Where are the post-COVID opportunities for study abroad?

Student mobility is a cornerstone of internationalisation efforts across higher education. This can take the form of study abroad, international student enrolments, research agenda-setting, formal institutional partnerships and more.

From February to March 2020, institutions across the world scrambled to help students return home from global experiences and cancelled programmes that did not yet have students travelling.

In an Institute of International Education study of 285 campuses in the United States, 81% of students studying abroad in spring 2020 were evacuated and 64% of institutions cancelled all programmes abroad for autumn of 2020.

Administrations worked not only to care for the physical safety of students, but to ensure that COVID-19 would not disrupt their degree completion efforts and financial constraints.

As the dust settled and administrators all realised higher education was not going to be ‘returning to normal’ anytime soon, offices began to pivot and consider how to continue to offer global education experiences. Out of necessity, people innovated.

Speakers no longer came to students in the physical classroom but ‘Zoomed’ in from anywhere. CEOs, pre-eminent scholars and entrepreneurs were all much more accessible because they could squeeze 30 minutes into their calendar rather than try to get to and from a classroom.

We believe that there should not be a return to ‘normal’ in our field and more specifically within study abroad programmes.

Reimagining study abroad delivery

International education professionals, along with the rest of higher education, found themselves in uncharted territory. The COVID-19 pandemic cancelled flights and closed borders. When professionals work in a field that is fundamentally linked to travel, exploration and intercultural experience, they are faced with two options: quit doing what you are doing or pivot to reimagine how to accomplish the goals and intent of your work.

Within the field of study abroad, faculty have connected students synchronously from Argentina and Michigan in a blended classroom of in-person and virtual interaction.

Coordinated pre-departure virtual experiences were used to connect students to the anticipated in-country experience, for example, a coffee tasting session, guest speakers with regional expertise or a virtual tour of an historical site.

In a limited amount of time, opportunities were leveraged as educators to expand the boundaries of our programmes beyond those we were capable of travelling to.

Short-term study abroad

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, study abroad that consisted of eight weeks or less in duration had become more common than longer term experiences, according to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors report.

As study abroad adjusts to a post-COVID 19 world, we expect the popularity of short-term experiences will continue to increase. This has three major implications for campuses.

First, there will need to be an investment in the development of short-term offerings which may include non-traditional formats such as seminars, faculty-led programmes and others.

Secondly, with the decrease in time, programmes will need to find ways to extend cultural learning pre-departure and post-experience. This can be facilitated through student reflections and sharing resources with students to extend cultural engagement and learning.

Finally, programmes will need to critically examine their curricula to maximise learning opportunities during a shorter span of engagement.

One major opportunity of short-term programmes is that they can lessen the financial burden of these experiences, thus making them accessible to a much more diverse range of students than have historically participated.

Curriculum enhancements

As the field of study abroad continues to evolve, so too must its approaches to curriculum development. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a reflective pause for curricula that should not simply return to the way they were before the pandemic.

Our three key recommendations for enhancing curricula include a focus on diversity, leveraging virtual opportunities and providing experiences that demonstrate global interconnectedness.

In the Autumn 2020 issue of International Higher Education, the authors made the case for study abroad as a way to advance antiracism in international education in addition to exploring the role of inclusivity in exchange programmes.

We believe that a curriculum that centres around global diversity is critical to providing meaningful learning experiences for students. Diversity is deeply contextual and should be examined from students’ individual identities as well as within the context of their studies.

Throughout the pandemic there have been advances in virtual study abroad opportunities, including collaborative courses, virtual internships and more. Curriculum moving forward should leverage virtual learning to maximise cultural engagement that enhances in-country learning for students.

Finally, the pandemic continues to demonstrate the ways in which our world is interconnected. Regardless of discipline, courses should centre opportunities for global collaboration to address our world’s most pressing needs.

We recommend choosing an international framework, such as the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, to centre course objectives around globally shared goals.

Resisting a return to normal

The post-COVID era of study abroad provides educators with the unique opportunity to leverage technology to create robust and innovative engagement experiences. We advocate for a resistance to return to how things were, and to rather take the best of what we’ve done for two years virtually to complement valuable in-person global learning experiences.

Global educators should evaluate their curricula and align experiences to accomplish goals around intercultural agility, connectedness and global diversity. Gone are the days when we must make choices bound by the limitations of proximity. We welcome the new era of study abroad.

Evan Witt is the director of student and academic affairs within the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota in the United States. Email: evanwitt@umn.edu. Laura Haas is the associate director of global initiatives at the University of Michigan in the US. Email: lhoffma@umich.edu.