Improve digital experience for all by focusing on international students

“Broadly, international students have a greater variety of attitudes and a greater variance of digital skills than their UK counterparts”

International students coming to the UK are an increasingly diverse group. They arrive with a breadth of personal perceptions, cultural backgrounds and prior experiences both inside and outside formal education. These experiences impact on how well they use digital technologies to learn.

This diversity means that the digital experience of international students coming to the UK is inconsistent with all their needs.

The problems these students face can be tackled by higher education providers taking a more inclusive approach, focusing on equity and outcomes. They can create a digital experience that benefits all students, not just international students.

The Jisc team has embarked on a four-phase research project aimed at understanding the digital experience of international students studying in the UK. Our findings and initial recommendations from the first phase will be published in the middle of April 2023.

A so-so status quo

Institutions currently take a range of approaches for digital support. Some give the same experience to all students, and some offer bespoke solutions. We’ve seen clear examples of effective, thoughtful, digitally enabled learning practice across UK higher education, some designed with international student cohorts in mind.

However, in many cases consideration for international students’ digital experience is not the first concern of digital teams.

Many staff don’t appreciate that digital teaching and learning might be experienced differently by international students beyond obvious issues such as language.

The challenge for providers in the UK is providing equitable, rather than equal student experiences for international students. Equal means they have the same access whereas equitable access ensures that international students receive the support they need to achieve the same results.

Why International students have a different outlook

Broadly, international students have a greater variety of attitudes and a greater variance of digital skills than their UK counterparts. The experience of international students is also affected more profoundly by the quality of their higher education provider’s digital experience because they often start their enrolment overseas.

They also often arrive with a wide variety of sometimes unsupported software and hardware. This can hinder their adjustment to their new surroundings. The challenge of adapting to new tools and devices can have a long-term impact on their learning.

Digital inequity may also be exacerbated for international students: working space, access to wifi, prohibitive data costs or because they rely on university loaned equipment or sharing equipment with other students.

These challenges can affect a student’s wellbeing and performance, as their digital experiences colour their overall impressions of their time in the UK and their courses.

How to improve international student digital experience

By focusing on improving the digital experience of international students, providers can improve the experience of all students. Our research has revealed how institutions that are succeeding in supporting their international students are doing the following three things.

Taking a strategic view

We see success at organisations that put top-down strategic planning in place, which is translated appropriately across courses. An integrated holistic approach to strategy and delivery, combined with an equality, diversity and inclusion strategy, maximises the quality of international student experiences.

Provide resources and support for international students

Support is a key element of the digital experience. Providing resources around digital ‘basics’ such as system access can help international students acclimatise more quickly to a new digital standard.

Do the basics well

Simple practical steps can also make a positive impact on the experience of international students.

We recommend:

  • Offer digital inductions
  • Identify student peer ‘Digital Champions’ and signposting them to new students
  • Provide training that prepares students specifically for online learning and assessment
  • Introduce students to digital tools and skills by requiring them to complete staged formative assessments delivered gradually through increasingly familiar digital platforms

To create the best digital experience requires commitment from leadership, and a dedicated digital
team. Their remit should be to create equitable access for international students, ensuring they
identify distinct communities who receive tailored provision. This approach can then be used for all
students and deliver equally positive outcomes.

With top-level support, digital teams can invest time in creating the best digital experience for
international students and roll innovations out to the benefit of all.

About the author: Sarah Knight, Head of Learning and Teaching Transformation Higher Education, Jisc, will be appearing at Ahead by Bett on March 30 2023 to discuss digital transformation in higher education and the international students digital experience: