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Regular version of the site

International Classroom at HSE: Challenges and Benefits

Last autumn HSE’s project ‘Teach for HSE’ commissioned an internal study by HSE Centre for Institutional Research. The study aimed to see a broad picture of how faculty members and students perceive benefits and challenges of teaching and studying in an international classroom.

International Classroom at HSE: Challenges and Benefits

Nowadays at HSE courses both in English and Russian are likely to be taught to a diverse class of students with different linguistic, educational and cultural background.  Since more than 80% of courses had at least 1 international student attend them, the majority of students and teachers experience what benefits and challenges the situation brings. 

Last autumn HSE’s project ‘Teach for HSE’, which organises workshops for new and experienced teachers alike, as well as holds lively discussions about various professional issues related to learning and teaching, commissioned an internal studyby HSE Centre for Institutional Research (CIR). The study aimed to see a broad picture of how faculty members and students perceive benefits and challenges of teaching and studying in an international classroom.

In November 2018 Ivan Gruzdev, Director for Internal Monitoring and Student Academic Development, and Marina Kudryavtseva, deputy director of the Centre for Institutional Research, wrote an overview of the study for the university bulletin Okna Rosta.

The study consisted of 27 interviews, and it raised a number of issues worth to be discussed and researched further. The HSE Lookis grateful for the chance to use the material from Okna Rosta,from the peer-to-peer discussions “Teaching at HSE” among international faculty members, as well as for the access to the extended description of the study results provided by colleagues from CIR.  

Internationalising the curriculum is more than just teaching in English

If a course was originally designed to be delivered to Russian students, with all the assumptions and educated guessed the teacher has about their background, simply (even if brilliantly) translating it into English might not work as well on a mixed group. Of course, not all study areas are context-sensitive, and some subjects are easily converted into another language (e.g. mathematics), while others require a more subtle approach.  The changes might cover many aspects, from recommended literature, to databases or cases for analysis, to historic or cultural examples the teacher alludes to. Some of the international faculty members reported having similar challenges with the context-sensitive courses they used to teach in another country, which also invoked a lot of the shared cultural knowledge.

Adapting the course might prove to be a challenging task because it’s difficult to re-design it without knowing first all the students’ background and finding something that would help everyone understand the course material better.  Moreover, some teachers noted that such an adaptation of the course feels to them like oversimplification because of the abundance of the sources they have previously prepared and which are impossible to translate due to the sheer volume of pages.  

The language barrier: the informal version

Some of HSE’s international students are studying in Russian, but for those who take courses and programmes in English HSE has done a lot of work in making the university services and environment accessible in English to international students (https://istudents.hse.ru/)  and faculty (https://ifaculty.hse.ru/), including guidelines on standard procedures, translation of the regulations, information about social and scientific events. However, when it comes to informal communication regarding studies, language barrier can still pose a problem. The interviewees listed several typical situations when language and social media habits contribute to keeping English-speaking and Russian-speaking students apart even when they take the same course. For instance, when information about the course assignments or additional materials were sent first in Russian to an informal group email, when communication about group projects is informally carried out in Vkontakte which is rarely used by international students, etc.

Different expectations and communication cultures

While one of the great benefits of international mobility and exposure is a chance to improve intercultural communication skills, sometimes neither students nor faculty members are fully ready for the practical implications of what it means for the studies.

Many of the ways in which we communicate in a professional or educational setting are heavily influenced by culture, and not necessarily the culture of the country per se, as much as of previous education institutions as well.  What is polite, what is reasonable to expect regarding availability of professors for additional meetings, which forms of communications are considered appropriate to use (meeting in person, email, messengers, etc.), how fast you will get an answer - all of these things can easily become a source of stress for students and teachers, especially when their expectations mismatch and are not clearly articulated.

And while it’s always a helpful to communicate ‘ground rules’ for communication in class, it might be particularly necessary for any subjects involving group work or debate. The more diverse a group of students, the more likely some of the discussed contentious issues or an ongoing political conflict would be a very personal experience to the student rather than just a point to prove in a debate, and the teachers should be mindful of this as well as help mediate the resulting conflicts if they do arise in the group.

All in all, interviewees noted that HSE has quite a cosmopolitan environment and that international students feel welcome here. At the same time, teachers noted that they would like to gain additional experience in working with diverse classrooms so as to help them handle the challenges and create a more effective and creative space for learning.

If you are interested in more information and discussions about teaching at HSE, it might be interesting to explore the events and workshops organised by “Teach for HSE’ project., as well as join one of the peer-to-peer seminars on teaching where international faculty members share their experiences. For more information see https://foi.hse.ru/en/teach4hse/  and https://ifaculty.hse.ru/

Read more in the full March 2019 issue of The HSE Look