Magazine article International Educator

Theory and Reality: Research, History, and Brevity

Magazine article International Educator

Theory and Reality: Research, History, and Brevity

Article excerpt

Alan Ruby is a senior fellow and senior scholar of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy, part of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. International Educator had an opportunity to ask Ruby, a widely respected expert on international higher education, about the state of the field and why research findings must guide its practice.

What areas of international higher education research do you think need greater attention, and why?

Higher education institutions contribute to globalization by forming alliances with other research institutions or other teaching institutions by exchanging faculty, by exchanging students, by working on problems of common interest. But we need research to identify the benefits of those engagements and test whether they're as real and as deep as we've always tended to assume.

We are the people who favor this sort of thing, interconnection. But we've not been fabulous at [researching it]. In fact, we've been quite poor about it. We've tended to make the argument that diverse classrooms, diverse seminar rooms, and diverse laboratories are good things: students from different cultures, different affinities, different forms of preparation for further study coming together and working on a shared body of knowledge or a shared learning problem tend to have a richer and more powerful and more successful learning experience than a classroom that's completely homogeneous.

That's the theory. There's not a real lot of solid evidence that that's in fact the case. And how would we go about documenting that? And I'm not talking about psychometric tests or qualitative analyses, although they're welcome. But we're also talking about the qualitative documentation of the richness of exchanges in diverse classrooms and what participants think of diverse classrooms. So if it's true that these classrooms are richer, we should celebrate that and adopt it as a form of pedagogy. And if it's not true, we need to have a rethink about how strategies of engaging with people of different backgrounds work. It's a moral case of diverse engagement, but we'll have to be careful about claiming a pedagogical benefit.

We assert that diverse classrooms and seminars are good, but when it comes to it, it's anecdotal reportage at best. So it would be nice to test the theories of learning that claim that there's a benefit from a globalized classroom and be willing to accept the results if they're not what we'd hoped they would be.

What policy lessons can practitioners and researchers learn from, for instance, the rise of nationalism and the educational needs of displaced migrant populations?

It's very interesting to look at how nations with strong immigrant histories-histories of migration-have struggled with influxes of significant numbers of immigrants. When you look at the longish term about what proportion of the world population is immigrants, it sort of fluctuates between 2 percent to 3 percent. And the thing that distinguishes the current era is that though the percentage is relatively constant, the base number is much larger. And so numerically there are more people moving, and in receiving countries, immigrants tend to be concentrated in particular counties or cities, and when those concentrated communities experience the same economic downturn the rest of the community does, they become very visible. And tension begins to emerge about who gets what jobs, who gets what places, who gets what benefit? Who gets access to the labor market? And historically that's been very difficult. When you look at the United States and look at the history of Irish immigration around the mid-1800s, and particularly at the time of the potato famine, you had a lot of ill will and tension and violence occurring in certain communities where there were large concentrations of Irish immigrants.

And some of it was just they were there and they were different. They spoke a little different. …

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