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Communication between learners is important to academic success in online and blended courses. Achieving meaningful communication in a compressed one-month undergraduate credit course can be difficult. This process is made even more challenging when the course is delivered in multiple sites, internationally across cultures, and in areas with unequal information and communication technology infrastructures. This is the context of a course called Education and International Development offered to refugees in Dadaab, Kenya through an international education program and to university students in Canada in June 2017.
On several levels, the course design mirrors the course curriculum exploring the internationalization of education. For years, a Canadian based university program has been delivering international multi-site blended learning courses. Past experience showed that there was a limited amount of online collaboration between learners from separate geographies. We redesigned the course with the goal to encourage learners to become active online collaborators engaged in meaningful online course communication. We created a varied selection of opportunities for learners to demonstrate their social presences online within the learning network. Two examples were additions made in the course, which used the learning management system Moodle. One was an introductory forum asking for learners to take a photo and post three words that reflected their hopes for the course. The other was a series of polls that we revealed one question at a time throughout the course. The questions were multiple choice, had no right or wrong answers, and the anonymous results could only been seen once a respondent answered the poll. The answers revealed a richness of experiences shared amongst the students, such as the learners’ number of spoken languages, or opinions on the aim of education or the priority for international development projects. We conducted a pre-course and post-course anonymous survey of the Toronto based learners, who initially expressed being unsettled with the course design and delivery but by the end of the course most expressed gratitude for the experience to work with classmates internationally. One respondent wrote, “One surprising moment for me was the diversity in the backgrounds of the students in our class. Through the [poll] questions on Moodle I had the opportunity to see the diversity in the answers on the chart.” Another Toronto based learner wrote, “prior to this course, I had not realized the capabilities of refugees and the rights that they had. A big label that I grew up with involved refugees being placed in the category of the ‘needy.’ “ Our goals were exceeded.
In the past, a contributing factor to the lack of communication within the Moodle course was that the camp based learners’ access to the Internet based Moodle course was limited to the one day a week that they could travel to the Learning Centre in Dadaab town. In June 2017, we proposed using the mobile chat application WhatsApp since it was widely used socially in the refugee camps. Using WhatsApp removed most time constraints for learners to communicate asynchronously but notably compromised the protection of learners’ privacy because personal mobile phone numbers were disclosed to learners in each of the closed WhatsApp groups. As this risk brought with it a significant increase of benefit for the learner, we presented the opportunity to the learners to choose. By the consent of the learners, the use of WhatsApp mobile chat was successful in enabling a significant amount of course related communication. For the first time, we could structure the assignment groups to include learners from the two geographies in each group because we had reasonable expectations that the learners would have enough opportunity to connect and discuss their group projects. The research outcomes of the course redesign focused on analyzing the demonstration of social presence in the learner’s chats messages.
Delivering blended higher education across geopolitically diverse multiple locations allows for the learners to explore global concerns, valuing diversity, and promoting social justice through peer-to-peer relationships. All students in these classes benefit significantly. At one level these courses can be viewed as an extremely cost effective, safe, and environmentally sound cultural exchange program, focused on contemporary global concerns. Successfully completing group assignments with classmates at a distance through mediated forms of communication reflects contemporary workplace practices and contributes to the graduates’ employability worldwide. Delivering multi-site blended learning to classes comprised of students across international borders helps to redefining the boundaries of higher education at the margins.