It’s Time to Rethink Study Abroad

Following is a guest post by Mark Salisbury,  director of institutional research and assessment at Augustana College, in Illinois.

Undergraduates at an event promoting study abroad.

For the folks who have been fervently trying over the past decade to persuade more—if not most—undergraduates to study abroad, the almost flat change in participation from 2009-10 to 2010-11, as found in the latest “Open Doors” report, probably didn’t inspire much of a celebration. After several years of more-substantial growth, “Open Doors” reported a measly increase of about 3,000 students, just over 1 percent.

Commenting on the lack of growth, Peggy Blumenthal, senior counsel at the Institute of International Education, which produced the report, said: “We’re going to have to find other ways to internationalize the thinking of Americans if we’re not going to get them all abroad.”

When I read Blumenthal’s reaction in The Chronicle, I wanted to crack open a bottle of bubbly. Because in one sentence, she captured the fundamental shift in thinking that can make study abroad realize its educational potential. If international educators can mobilize behind her charge, this seemingly grim report may mark the moment that study abroad got its groove back.

Despite tremendous growth in the world of study-abroad providers and programs, the participation goal—of one million students studying abroad annually—set forth in 2005 by the Lincoln Commission, a government-appointed panel of education experts, remains a pipe dream. Instead, participation sits at just over a quarter of that goal. And the body of evidence seems to suggest that except for some growth around the margins, students who study abroad are the same type of students who always studied abroad—it’s just that there are more of them.

More troubling still, it appears that the evidence of student learning often falls far short of expectations. Even among the most optimistic study-abroad folks, there seems to be a sense that the experience in which many believe so passionately still isn’t quite working like it should or could.

That is why Blumenthal’s quote is so encouraging. First, instead of continuing to lament a lack of participation, she explicitly refocuses the conversation on achieving the learning outcome expected of study abroad. Second, she suggests that other experiences might also enable students to achieve similar learning outcomes. If the study-abroad community and higher-education institutions could embrace that shift and build internationalizing efforts around achieving learning outcomes through multiple means, we might begin to realize the goal that has been envisioned for international education.

Internationalized thinking—to use Blumenthal’s term—consists of two elements. First, it includes all of the complexities of successfully interacting across some dimension of difference. Second, that set of skills is applied in an international context. For study-abroad folks, the two-stage learning process should come as some relief because it means that students need to have at least begun to develop the ability to interact across difference before they are asked to apply the skill in an international context. Thus, it places the responsibility for developing internationalized thinking more squarely on the shoulders of the institution.

In other words, it acknowledges that institutions have a responsibility to help their students internationalize their thinking instead of asking study abroad to do the lion’s share of the heavy lifting. The challenge for study-abroad professionals in light of this suggestion is that they will need to expand their scope. Instead of seeing their work as a specific yet isolated program, they will need to begin working more closely with the rest of the institution to ensure that the sequence of learning experience in which study abroad sits is appropriately designed to accomplish this complex learning outcome.

Blumenthal also suggests that other experiences might also lead to improved internationalized thinking. International educators ought to be chomping at the bit to identify and develop multiple mechanisms for internationalizing students’ thinking.

Consider two seemingly obvious examples. On many campuses international students could be more involved and more fully included in the mainstream life of a college. Yet they often are housed together, apart from the rest of the university. And recently a number of technological tools that facilitate collaboration between students at institutions in different countries have produced some intriguing and potentially powerful learning outcomes. International educators should be at the forefront of developing ways to harness those opportunities.

Yet sometimes I think there is a reluctance to innovate—maybe because international educators remain conflicted on some basic level about whether their primary responsibilities are about the means to an end (participating in study abroad) or about achieving the ends themselves (student-learning outcomes like internationalized thinking).

Whether or not this leveling-off in study-abroad participation is an anomaly or the beginning of a trend, it doesn’t change the reality that an intense focus on increasing the number of students abroad has not produced the broadly internationalized populace of college graduates that many originally envisioned.

Yet this ship has not sailed. Study-abroad folks and higher-education institutions all want to prepare students to succeed in a globally interconnected world. If we focus our efforts first on developing the internationalized thinking that students need to succeed in the next century, and then invest the time and effort in all of the experiences that can help them get there, we will all have something to celebrate. And I can promise you that I’ll be ready with a bottle of bubbly to christen that ship.

[Creative Commons licensed Wikimedia image by Frankfurt School of Finance & Management]

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