It seems that it was not long ago that we were scrambling to transition students and instructors to online courses. Now we’re heading into the last days of those classes. What have we learned and how have we fared? Here’s what we’ve heard from our students, instructors, and partners.
The personal relationships formed between students and instructors while the students were abroad proved the most important element in making the transition online a smooth one. Both groups agree that without that, instruction would have not have been as impactful and would have been more affected by the barriers of distance and technology. Glitches, dropped connections, frozen faces in strange expressions have happened. However, everyone has worked together to optimize the situation and to be creative and cooperative. They have laughed together through any misunderstandings and technical issues. But the bond developed beforehand, in real life, was essential to making this cooperation happen.
Modern technology has proven invaluable. Video conferencing has allowed students to see their speaking partners, which makes language learning much easier. A good deal of successful communication requires focusing on the other person and reading non-verbal signals. Speaking on the phone in a foreign language is particularly challenging for exactly this reason. Chat platforms have proven useful as well. Instructors needn’t worry about dried-up whiteboard markers, and the chat leaves ready-made notes to refer back to. Sharing screens and e-documents has allowed instructors and students to make presentations easily without the trouble of making copies.
Scheduling has presented both challenges and advantages. Challenges come with students in multiple time zones up to ten hours removed from the instructor. However, thanks to incredibly dedicated instructors and students, everyone has made it work with more or less reasonable hours on both sides. Advantages came with not having to allow for the shifting schedules for physical classroom space that often mean inconveniently shifting class schedules for students.
We were also able to “share” an elective from one program with another. This elective was made accessible to students who had enrolled in another program and location. This introduced some additional scheduling challenges, but also allowed additional students to complete necessary credits, broaden their knowledge of the region, and enrich the post-lecture discussions with more perspectives.
Students’ shorter time abroad was proven still valuable. Instructors were able to draw on students’ actual experiences from their time abroad in their explanations. Students could see that, while cut short, their time abroad did give them unique perspective and insight to the culture and everyday language. Talking about the Hermitage or the Kremlin or a local café or the beautiful nature surrounding a city is one thing when you are seeing it on textbook page – but quite another when you’ve actually already been there. This personal connection helps keep motivation high and the language learning experience more authentic and meaningful.
Our peer tutoring program was also continued. During their programs on-site, students work with peer tutors. For a few hours each week, students meet with a tutor and practice their Russian in an environment outside the classroom. Meetings happen at cafés, museums, parks, or are used to accomplish something specific like making a purchase or signing up for the gym, or they might work on a specific challenging grammar issue they can’t seem to master (verbs of motion anyone?!). As one student put it, these peers are like “instant friends” and help you accelerate your acclimation and reinforce learning – a “huge confidence booster,” as another student put it. Peers help you truly see and understand local life by inviting you into their own life. We encouraged our students and peer tutors to continue their “meetings” online through the end of the program and many have. At the same time, the local peer tutors, many studying to be instructors of Russian, genuinely welcome the opportunity to share their culture, gain experience, and forge relationships. Class instructors also value having other native speakers accessible to students for completion of out-of-class speaking assignments.
Our St. Petersburg “capstone” project was still a success. One of my favorite parts of our program in St. Petersburg is watching students’ final presentations at the end of a semester. I was delighted when, earlier this week, an instructor invited me to do just that online. Online or offline, the progress is always clear – to me, to instructors, and to the students themselves.
The loss of time abroad is still a loss. As any semester wraps up, there is always a bitter-sweetness as the courses come to an end. It feels a bit different this time, however. Everyone has been generally satisfied, in some cases even pleasantly surprised, at the overall success of their courses online. Yet, there is still a lingering sense of loss at having had to return home early.
If anything, our success in bringing classes online shows that study abroad, in fact, cannot be fully brought online. Talented instructors can provide excellent instruction, engaging peers can virtually meet, fascinating museums can be explored online, theaters and concerts virtually attended, and numerous other experiences replicated. However, nothing can replace “having your boots on the ground.” Nothing can replace walking through daily life in another country and the chance interactions you have with locals or the accidental discoveries you make by physically exploring a city. There is something essential to waking up in a foreign land, breathing foreign air, and knowing that days in front of you are filled with challenges that you must face because you are there. Study abroad is a huge life event for many students specifically because they prove to themselves that continual challenges can be overcome if they are faced as a part of daily life. But this is only effective without the armor of a screen that can be minimized or even tucked away, delaying or forgoing the challenge.
SRAS has learned from this and will evolve. SRAS believes in the power of technology. We feel that we have learned from this experience and we are working to use technology to enhance our study abroad experiences, but not replace them. During these next months as travel remains restricted, we will continue to work with partners to innovate and bring elements of programs to you and your students until study abroad is open again. Contact us about limited online summer options for Russian language classes or peer tutors. Keep tuned to our newsletter and blog for exciting announcements about our planned tech-based innovations to study abroad!