In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down and forced a redesign of the activity formats and work models of most organizations. Educational institutions were not immune to this wave of change. All over the globe, learning institutions urgently needed to adapt their teaching practices, for which most were not prepared (Chakraborty et al., 2020; Bahasoan et al., 2020). According to UNESCO (2020), due to the pandemic, more than 1.5 billion students in all levels of education had their classes suspended or reconfigured, which represents more than 90% of all students world-wide. Although HEI (Higher Education Institutions) have recently “embraced the internet as an important vehicle for delivering courses and programs to a wide array of audiences” (Peltier et al., 2007, p. 140), this recent global event has taken this trend to another level. All academic programs (Bachelors, Masters, Doctoral programs, Postgraduate courses, intensive programs, etc.) had to urgently reorganize themselves to adapt to this new situation, fulfil their purpose, and adapt to students’ needs during the lockdown.
This was also the case for the Intensive Program CBBC (Cross Border Brand Communications), an annual event organized by six European Universities, which brings together students from each country whom are named by the institutions and tutored by lecturers. Its objective is to solve a real communication challenge, via a creative 360º communication campaign, in multidisciplinary and international teams that compete against each other. This program, detailed in Duarte and Riedl (2021), was just one amongst many others that needed to change from a face-to-face to online format in a short period of two months.
Our chapter in the Handbook of Research on Teaching Strategies for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse International Students reports on a small-scale survey carried out after the project, which evaluated student satisfaction. The chapter discusses this in light of the unique multicultural online project, and proposes elements which require more due consideration on the part of instructors and course designers to ensure student satisfaction and the fulfillment of learning objectives.
The 2021 CBBC was meant to take place in The Netherlands, hosted by Breda University of Applied Sciences, however a decision was made in January 2021 to host it online due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and the travel restrictions this brought. Students from European universities in Lisbon (Portugal), Paris (France), Breda (Netherlands), Antwerp (Belgium), Vienna (Austria) and Espoo (Finland) were nominated and participated. The students were from the 4th and 6th semester of their studies. It was held mid-May and students were informed to make sure they had permission from their study program to attend the full week.
Based on the literature review, an investigation was undertaken to assess the perceived effectiveness of learning outcomes from the multicultural students in this new online version of this project. After having participated in the CBBC in person for several years and once online, the coaches were mindful of the importance of capturing feedback, and curious about student perceptions in this challenging environment.
The authors adapted the “online education model” (Figure 01), proposed by Peltier et al. (2003, p. 264) to create an online survey. This identifies six dimensions to assess overall perceived learning effectiveness: 1) student-to-student interactions; 2) student-to-instructor interactions; 3) instructor support and mentoring; 4) information delivery technology; 5) course content; and 6) course structure.
A review of the literature pointed to multifaceted challenges in the multicultural and online learning environment. When students come together in a new international environment working in multicultural teams, instructors need to guide students through potential difficulties. Some of these difficulties are experienced due to different degree programs and different university types, which utilize different methods of instruction in different countries.
Students in CBBC are from different semesters in their programs and therefore display different levels of cognitive maturity. They have all different levels of English language proficiency. Some have been taught in EMI classes before, while for others this would be completely new.
Learning in an online environment exacerbates the challenges in such projects. Social interaction is missing as a result of student differences, and this is compounded by potential stunted interaction in comparison to a face-to-face project.
However, it is precisely all of these challenges that the authors believe can really provide students with a profound learning opportunity. The difficulty of spending one entire week working with colleagues that they’ve never met before, and that have different backgrounds, cultures, and expectations, and doing all of this online through screens, will strengthen students’ capacities for resilience and maturity.
The online experience also facilitated multicultural connections during the students’ learning process. Physical distance exacerbated differences, and as communication was much more difficult without face-to-face contact, students had to find strategies and common contact points to be able to work together and develop the project.
Instructors participating in the CBBC had been doing so for many years and as such experience from previous projects helped them to create a week with a clear structure and guidelines. Students received a timetable with exact instructions of tasks at the beginning of the week, and the team work sessions were dotted with lectures and Q&A sessions for students to participate in as the project progressed.
A high-stakes project such as this one, with a real client briefing, is naturally daunting for a student. It is even more daunting when working with a team of people students do not know in terms of working style and cultural background. Instructors of the CBBC are likewise mindful of these critical challenges and dedicated a whole week for students to ensure they are optimally coached and guided. This has proven crucial in previous projects, both online and face-to-face, and so the instructors were well-versed in preparing a clear structure.
Bearing in mind that some students were not used to studio-like classes, in which teachers work with them as coaches instead of traditional content lecturers, the online format was a considerable challenge for the instructors too. They had to create the entire interaction dynamic, content, and methodology to fulfil the expectations of the students and accomplish the learning goals. Therefore, a pedagogical strategy based on a more empathic approach, simpler and clearer communication, and a bigger sense of proximity to students were fundamental to creating a positive and confident learning environment. This was highly valued, as shown in the positive survey results.
Both the statements and the open-ended questions in the survey clearly indicated that social interaction would have enriched the experience, corroborating literature review findings which indicate that networking, partying, and being in each other’s company is a fundamental component of the creative process among young adults. This is even more pressing since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, as in the aftermath of the pandemic, there continues to be a real thirst for live interaction both between student-to-student and coach-to-student.
Notwithstanding this, the students reported that their experience was overwhelmingly positive, which was achieved due to the highly structured nature of the CBBC and the dedication of the lecturers for the entire time. The students reported that the tutor support and mentoring, as well as interaction, was crucial for the project success, with 96% agreeing that they learnt a lot in the week and that the learning outcomes were met.
Our results corroborate some previous research, which states that perceived learning effectiveness is a multi-dimensional phenomenon, but also points to the possibility that online learning can be as successful as face-to-face learning. This contrasts to the findings of Duarte & Riedl (2020), where students suggested that the experience was inferior to how they believe the project would have been in person.
The success of the 2021 CBBC edition could be attributed to the fact that students had become used to the online environment by a year into the pandemic. At the same time, the clear effort, guidelines, and structure provided by the instructors were certainly a contributing factor. This echoes the recommendations reported by Jia et al. (2020, p. 15) which suggest that social, cognitive, and teaching presence as well as capturing and sustaining attention and meaningful interaction are key components for success.
The findings of this study contribute to support for the validity of the online assessment model (Peltier et al., 2003). Some of the insights and lessons learned can help education managers and marketing academics reach a better understanding of students’ learning perceptions in a multicultural and multinational online environment.