Digital Experiences of International Students: Challenging Assumptions and Rethinking Engagement

Authors: Shanton Chang (University of Melbourne) and Catherine Gomes (RMIT University)

Cite as: Chang, S. and Gomes, C. (2020). Digital Experiences of International Students: Challenging Assumptions and Rethinking Engagement, Abingdon & NY: Routledge.

ISBN: 9780367226350 / 9780367226329

Both of us have been researching the digital experiences of international students separately and collaboratively for close to 15 years. By digital experiences, we include international students’ use of digital resources for study, everyday living, including health and wellbeing, housing, finance, entertainment, and relationships (friends, family, and acquaintances). The ways international students engage with these digital resources include information seeking, communication, encounters, and even avoidance of particular sources they choose not to or are not keen to view. Moreover, over this period we have seen the digital environment change rapidly, with new and improved information and communication technology tools, and platforms that come and go despite supporting millions of users worldwide. From Friendster to Facebook, to Instagram and YouTube, from Ren Ren to Weibo, to WeChat, and Tik Tok, users have become adept at using and then migrating from one digital communication tool and platform to another. Within a few short years, the reliance on digital information and communication tools and platforms has become a ubiquitous part of everyday life where both work and play are conducted over this increasingly complex and layered digital environment.

Seeing the profound effects and affects the digital environment has on people—especially the young who in recent generations are unfamiliar with a world without digital technologies—the education sector has seized upon and harnessed the communicative, collaborative, and teaching power digital technologies offer and are yet to offer. Information about institutions, their courses, their facilities, and their services can all be found online. Higher education institutions are also combining the real with the digital in their teaching and learning pedagogies through blended learning, which sees courses being partially taught online rather than in the classroom, and assignments creatively using digital tools and platforms to communicate, collaborate, and create.

Summary | By looking at the digital experiences of international students, the authors in our book Digital Experiences of International Students: Challenging Assumptions and Rethinking Engagement provide both broad and nuanced understandings of the challenges faced by international students in the complex digital environments they occupy while presenting opportunities for further conceptual and practical development of frameworks and ideas in this evolving space. Through a mix of conceptual, empirical and practice-based discussions around the digital experiences of international students, authors highlight the vibrancy of the international education space.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic which gripped the world in the beginning of 2020 impacted the entire education sector in unprecedented ways. Higher education was no exception with institutions and service providers worldwide moving all communication, engagement, teaching and learning to the digital space. Almost immediately, the efficacy of service delivery to domestic and international student communities was called into question. Institutions started to realise that the diverse student body was engaging with the digital environment in different ways.

Students have struggled with a tremendous overload of information covering study to wellbeing. Students have had to cope with most, if not all, services and courses being delivered online. Students were consistently receiving a higher than normal volume of emails and instructions from institutions and service providers. These included digital platforms such as learning management systems (LMS) and social media sites. Inevitably this led to information being missed or ignored.

This complete and urgent migration of all services and information to the digital space in the very short span of one to two months has had an immediate implication for education stakeholders. They have begun to really understand the diversity of student needs in the digital environment. The diversity of experiences students have with the digital environment has now become the central issue in education and service delivery.

Contribution | In light of this phenomenon, this book which has been timely. The authors whose experiences with international students are across different education destinations, reveal the heterogeneity of student digital experiences. This presents some key considerations for institutions and service providers to rethink practices and to adopt diversified approaches to communicating with, and empowering students.

In summary, there are a number of key points made by authors:

  • The experiences, skills and attitudes of students are highly heterogeneous where a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach does not account for the diversity of student needs (Chang et al. [Chap 1]; Seo et al [Chap 3])
  • Developing and curating online learning resources is the norm for many institutions. However, in the same way that institutions recognize the diverse needs of international students in the face-to-face classroom, they should also recognize the diverse needs of international students in the online environment. This means that putting teaching and learning resources online requires careful consideration for how students engage with online platforms, with each other and with faculty members in the digital space (Bedenlier and Marin [Chap 5]; McPhee [Chap 6]; Nonaka and Phan [Chap 7]; and Mohamed [Chap 9])
  • Professional development for international educators in international student digital experiences is essential (Chang et al. [Chap 1]; Bedenlier and Marin [Chap 5]). The foci of this professional development include understanding the way students navigate learning in the digital environment (McPhee [Chapter 6]); how institutions engage with alumni (Binsahl et al. [Chap 4]); and transitioning communities, including a recognition that what constitutes a community can be very different for groups of students (Seo et al. [Chap 3]; Hughes [Chap 8])
  • Beyond the classroom, the digital space is particularly important for international students’ socialisation (Chang et al. [Chap 1]; Wong [Chap 2]; Nonaka [Chap 7]), as well as for their soft skills and identity development, and wellbeing (Wong [Chap 2])
  • Finally, the digital journeys of international students do not stop when they graduate but continue even when they are alumni with their online experiences in the host country affecting the ways in which returnees seek information back home (Binashl et al. [Chap 4])

This book reveals that institutions should not assume that all international students are ‘digital natives’ just because they use popular social media platforms. The assumption that they are a monolithic group of students can be problematic. Moreover, the idea that international students (being ‘digital natives’) should have the ability to navigate their way around various digital environments are challenged over and over again throughout this book. We argue that the online strategies of institutions and service providers need extensive auditing to ensure that there are no further assumptions that 1) all students will effectively find information and resources as long as they are online, 2) that students will easily flock to Universities’ digital environment, given that there are so many other options, or that 3) domestic-international engagement will happen automatically online. The authors show that international students as well as domestic students continue to struggle with the digital environment and tend to revert to environments that they are familiar with. This means the potential for new international connections and interactions will continue to be limited if these digital experiences are not carefully designed, curated and shared with international students.

In conclusion, we propose that institutions and service providers need to consider the cultural and lived experiences that impact on how students from diverse countries interact and engage in the online space.  We hope that this book will show the diversity of experiences international students have and ways forward in building a more inclusive, engaging and internationalized digital environment for all students.


Digital Experiences of International Students : Challenging Assumptions and Rethinking Engagement book cover