Getting online can help global engagement in HE

Professor Helen O'Sullivan explains how online technology can encourage global engagement in UK higher education

Increasing the enrolment of international students is a strategic priority for many university leaders across the globe. The reasons for increasing international enrolment are complex and varied, but can be broadly summarised as follows: academics value the transformative power of education and the opportunity to share their research and development with the broadest range of people without the constraints of geography or culture. In addition, in an increasingly global workplace, students who enjoy an international experience can gain additional knowledge and skillsets, potentially making them more marketable to employers. 

Traditionally, universities have attracted international students to their home campuses or, in some cases, to campuses based overseas. Incorporating online education as a strategy for increasing the enrolment of international students can therefore be seen to have particular benefits where continued uncertainty (especially in the UK) is making planning for international student numbers difficult. A recent report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) suggests that, while factors such as the depreciation in the value of sterling will increase demand for places, uncertainty over the status of international students after Brexit and the debate over whether students should count in immigration figures will deter international students from choosing to relocate to the UK to study. 

Technology is critical to online learning, and advances in the way technology is used and applied in virtual classrooms mean that the learning environment can be as rich as a physical classroom, mirroring the virtual workplaces that many graduates will be entering. Studying online helps students to develop the capabilities they will need for living and working in a digital world. Improvements in the accessibility of collaborative technology enable students who are geographically dispersed to communicate, collaborate, problem-solve and generate ideas. 

Technology is critical to online learning, and advances in the way technology is used and applied in virtual classrooms mean that the learning environment can be as rich as a physical classroom

This is not to say, however, that the delivery of online learning is without its challenges. Indeed, to make virtual learning a success on a wider scale, there’s a need for significant strategic investment in high-quality platforms and the associated infrastructure. Teaching and supporting online students from a wide range of international backgrounds requires a sophisticated understanding of their needs and learning preferences. Although, at the University of Liverpool, the online course content and delivery methods are the same regardless of where the student is in the world, it is important to recognise that students in different geographical locations may have different motivations for pursuing education. Education has to be delivered in an inclusive way to international students, rather than just exporting a UK-centric approach. It is also important that online students have the opportunity to learn from each other through learning and assessment activities that require collaboration. This interaction means that the experience isn’t just a simple two-way transaction between the individual and a UK university, but a genuinely worthwhile and valuable experience for all students and staff involved. 

Once the model and infrastructure have been developed, it should be possible to expand the numbers and geographical range of international students relatively easily, bringing UK higher education to remote students who wouldn’t be able to access it in any other way. Online international students learn from each other’s geographical and cultural context – enriching the learning environment and ensuring that students are developing skills they will need for a globalised workplace. 

For educational institutions, expanding their online offering brings many benefits. One example is that it enables them to accumulate a global network of highly skilled ambassadors in influential positions who can continue their relationship with the university through alumni activity and further study, and by acting as mentors for existing and prospective students. Online international education also builds capacity – internally in working internationally and collaboratively, and externally through the enhanced global reputation and brand recognition that make significant contributions to an institution’s international standing. 

Helen O’Sullivan is the Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Online Learning at University of Liverpool.