How universities can help international students with ‘digital shock’

Some academic studies have described the shift from one country’s cultural and educational use of digital technologies to another as a ‘digital shock’ for students, with one paper noting that this settling-in period can last for weeks if not months.

Often, digital shock coincides with cultural and learning shocks, each triggering curiosity and excitement as well as disorientation and frustration.

International students come to the United Kingdom with a huge span of cultural backgrounds, personal perceptions and differing life experiences. These differences all impact how they use technology to learn, and they need to be taken into consideration.

Jisc – the UK’s non-profit digital, data and technology agency for tertiary education, research and innovation – has launched a four-phase research project aimed at understanding the digital experience of international students studying in the country. Our findings and recommendations from phase one – a background review – will be published in mid-April 2023.

Potential pitfalls for international students

Our review identified that the digital skills and ‘technology for learning’ expectations of international students may differ from those of UK students. It is important to recognise that international students are not a homogenous group, and as such they add to the diversity of student lived experience.

This means that UK-held assumptions on digitally enabled learning may not necessarily be shared by those coming from other countries to learn in the UK.

Digitally-enabled assessment and collaborative learning are two examples of where cultural differences – and UK higher education assumptions – may create issues. Any ‘one size fits all’ approach may penalise students from other cultural backgrounds or with differing digital skills.

Plagiarism is another issue, with analysis of recent Jisc digital experience insights data suggesting that international students may feel the need for further training in that area.

International students may arrive with different or unsupported software and hardware, which can hinder their adjustment to a UK higher education teaching and learning environment. The challenge of adapting to new tools and devices can have a long-term impact on their learning, and their sense of belonging at an institution, as well as their wider lives outside of the education setting.

The technology used in the UK for keeping in touch with friends and family is often different, giving them another challenge to overcome when staying connected with friends and family back home.

Digital inequity can be intensified for international students in terms of working space, access to wifi, expensive data costs or because they depend on university-loaned equipment or even sharing with other students.

One university told us that their recent intake of international students met the financial entry requirements, but some struggled with costs in the UK and are heavily reliant on the university for equipment.

Some students feel less confident when it comes to digital learning, which can have a negative impact on their overall experience.

We have found some students feel ill-equipped in terms of their digital skills and-or their understanding of teaching when using digital learning tasks. This means they can become resistant to an unfamiliar online learning culture, or they attend streamed content without engaging.

These challenges can all affect a student’s well-being and performance, as their digital encounters affect their overall impression of their time in the UK as well as their time at university.

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