How are universities seeking to improve international students’ learning experience?

“Universities are having to learn very quickly about their students and their needs”

The Jisc report on international students’ digital experience was a welcome publication encompassing 18 years of research, offering a wealth of invaluable insights into policy and academic literature, as well as the views, experiences and expectations from more than 2,000 students and those that work with them. 

We know that UK higher education providers need to better support international students on their digital needs to mitigate ‘digital shocks’ on arrival to the country, and it is important that we respond. So last month Studiosity ran a webinar to pick up on the key themes from Jisc’s report as well as highlight practical supportive solutions being implemented at the University of Portsmouth, University of Lincoln and Coventry University to improve the international student experience, from admission to employability.

Here are five key takeaways from the event:

Changing the student demographic 

Institutions spoke about how they have grown their international student population, particularly at postgraduate level, but there has been a shift in international student domiciles. Lincoln, for example, reported recruiting relatively fewer students from China and many more from countries such as India, Nigeria and Pakistan.

This growth and shift in student population over the last few years has quickly brought into focus some of the initial challenges that many international students confront when they transition into a new higher education context. Academically, students from diverse educational backgrounds with different academic experiences have less familiarity or experience with the academic writing and research methods that predominate in UK higher education.

Asking students what they need

Given the above, universities are having to learn very quickly about their students and their needs, and are adapting pedagogy and processes accordingly. At Portsmouth, students have been asked (anonymously), ‘what are you worried about?’. There were nine key themes that came through from the exercise, and whilst four were directly related to teaching and learning (including assignments and referencing), five went beyond that into areas such as communication, balancing work and study, and even the weather.

So understanding some of those wider factors, which may affect engagement amidst a very fast learning curve at the start of courses around digital capabilities, is becoming part of a more holistic approach. 

Technology brings its challenges

Jisc reported that the challenges international students faced were not only in relation to access to technology, but also in terms of the expectations that UK higher education providers were placing on use in teaching and learning. Most students were really positive about their exposure to technology-enhanced learning in terms of the digital resources they had access to.

Not surprisingly, most international students said they were using AI to support their learning. For example, in relation to supporting their translation, their grammar, improving their academic English, but also to scope ideas. But they specified they absolutely were in need of clear guidance on its acceptable and effective use.

Balance of in-person and digital support

In short, both are needed. Jisc has highlighted the importance of balancing digital and in-person support for international students, and this is true for all students. Coventry has a student experience programme called Phoenix+, which brings together students to learn, experience and develop essential knowledge to help them succeed in life and work.

At Lincoln, students receive support from the University’s library writing development team and English language support is offered by its International College. They have grown both teams in size so that they can expand what they offer both in-person and online and we support them to provide additional 24/7 academic writing feedback support via Studiosity to all their PGT students, 89% of which are international students.

What next?

AI is the biggie. During the webinar, Jisc highlighted students’ extensive use of AI, but for international students it is important to acknowledge that additional language needs are driving it. There are potential implications, especially in terms of effective and appropriate use of AI in their studies.

We have developed a new ethical, AI learning technology to support all university students’ academic literacy skills – Studiosity+ provides feedback on students’ academic writing and use of critical thinking within minutes and is designed to foster learning, not just error correction. We can also expect to see more higher education institutions addressing the need to offer students formative and scalable online feedback study.

About the author:  Isabelle Bristow is Managing Director of UK and Europe at Studiosity and has over 20 years’ experience in the education sector with a strong international student focus. She previously held roles at Study Group, Cambridge Education Group and Kaplan International. 

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