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22nd Nov 2023

Why managing digital shock needs to be part of your student support plan

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • Along with culture shock, new research highlights that international students are also subject to digital shock
  • Adjusting to new technology, and ways of using technology, during study abroad can be a hurdle for student success
  • Educators are advised to provide clear support and signposting for how technology will be used in and around the study programme

Everyone who works in international education is acquainted with the concept of cultural shock. The UK Council for International Student Affairs describes it as "the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes."

But new research from Jisc, the UK's data and technology agency for higher education, points out that students are now exposed to another type of challenge when transitioning to study abroad: digital shock.

Speaking at ICEF Digital in Berlin earlier this month, Elizabeth Newall, the senior consultant for digital transformation at Jisc, pointed out that, "The pandemic accelerated the use of digital technologies in teaching and learning. What we see now is that digital technologies are embedded throughout the student life cycle, from application all the way through to graduation."

The Jisc research begins from the perspective that it is important for institutions and schools to consider the expectations and experiences of international students to ease their transition to study abroad. Part of that is framed by students' cultural differences, which now includes their prior experience of technology.

"What we found in our literature review is that international students are also experiencing something called digital shock," said Ms Newall. "This, when you bring it together with the culture shock and the learning shocks that students encounter when they transition into [higher education abroad], were actually negatively impacting them in terms of their well-being and also their performance on course for weeks if not months after arrival."

One of the published sources that Jisc examined was the Network Readiness Index (NRI). The index effectively ranks countries in terms of "digital maturity." In 2022, for example, it ranked China 8th in terms of the readiness of people to use or adopt new technology. India was ranked 46th in that same year, and Nigeria 100th. By contrast, a major receiving destination, the United Kingdom, was ranked 19th in the 2022 NRI. One general observation arising from the NRI is that students from countries ranked 50th or below struggled the most with the transition to digital teaching and learning during the pandemic.

What do the students say?

Released on 20 November 2023, the findings from the latest phase of Jisc's continuing research into the impacts of digital shock are based on more than 2,000 responses to an online survey across 14 higher education institutions in the UK as well as a series of focus groups in which another 150 students participated. Roughly eight in ten were post-graduate students, with most coming from Asia or Africa. Most were mature students and had had some professional career experience before going abroad for post-graduate study. And most students reported using digital technology daily to support their learning in their home countries.

Some of the key findings from the student research phase include:

  • Most students felt positively about their experiences with technology-enabled learning. For example, 73% agreed that digital learning on their course was at the right level and pace for them.
  • Most also reported using AI tools to support their learning, often in relation to checking their writing style and grammar in English.
  • Challenges reported included authenticating user accounts, access to university system outside of the host country, lecturers with unfamiliar accents, and a lack of sub-titles or captions on recorded lectures.

In terms of key areas of support requested by students:

  • Many asked for "dedicated time and support at the beginning of their course to learn about the digital platforms and resources provided by the university and how different systems interact."
  • Students emphasised the importance of easy and reliable access to their learning materials, most importantly high-quality recorded lectures (preferably captioned), and user-friendly digital platforms that were simple to navigate. Ideally, they want to access such systems both from their home country as well as from within the UK.
  • Several students mentioned their desire for more training in how to use digital effectively. One telling finding from the research was that many foreign students were more used to relying on mobile data services in their home countries for Internet connectivity, as opposed to wifi. They continued to do so after arriving in the UK, even though there is free wifi available to all university students. As a result, they incurred unnecessary additional costs for data usage.

"Many international students reported experiencing digital shocks on transitioning to UK higher education," adds Ms Newall. "This was largely in terms of the expectations that were placed on [the use of technology] in teaching and learning. What they were wanting and what they were needing very much was very clear support and signposting at the beginning of their programmes as to what [technology] they were going to be using, how it was going to be used, when, and why they were using it within their programmes. Many said what would be really helpful is a one-page guide or map that said what the university was providing, what would be provided by third parties or vendors, and thirdly what they would be able to use when they transitioned to employment at the end of their programmes."

The survey also observed that part of what greater use of technology can lead to is more "learning at a distance" – that is, more independent or self-directed learning. But what the Jisc researchers clearly found is that international students expect and want more face-to-face instruction, more access to faculty, and more opportunities for group discussion and exchange with their peers.

Please see the Jisc website for the complete study findings.

For additional background, please see:

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