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Project Information: Context and significance

In line with the objectives of the former Australian Learning and Teaching Council, the project has addressed a learning and teaching priority area of recognised importance in Australian higher education and has facilitated a national approach to its management. The project team built on prior research into study abroad and exchange in order to provide Australian campuses with curricular materials and skills-based pedagogy to enhance student experiences and learning outcomes. The team also took as a starting point the key proposition that Australian students studying abroad contribute to the process of internationalisation. The value of orientation for students prior to departure on study abroad is well-established, but the Bringing the Learning Home project team’s own research, reflection and experience led team members to believe that a teaching and learning program undertaken prior to departure, in-country (while abroad) and after re-entry (on return home) can significantly improve the quality of student educational outcomes.

The project team focused on the particular experiences of the Australian student whose exchange experience is most often undertaken in places such as Northern Europe or North America, destinations which appear to share many social, economic and cultural characteristics with Australia. To better understand the specifics of the Australian exchange experience, the team also produced a demographic and cultural profile of the Australian exchange student based on two discrete survey instruments.

The crucial intervention of the teaching materials developed through this project is to help students to: reinterpret intercultural challenges as learning opportunities; observe their own increasing intercultural skills; notice and interpret subtle cultural differences; and consolidate and generalise the lessons that they have learnt while sojourning overseas. The intention is to help students objectify these outcomes for personal, pedagogical, and professional development, and to apply critical reflective abilities to their own cultural orientations. Based on tested experiential learning principles, especially active review and reflection, the project’s design specifically makes use of experiences that already occur as intrinsic parts of all international education to generate greater self-awareness and to reinforce skills that emerge from everyday interactions overseas (Boud, Cohen and Walker 1993; Boud, Keogh and Walker 1985).

Previous Australian research has explored barriers to greater participation in study abroad, including inhibiting factors specific to Australian students (Clyne and Rizvi 1998; Daly 2002; Daly and Barker 2005). While it does identify good practice in student exchange, this work has typically focused on strategies to increase the number of students going abroad (Innovative Research Universities Australia 2008; AIM Overseas 2008). Equally desirable, however, is increasing the benefit of study abroad for those students who already participate. Although the Australian higher education sector embraces international education and recognises the contribution that out-bound student exchange can make to campus internationalisation (Universities Australia, formerly AVCC, 2007), few initiatives have previously endeavoured to directly improve the quality or deepen the impact of the experience. Internationally, study abroad and exchange has grown since the end of the Second World War, and a global desire to increase international education has led to a recent renaissance in state support for international student mobility, particularly in the United States and Europe. Australian universities, however, have traditionally focused their attention on attracting in-bound full-degree international students. Bell (2008a) pointed out that “the Australian rationale for internationalisation of higher education is economic, framing education as a commodity existing within the ethos of trade agreements”. Much of the relevant literature, as Harman noted in 2005, is still “related to the export of education services, education markets and marketing, and the characteristics and learning styles of international students, particularly those from Asian countries” (p.121). More recent studies of the internationalisation of the tertiary curriculum, such as the ALTC project Finding Common Ground (2010), have generally focused on ways of including international students on Australian campuses, though the purview of this material is growing to include internationalising the curriculum for the benefit of all students, for example, through scholars such as Betty Leask (2001, 2008, 2009).

At a policy level, Australian student mobility has generated a new interest in out-bound exchange. An Innovative Research Universities submission to the Australian Government Review of Higher Education in July 2008 referred to the ‘ongoing risk to Australia’s international reputation’ of a singular focus on ‘the financial returns from international student recruitment’ (IRUA 2008, p.33). This review drew attention to the “significant benefits derived from university internationalisation of the production of graduates with the capability to work within a global context” and advocated helping Australian students “acquire more sophisticated international skills through better opportunities to go abroad on study programs” (pp.33, 30). The Australian Government’s Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education commissioned research from the Australian Institute for Mobility Overseas (AIM Overseas) on the topic and will shortly launch a publication to promote overseas study and best practice in the industry (2012). Universities Australia has recommended that ten per cent of all Australian undergraduates study abroad, and many individual universities now give a higher profile to international exchange. However, despite recent improved uptake (AIM Overseas, 2008), participation remains well short of targets (Daly and Barker 2005).

Promoting participation in itself, however, is insufficient to achieve the desired outcome of internationalisation. Australian researchers Clyne and Woock (1998) have argued that international experiences such as student exchange contribute to the development of ‘the structure oriented world citizen and the transnational activist’, but that these outcomes will only eventuate if the process is “done well” (p.37). Research by Bell (2008a, 2008b, 2008c) similarly shows that lack of attention to support for experiential learning has led to unsatisfactory outcomes for summer study abroad students. The student’s experience needs to be embedded through reflection while overseas, and the newly-acquired learning anchored in the tertiary curriculum upon return (Gray and Downey 2005). As Clyne and Rizvi (1998, citing AIEF 1998) point out, in Australia “the link between internationalisation and the acquisition of global skills by young Australians is acknowledged to be assumed rather than proven”(p.37). They contend that:

It is easy to use student exchange as an example of internationalisation, often with the implied roll-on benefit of opening up the curriculum and pedagogy to incorporate knowledge and insights from the cultures [yet…] little research in Australian… universities has been done on key questions such as how? what? and, with what outcomes? (p.37)

The BTLH project taps directly into this vein of inquiry by delineating appropriate outcomes for the exchange experience while producing materials to support their attainment.

The experience of study abroad has been compared to rites of passage, described by van Gennep (2004, originally 1909), with the process usefully conceptualised as comprising three stages: separation, transition, and incorporation. Beames’ (2004) examination of young British students undertaking a study expedition in West Africa focused on the value of van Gennep’s paradigm, especially in terms of the incorporation stage: “Though on expeditions there may have been some focus on what people were gaining from their experience, there appeared to be little attention paid to discussing how a young person could return to be a contributor to their community” (p.35). Beames (citing Venable, 1997) drew on the notion of incorporation to increase the value to the individual of the process; similarly, the project team recognised the need to acknowledge and make use of the experience for the benefit both of the student and the community. Failure to mark the return often characterises the study abroad experience of the Australian student and thus an important opportunity to reinforce and validate global competence is lost.

Martin and Harrell (2004, p. 312) write of re-entry, “All the literature points to the need for training, but there appears to be very little formal training provided to help returning student… sojourners”. Whatever re-entry material does exist tends to focus not on educational, research, or skills-development objectives, but on psychological readjustment, self-reflection, social reintegration, and re-acculturation to daily life (see for example, Martin and Harrell 1996, 2004). The goal seems to be to return students to their pre-sojourn state rather than to incorporate experience into heightened competence and a new sense of self. While social and psychological reintegration is crucial, the achievement of educational goals for student internationalisation requires a greater concentration on cultural competence and awareness. Professional development, and incorporating international experience into the student’s tangible portfolio of assets, is another aspect of the re-entry process which has also been under-developed.

Ironically, some aspects of re-entry culture shock can be exacerbated when the host country is culturally similar to a student’s country of origin (Martin and Harrell, 2004, p.318). This is typically the case for Australian students, most of whom undertake an exchange program with partner institutions in North America, the United Kingdom or elsewhere in Europe, unlike the pattern in the United States, for example, where students are able to choose to undertake study abroad in a far wider range of national contexts. In an environment which is deceptively similar to one’s own, differences in values, behaviour, patterns of interaction, and other dimensions of life cannot be ascribed to over-arching factors like poverty or ethnicity. Further, students abroad who already feel culturally competent - knowing the host country language, for example - can be lulled into a false sense of familiarity and become disoriented when cultural differences suddenly loom large. Unlike students studying in Africa, Asia, or Latin America, who may be unable to forget that they are in an alien environment, Australians studying in North America or the United Kingdom can confront a disorienting mix of the familiar and unfamiliar. Our learning and teaching modules are designed specifically for Australian students, and engage with this experience to produce greater intercultural competence and improved communication skills for precisely these sorts of environments.

In addition, little research has been conducted into understanding the profile of the Australian exchange student. Not only is the exchange experience of Australian students unique, but so is their cultural and demographic background and this too impacts on their experience abroad.

Our project also focuses on the moment of re-entry into the Australian classroom as an opportunity for campus internationalisation. Clyne and Rizvi (1998) and Clyne and Woock (1998) both note that, despite pre-departure enthusiasm on the part of academic staff for study abroad, once students returned, “lecturers showed little or no… interest in hearing about their exchange or any inclination to make use of the exchange experience” (Clyne and Rizvi 1998, p.43). Students have experienced frustration that no avenues existed for the knowledge they acquired to be incorporated into classroom practices and believed that they were a “valuable and willing resource on course development who should be encouraged to give a presentation on comparative differences” in teaching and educational practices. At the very least, they sought “acknowledgement” (p.43).

This present project has also focused on helping students develop personal strategies to incorporate international experience into the curriculum of their home universities. This academic incorporation was deemed important for a number of reasons. Without this intervention, a rich resource to assist in the internationalisation of other students and the curriculum is lost, the students’ experiences are under-valued by their home institutions, skills gained through international experience are not recognised or reinforced, and an opportunity to disseminate information about study abroad programs among students is being neglected.

In summary, the Bringing the Learning Home project team has designed and is disseminating resources to improve the quality of Australian students’ international experiences. The project has delivered comprehensive modules of learning/teaching materials comprising skills-based experiential learning resources focusing on all phases and dimensions of the exchange trajectory. The project team has created videos demonstrating teaching strategies and video interviews with student participants in the project discussing their learning experiences, and has generated an in-depth demographic and cultural profile of the Australian exchange student, based on two different surveys of more than one hundred students, which can be regarded as a baseline for further practice in this area.