Observing a subject in motion: Elizabeth Buckner uses ‘collage’ to study the internationalization of higher education

By Lisa Smith
March 2, 2022
OISE Professor Elizabeth Buckner.
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education Professor Elizabeth Buckner.

OISE Professor Elizabeth Buckner is rethinking the impacts of internationalization, a topic at the heart of our understanding of the university. “For over two hundred years, the Western University has been viewed as a nation-serving institution,” Buckner said, but “in the past three decades we’ve seen a marked shift to an international frame of reference.” Universities dedicate significant resources to recruiting international students, developing outbound programs, and forming degree and research partnerships. But how does internationalization impact students, programs, and institutions?

The intricacies of the subject gave her pause. “I quickly realized that this topic is not well-suited for the most common approaches to research design and research methods,” she said. “One specific form of data collection wasn’t sufficient to grasp the many dimensions of internationalization.” 

When Buckner came across researcher Cordelia Freedman’s use of ‘collage’ in the field of geography, she immediately saw a solution to studying her own, quite different, subject matter. ‘Collage’ involves combining multiple sources of data and approaches to capture various facets of a subject as opposed to honing in on an in-depth understanding of a well-defined topic.

In applying collage as a method, Buckner and her team are analyzing disparate sources, including over 100 internationalization strategy documents, images in promotional materials, cross-national survey data, enrolment data, and more. They are conducting interviews of students, faculty, and institutional leaders as well as environmental scans of websites from various institutions.

Buckner’s approach facilitated a shift in focus given COVID-19-related travel restrictions and the move to online modes of interaction. “’Collage’ enables me to study a moving target,” Buckner explains. “I could quickly pivot to thinking about how COVID impacted students’ activities and how we think about internationalization.” Her research now includes a systematic literature review that facilitates the rethinking of previous assumptions. 

Buckner concludes that for universities and colleges, internationalization is conceived as mainly an organizational project focused on increasing revenue and prestige. Couched in ahistorical and apolitical terms, internationalization is viewed as an unquestioned good.

In piecing together a picture of internationalization, Buckner draws attention to what remains outside the frame. She notes a tendency to obscure the historical and political contexts in which the process of internationalization is embedded. Also, in viewing internationalization primarily as a bureaucratic activity, institutions have siloed off internationalization from other institutional priorities. Strategies for internationalization could, for example, be better informed by Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) initiatives. 

Buckner calls for a reframing of the project of internationalization. “What if we view internationalization as a call to learn about the facets of global interconnectedness, to unlearn stereotypes, and unlearn Eurocentrism?” she asked. “We could view internationalization not simply as an organizational process but as a commitment to reflect on how we should live and how we should relate to others.” 

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