Is partnering with students a win-win strategy in virtual learning and mobility?

Students as Partners (SaP) practices are gaining prominence internationally as a means to achieve a more inclusive approach to higher education.

By Dr Nadine Normand-Marconnet, Dr Jeremy Breaden and Thu Do

The pandemic has accelerated the blurring of frontiers between “in-person” and “online” learning and teaching, and educators are increasingly using virtual spaces to provide students with intercultural experiences that were formerly attainable only through physical mobility.

This shift brings huge potential to accommodate a wider variety of student needs, and foster greater inclusivity in intercultural exchange.

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But to capitalise on this potential, we need to ensure students are fully on board. Research suggests students’ perceptions and experiences of online learning are highly variable.

When it comes to intercultural exchange in particular, as UNESCO has noted, we need to strike a careful balance between accessibility and inclusivity, and avoid replicating hierarchies of language and culture that keep students apart, rather than bringing them together.

The good news is that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel – there are many well-established concepts and practices to draw on.

Her, we introduce strategies developed in an ongoing action research project that mobilises the idea of “students as partners” for success in online intercultural exchange.

Engaging students as partners

Students as Partners (SaP) practices are gaining prominence internationally as a means to achieve a more inclusive approach to higher education.

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Offering a counter to the rhetoric of students as customers, SaP emphasises collaborative, reciprocal processes through which all participants have the opportunity to contribute equally, although not necessarily in the same ways, to designing and implementing the curriculum.

Ideally, partnerships should affirm the different talents, perspectives and experiences that all parties bring, with no structural or cultural barriers to participation, and benefits accruing to all those involved in the partnership. Embracing this SaP approach has the potential to transform institutional cultures, and to foster genuinely transformative learning.

Recent SaP research highlights the values that underpin partnership, which include authenticity, inclusivity, reciprocity, empowerment, trust, challenge, community, and self-authorship.

These align closely with the values fostered through intercultural exchange activities, which students increasingly experience through online platforms.

Online intercultural exchange

Since the pivot to online learning in early 2020, internationalisation through technology has become a major trend in universities. Health security issues and travel restrictions have provided institutions and individuals to push the boundaries in terms of students’ global mobility.

Educators in Australian institutions have been designing and implementing a variety of online activities to provide students with opportunities to interact with peers located in different countries.

What has long been recognised as beneficial in language teaching and learning under the label of “telecollaboration” is now widely valued across disciplines. Staff and students are experiencing the new potentials of online interaction encompassing a wide range of modalities.

According to different contexts, this component of global learning and teaching can be called virtual exchange (VE), as in the European Erasmus program, or collaborative online international learning (COIL), as it was coined in the State University of New York. In our project, we’ve adopted the blanket term “online intercultural exchange” (OIE) to encompass all such activities.

Current research shows that OIE is bringing intertwined benefits to students in their personal, academic and professional life.

One of the first outcomes is the development of intercultural competence. Collaborating with peers who have a different cultural, linguistic and disciplinary background requires participants to enhance their cultural self-awareness, and to develop understanding and respect for differences.

This learning experience is also enhancing their academic performance in terms of digital literacy, critical thinking, problem-solving, and intercultural communication. Ultimately, these interrelated and transferable skills will be invaluable for graduates entering the global workplace.

Partnerships in practice: Student perspectives

Our project aims to prepare students for online collaborative experiences with students located elsewhere in the world, and situate them within a wider learning journey.

One component of the project is the design and production of learning resources in partnership with a small group of students with diverse backgrounds and prior experience of intercultural collaboration.

We present the students with common OIE scenarios and encourage them to reinterpret the scenarios based on their own authentic experiences of OIE, in order to create resources such as podcasts and quizzes, which will in turn be accessed by other students in preparation for their own OIE experiences, as well as informing our approaches to OIE as educators. This is the SaP approach in action.

Feedback gained from our student-partners thus far resonates strongly with the SaP values mentioned earlier. For example, they recognised that the collaborative approach reflects a wider student-centred ethos underpinning learning and teaching at their institution, but also felt empowered more specifically by relationships in which they were able to take the creative lead.

“I think it was great that we had the power to do what we want to do, but [also] that we had guidance and support. They [teaching staff] were really good at giving us really cool suggestions to help us create something.”

The ownership that student-partners gained was complemented by an awareness of real-life impact.

“We’re going to make the intercultural learning experience at Monash a bit more intimate, because it also comes from students at Monash.”

Opportunities for student-partners to deploy transferable skills gained through their prior studies also enhanced the authenticity of the activity.

“Using what I had learned, and trying to bring that to this task, was a learning experience in itself. And then working with different people, it was like turning the stuff that I had learned into practice.”

Student-partners also underlined the conception of partnerships as a reciprocal, inclusive, process of dialogue. They explicitly affirmed that differences among participants, which are sometimes viewed as barriers to effective collaboration, were central to the co-creative process, hard-wiring diversity and inclusion into the project as a whole.

Advancing the OIE partnership approach

Both SaP and OIE are appealing catchphrases in today’s higher education context, especially when used in combination. But to make them both effective and sustainable in practice, we need to design projects with cyclical impact, engaging students as co-creators as well as learners, and staff as learners, as well as leaders and facilitators.

Our experience suggests we can learn just as much from students as they can from us. The mutually beneficial outcomes are clear, as one of our student-partners concluded:

“I think it’s a win-win solution for Monash and for the students. Monash got the enrichment content for learning and the students got new skills, new friends, new connections, networking and additional skills.’”

The authors acknowledge the contributions of the following OIE project team members: Louis Bravos, Iori Hamada, Shimako Iwasaki, Howard Manns, and Lola Sundin.

Contributing authors: Dr Nadine Normand-Marconnet, Senior Lecturer, Monash Intercultural Lab, School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures, and Linguistics; Dr Jeremy Breaden, Associate Professor, Japanese Studies, School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics; and Thu Do, Learning Adviser, Student Academic Success, Portfolio of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor and President (Education).

This article was first published on Monash Lens and is republished here under the Creative Commons Licence. Read the original article.