Monday, October 20, 2008

Cultural Diversity

Flexible teaching and learning practice along with sustainability issues is now at the forefront of my thoughts when developing or redeveloping courses within the design school (funnily enough!) and I have begun to note more consciously how our international students manage within our programme and context as well.
We dont have many international students enrolled however most are from an Asian background with english as a second language. We have exchange students from IED design schools from Italy and currently two from Spain so the issue of language, cultural differences and understanding are ongoing.
It has recently become more clear to me that the language barrier is sometimes much greater than realised as are the actual cultural references for these students and the difficulties they have in integrating into our context. It has generally been expected and accepted by these international students that they will mostly "fit in" to our programme with support from the International Dept as required. This tends to mean these students often achieve at a lower level and the time and energy required by tutors is far greater than with regular students.
We are mostly working with conceptual and design development paradigms that are often very unfamiliar to these students and extremely hard to explain verbally. I have found visuals and examples of student work to be the best form of explaining complex ideas but have recently wondered about converting some of my PPs and resources to another language or providing other language alternatives - will investigate this further.
Modelling of best practice and making excellent examples of course requirements available is key. I have considered using other students within the class as mentors for the international students however am afraid this will put undue stress on the other students. Sometimes the mentoring process happens as a matter of course especially within group projects although the frustration of miscommunication is at times obvious. More regular formative feedback for these students would be an advantage too.
Another tool for better communication would be to have international students talk about their own experiences as part of a formal class reflection session.
Overall I can see this is an area to work on as currently I believe that many, but not all, international students appear to be at a disadvantage within our current teaching and learning contexts and delivery.


"E-learning is one important avenue for promoting greater access for all learners." (Barrie 2000)

An online article/paper fromDr Barrie O'Connor intitled 'E-learning and Students with Disabilities: From Outer Edge to Leading Edge' (see link above for full paper) has given me further insight into e-learning and in particular with reference to students with disabilites. The paper outlines the need and requirements associated with diversity, equity and access for those students with disabilites however I believe this applies to all students engaging in online e-learning.
Dr O,Connor discusses the history and current state of e-learning within an Australian context which makes it particulalrly relevant to us here in NZ. He discusses the potential for e-learning and the context in which it can be applied within higher education. A student centred learning focus (a need for some pedagogical changes), economics of online learning and speed of communication issues are outlined. Some possible solutions to problems are also outlined and the requirements of institutional support emphasised. The implications for higher education include three distinct areas:
1. universal design of curriculum - inclusive programme development and distance learning options
2. developing expertise in e-learning and techical knowhow requirement by teaching staff is essential to fascilitate online learning activities
3. issues of human rights and equal opportunities for all need to be addressed institutional wide and embedded within the institution
The principles of Universal Design are of particular interest and highlight the need for teachers to be flexible in their perceptions of what is the right environment for positive teaching and learning to take place.
In the section "new approaches to teaching" Dr O'Connor identifies the teacher as a discussion moderator for online conferencing and introduces ideas developed by Salmon (2000) who "identified five stages in the emergence of fully functioning computer mediated conferencing."
These stages included access and motivation; online socialisation; information exchange; knowledge construction and development of discussion. I personally found the five stages outlined particularly relevent to my own experiences of doing this course as these are the actual stages I have been experiencing!
Dr O'Connor discusses the importance of "embedding disability expertise across the institution" (Barrie 2000) for e-learning to be of benefit to students with disabilites with issues of accessibility being at the forefront of requirments. He concludes that e-learning has great potential for honouring diversity and "E-learning has the potential to progress people with disabilities from the outer edges of educational opportunity to the leading edge of educational innovation." (Barrie 2000)

How can issues to do with access and equity enhance and compliment my working context:
  • the issue of universal design and in particular the idea of programme design related to the environment - enviromental aspects are taken into account in regards to physical space available but how to enable students with disabilites or distance learners access to the same information - basic but essential!
  • the need for IT support and teacher expertise in the technologies being used - currently this is the biggest barrier for me as I am slowly developing knowlegde and skills with online e-learning and the possibilites - there is still resistance from both teachers and learners as a whole new set of skills is required alongside the actual learning of the course content and information.
  • embedding of expertise across the institution - Otago Polytechnic provides support and learning opportunities for both staff and students although with there only being one computer suite with specialised equipment required for overcoming disability issues this could be better - funding of course is an issue.
  • overall taking in to account both the universal and individual needs of a range of students is the key - this requires staff with the required expertise and support for the same at all levels of the institution.