Virtual Study Abroad

Virtual Study Abroad: A New Road To Transformation?

August 22, 2020


In the study abroad industry, the experience du jour is virtual study abroad. Created in response to the challenges of international movement in the Covid-19 era, virtual experiences are intended to echo the experiences of an in-person study abroad program in another country.

For many years it has been taken as an article of faith, at least on the part of students, that studying abroad is ipso facto a good thing. In some cases, it can even be transformational. However, with study abroad experiences becoming shorter and shorter as the decades pass, there has been less and less of the deep and profound changes that prior generations experienced by engaging in year-long intensive language-focused types of experiences.

Many of today's study abroad students pre-Covid went to Europe and Australia seeking not so much as to be deeply engaged in the culture but rather as a replica of the Grand Tour of the late 1800s and early 1900s. At the core of this type of experience is travel, sightseeing, eating, and spending most of your time with like-minded travelers.

However, we know that the kind of experiences that have the most lasting impact require immersion, language-study, and engagement with local culture; in short being uncomfortable. Virtual study abroad certainly is a greener approach too international education as it sharply reduces the greenhouse gases of students jetting around Europe every weekend that they are abroad.

We also know that it is the nature of the experience rather than the location which is determinative. We also know that short-term study abroad programs can be equally as effective for the learner. For example, working closely with refugee populations in the United States can have the same types of outcomes as a study abroad experience in a non-traditional destination. We know that students can dramatically increase their language proficiency in Miami or Puerto Rico or Montreal without having to go to France or Spain for those kinds of experiences. The great challenge is to construct opportunities that lead to the kinds of learning that the best study abroad programs have elicited over the years.

While many providers have gone to virtual experiences to stay alive financially, in the process, they may in fact be opening new frontiers of international education for place bound students and others who have traditionally been excluded from studying abroad. These include students at community colleges, public institutions, nontraditional students, and other students that would not normally be able to physically leave the country for a study abroad experience. Perhaps they have jobs that they cannot leave, or small children to care for. They too would be able to experience a piece of the global puzzle that could make them marketable to employers as well for having gained intercultural skills and an international work experience. Study abroad should be about who can be included, not who is excluded.

As always, the devil is in the details. Carefully constructed experiences that engage and challenge students are always going to be preferable. The fact remains that the demand is overwhelmingly for programs that limit classes to two or three days a week to maximize travel flexibility and that do not require intermediate or even advanced language standing, nor do they require homestays or having to spend significant amounts of time in close contact with locals and local culture. If virtual study abroad can overcome those biases and stimulate real inter-cultural learning, then it will be a welcome and valuable addition to the field.  So, here is a toast to success with virtual study abroad; may its outcomes be more profound and more lasting than those of many traditional study abroad programs.

Photo Credit:  CEA Study Abroad