Like most colleges, we have had to cancel our upcoming Study Abroad trips. This decision has left students terribly disappointed. And while we hope to reintroduce these offerings in the near future, the disruption should give us pause to recognize the inherent fragility of travel-based learning and the need for more durable approaches.
Ironically, just this fall, we launched a new digital platform to engage students in virtual collaboration, connecting them with mentored projects including those featuring global engagement. In addition to accommodating mentored research and other types of traditional experiential learning, I needed our system to support the collaborative projects developed through our study abroad trip to Tanzania. Namely, as students have contributed their ideas and resources during and following their trips, other students, either unable to travel or seeking deeper engagement, have expressed interest in getting involved, contributing their talents and resources through ongoing projects. Finding ways to support and nurture these efforts while also leveraging digital media (pictures, videos and stories) collected through our travels, has helped to inspire and catalyze the design of our new Project Portal and associated digital badge series .
This notion of “leveraging” features prominently in our work and offers important guidance for creating more scalable and durable models. In designing our system, we created PEARL as a framework to guide and assess student engagement. PEARL stands for Prepare; Engage and Add Value; Reflect; and Leverage. As detailed in this brief video, these steps lead students through the process of activating the potential of an opportunity and integrating the experience with their academic and professional goals, toward greater impact and innovation. For students, leveraging is all about capacity building, scaffolding experiences toward higher-level contributions and understanding. But for institutions, including schools, colleges and universities, leveraging is about ensuring that investments yield multiple and maximal results, continuing to build impact over time regardless of circumstances or possible disruptions.
With regard to global engagement, relationships represent the most important investments on which we can build. The best study abroad programs are built on deep partnerships, friendships and collaborations, along with deep cultural knowledge and experience. Although student travel represents a particularly impactful and transformative vehicle for student growth and learning, technology platforms offer flexible tools for connecting students with people, places and issues around the world. But rather than simply connecting students for the sake of communication or understanding, they can use virtual exchange to collaborate and contribute as they deepen their own cultural competencies, sharing resources and talents toward some meaningful outcome.
Building course structures around virtual collaboration is neither difficult nor inherently complicated. In addition to content-focused frames, the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Grand Challenges, or various other aspirant frameworks can be utilized. And in addition to content-focused learning, students can engage in related research, innovation, or any other activities that are meaningful, compelling and resonant.
Personally, I cannot wait to return to Tanzania and bring another group of students to immerse themselves in the beauty and complexity of the Mara Region. But the next time I lead a study abroad trip, I will be especially focused on harvesting new projects, contacts and digital media towards engaging even more students and fostering deeper collaboration and impacts. Now, more than ever, I recognize the preciousness of these resources and opportunities.