IV. Conference Proceedings
Leveraging Technology and Digital Learning:
Can We Experience Abroad Online?
The panel session explored the topic of “Leveraging technology and digital learning: can we experience abroad online?” chaired by Isabelle LeVert-Chiasson, an Education Program Officer with the Canadian Commission to UNESCO. LeVert-Chiasson mentioned the new urgency and meaning given to digital learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mass closures of schools forced institutions and instructors around the world to find ways to adapt to the online learning environment. While online learning environments may be capable of simulating several aspects of in-person learning, there are also immense limitations and challenges. Reflecting on the theme of inclusion, LeVert-Chiasson reminded the panelists that this new age of digital learning was not without its casualties, citing that school closures have left over 1.6 billion children and youth without access to education. In addition, this shift to online learning has greatly impacted traditional internationalization efforts, including physical mobility and experiential learning to foster intercultural awareness and global competencies. Building on these key concepts, panelists share their insights and experiences in digital learning, intercultural learning, and internationalization strategies.
James C. Simeon, Professor at York University, in cooperation with Vania Ramirez Camacho and Itzel Barrera De Diego from Tec de Monterrey, Mexico; and Hugo Muñoz from Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador (USFQ), presented their Globally Networked Learning (GNL) experience. This collaborative and innovative approach brought together 6 different instructors from the 3 universities, engaging at least 150 students across multiple countries in one online experience. Ramirez-Camacho said that the project was successful in sharing expectations and objectives, visualizing the ice-breaking activities for the students, and encouraging discussion and research. For Simeon, it was an opportunity for innovation and cross-cultural collaboration for both faculty and students. He noted that the experience pushed faculty to be open to innovative ideas and new ways of teaching and collaboration, whereas for students, it promoted inclusivity and students’ cultural awareness and sensitivity. Therefore, the GNL approach is a proven method by which educational institutions can engage students in a common experiential learning experience that was risk-free, practical and cost-effective due to technology. Based on survey responses shared by Muñoz and Barrera de Diego, 76% students considered that the methods of engagement used in the GNL were effective. Students enjoyed the synchronous icebreaker activities used to establish contact and exchanges with others in real-time alongside expert opinions. For a generation that lives 60% of their lives virtually, Barrera de Diego concluded that the online abroad is a good starting point to start the conversation and spark interest for other groups.in addition, she mentioned that while activities do not allow students to experience the idiosyncrasies of the culture (as it happens in person), they allow learners to interact with other cultures with less obstacles as it would happen in a physical context. Their survey results highlighted that in the future, the universities should aim to encourage more interaction among the students by including more discussion that is inspired by students’ field of study.
Della Burke, Coordinator of Campus Internationalization, ITESO, from the Jesuit University of Guadalajara, Mexico, acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the new strategy of internationalization at ITESO which builds on preexisting internationalization efforts and on increasing new initiatives that aims to provide an internationalization experience to a 100% student-body. This strategy would result in a culture shift that is purposeful, has a small carbon-footprint and it is inclusive and accessible for all students. Burke discussed three major actions that make internationalization equitable: (1) Increase Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) in which on campus and virtual training was provided for staff and internationalization liaisons were delegated from different departments to facilitate more agile interdepartmental communication; (2) Increase courses taught in English by utilizing English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI) pedagogy and overall increasing the number of courses taught in English while providing training to instructors. Burke suggested that training and guiding instructors who were interested in using English created more opportunities for collaboration virtually and in-person. By leveraging knowledge in their networks, they brought EMI pedagogy workshops in-house; and (3) Pivots during the pandemic. Burke discussed the programs impacted by the pandemic, and their transition to virtual mediums. As an example, The International Summer Research Program between ITESO and University of Toronto the program pivoted virtually, with Toronto students working on the methodology of research from their homes, while ITESO professors provided information from the field site. According to Burke, these pathways brought about a significant cultural shift; wherein international programs were expanded beyond the summer exchange programs. As a result, she demonstrated that the program has become more purposeful, produced a smaller carbon footprint, and has been more inclusive and accessible for all students. Technology and digital learning are paramount for this integration to take place. Finally, Ms. Burke recommended that participants consider how building on existing resources, while using technology and digital learning tools and methodologies, can expand a campus culture of internationalization. Additionally, best practices, adapted to campus realities, can result in a purposeful, sustainable, and equitable internationalization for all students, and ease the implementation for an internationalization strategy.
“the future is not face to face, future is not online, future is blended education, so we have to go in for the blended education” -Pankaj Mittal.
Pankaj Mittal, Secretary General from the Association of Indian Universities in India, shared her insights on four key challenges experienced by member universities in India during the global pandemic and the shift to online learning. These challenges include addressing the digital divide, building the capacity and the skills for online learning amongst educators, reinforcing experiential learning, and responding to mental health challenges. Acknowledging that inequalities amongst students would leave many without access to the tools to participate in an online environment, Mittal recommended institutions to shift their spending from physical infrastructure to digital infrastructure, thereby ensuring equal access to sufficient bandwidth and internet connection. Furthermore, in this shift to online learning, many teachers had to quickly adapt to new technologies, platforms and pedagogies to facilitate online learning. To tackle this challenge, Mittal shared how the Association of Indian Universities had to expand and update its resources to support the teachers, including the launch of various courses. They partnered with organisations to expand the scope of this training and saw success in the improvement of online teaching. Furthermore, ensuring the continuity of experiential opportunities was an important priority for the Association of Indian Universities. To this, Mittal highlighted the use of technological solutions to ensure that internships and placements continued, so that students could have the opportunity to have hands-on learning opportunities. Mittal also underlined the need to respond to the mental health and wellness challenges associated with online education and social isolation. The Association of Indian Universities opened many counselling centers to address the students’ needs and launched online cultural programs for students to remain engaged. Finally, the presentation underlined how the shift to online learning has changed the future of internationalization as a whole and that “the future is not face to face, future is not online, future is blended education, so we have to go in for the blended education”.
Mirian Vilela, Director of the Earth Charter Center on Education for Sustainable Development, University for Peace, Costa Rica, addressed the opportunities and limitations of online experience with over 10 years of experience of online learning. According to Vilela, online learning brings people from different spaces and contexts together to exchange experiences and knowledge. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, she noted that the exchange between students was routinely practiced in an in-person setting and evidently limited by geographic proximity. Unencumbered by logistical and financial costs associated with in-person meetings, Vilela demonstrated that online learning experiences have a flexibility that increases the capacity to engage larger and more diverse groups of people in intercultural dialogues. Therefore, she maintains that the online learning space can amplify the capacity to bring together people from various countries, enriching the experiences of students by introducing new approaches and perspectives to their disciplines. Vilela echoed similar challenges from the preceding panelists, including preparing faculty to shift to online teaching and addressing the digital divide. In addition to these challenges, Vilela reflected on the social and cognitive differences between learning in person and online. Online formats, for example, may require more discipline to stay focused and engaged during synchronous activities. In contrast, she stated that learning in the same space can facilitate connections and build community with more ease and less interventions than within an online learning environment. To address these challenges and improve online intercultural experiences, Vilela stressed the importance of flexibility to mitigate institutional stiffness that serves as a barrier to cross-geographical collaboration among institutions across the globe.
Discussion and Q&A
Panelists were asked by participants to further elaborate on digital learning including human connection in online spaces, factors for success, and intercultural development. Vilela spoke to the ownership and presences in online spaces, in relation to the human connection, saying that “In a physical space, you aren’t invisible. You have a sense of belonging to the process, rather than behind the scenes in a passive way.” The presenters agreed that institutional support is a necessary factor in the success of online learning, whether to facilitate partnership-building or to provide resources or overall support in the development and design of online learning experiences. Simeon also recommended that all instructors need to be open, and listen to their colleagues, in order for the program to succeed. In addressing intercultural development amongst the students, Barrera de Diego shared that using this comparative view of academic concepts gave the students the opportunity to explore the social, cultural, and political histories that contribute to intercultural learning and a deeper understanding of a global context of the course material.
From the various contexts, each panelist provided insights into new ways of supporting faculty and students, leverage digital tools, and create online learning communities. These digital communities have great potential to transcend borders and barriers to participation and encourage intercultural learning, ultimately creating a more inclusive approach to internationalization. However, the panelists recognized that digital learning has various challenges. Institutions and instructors must continue to find ways to create interpersonal connections, mitigate the digital divide and engage students. Nevertheless, lessons gleaned from this panel session demonstrated a common understanding that COVID-19 has irrevocably changed the face of education, inviting practitioners to reimagine pedagogical approaches to address the benefits and limitations of both in-person and online learning.
Reflections from the Chair and Way Forward
The pandemic has significantly altered learning systems around the world. With school closures, educational institutions had to quickly come up with distance learning solutions. This panel explored how to create inclusive online experiential learning experiences, the challenges of online learning, and the support that both educators and students need to ensure a collaborative and positive online experience.
The future of education will without a doubt include some dimensions of digital learning and technology. Yet to create student-centered learning experiences, educators cannot teach online using the same methods applied inside a classroom. Innovative and open pedagogy such as collaborative international learning experiences can allow students to address real-live global problems from their local community. With proper institutional supports, educators can learn how to best leverage technology for the benefits of students. Let’s also not forget that online learning will never replace real life learning experiences, but it may help fill some gaps.