Towards A Framework for Virtual Internationalization

By Bruhn, Elisa | International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Towards A Framework for Virtual Internationalization


Bruhn, Elisa, International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education


Introduction

Digitalization, internationalization, and an expansion of flexible distance provision are among the trends that the higher education landscape is experiencing in many countries today. At the intersection of these trends, the traditional boundaries between distance and conventional education are becoming blurred (Guri-Rosenblit, 2014, p. 114; Naidu, 2003, p. 350), with distance and on-campus education both embracing online learning that can be accessed easily from anywhere on the planet. Virtual transnational education (TNE) and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are prominent examples of higher education crossing national borders (Knight, 2016, p. 328). Furthermore, the aim to internationalize the curriculum is playing an increasing role in traditional and distance education today. Institutions, instructional designers and instructors have stepped up efforts to internationalize the on-campus classroom, as well as distance education, with the help of information and communications technology (ICT). These efforts find their expression in, for example, attempts to introduce intercultural awareness into online course development (e.g., Gunawardena, 2014), as well as in virtual mobility and collaborative online international learning (COIL) projects in on-campus higher education (e.g., Guth, 2013).

In an endeavor to conceptualize the abundance of approaches aiming at internationalizing higher education via virtual media, this paper proposes to formulate a comprehensive framework for virtual internationalization. The basis will be a definition of its two component terms "virtual" and "internationalization" for the higher education context. On these grounds, I will explore the global, intercultural, and international dimensions of higher education internationalization in the virtual space. Finally, I will give a prognosis of the potential of the proposed concept for future research and practice.

Conceptualizing Virtual Internationalization

The internationalization of higher education has changed its nature in recent years. Gone are the days when the idea was practically synonymous with the physical mobility of students. The emergence of concepts focusing on the possibilities of internationalization at home or of the curriculum (Beelen & Jones, 2015) points to an increasing awareness that internationalization is not necessarily limited to university members physically crossing borders. Instead, certain curricular activities on campus or online have been developed to complement or substitute for physical mobility (de Wit & Hunter, 2016). In the course of such development, with the research fields of digitalization and distance education playing their part, virtual forms of internationalization have gained importance in oncampus and distance education alike.

Scholars have recently conceived concepts such as virtual mobility, globally networked learning, virtual exchange, telecollaboration, and collaborative online international learning (COIL), to name a few (Guth, 2013; UNICollaboration, 2014). These concepts are commonly used to label facets of internationalizing on-campus education at the classroom or program level, and have proven useful in advancing the idea of virtual forms of internationalization. However, they generally do not provide a comprehensive model of virtual internationalization that could be applied from the classroom to the national or sector level of both online and on-campus higher education. Yet, virtual internationalization expands the possibilities of internationalizing higher education in many ways - being more than virtual mobility only, just as internationalization is more than mobility only.

The term "virtual" has been defined, for the computer context, as "not physically present as such but made by software to appear to be so from the point of view of a program or user" and as "established or conducted using computer technology" (Virtual, 2013). Hence, reformulating Knight's widely accepted definition of internationalization, the term "virtual internationalization" can be understood as follows:

Virtual internationalization at the national, sector, and institutional levels is defined as the process of introducing an international, intercultural, or global dimension into the delivery, purpose or functions of higher education with the help of information and communications technology (ICT). …

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