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US: virtual key to advance engagement

Virtual programming should be at the heart of internationalisation agendas at US universities, study abroad experts have said.

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Virtual programs still need to be accessible to students with disabilities, chronic illnesses, difficulty with technology access

Speaking at the Institute of International Education’s Study Abroad at the Coronavirus Crossroads virtual panel discussion on May 20, senior director of Fellowships at George Mason University and NAFSA president, LaNitra Berger, said virtual international exchange had proved positive during the pandemic.

And the continued use of online and virtual options will be maintained beyond Covid-19, speakers suggested.

“At the end of the day, we’ve seen that virtual programming is an important part of comprehensive internationalisation,” Berger said. “And that’s really the goal… we want to be able to offer a variety of different programs at a variety of different levels.”

Berger noted that as leaders across the sector worked diligently to ensure the safety of students at home and abroad during the pandemic, the racial justice moment in the US was also on the forefront of the minds of many students and educators alike.

“During the pandemic, watching these events unfold and trying to make sense of the country we live in, and the world that we live in, I saw opportunity for us to use the moment to really probe some of these social inequalities… [and] to think about what study abroad may look like in the future,” said Berger.

Opportunities to participate in virtual international exchange and language immersion programs expanded during the pandemic, Berger asserted, highlighting many of the positive experiences students shared with her about their virtual programs.

As well, she underscored that although virtual programming often increases access for underserved populations, practitioners still need to ensure they are accessible to students with disabilities, chronic illnesses, difficulty with technology access, and those who must work multiple jobs to support themselves and their families.

Dan Davidson, president emeritus of the American Councils discussed an analysis of data on internationalisation during the pandemic in order to “provide empirical backup for what we’re learning in the large scale, high volume overseas immersion programs administered by American Council on behalf of the US government”.

“These new opportunities can be immensely valuable for those who cannot travel abroad”

Davidson spoke about “time on task” in regard to the amount of time students spend using the target language during both in-person and online immersion programs. He said results often depend on the program model, delivery, duration, housing arrangements, and numerous other variables.

“It’s important to have realistic expectations about what the learning outcomes are for online learning…because these new opportunities can be immensely valuable for those who cannot travel abroad for health reasons or for employment or family [reasons],” Davidson proffered.

“This won’t be the last pandemic; this won’t be the last crisis,” Allan Goodman, CEO of IIE, encouraging the sector to ensure they have a “playbook” in which they have noted strategies and lessons learned.

“I want to make sure… all of you listening are developing playbooks. Don’t throw away the one you might have developed in the early days of Covid-19, but update it and cross-train people to use it.”

“We need to continue to use both [in-person and virtual international experiences] as ways to advance student engagement and participation in the field,” said Dawn Whitehead, vice president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities.

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