Bryan McAllister-Grande

GlobalEd Founder & Director Bryan McAllister-Grande is the founder and director of GlobalEd. He has over 20 years of experience in global higher education strategy, program design, intercultural teaching and coaching, assessment, and curriculum development. He is Director of Academic Integration and Planning at Northeastern University’s Global Experience Office. Bryan has twice served on the…

Most theories of curriculum internationalization begin with a basic premise: that existing content and disciplines can be reimagined or augmented from the outside in — that is, after the curriculum and courses have already been established. “Curriculum Internationalization” or “Internationalization of the Curriculum” (IoC) is a popular approach to global education that seeks to work with faculty proactively to re-examine disciplinary foundations, to uncover biases and empower post-colonial voices, and to bring unrecognized assumptions to light. Yet, there is inherent challenge to this approach to internationalization: it assumes few broader theories are backing an overall curriculum design. The popular approach to internationalizing the curriculum may be internationalizing courses and to some degree internationalizing disciplines — but it is not internationalizing the curriculum, because it is not tackling underlying curriculum theories themselves.

This essay outlines a potential reimagined process, designed to internationalize curricula at the core rather than at the edges. I identify several curriculum theories which largely prevent curriculum internationalization from occurring. Faculty and academic leaders are well aware of these theories, but the literature thus far does not connect them sufficiently and proactively to curriculum internationalization.

The popular approach to internationalizing the curriculum may be internationalizing courses and to some degree disciplines — but it is not internationalizing the curriculum, because it is not tackling underlying curriculum theories themselves.

Popular Approaches And Recent Critiques

Most approaches to curriculum internationalization tackle the topic through faculty workshops, disciplinary conversations, and other seemingly bottom-up, “grassroots” approaches. In these programs, administrators typically lead faculty through a series of trainings and frameworks to approach internationalizing their courses and curricular programs (such as majors, degrees, or concentrations).

Leask (2015) offered a foundational definition of curriculum internationalization or IoC in the early 2010s: “The incorporation of international, intercultural, and/or global dimension into the content of the curriculum as well as the learning outcomes, assessment tasks, teaching methods, and support services of a program of study” (Leask, 2015). Leask offered a process model of curriculum internationalization that involved five stages:

  1. Review and Reflect
  2. Imagine
  3. Revise and Plan
  4. Act
  5. Evaluate (Leask, 2015)

Leask noted that the IoC process she researched “is essentially a form of Participatory Action Research” wherein “groups of academic staff formed a community of research interest” (Leask, 2013, p. 107). She elaborates that “the model positioned academic staff involved as equal and collaborative partners in research, a role they are familiar with; it placed those assisting them…as facilitators of the PAR project” (p. 107). While Leask argues that this process avoids a top-down approach, she underestimates pervasive divides in thinking between administrators, researchers of these topics, and faculty. She describes how faculty/academic staff are encouraged to re-examine the foundations of their disciplines through the participatory research question “To what extent is our curriculum internationalized?” and then participants in these programs imagine “what might be possible” in order to confront injustices, explore new ways of thinking/methodologies, or shift their teaching and course development (Leask, 2013, pp. 108-109).

This approach is popularized through the several internationalization and IoC laboratories offered by entities such as the American Council on Education and Indiana University’s Institute for Campus and Curriculum Internationalization. While not directly based on Leask’s model, these laboratories largely follow a similar process-based model similar to the one that Leask outlined.

Importantly, as Whitsed, Burgess, and Ledger noted in a recent article on “Reimagining Higher Education Internationalization and Internationalization of the Curriculum” (2021), “there is no one single approach to IoC” and that their research participants — editors of leading higher education journals — called for “the necessity to address broader global issues more critically within IoC discourses” (Whitsed, Burgess, and Ledger, 2021, p. 357). While observing that Leask’s process model of IoC “has gained considerable currency across the higher education sector,” they call for “more theoretical development” and new approaches and methodologies (p. 305).

Similarly, a critical internationalization movement in recent years has attacked dominant models of internationalization in higher education as neoliberal, market-driven, and normative in design and practice. IoC, based in part off of these dominant models, suffers in part from its broader association with them. I have argued elsewhere that process-driven models of internationalization ignore their theoretical and intellectual foundations in Protestant work ethics and American culture (McAllister-Grande, 2018).

Restructuring The IoC Discourse

In order to restructure the IoC discourse, global educators should first recognize that “curriculum” is not monolithic entity that can be “internationalized.” There is no single, uniform curriculum across the world or even within individual institutions. Rather, it would be better to speak about “diversifying or pluralizing curricula”  to capture the diverse nature of curricula theories and structures. Changing “curriculum” to “curricula” is an important, pluralistic shift for the IoC discourse. “Curricula” suggests that many kinds of curriculum exist, and that they have different structures and theories attached to them.

Depending on the structure of the curricula, the approach to diversifying or pluralizing it may differ. Some structures include (1) professional, (2) technical, (3) survey, and (4) cultural. These structures emerged with the modern university as it evolved from its medieval origins.  As knowledge exploded with the rise of professionalization and specialization, faculty and administrators needed ways to organize the curriculum to serve particular purposes and goals. They also created specific licenses to credit institutions and students with a received body of knowledge and provide a certain level of “quality” (a process now called accreditation).

There is no single, uniform curriculum across the world or even within individual institutions. Rather, it would be better to speak about “diversifying or pluralizing curricula”  to capture the diverse nature of curricula theories and structures. Changing “curriculum” to “curricula” is an important, pluralistic shift for the IoC discourse.

The Professional Approach And Diversification

What I am calling the “Professional” approach is one dominant theory of curricula. Professional curricula are geared directly to the professional standards of a certain field or profession, such as medicine, law, engineering, or business. Because the professional field itself dictates these standards, it is not really possible to “internationalize” these curricula in the current sense. Professional approaches are now widely popular in higher education and are starting to trickle down more and more into primary and secondary education. Given the need for jobs and market pipelines, as well as concern for quality assurance, professional approaches often block diversification from occurring.

Simply examining the nature of “standards” and “quality” makes this fact apparent. Standards are geared toward uniformity. While diverse approaches to knowledge are possible within a meritocratic system, the whole idea of standards is to provide uniformity and quality control according to particular metrics that must be identified beforehand. Engineering curricula, for example, are heavily regulated by external commissions or by government bodies. In the U.S., for example, ABET provides accreditation for all engineering programs according to a rigorous process dictating particular kinds of courses, assessments, technical standards, and requirements.

While organizations such as ABET have made efforts to “internationalize” and incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion into their accreditation standards in recent years, accreditation standards are not designed to tackle globally-focused problems, specifically, and are heavy on technical requirements and procedures. This fact leads us to examine another popular approach, the technical approach.

…Accreditation standards are not designed to tackle globally-focused problems, specifically, and are heavy on technical requirements and procedures.”

The Technical Approach And Diversification

Institutions have been romanticized by the technical approach in recent years. Even in the humanities and so-called “soft” subjects, technical approaches to criticism, writing, and analysis dominate. Technical curricula break down subjects into small chunks and units of analysis such as thermodynamics, advanced calculus, postmodern theory, or behavioral neuroscience. There is often little time in these courses to connect the dots for students to larger global concerns or issues, or to incorporate intercultural perspectives and ideas in ways that make sense to students. These technical courses often build or “stack” on one another and assume prior introductions or surveys (see below) of foundational knowledge, with little opportunities for context or bigger picture setting.

Faculty often face considerable pressure in creating the best version of a technical course for their institutions. Indeed, teaching and performance evaluations are typically based on outcomes achieved in these technical curricula. Students also face constraints in seeking to perform well in these courses, in order to achieve high standards and obtain entry into medical or graduate schools.

Diversifying or pluralizing technical courses is a difficulty goal, given the increasingly specialized and pressurized nature of these courses. One possibility would be to create an introductory module at the beginning of each technical course that would deal with global and intercultural perspectives related to that technical course. In thermodynamics, for instance, students could explore the relationship between thermodynamics and climate change or energy issues, which are then linked together to a larger multi-course/multi-degree discussion around climate change or energy. It is essential that students do not see such modules as “extra” or “fluff” but rather see how connections are made across curricula to address larger global or intercultural issues. Institutions could create new positions devoted to creating and linking together these modules so that they are effectively provided across technical curricula.

The Survey Approach And Diversification

The “survey” approach was one of the earliest ways that faculty and institutions sought to organize knowledge in the modern university. Faculty designed large-scale survey courses to cover a general historical scope of knowledge in their field. These survey courses were largely Eurocentric in coverage, and were a major feature of inculcation of democratic values during twentieth century. They attempted to explain the “evolution” of Western civilization or a vaguely Eurocentric “world civilization” as a natural step from Greek and Roman origins.

Today, survey courses survive in the form of introductions to disciplines (Introduction to Sociology, Anthropology, Evolution, Ecology, etc.). Often, faculty teaching these courses try to provide “coverage” of the major debates and methodological turns in their field. Survey courses are designed for large classes of first-year students and often parallel or integrate with “General Education” requirements. The problem with the survey approach is that the notion of “survey” (coverage) continues to organize the delivery of these courses, despite problems with trying to cover an entire field and “internationalize” it. Further, these survey courses tend to organize knowledge into a single discipline or area and inculcate students into the foundations of those areas, which can sometimes prevent integration or a more holistic approach to global problems.

The Cultural Approach and Diversification

“Cultural” approaches to curricula are typically the furthest along in terms of deep internationalization. Cultural approaches to curriculum include global and cultural studies, such as regional or cultural studies, international studies, globalization, language courses, and other humanities subjects such as regional film or literature (i.e. Latin American film, Spanish art). These curricula are often considered de facto “global” or “internationalized” by the very nature, content, and methods utilized.

The problem with this approach, though, is that these courses/curricula are too often marginalized or overwhelmed by the professional, technical, and survey approaches detailed above. In addition, because these courses emerged as responses/critiques of the approaches mentioned above, they can be seen by students and stakeholders as elusive, exclusive, or counter-culture from the “mainstream” of higher education. Cultural approaches are easily cut for low enrollments, subject to whims of administrators, or put into a corner of the university instead of the front and center.

Further, a divide often exists between global studies/international affairs (which attempts to cover the whole world, typically through the means of a discipline such as political science), and cultural studies, which are usually more contextual, post-modernist, and critical in approach.

Toward A Deeper Curriculum Internationalization

In order to work toward a more substantial curriculum internationalization, faculty, administrators, and students should partner to re-examine these curricula approaches and work in teams around these specific areas (and other curricular approaches — this is by no means an exhaustive list). We must first acknowledge and recognize that these structures exist and understand their historical legacy.

Professional approaches remain the most difficult to deeply internationalize. As long as professional approaches are tied to national accreditation systems, it remains difficult to imagine a situation in which large numbers of courses could include truly intercultural or global perspectives. Universities and faculty would have more power to change those systems, of course, if they work together with accrediting and professional bodies to shift mindsets and goals.

References & Further Reading

Leask, B. (2013). Internationalizing the Curriculum in the Disciplines—Imagining New Possibilities. Journal of Studies in International Education17(2), 103–118.

Leask, B. (2015). Internationalizing the Curriculum. Routledge.

McAllister-Grande, B. (2018). “Toward Humanistic Internationalization: Does the Current Western Theory of Internationalization Have Protestant Capitalist Roots?”. The Future Agenda of Internationalization in Higher Education: Next Generation Insights into Research, Policy, and Practice. Ed. Douglas Proctor and Laura E. Rumbley. Abingdon: Routledge, 2018.

Whitsed, C., Burgess, M., & Ledger, S. (2021). Editorial Advisory Board Members on Reimagining Higher Education Internationalization and Internationalization of the Curriculum. Journal of Studies in International Education25(4), 348–368.

Photo By Z On Unsplash.



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