Following the “pivot” to hybrid learning in March 2020 and a realization that study abroad in its traditional form would not happen in summer 2020, we began to see some offers of “virtual” study abroad. We also saw a general resistance to the idea, based in great part on the hopes that study abroad would return by spring and there would not be an overarching need to consider virtual formats.
We supported a few models of virtual study abroad in 2020, based on individual student needs or on a group that was fully funded and with additional incentives to complete such an experience in summer, even if virtual. We learned quite a bit in the process, particularly as concerns sustainability of a virtual program. Primary challenges include managing time zone issues and Zoom fatigue.
Below, we share some thoughts on designing such programming and on the value we see in it both now and long term.
What is Virtual Study Abroad?
Study abroad is a multi-dimensional experience and replicating it in the virtual world presents both challenges and opportunities. Developing a virtual study abroad experience should not be looked at as a stop-gap measure or temporary solution, but rather as an opportunity to provide individuals facing obstacles to traditional study abroad with several of its core benefits.
In replicating the study abroad experience in the virtual world, we must consider at least four major elements of study abroad: academics and knowledge sharing, exposure to culture, sense of place, and new friends/contacts (an expanded network). There are, of course, other intangible benefits, but we cannot speak of “virtual study abroad” without addressing these core elements.
Hybrid Faculty-led Programs
We believe the most viable structure for virtual study abroad is based on the faculty-led model. This model has soared in popularity over the past decade for several reasons, not least of which is that it provides opportunity for students with limited time available to study abroad. We fully anticipate a resumption and continued growth in faculty-led programs abroad in 2022 and beyond. They will certainly benefit from the possibilities to virtually introduce the group to their in-country hosts and start the process of orientation early so that students are better prepared to “hit the ground running.”
The possibilities go further. Time abroad could be shortened, part of the appeal of short-term faculty-led programs. A three-week program could be transformed to one week virtual and two weeks abroad, for example, reducing costs and time away – important considerations for schools with a high percentage of non-traditional and/or working students.
Or, by scheduling a few lectures or presentations early, time in-country can be taken at a more relaxed pace. This can address a common piece of feedback given by students that schedules can feel hectic and that free time is at a premium.
We believe strongly that any student who chooses to major in a foreign language or a field such as international relations should be required to study abroad, even if only for the integrity of the degree. That being said, all students benefit from international experience and exposure to other cultures and should have the opportunity to participate as well.
There are those, however, who cannot travel abroad. We particularly struggle with the question of how to accommodate students with physical disabilities in our region. There are others who cannot travel abroad for a variety of reasons. We should be able to provide valuable alternative international experiences for those who cannot travel abroad, or be accommodated abroad at present. Virtual study abroad presents a solution for this.
SRAS Classroom Support and Virtual Study Abroad
We have focused over the past year on developing classroom support services. While motivated initially by the forced move to online or hybrid learning, it is clear there is long-term value in the opportunities made possible in this new world. What we have developed naturally, in response to classroom needs, are in fact those same experiences fundamental to study abroad.
- Guest lectures and presentations
- Field trips to businesses, NGOs, and other organizations
- Virtual and live-stream tours of cities, museums, and more
- Peer interaction (local and with program participants) in the form of language practice, discussion groups, social events, workshops
- Independent (student-directed) exploration of places and interests
We still believe nothing can replace actual travel abroad. We have come to realize, however, that there is value in well-designed and well-intentioned virtual study abroad experiences. Whether you are considering virtual study abroad opportunities for your students in summer 2021 due to travel restrictions or are looking to integrate virtual experiences more broadly and long-term in your institution, we would be happy to discuss with you the possibilities in our region.