A Look Ahead at International Education

International EducatorJanuary 15, 2019

As the higher education landscape shifts with emerging tech like AI to improve the learning experience, educators need to ensure the technology they choose—from projectors to VR devices—supports their students’ needs. Read on to learn what the future of EDU may look like for distributed, international classrooms.   

A recent interview with a top Udacity leader suggested that the company is moving away from massive open online courses (MOOCs) and toward a different model of learning.

Salwa Muhammad is vice president of admissions and Udacity Connect at Udacity, an online education platform. Her focus of interest is on informal and experiential learning outside of the classroom and in online spaces. Prior to her work at Udacity, she was the program director of international internships and careers at Wellesley College. In this interview, Muhammad discusses her thoughts on the role that technology plays in international higher education and the future of the field.

Q: What do you think the future holds for higher education, and how will international higher education, specifically, be affected?

A: Udacity is an online education company focused on lifelong learning. Given the low completion rates of free online courses (i.e., MOOCS) across the board, Udacity began offering its paid Nanodegree programs in late 2014, providing microcredentials that connect learning to jobs. The average Nanodegree program takes 6-9 months (approximately 10-15 hours per week) to complete, in subjects including self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, robotics, machine learning, data science, digital marketing, and mobile and web development. In addition to Nanodegree coursework, students receive personalized services such as one-on-one coaching, moderated forums, project reviews, and career and job-placement support. More than 53,000 students are enrolled in Udacity Nanodegree programs and thousands of graduates have secured jobs. Udacity Nanodegree programs are built with, and recognized by, industry leaders including Google, Facebook, IBM Watson, Nvidia, Mercedes Benz, and AT&T.

The future of higher education is promising, provided that educators align with employers and help to connect learning to jobs. U.S. and international higher education institutions alike will benefit from the changing landscape if their services better meet students’ needs. Removing the geographic barriers of higher education by making it available online will help usher in a new era of global education, global students, and global citizens. But there must be an alignment of the skills taught with the skills needed. And learning must be lifelong, not confined to a four-year undergraduate program.

Q: As technology steadily becomes a bigger part of international higher education, do you believe that technology will not only change the pedagogy but will also shape what is and is not taught?

Technology should scaffold, not define, learning. Educators build the foundation and structure of learning, and then choose the technologies that best support their curriculum design and delivery. A pencil and paper can be useful for conveying certain concepts, while a programmable mini-supercomputer can be the right tool to teach a very different set of skills. This leads to mindful use of technology in the classroom.

At Udacity, we utilize technology as a distribution platform and put our classroom online. More students can access our curriculum because of technology, and it also affords them flexibility in when, where, and how they learn. Technology is either central or tangential to everything we teach. Technology, as a teaching tool, is only as useful as how easy it is to adopt and how many students find it helpful.

On the other hand, technology is changing that landscape and is the biggest catalyst for change in the workforce. Technology has helped each generation get different and better jobs. We focus on teaching students how to use the most useful technology to do their jobs. While we use technology to be better teachers, we also adapt to our students’ needs in parallel with the roles that are in high demand with employers.

Q: As someone who has worked, studied, and lived in such a diversity of places-from Bangladesh to Saudi Arabia to Uganda-in your experience, what’s the biggest misconception that people abroad have about U.S. higher education? And, conversely, what’s the biggest misconception that U.S. colleges and universities have about students coming from abroad?

One big misconception about U.S. higher education that many people have is that there is a linear path to the best jobs through the highest-ranked schools. While the schools are publicly ranked (and by multiple different sources), the students are not, and having a good grade-point average from a top school doesn’t guarantee them a job in their field at the end. To get their dream jobs, graduates have to be well-rounded with professional networks and experience and realize that most career paths don’t go in a straight line.

U.S. universities are prone to developing misconceptions about international students by simply labeling everyone as “international,” which is far too simplistic and can even be harmful. It’s important not to generalize students based on the continents or countries they come from, the languages they speak, or their religions.

“International” encompasses so many different aspects of a student’s culture, background, and aspirations that are important to take into account. We have the tendency to find a rule book or manual to help navigate studying abroad. However, if we flip roles and ask ourselves how we would write a guidebook for studying in the United States, we are very aware of the diversity within the United States and wouldn’t necessarily have rules. The most important thing we can do is to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and understand that it is impossible to know all the intricacies of a culture, other than our own. But respect, interest, and mutual understanding go both ways.

International students are unwittingly given the huge responsibility in U.S. colleges and universities to represent their countries, cultures, and, sometimes, even entire continents and educate everyone else. Your sense of identity is heightened and you have to pick a box. Am I Muslim enough to represent the religion? Do I identify as being Bangladeshi? Can I really be considered as American when I travel abroad now after spending most of my life here in the United States? I wrestle with these questions even now, but I had to make a choice very quickly when I first arrived in the United States as an international student. I had to learn what the stigmas were and how to navigate and advocate for myself. I remember reasoning with myself that this was the diversity tax of being allowed to be an international student in a foreign country.

We can help to ease this burden by not expecting international students to fit into our need of figuring out cultures within parameters we are comfortable with. We can examine existing practices of having student orientation based on ethnicity or assess the purpose of having cultural centers and academic centers at higher education institutions. We need to better understand whether these student services are aligned with how our international students want to be represented and supported, rather than retrofit these students into our own preconceived notions of their roles and responsibilities based on why and how we value diverse cultures.

Removing the geographic barriers of higher education by making it available online will help usher in a new era of global education, global students, and global citizens. But there must be an alignment of the skills taught with the skills needed. And learning must be lifelong, not confined to a four-year undergraduate program.

Copyright NAFSA: Association of International Educators, Jan./Feb. 2018. This interview has been condensed for brevity. This interview has been condensed for brevity.This article was written by Lisa Schock from International Educator and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to