Reimagining Priorities in Education Abroad

May 14, 2019 10:35:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"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.


In this month's column, Dr. Mike Woolf identifies the priorities set forth by study abroad providers and addresses the significance of academic objectives and outcomes of each student experience. He also looks at the relevance of studying abroad from a cultural perspective and discusses the impact and consequences of globalization.

Languages of Confusion

Universities in the US work with “providers” to create programs that are “relevant,” seek “authentic experience” for their students, and measure learning “outcomes” based around notions of “culture.” These are ostensibly reasonable aspirations with beneficial consequences. However, they contain embedded assumptions that do a disservice to the work of education abroad.

Autumnal exploration of Silicon Roundabout with Brad Hildebrandt, Alyse Mone, Tori Smith, Katherine FriedGoing on an autumnal exploration of Silicon Roundabout with our CAPA students in London.

We are in the business of teaching students that words matter. This should impose an imperative to be nuanced and as precise as possible in our own discourse. Instead, we employ languages of confusion.


The term is frequently used to designate all non-university organizations that serve education abroad. It is misleading in so far as it creates a single institutional category that obscures significant differences between a provider and an international educational organization (IEO); the distinction is one of form, function and objective.

A provider acts as a broker between the US university and overseas institutions, selects a portfolio of programs and, as an intermediary, adds value through a variety of services. A provider delegates teaching and learning. Their academic responsibility is defined by the degree of skill they show in matching universities across national systems. They function within a trilateral relationship between provider, US institution, and overseas university, and as an intermediary between diverse academic conventions.

Queen Mary visit - local area - view from green bridgeOverlooking traffic in London.

These are important and credible activities that enhance the diversity of opportunities in education abroad. However, that simply is not what our organization primarily does (or others like us, such as DIS, FIE, and College Year in Athens). We teach courses that we have devised and that have been approved by US institutions and/or other external agencies. We employ faculty, create learning environments, and take full responsibility for the student experience. Crucially, we operate in bilateral arrangements with US universities in which we are directly responsible for the learning that does or does not occur. We have not delegated this to any other educational institution. In practice, the primary activities of IEOs are analogous to those of an overseas university or college. Core responsibilities include teaching, learning, health and safety, welfare, housing, orientation, assessment, quality assurance etc...

The distinction between a provider and an IEO is not about quality. There are, indeed, organizations performing both functions. By way of example, CAPA’s centers provide holistic educational opportunities, much like any host university. However, we also offer direct enrollment into selected universities and, in that respect, we function as a provider. Providers facilitate access to courses designed predominantly to meet the needs of local students; IEOs create courses designed specifically for American undergraduates studying abroad. The distinction resides in strategic choices about what kind of curriculum best serves individual students. Many US universities offer both models recognizing that students have different needs, or that some disciplines are better served in one or other context.


“Relevance” and curriculum integration are more of less interchangeable ingredients in what is seen as a nourishing stew. The broad idea that curriculum overseas should align with curriculum in the US has a seductive appeal that, in practice, is largely positive. By implication, that which is taught abroad should have parity with courses taught on the home campus. Thus, credits earned can be transferred unproblematically into a student’s degree pathway.

A potential problem, however, is that a rigid or crude view of curriculum integration can lead to the export of US educational standards and content in a way that undermines the exceptional nature of courses taught overseas. If those courses are precisely the same as those taught at home, there is something amiss. Education abroad should enhance the US curriculum, rather than simply replicate it.

Italian ClassA class discussion in Florence.

In practice this means that “abroad” is part of the curriculum. “Situational learning” imposes a pedagogical imperative that is not common on home campuses. Faculty in education abroad are required to expand the notion of the learning environment to encompass the classroom and the world beyond those walls. At home, the imperative to integrate the external environment into the curriculum does not exist in the same way or to the same degree. Education abroad is about enrichment rather than replication.


The search for authenticity is also problematic. If we talk of authentic experience, we need to have some idea of what we mean by inauthentic experience. How can experience be inauthentic? It may be that some students experience their environment through a tourist gaze but that is a failure of education, not inauthenticity. It is authentically unsatisfactory.

The notion of authenticity derives from a set of assumption about what constitutes, for example, the “real” Spain, Italy, China, England, or wherever. These derive from idealized images and stereotypical projections: Jerusalems of the imagination. If there are “real” places, where are the “unreal”? The “real” is less a location than a constructed illusion.

Lamentations about the loss of the “real” England, for example, are usually rooted in fantasies of bucolic, pastoral community, built around longing for a world that, if it ever existed, no longer does. “Real” Spain is frequently filtered through imperfect recollections of Ernest Hemingway’s version of heroic Iberian landscapes. “Real” Italy is rarely pictured in terms of traffic jams in Rome but draws upon, for the most part, the hillside towns of Tuscany, images of Renaissance art and architecture, and iconic places untouched by urban development.

Art Class in FlorenceCAPA students working on their technique during an art class in Florence.

Notions of authenticity are usually expressions of conservative nostalgia for lost worlds rooted in myths of national identity and tourist images. Radical urban alterations, hugely diverse populations, the lives of commuters: these rarely figure in notions of authenticity though they represent the lived experience of many who reside in the places to which we send students. The meaningful distinction is not between the authentic and inauthentic, the real and the unreal, but between reality and stereotypes.


We have long measured the acquisition of skills and knowledge in the courses we teach. The most common form of assessment has been, and remains, essays and examinations. In education abroad, however, ambition is both greater and less focused. We aspire to measure what students gain from the totality of their education abroad experience; that is a much more complex proposition. It may include, for example, the collective impact of unfamiliar environments, insights gained by exposure to new social and political behaviors, personal development, the heart as well as the mind, consciousness as well as knowledge.

The focus on “outcomes” rather than “objectives” also creates a difficulty. An outcome contains some expectation of certainty: inputs lead to outcomes. Anybody who has done any teaching knows that you enter a classroom in hope rather than certainty. “Objective” carries a sense of aspiration more aligned with realities of the unpredictable classroom. The principle of Socratic learning is that you cannot know at the beginning what you will know at the end. Evaluating outcomes is problematic if those are not (perhaps should not be) predictable. The concept of objectives might better encompass potential for alteration and creative amendment.

Street Art in Shoreditch on our Walking TourStreet art in Shoreditch.

In education abroad, the significance of outcome assessment is heightened by the ambiguities within which we operate. We need to demonstrate that what we do is academically serious. In that respect, we are still somewhat burdened by our own marketing messages: they tend to prioritize location; they contain a plethora, bizarrely, of pictures of students jumping; they employ rhetoric that undermines serious messaging. The following phrases are adapted from at least six study abroad programs. No criticism of any particular program is implied; indeed, one of the phrases comes from our own website. They are not representative of the entire messaging, but they reflect the residue of a problem. What they say is indistinguishable from the language of tourism and draws predominantly upon stereotypes:

An urban adventure awaits… think: Big Ben, Parliament, Buckingham Palace…this charismatic, diverse city… to bring you the best of the best …world-renowned beaches think: Bondi, Manly, and Coogee…hidden courtyards, winding streets, traditional pubs… discover the magic… brimming with culture, fashion, architecture, history, food… if there is a single national characteristic, it’s to embrace life to the full ... enjoy a Flamenco performance…

Outcomes assessment becomes a critical device through which education abroad can counter the implication of its own marketing. We need to demonstrate that what we do is highly significant, despite what we say about it.

As a consequence, we have developed comprehensive assessment tools that claim to demonstrate that education abroad impacts more than the acquisition of knowledge; we seek to measure the alteration of consciousness, the degree to which lives are changed, perceptions expanded. The creation of “global competence” (whatever that means) is at the root of objectives. Arguably, we seek to measure more than it is reasonable to measure from a semester of study, let alone a summer, or a week or two.

Learning outcomes can be measured when they are related to the things we teach. However, students (like the rest of us) enjoy (or otherwise) a myriad of experiences: accidental encounters, the impact of peers, travel into new spaces; all the events and encounters that we do not control. These might best be described as outcomes of learning, rather than learning outcomes, and they rightly belong to the individual. Personal development depends on any number of uncountable and unpredictable factors. These are beyond our purview. We would do better to focus on that for which we are responsible: knowledge and skills. Otherwise, we might find ourselves in the absurdist universe imagined by Woody Allen:

I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me.

Our business is with the minds of students; their hearts and souls belong to them.

The advice offered by Stanley Fish is entirely relevant:

A good course may transform a student who knew little about the material in the beginning into a student who knows something about it at the end. That’s about all the transformation you should or could count on.[1]

In addition to nourishing students, we also seek to assess the outcomes of digestion. This is an unwise aspiration.


Education abroad can counter the clichés of edu-tourism by creating learning priorities that are concrete and credible. This will mean going beyond emphases on intercultural or cross-cultural skills. Implicit in those elusive notions is the idea that somehow or other culture offers a grand narrative or global explanation of difference. It constructs culture as a barrier that students need to be taught to overcome. The unexamined assumption is that the most significant things that students encounter are differences. Thus, we start with an answer to an important question that we do not ask. Why prioritize differences over similarities?

Furthermore, the focus on culture is based on a confusion between nation and culture. What we do is to take students from one nation to another. Nations are not synonymous with cultures; nations are political inventions. Inter-nation is not the same as inter-culture.

There is a historical rationale for this discourse. Education abroad developed in the US in the 1950s in the parochial ethos of McCarthyism.[2] It was a risky business to express belief in the value of foreign ideas, internationalism, or cosmopolitanism. William Allaway (the founder of the University of California’s Education Abroad Program in 1962) argued that those historical conditions constrained discussions of politics, social injustice, nationalism, international ideals, and so on. Anodyne conversations about culture were safer, less controversial. A political expedience evolved into an unchallenged assumption.[3]

That education abroad is rooted, myopically, in anodyne questions of “culture” has not enhanced the credibility or relevance of our endeavors.

Conclusion: Beyond the Clichés

Learning objectives in education abroad need to go beyond vague notions of culture into specificity. At CAPA, our aspiration in the Global Cities programs is to create learning opportunities that specifically address observable realities. Students engage with the politics of power, privilege, and inequality in urban environments. They should aspire to articulate the differences between home environment and abroad with a level of sophistication beyond clichés of culture, authenticity, or stereotype.

Whitechapel MarketThe historic Whitechapel market.

Our educational objectives are shaped by what we believe are critical issues; the complex, ambiguous manifestations of globalization; the impact that globalization has on urban environments, social dynamics, and diversity. Urban environments are spaces in which we can reconcile the two imperatives of study abroad: to empower students to engage with the local and to direct their attention towards the global.

The consequences of globalization, described by Pankaj Mishra, the Indian essayist and novelist, and Martin Jacques, a British journalist, signify important, urgent matters that should inform our curriculum:

In a typically contradictory move, globalisation, while promoting economic integration among elites, has exacerbated sectarianism everywhere else.[4]

At the heart of globalisation is a new kind of intolerance in the West towards other cultures, traditions and values, less brutal than in the era of colonialism, but more comprehensive and totalitarian.[5]

An engagement with questions such as these creates a discourse based around observable, meaningful, significant realities.


[1] Stanley Fish, Save the World on Your Own Time, (Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2008), p.53.
[2] US senator Joseph McCarthy, from the late 1940s through the 1950s, led an influential “Red Scare” campaign marked by accusations of subversion or treason.
[3] In conversations with the author and others.
[4] Pankaj Mishra, “After the Paris attacks: It’s time for a new Enlightenment,” The Guardian, 20 Jan 2015,
[5] Martin Jacques, “We are globalised, but have no real intimacy with the rest of the world,” The Guardian, 17 Apr 2006,

Thanks Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Mike Woolf is the Deputy President for Strategic Development here at CAPA. His unique role at CAPA takes him around the world to conferences as a frequent presenter and attendee. He serves on a number of boards and committees, including the Curriculum Committee of the Forum on Education Abroad, the Editorial Boards of Frontiers and the Journal of Studies in International Education, EAIE’s Knowledge Development Task Force, and Braun Stiftung für Internationalen Austausch. He has written widely and has published extensively on international education and cultural studies. Most recently, he published work aimed at critically reviewing the core assumptions of study abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.


Topics: London, England, International Education