Building a Multifaceted Learning Environment for Multicultural Student Groups | Maija Kärnä, Ekaterina Usacheva and Jouni Järvinen

The purpose of the article is to encourage university teachers and professors to build multifaceted learning environments together with colleagues from national and foreign universities. The article describes the structure and implementation of a course which combines online and face-to-face studies in an international context. The aim of the course was to enrich and diversify the learning experiences of the students and to provide them with the skills and knowledge required by multinational labour markets. The text discusses the benefits and challenges of integrating research-based industry cooperation into an international blended learning environment.


New Trends in Education

Modern multinational labour markets demand from the graduating students skills in critical information search and data literacy, analytics and communications, as well as real life work experience. Educational institutions are expected to provide students with the skills for working in multidisciplinary and international teams (Oehlberg, Leighton, Agogino & Hartmann 2011) as the best results in teamwork are achieved through a variety of views, disciplines and skills (Denison, Hart & Kahn 1996).

To meet the challenges, universities have been forced to rethink their strategies and educational programmes. They have begun to build interdisciplinary and multifaceted learning environments. Different forms of industry-university cooperation have been adopted. Lifelong learning skills, information searching practices, and research and development methods are essential parts of the new learning contents.

The purpose of this paper is to discuss the experiences gained in a multifaceted, international learning environment implemented by a network of two Finnish Universities – Tampere University of Applied Sciences (TAMK) and University of Helsinki, Aleksanteri Institute (HU) – and one Russian university – North-West Institute of Management (NWIM) in St.Petersburg. Our aim is to encourage university teachers and professors to offer enriching learning experiences to their students in cooperation with national and international universities.

Multifaceted Learning Environments

The network described above has twice implemented an online course ‘Managing Cultural Diversity’ (5 ECTS) together with an intensive week (IP-week). A mixed group of 20 students from Finland and Russia participated on the course on both years. They represented several disciplines, such as engineering, business, philology, cultural and area studies, political history and science, state and municipal administration.

The main aim of the course for the students was to study four themes: Defining Leadership, Cultural Diversity, Cultural Diversity Leadership and Qualitative Research. The online study material consisted of freely accessible materials, such as online articles and books. Online discussions provided a forum for collaborative knowledge building. Individual studies included online tests and writing learning summaries.

The online studies started with instructive material on the contents and process of the studies, introductions of the students through short videos, and information on assessment methods. A one-day meeting and workshop day was organized at TAMK for the Finnish students to discuss the study contents and to get to know each other. In St. Petersburg, a meeting opening the theoretical training was organized for the Russian students.

After two months of online studies the students and teachers met in St.Petersburg. On the first year, the students’ visit to St. Petersburg was mainly self-financed by the students themselves with some support from the universities. On the second year, the visit was financed by a FIRST-grant from CIMO (Centre for International Mobility in Finland). The grant covered the travel, accommodation and some sustenance costs for the Finnish students and teachers.

The core of the IP-week programme was planning and implementing a qualitative study. The overall aim of the study was to find out how leadership practices and expectations vary between two cultures, Finnish and Russian. One or more Finnish companies established in St. Petersburg were contacted in advance to act as partners in the study projects. [pullquote align=”right”]Great feedback from students and the auspicious learning outcomes supporting the professional development of the students prevail the challenges.[/pullquote] The partner companies provided facilities and arranged interview meetings with their staff members for the Russian-Finnish student groups. The attending professors gave specialist lectures on leadership research and practices. Introduction and workshops on qualitative research were organized to support the practical study and data analysis processes of the students.

Great feedback from students and the auspicious learning outcomes supporting the professional development of the students prevail the challenges.

To ensure fluent group work, special grouping exercises were organized through a series of small tasks, such as introductions and discussions of expectations or feelings concerning the IP-week. Finally, each small group with two to three Finnish and two Russian participants were given the task to come up with a name for their group. These groups continued to work together to plan the interview questions and practical implementation of the interviews, transcription and analysis of the collected data. Each group interviewed one Finnish representative from the upper management and their Russian subordinates. On the last day of the IP-week the groups presented the results of their analysis and received feedback from teachers and peers.

After the week in St. Petersburg the Finnish students drafted reports based on the study results. The group reports were compiled by the coordinator into a final report, which was sent to the partner company(ies), including recommendations for future actions. The Russian students wrote additionally a learning diary to their teacher.

Experiences and Lessons Learned

Several successes as well as challenges could be identified from the feedback collected from the teachers and the students. One, slightly surprising challenge, was the semantic differences between Russian and English language vocabulary used in the leadership studies. For example, in the Russian language the concept of leadership refers to a psychological phenomenon and is seldom used in organizational management context. Also, the English language skills of the students varied and complicated the cooperation in the multicultural groups.

One of the most interesting challenges for the students was working in multidisciplinary groups. Research has shown that generally students have a positive view of working in such groups. Students get new insights and are able to better identify their own expertise as part of their professional identity. However, the team spirit in the groups and the students’ attitude towards working in a team influence the way they cope in difficult situations caused by multi-disciplinarity. (Hellmundt 2000; Heikkinen & Iso-Möttönen 2015.)

The above applies in our project, also. The students found working in multidisciplinary groups in general invigorating and mind-opening. However, in some cases it was found even more challenging than working with students coming from other cultures. The way of thinking and doing things, as well as the vocabulary used was found perplexing, and it took time to find a shared understanding and way of working. Networks created between the students from different universities were, however, highly valued and believed to be beneficial also in the future, both personally as well as professionally.

In addition to being multidisciplinary, the student groups were also multicultural. Interaction in culturally mixed groups has been discovered to benefit the learning of students in a number of ways, including the development of cognitive skills, effective communication skills, and cultural sensitivity (Arkoudis, Yu, Baik, Borland, Chang, Lang, I., Lang, J., Pearce & Watty 2010). Working on the task of planning and implementing a small qualitative research got the students involved in sharing ideas and facts, reflecting their own understandings, perceptions, assumptions and values together with the group members, as well as resolving conflict situations with them.

The students appreciated the group work sessions as the forum where most of the learning during the IP-week took place. They became aware of several clear differences between the two cultures. They notices that working styles differed – Finns create multiple ideas, Russians are quick at making decisions. Furthermore, attitudes towards authorities are respectful and formal in Russia, while in Finland they are more democratic. Russians express their feelings more freely than Finns. However, the students also found ways to overcome differences and problems caused by cultural differences.

Another special feature of our course was the research-based cooperation with industry. Studies show several ways of integrating research into education. For this course the Research in Education -approach was chosen. This method focuses on “ways to optimize opportunities for students to actively engage science by direct experience, working on practical cases and field settings, interviewing with questions, collecting evidence, making interpretations and developing scientific habits of the mind” (Grinenko, Makarova & Andreassen 2016, 31).

In this case, the partner companies provided the authentic environment, where the student groups had the opportunity to interact with professionals from various areas of specialization. This cooperation proved to be one of the highlights of the courses. All students appreciated the rare opportunity to have a direct contact with the top managers and experts working in the companies and openly discuss their expert views on the topic of the study and well as business in Russia in general.

Research has shown that one of the major problems in learning activities involving mixed groups of local and foreign students is the absence of local students from the meetings. Local students might have other classes or work during the intensive week lectures. (Hellmundt 2000.) The situation is challenging for the group members who are left to tackle the given task. During the IP-week, the Russian students were excused from their other classes. However, differences in understanding punctuality caused some anxiety and concern among the Finnish students during the hectic period of analysing the data: In Russian culture being late for 10 minutes is considered as being in time.

Conclusions

Although it is challenging to implement and control multifaceted learning environments, we find that the positive feedback from the students and the auspicious learning outcomes supporting the professional development of the students prevail the challenges. We hope that sharing our experiences in this article will encourage more teachers in Finland and in Russia to create versatile, international learning environments to support the development of cultural sensitivity, teamwork skills and other meta skills necessary for students in their future professional life.


References

Arkoudis, S., Yu, X., Baik, C., Borland, H., Chang, S., Lang, I., Lang, J., Pearce, A. & Watty, K. 2010. Finding Common Ground: enhancing interaction between domestic and international students Guide for academics. Retrieved from http://melbourne-cshe.unimelb.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/1861938/FindingCommonGround_web.pdf

Denison, D., Hart, S.L. & Kahn, J.A. 1996. From Chimneys to Cross-Functional Teams: Developing and Validating a Diagnostic Model. Academy of Management Journal, Vol 39, (4). Retrieved from file: ///C:/Users/karnama/Desktop/Maija/Managing%20Cultural%20Diversity%202017/Artikkeli/From_Chimneys_to_Cross-Functional_Teams_Developing.pdf

Grinenko, S., Makarova, E. & Andreassen, J-E. 2016. Trends and Features of Student Research Integration in Educational Program. Bulgarian Comparative Education Society, Paper presented at the Annual International Partner Conference (4th, Sofia, Bulgaria, Jun 14–17 2016), 30-36.

Heikkinen, J. & Iso-Möttönen, V. 2015. Learning mechanisms in multidisciplinary teamwork with real customers and open-ended problems. European Journal of Engineering Education, vol. 40 (6).

Hellmundt, S. 2000. A case study investigating international and local students’ perceptions and experiences of teaching in an intercultural tertiary context. Doctor of Education thesis, University of Wollongong – Faculty of Education. Retrieved from http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/965

Oehlberg, L., Leighton, I., Agogino, A. & Hartmann, B. 2011. Teaching Human-Centered Design Innovation Across Engineering, Humanities and Social Sciences. Retrieved from https://bid.berkeley.edu/files/papers/oehlberg-mudd2011.pdf


Authors

Maija Kärnä
Principal lecturer
Author’s field of study: professional identity development, online learning, mobile learning
Tampere University of Applied Sciences
Fields of expertise: research, pedagogy, international business

Ekaterina Usacheva

Associated professor at the Chair of Social Technologies
Author’s field of study: economics, management, marketing
North-West Insitute of Management, St.Petersburg
Fields of expertise: marketing management, services quality measuring, marketing technologies in public administration

Jouni Järvinen
Director of Educational Programmes
Author’s field of study: civil society, East European contemporary history/politics
University of Helsinki, Aleksanteri Institute
Fields of expertise: research, higher education, area studies