How universities can help international students with ‘digital shock’

How universities can help international students with ‘digital shock’


Some academic studies have described the shift from one country’s cultural and educational use of digital technologies to another as a ‘digital shock’ for students, with one paper noting that this settling-in period can last for weeks if not months.

Often, digital shock coincides with cultural and learning shocks, each triggering curiosity and excitement as well as disorientation and frustration.

International students come to the United Kingdom with a huge span of cultural backgrounds, personal perceptions and differing life experiences. These differences all impact how they use technology to learn, and they need to be taken into consideration.

Jisc – the UK’s non-profit digital, data and technology agency for tertiary education, research and innovation – has launched a four-phase research project aimed at understanding the digital experience of international students studying in the country. Our findings and recommendations from phase one – a background review – will be published in mid-April 2023.

Potential pitfalls for international students

Our review identified that the digital skills and ‘technology for learning’ expectations of international students may differ from those of UK students. It is important to recognise that international students are not a homogenous group, and as such they add to the diversity of student lived experience.

This means that UK-held assumptions on digitally enabled learning may not necessarily be shared by those coming from other countries to learn in the UK.

Digitally-enabled assessment and collaborative learning are two examples of where cultural differences – and UK higher education assumptions – may create issues. Any ‘one size fits all’ approach may penalise students from other cultural backgrounds or with differing digital skills.

Plagiarism is another issue, with analysis of recent Jisc digital experience insights data suggesting that international students may feel the need for further training in that area.

International students may arrive with different or unsupported software and hardware, which can hinder their adjustment to a UK higher education teaching and learning environment. The challenge of adapting to new tools and devices can have a long-term impact on their learning, and their sense of belonging at an institution, as well as their wider lives outside of the education setting.

The technology used in the UK for keeping in touch with friends and family is often different, giving them another challenge to overcome when staying connected with friends and family back home.

Digital inequity can be intensified for international students in terms of working space, access to wifi, expensive data costs or because they depend on university-loaned equipment or even sharing with other students.

One university told us that their recent intake of international students met the financial entry requirements, but some struggled with costs in the UK and are heavily reliant on the university for equipment.

Some students feel less confident when it comes to digital learning, which can have a negative impact on their overall experience.

We have found some students feel ill-equipped in terms of their digital skills and-or their understanding of teaching when using digital learning tasks. This means they can become resistant to an unfamiliar online learning culture, or they attend streamed content without engaging.

These challenges can all affect a student’s well-being and performance, as their digital encounters affect their overall impression of their time in the UK as well as their time at university.

What are universities doing now?

The way universities offer digital support for international students varies, with some giving the same experience to all students, and some offering a more tailored approach.

We have seen strong examples of effective and thoughtful digitally enabled learning practices across UK higher education, with a few designed with international student cohorts in mind.

Some offer inductions, access to peer support, training for online learning and assessment, and-or require international students to complete assessments delivered gradually through increasingly familiar digital platforms.

In many cases, though, the international students’ digital experience is not the first concern. Many digital teams only consider language barriers when taking the international student experience into account, and don’t consider broader issues relating to cultural differences and expectations.

How to better support international students

The problems students face can be tackled by universities taking a more thoughtful and inclusive approach, focusing on providing equitable, rather than equal, student experiences. Equal means they have the same access whereas equitable access ensures international students receive the support they need to achieve the same results.

Ultimately, focusing on equitable access benefits all students, regardless of whether they are international or UK citizens.

We recommend that higher education providers:

• Take a strategic view on supporting their international students, with an integrated approach to digital strategy and delivery that works alongside an equity, diversity and inclusion strategy.

• Offer pre-sessional inductions and digital inductions.

• Identify peer student ‘digital champions’ and signpost 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.

• Support students with access to hardware and software where possible.

To create the best digital experience requires a clear commitment from leadership as well as a dedicated digital team to create equitable access for international students. This should ensure that distinct cohorts are identified and receive tailored provision.

Successful digital change does not just focus on technology: it is about people and this approach can be used for all students and can deliver equally positive outcomes for staff and the organisation.

Sarah Knight is head of learning and teaching transformation in the higher education directorate at Jisc in the United Kingdom. She will be appearing at Ahead by Bett on 30 March 2023 to discuss digital transformation in higher education and the international students’ digital experience:

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