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Globally Networked Learning Environments in Higher Education and Reconfigurations of Internationalisation at Home

Globally Networked Learning Environments and Reconfigurations of Internationalisation at Home

This is a republished insendi article.


Higher education institutions (HEIs) are driven by competing motivations and face conflicting demands. Directed to be innovative and outward-facing, HEIs must also perpetuate the ‘ivory tower’ of traditional academia, with campus as refuge, cloistered away from the wider world (Barnett, 2013). The impact of neo-liberal educational policies, the marketisation of higher education, and the centrality of digital technology as a differentiator of quality and relevance across institutions has created an increasingly competitive environment within the HE landscape (Swinnerton et al, 2020). Compounded by this, a wave of technological determinism, amplified by the pandemic, promotes an agenda for digital transformation, without consideration of the methods of application or their rationale.


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HEIs operate in competition for places on league tables and new student markets; counterintuitively, they face growing pressure to undertake collaborative ventures and recognise the advantages of forming global partnerships. In their inception, universities transcended national boundaries yet remained beholden to the nation within which they served to educate (Barnett, 2013; Swanson, 1975). Internationalisation as success criteria within higher education is a fairly new concept, spurred by post-World War II initiatives, a corresponding focus on diplomacy, and the Cold War (deWit, 2016). Since that time, pressure has mounted for higher education to become global in its scope, even as institutions remain local in their design.

The internationalisation of higher education comes at the crossroads with education technology’s trajectory. Before the beginning of the twenty-first century, technology did not feature in international higher education initiatives, yet, since 2000, its application in internationalisation has increased (Yemini & Sagie, 2015). Despite a commitment to internationalisation at an institutional level - through, for example, satellite campuses, virtual universities, and articulation routes - considerations of what internationalisation means in practice have traditionally been determined in isolation, by academics seeking to leverage digital capabilities to shape new pedagogies (Starke-Meyerring, 2010). Globally Networked Learning Environments (GNLEs) are international collaborations constructed primarily at the grassroots level within HEIs, and operate separately to high-level discourse about the global campus (Starke-Meyerring, 2007). 

These networks take multiple forms, including co-creation and delivery of courses across globally distant institutions, often referred to as Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL), to shorter and sharper virtual exchanges which may involve thematic dialogue between geographically and culturally distant cohorts of students. These ventures meet many objectives, including fostering intercultural communication within specific disciplines to cross-disciplinary ventures to professional knowledge exchange through communities of practice (Starke-Meyerring, 2007; Wilson, 2016). GNLEs, and more particularly COILs, embrace co-creation of the curriculum, where students and educators have agency in shaping the globalisation of education at micro-level (Starke-Meyerring, 2010).


Globally Networked Learning Environments in Higher Education and Reconfigurations of Internationalisation at Home - a person holds a lit up globe in the palm of their hand


Internationalisation at Home (IaH) has become a growing component of the global university, whereby, students who are unable to participate in traditional study abroad, can participate in cultural exchange without leaving their institution (Nilsson, 2003) and virtual mobility meets key objectives for institutions with regards to inclusivity and widening participation (Villar-Onrubia, 2015). In addition, GNLEs are relatively cost-effective to run; they provide opportunities for both students and educators to work together in a transactionally different way; they support global citizenship initiatives; and they meet sustainability targets through the absence of physical travel. Successful GNLEs can act as gateways to study abroad, particularly where students feel less confident about embarking on such ventures initially (deWit, 2016).


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Within GNLEs, students undertake virtual teaming in a work-based context where they are expected to exhibit sensitivity to cultural differences, confidence in communicating at a transactional distance, and appreciation of diversity (McNair & Paretti, 2010; Sapp, 2004). When well-executed, GNLEs and COILs foster experiential learning opportunities that mirror real-world situations and generate knowledge through experience, reflection, thinking, and action (Nava-Aguirre et al, 2019). COIL-based experiential projects include cross-disciplinary as well as cross-cultural collaboration, forcing students to consider their complementary skills rather than their differences (Herrington, 2010). These technology-enabled collaborations develop vital skills that have become all the more vital in the post-pandemic shift to virtual and hybrid working.  

Despite the clear benefits of GNLEs in meeting institutional objectives, most delivery examples of GNLEs in practice have operated in isolation, at the initiative and leadership of individual educators, and without any centralised mechanism or support (Rubin & Guth, 2015). Aside from notable exceptions, including the Collaborative Online International Learning Center, housed within the State University of New York, and the pilot program by Erasmus+ in 2018 to extend the reach of student exchange through telecollaboration, very little adoption of GNLEs at macro- or meso-level has transpired. This is surprising given the prioritisation of global initiatives within higher education and the significantly reduced administrative burden virtual exchange and similar GNLEs incur when compared to more promoted transnational education initiatives, like joint degrees (Rubin & Guth, 2015). Opportunities to integrate GNLEs more widely within institutions, including both formal and informal components, could help to further internationalise the curriculum and widen access for students (Leask, 2015).


Globally Networked Learning Environments in Higher Education and Reconfigurations of Internationalisation at Home - plastic figures representing different people


The grassroots nature of COILs generates both obstacles and liberation for participating educators. Stärke & Mällinen (2021) highlight successful delivery of online international collaboration as dependent on instructors’ skillset and course design. The COIL instructor toolkit includes organisational, cultural, technological, and pedagogical elements to drive forward these logistically complex initiatives. The lack of centralised training or support in most HEIs risks throwing educators into COILs without proper resources or confidence which can, in turn, result in a failed experiment. The bulk of existing research into COILs and other GNLEs highlights their success in shaping the professional, academic and emotional development of both the students and course leaders. Bégin-Caouette et al (2015) are almost alone in their criticism of poorly executed COILs, highlighting the barriers that can exist between cohorts coordinating project work across geographic, technological and language barriers. It is useful to understand how instructors evaluate these initiatives with the objective of improving them, when compared to traditional post-course evaluation. 

Identifying and delineating the success factors for GNLEs is all the more essential as institutions consider their application more widely in the post-pandemic educational ecosystem (Guimarães & Finardi, 2021). Furthermore, as generally isolated ventures that exist beyond the confines of the university or faculty, it is important to consider whether GNLEs in their present form perpetuate marginalisation as only certain students within a particular department may experience them, at the isolation of others. In viewing COILs and GNLEs as communities of practice, they are, by their nature, exclusionary as much as they open up new channels of communication.


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As with online learning more generally, GNLEs discomfit HEIs. Covid has highlighted the ways in which online learning can enhance HEIs’ capacity and extend their reach when other constraints take hold. Even pre-pandemic, digital education’s ability to foster the coveted internationalisation of the curriculum was evident, while the relationship between education technology and higher education was not. The flexibility and agility of different online models, like GNLEs, highlight the rigidity that still exists within HEI structures. A confluence of factors, including the confines of universities themselves and the accreditation systems in which they operate, make internationalisation at scale more challenging (Marshall, 2018). 

The pandemic has intensified the tension between EdTech and higher education as online learning creates the liminality of being ‘beyond the campus.’ Online learning generates a Third Space, in which students reconceptualise themselves within and beyond the confines of academia, through the mediation of tools (Guiterrez, 2008). Originally applied in a socio-historical context, the Third Space has become associated with discussions of the liminality of the online classroom. Online learning networks ensure that standard lines of authority are diminished and GNLEs create separate lines of intersection that extend beyond the classroom, empowering students and educators who operate within these networks (Cronin, 2014). Removing geographical barriers further extends this Third Space keeping it firmly out of the reach of the domain of any one institution. This liminality impacts student and educator conceptions of their environment and requires institutions to reconceptualise their purpose. 

The global pandemic of 2020 has accentuated the fault lines within higher education. GNLEs promote internationalisation of the curriculum and support concerted efforts at globalisation within higher education, but they also expose tensions. The role of GNLEs up to this point has been isolated and seemingly separate from institutional attempts to internationalise at home. As the explosion of online learning has changed the composition of the classroom, opening institutions to a potentially global market of students, GNLEs may become a leading model for fostering intercultural collaboration or they may become superfluous as the online classroom becomes more global by design. Understanding the way in which GNLEs both challenge and support educators, students, and the global campus in the post-pandemic landscape may inform the future direction of HEIs in their attempt to internationalise.




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