A few years ago, I think around the time that HESA Towers ran a conference on internationalization, I realized there was something weird about the way Canadian higher education institutions talked about study abroad. They talked about it as helping students “bridge the gap between theory and practice”, “increasing engagement”, and “hands-on learning”.
That’s odd, I thought. That sounds like experiential learning, not study abroad. Which is when it hit me: in Canada, unlike virtually everywhere else in the world, study abroad to a large degree is experiential learning.
In Europe, when they say study abroad, they mostly mean study at a foreign institution in the same field through the Erasmus program. In the US, they may mean this, or they may means studying in facilities owned by their home universities but located in different countries. For instance, Wake Forest owns a campus in Venice, Webster University has a campus in Leiden, University of Dallas has one in Rome (have a browse through this list). Basically, if your students are paying megabucks to be at a US campus, the ideas can’t just give them exchange semesters at some foreign public school because who knows about the quality, the safety, etc.
But look at how Canadian institutions showcase their study abroad: McGill talks up its science station in Barbados. University of Alberta showcases its international internships. University of Saskatchewan has a fabulous little Nursing programs which ties together practicums in East Saskatoon and Mozambique. The stuff we like to talk about doesn’t seem to actually involve study in the sense of being in a classroom, per se. That’s not to say our universities don’t have typical study-abroad programs: we’ve got thousands of those. They’re just not where the sizzle is. It’s a distinctly Canadian take on the subject.
This brings me to a point about measuring the benefits of study abroad. Let’s take it for granted that being abroad for a while makes students more independent, outward-looking, able to problem-solve, etc. What is it, exactly, about being abroad that actually makes you that way? Is it sitting in classes in a foreign country? Is it meeting foreign people in a foreign country? Is it meeting people from your own culture in a foreign country (too often the main outcome of study abroad programs)? What about if you actually get to work in a foreign country? And – crucially for the design of some programs – how long does it take for the benefits to kick in? A week? A month? A year? When do diminishing returns set in?
Despite study-abroad being a multi-billion dollar niche within higher education, we actually don’t know the answer to many of these questions. There isn’t a lot of work done which picks apart the various elements of “study abroad” to look at relative impact. There is some evidence from Elspeth Jones in the UK that many of the benefits actually kick in after as little as 2-4 weeks, which suggests there may be cheaper ways of achieving all these purported benefits.
Of course, one of the reasons we have no answers to this is that it’s pretty hard to unpack the “treatment” involved in study abroad. You can’t, for instance, randomly assign people to a program that just sits in class, or force people to make friends among locals rather than among the study-abroad group. But, for instance, it would be possible to look at impacts (using some of the techniques we talked about yesterday) based on length of study abroad period. It would be possible to compare results of programs that have students mostly sit in class to ones where they do internships. It would be possible to examine internships based on whether or not they actually made friends among local students or not, a question not asked enough in study evaluation work. It would also be possible to examine this based on destination country: are the benefits higher or lower depending on proficiency in the destination country’s language?
These questions aren’t easily answerable at the level of an individual institution – the sample size on these would simply be too small. But one could easily imagine a consortium of institutions agreeing to a common impact assessment strategy, each collecting and sharing data about students and also collectively collecting data on non-mobile students for comparative purposes (again, see yesterday’s blog), perhaps through the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium. It would make a heck of a project.
If anyone’s interested in starting a consortium on this, let me know. Not only would it be fun, but it might help us actually design study abroad experiences in a more thoughtful, conscious and impactful way. And we’d find out if the “Canadian Way” is more effective than more traditional approaches.
Worth a try, I think.