s digital engagement has to be designed and scaffolded; faculty and staff need professional development to support their endeavours in digitalisation; and students need to be shown how and where to get information and how to engage online, recognising that there is a diversity of experiences and digital literacies.

To support this process, the book advocates the building of a more inclusive, engaging and internationalised digital environment for all students.

Catherine Gomes is associate professor in the school of media and communication at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. Shanton Chang is professor in the school of computing and information systems and associate dean (international) in the faculty of engineering and information technology at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Hilary Hughes is adjunct associate professor in the faculty of creative industries, education and social justice at Queensland University of Technology, Australia.