Voices
The IE Interview

Research Today to Shape the Future of International Education 

An interview about the evolution of research in the field, emerging trends, important issues, and how research can support the work of international educators.
“The overall major finding,” says Bryan McAllister-Grande, “is a movement to think about the real societal ramifications and outcomes of international higher education.” Photo: Shutterstock
 

The recently published white paper International Higher Education Research: State of the Field was in the works long before the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe, upending life for millions of people and introducing short- and long-term effects on the field of international education.

International Educator spoke with the paper’s coauthors, Bryan McAllister-Grande, EdD, and Melissa Whatley, PhD, about emerging trends, important issues, the evolution of research in the field, and why practitioners should familiarize themselves with research and the ways it can support their work.

Though the pandemic and the growing movement against racism in the United States are not directly addressed in the white paper, McAllister-Grande and Whatley discuss how the current climate provides opportunities to reassess and reframe the work of international education.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Can you tell us more about the conceptual framework you propose in the paper and the role it can play in rewriting the research agenda in the field?

Bryan McAllister-Grande: If you talk to anyone who has worked in research, either as a full-time researcher or a scholar-practitioner, they’ll agree that there needs to be more structure and organization to international education research. [International education research] has often been very sporadic, and it has been done in little bits and pieces over the last 50 years or so. It has not been a major priority in the field.

Headshot of Bryan McAllister-Grande
Bryan McAllister-Grande, EdD

Given that we have emerged from more of a practice perspective, many of the organizations have historically not given a lot of funding or cachet to research in the field. To be fair, part of this is the complexity of research in the field. It is not an easy task because of the many different lenses that are involved and disciplines that are involved with international education. It is multidisciplinary.

There are a lot of different lenses in the field, and that contributes to a little bit of a chaotic landscape with many, many different journals that you can publish in. And people aren’t necessarily reading each other’s work in those journals. We felt that trying to come to grips with all of what’s out there and reframe things [was needed]. The conceptual framework is not a dramatic reframing. It’s getting back to the foundations in some ways.

We have three different buckets that we put a lot of the research [in]: mobility; global learning, internationalization of the curriculum, and internationalization at home, which deals with the academic realms of internationalization; and then comparative higher education—trying to infuse in that comparative higher ed lens. 

For those international educators not directly involved in research in the field, they may see research as being related to their work but not something that impacts their daily tasks. Why is it important for everyone involved in international education to understand the role of research in their work?

Melissa Whatley: We talk a lot in the field about evidence-based decisionmaking or data-driven decisionmaking. That’s where research comes into the practitioner world. It is the first entry point. Without appealing to data and research and systematic findings in the field, how do you know that you’re making the best decisions in your practice?

headshot of Melissa Whatley
Melissa Whatley, PhD

The pandemic has underscored that again—that we can’t just assume that the decisions that we’re making in international higher education are the best ones, are the right ones, or are the ones that benefit students or faculty the most. Research can provide those guidelines for adding a different perspective or thinking more deeply about the potential outcomes of particular decisions.

A theme that comes up several times in the white paper is stratification. In many ways, international higher education continues to be seen as elitist. And that is because we have a stratified system, where only certain people have access to international education opportunities. From a practitioner perspective, being aware that this happens can inform your practice.

For instance, for a study abroad adviser, what do you bring to the table when you sit down with a student who’s interested in participating in study abroad? How do you think about their concerns about traveling abroad? How do you think about their perspective of international education? When you plan recruitment events, when you go out to talk to students about study abroad, how does that background knowledge about stratified opportunities in international higher education inform the way you talk about those opportunities? I hope that [this bigger picture] changes how you talk about those opportunities.

"Many students don’t come to higher education looking for adventure or looking for international travel opportunities. They come to higher education because they want to get a job. Thinking about international higher education from that lens [is helpful]."

Many students don’t come to higher education looking for adventure or looking for international travel opportunities. They come to higher education because they want to get a job. Thinking about international higher education from that lens [is helpful]. Thinking about what students need to get out of international experiences—what they’re looking for—is something that research can inform.

In studying the history of research in the field, how has it evolved? What are the shortcomings that you hope to see addressed going forward?

McAllister-Grande: Early research in the field tended to be very much tied to national interests in public diplomacy and cultural diplomacy. Some of the early research was born out of the Cold War and the fight against communism. There were very intentional national goals in some of the early research that evolved into some research on student learning outcomes in the 1980s. Several international educators pioneered some of that research, but it was at a fairly low level of sophistication in terms of research design. That general way of thinking about research has continued.

We’re seeing more sophistication in terms of research design, primarily because graduate programs are better and more international educators [are] going through rigorous doctoral graduate programs to get that training. We still see some things like, as we noted in the paper, a lack of comparison groups. In general, research in the field tends to be focused on a single institution or institutional case studies. This is often the researchers at a home institution or an institution within their network, which isn’t necessarily a bad research design strategy. But when it multiplies, it can be problematic because it doesn’t really get at the question of comparison between institutions or groups. And therefore it’s hard to make generalizable conclusions from that research.

One area that Melissa and I agreed on right away was a need for principles of triangulation. The principle of triangulation in research refers to studying your subjects from multiple angles and data points. For instance, you might do an interview with a subject, then you also do a focus group, or you do a quantitative survey at the same time or at a different point in time. You are trying to see if the data confirm your hypothesis or assumptions. We don’t generally see a lot of that triangulation work, and it’s a bit of a mystery—because it tends to be something that’s taught in most doctoral programs and graduate programs. It would be interesting to find out why there isn’t more of this triangulation work. So that’s something we'd like to see more of. 

Did you see any trends emerge?

McAllister-Grande: The overall major finding, if there was one big takeaway from the paper, is a movement to think about the real societal ramifications and outcomes of international higher education. We’ve been focused for a long time on student learning outcomes and program evaluation and outcomes as being the key areas to research. But [those] do not get at the question of, is what we’re doing actually beneficial to the globe? Is it beneficial to the environment, to host communities, to our partners that we work with?

And that raises a bigger question of, is a lot of what we’re doing not reciprocal? Is it just benefiting an American elite or a set number of institutions? Stratification and societal ramifications are the major takeaways.

"We’ve been focused for a long time on student learning outcomes and program evaluation and outcomes as being the key areas to research. But [those] do not get at the question of, is what we’re doing actually beneficial to the globe? Is it beneficial to the environment, to host communities, to our partners that we work with?"

We have some trends to watch in certain areas. Are there unintended consequences of the massive amounts of mobility and student exchanges that have gone on in recent years, especially in light of some of the more critical focus of the field through an antiracism, postcolonial, or decolonization lens? We better understand the impact of global learning and internationalization at home and of the curriculum. [Those] are challenging to research because there are a number of complexities when you think about curriculum, because curriculum could mean many different things to many people. There’s not a single curriculum even at one institution, or even arguably in one academic department.

[In the paper], we call for a better understanding of some of the tribalism and nationalist movements or, in academic terms, what’s called neonationalism and neopopulism, that is occurring around the globe. That is changing what we think of as internationalization and international cooperation. We need to better understand that.

Whatley: To build on one of the points that Bryan made—and the pandemic may push this along a bit—I’m hopeful that in the future, we’ll see a bit more emphasis on what might be considered nontraditional forms of international education, [which is] non-mobility-based forms of international education. Coming from a community college perspective, that has been on my radar for a while now—that not all students are able to travel. Not all faculty are able to travel. There are real barriers to the international mobility piece, but those students and faculty still need international experiences.

We have been stuck in the mobility model of international education for a long time. I’m hopeful that an unintended consequence of the pandemic is that our focus will be more on these non-mobility-based forms of international education. Community colleges have a lot to offer in that respect. They’ve been doing it for a while. They’ve been focusing on other ways to provide students with those international opportunities.

Since the paper was completed, significant changes have taken place that directly affect international education. These changes have exacerbated the “state of transition” that the field was already experiencing, as noted in the paper’s executive summary. What are some of the challenges and opportunities for international education that have come out of the pandemic? How can research help international educators meet this moment?

Whatley: The pandemic certainly has had huge implications for international higher education, in that it has impacted mobility so much. On one hand, it has underscored how important international education is, because the pandemic is not going to be solved by a single country. The United States can’t solve the pandemic for itself without cooperation with other countries, without working with other countries across borders, across cultures. It really has to be a global solution. As [with] many of the other challenges that we face, such as climate change, it’s a global challenge, and we have to work internationally to solve those challenges.

"While the pandemic has certainly presented challenges for international higher education, I think it’s also presented opportunities to really reflect on what do we do, why do we do it, and how can we do it better. And research can certainly inform our thinking there."

At the same time, [the pandemic] of course presents its own set of challenges. I think folks in international higher education are finding themselves in a place at some institutions, maybe for the first time, [of] having to justify why they do what they do and why it’s important. That is a place where research can play a role, in looking at, [for example], what are the outcomes of international higher education activities? How are these outcomes good for students? How are they good for society?

And on the flip side, what could we also do better as a field? While the pandemic has certainly presented challenges for international higher education, I think it’s also presented opportunities to really reflect on what do we do, why do we do it, and how can we do it better. And research can certainly inform our thinking there.

In addition to the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement and other efforts to fight racism have gained traction across the United States and the globe. How is this affecting international education, and what are the opportunities for the field to grow and evolve on these issues?

Whatley: In the paper, we call for a more critical focus on international higher education. We especially call for more postcolonial perspectives and more diversity-focused research. I think the Black Lives Matter movement underscores how important these perspectives of the field really are, and moving forward in international higher education, we need to be more critical of ourselves. We can’t assume that all of our activities are good and benevolent and that the benefits are equally distributed among everyone.

McAllister-Grande: A lot of what we’re seeing right now is in some ways a culmination of a crisis, or crises, that have existed for quite a while in the field. It has been an undercurrent since at least the 2008 economic recession. And that is a perception among people both inside the field and outside the field that international education and higher education in general have not achieved the goals that they set out to achieve. They haven’t served students in the best way possible. [There is a perception] that they are only serving students from elite backgrounds, that they are leading to more academic competition and marketization and capitalism, rather than achieving goals of mutual understanding and cross-cultural understanding.

A lot of what we’re seeing right now is in some ways a culmination of a crisis, or crises, that have existed for quite a while in the field. And that is a perception among people both inside the field and outside the field that international education and higher education in general have not achieved the goals that they set out to achieve.

The lens is on us, and [we have] an opportunity in some ways to reimagine and reframe some of the goals [of international education]. Research can play a tremendous role in identifying what has worked so far and reframing the questions. Sometimes research is looked upon as assessing what we’re doing in a way that says whether things are kind of beneficial or beneficial, but this is an opportunity to reframe the questions that we should be asking in the field. Some of the programs and exchanges that we do—are they actually designed to reach some of the goals that we want to achieve?

What do you hope will come next for research in the field now that this paper has been released?

McAllister-Grande: We need more of these [papers]. There have been other surveys of the field. This is not the only one in terms of surveys of research; this is one perspective. This is just cracking the surface, because in some ways we were only able to look at a limited timeframe. We looked at key categories, but we weren’t able to drill down to any degree of depth into some of those categories. Our call is for more of these to happen, official analysis of what’s been produced in different research topics and categories can be understood. There is a need to continue this synthesis work. 

Whatley: I’ll add that I hope we see more attention to research design and methods in the field in the future. In many respects, as we highlight in the paper, international higher education is an exciting mixture of disciplines, perspectives, and professional roles. While this variety is certainly a welcome characteristic of the field, it also means that there is a wide range of research skills. I think we’re seeing professional and graduate programs shift toward a deeper consideration of research methods and specific attention to how we know what we think we know about the field—which is a positive trend to my mind. •

About International Educator

International Educator is NAFSA’s flagship publication and has been published continually since 1990. As a record of the association and the field of international education, IE includes articles on a variety of topics, trends, and issues facing NAFSA members and their work. 

From in-depth features to interviews with thought leaders and columns tailored to NAFSA’s knowledge communities, IE provides must-read context and analysis to those working around the globe to advance international education and exchange.

About NAFSA

NAFSA: Association of International Educators is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA's 10,000 members are located at more than 3,500 institutions worldwide, in over 150 countries.