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International Education – an enduring truth even in isolation

25/06/2020 | 3 mins

Callum Cowell, UWA Director of Global Engagement, says our fundamental desire to connect in the pursuit of research and learning will not be quelled by COVID-19.

This wretched COVID-19 pandemic has isolated us all in ways we could never have imagined just six months ago. Its most devastating impact has of course been the huge loss of life, but even where the worst of the medical impact has been held at bay, the economic fallout will be felt for years to come.

While the pandemic response has seen a necessary retreat from the physical or face-to-face elements of how we connect our University communities across borders, the online or virtual space has become our refuge in many ways. Our fundamental desire to connect in the pursuit of research and learning will not be quelled by a coronavirus.

Like me, I’m sure that all are eagerly looking forward to connecting in person again, be that travelling out or welcoming visitors to our campuses again. However, while that remains out of reach, we can, and we are, actively connecting with each other online, in ways, and with a frequency, not seen before.

What I have learned during this time of online meetings, webinars and information exchange is just how effective and immediate it can be. We can get a lot done online without any need to get on a plane or travel.

Adult businessman using laptop at monument at night

[As an aside, it is clear that our potential to reduce our carbon emissions is very significant and is something we need to be actively working on even after we can again travel more freely.]

Online Global Engagement is efficient in terms of time and cost and even allows us to ‘visit’ multiple countries in a day if need be. We do, however, need to closely monitor time zones as we navigate our online commitments. Some appointments will be at very non-standard work hours and it is easy to find ourselves working long and potentially unhealthy work hours if not careful. Those early-morning or late-night Zoom sessions need to be carefully planned into your work day.

Another key learning from these pandemic times is that into the future, post COVID-19, we can certainly continue to build upon our rapidly ramped-up online activity. There is clearly enormous potential for us to integrate more international online experiences into our programming, particularly at the individual course or unit level.

We see all kinds of innovative hybrid options developing, with the major benefit being that more of our University communities will be able to access some kind of international experience. It may not be a physically immersive experience that offers the direct societal exposure of actually visiting somewhere. However, sharing different international perspectives and cultural understandings related to an issue or concept by engaging online (either synchronously or asynchronously) to find answers and solve common problems, is something that we should actively pursue and expand upon.

Having worked in international education management for many years, I know that there is no replacement for actually visiting and immersing yourself in another culture or society to more fully appreciate our place in the world and the contribution we can make to it. Time in country is immensely valuable as it allows us to not only meet formally, but to socialise and get to know our international partners in their context. That is an important component of developing a better understanding of the perspective of our international interlocutors.

Despite the pandemic and despite political agendas in various places around the world that would seek to discriminate, build walls and isolate nations (even in the absence of a pandemic) our reason for actively staying the course in global education engagement and exchange is self-evident in the life-affirming positive stories of our international and domestic students, graduates and researchers.

Amidst all this, one truth endures… as educators of future leaders we must continue to connect our institutions internationally, both physically and online. Through shared knowledge with an international perspective, based on rational inquiry and genuine cultural understanding, we can help to cut through the parochial mindset that would otherwise diminish or undermine our common success.

To all our UWA partners around the world we send best wishes from Perth, Western Australia. See you online for now and face-to-face again when we can. Go well!

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