How technology is making the move to the UK easier for international students

Technology is helping to ease the transition for international students as they relocate and begin their studies in the UK, but could institutions be doing more? Jo Ruddock finds out

The UK continues to be a popular destination for international students, with the UK Council for Student Affairs finding that almost half a million non-UK students were studying in the UK in the 2016–17 academic year. Countries as diverse as China, Nigeria, the United States and Saudi Arabia are in the top 10 non-EU sending countries, while Germany, France and Italy are most represented among the EU nations.

This popularity offers great advantages to educational institutions, but it also provides a challenge, both in terms of attracting such a diverse audience, and making them feel settled in a new country. In addition, with the 2018 International Student Survey, produced by QS Enrolment Solutions and involving more than 28,000 prospective students, citing up-to-date technology as the most important element to students when assessing a university’s teaching quality, ahead even of teaching staff, how can institutions ensure they are meeting these students’ learning technology needs?

First, it’s important to look at how technology is used across the education sector. As James Robson, SKOPE research fellow and course convenor MSc higher education at the Oxford University Department of Education, explains: “When we’re talking about technology in education it could mean at a pedagogic level, at an administrative level or at a social level.”

Recruitment and retention

The good news is that technology is helping to attract and retain students across each of these levels. Robson highlights the example of websites that detect the user’s location and reproduce the site in their home language. “In that sense, digital technologies are used in terms of marketing to international students in a much more differentiated way,” he adds.

Virtual tours of institutions are also increasing, easing the transition for international students as they arrive in their new homes. “Being able to tour the institution and the city that they’re arriving in is critical to helping students feel supported as they enter into a culture and space. The use of VR particularly, prior to arrival, is critical,” continues Robson.

“There’s also been a big increase in apps produced by institutions for newly arrived students often tailored to the international market that enable students to walk around their environment and get inducted automatically into what’s going on. That’s really important for that settling-in period.”

In terms of practical advice, however, there is more work to be done. Patricia Davies from the University of Wolverhampton and editor of The British Journal of Educational Technology, expands: “There is far too little information on university websites pertaining to the lived experiences of international students, and much of what exists is void of context. For example, seldom provided is information relating to what renting off campus might involve: having to make a deposit, pay council tax and the like.”

Looking at it from an international school perspective, Fiona Rogers, deputy CEO and director of professional development and research at COBIS, says: “Students coming from British international schools face fewer barriers when entering UK universities. Their education has been in English, they have experience of a British-style education, and they have gained recognised qualifications.” 

She does, however, note: “The demographic in British international schools has shifted in the past decade. Many of these schools cater increasingly for local children and their families, as well as the traditional expat or international families.”

Digital literacy

Once students arrive in the UK the consensus seems to be that there’s very little differentiation in how institutions expect them to use technology regardless of where they are from; however, students’ previous experience of using the kinds of technologies on offer in the UK can differ depending on their home location.

“Many of the [international] students I have dealt with tend to be less tech-savvy than their UK counterparts, mainly because they have had less exposure,” explains Davies. “But they are often willing learners. What they need are organised sessions specially designed to scaffold their learning.”

Robson gives the examples of virtual learning environments (VLEs): “There is perhaps a greater expectation of reliance on VLEs among students coming from the US and Asia, but less so from students coming from Africa and Europe.”

Davies adds: “When it comes to classes, there is a tendency to judge all students in the same way, with little consideration being given to cultural differences. In fact, I have seen cases when these cultural differences are used against international students, such as students being marked down because they kept their head down and did not look straight at the examiner.”

Again, technology can provide a solution, working to engage and communicate with international students in a way that they understand and are comfortable with. Technology to overcome language barriers and understand the expectations of university life is an obvious example here. According to Robson this is more the domain of IT departments and administrative staff, which “are much more involved in sharing translational software, assistive technology that can help with language issues, reading, that kind of background work which is really important.”

Davies, however, believes more support could be offered: “International students usually have more time to spend on their studies. Therefore, remedial training and workshops could be provided for them on weekends and summer holidays.”

Cultural relevance

When it comes to helping international students to integrate and feel comfortable in their new home, the importance of the social aspect of school and university life cannot be underestimated.

As a former international student herself, Davies has a personal take on this: “There is a need to help international students settle into their communities and, as their customers, universities should shoulder this responsibility. As an international student in the US, I was asked when I enrolled whether I would like to be associated with an American family. They provided a gentle introduction to American life: US holidays such as Thanksgiving, the best places to shop and the occasional outing – things the university did not have time to do for me. These families were usually drawn from a pool of alumni volunteers. Mine was, and I have kept in touch with them since my graduation.

While this may not be the norm at UK universities, technology is helping to create vital links between students no matter where they are from. Social media is being used to create communities, whether specific for international students or holistic communities of year groups, for example.

“That’s really important in terms of the mental health and wellbeing of international students, says Robson. “You see a lot of research highlighting that many international students aren’t comfortable with attending events focused around alcohol to meet people; technology is able to bring people together in ways that are more culturally appropriate for some students.”

It’s clear then that just as there is diversity across the student population, so there is diversity in institutions’ approach to helping international students embrace and adapt to UK life. On the whole, however, it seems that the situation is improving, and technology is playing a vital role. Looking ahead, AR and VR looks set to have a bigger role to play and AI could also have an impact. “It’s one of those things that hangs in the discursive ether, but no one has actually translated it into a really meaningful reality or practice,” according to Robson.

One thing is clear; however, institutions need their international students and so effort must be made to ensure they have a happy, productive and successful time in the UK.

Robson concludes: “A lot of profit is made from international students, so the customer’s needs have to be tailored to. Institutions do have to get better at it and they are, and they’re using technology to make it simpler, more effective and more efficient in terms of finance and manpower.”

SPONSORED: The Brexit effect

The education sector could be particularly hard hit by the UK’s impending withdrawal from the EU, and the effects are already being felt. Earlier this year, The Russell Group revealed that the number of EU students enrolling in their institutions has fallen for the first time in five years. In addition, the International Student Survey found that 14% of students from the EU say they are now less interested in studying in the UK as a result of Brexit. 

This is part of a longer-term trend, according to James Robson: “I think the UK has seen a reduction in EU students in the past five years anyway, since the rise in tuition fees. That reduction has been exacerbated this year and it’s likely to get worse.”

This could however, create an opportunity for MOOCs. Patricia Davies explains: “Some of the students enrolled in a programming MOOC I teach live in remote parts of the world. It is exciting to see that they can have similar experiences as students in Europe and the US. Also, I am certain that as UK universities need to enrol more international students to supplement their running costs, they will look to educational technologies to help complement the educational provisions being made to these students.”

Whether there is the incentive within UK institutions to provide these courses remains to be seen. 

“I don’t think there’s the financial incentive to target EU students through MOOCs and I don’t necessarily think there would be the desire from EU students unless it was robust, cheap and internationally recognised in the same way as, say, a normal  master’s course from Oxford is,” says Davies.