Academic journal article Journal of Distance Education (Online)

Virtual Worlds and Gamification to Increase Integration of International Students in Higher Education: An Inclusive Design Approach

Academic journal article Journal of Distance Education (Online)

Virtual Worlds and Gamification to Increase Integration of International Students in Higher Education: An Inclusive Design Approach

Article excerpt

Introduction

Over the last decade, Ireland saw an enormous growth in the number of international students: in the development of its strategy for international education for the future, the Irish Department of Education and Skills noted that, from 2010/2011 to 2014/2015, the number of international students attending Irish higher education institutions increased by 58%, from 20,995 to 33,118. This growth was mainly driven by a rise in students from outside the European Union, with an upsurge of 85%, from 11,604 to 21,440; in comparison, there was an increase of 25% in the European Union student group. Moreover, there was a notable increase in the numbers of students from Asian countries studying in Ireland, with 4,448 in 2010, rising to 10,094 in 2014/2015. China was one of the main contributors to this increase. Since 2010, the Irish government has attached importance to the development of its process of internationalisation in higher education, emphasising: (1) the positive impacts of multicultural relations in enhancing the quality of learning, teaching and research for teachers and students in Ireland; (2) the importance of accelerating the cultural integration of international students with Irish students and their wider communities; and (3) the importance of international institutional and research networks. In the next five years, higher education institutions in Ireland will continue to focus on quality and building long-term engagement with students and partners worldwide. Strategy 2016-20 sets a target of 44,000 international students in higher education by the end of the 2019/2020 academic year (Department of Education and Skills, 2016).

However, integration of international and domestic students may not occur spontaneously, and interventions may be required to facilitate greater inclusion (Kudo, Volet & Whitsed, 2017). A report published by the Immigrant Council of Ireland in 2008 reveals that, "those migrating from China, India, and Lithuania often had limited knowledge of Ireland beyond familiarity with some pop music groups, soccer, tourist information, and the weather" (Feldman, et al., 2008, p. 65). The report states that the new arrivals can often feel socially and culturally isolated in this unfamiliar country if they find it difficult to integrate into the local environment with Irish students and wider communities. Issues such as blockages in cultural understanding, language barriers, the complexities of cross-cultural collaboration, and - for students from China in particular - the differences between teaching styles at Irish and Chinese universities, must be addressed (Feldman et al., 2008). This suggests that strategies to improve the inclusion of international students in Irish universities must now be developed.

Virtual Worlds, Games, and Gamification

One potentially effective strategy involves the use of virtual worlds (VWs). In recent years, immersive 3D VWs (in which each user is represented by an avatar that they can control to navigate and manipulate the 3D environment) are being used to facilitate learning in innovative ways, including for cultural and language learning through cross-cultural collaboration (Berns, Gonzalez-Pardo, & Camacho, 2013; Shih & Yang, 2008; Ligorio & van Veen, 2006). VWs may provide features that lead to more effective learning environments, such as flexibility, interactivity, collaboration, and optimal feedback (Reisoğlu et al., 2017). Increased international collaboration may be facilitated in virtue of the fact that VWs are typically delivered via the Internet, and VWs are used for distance education (Schoonheim, Heyden, & Wiecha, 2014; Wang & Lockee, 2010). This may allow international students preparing to move to a new country to begin the integration process before leaving their home country by experiencing a virtual version of the university to which they are preparing to move. In the context of higher education, students are shown to value the affordances of VWs, such as the ability to experience learning content in a more immersive way, and the opportunity to socialize and collaborate with others (Hew & Cheung, 2010). …

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