Preparing for Success: Digital Engagement Enriches International Student Experience

With over 10,000 posts – and counting – using EngagementHQ, Study Group’s recent adoption of digital engagement transforms online learning for international students.

The Challenge:

UK/Europe-based chapter of Study Group, an organization who specialize in pathway programs for international students to prepare them for best possible start to their tertiary education, wanted to transform online learning experience to enrich community building and enhance student readiness for university life.

In this Article:

  • How Study Group UK/Europe used a digital engagement platform to enrich the online learning experience and community building for international students.
  • How EngagementHQ provided a solution for tailor-made peer-to-peer learning and student-generated content to facilitate an inclusive learning environment.
  • Online engagement builds confidence, deeper questioning and connections between students of different nationalities and backgrounds embarking on international university studies.

Universities across the globe moved online in response to the coronavirus pandemic at an unprecedented scale and pace. Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic and successive lockdowns have forced UK universities to rapidly shift online with no confirmed date to reopen. While some changes may outlast the pandemic, online learning, it seems, is key to the future of higher education, shaking down the traditional model of one-person transmitting knowledge to a lecture hall of eager-ready-to-learn students.

A divided idea. Indeed, this was the subject of an online panel recently co-hosted by the Guardian UK. Ian Dunn, the Coventry University provost at the forefront of the university’s online-only degrees, declared “we shouldn’t go back to lectures.” By contrast, Allison Littlejohn, professor of learning technology at University College London, cautioned against universities simply duplicating the classroom online: “It’s what students do with concepts and ideas that are most important.” Given the diversity of the student body, in particular international students who come for the cultural and social experience, personalization becomes especially important.

Without question, the rise of online learning acts as a catalyst for surfacing weak – and strong – points of the learning experience. Equally, it surfaces an innovative potential to create social connection.

Engaging international students, Study Group has risen to the challenge of providing a community-building experience through online learning – most specifically, through utilizing a digital engagement platform. I interviewed Caroline Drummond, Manager of the Prepare for Success course at Study Group to understand how its UK pathway programs turned to digital engagement tools to create an inclusive online learning space and support international students’ experience and readiness for university life.

Preparing for Success

With 19 centers comprising 17 in the UK, one in the Netherlands (Amsterdam) and one in Ireland (Dublin), Study Group UK/Europe caters to multiple nationalities with student cohorts starting at different points during June and September annually. This year it is expected 3,500 students will be offered a place on “Prepare for Success”, a preparatory online course for international students coming to study at an educational institution in one of the three territories across Europe and the UK.

Less an academic language course, where students practice language skills through drill-like activities, the course encourages language learning and communication through sharing student-generated content and participation in online activities. Drummond highlights: “We designed the course to encourage communication. Offering activities that are relevant to the lives of our students has encouraged them to take part in activities, to produce content for others to read and learn from and hopefully shown them that we learn language to communicate with others, to share our thoughts and ideas, to learn.”

Here, the selection of the engagement platform EngagementHQ was decisive. For Drummond, “The communicative aspect of this course is crucial, and EngagementHQ has been instrumental in allowing us to give students these opportunities to practice communicating in English through fun activities.”

Unique Use of EngagementHQ 

Study Group recognized early on the need to provide online learners with more than excellent tuition and coursework. Here, Study Group sought to use engagement tools to facilitate a more inclusive environment and build an online student community. Central to this was the ability to drive student-generated content and peer-to-peer learning. With students from across the globe – from 50 – 80 different countries – the exchange of ideas, sharing reflections and content not only provides an exciting experience as students learned through their peers, but is key to increasing their engagement and participation.

This endeavor resulted in using the product in a wholly unique way. That is, Study Group extracted EngagementHQ tools individually, placing them within a separate learning environment. “We have used individual tools, mainly Forums, Ideas and Stories, and then embedded the URL for each individual tool in the correct place in our online course,” Drummond explains.  

What this enabled was the ability to use the digital engagement tools as part of learning sequences. As Drummond enumerates, it is a means for students to:

  • Share work they had produced;
  • Ask for feedback and advice from other students and tutors;
  • Share work they had improved based on the feedback received;
  • Share ideas, reflections, thoughts and information about themselves, their experiences, their countries; and,
  • Engage in center-specific forums to ask questions to tutors in their future center and start engaging with students going to their particular center/university.

While the Ideas and Forum tools worked to support the program’s objectives around peer learning and community building, the importance of student-generated content essential to inclusivity was enabled through the use of Stories, particularly when students were required to share longer texts.

The volume of activity is impressive. Drummond cites upwards of 10,000 posts in Forums. This response volume echoes the success of the integration of engagement in the learning module. “We have created a course which corresponds to about 100h of learning, split in 10 sessions,” Drummond recants. “In each session, students complete between 10 and 20 different activities based on a tool from EngagementHQ. We are currently nearing 11,000 posts created by our students. Some of our tools have received around 200 posts, but many more students interacted with them, either reading, liking or commenting on the posts from their fellow students.”

artist drawing at a table

Through enrichment programs, engagement tools are also integrated around weekly live sessions and enable the sharing of student-generated content. Students take part in live sessions including art club, gym clubs and masterclasses on a variety of topics. Here, tools were curated around program initiatives. “For the Art Club, we created an Idea tool for students to share the artwork they created during the art lessons. Their work is fantastic! It was great for students to see the artwork other students had created too,” says Drummond.

Through the integration of engagement tools, students are encouraged to interact not only with the content of the course but are offered a medium through which they can express themselves. The flow-on effect is building confidence in language – through writing and reading texts in English – and also a level of confidence in what students are asked to produce. “Interacting with students builds friendships and curiosity and excitement for [the experience that’s] to come,” says Drummond.

Online Engagement Enables Deeper Connections

With the diversity of students participating in the programs, I asked Caroline if tutors or support staff were able to find online engagement enabled a sense of a student community in a way that differed from offline activities. She replies:

We found that students have been able to engage with deeper questions, for which they might not otherwise have been able to share their thoughts in a face-to-face situation. We find that students are building their confidence by interacting with students from other countries. The forums that invite students to share something about their country, their culture, are very popular. We often encourage interaction as part of the instructions for this tool activity and students then ask each other questions, comment and show interest to others. One of our sessions focused on intercultural communication and it was lovely to see how students were learning from each other using Engagement HQ.”

Ensuring students are motivated to participate, Drummond highlights that the program ensures topics are specific and speak to a context that is both relevant to them and provides the opportunity to express their ideas. “We make sure that the topics we choose are specific, in context, relevant to them and give them the opportunity to express their ideas and to learn from others.” Something that has proved vital during the current pandemic and shifts to online learning environments. She adds, “Some students have sent us beautiful messages, saying how completing the course has really supported them through the lockdown. They are in contact with other international students, they have a structure to their day with some synchronous live sessions.”

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