Partnerships in global learning – before and after the outbreak of COVID-19.

Updated: Apr 17, 2020

By Wendy Green, PhD, Senior Lecturer, School of Education, University of Tasmania, Australia

Much has happened since the last post was added to this blog just over a year ago. Interest in developing partnerships in global learning has continued to grow, and I have been fortunate enough to spend much of my time engaging with students, faculty, and other university staff, exploring questions about partnerships in global learning in many different geo-political and cultural contexts.

Like many of my colleagues in higher education, I imagined 2020 would bring more of the same for my work, more of the same opportunities to explore the possibilities of working in partnerships in global learning within Australia and across the world. Until, that is, COVID-19 began to impact on every aspect of our lives.

Right now, universities are radically reshaping teaching and learning in unprecedented ways. With various forms of social isolation in force in most countries, many universities have had to implement online learning at breakneck speed. Those who have never before experienced learning and teaching solely online - that is, the majority of students and faculty in many countries - have suddenly found themselves on steep learning curves. The transition to purely online learning , as with the new physical distancing regulations, is a social experiment, the outcomes of which are not yet clear.

What will COVID-19 mean for university life in the longer term? Will this prove to be a watershed moment in higher education history? According to,

watershed moment is a turning point, the exact moment that changes the direction of an activity or situation. A watershed moment is a dividing point, from which things will never be the same. It is considered momentous, though a watershed moment is often recognized in hindsight.

While it is impossible at this point in the pandemic – ‘the beginning of the beginning’, as many are describing it - to predict how and to what extent higher education will be impacted in the longer term, it is critical that we find time to reflect now, as we navigate through this experience.

In these uncertain times I find myself recalling Donald Schön’s(1983) well known distinction between reflection on action and reflection in action. While the former involves contemplating one’s practice retrospectively in order to critique and extend what is known and improve future practice, the latter involves reflecting in the midst of an experience. According toSchön, we need to ‘reflect-in-action’ so that we can ‘make new sense of the situations of uncertainty or uniqueness’. The focus of reflection in action is on gaining a new perspective on a problem, rather than necessarily arriving at a solution.

Now seems like a good time to restart this blog, to reflect on what COVID-19 means for global learning, for the still nascent concept of student-staff partnerships in education, and for partnerships in global learning in particular. Reflecting on [past] action, what have we learned during the past few years of practice/research? Reflecting in action, how can we adapt to our new circumstances? What needs to change?

Reflecting on action

Over the past year, I have had numerous opportunities to engage with students, faculty and other university staff in many different contexts. All the while, I have continued to explore a question that has bothered me since I first encountered the concept of ‘students as partners’ (SaP), namely, the question of culture. When I began my Fellowship in January 2017, I wondered whether the concept of SaP might be culturally blind or bounded. What I’ve learned since then is that ‘students as partners’ is a complex cultural construct, not easily translatable, even across countries with a shared anglophone heritage. Different cultures have their own constructs of teaching and learning, as they do of partnership. Yet, I’ve found that SaP resonates with people in contexts as diverse as India, Malaysia, and Hong Kong, as well as with students from many cultural backgrounds at home in Australian universities. What matters is that we make space for students and staff to draw on their own cultural identities and knowledge, as well as their previous experiences of education in order to make sense of ‘students as partners’.

The same can be said for the construct of ‘global learning’. When I began to explore how the concept of SaP might be applied to the field of international education, I intentionally adopted the term ‘global learning’, rather than the related terms, internationalisation of the curriculum (IoC), or internationalisation at home (IaH) because the internationalisation of higher education discourse and practices have become so firmly tied to global mobility, and largely to those privileged few who can afford to travel. Like many of my colleagues in the field, I have long argued that the potential of ‘international education’ should be open to all. The term,global learning, as defined by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) aligns with this perspective.

As I have argued earlier (Green, 2019), the construct of ‘global learning’ avoids ‘entanglement in the instrumental and piecemeal approaches to ‘internationalisation’, which are undertaken in many universities (de Wit, 2013). Instead it addresse[s] the implications of increasing global connectedness as a dynamic phenomenon, which impacts on all students, differently, in their professional and civic lives’. The AAC&U’s definition of global learning not only emphasises ‘the complexities of global systems and legacies’ but also the processes by which staff and students engage with these complexities through the curricular domains of knowing, doing and being.

Yet, for the most part, the ‘internationalisation’ of higher education has continued to be tied firmly to the reification and quantification of mobility in policy and practice; that is to say, mobility is too often seen as an end in itself, rather than a means of connectivity and learning. Until now, perhaps. Some commentators, such as Kalyani Unkulehope that the radical curtailment of movement across the globe will bring about a permanent ‘shift away from a focus on mobility which privileges the already privileged towards engaging with globalisation and its discontents more proactively, particularly in order to grapple with the apparatus, mechanisms and vocabulary of othering’. Likewise, Robin Helmsargues that the current pandemic, ‘ironically enough, illustrates exactly why we need … students who understand global phenomena, can see xenophobic and culture-bound reactions for what they are, and are prepared to work with colleagues around the world to address global crises’. Global learning as defined, for example, by the AAC&U addresses both the empirical and theoretical challenges of understanding societal responses to such global phenomena, and the normative challenge of determining how we in universities should change our pedagogical practices in response to such challenges.

During my Fellowship, twelve projectswere co-designed, co-developed, co-implemented and co-evaluated by students working in partnership with faculty and/or other university staff. Each of these projects aimed to enhance global learning opportunities in the formal curriculum or the co-curriculum, at home or abroad. Research conducted through the Fellowship demonstrated that staff and students who partnered in these global learning projects became increasingly aware of, and interested in the impact of globalisation in their own and others’ lives; they developed greater empathy and interest in those considered culturally different from themselves; and they developed more awareness of the lived realities of (culturally) other staff and students.

But here’s the rub: such partnerships have until now invariably developed face to face – in workshops, conferences and classrooms. In fact, before the advent of COVID-19, it seems that the work of partnership building was very much a face to face activity. Very little SaP literature refers to partnership practices online, and none of the pilot projects developed through my Fellowship had a significant online dimension. What difference will the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 make to the way we engage in partnerships in global learning?

What does COVID-19 mean for engaging students as partners in global learning?

Global learning is essentially a pedagogy of encounter. We cannot understand, interrogate and appreciate different, even conflicting perspectives without entering affable, trusting, respectful relationships with others who we perceive to be different from ourselves. Likewise, ‘student as partners’ is essentially a relationship building process, in which all of those involved stand to benefit (Healey, Flint & Harrington, 2016). It is an ongoing process, founded on reciprocity, respect and shared responsibility for teaching and learning.

However, student-staff partnership ‘can be incredibly disruptive in the way that it challenges and blurs the boundaries and assumptions that underpin the traditionally hierarchical space of teaching and learning’ (Mercer-Mapstone & Mercer, 2018, p.3). In short, ongoing - sometimes challenging - conversations must be part and parcel of engaging students and staff in partnerships in global learning as we bump up against old ways of knowing, doing and being. Enabling this kind of conversation online will have particular challenges, but it will not be impossible, as those with expertise in distance education already know. The good news is that online learning has the potential to democratise global learning. Done well, online learning can help to level playing the field for all students, regardless of where or how they live, as we have seen, for example, in Collaborative Online International Learning. On the other hand, done badly, online learning can reinforce and deepen socio-economic and cultural divisions.

Where to next? Continuing to reflect in action

COVID-19 is presenting all of us with opportunities to think, talk and do higher education differently.Relatively few have the expertise to do online learning/teaching well, but – considering the plethora of new blogs sharing tips on online pedagogy - very many are keen to share what they know, to learn from each other, and to learn quickly. Students working in partnership with staff can to contribute so much of value now, ifthey are given ‘the opportunity to contribute equally, although not necessarily in the same ways’ to the production of new pedagogival practices (Cook-Sather, Bovill & Felton, 2014, 6-7). Right now, lecturersand students are actively experimenting with various forms of social media, in order to connect with compassion. According to Chie Adachi, connection and compassion will be critical for good learning online now: connection to counter a growing sense of isolation in the face of physical distancing, compassion for our ‘panic-gogy’ and the mistakes we inevitably make as we experiment with new forms of teaching and learning.

I hope that as we navigate through the unchartered territory brought about by this pandemic, we – students, faculty, professional staff – learn to learn in virtual partnerships more creatively, empathically, connectedly, and intelligently than ever before. And, I hope that this blog creates a space for reflecting in action together. If you would like to contribute a post to this blog please contact