There is a growing need for virtual international learning (or ‘virtual study abroad’). I’ve recently found myself thinking a lot about remote ways to connect people from different cultures. Where could large-scale virtual international learning make an impact?
Here are a few thoughts on why I think virtual international programs should be the norm rather than the exception for students. Note: I use the word ‘student’ loosely. I don’t believe you need to be enrolled in a higher ed institution to consider yourself a student. When we hear the word ‘student’, we often think of this first definition: “a person who attends a school, college, or university.” But let’s not forget the other definition of student: “a person who studies something.” There are many brilliant students who never go to college. There are some college attendees who never become true students. When I was thinking through these ideas, I imagined participants both inside and outside of traditional classrooms.
Virtual learning to replace no international experience at all: As I mentioned in my first post, in-person international travel and learning opportunities are not accessible to everyone. Some students have major barriers to boarding that international flight. Money, kids, medical conditions, and significant life responsibilities ground many people. A pandemic will ground many people. So while in many ways virtual international experiences don’t replace in-person ones, they make an excellent replacement for no international experience at all. For those who cannot travel, a virtual opportunity is an amazing replacement.
Virtual learning to prepare for in-person international travel: what if every study abroad student could take a short virtual learning course before they traveled? My own (and many other) study abroad courses prepare participants logistically. Orientations focus on when to catch your flight, what to pack, and how to secure a visa. These orientations can offer little to prepare a student culturally, socially, or linguistically. What if culture shock could be curtailed for all travelers? Imagine the benefits of a language crash-course or an opportunity to virtually meet professors, students, or locals in an upcoming destination. What if everyone could attend virtual coffee hours to learn travel tips, cultural norms, and advice prior to departure? These programs could both prepare travelers for a better immersion into a culture, but also deliver more culturally-sensitive representatives of a school, state, or country to a receiving culture.
Virtual learning to build hybrid opportunities: What if we combined forces? What if we designed more programs that included both virtual AND in-person international learning? Classes could start online with students from different cultures meeting each other and brainstorming virtually. The cross-cultural class could then come together to enact projects or continue learning outcomes in-person. The order could switch, with virtual learning modules coming after in-person experiences. We could keep networks, conversation, or projects moving forward long after travel. What if we designed entire degrees that connect students in different cultures not for a few weeks or a semester, but throughout an entire program or sequence of classes? What could be the outcome of these longer-lasting international learning opportunities?
Virtual learning to promote intercontinental learning: What if we designed more programs that allowed students to connect not just with one culture or continent, but many? Those in the business world could experience project collaborations in multiple foreign markets, allowing them to identify where they might want to work when entering global industries. Students in medical fields could complete coursework on health and healthcare in many countries. Learning a globalized approach to medicine could improve care with diverse patients at home. With virtual learning, a year or more could connect students to three, four, five different cultures through subsequent programs completed back-to-back.
I am going to stop there, but will likely return with more ideas later. There are many ways to build out virtual international programs designed for undergraduate students, industry professionals, kids, retirees, or anyone with a desire to learn. I can see programs being born already with these approaches at their core (I am not the first to have these ideas)...but we can and should do more. What if every single person had the opportunity to have a meaningful international learning experience, at least once in their lives? With virtual international learning this is not an impossible dream.
I am an anthropology professor, writer, researcher and global traveler. In fall of 2021, I led an experiential eLearning project connecting US students (and others) with the people, places, and industries of Greenland. I redesigned a research trip into a virtual field trip for my students who didn't have any Study Abroad options. All of the videos, photos, interviews, and storytelling are still here to enjoy!