In this post, Marie Hamilton and Claire Chalmers, discuss the challenges of supporting international students during a pandemic. They share how juggling a wide spectrum of time zones and being attuned to certain communication cues can make a world of difference. The authors are administrators at the Moray House School of Education and Sports. This is the sixth post of the Learning and Teaching Enhancement theme: ‘Focus on the Internationalization of Teaching & Learning.’
Working as a Teaching Administrator involves collaboration with colleagues, on tasks including creating student timetables; enrolling students on courses; allocating student to groups; recording assessment results and answering enquiries on various procedures and regulations. In line with the aims of the university in continually seeking ways to improve the student experience, we regularly adopt and adapt to new systems and technologies. These have never felt as rapid as in the last year as we have all moved to a digital-first delivery. This means that interacting with students for the past year has only been while working from home, and during a pandemic.
Our blog post discusses two main points that differentiate between supporting ‘home’ and international students with their studies – time-zones and communication styles. The time-zone element cannot be avoided when students are living abroad. This was not a problem pre-COVID when everyone was on campus, but in the last bizarre year it has been a prime factor for Teaching Administrators to deal with. If there is an hour or two difference, there is obviously not much of a problem. However, for the vast majority of students we have been looking after this year the difference has been GMT+8. This makes timetabling a bit more challenging. For example, 2pm in Scotland is 10pm for our students China, Singapore, Hong Kong. This means that more classes have to be scheduled for the mornings or early afternoon in Edinburgh. As a result our standard teaching times of 9am to 6pm are cut down to 9am to 3pm. This might not seem like a lot, but when there are twenty-odd courses all squished earlier in the day it becomes that little bit harder for admin and students alike to navigate between combinations of optional courses, days and workshops – ‘Help! Timetable clash!’ becomes number one email header for a time.
Additionally, it is important to remember that abroad isn’t one other place from here; GMT-8 also exists. More commonly known as PST, students in this time-zone (which covers the West coast of Canada, the United States and Mexico) would be starting that 9am Scotland time class at 1am, or finishing their 2-3pm Scotland time class at 7am, just when the GMT+8 students are getting ready for a midnight bedtime. We think it is quite fortunate that this year there have only been a handful of students in this situation, so instead of asking them to attend workshops during the night (an obvious no) we have had to make provisions for them to work as part of a group with fellow students in the same time-zone or work asynchronously (a word we have come to use a lot this past year).
At either end of the time-difference spectrum, how students across the world have been able to adjust to their unusual learning schedules in the midst of this global health crisis is impressive to say the least.
The other main point is a bit harder to explain. This relates what can be described as ‘Communication styles’. We are both Scottish. One of us, finds that international students tend to email more (and with more emojis) and ask more questions than home students. Perhaps part of this is to do with language or culture? One favourite communication difference is being told ‘I love you! ❤️ ’ by far more international students than British students. Maybe this says more about British culture than that of any international ones.
We continue to be humbled by colleagues who work in a language that isn’t their mother tongue. Often this isn’t just a second but one of a number of languages they can communicate in. Consciousness of being a monoglot inspire attempts to entertain them with some Scots words and phrases.
On campus we share a social space and kitchen facilities with the PhD students working in our building. Breaking bread at lunchtime is always good for discussing international differences. It’s enjoyable to blether about what we’re each having for lunch or planning to cook at home and exchanging recipes whilst we queue for the microwave. Previously, students have organised socials, for example at Chinese New Year and for the Day of the Dead, where they’ve decorated the room and brought food in to share.
An attempt to introduce students to a Scottish food tradition wasn’t as successful:
Some years ago, Marie was asked to organise some catering for an induction event for new Masters students. To go with the teas and coffees, she ordered Tunnock’s teacakes*. (Glasgow had recently hosted the Commonwealth Games and giant, dancing teacakes had been part of the opening ceremony.) On the day, the students eyed these suspiciously. On her encouragement, they’d try a bite and then try to politely dispose of the remains. To be fair these are a bit of a confectionery curiosity and clearly an acquired taste.
Working in an international environment is definitely one of the things that adds interest and enjoyment to our role.
*a Tunnock’s teacake is a biscuit, with a mallow and jam filling covered in a thin layer of chocolate. Their red and silver paper wrappers are a Scottish design icon.
Marie is a Teaching Administrator at Moray House School of Education and Sport, most recently working with the MSc Inclusive Education programme. She completed a BA in Publishing at Napier University in 1998.
Claire is a Teaching Administrator at Moray House School of Education and Sport, most recently working with the MSc Education programme. Her background is in contemporary art, having completed her Masters of Fine Art at Edinburgh College of Art in 2019.
Email address: Claire.Chalmers@ed.ac.uk