Supporting Intercultural Collaborations In Blended And Online Settings: A Randomised Control Trial Of Internationalised Academic Content

Mittelmeier, Jenna (2017). Supporting Intercultural Collaborations In Blended And Online Settings: A Randomised Control Trial Of Internationalised Academic Content. PhD thesis The Open University.



There is a rising trend of international students studying at universities worldwide, with a substantial percentage enrolling each term in blended and online modules. This means that assignments such as online group work create unique spaces for intercultural learning and collaboration in ways unprecedented a mere ten to twenty years ago. Online intercultural group work stands to benefit students’ lives by allowing them to encounter new ideas and values, as well as challenge cultural stereotypes and biases. However, positive intercultural group work experiences do not occur easily or naturally. Indeed, previous work has highlighted that students encounter challenges when working with peers from different countries, including a lack of social relationships, cultural differences in behaviours and participation variations. These challenges limit the potential benefits of online intercultural collaboration. One gap in the current literature which this research has addressed is a bridge between student reflections and measurable behaviours in online intercultural group work in order to understand how complex variables interact and impact experiences. A second important gap is related to which evidence-based interventions can support positive collaborations. These issues were addressed by this research using a dynamic mixed methods approach across four empirical studies.

In the first half of the thesis, a holistic picture was sought of the interweaving variables and sociocultural challenges impacting online intercultural group work. A quantitative laboratory study incorporating learning analytics and social network analysis highlighted that social network diversity and cultural traits strongly impacted participation. This was next evaluated through in-depth interviews using a unique mediating artefact method. These findings provided a nuanced understanding of the importance of social relationship building in intercultural group work, with low-performing students particularly in need of additional support.

The second half of the thesis evaluated one potential support system for encouraging positive online group work experiences: the internationalisation of academic content by incorporating international elements into assignment tasks. Previous research and theoretical work have suggested that internationalisation can improve participation and encourage engagement. However, there are relatively few studies that have empirically tested this suggestion, particularly against a baseline of ‘local’ content to measure the added value of internationalisation. This thesis tested this notion through a rigorous randomised control trial study comparing student behaviours using local versus internationalised academic content. The findings indicated that internationalising the group work content led to small improvements in online participation. A follow-up mixed methods questionnaire outlined that students valued their diverse group members’ contributions higher when working with internationalised content, but that internationalisation added additional complexities to their experiences and group dynamics. The findings also suggested that internationalisation is not ‘one size fits all’ and that international topics must be personally relevant to students’ backgrounds and experiences to elicit benefits.

Altogether, this research has unpacked student experiences when engaging with peers from different countries and when working with diverse academic content in blended and online settings. In doing so, a holistic picture of the complexities of internationalisation is provided, along with suggestions for improving and encouraging online intercultural collaboration.

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