What will higher education abroad look like when the current public health crisis is over? Those of us who have weathered impacts caused by previous crises such as SARS and incidents of global terrorism remember the adjustments that institutions had to make. But the current public health crisis is different and will leave lasting changes to the way that institutions think about and practice education abroad.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges and universities across the globe have worked diligently and creatively to bring students back to study abroad destinations to complete their academic programs online. By collaborating closely with education abroad program providers and international university partners, institutions have adapted academic standards and practices to accommodate an unprecedented number of students whose spring and academic-year education abroad programs were cut short.
The pandemic has alerted us to the fact that we live in a borderless world in which our well-being depends on global cooperation. At the same time, we are self-isolating and practicing social distancing from each other; our personal borders start at our front door. That will change our orientation to the world going forward, shifting our conception of borders and our understanding of each other, the world, and ourselves. Institutions are very likely to be wary of restarting education abroad in the way that it has been practiced up to now. In fact, at this moment, institutions have an opportunity to understand and conceive of education abroad in new ways that can continue to make it a high-impact practice. Education abroad has always used geography as a point of definition, but now we have begun to view it as an educational model that can be practiced in a wider variety of forms.
What will the future bring? What will education abroad look like as it emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic? Below are some observations and ideas.
Online learning and virtual education abroad. Before this crisis, a number of education abroad programs used online learning to deliver course content, connect students studying at different program sites, and guide and assess student learning. The pandemic has made it necessary for institutions and organizations to be even more creative in applying online learning for students who have returned to the United States. Programs have created course component videos of sites that would have been explored in person yet are now being introduced online. Some summer 2020 education abroad programs are offering virtual internships in which students in the U.S. complete an internship with a host company or organization located abroad. Such practices are expanding the education abroad “experience.”
Domestic study away. COVID-19 makes every place outside our homes a risk, even domestic campuses. And even after the crisis abates, students, their families, and their institutions may be more comfortable with the idea of remaining in the U.S. than learning in another country. A growing number of institutions now offer domestic study-away experiences that can fulfill goals similar to those traditionally associated with education abroad. When intentionally structured and incorporated into an educational program, encounters, and engagements with diverse communities in America can transform students, opening their minds to different perspectives and enhancing their ability to interact with people different from themselves. Such programs are likely to become more popular with students in a post-COVID-19 age.
Globe education. Education around the globe should become educated about the globe. The drastic reduction in global travel, tourism, and education abroad has alerted the world of the adverse environmental footprints that travelers leave. Images of suddenly much clearer water in Venice’s canals and cleaner air in some of the world’s most polluted cities have demonstrated the harmful effects of environmentally insensitive travel. Each education abroad program should treat our planet as a beneficiary of the program by dedicating time to studying how students can be environmentally responsible in an interconnected world. It is also time to take seriously how each student, faculty member, and administrator involved in education abroad can offset their environmental footprints. Some institutions and education abroad program providers have developed effective methods for doing this. All programs should adopt these best practices.