Friday, March 13, 2009

How Long is Long Enough?

At Working World, Mark Overmann chimes in with more thoughts on the long term vs. short term study abroad debate. Long-term study abroad, of course, makes the likelihood of cultural immersion that much greater, but short-term programs are growing in popularity nationally due to lower cost and better fit with student and faculty schedules and life demands.

Overmann noted in an earlier post that while the model of the long-term program is one that lasts for a summer or semester, the yearlong study-abroad experience has virtually dropped off the map. Less than 5 percent of American students go abroad for an academic or calendar year, according to IIE’s Open Doors study for 2008.

While Overmann confesses a preference for long-term over short-term study abroad, he does find that the quality of short-term programs is growing:
In the end, I think, it seems we should just be happy that 1) more and more short term study abroad programs are transcending the “cultural tourism” label and being designed as effective, immersive experiences, and 2) more and more students are indeed going abroad—and if a short term experience is all that they want/have time for/can afford, then certainly no one should deny them that.
I’ve led three short-term programs in the past and am about six weeks from departure on a fourth. (At the same time, as I write this post I am preparing a semester-long study abroad proposal in another window of my laptop.) My finding is that, if properly designed, the short-term course can be an effective learning experience for students. Yes, you do (and should) leave some time in the travel portion of the course for tourism. But you also need to include structure, reflection, connection to course materials and meetings with locals. And you can accomplish this over the course of even a few days abroad.

I've gotten better at this over time, but the payoff is that students — far from finding the “study” a chore in short-term study abroad — find the short-term experience to be one of the defining moments of their education. Perhaps I’ll feel differently after completing a long-term experience, but for now I am believer in the potential power of short-term study abroad.

My findings are purely anecdotal, but there is research that supports the idea of the transformative short-term study abroad course. Scholars working in the SAGE project at the University of Minnesota have found no connection between the length of a study abroad experience and global engagement later in life

Indeed, I've been an advocate on my campus for requiring a brief, faculty-led study abroad experience of freshmen during the spring break of their first year in college and building the cost into the total structure of tuition and fees. Yes, the odds of an experience of such brief term becoming more akin to tourism are higher. But they can also reduce barriers to later study abroad by overcoming fears about safety and cost and isolation.

(Ohio State President Gordon Gee doesn’t go quite that far — but he did last week say that all students at the university should, at a minimum, have a passport. And that’s not a bad idea, nor a terribly expensive one: Institutions ought to require that students submit test scores, transcripts and a copy of the data page of their passport as part of an application packet.)

Preparation, focus, commitment to the academic goals of the course, connection to the institution’s mission — those are the elements that will make short-term study abroad a good alternative in helping students prepare for the global community.

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