By Roman Yavich, MPA
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a massive disruption to the entire education system. As with any crisis, this difficult and tragic situation has also brought an opportunity for change. In international education this change is the acceleration of the trend toward virtual programs.
Is Virtual Study Abroad an Oxymoron?
Virtual study abroad sounds like an oxymoron. Most students and faculty scuff at the idea. After all, the whole point of study abroad is to get out of the country to experience another culture and see the world! But is it? It’s true that most students sign up to study abroad to go to an exotic foreign destination. It’s an Instagram-able, credit-barring adventure of a lifetime. But most students come back from a study abroad program, especially a structured, faculty-led program, having gained something more profound and impactful than what they could capture with their phones. A new perspective, even epiphany, about their privilege, consumption patterns, social, economic, and environmental impact, prior naivete about foreign policy, along with enlightened views about cultural relativism and a myriad of additional insight, is what makes study abroad truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And if this is the point of study abroad, then good news, it can be achieved through virtual programming.
Epiphanies during faculty-led study abroad most often occur as a result of interaction with locals who share their perspective and culture. These conversations can have almost the same impact over a zoom call. While a screen will never compare to travel, a virtual reality viewer at least starts to bridge the gap. A virtual internship can be just as valuable as an in-person internship abroad, and, in fact, might better prepare a student for their future career, which will likely involve remote work. No, I don’t think virtual study abroad will or should replace in-person travel programs, but I do believe that if the objective is to internationalize the curriculum and students’ views, virtual programs can be effective.
Advantages of Virtual Study Abroad
Virtual international education also has unique advantages to travel-based faculty-led programs that should not be overlooked. First and foremost, it is more affordable, meaning it is more accessible to a broader segment of the student population. Only a small fraction of students currently study abroad, and this group is far from representative of the diversity of the student population. Without the cost of travel, accommodation, restaurants, and adventure activities, virtual study abroad costs a fraction of the cost of a travel program. Increasing access, participation, and diversity in study abroad has been repeatedly cited by research as a top concern for colleges and universities. The international education community should promote these programs not only as an alternative when travel is not possible, as is the case now, but as an alternative when travel is possible.
Virtual programs are also environmentally friendly compared to the carbon intensive travel programs. A single long-haul flight is as harmful to our climate as a year’s worth of driving. This is why Learn from Travel offsets its entire carbon footprint. Virtual programs also eliminate the carbon of hotel accommodation, eating in restaurants, and other activities. They also prevent the possibility of littering, which is a particularly big concern for programs that involve ecotourism activities.
Virtual programs are much easier logistically, without the need for planning travel, complicated activity scheduling, and limiting the program to an intensive week-long or two-week-long itinerary, in the case of a faculty-led study abroad. The activities can be spread out over the course of the semester and students can engage with people and places geographically far apart, something that is not possible when traveling.
Virtual Faculty Led Study Abroad Example
After conducting some market research on the topic of virtual study abroad over the last several months, my team came to realize that many faculty simply can’t imagine what a virtual faculty-led program could look like. At best they think of international zoom calls, and, yes, that is a part of it, but it’s just the beginning. Take for example a faculty-led program in Oaxaca on the topic of migration and remittances:
Students can join a local guide using her cell phone to walk through an Oaxacan market, meet different merchants, learn about the produce, and buy groceries for making mole. Later in the day the students can make the mole sauce together with a chef in Oaxaca to enjoy with their families at home that night.
Using Zoom they can meet the director of a local migration support nonprofit to hear about the complexity of the issue for Mexican authorities and the efforts to help the desperate families, from all over the world, seeking safety and security. As a class, the students can participate in a service learning project to support the migration center with data entry and analysis, database updates, and social media posts. Going further, students can intern with a variety of nonprofit, public and private organizations that make up the ecosystem of migrant support services. They can engage in a multi-week virtual internship, coming together weekly to share insights.
Students can also work with their Oaxacan peers to conduct research on migration on both sides of the border, receiving lectures from faculty in the US and in Oaxaca. Using a $15 VR viewer, they can even experience Monte Alban, one of the most important archeological sites in the Valley of Oaxaca, in an immersive 3D virtual space composed of 360° photos and videos layered with additional text and links to online content. Beyond being a fun and engaging experience, the virtual reality visit can help students place the topic of migration and settlement in the historical context.
So is virtual international education worth it? I’m biased, but yes. It is absolutely worth it if the alternative is a lack of international content in a course curriculum. Despite a recent rise in nationalism, the world is becoming more interdependent and interconnected by the day. The pandemic will not change that. Preparing students for work and life in this world is vitally important for higher Ed institutions and the opportunity for integrating virtual international education should not be missed.
To learn more about virtual study abroad modules and programs, please visit Learn from Travel.
Roman Yavich is the founder of Learn from Travel, a social enterprise international educational provider specializing in custom faculty-led and virtual study abroad programs for higher ed.