Innovative Learning within the Shift towards Asia
Universities in Australia are shifting to align their international engagement priorities with the focus areas highlighted in government policy papers such as the ‘Australia in the Asian Century, White Paper’ (2012) and the ‘New Colombo Plan’ (2013). Both of these papers emphasize the need to broaden student Asia literacy, particularly in studying languages. One key priority area which often arises in policy discussions relates to online and in-country programs to advance Asian studies.
This article discusses the UniBRIDGE program as a key example of an innovative solution towards advancing online and in-country learning programs to advance studies in Asia. Indonesia, in particular, has received a focus due to the clear geo-strategic importance and the need for bridging the cross-cultural divide. This program has been proposed by the Consortium of Innovative Research Universities (2013:7), for example, proposes developing student mobility, pre-mobility, and mobility substitute programs with initiatives such as UniBRIDGE.
What is UniBRIDGE?
‘Building Relationship through Intercultural Dialogue and Growing Engagement’ or BRIDGE facilitates creative learning exchanges between Australia and Indonesia through the use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT).
UniBRIDGE was inspired by the Australia-Asia BRIDGE Schools Partnership. This concept was conceived by the Asia Education Foundation (AEF) and was run in primary and secondary schools in Australia and Asia. The concept of implementing this program at a tertiary education level was pioneered by Charles Darwin University (CDU) and the University of Nusa Cendana (UNDANA) with funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Australia Indonesia Institute (AII).
Goals of the AII and UniBRIDGE
The program deepens language skills and contextual understandings of Australians through incorporating direct engagement into the study curriculum. This has the additional spillover benefit of orienting Australians towards Indonesia through the building of people-to-people links. The shared goals of the Australia Indonesia Institute and UniBRIDGE are as follows:
- To promote in each country increased exposure to the other through media, educational, cultural, sporting and professional activities.
- To create in Indonesia a nucleus of people with expertise in Australian affairs, especially current and future opinion leaders.
- To create within Australia a wider range of people with knowledge about Indonesia, especially current and future opinion makers.
- To portray Australia as culturally diverse, educationally, scientifically and technologically advanced and economically enterprising.
- To increase understanding of and to improve access for Australians to the cultural diversity of Indonesian society.
How does the UniBRIDGE program work?
- Wikispaces: provides a space on the Web where participants can share work and ideas, pictures and links, videos and media. Wikispaces is unique since it provides a visual editor and various other tools to make sharing all kinds of content as easy for students as it is for their teachers.
- Blackboard Collaborate which are widely used by the distance higher education provider Open Universities Australia. The core learning activity in the UniBRIDGE program has been the weekly student discussions in the Blackboard web conferencing room. The room known as ‘BBC’ is a powerful tool for synchronous (real-time) collaborative interaction.
- Social Media: these more educationally rigorous systems are supplemented by more relaxed forms of communication and exchange through social media such as facebook, twitter and other online platforms.
- Email also serves as a useful tool for continued communication between Australian and Indonesian participants.
Who participated in the learning exchange of the Pilot Program?
The UniBRIDGE pilot program selected 20 participants from UNDANA in Indonesia and 20 participants from CDU in Australia. To read about their experiences through the program you can find the transcript of Asia Options interview here.
The 20 UNDANA (Indonesian) participants were selected from a large pool of first-year undergraduate students who were just completing the compulsory second semester of General English. Those chosen had good academic records and showed enthusiasm for the project, and familiarity with Information and Communications Technology. All the students are young, in their late teens early twenties, studying a variety of disciplines, including public health, veterinary medicine, mathematics, chemistry, social sciences, and agriculture. The students study on campus on the edge of Kupang, West Timor, the capital city of East Nusa Tenggara province (NTT). The students come from Kupang, regional West Timor and neighbouring islands, such as Rote, Flores and Sumba. Many of the UNDANA students relished the opportunity to interact with native speakers of English.
CDU: The 20 CDU (Australian) participants are all external students, most enrolled through Open University Australia, studying first-year level two Indonesian externally. They study a variety of disciplines including arts, teaching, security and international relations. Several are also studying Indonesian for personal or work-related interests. Some work in the armed forces, performing arts, teaching and farming. The students reside in the capital cities and regional towns (small and large) of every Australian state and territory.
Integration of program into learning curriculum and assessment: participation in the BRIDGE program is worth 40 per cent of their final grade. The other 60 per cent is from written assignments based on formal structured lesson materials. The topics, including vocabulary and grammar, in the formal lessons, inform the interactive conversational tasks in the BRIDGE program. Such discussion topics are on self and family, the location of, and comparing places, daily activities and hobbies, and education.
In December 2013, a delegation from Australia composed of the board members of DFAT’s Australia Indonesia Institute traveled to Indonesia as part of a cultural and educational survey. One of their main purposes was to investigate the progress of the UniBRIDGE program which was one of the programs’ they have funded. The delegation visited UNDANA in Kupang, at NTT as part of UniBRIDGE Seminar. Asia Options was also able welcome the DFAT delegation and to attend this seminar in East Indonesia.
Potential for the future
The BRIDGE University program also has the potential to expand significantly. There are plans for the program to expand in Indonesia to include a partner in the Nusa Tenggara Barat province in Lombok, the University of Mataram (UNRAM). In Australia, the UniBRIDGE program has expanded to include the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) and Murdoch University.
While this particular UniBRIDGE program focuses on Indonesia, the model of learning through ICT also has the potential to be up-scaled not only vertically (through more engagement in Indonesia) but also horizontally (by also introducing UniBRIDGE programs for studies relating to other countries). As a result, Asia Options forecasts UniBRIDGE as a potential model for the future learning exchanges, not only with Indonesia but also with many other countries. Read more about UniBRIDGE students and staff experiences here.
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