With the US and much of the world engulfed in the COVID-19 pandemic, travel restrictions and health risks have threatened to make study abroad difficult, if not impossible.
But that doesn’t mean students won’t still want to learn about other cultures and see how people in other parts of the world approach different issues, such as climate change, income inequality or human rights.
Ideally, students would learn about these things in different cultural contexts by actually going to other countries. But since travel abroad to certain countries is off-limits or discouraged due to COVID-19, the question now becomes: How can study abroad still be done?
As a longtime proponent of international education, one solution I see — and one that more and more universities are beginning to pursue — is to have students study abroad online.
American University, Arcadia University Northeastern University and the University of Buffalo are already advancing virtual study abroad. Their programmes range from online courses at a US university’s international branch campus to courses offered in partnership with foreign universities.
A new approach
These options involve courses designed and taught by either US professors or professors based abroad selected and trained by a US college or university. This is done to make sure the course aligns with the student’s graduation requirements.
But I see another way to do virtual study abroad that I believe would radically change the way it is done. And that is, US colleges and universities could offer courses from other parts of the world precisely as they are delivered there, not modified to mirror American courses. The idea would be to expose US students to views from outside of the country.
US colleges and universities could make sure that the selected courses are accredited by reputable organisations, such as the German Accreditation Agency or the Japan Institution for Education Evaluation.
These courses would be delivered through the most advanced technological platforms available. They would also count toward graduation or even be made a graduation requirement. Or they could be a course requirement for a major.
Many universities abroad already offer courses in English that are taught remotely. Being involved with the University of Freiburg in Germany, I’ve seen firsthand how the online capability of foreign universities increased dramatically as they had to switch online due to the pandemic. Studying abroad online, therefore, is something that could be done right away.
Potential courses could involve climate change studies in Germany or mental health in Denmark. Or instructors could deal with immigration in Italy, the interplay of religion and politics in India or Israel and even human rights in Hong Kong. Students could even enrol in a set of courses on various countries’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Virtual study abroad would also enable more students to gain exposure to views from other countries because it costs much less. Not all students can readily afford travel and other costs associated with living abroad.
Studying abroad carries important employment and financial benefits. A 2017 survey from the Institute of International Education survey found that study abroad leads to significant gains various critical skills need for the contemporary workplace. Further, 78% of those interviewed say they discussed their study abroad experiences in job interviews.
For virtual study abroad to become a bigger part of US higher education, I see at least three bureaucratic hurdles must be overcome.
The first hurdle is resistance from university leaders. As I inquired about the prospects for virtual study abroad, several senior college and university administrators told me that there is no such thing. For them, study abroad is defined exclusively by physical travel to another country. This is understandable, of course, as many study abroad students anecdotally cite the cultural and social experiences outside the classroom as important to their overall experience.
These administrators, however, are misguided and out of sync with a world afflicted by COVID-19. I also see it as an affront to global climate sustainability for the only option for study abroad to involve air travel and the consumption of vast amounts of fuel.
Secondly, US higher education must accept that there are other ways to educate students beyond the way it is done in the US. While the desire to ensure academic integrity is understandable, demanding that international courses be just like the ones already offered in the US obstructs students from encountering other ways to teach and learn.
And, lastly, new, temporary rules that let federal student aid be used for online courses delivered by a foreign university need to be made permanent. The Department of Education made the temporary rule changes in April and May so that thousands of US study abroad students could complete their courses remotely here in the US after COVID-19 forced them to return home. Making the changes permanent will enable many more US students to keep studying abroad virtually.
Currently only 10.9% of college students study abroad at some point while they’re earning their degrees. In a world shaken by a pandemic — and where many traditional higher education practices are surely to be reinvented — the virtual study abroad I envision has the potential to give US students a deeper appreciation of perspectives and ideas from other parts of the world.