Estimated time of arrival: how online learning has redefined the international student experience.

Student working on laptop

The international student experience, much like the wider higher education landscape, shifted dramatically in 2020. International students who had arrived in their host country faced significantly limited exposure to their new surroundings under lockdown. Cultural immersion remained more elusive for international students who remained in their home country.

International students have faced unique challenges in this transition to virtual study abroad. Many of the traditional hallmarks of the international experience have been upended, changing the topography of the cultural learning and exposure. This includes a multitude of  informal learning opportunities in a host country— opening a bank account, navigating transportation systems, observing new customs, and socialising with fellow students—that are integral to the process of acculturation. Additionally, for non-native speakers, these exchanges offer invaluable testing ground for language acquisition.

The international student experience has been redefined and its individual components reconfigured. How can online pedagogy, through both formal and informal learning, respond to this reconfiguration to support language and cultural immersion?

insendi partner, Study Group, faced this challenge as COVID moved their university pathway programmes online. Traditionally, Study Group students attend pre-sessional and English foundation courses in the UK and at their intended university prior to starting their undergraduate or postgraduate studies. These programmes ensure that students are prepared to study at the appropriate English language level, but they also provide a vital gateway into a new culture.

While Study Group knew there was an existing market for online provision that would inform future programme development, the pandemic converted long-term plans into immediate and essential responses. The digital pivot has created universal challenges for educators, but teaching international students—particularly non-native speakers—remotely poses unique complications.  Magdalena Barrett, Deputy Head of Curriculum at Study Group, explains:

”Language learning is always aided by immersion. Outside of the class, [students] are still immersed in the English language environment. This was the biggest problem for us. We needed to create this immersion on the platform and have done so by ensuring there was still a rich, informal narrative.”

Recreating an online replication of ‘teacher talk’ required consideration of both synchronous and asynchronous activities to progress students’ verbal and written skills. These activities needed to be scaffolded appropriately, challenging and engaging learners whilst avoiding situations that could lead to discouragement and demotivation. Study Group knew they needed to come up with a new approach to language learning.

For asynchronous learning, text was segmented to manageable chunks and video was incorporated to create interspersed points of connection with the lecturer beyond the live classroom. Increased feedback represented further communication points between teacher and student and boosted teacher presence.

With synchronous activities, challenges for non-native speakers reflect wider challenges with online delivery. Virtual classrooms often obscure non-verbal cues that are a key component of communication as well as the bedrock of mitigation strategies for teachers. Establishing whether students were struggling with comprehension became more complicated.

“Live sessions, which are the backbone of TEFL and EAP, needed to be rethought,” says Magdalena. “Lower-level students in particular found it difficult to understand and communicate in this environment. This required us to go back to our teacher training days of planning every detail of the session.”

One strategy for maximising impact for synchronous sessions involved laying the groundwork for class participation asynchronously. Students were required to complete a speaking activity on the platform in order to attend the live session. Assessment results evidenced the success of these granular changes to delivery as students made consistent gains in listening and speaking.

Beyond these pedagogical challenges, the most difficult aspect to replicate involves the wrap-around acculturation that students experience through studying abroad. Study Group understood that although this aspect of the international experience cannot be reproduced, it can be reconceptualised. They provided a comprehensive selection of informal virtual meet-ups for students, including tutor-facilitated groups, with themes ranging from Netflix chats to cooking clubs.  

For team activities, they grouped students by time zone to combat feelings of dislocation. The unexpected consequence of the virtual delivery model was less congregation of students around nationality as would typically occur in a physical class. As student groupings became more dispersed, this in turn changed classroom dynamics.

Educational institutions continue to face obstacles in overcoming skepticism that remote delivery will not comprise the totality of student experience. This is particularly true for international students, including non-native speakers, who seek out study abroad as exposure to both the language and the culture of their intended destination.

As limits to international mobility persist, online programs will continue to represent a viable alternative. For many current international students, virtual programs are selected purely out of necessity. However, educational institutes recognise the long-term market for virtual study abroad and the potential to attract new students.

For students who cannot afford to travel to or live in their desired destination, gaining an international qualification without leaving their home country creates new opportunities. By undertaking the pre-sessional programmes remotely with the intention of attending their university course in person, students like those on Study Group’s programmes can reduce the overall costs of living overseas.

When looking at the wider international student population, uptake for  online programmes pre-dates COVID. Online professional programs appeal to older learners, who wish to obtain an overseas qualification without sacrificing their job and uprooting their family. Institutions have long recognised that this market exists and continues to grow.

Experiences like Study Group’s demonstrate that meaningful cross-cultural exchange with peers persists despite geographical spread. As capability with digital tools and virtual teaming become essential skills in the rapidly changing workplace, evidence of studying and working within an online international cohort boosts employability for graduates.

Internationalisation remains a key driver for higher education institutes and COVID has prioritised investment in virtual international delivery models. Demonstrating that these programmes can offer exposure to cultural and language immersion increases their attractiveness to a variety of international students. New delivery models will not replace the invaluable experience of traditional study abroad, but they do offer exciting new alternatives for a wider range of students and reflect the growing diversity of pedagogical models in education.

Shannon Farrell

About the author

Shannon Farrell is an Academic Engagement and Partnerships Manager at insendi. She holds MAs in English Literature and International Relations from the University of Sydney in addition to a teaching qualification. She recently completed her PG Certificate in Blended and Online Education at Edinburgh Napier University and is currently undertaking her PhD in Educational Research at Lancaster University.

She spent several years working in trade and academic publishing, fostering international partnerships before moving into further and higher education. She has experience in developing professional programmes and working with industry to support upskilling and re-skilling initiatives. As a former international student, both in France and Australia, she is interested in the way in which online learning can support international study and exchange.