Get Going: Need for Virtual Study Abroad Now Greater Than Ever

With COVID-19 and the economy impacting the possibility for student travel in real life for the past two years and more, possibilities for global virtual engagement are increasing.

In March of 2020, the COVID pandemic wreaked havoc on international student exchange, forcing countries to call students home while travel bans left many other students stranded abroad, unable to return to their countries of origin.

Open Doors data for the 2020-21 academic year shows new international student enrollment in the U.S. declined by 45.6% over the previous year.

The most popular form of study abroad for American students, short-term study abroad, experienced a 73% decline in 2019-20, with summer programs particularly affected, declining by 99%.  

At the same time, COVID demonstrated the need for individual global engagement highlighted by the relevance of global perspectives as every corner of the earth and most every industry was impacted in some way by ensuing public health crises, lockdowns, and global supply chain disruptions.

At my university, after three years of planning, the inaugural cohort of elementary education students in our new semester-long exchange program with Maynooth University in Ireland weathered program cancellation for a second time due to ongoing travel restrictions.

Going virtual

Moving into the 2022 school year, as higher education administration plots post-pandemic curricula and countries lift their travel restrictions, hundreds of thousands of American and international students are eager to pursue the dreams of study abroad that were mothballed for the past two years.  But with escalating costs and the crisis of airline cancellations due to labor shortages and severe weather, virtual global collaborations are an appealing option.

Short of technology challenges, virtual international exchanges are virtually guaranteed.  Recently one of my own professional collaborations included Greek and Turkish Cypriots connecting on FaceTime with a teacher in Germany and an educational training provider in Wales, while considering programming for an environmental center backed by a Libyan donor to involve American students in an international service-learning experience. 

In the 25 years preceding the pandemic, study abroad programs for American students’ had grown steadily. Importantly, the proportion of underrepresented students from culturally and racially diverse backgrounds increased by 9% from 2009-10 to 2019-20.

The quandary of foreign language learning

While American students’ participation in study abroad may be increasing, resistance to foreign language learning continues, with data reporting a significant decline since the 1960s in foreign language study at both K-12 and college settings.

The most recent National K-12 Foreign Language Enrollment Survey, published in 2017, reports that only 20% of American schoolchildren learn a foreign language and only 11 states have foreign language graduation requirements.

At the college level, 16.5% of students enrolled in modern language courses in 1965, but by 2016, that number was only 7.5%, according to the most recent report from the Modern Language Association.


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Devastating as it was, the pandemic offered a kind of silver lining for global exchange, with institutions forced to transform study abroad programs by pivoting to new practices. These include offering service-learning at home with local international populations and creating virtual mobility by incorporating technology.

The benefits of a growing trend

Experiences of virtual study abroad and Collaborative Online International Learning practices expanded during the pandemic and proved particularly successful when borders closed.  One example is State University of New York that posts how COIL connects students and faculty with international counterparts for collaborative projects and discussions as part of their coursework.

For students whose life circumstances make study abroad impossible or impractical, virtual study abroad proves especially beneficial. Barriers such as cost, family responsibilities, concerns around fitting study abroad into on-time graduation, and possible discomfort around international travel are easily overcome through online education abroad opportunities.

An added benefit of virtual study abroad is in the reduction of the environmental impact of international travel and the fact that it  addresses the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which many universities are choosing to adopt.

As some American universities increasingly aspire to comprehensive internationalization, defined by the American Council on Education as “a strategic, coordinated framework that integrates policies, programs, initiatives, and individuals to make colleges and universities more globally oriented and internationally connected,” study abroad in its many forms continues to be an important facet to meet global education goals.

For many students, the future of their work will involve cross-border collaborations and the creation of services and products for a globally diverse culture.

To be sure, some may argue that the growth of virtual study abroad renders in-person global exchange less relevant.  Recent research from East Carolina University suggests that students engaging in virtual study abroad use their experiences as a gateway, with the likelihood of physical study abroad nearly doubling after virtual international exchange.

While international travel contributes significantly to pollution and an increased carbon footprint, as the world emerges from the pandemic, grapples with the global impact of the war on Ukraine, and seeks to address the ongoing worldwide refugee crisis, it is now more relevant than ever to foster connections across cultures.

In his 1869 book,  The Innocents Abroad, author Mark Twain writes, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”

These words ring true as educational institutions guide students to a return to intercultural exchange—including virtually—and promote the value of interconnected, globalized perspectives. 

Karen L. Newman is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Indianapolis and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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