Focusing on the digital experiences of international students can improve higher education for everyone

Elizabeth Newall reflects on the findings of the second phase of Jisc's research on the digital experience of international students

Elizabeth Newall is senior sector specialist (digital transformation), higher education at Jisc

While the economic impact of international students cannot be denied, they contribute so much more to UK higher education than money. Nor are they a homogenous group.

International students bring in billions per annum to the economy, as highlighted in the recent report from HEPI, UUKi and Kaplan, but it’s imperative to recognize and address their multifaceted contributions, their cultural diversity, varied skillsets, and intellectual talents.

Refining the digital experience of international students can enhance the overall higher education landscape, bolstering institutional reputation and even encouraging an increase in applications from both the UK and abroad. To do that, we need to listen to international students themselves about how they experience higher education in the UK – and explore if a rethink of policy and strategy might improve their university journeys.

At Jisc, we are conducting four phases of research into the digital experiences of international students, and in April, we released a review of policy, academic literature and views from UK HE. Findings underline the clear need for institutional leaders to integrate international into digital (transformation) strategies, as well as with other areas, including equality, diversity, and inclusion, curriculum and assessment design, and technology-enhanced learning support.

What international students need

We have just published our second phase of research, this time hearing from international students. International students’ digital experience phase two: the experiences and expectations of international students studying in UK higher education, builds on 18 years of research by Jisc into the digital experiences of students, and is a culmination of insights from more than 2,000 international students, with input from 14 higher education providers along with sector bodies Advance HE,  BUILA, the British Council, QAA, UCAS, UKCISA, and Universities UK International.

The report sheds light on the diverse experiences of international students, covering onboarding, assessment, virtual learning environments, blended and online learning, internet and data, digital skills and support, and technical problems faced during studies.

International students reported a diversity of experiences and expectations, many of which were associated with their home global area. Many reported significant challenges, such as limited support transitioning to unknown systems, and practical issues such as setting up authentication, and accessing university systems outside the UK.

While our first report outlines how universities should factor international students into all institutional digital strategies – phase two shares practical steps to address challenges that international students have told us they are facing. Thanks to their open and honest feedback, we have collated the following recommendations.

Recommendations for higher education providers


  • Give international students an accurate summary of how technology will be used on their course, additional support to develop digital skills, guidance around self-directed
  • study, insight into typical grade boundaries, and expectations around the use of technology in day-to-day life both on and off campus
  • Provide information about how to access the internet on and off campus, including what eduroam is and the use of reliable wifi versus mobile data in the UK
  • Advise international students which digital devices they should bring to support their studies and how technology will be used on their course
  • Consider offering differential pre-arrival support to students based on their digital experience to date.
  • Ensure multifactor authentication that uses mobile numbers allows for the likely transition to new devices

On arrival

  • Provide students with an overview of university digital systems and how they interact
  • Tell international students which digital platforms, technologies, resources, and apps are available to them and how to gain access
  • Consider providing digital support via international student volunteers/ambassadors, clear signposting to international student representatives, and physical and virtual meet-ups
  • Manage expectations around communication at the start of the course, including which communication channels are most often used, how often students should check their emails, appropriate ways to contact teaching staff and how soon they can expect replies

During the course

  • Ensure all recorded lectures have clear, high-quality audio and captions that correctly describe subject-specific terminology
  • Provide clear guidance on acceptable and non-acceptable use of artificial intelligence
  • Educate international students on how to use supportive digital resources beyond those provided by the university

Institution-wide changes

That’s not all though. We recommend that providers think about how the additional language needs of some international students might drive digital inequality, and gain insight into the digital resources and communication methods students are familiar with. Supporting internationalisation of the curriculum is also important, and can be facilitated by exploring ways in which digital technologies allow international students to share previous experiences.

In terms of wellbeing, it can also help to provide safe, anonymous channels for students to share honest feedback, as well as increasing opportunities for face-to-face conversations with staff, and to review levels of digital access to personal tutors, wellbeing support and online communities.

Perhaps most importantly, we recommend universities ensure international students’ digital needs are reflected within institutional strategies, including the diversity of digital experience associated with different home global areas within the context of changing demographics. Delivering these updated strategies relies on teaching and support staff being given the time, recognition and reward they need to cater successfully for a diverse student cohort.

Post-pandemic, there are still challenges for international students as they make their digital border crossings to study with us. UK higher education can improve how it welcomes international students, providing them with the support they need to thrive during their stay with us. With a commitment to inclusivity and a focus on equitable results for international students, we can forge an impressive digital learning experience that caters to all students.

This article reports on the second phase of Jisc’s international student experience research. You can read the full report here, and the first phase review of the policy, academic literature and sector views here.

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