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Virtual Reality or Virtual Disaster?

Distance Education and Study Abroad

Providing the opportunity for education to as many students as possible should be the goal of anyone who works in the field of higher education. If all agree, then the use of distance education methods to reach the widest possible array of students is good. Many would also agree that providing the opportunity to study abroad to as many students as possible is good. So, wouldn't it be twice as good if, by incorporating methods of distance education into our study abroad programs, the opportunity to study abroad were made available to even more students?

This is where I become torn on the issue. On one hand, it would be great if all students wanted, and were able to, engage in a full academic year, full immersion program abroad. On the other hand, since not all students can (or want to) do that, isn't it our job as study abroad professionals to facilitate a lesser study abroad experience for all students?

There was a time when someone we called the "traditional college student" entered his or her institution at the age of 18, took classes on campus, and graduated at the age of 22. At the beginning of the 21st century, however, that is no longer the only model of a college education. Now there are more and more nontraditional students-students who are not between the ages of 18-22 and who do not spend four continuous years on the campus of the institution awarding their degree. These students commute from their homes to campus, often at a great distance. They may work full time, raise families, and take only one course per semester. They look for courses scheduled at night, on weekends, or via some sort of technology that will bring the learning to them, rather than their having to go to it. Incorporated into this new student profile is a sense of the definition of distance education, which, simply stated, is instruction in which the teacher and learners are separated by time and/or space.

The major issues associated with distance education are: accessibility, cost, quality, and understanding the use of the medium.

Accessibility, often called the "digital divide" between the "haves" and "have-nots," concerns trying to reach students who may not have access to technology.

Cost is a factor in that technology is expensive, not only for students who have to pay for access to it but also for those who have to develop and set up the courses. Thus, there are potential financial constraints on both sides of the learning relationship. When quality and distance education are discussed, it is usually assumed that the quality of online or video courses is not the same as that of courses taught by a flesh-and-blood instructor in a brick-and-mortar academic building.

Questions surrounding the medium include: Is it a good idea for certain courses, or types of courses, to be taught via distance technology? Is a course re-designed or re-thought to make effective use of the medium, or are students merely receiving a videotape of a professor's in-class lecture (or an email message with the text of that lecture)?

We've Heard It Before

Haven't we in study abroad heard this discussion before? These same issues are exactly those that have surrounded-and still surround-study abroad programs. Study abroad is expensive for participants and expensive for institutions to establish and maintain. Our programs are accessible only to certain people (although institutional financial aid and transfer credit policies are beginning to change this). As for quality, we all know that Subject X is never taught as well at University Y as it is on our home campus. And, when we send our own faculty members to teach on our programs (which addresses the last issue), are they simply transferring an on-campus to an overseas location, or are they using the "medium" of the host site to effectively enhance the topic?

I contend that both distance education and study abroad exist on the fringe of an institution's traditional ways of viewing how students are educated. Because they share such "fringe" characteristics, it seems quite natural that some within higher education would eventually begin to think of drawing the two together into some kind of relationship. This relationship usually has something to do with cost, and it varies from "cost-effective distance education that must be incorporated in study abroad programs" (DeWinter, 1998) all the way to "online education has been hailed as the cost-effective alternative to study abroad" (Medhat, 1998).

On July 14, 2000, I surveyed the membership of the SECUSS-L (Students Abroad) discussion list to gauge the levels of use, understanding, and opinion about integrating distance education into study abroad. From the 1,505 members of the list I received 12 responses.

When asked what they saw as the positive aspects of integrating distance education and study abroad, respondents gave a wide range of answers. A coordinator of an international internship program said that the virtual conference used in her program was the only opportunity for students to process and reflect as a group on their experience while it was in progress. Another respondent felt that utilizing distance education could be a way to create a 2-way exchange program, and that it could spark the interest of more students in study abroad. Another benefit, if distance education were to be used as part of predeparture orientation, would be to prepare students for culture shock. Distance education, according to another respondent, could greatly enhance pre-departure orientations, as well as contacts between partner universities. A final perceived benefit is an academic one: incorporating a distance education component would allow students to stay "on track" with required courses in their degree program.

When I asked about the negative aspects of incorporating distance education into a study abroad program, respondents offered the following insights: Technology can be a problem in some countries. In addition to that, faculty members sometimes do not respond to students quickly enough, or vice versa. This may be a technological problem or it may be a user issue, but the program administrator can never be completely certain which. Other negative aspects include the student losing contact with their institution's study abroad office and the fact that sitting in front of a television or computer monitor cannot substitute for an overseas experience.

Finally, I asked if study abroad advisers and administrators would feel a philosophical conflict in adding a distance education component to study abroad. Four of the 12 respondents stated that they did not have a conflict. They felt that as long as participants on the program were integrated into the host culture in other ways a distance education component could complement the experience. In contrast, one respondent felt that not even email should be available to students on a study abroad program: anything that connects the students to their home is detracting from their immersion into the study abroad experience.

However the two are integrated, the feeling of study abroad professionals seems to be that "the implications to study abroad of the increasing number of 'distance education' programs and degrees will in the long run require us to make a paradigmatic shift or expansion in how we conceptualize study abroad" (Bier, 1999).


DeWinter, U. J. (1998). “Science and Engineering Education Abroad: An Overview, Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad (

Medhat, S. (1998). “Educating in a Digital Future,” Times Higher Education Supplement. September 11, 1998.

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