Professors use creativity to adjust study abroad courses for virtual learning

Study abroad in-person in Paris in 2019
2019: Margaret Ogg (left) and Christine Knapp hosting
in-person study abroad; this year's course is virtual

Although much has changed in the last year, the value of an international education experience is not one of those things.

So, when the pandemic necessitated the cancellation of in-person study abroad programs at Wayne State, faculty and staff across different departments began working together and sharing ideas to ensure that the study abroad experience could be preserved by switching to virtual studies.

Margaret Ogg, associate director of study abroad, says that one of the biggest challenges she and others faced has been marketing the first-time virtual programs.

“One of the most effective marketing tools for these programs is hearing from other students who have attended these programs,” says Ogg. “We don’t have that word of mouth since this is the first time we’re coordinating virtual programs.”

One of the first programs that transitioned to virtual is “Today’s Paris,” offered during spring break. Shared between the Irvin D. Reid Honors College and the Department of Classical and Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures, the program has received great feedback from students about the opportunity, with many saying they would not have been able to afford to participate in the actual experience in France and describing the virtual program as a chance to choose between "nothing at all or all in.”

Led by lecturer Christine Knapp of CMLLC, the program already contained some virtual components such as Skyping with students in Paris before meeting in person, but converting the class to virtual required a complete overhaul.

Knapp used a combination of her own ideas and things learned from webinars hosted by the Wayne State Office of International Programs and SUNY COIL Center to devise ways to keep the class fresh. COIL – Collaborative Online International Learning – helps students develop cross-cultural communication skills and a greater appreciation for diverse viewpoints through online team-based projects.

“The biggest part of the class is cultural awareness and cultural emergence,” she says. “In order to keep that alive, we put a lot of new components into the class. For example, we have care packages that are being sent to the students from France throughout the semester. Students can try food items at the start of class and share that experience. There are some culturally relevant items in there as well. Students are really excited when they get these packages; it’s something for them to look forward to during these difficult times.

“We have lined up a set of four live guided tours over Zoom, ones similar to those we’d be doing in person. This is to give students as close as an experience as possible to what we’d normally do. We have a WhatsApp group where we communicate with two students in France about their day to day experiences. These students also meet with us throughout the semester for Q and A sessions. It’s more than just me telling students as an instructor about my experience; I think it comes across more when they’re hearing from other students.”

The semester will be capped off with a traditional French meal provided as takeout from a local Detroit restaurant. The students will eat dinner together over Zoom.

“So far it’s going very well, students seem motivated and are learning some French along the way,” Knapp says. “We’re discussing French shows on Netflix and those are helping frame our discussions about culture and helping students ask questions they wouldn’t normally ask. It’s taken time to get this all set up, but I think it will be worth it for the students in the long run.”

Facing challenges similar to Knapp, Assistant Professor Hugo DeCampos is working to move his global supply chain management study abroad program from Brazil to a virtual setting.

“The challenge this year was to see if we could capture the experience of study abroad in a virtual setting,” says DeCampos. “This is my first time trying this, so we’ll see how it goes. A lot of the coursework can be easily incorporated; it’s the travel experience that’s the challenge. We’re combining things like YouTube videos and talking to Brazilian students, who aren’t in in- person classes either, over Zoom. Its an experiment for sure.”

DeCampos looked to colleagues in the Mike Ilitch School of Business for advice on how they had taken their study abroad courses virtual.

“It’s hard to capture an immersive international experience over a screen; you miss out on the richness of the course. Students are still learning words in Portuguese and about the history of Brazil, but they don’t get to experience the environment. They aren’t getting the experience of interacting with locals or trying to get a taxi to a restaurant. That’s why we’re trying to get them online and talking to Brazilians, although it’s not the same thing as meeting them in person, getting to know them and saying, ‘Hey, let’s get some pizza after class.’”

Despite the changes, DeCampos says the core learning objectives of the course haven’t changed. “Travel is secondary. The primary goal of the class is to teach students about supply chain sustainability,” he says. “Going to Brazil for two weeks was supporting the objective of the course. It’s not the same as the in-person, but students are still going to learn a lot.”

Ogg says that while these shifts to virtual are a result of present conditions, she could see virtual study abroad programs sticking around even after travel restrictions are lifted.

“Many students want to learn about other countries or may have a study abroad requirement, but for whatever reason may not be ready to actually travel. This could serve as a bridge that’s different from the traditional classroom setting without making the leap.

“It helps us connect with a world in a very isolated time,” she says. “It’s not just America, it’s not just people in our neighborhood that are struggling with this, it’s everywhere. They get to see how everyone is handling this situation and hear their perspectives. This is what learning is about; one of the core values of study abroad is hearing from others about their life experiences in a culture you’re unfamiliar with.”

By Jacob Stocking, OIP communications associate

The Office of International Programs leads Wayne State’s global engagement by creating opportunities that foster international education and research, facilitate the exchange of individuals and ideas that promote global competencies and citizenship, and provide resources that support the expansion of the university’s global agenda. Follow us @WayneOIP.

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