It’s 9 a.m. in New York , and you log onto your study abroad program’s learning module to check in with your cohorts in Cape Town, South Africa. You agree to hop onto a call in half an hour — 3:30 p.m. local time in Cape Town — to touch base on a project you’re working on together. Your mission: create a mock-up of a small, high-end textile business with storefronts in both cities. Next week, you’ll present your part of the project — an e-commerce website — that you’ve created with your partner more than 7,800 miles away.

This is the new virtual study abroad program. Students will never set foot in one another’s country of residence. Instead, over a period of a few weeks to a full year, students in both locations will conduct research, collaborate on projects, listen to lectures, and participate in seminars entirely through the internet. This form of study abroad, which some in higher learning prefer to call “education abroad,” has been adopted at the University of Central Florida, New York University, the State University of New York, Arcadia University in Pennsylvania, and the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. The coronavirus has instilled a newfound urgency among educators to create such programs, but even once the pandemic is over, there will still be a need for thoughtful, accessible study abroad, rendering the creation of these programs even more critical.

Virtual study abroad challenges the notion that students actually need to goto another country to learn about its history, culture, economics, and language. Though it probably sounds a lot less fun than actually getting to hang out for a semester in Barcelona, a well-designed course can deliver many of the same benefits of a physical study abroad class (which educators call “mobile” courses) while also providing easier access for students who would otherwise not be able to go, such as lower income students, students with jobs, students who act as caretakers, and, of course, students currently trapped at home because of pandemic-induced global travel restrictions.

Virtual study abroad, in some form or another, has existed for over a decade. One of the most prominent of these programs is the SUNY COIL Center, short for State University New York Collaborative Online International Learning, which has been operating since 2006. The pandemic has only further encouraged interest in related programs as international travel is currently inadvisable — if not outright impossible. In a COIL course, as in many other virtual study abroad programs, teachers at institutions in different countries will teach a class together, with students from both universities collaborating on research and a project. One 2013 class, for example, was titled “Jazz! Born in America, Created Internationally,” and involved students at the Royal Academy of Music in Denmark, the University of South Africa in Pretoria, and the North Carolina Central University in Durham. The students studied the history of jazz, different forms of jazz from around the world, and performed together via video chat.

“Participation in any form of study abroad provides a cultural experience that develops critical skills students need to be globally competent and marketable in the workforce,” says Patrice Torcivia Prusko, the associate director of learning design at the Harvard Teaching and Learning Lab. Carefully designed study abroad courses can help a student learn about different viewpoints and cultures, become more self-aware about their own culture and open to others, and develop what’s known as “global competencies,” which include abilities like seeing things from other people’s perspectives, reflecting and taking responsibility for their own attitudes and actions, and understanding that people are shaped differently based on their culture and circumstances.

Virtual education abroad programs, if thoughtfully designed, could potentially make study abroad requirements more accessible to the millions of students who can’t participate in more traditional, “mobile” programs. According to a 2015 survey by the National Association for Foreign Student Affairs, Torcivia Prusko says, “overall only 1.55% of the students in higher education participate in study abroad experiences. Only 10% of college graduates have study abroad experience. And 73% of the participants in study abroad experiences are Caucasian, with almost all other ethnic groups underrepresented relative to their proportional enrollment in higher education.”

“Unfortunately, I think we have been narrowing our focus on specifically mobile students — those who are able to go abroad,” says Anthony Ogden, founder of the study abroad agency Gateway International and co-editor of the book Education Abroad and the Undergraduate Experience. “Many educational abroad people in the United States oftentimes mistake their goals for their methodology, meaning they think their job is to get more students abroad. That’s not their job. Their job is to work in partnership with equity, to leverage all methodologies to ensure that our students, when they graduate from our universities, understand the international nuances of their disciplines.”

Depending on the class and subject matter, this goal can potentially be accomplished just as effectively through a virtual education abroad course as a mobile one. The pandemic, Ogden says, has forced many people in the study abroad community to re-imagine and recalibrate how they’re going to educate students.

Virtual study abroad isn’t possible for every discipline, however. An archeology student would likely benefit from going on an actual archeological dig in their region of interest; a language student would be well served by total immersion in the country in which that language is natively spoken. But for many types of study, a virtual exchange is sufficient for a student to get an initial understanding of how their academic interest intersects with different communities and cultures.

Take the jazz class, for example. Three groups of students from different countries were able to successfully learn about international jazz styles, perform together via video, and discuss with each other their own experiences with jazz growing up. The ability for everyone to work together virtually opens up the class to people who face obstacles that inhibit their ability to travel internationally.

There’s very little research on virtual study abroad programs, but so far, what exists shows that it’s a field that shows a lot of promise. One such study from 2012, conducted by Torcivia Prusko and SUNY’s Lorette Pellettiere Calix, analyzed class participation and educational outcomes from a number of virtual study abroad courses. It included data from students participating in U.S.-Slovakia and U.S.-Panama programs. Participation rates were high, and students preferred classes in which they were able to hold active discussions and work together (known as synchronous classes) than classes in which assignments were done on their own time (asynchronous classes). Most students and teachers thought the classes were engaging, educational, and satisfying; the primary problem was unpredictable power outages in Panama, which made it difficult for the students there to regularly participate.

Calix, the program director for the Center for International Education at SUNY Empire State College, says she advises anyone looking to create a virtual study abroad program to make it as mobile-friendly as possible, since there are often technology challenges in countries that have unreliable internet service. She also thinks the immobility forced by the pandemic is resulting in people growing more comfortable with technology, which could be beneficial to the greater development of virtual study abroad programs.

“A lot of people before couldn’t imagine working on virtual teams. And now they find out that, oh yeah, you can do this,” she says. “So I think that the Covid crisis might have made people a little bit more accepting of using these sorts of tools, and realize that they can establish relationships and get a feeling for people, even though they’re not physically together.”

It’s unlikely that most mobile study abroad programs will be replaced by their virtual counterparts. Even the highest caliber virtual program is difficult to market to undergraduate students with means compared to a program in Barcelona. But greater care and development for virtual programs opens a lot of doors for a lot of people who, for one reason or another, can’t swing that semester in Spain. The ability to travel internationally shouldn’t serve as a prerequisite to learning about global communities and how a student’s field of study is affected by different social and cultural contexts.

Andrew Law, the academic dean of the College of Global Studies at Arcadia University, says our current historical moment is “separating the wheat from the chaff” — or, in other words, showing which programs are thinking critically about the purpose and goals of study abroad and which aren’t. “There’s the notion that proximity to difference is in and of itself educational. And it’s not,” he says. “The education abroad experience in and of itself is not transformative — it invites students to change. The transformation occurs when they make a decision about what they do with that change.”

Covid-19 is forcing many of us to reconsider how we structure our lives. Education, in particular global learning and study abroad, has been due for a reckoning on the basis of accessibility and inclusion for a while now. While moving study abroad online doesn’t address the plethora of structural problems present in the American education system, it’s one small step in the right direction.

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