Can technology recreate the studying abroad experience?

By Jeremy Cunningham
July 18th, 2016


I recently led a study abroad trip to England.  My students and I watched live accounts of the historic Brexit take place as well as the only slightly less historic football upset of England.  We toured sites that defined the British Empire, watched accounts declaring its metaphorical demise on the world stage, and had conversations on what that meant and why it actually meant anything.  I saw students captivated by lectures from guides with an innate understanding of the places and topics they were discussing.  At one point, students were riveted while they learned about the subtleties of architectural design of upper class housing in London.  That’s just not normal.  Certainly, my group was made up of students that are both curious and attentive; but it wasn’t just about them.  It was the experience as a whole.  The question I face as we return: how do more students access that experience?  Can technology actually re-create that?

Much to my pleasure, I read Ronald Bethke’s New tech to revolutionize studying abroad education on eCampus News soon after my arrival home.  The piece offered an illuminating profile of the efforts of CAPA The Global Education Network in providing the study abroad experience.  CAPA defines their mission as: “to provide meaningful experiences that challenge and inspire students to analyze and explore complex political, cultural and social landscapes within urban environments” (CAPA, The Global Education Network).  I was happy to see an organization taking on this daunting and ambitious goal.

Bethke’s article discusses the facets of CAPA’s program and it seems to address many of my observations from my own trip.  I loved seeing students observing manifestations of their subject-focused study.  As we toured various places, our guides provided information about how the history, politics, and economics shaped the locations we were seeing.  Our students were prompted to think of books and films that presented these locations.  Furthermore, they were able to see how the places themselves played a role in those texts that they read and the contemporary world.  The guides were providing a cross-curricular study.  Because our group could see these places and the information was presented to them seamlessly, they absorbed it.  They also were able to consider what citizens of those places feel and what esteem they hold those locations.  CAPA’s programming seeks to “ incorporate face-to-face and experiential learning, but also use advanced video technology to encourage team-teaching and cross-program student projects across the globe, bring in guest lecturers, and focus on a wider set of world issues in the hopes of creating the most well-rounded global students possible” (Bethke).  I saw that experience take place on bus rides and walking tours, and I hope CAPA is able to recreate it.

While reading the article, I was also struck by the immense undertaking CAPA is attempting.  While I led a trip abroad, my goal was very simple: introduce my students to a new place.  I had no tangible accountability to that.  I had no metrics and no coursework directly related to that goal.  Anecdotally, I would say it was a success.  What CAPA is doing is much more.  They are tailoring coursework to not only expose students to the globe, but enable them to be actors within it.  Their president John Christian states, “We want to raise the bar on understanding, community, and action” (Bethke).  While this is worthy undertaking by Christian, his intent to develop programming that simultaneously fulfills undergraduate coursework, enables students to gain a greater understanding about how the world works, and teaches them to present that global perspective accurately and intelligently is a daunting prospect to consider.  I am eager to keep track of CAPA’s programming as it moves towards realizing this goal.

As we look at a world that is increasingly flattened, our hope is that the same technology that flattened it can provide us tools to understand it.  I saw glimpses of inspired individuals broadening their worldview over the past month.  I am not sure how this can be created without plane tickets, bus tours, native guides, incredibly devoted and authentic students, and actual physical travel.  CAPA gives me hope that EdTech may be able to do it.

Read Ronald Bethke’s article here:

Read more about CAPA here:

About the Author:

Jeremy Cunningham

Jeremy Cunningham is a part-time instructor at Washtenaw Community College and Cleary University where he teaches composition and communication coursework. He also teaches English at Mason High School. He holds degrees in literature and education from Miami University, Eastern Michigan University, and Michigan State University. Outside of work, Jeremy dedicates his time to his wife, Darcie, and daughter, Ruby.

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