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The real international experience of online learning

University of Liverpool's Helen O'Sullivan discusses how online learning provides a real alternative to studying in a global classroom

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | April 04, 2017 | Technology

The UK has always been one of the top study destinations for international students. Between 2015 and 2016, research suggests that the number of international students studying in the UK from the European Union (EU) rose by 2%, with students from the EU making up 6% of the overall student population.

Student numbers from the rest of the world, in particular from India and Nigeria, fell slightly due to real and perceived barriers to obtaining relevant visas. Factors affecting the numbers of students who wish to travel to the UK to study are complex, and research conducted by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) suggests a mixed picture. One factor – higher fees for EU students – potentially reduced demand. Another is the depreciation of sterling, which increased demand by reducing the price of studying in the UK for those from other countries.

During a period of uncertainty in the UK, these factors are heightened and many predict that the number of international students in the UK will decline. According to a survey by student recruitment consultancy Hobsons (carried out since the EU referendum), one third of international students are less likely to come to the UK. Survey respondents perhaps assume that a Brexit vote means we are less welcoming to international visitors even though this assumption is untrue according to a poll conducted by ComRes for Universities UK.

The combination of leaving the EU and government policy on immigration could result in a significant fall in international students coming to the UK, meaning a long-term impact on the diversity within the campus classroom. However, globalisation still remains a strong strategic agenda and having an internationally diverse mix of students in the classroom provides opportunities for experiential learning of cultures and international contexts as part of discipline-based learning. 

Online learning provides a real alternative to studying in a traditional global classroom. One of the benefits of fully online programmes is that there is no need to travel to the host institution in order to study for a recognised qualification. This is particularly attractive for mid-career professionals who may want to take a postgraduate degree as part of a programme of professional development but don’t feel that they can afford the time out of their careers to upskill and move for a year of full-time study.

The vision of a lonely scholar conscientiously ploughing through reading materials and carrying out individual assignments in isolation is outdated. Rather, technology provides benefits for students whose top priority is collaborating and networking with other international students whilst gaining a qualification

However, a perception of online study as “distance learning” persists. The vision of a lonely scholar conscientiously ploughing through reading materials and carrying out individual assignments in isolation is outdated. Rather, technology provides benefits for students whose top priority is collaborating and networking with other international students whilst gaining a qualification. 

For students who are working and studying part-time, online classrooms and online learning materials can be designed to require students to collaborate on tasks where new knowledge is constructed from the work-based experience of the participants. If the students in each classroom are from a range of countries, then this new knowledge is enriched with international insights and cultural understanding.

Collaborating in a fully online global classroom enables working professionals to learn from each other, sharing the latest thinking and best practice from their own work environments. Such interactions help to shape the learning experience, and can offer students global viewpoints on issues that affect their industries. Collaborative group work assessments can measure the development of international collaborative skills that are highly valued by employers.

For a generation of students, the online classroom mirrors the increasingly global and online-based work environment that many students will experience in their careers. For students already in their professions and careers, there is a growing proportion that routinely collaborates online across global boundaries and finds learning online comes completely naturally.

Carefully constructed and well-supported online learning can provide a high-quality and relevant international experience for students, and can ensure that global activities are at the centre of a university’s focus – no matter how uncertain the future landscape becomes.

Professor Helen O’Sullivan, Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Online Learning, University of Liverpool

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