What ‘internationalization’ is and why it’s important to faculty development and student learning

How can colleges and universities better prepare students for a career in an increasingly globalized world?

The American Council on Education has published a new study aimed at helping institutions answer this question. ACUE spoke with the study’s lead author Robin Matross Helms, associate director for research at ACE’s Center for Internationalization and Global and Engagement. Helms focuses her research on exploring how changes to professional development, tenure and promotion decisions, and curriculum can all improve a college’s “internationalization.”

Below is a condensed and lightly edited version of our interview with Helms.

Why is it important for students to receive a more international or cross-cultural education?

In the globalized world we’re all living in now, international education has really become a necessity. Everyone needs to be able to interact effectively across borders and cultures – to succeed professionally, but more broadly, to be an effective citizen of the world. Recent world events highlight more than ever the need for cross-cultural communication and understanding. Higher education has an essential role to play in making sure students acquire these skills and perspectives.

How would you define internationalization?

This is probably the most commonly cited definition, from Jane Knight in 2003: ‘Internationalization at the national, sector, and institutional levels is defined as the process of integrating an international, intercultural, or global dimension into the purpose, functions or delivery of postsecondary education.” My co-authors and I used this as the basis for a report we did on national policies for higher education internationalization around the world.

How can universities prompt faculty to incorporate internationalization into their curriculum and pedagogy?

Providing the tools they need, and helping them build the expertise to use them effectively. Technology can be a great facilitator of global learning by connecting classrooms across borders. The IT can be simple – students connecting via Skype, video conferencing, on-line learning platforms – but faculty may need help in applying familiar technologies for the specific purpose of global learning. ACE has collaborated with the SUNY COIL Center on an awards program for institutions that have made a concerted effort to help faculty launch technology-facilitated international learning collaborations. Recently, ACE also worked with SUNY Oswego on a day-long faculty development seminar that walked faculty members through the process of internationalizing one of their courses.

Why is it important that institutions prioritize internationalization in tenure policies and decisions?

Faculty are pulled in so many directions in their professional and personal lives, they have no choice but to prioritize the activities that will help them succeed. Tenure policies provide a roadmap for faculty to determine what they should prioritize – if internationally-focused activities are not on that roadmap, they are less likely to be a focus for junior faculty members.

For an earlier project on this topic, I spoke with an assistant professor who was interested in starting a research collaboration with a colleague from Japan whom he had met at a conference. But the tenure code at his institution stipulated that single-authored publications carried more ‘weight’ for tenure decisions than co-authored publications. By nature an international research collaboration would lead to a co-authored publication, so he steered away from a joint project. Incorporating internationally-focused criteria into tenure policies gives faculty license to prioritize international activities, and helps institutions build a globally-focused faculty from the ground up.

What can institutions do to emphasize the importance of internationalization for non-tenure faculty?
As noted in the report, only 25% of the instructional workforce in US higher education is tenured or on the tenure track, so this is a very important issue. Making sure that non-track faculty have access to professional development resources (training workshops, grants, etc.) to support their engagement in internationalization is important. At our most recent Executive Forum for Leading Internationalization program in November, one theme that came up in a panel on engaging faculty in internationalization was community connections, and how to leverage the local community to bring global perspectives to student learning. Adjunct faculty whose primary work is outside the institution may be a great source of contacts and resources. I’m thinking particularly of an example from Middlesex Community College in Massachusetts – they had a world-renowned Cambodian ceramics expert on their faculty, who built great ties for the institution with the local Cambodian community.

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