Catherine Montgomery

  • Social networks and learning: a study of the socio-cultural context of the International student

    Catherine Montgomery and Liz McDowell, University of Northumbria

    Research paper

    Theme addressed: Learning environments

    International students form an important grouping in the student community of many universities. The growth in international student numbers in UK universities has often been driven by market forces but there are other goals related to the internationalisation of Higher Education (Scott, 1998) which recognise the ‘productive diversity’ (Cope and Kalantzis, 1997) that international students can bring to the Higher Education institutions that they join. There has been long-standing concern about the nature of the international student experience and, in particular, how well they settle and adapt to societal and study conditions away from their home country (Barker et al, 1991). The social context is sometimes viewed as an adjunct or pre-requisite to successful study, but the increasing adoption of social theories of learning suggests that social interaction and its role in the experience and learning achievements of international students merits further investigation.

    This paper presents the initial findings of a qualitative research project exploring the social networks of international students and considering the link between social interaction and educational and personal achievement. The research draws upon concepts from the fields of Social Network Analysis (Wasserman and Faust, 1994) and Social Capital (Baron et al, 2000), and considers the relationship between social ties and educational achievement. The paper explores a range of issues which have emerged from the data so far including the following three areas:

    • peer support networks and their potential effect on achievement
    • gender in social networks and how these may relate to learning
    • interpersonal interactions between staff and students in the teaching context

    The early analyses in this study paint a picture of a learner who is independent and highly motivated, supported by complex and extended social networks locally, nationally and internationally. The student appears highly perceptive about the cultural and learning context here in the UK and is not necessarily socially reliant on his/her own national group. The early data also points to factors within International students’ social networks which may be influencing their academic and personal achievement; these include perceptions of isolation, language as a barrier and the desire to live in a multi-cultural environment. In contrast the study shows a teaching context that appears slow to respond to changes in the student group and retains some presuppositions about international students’ learning strategies. In addition to an apparent adherence to ‘traditional’ modes of teaching, course content, case studies and examples remain in places Euro-centric. This paper aims to open a debate on some means of addressing these issues and presents some suggestions for supporting learning within the context of internationalisation.