Internationalizing On-Campus Courses
Instructional Development Newsletter
Shelley L. Smith, IDS
Constructivist psychologist George Kelly (1963) observed that, “Experience does not constitute being in the vicinity of events as they occur, but in how one construes those events.” By making a distinction between experience and perception, Kelly’s statement draws attention to the heart of what it means to internationalize on-campus courses/curriculum (IOCC). It explains why internationalizing is not merely the addition of a unit on international perspectives or adding a new book introducing intercultural material or case studies, because students will construe or make sense of those materials through their own cultural lenses.
What is involved in internationalizing a course? Certainly it involves the inclusion of content from at least one other-cultural perspective. That content can include one or more of the following four perspectives:
- International: This addresses national cultures, and may take a social and/or political perspective.
- Cross-cultural: This approach compares and contrasts two or more cultures, looking at how they are alike and how they differ.
- Multicultural: This most often refers to a perspective that deals with issues of domestic diversity (racial, ethnic, religious, etc.) and often includes issues of power and social justice.
- Intercultural: This perspective looks at what happens when people from different cultures interact and negotiate meaning across the differences that arise.
But deep learning has more than just a cognitive dimension; it also involves the engagement of affective (emotional) and behavioral dimensions. The affective dimension drives student engagement, motivation to learn and valuing of the knowledge encountered. The behavioral dimension involves the development of the skills and behaviors required to use and apply what is learned. Within the cultural learning context so vital in an internationalized classroom, these dimensions manifest themselves in
- An openness to engage and value new perspectives (affective)
- The development of skills for critical analysis of the knowledge and perspectives encountered (cognitive and behavioral)
- The ability to observe, participate in, and reflect on the information encountered (cognitive and behavioral)
Underlying all of these skills is the question of how students will ultimately view, analyze and evaluate cultural difference, and this is not an easy task. While it is clear that there are numerous opportunities to embrace cultural similarities, it is the differences that both intrigue and challenge us, and that are most likely to create conflict in our reactions and interactions. Whatever the causes of the events of 9/11, it can be stated with some certainty that an overabundance of cultural harmony and understanding wasn’t one of them.
So how do we create classroom environments where our students can learn to grapple successfully with the issues raised by different cultural perspectives? “Ghettoizing” international content to individual units within a given course, or a single course within a larger curriculum, continues to set it apart as an “extra” that is not significant enough to be integrated into the students’ worldview. Instead, course construction needs to be an integrative approach in which intercultural information permeates the entire course, not just a part of it. As a result, it requires re-conceptualizing the course in a way that includes not just new material, but clear goals, new strategies, and other cultural perspectives.
Finally, and easily the most difficult, internationalizing departmental and/or university curriculum in a critical mass of courses is the ultimate goal. Research has repeatedly shown that teaching diversity issues in isolated courses does not have a significant impact on the students’ attitudes and beliefs (Anderson & Szabo, 2007; Colville-Hall, MacDonald & Smolen, 1995; Weisman & Garza, 2002). Students need to see issues of culture and diversity as an integral part of knowing and understanding any body of knowledge and their world or it can be easily dismissed.
The importance of faculty in the internationalizing process cannot be overstated. It is the faculty who must ask the hard questions and encourage their students to look beyond their own cultural assumptions and explore other cultural perspectives, and these are skills that are most often left out of undergraduate curriculums.
Before moving forward, it is necessary to define what is meant by “culture” if for no other reason, to clarify the perspective being taken in this paper. Addressing the question “What is culture?” opens the door to definitional chaos. In 1952, Kroeber and Kluckhohn compiled a list of 164 definitions of "culture," and the morass of definitions has only grown. Definitions range from exhaustive lists of cultural components (art, institutions, language, values, beliefs, behaviors…), comparisons to “collective programming of the mind” (Hofstede, 1994, p. 5) and an onion (Hofstede, 1991, ”fuzzy,” (Spencer-Oaty, 2000, p. 4) “arbitrary” (Hall, 1984, p. 230), and "a shared schematic experience” (Walters, 2007). While there is likely truth in all of these definitions, what is clear is that culture is not a thing that can be easily observed, labeled or defined. It will, however, be defined in this discussion of internationalizing as “the processes that organize our diversity and make it possible for people to behave, communicate, and work together to create and recreate human communities.” Such a definition allows for the consideration of all of the multi-textured permutations any cultural context has to offer.
Transformational Learning and the Internationalized Course
The kind of learning that results from internationalizing a course tends to be transformational in nature. This is true for both the faculty who prepare the courses and the students who will ultimately take the courses these faculty teach. According to Mezirow (1991), transformational learning.
…involves an enhanced level of awareness of one’s beliefs and feelings, a critique of their assumptions, an assessment of alternative perspectives, a decision to negate an old perspective in favor of a new one, an ability to take action based on the new one, and a desire to fit the new perspective into the context of one’s life.
If one accepts Mezirow’s definition, then the students in an internationalized course, to some degree, need to be “transformed” for the process to be truly effective. This change is not a temporary condition. True transformation requires that the participants be changed in ways that significantly affect their worldview, and that those changes persist after the transformational experience is over. For example, once one learns how to read (has been transformed from illiterate to literate), it is virtually impossible to not read written postings such as a “STOP” sign. An apt metaphor would be to imagine a network in which new knowledge interacts and integrates with existing networks of knowledge, organizing, and ultimately transforming it in sometimes surprising and unanticipated ways.
O’Donovan and Mikelonis (2005) identified four basic assumptions to keep in mind when internationalizing a course:
- Internationalizing is an intentional approach to constructing new knowledge and designing courses.
- The process of international/intercultural education is provocative by its very nature because it challenges deep-seated attitudes, beliefs, and values.
- Pedagogical practices in international courses promote self-discovery, self-reflection, and personal transformation.
- Typical obstacles to internationalizing curriculum include resistance to change, lack of tolerance for ambiguity, and the inability to reflect critically.
These assumptions raise important ethical concerns as well. When we put students into situations in which they will confront their implicit assumptions and strongly held cultural beliefs, values, and behaviors, we are pulling the “cultural rug” from under their feet, and we need to be sure we are able to catch them before they “fall.” Since the essential ethical message here is: Do no harm (Smith, 2001), this is a task that should not be undertaken lightly. Intercultural educators need to assume responsibility for helping students to coherently reconstruct the cultural realities that they may be dismantling (Smith, 2001). In so doing, the instructor needs to safely and effectively guide students through the all-important transformational learning experiences needed for effective learning related to culture and communication.
Because it is not enough for instructors to challenges students’ cultural realities, three additional principles have been added to the previous four. When teaching an internationalized course, faculty must also be responsible for:
- Assisting their students in their struggle with reorienting their assumptions about issues of rightness and wrongness
- Helping guide students in understanding that context and cultural realities must be considered before information and behaviors can be evaluated (Bennett, 1998)
- Helping students to develop an awareness of, and to be mindful about, their ability to make choices in their development of an overriding ethical structure that can guide them in their own journey toward intercultural awareness, i.e., a view in which “ethnorelativism and a
- strong ethical principles coexist” (Bennett, 1998, 30).
Because global interdependence is a reality with which our students will need to deal both professionally and personally (Friedman, 2005), these ethical concerns become risks worth taking as we prepare our students to function effectively and compassionately on a multicultural playing field.
The challenges for instructors of internationalized courses are multiple and involve five key questions:
- How can we facilitate change in students’ awareness of and openness to difference?
- How can we strategically plan that change?
- How can we sequence activities and readings designed to guide students toward this transformation?
- How will we know if students are learning what we hoped?
- How can we measure that learning?
Finding the answers to these questions are at the heart of a successfully internationalized curriculum. A small group of UMD faculty will be grappling with these issues over January break in a workshop designed to help them in the process of creating internationalized courses. Ultimately, their efforts will be shared with other faculty at UMD and serve as examples of how multiple disciplines can engage the process of internationalizing their courses.
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