The potential of an international visiting scholars program to impact teaching and learning

A research chat with PhD graduate Lisa Fedoruk

Tell us about your research project.

I was drawn to this topic based on my experience in higher education. Throughout my teaching career, I have adapted to new trends and rapid changes in the Canadian educational system specific to inclusivity and accommodation for international students and faculty. Additionally, as an educational developer, I have been drawn to international projects that entail designing and delivering programs for cross-cultural professional development (CCPD) to foreign academics tasked with the challenges of learning and implementing diverse instructional strategies and standards upon return to their home country.

Finding minimal scholarship about the international experiences of academics who have participated in overseas educational programs,  I found myself questioning what impact these experiences had on the visiting scholars, how they interpreted their experiences, what resonated with them, and if or how their teaching practices changed once back in their home universities.

I recently acted as a co-coordinator and instructor in a partnership with the China Scholarship Council, a nonprofit organization affiliated with China’s Ministry of Education, hosted by the Werklund School of Education, Office of Internationalization. Within this role, our team developed and facilitated a three month CCPD program for a cohort of 32 Chinese visiting scholars which focused on English proficiency and teaching methods. It was through this program that I had the opportunity to develop my research question and sub-questions, and design a study that delved deeper to uncover the experiences and impacts of these scholars.

My primary research question focused on “What potential do cross-cultural professional development programs have to alter the perspectives and teaching practices of Chinese visiting scholars upon returning to their home institution?” I looked into this question more specifically by asking:

  1. What motivates Chinese visiting scholars to travel abroad to partake in a cross-cultural professional development program?
  2. What constitutes significant learning moments for Chinese visiting scholars?
  3. How were significant learning moments experienced and interpreted by Chinese visiting scholars participating in a cross-cultural professional development program?
  4. How did significant learning moments impact participants’ perspectives and teaching practices upon their return home?

I recruited 10 participants who completed the aforementioned CCPD program in Canada. They comprised Chinese professors who taught post-secondary international and domestic students enrolled in business disciplines, in English, in various higher educational institutes across China. The professors had diverse amounts of teaching and international experience before attending the CCPD program in Canada.

What did you discover?

A fundamental motivation for the participants to travel abroad was to fulfil an international requirement within their teaching positions and for eventual job advancement. They were also motivated to attain cross-cultural professional development by enhancing their teaching practices and English proficiency.

An additional finding pertaining to significant learning moments encompassed the challenges surrounding English language proficiency and cultural adjustments within higher education contexts, including student-centred instructional strategies and teaching theories. Through an organically developed community of practice and continuous reflection and dialogue, the participants were able to overcome challenges and implement their knowledge upon returning to their home institutions.

International academic mobility

Opportunities to provide Chinese university faculty with overseas study experiences are increasing. This has been a noticeable change from the limited international opportunities offered decades ago, even though many outcomes of the overseas experience remain the same. Today, visiting scholar programs should be considered a valuable approach to CCPD and potentially transformative learning for Chinese university faculty. In turn, new and innovative approaches to teaching and learning may recruit greater numbers of international students, which underpins China’s primary goal of building world-class universities and competing in the global knowledge economy. The opportunity to gain international experience will no longer be a solo excursion for many faculty, but may be pursued multiple times, creating and contributing to a cycle of international academic mobility.

International experience to promote CCPD

Challenges occurred for participants in this study, including inadequate English proficiency and limited comprehension of cultural differences. To make the most out of their time abroad and realize the fullest potential and impact of a CCPD, participants should be highly prepared in language skills and study the host country’s cultural environment in order to minimize challenges.

Utilizing these lessons as a campus-wide initiative could foster a learning environment where the experiences of returned visiting scholars could be adapted to enhance institutional practice. This approach could also mitigate challenges that some returned faculty have confronted when trying to introduce instructional changes into a highly traditional learning environment.

Teaching and learning centers in China

As China currently sends the most academics abroad in visiting scholar programs, opportunities for teaching and learning centres within Chinese universities would serve to provide CCPD programs at home. I believe that establishing these types of teaching and learning centres provides Chinese faculty with opportunities to enhance their professional development and practice outside of traditional professional development priorities encompassing research and publishing. This would diversify skill development and embrace the foundations of adult education, providing faculty with experiences such as innovative pedagogies, CCPD initiatives, and visiting scholar programs to promote academic mobility.

Responsibilities of program developers and instructors

Program developers and instructors should consider the influence of local culture, the concepts of cultural humility and cultural competence from the visiting scholars’ perspectives, and adjust the program appropriately. Application of these concepts must be practiced in order for all stakeholders to mutually benefit from the program and diminish or prevent power dynamics.

In an era of internationalization in higher education, I feel that employing cultural competency as an ethical means of respecting individual differences in CCPD programs at home and abroad has initiated the question of how program designers and educators know that they are using cultural knowledge regarding different races, gender expression, and age in ways that meet the needs of the individual.

One approach that has resonated with me is that of cultural humility, which entails a sense that one’s own knowledge is limited as to what truly constitutes another’s culture. Individuals are limited by unconscious stereotypes of others that they commonly use as standards to help explain behaviour. Because individuals are complex human beings, it is impossible to comprehend everything about every culture, which further limits their perceptions. Cultural humility is about accepting one’s limitations and understanding the need to honour and respect the culture of others. Those who practice cultural humility must work to increase self-awareness of their own biases and perceptions and engage in a lifelong self-reflection process in order to learn from others.