Are Study Abroad Programs Really “Innovative”?

Dr. Angi Yucas

CAPA International Education‘s Vice President of Academic Relations Dr. Angi Yucas takes the reins on Dr. Michael Woolf’s “Thoughts on Education Abroad” column this month. 

Below she discusses the concept of innovation in international education and asks us to think twice about what truly makes a study abroad program innovative. 

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With 25+ years of experience working with U.S. undergraduates in the field of education abroad, there isn’t much that impresses me anymore. I find the many current claims about study abroad programs as “innovative” both wearisome and worrisome. If so many innovations are actually in existence, then why aren’t we seeing aspects of programs that look different, sound different, attract different students, etc.?  It is ironic that our professional field solicits innovation and awards it with various recognitions, but then shares the goods with anyone who shows up at a session or workshop at one of our professional conferences. Or, if conference attendance isn’t possible, then an inquiry to whoever is connected to the innovation will yield the entire scoop just for the asking. And if everyone is doing it, is it innovative or has it now become the standard?

“Innovative” sounds good, though, and suggests value added, a most desired quality from any consumer’s perspective, especially a parent’s. It also suggests that if a program isn’t doing something innovative, then it must be lesser than the others who boast of it in all their promotional materials. I find its use wearisome and worrisome because I think it is overused in hollow claims that truly don’t amount to much that is genuinely innovative and therefore is misleading to all constituencies involved. I would argue that true innovations are few and far between in the field of education abroad.

Innovation Drive
Photo: Innovation Drive by Christian Heilmann

So what would qualify as a study abroad innovation in the past forty years or so? Not much. An innovation in the past ten years has been the curriculum integration movement.  With generous funding from the Bush (3M) Foundation and FIPSE (Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education), it was led by the University of Minnesota with the intent of being shared nationwide. It was a new perspective and a novel approach that significantly aided U.S. colleges and universities in engaging faculty, garnering support, and developing and enhancing study abroad programming for their students. It became a catchword in the field and still is. It established a norm and resulted in a notable contribution to the advancement of internationalization on many campuses.

Almost concurrent with curriculum integration on U.S. campuses, the notion of cultural integration as a feature of programs abroad made its appearance on the study abroad scene. Quite a contrast from the earlier attitude that students would learn about the host culture just by being there, cultural integration was a purposeful effort to facilitate the students’ engagement with it. And of course each program boasted their innovative approach to cultural integration when it largely consisted of a calendar of events that could be drawn from any guidebook or tourist publication. So what was truly innovative beside the adjective applied to it? Again, not much. At CAPA International Education we went beyond the calendar of events and created MyEducation. In addition to optional activities, we require activities off the beaten tourist path, selected around several themes, to be a part of each of our courses. Our faculty uses these out-of-the-classroom activities as valuable learning experiences and directs students to analyze and write about them. These experiences are in turn discussed in class; they could possibly comprise the content of an assignment; and most importantly, they are assessed as part of the course grade. CAPA has taken cultural integration still further by enabling students to gain recognition for it through a Record of Achievement, a formal certificate that documents the student’s commitment and extra effort. This degree of cultural integration is innovative.

Photo: CAPA Florence students on a MyEducation dragon boat ride event

So where else can true innovation occur? I would maintain that curriculum development in study abroad programs administered by international education organizations (IEOs) has a tremendous amount of potential for truly innovative courses; such courses, in turn, would. If that were the case comprise an exciting, appealing curriculum that students would ultimately find hard to resist, instead of picking a particular program for its location and what students could see and do recreationally outside of the classroom, they would select a program based on its unique, never-before-seen courses. Direct enrollment options are determined by the host university, and are what they are. Faculty-led programs tend to be more focused and more concerned with depth than breadth. Thus, it is within the purview of the IEOs to innovate.

And while it is almost necessary to offer a theater course in London, Renaissance art and architecture in Florence, and doing business in _________ (fill in the location), why not approach English literature through the theme of terror and the witch or through detective fiction? And why overlook contemporary Italian architecture and award-winning industrial design? Many more examples are possible that would replace the dull survey course by approaching much the same content through a totally different lens or by covering the traditional subjects with the addition of a new angle or a recent cutting edge development. These courses would only be limited by the imagination and creativity of the faculty.

Sherlock Holmes outside Baker Street underground station
Photo: Sherlock Holmes statue outside of London’s Baker Street Underground station

I would also urge the use of more online course content delivery, not to reduce the amount of contact with faculty, but to move beyond lecturing and reserve the time with faculty for clarification, field trips, and feedback on assignments. The communities that result from online courses have proven that they can connect students and facilitate an exchange of opinions and ideas with more frequency and depth than typically occurs in the limited classroom time currently scheduled. They can keep students focused on the topic at hand and engage them in meaningful discussion in an electronic medium that they already use regularly and with which they are very comfortable. While U.S. colleges and universities have been using such platforms as Blackboard and Moodle for over ten years and while MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are appearing at a staggering rate, study abroad programs have been slow to utilize these technologies. Why not be innovative in this area as well?

While short-term, faculty-led programs tend to have the most interesting, focused courses, the curricula of study abroad programs offered by IEOs comprise a prime area for innovation. Replacing lists of disconnected courses with clusters of courses organized around themes and topics is a good start. Then, the design of courses that deliver much the same typical content but from a different, exciting angle, as well as introduce wholly new topics that expose students to areas of a city or aspects of a culture not typically covered would be next. And the final phase would be implementing a perspective on student learning that extends well beyond the courses and encompasses the totality of the student experience abroad with specific learning outcomes and effective means of assessing those outcomes. Then we might be able to use the label “innovative” with good conscience, but in the meantime, I would argue that most semester and year-long programs have a long way to go. . .

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2 Thoughts on “Are Study Abroad Programs Really “Innovative”?

  1. ,..and doing business in Shanghai! I could not resist that, though of course useful in other places! Study abroad has been around a long time so “innovation” needs to be used with care. Too many info pieces begin ” Our innovative programs” .. Only to read on and see it is something I know was being done elsewhere 5 years’ ago. .. Definitely the IOEs are the place to find innovation. Innovation .. We’ll change the meaning of the word!

  2. Adrian Beaulieu on August 14, 2013 at 3:19 pm said:

    Angi – Very good, thoughtful commentary. Perhaps only to add to this that the next emerging phase, if not also an innovation – and, which in a way is a natural consequence on curricular integration – is career integration and study abroad. We started hearing a good deal about this at the Forum on Education Abroad conference in Chicago this past April. Again, UMinn. is taking the lead on this. Look for a conference there sometime in 2014 or early 2015 on the topic. We’ve started including that approach, especially with our School of Business, as to why we’ve approved certain programs and not others for their students to focus on four principles: program and geographic diversity, curricular integration, and now, career integration. Safe Sojourns.

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