(Session) Exploring the benefits and challenges of student mobility: what do we know about students’ perceptions of their own and host culture of learning?

Monika Foster (School of Marketing, Tourism & Languages), Iain Macdonald and Richard Firth (School of Arts & Creative Industries)

In a Teaching Fellow funded, cross-disciplinary study involving Design and Business academics and their students, we examined the learning experiences of students (originally from China) studying in the UK and students (originally from the UK) studying in China by adopting an alternative approach: the “small-culture” approach (Holliday, 1999). We went beyond existing understandings of ‘cultures of learning’ linked to China and the UK by opening perspectives on individual experiences to move from an essentialist view, which groups students in national categories and promotes cultural othering rather than cultural understanding (Holliday, 2013), to non-essentialist belief, which values the individual experience and complexities involved in cultures of learning.

This session examines ways to ensure that international exchanges meet the educational demands of students and provide the significant learning experience that they promise. We explore the benefits of student mobility such as an evolving intercultural understanding, a key global graduate attributes (HEA, 2014), as well as the challenges involved in student mobility such as preparing students to be able to engage with and benefit fully from the new culture of learning.

In this interactive session, we will briefly present a qualitative exploration of verbal and visual data generated by different methodologies to engage the participants. We will then ask the participants to reflect on their students’ perceptions of culture of learning and how student mobility can enhance their own students’ intercultural skills.

Our sample included 9 Chinese students studying in the Business School and 9 UK students studying at one of our partner universities in China for the same period of 6 months. We interviewed all students twice – before and after their study abroad experience, using the same questions to explore their perceptions of learning, teaching, assessments, the role of peers and their own role in the process of learning. The interviews revealed students’ evolving perceptions shaped by the experience of study abroad.

Additionally, we asked the students to keep a blog or journal of reflective comments about their experiences and an interactive, visual record of their study abroad. This provided some unexpected and intriguing insights into how students’ perceive their study abroad experience, revealing new depths which we couldn’t achieve from the interviews. Altogether, the data collected from the study provides a rich insight into students evolving perceptions of their own and host cultures of learning, pointing to the benefits and the challenges of being a student in a new learning environment.

In an increasingly globalised education, with universities aiming to develop student mobility through exchange and study abroad programmes (Sweeney 2012), this study used the experiences of UK students in China and Chinese students in the UK to explore students’ evolving perceptions of own and host learning cultures. In line with the University’s International strategy to foster and enhance student mobility, we wanted to identify areas of support for students participating in such internationalised education. Using individual experiences in a ‘small culture’ approach we aimed to unpack the complexities and richness of ‘culture of learning’.

This session is strongly aligned to the large body of HEA work on internationalism and mobility, particularly the HEA Strategic Plan that aims to support universities and colleges in bringing about strategic change to enhance the student learning experience (HEA 2012-2016 Strategic Plan, 2012). Many UK universities are following with strategic plans to make themselves international and turning attention to increased student mobility, so the study is timely in that it informs the efforts to promote student mobility as a key feature of an internationalised curriculum.

The emerging results seem to point to the importance of study abroad as a key shaping experience for the students’ evolving awareness of their own culture of learning and the hosts’, hence developing an intercultural dimension to the overall study experience. This essential understanding of own and other cultures is one of the key features of a global citizen.

This research will have impact on how HE institutions prepare and develop exchange programmes which the authors hope will lead to improvement in the quality of student learning experiences for exchange students abroad and at home. The aim is to try to humanise and make accessible what in the first instance could be a daunting opportunity, particularly for any student who may be leaving home for the first time. The authors hope that this will have a positive impact on developing other or additional value systems to HE programmes, teaching methodologies and principles.

The collaboration of academics from a Business School and a Design School within the same university provided an innovative opportunity for interdisciplinary pedagogic research. The ‘small culture’ approach will open up the perspectives on individual experiences to unpack the ‘culture of learning’ in a non-essentialist view.

Theoretical underpinning
Edinburgh Napier University (2010) International Strategy 2010-2015

Edinburgh Napier University Strategy 2020 (Draft 3.01, February 2014) Unpublished
Higher Education Academy (2014) Internationalising higher education: Framework for Action (Unpublished at time of writing)

Higher Education Academy Strategic Plan 2012-2016

Holliday, A. (1999). Small cultures. Applied Linguistics. 20(2), 237-264

Holliday, A. (2013). Understanding intercultural communication: A grammar of culture. Routledge (Taylor and Francis)

Sweeney, S. (2012) Going Mobile: Internationalisation, mobility and the European Higher Education Area.

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