The Challenges of Bringing International Education Online

International Education Online

Traci Snowden and Lisa Frumkes Discuss:

The Challenges of Bringing International Education Online

Traci: What have you seen as some of the greatest challenges to internationalized learning and online environments? 

Lisa: The things that we’ve been doing for so long don’t necessarily translate well to the online environment or going from a synchronous to an asynchronous mode. In general, the canned content, or the standard content we already had only goes so far. Specifically with internationalized learning when you’re trying to help people learn something about other cultures, we need people to be able to connect with each other, there’s only so much that that canned content can do. Something that was an experiment and an ongoing project at MIT a number of years ago was called Cultura, and that really got people talking about their own cultures and their own languages for people in another culture learning that language to riff off of and being able to compare those experiences with each other. I think those kinds of interactions could be really really helpful right now to really get at what individuals know and do and need to learn. 

Traci: (Referencing Cultura) Is that program still going? 

Lisa: It’s still going, it’s there – they still have a web page. I was very hopeful 20 years ago that it was something that was going to really explode, but it looks like it’s just a few programs a year that are using it, but I think the tools that they provide are really powerful. 

Traci: Thank you for sharing that with our audience. I’d like to just explore that concept of personal human connection, because one of the questions I have for you is around best practices in the area of overcoming the challenges of synchronous vs. asynchronous learning and online learning for internationalized audiences. Are there any other best practices that you’ve seen that have worked well, maybe using aspects of the platform to kind of open up? I know in our previous webinars, we’ve asked people to participate using the chat feature or using some of the stickers or emojis like hand waving and clapping, but one of the things that has come up around that is cultural differences in body language, as an example, and what are accepted best practices there. So, what’s something that we can do to set the tone and level the playing field?

Lisa: I love what you just said about cultural differences in body language because there’s also such cultural differences in what education means and what the relationship should be between a teacher and their students or the students between each other. In an American university, this idea of this informal relationship between a teacher and their students where it’s okay, in many cases, to call the professor by their first name is I think incredibly scary, off-putting and confusing to an international student for whom that professor should be the ultimate recipient of the greatest respect, and calling them by their first name is just, kind of the worst idea ever for them. Certain learning management systems do a lot better job of delivering asynchronous learning than maybe others – how are the calendaring features working? Is it possible to break learners into smaller groups in a synchronous environment? And also just the rules that the institution has – are they counting the number of bodies in class? If so, do you have to have synchronous learning experiences just so you can take attendance even if an asynchronous approach would be better for the learning? … So, I think it’s consultative, and I think most programs have not had sufficient opportunity to really work with an expert on this, and those experts exist. I think a lot of programs just don’t know those experts exist, maybe not even know what questions to ask.  

Traci: I love that you say that, because that’s exactly what I was thinking – could we offer or create a consultative checklist for internationalized online learning? 

Lisa: It’s even challenging for the experts as well, I mean somebody might look at me and say ‘oh you’re an expert on this,’ but everything has changed so fast. I would not necessarily know that such and such a platform has just three days ago launched this particular feature that allows you to do this thing that I just told you last week that it would do, right? Just how everybody keeps up with this is really challenging. I mean, it’s great that all these new things are coming out, but because so many people are starting from ground zero, it’s even more challenging. One of my favorite phrases lately is ‘we have to give ourselves and each other grace and space.’ Not everybody knows the answers and I think it’s a collaborative thing too, to learn how to do this.

Traci: So I’m going to throw you a curveball… What is the role of experiential learning? And how can we get our learners more actively teaching themselves and each other to supplement?

Lisa: Yeah, I love that you brought that up because it’s one of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot – And I’m grateful that my own kids are bigger and they can drive their own learning, you know, I don’t have to sit with them, but again, best practices in language learning, but I think also in other fields, has really been driven towards helping the learner figure out what they want to learn and what they need to learn and let them drive the learning experience, and take the teacher’s role and put them more into that aspect of ‘I will help you when you get stuck.’ 

It’s scary for teachers because they lose a lot of control, because what if one of the kids is really interested in bees or transportation in the former Soviet Union, and they don’t know anything about that. But I think it’s an opportunity, and again, for Americans this may come a little more naturally, perhaps than maybe in some other countries where the instructor is supposed to be that authority figure who knows everything, it might be a little scarier. But make it possible for people to explore the things that they want on their own, because that is actually what we want to create – we want to create autonomous learners who, after they’re out of our educational environment, can go out and learn things on their own. That’s what being a lifelong learner is about. It is an experience that has not fit in well with our educational systems the way they are currently constructed to never waste a good crisis. This is a good time to rethink that and try to figure out how to support learners in forging their own path in learning and guiding them so they don’t get lost or go down a blind alley.

Traci: Okay Lisa, final question for you, I’m going to read you a statement that was made by one of our Apto international student users. 

I spoke with this student, they set up a meeting with me back in the spring, they’ve been an early adopter of the platform and when the pandemic hit, they were in a crisis in so many different ways. I mean psychologically, emotionally, the stress that they were under was incredible as they were immediately displaced from student housing, they saw their friends going through these types of situations, and for this particular student there were travel restrictions so they couldn’t go home even if they wanted to. In addition to all of that, their entire academic experience shifted overnight as well, and so this statement was made in regard to their experience with virtual learning at their university. I would like for you to reflect on the student experience and think about what we can do to improve the student experience with or without mobility restrictions. 

The statement from the student was this: “It was really difficult for me to adjust to online learning. I really miss interaction and the feeling of a focused environment and the cues.” 

Lisa: Yeah, this is a case of ‘you can’t just take what you did in the classroom and just move it online without making those considerations,’ right? I very much appreciate that – missing the cues, because I think even those of us who aren’t necessarily learning online in this time or in these meetings and going, “I don’t know when I’m supposed to talk,” because of the lag. So there has got to be a lot more clarity, we basically have to teach ourselves and each other how to learn again and make these new rules. 

A lot of it is about the specifics of that learner and the course and how comfortable the instructor is. What one wonders about is when that student was in the classroom, they probably had time for “talk in turn” activities where they’re working in pairs or in small groups, they may have had study groups that they had outside of class and all that may have gotten blown up without any kind of particular structure to replace it. So again, it’s where the technology and the social fabric come together. And so the question is how to recreate those things in the technology – are there ways to schedule these things? Can bigger lecture classes be broken down into recitation type sections in addition to, or in lieu of some regular large classes? 

Traci: Yeah, and it’s interesting, I followed back up with this student again and one of the things that she said ended up being really helpful was doing breakout sessions. 

Something else that she mentioned and that I like to suggest, is bring the hands on the screen and make sure that you’re looking into the camera, because a lot of people have language barriers, and this is someone who is probably intermediate-high or advanced-low proficiency, so she does have a language barrier, but she’s solid. But it’s almost like it takes that proficiency level and knocks it down a notch when the learner loses body language and nonverbal cues.

Lisa: That also makes me think of what happens when we actually do come back into our classrooms and our institutions, what that’s going to look like. Because as we’ve talked about at the institution where I teach where they said ‘okay you are going to be six feet away from your student and you are going to be wearing a mask’ and I said ‘how is that a better language learning experience than having us on computers, where we’re both going to be looking at a screen?’ So okay, now we’re face-to-face, but now they can’t see my mouth moving, they can’t hear me very well because we’re six feet away from each other instead of with a microphone. I’m not trying to be difficult, but explain to me how that face-to-face experience is actually better than the computer and screen mediated experience. 

Traci: You are not the first person that I’ve heard say that. In fact, I know of some people who are already in the classroom struggling in that capacity with their international learners or even working with fellow international educators. 

Well, Lisa, we’re going to shift gears. I think you’ve got a few questions for me.

Lisa: I do, and these questions come back more to the current university experience for international students and also for anybody studying abroad. Obviously study abroad came to a screeching halt at the beginning of the pandemic. But study abroad is still happening, and so this has to do with the study abroad coordinators who are having to coordinate around the world and wanting to still provide meaningful experiences for learners even though they may not be able to get in-country in person. What are you seeing that’s working effectively to help people do that virtual student exchange and, as we were just saying, what are the knock-on effects for the future that we can continue to benefit from once we solve this for the immediate problem?

Traci: Yeah, well I can talk a little bit about what’s been shared in some of our previous webinars and kind of recap that. I can also talk about what we are seeing working with our Beta Innovation Partners or what we’re planning to test in some cases to see how effective it is. One of the first things that comes to mind from a previous webinar when we were talking about how we can make use of the cultural experiences that are right in our own backyards. Especially if there are mobility restrictions, but maybe there is hybrid learning, and so maybe we can actually take a small group field trip to a local indigenous reservation as an example. or to a local museum as they start to open back up. In many cases, there are international populations, Chambers of Commerce, community groups, there may even be meet us for various cultural groups, ethnic groups, or Heritage Awareness months… things of this nature, even local international markets and vendors. 

The second major theme that came up is around the concept of how we can facilitate more dialogues, better dialogues, and intercultural communication between international students and domestic students themselves, and again, that goes back to the backyard. Even if that is occurring in an online setting or environment right now, what are we doing to “match” someone who has an interest in culture A with someone who is from culture A, and get those conversations and dialogues and learning happening more organically. I think this goes back to the desire that all of us in international education seem to have, which is we would love to see education be internationalized at large. We would love to break out of these boxes and not just have a box called study abroad or a box called international student services, but rather that people higher-ed wide, would have some training, knowledge, understanding of what this means because the fact of the matter is, we are never going back to pre-internet isolation. 

The other interesting one is the idea of virtual exchange, and as we’ve talked about experiential learning. Let’s just imagine, for example students from Argentina are supposed to be going to Chicago, Illinois and now due to mobility restrictions, they can’t. But through the Apto platform, they can not only connect in the social learning community, but we can also create restricted content for that partnership, for that study abroad exchange, and that can be used in light of the mobility restrictions, but it could also be used once those mobility restrictions are lifted to allow them to prepare each other for the experience they’re about to enjoy in advance. 

Lisa: I think that’s a very good point about the virtual exchange because that was something that was starting to really gain traction before the pandemic. I’ve been starting to hear about it the last couple of years as I’ve gone to conferences and talking to people at universities because this comes back to the equity question, right? Not everybody had the ability before the pandemic to take that time to go abroad either on a trip or a semester or a year abroad, not everybody had the means to do that. So a lot of institutions that were looking to provide more opportunities, more equitable opportunities to include a more diverse group of people in that study abroad experience, returning to these virtual exchanges, so that’s a great place that technology can be helping us. 

Traci: And just to piggyback off of that, thank you for bringing that up because that’s always been one of my motivators. Something that I want to state really really clearly here is that I am a firm believer that nothing can replace in-person, human connection and one of my beliefs was always how can we simply leverage technology to support that real-world human connection, and equity is one of the areas that I believe we can really touch on and that’s near and dear to my heart. One other thought that I want to bring up that has come up within discussions with a potential/prospective partner is the fact that we also have to account for the fact that there are many learners now who simply want to learn online – that is their preferred method, and there’s no really going back from that either. Now what I and all of the study abroad coordinators hope is that once they get a glimpse and a taste of that, it will be the gateway drug, so to speak, into a real-world experience and that we will help them to find a way to overcome the resource gap that they need to get there.

Lisa: And also I think to get a better balance of who was going where and for what reasons. Because I think there’s kind of this thought that if you want to do English, you want to go to a major city in the United States or the UK. But what these virtual exchanges can allow you to do is to experiment and explore with other regions and then discover ‘hey, I really love hiking and going on trails and cross-country skiing,’ and it turns out that central Washington state is a great place to do that, and ‘oh, here’s a university here,’ a place people might would never have thought of going if they hadn’t gotten to do kind of a sampler and learn about all of these other places. That’s a place where I think Apto provides a lot of value, is being able to connect people not just with people in another country but in another particular region – in Nashville, in Seattle, in Austin, Texas… wherever it is, but give people that flavor so that they don’t just say ‘well I can’t go to NYU so I guess I’m not going at all,’ right? 

Traci: Right, yes. Yeah, Lisa, thanks for bringing that up too. I think that’s a really good point. The fact that people can actually upload hyperlocal content that highlights the best of what they have, I think enables Apto to become a great awareness or attraction tool for our educators. But it also puts the power back in the hands of the students to choose based on their real-world interest. 

Lisa: Something that we were touching on before that we should probably dig into a little bit more is that learning is culturally driven. We learn how to learn as children, our learning system teaches us the “right” and “wrong” ways to learn, and those differ by culture. So, how do we deal with that in the online environment? 

Traci: I’ve talked with many of our partners about this and we get a lot of questions about this because, again, it goes back to your consultative approach. One of the first things that needs to happen is if there are barriers to entry to receiving your class roster, you have to take that up with your admissions office because you have to be able to know the countries and cultures of origin of your students when you’re planning initially, and there are several factors to consider, first and foremost. 

The first is to understand, I think, the academic culture. So, this is a stereotype, but I’m going to go there for the purposes of dialoguing, but typically, what we see with our online learners is that Western learners love autonomy. They’ve been trained to interact, speaking and raising their hands and raising their voices is an expectation, and therefore extroverts win – the loudest voice in the room wins. 

As opposed to Eastern learners who have been taught to listen first, they have been taught that there is a right way to learn and that you are going to be taught by the teacher what that right way to learn is, and you are going to perform to that expectation, to deliver on that expectation. Therefore, they may be sitting there waiting even for instructions on what to do and how to do it and why to do it. They also may not recognize that it’s safe for them to raise their hand or there is an expectation for them to raise their hand. 

So, that’s one of the first things to understand and one of the ways that we encourage is that that’s actually one of the first things that gets addressed, you just say ‘hey room, meet elephant,’ you open up a dialogue about talking about that. That brings up a really great second point, which is how do you facilitate that? 

Lisa: So the intra and intercultural groups is something that we want to facilitate.  

Traci: Absolutely, thank you for specifying that, because you are absolutely correct.  

Lisa: Because there are things that those culture groups can help each other with, which could be simple, like just staying comfortable. Like ‘where do I find this particular food that we all grew up with and loved’ or ‘hey, I noticed that when the instructor says this, everybody does this thing and I don’t understand what’s going on there.’ That might be something that they would be more comfortable and more able to talk about in their country groups. So it’s really not just about making just cohorts of people, I think everybody’s going to be part of multiple cohorts and that’s in fact something that my school does for its instructors.

Traci: That’s right. And in the Apto platform, we call those ‘traveling guides’ as well. So one of the use cases that we’re seeing is that current international students from country X are creating content to help prepare incoming students from country X, and they are kind of showing them the ropes, if you will. But ultimately, they become a support system for each other too.

Lisa: Yeah, we’ve been talking a lot about the students, but thinking also about the educators who are moving their hands-on teaching online, I think schools are thinking a lot about how do we deliver our lab courses, how do we do our art classes, how do we do music together… and how do you address all those things, again as we were talking about before, not just for the students who have the means, but to make sure that the resources are being provided to those who might not be able to get at them otherwise. How do we keep the pandemic from further making these questions of equity even more acute?

Traci: Yeah, this is a challenging one. So, for any of our listeners out there, please comment on this blog and let us know your thoughts. I know one of the things that has come up in discussions, particularly with some folks that I know who are having these challenges with STEM, etc. is yeah, of course, you can plan these projects to be conducted at home, then recorded on video, uploaded for review, and then everybody comes together to discuss, like what worked well, what went wrong, what didn’t, etc. But the challenge of those resources and how do we get those materials that would ordinarily just be in one location to around the globe in some cases. I know I have one friend in international STEM who is just like pulling her hair out on this, and if she’s reading this blog she’ll know who she is. I think one thing that would be interesting and helpful is, number one, we have to have this dialogue with the powers that be at our organizations. This awareness has to exist and we have to get out ahead of it in terms of the awareness to figure out, okay what support can we get from them?

Lisa: There are students with particular needs who need to be able to get in the building sooner, so we’re seeing institutions opening up for certain classes or for certain types of students, younger students or students with learning disabilities. We may need to be thinking about that in terms of our international students as well. I think this came up earlier in the year when there was briefly that statement from the government that said if you were an international student and if you are not in in-person learning, you have to leave the country. I think there were a lot of schools that were like ‘well, we’ll figure out some way to give you some in person learning.’ But aside from the fact that that was a way to kind of get around what was looking like a very difficult requirement that might be actually a good thing to do in terms of making sure that those people, if they were in country, that they were not so isolated, is to make their lives unlivable as well as their education unlearnable. 

Traci: You’re right. I’m thinking of a young lady who I connected with at Waldorf University whose voice was just such a compassionate voice, such an agent for change. But there are a lot of interesting pieces of content that have come up where international students are roaming the halls of a university, and it looks like they are in a post-apocalyptic world. I mean, it’s crazy, they’re just completely isolated by themselves with no way of getting back home; homesick as the day is long. And so, thinking about students, that duty of care around mental and emotional health – psychological well-being is just as much a part of this conversation in this as is how we can get them their lab materials. 

Lisa: And again, existing technologies, because there’s so much that we can do in education with existing content and technologies, and to provide that connection from human to human. I’m about to say something that sounds ridiculous, but this is kind of what Tinder was developed to do, right? To find somebody near you who you could make a connection with, and here we’re more talking about making a personal connection for learning, but that is the question – what technologies are out there that we can use to continue to promote those human to human connections, especially when I think we’ve gotten so used to the idea in the last few years that technology drives people apart, technology allows people to be cruel to each other, or allows people to talk about a whole group and depersonalize them. 

Traci: Yeah, which is critical for us at Apto. We’re really working through, as a team, those governance issues as I think you are well aware. Because it’s so important to us that we create a community of belonging and that people feel safe – that they know that in the Apto platform, authenticity is actually valued. We don’t want your Insta self, we want your Apto self. We want to see the real you, we see ourselves attracting a lot of introverts as an example. There are a lot of people on the platform who have expressed ‘Apto is a place for introverts like me because I feel like I have something to say, but I don’t care about a lot of the conversations that are happening on other social platforms, I care about things like learning languages and culture, and I care about computer programming and I want to connect with computer programmers around the world, and I want to be a nurse and I want to come to America and study.’ 

Lisa: I’m not in it for the likes, I’m not in it for the reshares or the retweets. 

Traci: Exactly, exactly! I want to actually get in there and I want to actually have a real connection and I want to learn to succeed. I’m sure people are watching shows like The Social Dilemma and reading news articles, but as we’re seeing, there are unintended consequences to social learning, and I’m very concerned about those and I’m concerned about those even in the Apto platform. I think one of the key takeaways that we believe is allow authenticity, allow freedom of speech and expression, and use those things as teachable moments – come into the platform assuming the best of others, and bringing your best self with you. Some of the little inspirational units that we’re working to provide are things like ‘why does your story matter, why do the stories of others matter, how do we “listen human,” how do we “speak human,” how do we engage in a community of belonging,’ and trust that the people who are attracted to that type of community will be the same people who will kindly and respectfully let someone know when they’ve crossed a boundary with that individual, because that’s how it happens in the real world. 

Lisa: I think we covered an awful lot of ground in an awful lot of ways, so I’m eager to continue the conversation and to hear what other folks have to say as they read the blog post and come back with their own comments.

Traci: Likewise, and for anyone who reads this blog post prior to October 8th, we’re going to be having a webinar that’s going to dive even more deeply into the subject where we’re going to be bringing audience members, registrants challenges to the table as well. 


NOTE: Due to blog length restrictions, this transcript has been edited from its original and full format; to see the entire transcript in its unedited form and receive additional insights and perspectives please email

Traci Snowden

Traci Snowden

Founder & CEO
Apto Global

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