Professional development for quality
enhancement of learning and teaching

Case Study - Unpacking Effective Transnational Teaching Teams

Overview

International education is an important export industry in Australia, having grown 94% from 2004 to 2010 (Phillimore & Koshy, 2010). In 2008, one third of the total 295,000 international students studying in Australian higher education institutions were enrolled in transnational programs (Australian Education International, 2010). While all Australian public universities have some involvement in transnational education (Dunn and Wallace 2008, cited in Chapman and Pyvis, 2012, p 71) and enthusiasm for transnational partnerships in Australian higher education institutions continues to grow, studies by Debowski, 2003, Dobos, 2011, Chapman and Pyvis, 2012 and Sanderson, 2013 among others have identified operational-level challenges for teachers, teaching teams and students. Student outcomes are profoundly affected by these challenges, which may stem from power relations, communication practices, differences in expectations of academic and assessment practice and quality standards.

This paper provides an overview of the process and activity undertaken to understand the key determinants of transnational teaching teams. Data was obtained through interviews with faculty in two campuses of an Australian university, one in Australia and the second in Vietnam. The research aims to provide a better understanding of issues affecting faculty across multiple campuses, including strengths and challenges of relationship management and the establishment of professional practices to support student learning including academic equivalence, contextualisation and customisation.

Keywords

Transnational education, teaching practice, quality assurance.

Background

This paper reports on the experiences of faculty teaching business programs in two campuses of the same university - one in Australia and the other in Vietnam. Perspectives of stakeholders from both locations were sought in a series of semi-structured interviews which explored the notion of the transnational teaching team. Thirty individuals, including faculty from both campuses who teach in the programs, those who coordinate the courses, and those involved in the design, moderation, and coordination of courses and programs were interviewed. Some interviewees had multiple roles. Questions were developed from the literature (Keevers, Harper, Lefoe and Dawood 2011, Hicks and Jarrett, 2008, Connelly Garron and Olsen 2006, Hicks and Jarrett 2008, Leask 2009 and Lee, Poch, Shaw and Williams, 2012), and were designed to identify their views and experience about quality teaching and learning, the extent of their association with the transnational teaching team, communication processes within the team, and course-related decision-making practices.

Analysis of data obtained through interviews with faculty in both home and offshore campuses indicates significant differences in perceptions about communication, curriculum development and professional practice. A resulting model is proposed which defines communication and negotiated practice as the catalyst for the effective functioning of a transnational teaching team.

Overview Of The Australian University’s Activity

This university brings together a worldwide community of students and faculty from a variety of cultural, linguistic and ethnic backgrounds. The University has three campuses in Australia and two in Vietnam. Programs are offered through partners in Singapore, Hong Kong, mainland China, Malaysia, India and Europe. The student population of 74,000 includes 30,000 international students, of whom more than 17,000 are taught offshore. The focus of this paper is the university’s business college which has a twenty-year history of offshore delivery, operating at four locations. The largest cohort of offshore students is in Singapore, with more than 8,000 students. More than 6,000 students study at two locations in Vietnam.

Activity in the Vietnam campuses

The first of two Vietnam campuses began offering programs in 2001 and the second followed in 2004. There are currently almost 6000 students studying across two campuses. The university employs more than 600 faculty across all areas of the university. The same international degrees are delivered in Australia and Vietnam and the qualification is awarded by the University. All degrees conferred by the university are recognised by the Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training. The Vietnam campuses operate on a trimester arrangement to support student immersion in an English language environment and to develop and maintain students’ proficiency in the English language. All students are encouraged to complete up to 3 semesters in a calendar year. The Vietnam academic calendar is most closely synchronised with the Australian calendar at the beginning of Semester 1 in February. Deadlines for exam preparation and moderation for Vietnam are not aligned with Australia in Semester 2 in June nor in Semester 3 in October.

Faculty in Australia

Most of the 400 full-time faculty in the College of Business have doctoral qualifications. On average, research accounts for approximately 40% of their workload, with teaching responsibilities (including course/unit coordination of offerings in Australia, Singapore, Shanghai and Vietnam) taking 40% and other duties contributing the remaining 20%. The Course Coordinator in Australia is primarily responsible for the management, conduct, teaching and assessment of a course and the timely preparation of results in all locations.

Faculty in Vietnam

Faculty in Vietnam are predominantly non- Vietnamese, coming from approximately 27 different countries. All have Masters degrees from universities across the globe and a small number has doctoral qualifications. Many have extensive experience in industry and/or higher education. They bring to their roles a knowledge of business and industry and its application in the South East Asian region. Vietnam faculty are employed on the Vietnam campus and while not technically members of any Australia school, the university regards them as colleagues for teaching purposes. On average about 70% of a Vietnam course coordinator’s time is devoted to teaching, with the remainder allocated to coordination activity across the two locations in Vietnam and engagement with Australia.

Activity between the two institutions

In this paper the term ‘course’ refers to one of several subjects or units that comprise a program of study. A course coordinator in Australia is charged with the responsibility for the quality of their curriculum, delivered in their own and other campuses as well as in partner institutions. In addition to their responsibilities to collaborate with their peers, part-time faculty and students in Australia, Australian course coordinators have direct responsibility for liaising with their counterparts in Vietnam and partner institutions in Singapore and Shanghai to maintain the currency and quality of their courses. Course coordinators in Vietnam liaise with their Australian counterparts. In turn they have sole responsibility for managing the work of smaller course teams of between one and ten faculty in the two Vietnamese campuses.

The University’s Academic Board is responsible for ensuring that appropriate quality control is exercised over program design, curriculum, teaching, assessment and examinations in all locations. Faculty in Vietnam and Australia share the same policies, procedures and guidelines. This means that their professional practices are expected to be guided by common understandings of student centred learning, curriculum development and maintenance, and the requirement to maintain and assure equivalence and comparability of academic standards and quality principles.

Equivalence and comparability of academic standards

To meet the university’s strategic priority, defined as ‘Global in attitude, action and presence, offering our students a global passport to learning and work’, (RMIT website, 2014) the strategic plan includes the goals to:

  • Teach an increasingly internationally relevant and locally contextualised curriculum
  • Contribute expertise to the University’s curriculum development by providing an international perspective and exemplars relevant to the regional context
  • Ensure aspects of teaching and research will be directly focused on the needs and challenges facing the region
While factors such as demographic profile, class size, cultural context and teaching model are significant contributors to the student success, the university must be in a position to assure stakeholders that all students are guaranteed an equivalent level of teaching quality, regardless of location. This requires faculty in both campuses to develop their skills and knowledge relating to the concepts of equivalence and comparability of academic standards in order to promote and ensure shared understanding of curriculum, professional practices and communication. The achievement of the university’s aspirations relies to a great extent on the establishment and maintenance of mutually supportive and productive transnational relationships.

Professional Development

Induction and professional development needs for Australia-based and offshore academic and teaching staff are currently met in an ad hoc manner across the university. A series of online Quick Guides for Transnational Teaching are available for faculty to download, covering basic institutional context information about offshore campuses, tips for teaching and assessment practice For many academic staff current preparation for teaching in offshore programs generally occurs through informal mechanisms such as mentoring and briefings from experienced colleagues.

Strengths And Challenges Of The Relationship

In transnational education the complex layers of institutional and cross-campus accountability and management have a direct impact on teaching and learning. Working on academic programs that span campuses in different countries requires consideration of perceptions of stakeholders, at both locations and indeed organisationally, and on operational processes related to transnational teaching. The literature identifies essential characteristics of effective transnational teachers to include teaching skills, personal attributes, cultural knowledge and knowledge of policy and procedures (see in particular Leask, B, Hicks, M, Kohler, M and King, B, 2005). This paper aims to identify another critical perspective on effective transnational programs - those aspects required to maintain a robust transnational teaching team, characterised as a partnership of equals with the shared aim of student achievement of consistent and agreed learning outcomes.

Data Analysis

Despite the differences in responses, analysis of the interviews conducted for this case study reinforced the importance of four aspects in particular: communication and negotiated practice, quality in teaching and learning, student learning and professional practice. Figure 1 presents a model designed to link these four aspects and illustrate the essential existence of communication and negotiation and quality in teaching and learning.

Different perspectives on the four aspects were identified. The perspectives of Australian faculty varied significantly from those of their peers in Vietnam. The Australian faculty who were interviewed worked in an environment where multiple transnational course offerings represented the norm. Most of those interviewed in Australia had some years of experience teaching and coordinating courses in offshore locations and many were accustomed to looking after multiple locations in a single semester/teaching period. An Australian coordinator stated: “We weren’t novices to offshore campuses or to remote control or remote management [when the Vietnam campus started]. We started in Malaysia in 1987 and Singapore in 1993”. Understandably this experience and organisational culture contributed to more of a longer-term view than those of the Vietnam faculty who are often employed on contracts of 2-3 years, may not have had prior experience with transnational programs nor with operations across multiple campuses. Vietnam faculty tended to express more interest in issues that primarily affect their own location rather than taking a global perspective.

Key contributors to effective transnational teaching teams
Fig 1. Key contributors to effective transnational teaching teams

Overall, faculty in both campuses who had been teaching for longer tended to have a more positive perspective on the issues of curriculum development, professional practices and communication, attributing the stability of their courses to the quality of their transnational relationships, apparently regardless of whether they were aware of and/or strictly followed university guidelines.

Communication and negotiated practice

Not surprisingly, communication was found by faculty in Australia and Vietnam to be the most important aspect of the development and maintenance of effective and collegial transnational teaching teams. Faculty in both locations regarded personal contact at an early stage of the relationship as of critical importance. “Face-to-face contact is actually a good thing and when I’ve gone to Australia in the past and met people and been able to put names to faces it’s been very helpful. It has been very good”, said a Vietnam faculty. Challenging aspects related to the quality and frequency of communications, the misalignment of semester dates and the accommodation of the different time zones in which the campuses operated.

Semester misalignment

For faculty in Vietnam the misalignment of the academic calendar was seen as a significant challenge because critical deadlines in Vietnam were often found to occur when their colleagues in Australia were away from the university, either due to offshore teaching responsibilities, the university closure over Christmas/New Year period or annual leave arrangements. This has led on occasion to delayed or no feedback from Australia, which is a requirement of the university’s assessment policy, embedded into course management processes. “The number one thing that both sides need to understand is that we run on different timetables”, stated a coordinator in Vietnam.

The three or four hour time difference was also noted as problematic because it inhibited easy contact between campuses. On most dates throughout the year students in Vietnam will be in a different academic week to those in Australia. The misalignment impedes the formation of synchronous cross campus teams, to facilitate ‘global learning’, defined by Gibson, Rimmington and Landwehr- brown, as activity where learners from different cultures use technology to improve their global perspectives while remaining in their home countries (2008). Faculty who mentioned seeking to develop group work with students located in different countries spoke of the inevitable loss of enthusiasm due to the challenges associated with misalignment of time zones and academic weeks.

Quality and frequency of communication

Relationship development and maintenance was seen by all respondents to be a very important aspect of an effective teaching team. While relationship-building was seen as a challenge, it was also seen as an achievable goal. The quality of communication/interaction was seen to be very much dependent on the relationship between the two counterparts. Some respondents noted that it was significantly easier when a face to face meeting had occurred early in the tenure of the Vietnam coordinator. Comments such as “the personal connection really removes a lot of barriers” were ubiquitous throughout the majority of the interviews. One respondent who managed a large class in Australia noted “It’s very easy for someone in Australia to almost lose touch because they’re so busy with their team of twenty teachers here and they forget that there’s actually a team of eighteen up there doing the same thing”

Almost all faculty in Vietnam indicated that having a personal connection or at least an understanding of their Australian counterpart was very important to the conduct of a successful course. Some faculty in Vietnam reported identifying more with their team in the other Vietnam city and communicating more with them than their colleagues in Australia. Some found it unusual that there was not more engagement between faculty teaching in multiple offerings of the same course. Although most were aware that the courses they taught were offered in other locations, none were able to name them.

Use of technology to facilitate communication

Those faculty who had travelled to Australia, or whose Australian counterpart had visited Vietnam described a significant improvement in the effectiveness of the relationship. In the absence of frequent face to face contact respondents identified a range of technology was identified as useful contributors to mutually beneficial relationships. These included telephone, skype, email and teleconference as well as the Blackboard learning management system. Email was the most commonly used communication tool; the frequency of communication varied widely from weekly to only once per semester. A coordinator in Vietnam stated that at first the relationship was “…all about emails and phone calls. It was really difficult.” A subsequent visit to Australia improved the relationship: “I went there and I talked to them, so they put a name and face together. I think it just becomes natural, then we started having understanding.”

Communication with peers by phone and email was universally regarded as less effective than face to face engagement. Skype and videoconferencing were seen as potentially useful, in particular for classes where there are a number of tutors in Vietnam who would benefit from hearing the views of the Australian course coordinator and sharing their Vietnam classroom experience with their colleagues in Australia. One Australian coordinator noted that: “Skype works really well for those who want to use it”. Large transnational committee meetings are effectively facilitated through videoconferencing facilities, although success is dependent on the availability of people and the variable quality of the technology.

As trusting relationships developed, the need for communication reduced. It was found that in more developed relationships, the principal duties for the Australian coordinator were to ensure the alignment of assessment tasks between various course offerings and to respond to questions raised by their colleague in Vietnam.

Technology is vital for the transmission of draft and final assessment tasks through a secure server, although it was noted that when the server was seen to be unresponsive, the less secure vehicle of email was used.

Support for Student Learning

While it was clear that coordinators in both locations understood the importance of having a consistent curriculum that ensured the achievement of defined standards and learning outcomes, their views about the need for adaptation of course content in response to pedagogical and cultural contexts highlighted the disparity of perspectives underlying practices in both locations. This is a particularly important aspect going directly to Jonasson’s (1999) constructivist view that for the student learning experience to be meaningful it must be individually and socially constructed and based on their own life experience.

Equivalence of course content

Having responsibility for curriculum that supports student learning in multiple locations was found to challenge some Australian coordinators, some indicating a desire to maintain control over content, others preferring much more flexibility. This diversity of views can be seen in two interviewees in particular: one Australian coordinator stated, “the people in the actual location of teaching (in Vietnam) need to have the freedom, and the ability to tailor [a course] the way that they want,” while another said, “I do think maintenance of equivalence is going to be critical particularly - there’s no problem with just telling them to do what we’re doing but then the quality dives.”

In Vietnam a strong view was put that course content must be adapted if it is to be meaningful for students in an offshore context. One Australian coordinator cautioned against over-prescription: “There’s a fine line between being draconically prescriptive and allowing them to exercise their expertise.” Vietnam faculty expressed the view that while learning outcomes and core concepts were important, contextualisation was very important in order for core concepts to be communicated and explored. As one Course Coordinator in Vietnam noted, “He (the Australian Coordinator) has a lot of trust ...and so he gives us a lot of creative freedom to contextualise things as we see fit… how we think would be best for Vietnamese students.” Freedom to make changes to assessment was also seen as important. “Assessments have sometimes been a challenge because the language is just not appropriate for our students or some of the concepts are not appropriate. There’s all kinds of assumed cultural knowledge that’s not testing the subject matter or assessing the subject matter in itself but is in there and it puts our students at a disadvantage if we’re not able to have input into changing that”, said a course coordinator in Vietnam. However, some of those interviewed appeared to be unaware of the extent of contextualisation permissible, and reflected inconsistent instructions from colleagues in Australia.

Understanding the Vietnam learning context

An Australian coordinator shared: “We have new people (in Australia) who have no experience of Vietnam, no experience of anything like that. And so it’s a question of education.” This ‘education’ includes issues such as the typical student profile, the teaching model, and the background, skills and experience of their Vietnam counterparts. Another Australian coordinator stated: “I rely on my team in Vietnam to tell me what’s going on in the context on VN. Their challenges are different. Their challenges are unique.”

Teaching material for student learning

Material sent from Australia may be of uneven quality and not always readily transferable to the Vietnam context. The same core material may be sent by Australian coordinators to other locations and may require contextualisation and/or customisation. “They need to be adapted, so that the students can find it more accessible. If you’re working in the Australian system, … you’re not going to think in the Vietnamese context … unless you’ve got some experience in that area”.

Professional Practice

While teachers in both campuses are supported by the same high level policies and procedures it became apparent that the local, day to day concerns of teachers, the geographical distance and the lack of consistent and ongoing support may detract from the development and maintenance of supportive transnational teaching teams.

Identification with the concept of a transnational teaching team

The allocation of coordinator roles both in Australia and Vietnam was seen to be of critical importance to the early and ongoing success of the transnational teaching team. Faculty at both campuses expressed their disappointment at the occasional unexpected request for them to assume responsibility for a course at short notice, which inevitably had a negative impact on the establishment of an effective team.

There was a general recognition of the importance of keeping Vietnam involved in decision-making processes. However for some in Australia the need for a mutually supportive relationship with Vietnam continues to be of the second order of importance. One respondent stated that, “You hear from Vietnam that they still get (upset) at things and decisions that are made in Australia that they aren’t consulted on.” Often this may be done as a result of a need for expediency, as consulting with Vietnam may require time that is not always available.

A similar theme emerged from the interviews conducted in Vietnam that reflected a tendency among Vietnam course coordinators to see their course offering in isolation from other offerings. Whether due to the experience of the Vietnam course coordinator or the lack of engagement from the Australian coordinator, some saw themselves in somewhat of a bubble, associating themselves as part of a team comprising the two cities in Vietnam rather than the larger team incorporating Shanghai, Singapore and Australia.

Professional development for course leaders

Vietnam respondents unanimously acknowledged that comprehensive induction and ongoing reinforcement of policies and procedural expectations were essential for appropriate and useful practices to develop and be maintained. Vietnam faculty indicated that variations in expectations and requirements between courses offered in different discipline areas caused confusion about roles and responsibilities. They noted that induction for new course coordinators could be quite informal: “In terms of was there an official orientation or anything like that – there wasn’t really one – okay I sat down with him and he gave me the different materials and different things that I would need. We had chats between us about what we needed.” Another Vietnam coordinator stated that despite the lack of an established training program, “just by virtue of having been here a while and knowing who’s who and what’s what I think I got to figure out what the rules were … and today that continues.”

Next Steps –Addressing Identified Issues

Evidence from the interviews indicates that communication and negotiated practice are the catalysts of convergence in the activities of course teams in individual campuses to achieve a unified, cross-campus transnational teaching team. With few exceptions most of the issues identified in the interviews were raised as a result of insufficient attention being paid to the early establishment of expectations on both sides of the transnational relationship. In the absence of a formal induction into their roles, faculty are forced to rely on informally conveyed ‘custom and practice’ associated with curriculum development and professional practice. In the best of cases this practice results in positive outcomes; however, it is an inherently high risk practice. The establishment of clear communication channels is a necessary precursor to ongoing effectiveness.

diagram
Fig 2. Functions of effective Transnational Teaching Teams

The Figure 2 model reflects the importance of communication and negotiated practice and quality in teaching and learning as the enablers which ensure the development, maintenance and assurance of program quality in transnational teaching teams. A shared understanding of the transnational environments in which a course is offered underpins the effective operation of transnational teaching teams. All interviewees agreed that the development of consistent communication processes would be a useful by-product of this project. To this end we propose the adoption of measures to maximise the opportunity for effective communication and support the conduct of negotiated practice between partners in transnational settings.

References

Australian Education International (2010) Research Snapshot, Transnational Education in the Higher Education Sector, Accessed 15 May, 2014 from https://aei.gov.au/research/Research-Snapshots/Documents/ Transnational%20education_HE_2011.pdf

Chapman, A and Pyvis, D (2012) Enhancing Quality in Transnational Higher Education: Experiences of Teaching and Learning in Australian Offshore Programs, Lexington Books, USA

Connelly, S, Garron, J & Olsen, A (2006) Models and Types: Guidelines for Good practice in Transnational Education, London: The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education

Debowski, S (2003) Lost in Internationalised Space: The Challenge of Sustaining Academics Teaching offshore. Paper presented at the Australian International Education Conference, Melbourne, October

Dobos, K (2011) “Serving two masters” - academics’ perspectives on working at an offshore campus in Malaysia, Educational Review, 63:1, 19-35

Gibson, K. L, Rimmington, G. M, & Landwehr-Brown, M (2008) Developing global awareness and responsible world citizenship with global learning. Roeper Review, 30(1), 11-23

Hicks, M, & Jarrett, K (2008) ‘Providing Instruction, orientation and professional development for all staff involved in transnational teaching’. In L. Dunn & M. Wallace (Eds.), Teaching in transnational Higher Education: Enhancing learning for offshore international students (pp. 238-248) New York, Routledge

Keevers, L, Harper, B, Lefoe, G & Dawood Sultan, F (2011) Investigating teaching and learning professional development with co-teachers in transnational education, Wollongong: UOW

Leask, B (2001) Internationalisation: Changing contexts and their implications for teaching, learning and assessment HERDSA 2000

Leask, B, Hicks, M, Kohler, M and King, B (2005) Australian Vice Chancellor’s Offshore Quality Project A Professional Development Framework for Academic Staff Teaching Australian Programs Offshore Report,

Leask, B (2006) Internationalizing the Curriculum in the Disciplines—Imagining New Possibilities, Journal of Studies in International Education May 2013 vol. 17 no. 2 103-118

Leask, B (2009) ‘Using formal and informal curricula to improve interactions between home and international students’. Journal of Studies in International Education, 13(2), 205-221.

Lee, A, Poch, R, Shaw, M, and Williams, R (2012). Engaging diversity in undergraduate classrooms: a pedagogy for developing intercultural competence. Jossey-Bass, New York.

Mazzolini,Y, Giridhian, Goerke, Ling and Lueckenhausen, (2012) Learning without Borders, Accessed May 15, 2014: http://aiec.idp.com/uploads/pdf/2012_lwb_fri_0945_220.pdf

Melano, A, Bell, M, & Walker, R (2011) Transnational Teaching at UOW. Wollongong: UOW.

Phillimore, J & Koshy, P (2010) The Economic Implications of Fewer International Higher Education Students in Australia, The John Curtin Institute of Public Policy

Pyvis, D (2013) Applying quality principles to Australian university transnational teaching and learning, Office for Learning and Teaching, Accessed May 15, 2014 from www.olt.gov.au/project-applying-quality-principles-australian-university-transnational-teaching-and-learning-2011

O’Donoghue, T, Chapman, A, Pyvis, D, Aspland T, Melville, I (2010) Enhancing frameworks for assuring the quality of learning and teaching in university offshore education programs, Office for Learning and Teaching

RMIT Strategy to 2015, Transforming the Future 2015. www.rmit.edu.au/about/strategy [accessed 17 April, 2014]

Sanderson, G (2013) Hidden spaces in faraway places: The ‘lonely’ work of partner institution transnational tutors HERDSA conference, Auckland, New Zealand,1-4 July 2013


For further details please contact:

Dr Cathy Hall College of Business RMIT University
Email: cathy.hall.vandenelsen@gmail.com

Casey Scholz
Learning and Teaching Unit
RMIT International University Vietnam
Email: casey.scholz@rmit.edu.vn