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Navigating the challenges of supporting international students with limited digital skills

24 Jan 2024 | Vic Stephenson Vic Stephenson, Senior Consultant (Education) at Advance HE, introduces the theme of the January #LTHEchat.

Digital divide

What does the term ‘digital divide’ mean to you and your institution? Over the past three years, sector understanding and responses in supporting students with digital challenges has shifted. In 2021, Jisc surveyed 38,917 university students in 2020/21 on their digital experience in higher education and concluded there was ‘a deep digital divide among university students, with 63% of students encountering problems with poor wi-fi connections, 30% having problems accessing online platforms and services, and 24% struggling to pay mobile data charges.’

In 2023, Jisc published research aimed at improving understanding of the digital experience of international students in UK higher education. The insights from this research move the conversation on from seeing the digital divide as challenges in accessing digital networks and the affordability of digital tools, to including awareness of the barriers to learning and the potential poor student experience for students who may possess limited digital skills compounded by limited proficiency in English.

Increase in international students

UK universities welcomed over half a million international students in 2021/22 (HESA, 2022). The number of students from Pakistan and Bangladesh studying in the UK almost doubled between 2020/21 and 2021/22, becoming the fourth and seventh largest international cohorts respectively (after China, India and Nigeria). The shifting international landscape brings great opportunities to create more diverse learning environments, but without adequate awareness of the changing needs of students and effective support mechanisms in place, we risk providing a poor, or even inaccessible learning experience to many. 

Ask yourself the following questions:

How many of your students have demonstrated very limited digital literacy? 

Did you discover, or were you made aware of the potential digital challenges students may have in advance?

Does your institution have adequate resource in place to both identify and support students who lack digital skills? What does this support look like?

Is the support offered to students with poor digital literacy effective? How do you know?

Next steps

Jisc’s 2023 report summarises the international student experience and provides guidance for the sector on improving the digital experience of students from diverse global regions. These include acknowledging the potential disparity between the civil digital infrastructure and experience of digital teaching and learning depending on international students’ home global area, and the UK civil digital infrastructure which shapes digital practice and leads to assumptions as to how digital platforms and tools will be accessed and used. The report notes that while international students are positive about the use of technology-enhanced learning, many experience ‘digital shocks’, especially at the start of their programme of study and require comprehensive guidance on how, when and why to use digital tools, including AI, to support their learning. 

How we can support students is a complex question and can be extremely challenging for those involved in teaching, learning and student support services. Supporting international students with limited digital skills presents a unique challenge; given that digital interfaces and academic content are predominantly presented in English, higher education institutions require innovative solutions which address both digital skill gaps and learners’ potentially limited English language proficiency. While most universities provide language support to their international cohorts, these programmes are designed to develop students’ academic English and academic skills. Not all international students require support in developing digital literacy, therefore, additional, targeted support may be required. 

In this #LTHE chat, we would love to hear how you are supporting the diverse needs of your international students by identifying skills deficits and tailoring resources, programs and support services to create an inclusive and empowering learning environment which allows all students to thrive academically and personally in an increasingly digital world.


Vic Stephenson is a Senior Consultant at Advance HE, designing and delivering support and training on inclusive pedagogy approaches and leading a range of collaborative projects to enhance quality, student experience and outcomes. She has over 25 years of experience in education as a teacher, teacher trainer, academic manager and assessment specialist. Vic’s main interests are in international education, inclusive curricula and assessment design and technology-enhanced learning.


Join the #LTHEchat on X to discuss digital challenges for international students on Wednesday 31 January at 8:00pm with @AdvanceHE_chat and @LTHEchat  using the hashtag #LTHEchat. 


We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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