Working Through COVID19 Times and Beyond: What could be the next normal for intercultural education, training and research?

Submitted by Jillaine Farrar, Vice President SIETAR Switzerland

Around the globe, teachers and researchers have embraced change during the COVID-19 lockdown. Intercultural, social and technical challenges have accompanied teachers, students and researchers around the world. Acknowledging that there are limitations in what can be expected from all involved was an important starting point. Next comes accepting that returning to the way anything was before will likely not be feasible in the near future.

The next normal (not the ‘new normal’) will be different for students, educators and researchers, but it will still be a world in which global progress can only be achieved through international cooperation and intercultural awareness. Sneader and Singhal (2020) point out that ‘For millennials and members of Generation Z—those born between 1980 and 2012—this crisis represents the biggest disruption they have faced. Their attitudes may be changed profoundly and in ways that are hard to predict.’ There are challenges, but many doors have also opened, thanks to the current global lockdown.

A SWOT Analysis, a technique employed to assess the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats for an organisation, was used to structure the ideas explored in this article. The SWOT Analysis will be followed by concluding remarks and a list of sources that have been particularly useful in preparing this article.

Strengths: What are we doing well in these challenging times?

Professional colleagues who would perhaps meet once a year at a conference are, in some cases, now interacting through video conferencing multiple times a month. This was also observed by researcher and lecturer Papa Balla Ndong, who stated as a follow-up to a SIETAR Switzerland webinar in May 2020 that ‘we have had physical distance, but more social proximity during these COVID-19 times’ (personal correspondence).

Further, students and clients are grateful for the—even if not always seamless—adaptation to the emergency remote teaching phase. Teachers have either improved their own digital skills or helped someone else to feel more comfortable using the tools available. University management has placed trust in the professionalism of their lecturers to find solutions for interacting with students and knowing how to best examine their subjects. Researchers have continued with their projects while working from home wherever possible, or assisted colleagues, many of whom are suffering from unsurmountable workloads.

Solidarity, a favourite social media topic in the past weeks and subject of countless surveys, has shone in Switzerland. The idea of neighbours helping neighbours, regardless of age, gender, cultural background or language, is evident. This support ranges from tutoring children online while parents are trying to work from home to buying groceries for the elderly and preparing food packages for those in need. Further, specific webinars on useful topics, such as how to immediately deal with emergency remote teaching, are being offered at no cost by some experts. Many teachers are also relinquishing overtime hours so others in the same institution who have lost hours directly due to COVID-19 still have a salary. Moreover, a number of universities and universities of applied sciences are offering consulting services and webinars to small businesses and public institutions at no cost.

Weaknesses: What could we improve?

Time management is a significant issue, which many teachers and researchers will need to address. This will likely come later. Right now, we are still in emergency remote teaching mode, with all this entails. Time management, especially when to stop work and do something else, is crucial to our mental health and our personal relationships. Working from home has meant that many no longer have a commute to work but are now online from the early morning until late at night in an attempt to deal with the increased workload or, in the case of some private trainers, to recover lost teaching hours or generate more payable hours. Moreover, this increase in work hours has been coupled with additional family responsibilities for those who have had children or elderly family members at home constantly during the lockdown. Time management issues and the inability to shield oneself from additional, sometimes irrelevant, tasks have become apparent.

Ensuring one has an appropriate setting to work in at home is essential. Having access to a quiet environment to work and study in and having a computer and stable internet connection were certainly not achievable overnight for everyone. One computer at home and three family members needing to use it for work or study added another layer of complexity to the lockdown.

Further, an increase in video conferencing can be exhausting due to the strain in recognizing cues, dealing with frozen screens, listening to poor audio quality and staring at unclear visuals. Jiang (2020) explains that ‘video chats mean we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language; paying more attention to these consumes a lot of energy’. Managing screen time, perhaps by ensuring off-line breaks, is challenging when deadlines are looming.

Opportunities in Teaching

Darby (n.d), writing about online teaching principles, suggests some practices to be implemented during the phase of remote teaching brought on by our current emergency. These practices offer opportunities for us to improve our digital methodology for the future. Specifically, Darby suggests that we schedule ‘time each week to be visibly present and engaged’, ‘hold online office hours’, show ‘optimism that students can succeed’, ‘respect their time and engagement by being present and engaged [ourselves]’, avoid detached tones when writing instructions and actually make use of any learning-management systems we have access to.

Most of the initial teething problems of using Zoom, Teams, Skype, and Webex can be rectified quickly by adjusting settings. Changing interactive lessons designed for physical classrooms can prove more challenging and extremely time consuming, but not impossible. Remember that you are an expert in your subject matter. Online and blended-learning course designers are experts in effective online teaching and learning. Reach out to them. If you work at a university, you likely have continuing education programs that include new-media didactics, course design and tools. If this is not the case, or if they do not have what you need, there are external providers able to support you. This may also present the arguments you need to have your graphics card updated or your computer equipment renewed.

One such provider, OpenLearning, led a very successful webinar for SIETAR Global in April 2020. They state on their website that ‘the goal is to provide a social learning environment in which students feel empowered, deep learning experiences are fostered, students are intrinsically motivated, and passionate communities of practice flourish through well-designed constructive experiences’. Figure 1 illustrates this goal and encourages us to consider where we are with our current pedagogy, and where we would like to be in the future. OpenLearning, in addition to providing tailor-made courses for a fee, offers help to educators during COVID-19 with its free online material about course creation. For those who want to do more than emergency remote teaching in the future and need support to achieve their goals, see https://solutions.openlearning.com/openlearning-coronavirus-response/.

Figure 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 1: Pedagogy: Implementing best practices in education delivery.
By A. Brimo, OpenLearning presentation (April 1, 2020). SIETAR Global webinar.

‘Developments such as the recent COVID-19 outbreak highlight the need for alternative means of facilitating meaningful online interactions across cultures and classrooms – and Collaborative Online International Learning, or COIL, offers a systematic approach to doing exactly that’ (EAIE Forum Magazine Spring 2020).

The COIL model is developed by professors in two or more universities and often embedded in existing courses, so credits can be earned by the students. There are limitations. If you want to set up this kind of collaboration, you need instructional design support, technical support and ways to find lecturers who would like to work together. If the lecturers and the institutions want to make it possible, interdisciplinary matches are possible. A university international office or your SIETAR contacts could be a good starting point. If a program needs to be set up quickly, one university could organize a short-term COIL-like activity, instead of two or more universities being involved. This could then be offered to exchange students or international students, for example, who may not able to study abroad because of closed borders. Virtual mobility is not cheap, though. It takes time to do it right. This generates staff costs: academics, instructional design support and technical staff.

Opportunities in Research

Future research topics are abundant. This moment in human history cannot be ignored, as it may introduce still-to-be-discovered confounding variables into our results (Schwartz 2020). In a survey of over 3000 researchers, Research Gate (2020) discovered that a shift in activities is occurring, namely that ‘nearly half of researchers surveyed are spending more time searching for and reading scientific research than they were before the pandemic, as well as more time writing, submitting and peer reviewing scientific papers’. Indeed, multiple topics could be garnished with a COVID-19 twist, thus creating new knowledge gaps. Even if you do not have time to write, due to all of the multi-tasking and additional hours currently required at work and home, start now with gathering data. Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • How have your own cultural values and those of your students possibly influenced the way you have handled the current COVID-19 challenges?
  • How have boundary management challenges been addressed by the members of local and global teams who are working from home?
  • How has COVID-19 influenced the way SIETARians will teach, research, work and meet in the future?
  • Schwartz (2020) suggested in the International Journal of Intercultural Relations that the ‘coronavirus pandemic be used as an opportunity to study the effects of scapegoating, social distancing and mass anxiety on intercultural relations’. There are multiple topics there to expand upon.
  • Researchers at the University of Washington are already exploring ‘whether the coronavirus pandemic has an impact on society’s models and culture and… [if] there [are] cross-cultural differences (King and Shepard, 2020). Specific topics of culture, integration or international leadership could be focused on.
  • The DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) collection of COVID-19 research related to education has a wealth of current surveys and future research ideas. See the sources at the end of this article.

Threats: What threats do our weaknesses expose us to?

Burnout is a very real threat to many teachers during this COVID-19 period due to the extreme increase in workload and constant pressure. Job insecurity is also a reality for some teachers and researchers if courses or projects are discontinued.

Face-to-face courses are not likely to be replaced by online courses in the long term. Teachers will, however, probably be expected to integrate more blended-learning elements into their courses. For some, this is indeed a threat. For others, it is an opportunity.

Concluding Remarks

This brings us back to what the next normal will be in intercultural education, training and research. Although we do not have a crystal ball, there are indications. We can continue to develop ourselves in terms of pedagogy and methodology. We can master the challenges together. We can empower our learners. We have made a leap in our willingness to develop more blended-learning elements, even if teachers are, at the same time, eagerly awaiting the day they can again teach whole classes face-to-face.

In Switzerland, universities are supposed to be able to be open to students again as of 8 June 2020, which in effect means early September 2020 for many as that is when the next semester begins. In the meantime, we will need to find ways of bringing across our charisma in the classroom regardless of the mode of instruction. Take one step at a time to avoid being overwhelmed with everything which the future invariably holds.

We have a golden opportunity to explore new research topics. Working together across the globe for the good of intercultural education, training and research remains vital, and I postulate that it has become even more important now than ever before for the future of society as a whole. I am looking forward to reading many future research papers, especially from the SIETARian community far and wide.

Sources

Brimo, A. (2020, April 1) OpenLearning presentation. SIETAR Global webinar.

DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service). COVID-19 impact on international higher education studies and forecasts. (2020). Retrieved May 12, 2020 from https://www.daad.de/en/information-services-for-higher-education-institutions/centre-of-competence/covid-19-impact-on-international-higher-education-studies-and-forecasts/

EAIE Spring Forum (2020). Digitalisation, European Association for International Education, Retrieved May 15, 2020 from https://www.eaie.org/our-resources/library/publication/Forum-Magazine/2020-spring-forum.html

Heitz, C., Laboissiere, M., Sanghvi, S., and Sarakatsannis, J. (2020, April 23). Getting the next phase of remote learning right in higher education. McKinsey. Retrieved May 10, 2020 from https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-sector/our-insights/getting-the-next-phase-of-remote-learning-right-in-higher-education

Hodges, C, Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, T. and Bond, A. (2020, March 27). The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning. EDUCAUSE Review. Retrieved May 2, 2020 from https://er.educause.edu/articles/2020/3/the-difference-between-emergency-remote-teaching-and-online-learning

Jiang, M. (2020, April 22). The reason Zoom calls drain your energy. BBC Worklife. Retrieved May 10, 2020 from https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200421-why-zoom-video-chats-are-so-exhausting

King, A., & Shepard, K. (2020, May 14). How do you approach the moral dilemmas of the coronavirus pandemic? KUOW. Retrieved May 18, 2020 from https://www.kuow.org/stories/how-do-you-approach-the-moral-dilemmas-of-the-coronavirus-pandemic

Leslie, I. (2020, April 17). How to make the right decisions under pressure. BBC Worklife. Retrieved May 10, 2020 from https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200416-how-to-make-the-right-decisions-under-pressure

OpenLearning. (n.d). OpenLearning Coronavirus Response. Retrieved May 5, 2020 from https://solutions.openlearning.com/openlearning-coronavirus-response/

Research Gate. (2020, March). COVID-19 Impact on Global Scientific Community. Retrieved May 18, 2020 from https://www.researchgate.net/institution/ResearchGate/post/5e81f09ad785cf1ab1562183_Report_COVID-19_impact_on_global_scientific_community

QS Surveys. (n.d.) The Impact of the Coronavirus on Global Higher Education. Retrieved May 18, 2020 from https://www.qs.com/portfolio-items/the-impact-of-the-coronavirus-on-global-higher-education/

Schoenenberg, K., Raake, A., & Koeppe, J. (2014, May). Why are you so slow? – Misattribution of transmission delay to attributes of the conversation partner at the far-end. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies. 72:5, 477-487. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijhcs.2014.02.004

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1071581914000287

 Schwartz, S.J., (2020, May). Editorial: Studying the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on intercultural relations. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 76, 52. doi: 10.1016/j.ijintrel.2020.04.001. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0147176720301231?via%3Dihub

Sneader, K. & Singhal, S. (2020, April 14). The future is not what it used to be: Thoughts on the shape of the next normal. McKinsey. Retrieved May 8, 2020 from https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/leadership/the-future-is-not-what-it-used-to-be-thoughts-on-the-shape-of-the-next-normal

 

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