Disrupted by the COVID-19 outbreak and the restrictions on mobility, many higher education institutions around the world began utilizing online, digital platforms and tools to deliver their student programs. International student exchange is an integral part of internationalization at higher education institutions and global human resource development (MEXT, 2018; Yamamoto, 2018). The impact of study abroad experience is well established for developing intercultural skills (Jackson, 2015), perspective transformation (e.g. Kumi-Yeboah, 2014), personal and professional competencies (Dwyer, 2004) that employers value (Yokota, 2016; MEXT, 2018). However, only a small portion of students go abroad (Egron-Polak & Hudson, 2014) particularly from Japan (McCrostie, 2017; Bradford, 2017); and students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to participate in mobility programs (Universities UK, 2019; Enkhtur, 2018).
The Japanese government has promoted the internationalization of higher education and student exchange for the last three decades and universities implemented English-taught programs, recruited foreign academics and tried to make their campuses more international in order to attract international students. As a result, the national goal to increase inbound international students to 300,000 has succeeded in 2019 with 312,214 international student visa holders (JASSO, 2020). However, the Covid-19 pandemic completely stopped international travels forcing international educators to redefine what it means to internationalize higher education, including the main goals of “study abroad programs” and “international student recruitment”. In this paper, we review some of the ways in which one university adopted “virtual mobility”, “online engagement” and “online recruitment” activities and discuss opportunities and challenges of implementing programs “online”. This will help us identify which aspects of online models to keep in the future to improve our service for students and the community and how we can efficiently adapt to the new normal in post-Covid era, and offer quality education opportunities.
Online student mobility existed even before the pandemic sometimes phrased as a more inclusive form of international exchange. Erasmus+ started piloting virtual exchange in 2018 promoting virtual formats as an inclusive form of education and a greener form of mobility (Buiskool & Hudepohl, 2020). Early reports from Erasmus+ virtual mobility programs report positive outcomes in terms of building positive relations, collaborative problem-solving, increased tolerance, and intercultural sensitivity (Helm & Velden, 2019). In addition to providing international education for a large number of participants who may not afford physical travel, the virtual mobility programs could be more attractive for working adult students or those with families. Until COVID-19 pandemic, a common virtual student exchange was ICT-based collaborative learning activities such as telecollaboration or collaborative online international learning (COIL). Similarly, in Asia, online exchange models were limited to language learning (e.g. use of telecollaboration) or collaborative learning designs (Akiyama & Cunningham, 2018).
However, disrupted by restrictions in physical mobility and campus closures, universities converted some of their internationalization activities to “online” mode—in a similar trend to the teaching practices. While some initiated programs to implement through their international branch campuses, some worked with partner universities creating new “online” programs—virtual exchange, virtual internships and so on. For example, the Asia-Pacific Rim University Association (APRU) implemented “virtual student exchange” programs from August 2020. Since then, its 26 member universities put together 229 academic courses to offer to students from the other member institutions and over 1000 applicants had used these programs. In addition to the academic courses (featured courses from each university), their platform offered “co-curricular programs” covering cultural programs, leadership and career development courses and various social activities (e.g. networking events or campus tours) in order to substitute the physical student exchange learning. In what follows we introduce internationalization activities at one Japanese HEI and the opportunities and challenges in implementing these programs in “online” mode.
A case from Japanese higher education institution
We present four internationalization activities at one Japanese HEI that embraced “online” mode during Covid-19 pandemic—1) Virtual student exchange and distance learning lessons activities, 2) International student recruitment activities, 3) Activities to strengthen international partnerships, and 4) a short-term certificate program. Under the pandemic, we identified more potentials in implementing these programs by utilizing digital technologies even though there are many challenges.
In 2021, Osaka University is organizing a series of online lecture programs (virtual exchange courses) on its 90th anniversary and offering a wide variety of courses for selected partner university students. By participating in these courses for one semester, students could 1) sample and learn from Osaka University’s most prominent researchers; 2) improve debating skills through discussions, and 3) gain knowledge about solving societal issues.
The courses range from natural sciences to humanities. In addition to academic course contents, students are invited to participate in supplementary programs such as tours of labs, university campuses, or students’ discussion sessions around social issues. This is an international learning opportunity for students from OU’s partner universities to get exposed to leading professors’ courses at Osaka University. In addition, students can receive one credit for successfully completing the course.
The Center for Japanese Language and Culture and Center for Global Initiatives of Osaka University delivered a simultaneous interactive lesson “Basics of Japanese Thought and Culture Research” (relay lecture) using ZOOM for partner university students in China. According to the partner university counterparts, Chinese students were accustomed to distance learning under the pandemic of COVID-19 when they first took this course. Thus, studying online was not new. However, attending remote lessons delivered from Osaka University’s classrooms rather than teacher’s home gave them a feeling of being in the classroom (Matsuoka, 2021).
At the end of each class, the faculty members conducted a questionnaire study followed by interviews regarding their opinions towards distance learning. The participants in the study positively evaluated the technical aspects, such as easiness to access the class, using the system, equipment, audio, and connections. However, students with a lack of a stable internet environment had challenges in catching up with the course. Students also noted that visual materials such as the PowerPoint slides could be improved. In general, the study concluded that the distance learning lessons were positively received, thus the center aims to continue the program improving their classes.
2. International student recruitment activities
Before COVID-19 pandemic, international students’ recruitment was done mostly in person—going abroad to attend local fairs, visiting universities, and delivering academic lectures and information sessions. It was an effective way to interact directly with local students, build connections and deepen relationships with local faculties and staff. Although these opportunities are now limited due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we find ways to engage prospective students. Regardless of the pandemic, students are still interested in studying abroad. Thus providing them with the latest information about the university application and admissions process, education and research programs, as well as information about pandemic measurements and how it affects the usual application processes have been important.
Although we shifted to online learning out of necessity, we soon discovered opportunities to strategically conduct international recruitments by utilizing digital technologies. We could reach large number of students in diverse locations—some of which were formerly out of reach (too far to travel). Second, we could involve wider university community members—students, alumni and faculties in recruitment sessions. Third, we could engage prospective students in various ways—lectures, small group discussions, one on one consultations, live streaming, broadcasting recorded videos through social media, or even conducting live tours of research labs. In general, the international student recruitment work became more visible both outside and inside the university.
According to the results of a follow-up survey from participants, online information session was better than the face-to-face for “easiness to participate and convenience”, “not tied to an area or place,” and “good as an epidemic prevention measure.” On the other hand, students viewed that in-person meetings could help “have more interactions” with more “a sense of presence” (Zhang & Li & Enkhtur, et al. 2021). In other words, online information session has many opportunities to offer. In post-Covid era, these activities will certainly continue. However, in certain strategic countries, it would be necessary to conduct in-person recruitment to deepen relationships.
3. Activities to strengthen partnerships
In order to deepen collaboration with partner universities around the world, we aimed to create an opportunity to engage students from partner institutions and build bridge between our students. One example is an online video contest and student forum to motivate students to discuss social issues in their communities and their contribution in making solutions. The video contest theme is “3 minutes of inspiration for sustainable development” and invites inspirational short videos from students. The aim is to engage students in dialogues about social issues and their role in making a difference in their communities, societies, and the world by fostering innovative and creative thinking as well as digital skills.
At the end of the video contest, we will organize a student forum inviting all students across partner institutions to participate. It will be a good learning opportunity for our domestic students to interact with foreign students. Such student level engagement is important both from educational and institutional partnership perspective. These partnerships are important to overcome the barriers during COVID-19 pandemic that limit physical movement, and may serve to drive even greater collaboration and integration among higher education institutions globally.
4. Short-term certificate program
The International Certificate Program (ICP) program is a non-degree short-term program for students from partner universities in the ASEAN region. Students receive certificates after completing 6-8 credits—by taking online courses at their local universities followed by 60 day-short-exchange to Osaka University. Students can come to Osaka University at the beginning, during, or end of their program. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students in the first cohort might come either during the spring or summer term. The flexibility of this program suits the fast-paced COVID-19 regulations, such as national border lockdown. In case students cannot travel to Japan, they can change their plans after consulting with their professors and reschedule to travel at later semesters of their choice. The program serves as one pathway to Japanese industry and education. The students completing this program learn about Japanese-style education (e.g. labs), language and culture, and most importantly, form a connection with Osaka University professors. At the end of the program, they have more opportunities to work in Japanese companies in the region or to continue their education at graduate schools at Osaka University.
Discussion and conclusion
In this short paper, we briefly introduced some of the international engagement activities at Osaka University that actively embraced online modes during the pandemic to efficiently deliver their programs, promote internationalization, international understanding and strengthen international partnerships. If we look at the number, the online mode was very successful—1) the virtual exchange programs involve students from many parts of the world—some of whom could not have come to Osaka if the program was in-person; 2) we reached large number of students through online recruitment sessions; 3) we had a number of new initiatives that utilize digital technologies. However, online learning and virtual study abroad programs cannot replace physical learning experiences. Experiencing challenges to navigate a different culture, education and research not for hours but for days, weeks, months, and overcoming those challenges and growing can be only achieved by a lived experience in a foreign country. The virtual and physical programs are complementary—online program in the beginning or at the end of study abroad programs can orient and prepare students before their journey and help students reflect on their experiences and apply their learning once students return home.
As for international student recruitment, online mode has much opportunities to target students by regions, countries, fields of study and reach a large number of students. However, it is difficult to build relationships with university faculties and school counselors who would encourage and recommend students to pursue education abroad. Therefore, online recruitment would stay but would be difficult to replace all physical recruitment activities.
In general, international educators had to think outside the box to promote international understanding and foster global citizenships without physical movements. This has helped us think about the outcomes we want to achieve through programs. Online and virtual modes are here to stay for new creative collaborative programs and we have to find the best ways to complement our internationalization activities to achieve better results.
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Center for Global Initiatives Osaka University, Japan
Center for Global Initiatives Osaka University, Japan
Osaka Japan Image Attribution: Adobe Stock License bought by Ariunaa Enkhtur on 9 May 2021