Education Abroad in a Post-COVID-19 World

American higher education institutions have an opportunity to reconceive it in ways that continue to make it a high-impact practice, writes Brian Whalen.

April 14, 2020
 
 
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What will higher education abroad look like when the current public health crisis is over? Those of us who have weathered impacts caused by previous crises such as SARS and incidents of global terrorism remember the adjustments that institutions had to make. After Sept. 11 we practiced education abroad in a “Code Orange world,” as Patti McGill Peterson, former executive director of the Council for International Exchange of Scholars, once described it. But the current public health crisis is different and will leave lasting changes to the way that institutions think about and practice education abroad.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges and universities have worked diligently and creatively to bring students back to the United States to complete their academic programs online. By collaborating closely with education abroad program providers and international university partners, institutions have adapted academic standards and practices to accommodate an unprecedented number of students whose spring and academic-year education abroad programs were cut short.

The pandemic has alerted us to the fact that we live in a borderless world in which our well-being depends on global cooperation. At the same time, we are self-isolating and practicing social distancing from each other; our personal borders start at our front door. That will change our orientation to the world going forward, shifting our conception of borders and our understanding of each other, the world and ourselves. Institutions are very likely to be wary of restarting education abroad in the way that it has been practiced up to now. In fact, in this moment, institutions have an opportunity to understand and conceive of education abroad in new ways that can continue to make it a high-impact practice.

Thoreau wrote, “The frontiers are not east or west, north or south, but wherever a man [person] fronts a fact …” (emphasis Thoreau’s). In this spirit, I suggest that we no longer define education abroad strictly as students literally crossing national borders. Rather, we should conceive of it as an educational framework that promotes the mobility of students’ minds -- minds engaged in confronting other cultures and worldviews that help overcome their biases. Education abroad has always used geography as a point of definition, but now we have begun to view it as an educational model that can be practiced in a wider variety of forms.

Four Considerations

What will the future bring? What will education abroad look like as it emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic? Below are some observations and ideas.

No. 1: Online learning and virtual education abroad. Before this crisis, a number of education abroad programs used online learning to deliver course content, connect students studying at different program sites and guide and assess student learning. The pandemic has made it necessary for institutions and organizations to be even more creative in applying online learning for students who have returned to the United States. Programs have created course component videos of sites that would have been explored in person yet are now being introduced online. Some summer 2020 education abroad programs are offering virtual internships in which students in the U.S. complete an internship with a host company or organization located abroad. Such practices are expanding the education abroad “experience.”

To be sure, having an online experience differs from an experience in situ. Several years ago, I conducted a study of alumni who studied abroad in which I asked them to recall and describe significant “educational memories” from their time abroad. The most common type of memories were ones that caused anxiety related to confronting difficult, stressful situations of being in a different culture. Alumni reported these types of experiences were still significant in providing meaning to their lives, even decades later.

Can virtual education abroad reproduce these long-lasting effects? We can learn from what we see significantly impacting students and develop ways to replicate it to some degree virtually. While virtual education abroad will never be a substitute for a direct experience abroad, it may be increasingly relied upon to engage students with the structured stresses of effective education abroad programming.

No. 2: Domestic study away. COVID-19 makes every place outside our homes a risk, even domestic campuses. And even after the crisis abates, students, their families and their institutions may be more comfortable with the idea of remaining in the U.S. than learning in another country. A growing number of institutions now offer domestic study-away experiences that can fulfill goals similar to those traditionally associated with education abroad. When intentionally structured and incorporated into an educational program, encounters and engagements with diverse communities in America can transform students, opening their minds to different perspectives and enhancing their ability to interact with people different from themselves. Such programs are likely to become more popular with students in a post-COVID-19 age.

No. 3: Faculty-led programming. A major facet of education abroad over the past 20 years has been the significant increase in faculty involvement, especially through faculty-led programming abroad. The future of education abroad will continue to be faculty-led, but not only in terms of faculty serving as directors or teachers of programs. The thousands of students who have returned from overseas this spring have challenged faculty program leaders to continue education abroad learning in new ways.

The resulting innovations are informed by cultural resources and viewpoints and often involve cross-border collaboration and a more global approach to disciplines. Perhaps more than any other past situation, grant programs or efforts by higher education associations, this pandemic is pushing faculty to think about a global curriculum. That will probably result in education abroad becoming embedded into courses offered on campuses in new ways.

For example, students could participate in education abroad within the classroom through virtual online experiences that enhance course subject matter. Or a course might be convened jointly with university partners from abroad, offering a global approach and understanding to course topics. Practicing “education abroad at home” may very well be a new frontier for institutions.

No. 4: Globe education. Education around the globe should become education about the globe. The drastic reduction in global travel, tourism and education abroad has alerted the world of the adverse environmental footprints that travelers leave. Images of suddenly much clearer water in Venice’s canals and cleaner air in some of the world’s most polluted cities have demonstrated the harmful effects of environmentally insensitive travel. Each education abroad program should treat our planet as a beneficiary of the program by dedicating time to studying how students can be environmentally responsible in an interconnected world. It is also time to take seriously how each student, faculty member and administrator involved in education abroad can offset their environmental footprints. Some institutions and education abroad program providers have developed effective methods for doing this. All programs should adopt these best practices.

The COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted the importance of education abroad. We need to educate our students about the interconnectedness of the world to combat xenophobia and isolationist mind-sets. Education abroad can be reinvented for a time when the meaning of borders is changing, and when the world and the planet need globally educated citizens. Institutions should and will take up this challenge in different ways according to their distinct missions.

It is very likely that a spectrum of education abroad learning options will be offered, from classroom-based to virtual to domestic study away to traditional in-country education abroad. The commonality across institutions, however, will be less focus on geography and more emphasis on encounters and engagements with difference, whether that be in virtual, domestic or international settings.

Bio

Brian Whalen is international education leadership fellow at the University at Albany and former president and CEO of the Forum on Education Abroad.

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