looking through a different cultural lens: online at home

Learning from cultural differences and examining your own culture can be done abroad, but also online, as two international degree programmes at The Hague University of Applied Sciences discovered.
Posted by Nuffic
internationalisation at home ilustratie

Making contact with people in another country, learning from cultural differences and taking a step back from your own frame of reference: is that not something for which you need to go abroad? As The Hague University of Applied Sciences discovered, this is far from true. You also do it online and from home – with surprising results.

Spending six months abroad had been an integral part of the International Business and European Studies programmes for years – but then the pandemic happened. The degree programme coordinators were tearing their hair out: what could they do to replace this international experience for our students? That is when Refiya Scheltinga and Marloes Ambagts-van Rooijen of The Hague University of Applied Sciences came up with an idea. Scheltinga is a senior lecturer and internationalisation coordinator for the European Studies programme, while Ambagts-van Rooijen is a senior lecturer in internationalisation & innovation for the International Business programme.

Marloes Ambagts-van Rooijen

Learning from mutual differences

What would happen if they let students from both degree programmes work together online? That way, students might not have a ‘real-life’ international experience, but still gain international competences from home. They would be thrown in at the deep end and have to make contact with strangers, learn to examine matters through different lenses (cultural or otherwise) and adapt to new situations. Scheltinga: “Diversity is usually about nationality or culture. In that sense, our student body is indeed very diverse. However, diversity is also about differences in educational background and the jargon you’re used to speaking. We prompted them to use all those mutual differences to their advantage.”

As part of the brand-new EXPLICO project (EXchange Perspectives for Local Impact in COvid times), students from both degree programmes worked together in mixed groups. Their assignment: develop a solution for a local problem that is relevant to a particular community in these coronavirus-stricken times. In order to achieve this, they were encouraged to take their own environment as the starting point. Ambagts-van Rooijen: “They came up with a wide variety of communities, from hairdressers and restaurateurs in The Hague’s Schilderswijk district to athletes spread out all over Europe.”

Although the teams were supervised by coaches, they were given ample freedom to shape the project themselves. Students had to complete weekly assignments, but how and when they did so was up to them. They were also given plenty of leeway in their presentation methods. Ambagts-van Rooijen: “A vlog, a blog, a poster – anything was fine, as long as they showed us what they had done.”

Internationalisation at home

The EXPLICO project is an example of internationalisation at home. While this type of internationalisation has been around for years, it really took off in the last 18 months or so, says Nuffic policy officer Lieke Boersma. “Nuffic regards this as a positive development. Obviously, working together online is not the same thing as visiting another country – but if you link it to the right learning objectives and make sure there’s sufficient interaction and cooperation between students, it can be a great way to give shape to internationalisation.” According to Boersma, a major advantage of working together online is its inclusivity. “It also lets you reach students who are unable to travel abroad, whatever the reason. This increases the number of students that you’re able to offer an international experience.”

The art of reflection

Reflection was a key part of the project. Scheltinga: “This is because it’s not just about the interaction itself, but also about the reflection on that interaction. That’s what teaches you the most.” The students used the DEAR method (Describe, Explain, Analyse, Reflect), which was developed by Scheltinga herself. This method requires students to use specific situations, such as an interview, as an opportunity to examine their own perspectives and convictions. As one student wrote: “Looking back on this ‘journey’, I learned that there’s no point looking for solutions as long as I view the world exclusively through my own cultural lens. […] The main thing that EXPLICO taught me is how to shut up and listen, which was key to our problem-solving journey as a team.”

It was not just the students for whom EXPLICO was a learning experience. Scheltinga: “The lecturers and coaches underwent a steep learning curve as well. We set up this project together with people with a very wide range of skills and working methods. One was more detail-oriented, another focused on the bigger picture, while for others the sky was the limit. We had to get used to each other, just like the students. But just like they did, I believe we ended up making the most of everyone’s competences.”

Refiya Scheltinga

“Diversity is everywhere”

They will continue doing so in the current academic year. Now that exchanges are permitted again, the next cohort of students will no longer need to complete an alternative project. Nevertheless, EXPLICO will endure as an elective module. Ambagts-van Rooijen: “The possibilities are endless: working together with other degree programmes, other institutions… There’s so much that higher professional education and vocational education and training can learn from each other. I hope others around the country will follow our example. Diversity is everywhere – not just between different nationalities and cultures, but also between towns and cities and between generations. We can learn so much from each other.”

Looking for more inspiration about internationalisation at home?

Follow the LinkedIn group ‘Community IaH: internationalisation at home in het hoger onderwijs’.

Check out our web pages for real-world examples and practical tips for setting up your own project: