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Beyond Study Abroad: Pandemic Sparks Innovation

By Michael Dean

This past year has seen a necessary evolution in study abroad, one of the most profound forms of experiential education. In short, the pandemic halted most programs at most universities in the world. At ODU in 2020, where we normally would run at least 15 faculty-led spring and summer programs, as well as sending many of our students for a semester with our exchange partners and sending even more on affiliated programs, we were forced to cancel almost everything. This was very disappointing in all the obvious ways, but at least it forced us to re-evaluate our operations. And a good thing too, because the result of our necessary pivot will benefit a far greater number of our students than previously.

Traditional study abroad programs will always exist - and we have a portfolio of over 800 vetted options that allow almost all students from almost all our colleges to study abroad during their ODU careers. Our aim continues to be to make this as accessible as possible, but the pandemic has focused us even more on finding funding solutions. More scholarships and gifts have certainly helped, but so has our renewed attention on study away programs. In order to be effective, and truly experiential, these need to be opportunities that enable our students to experience an environment very different from that on campus, for a sufficient amount of time (at least four nights), and, vitally, for as low a cost as possible. We intend to roll some programs out this spring and summer with the goal of adding programs each year.

A second new concentration for us, and one in tune with CGE's new goal of enabling experiential global education for all our students, is virtual learning, primarily consisting of virtual study abroad, exchange, and internships. We are piloting virtual study abroad and internship programs this summer and anticipate these options will grow rapidly in the coming years. (See our current offerings.)

Virtual learning is sometimes seen as inferior to conventional study abroad. How can you get an effective international experience while still in Hampton Roads? We think a better approach is not to compare the two but identify the unique value of virtual experiences. They are inexpensive if not free; they allow students to have first-hand experience of working with students from other countries on global challenges, projects, and case studies; they enable our students to work one-to-one with business professionals across the world; they offer opportunities to see inside many different types of organizations (including non-profits); and, importantly, they are flexible enough to work for ODU students with jobs.

Finally, there is COIL - Collaborative Online International Learning - which is developing into a barrier-destroying course structure that can provide experiential global learning experiences for our students that fit almost effortlessly into current ODU curricula. Stay tuned for more news on this in the coming year!

Michael Dean is deputy director of ODU's Center for Global Engagement.

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