A Room of One's Own: Discreet Space and the Immersion Myth

Aug 19, 2015 1:30:00 PM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

Dr Michael Woolf CAPA International Education

Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

This month, Dr. Woolf writes about study abroad, the importance of location and why immersion is not always the best way to learn.

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At least one element of any coherent study abroad curriculum ought to address the nature of “abroad”: some focus on the host environment will be integral within the academic agenda of the program. The study of “abroad” may be explicit or implicit, formal or informal, expressed in curricula or extra-curricular provision but it will be discernible and identifiable. This is one of the key factors that distinguishes the study abroad curriculum from that offered to a home student. The correlated imperative is to integrate the pedagogy of experiential education into the classes taught so that the learning space expands beyond the walls of the classroom.

What students should anticipate (and practitioners should create) is some study of the history, politics, religion, social realities etc. of the host country. A Swiss student majoring in Business Studies in Basel will not necessarily expect to be engaged formally in a study of Swiss society. The English student studying at Cambridge will not find that the study of that city is an integral or necessary part of the learning expectations. Rightly and properly the domestic educational agenda is designed to meet the needs of domestic students. In “study at home”, home is not a significant aspect of the academic program. Although all learning is by definition situational, there is no perceived obligation to integrate that reality within curricula even though, it may be argued, some acknowledgement of the importance of the specific learning environment might enrich the program.

CAPAStudyAbroad_GlobePhoto source: Public Archives

Education abroad, however, has another academic agenda. The “abroad” element imposes an explicit obligation to offer the participant insights into among other matters: the past and present realities of the host country, the experience of the US student in that environment (what we learn about our own country when we leave it), comparative social codes and so on. It is, therefore, the responsibility of study abroad professionals to ensure that at least some element of the programme addresses the fact that the students are from the USA and that fact creates some separate learning objectives.

Given that reality, it is imperative to consider what methodologies might best serve these learning objectives and what implications may arise. In an article in Frontiers, Anthony Ogden argued the case for ethnography as “the learning core of education abroad” arguing that:

"Though ethnographic fieldwork may be the hallmark of cultural anthropology, its principles and methodologies can and have been readily adapted to further support the goals of undergraduate education abroad." 
(Anthony Ogden, “Ethnographic Inquiry: Reframing the learning Core of Education Abroad”, Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad , Vol. XIII, November 2006, p.94).

Most specifically, the model that best facilitates “cultural discovery” (p.98) is that of the participant observer: “Through participant-observation students interact within a setting while simultaneously observing it.” (p.100). This is a complex proposition in that it requires students simultaneously to occupy two positions that may not be so simply reconciled.

Photo: Leonard Chew's internship abroad in London 


It is clear that in this role, the student needs to take a dynamic role within the host environment intellectually and/or practically. That imperative might require the student to:

a) Become an active learner through reading, writing, listening and speaking. The student needs to become an engaged researcher, a kind of “archaeologist” digging into the soil of the host country to locate meanings beneath surfaces.

b) Go beyond the classroom to seek mechanisms through which direct interaction with the host environment can take place. This could include, at one end of a spectrum, social engagements. At the other end of the spectrum, formal encounters might be expressed through an internship, service learning or some other form of structured participation.

This participant role is what has most frequently preoccupied our field and has led to an inexorable association of “immersion” with intended outcomes in study abroad. The implication is that the greater the immersion, the higher the quality. It is an uneasy proposition: immersion may be baptism but it may also be drowning. Taken to a logical extreme, immersion might well equate with “minimalization” (IDI) whereby students are not given the tools necessary to be effective observers. Their perspective is not sufficiently nuanced to dig beneath the surface of appearances. They are too busy being participants. We used to call this “going native”.

Photo: CAPA alum Jorge Galvez reflecting on life abroad


An effective observer probably requires some of the following:

a) The observer needs to acquire more than a single perspective. There is certainly value in the close or intimate perspective that comes from participation: it offers a snapshot at a given point in time and space. There is, however, also a need to put that snapshot in to a wider context and, therefore, to establish other more distanced perspectives.

b) The observer also needs assistance to see clearly. Many of us need glasses and students need tools. In some contexts, specific tools will be linguistic (learning the language of the host country), but they will also be intellectual, social, political, or some combination of these.

In any case, in a study abroad context (where “abroad” is one key element of the intellectual challenge) students will need to be given the capacity and opportunity both to engage and disengage: to participate and to observe.

Photo: CAPA Sydney classroom


Baldly stated immersion as an objective needs to be modified by some element of reasoned distance. In practical terms, this means creating some distinct intellectual and physical space within which the US students may, within a peer group, explore both the salient features of the host society and, crucially, what it means to be an American within it. In short, some degree of separation is a necessary prerequisite for the creation of the perspective required to be an effective observer.

In practice, this might mean the creation of a core course that creates discreet intellectual space in which the envisaged exploration can take place. It might mean the creation of special programs that acknowledge the separate learning objectives implicit in study abroad. It will mean making those objectives explicit. As soon as we recognise that “abroad” is a proper focus for study abroad, we must conclude that the full immersion model (be it baptism or drowning) cannot properly offer an optimum learning experience. The immersion ideal is false in so far as it denies the necessary balance of engagement and disengagement implicit in the role of participant-observer.

Simply stated, US students need some level of separation to maximise the benefit of their period abroad. In those circumstances, the potential exists to create a curriculum that is comparative, innovative and appropriate for the stranger in a strange land. That potential is lost when the student is immersed in a set of courses that were designed without reference to his or her needs or experiences. Those courses will also probably not explore a key factor of any study abroad curriculum: “abroad” itself.

In short, we need to reconsider strategic models of study abroad to empower students not only to participate but also to observe. To achieve that they need to be given a separate and discreet intellectual space, metaphorically a room of their own, from which there is some potential to move from the blur of close-up vision to the clarity of a more distanced perspective.

Thanks Mike! 

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Topics: International Education