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The Impact of Communications Technology on the Study Abroad Field: A Personal Reflection

Study abroad and the web.
So much of the contemporary world is dominated by binary devices of all kinds, and international education obviously is part of the never-ending process. There are many pros, cons, and some core issues about the human and inter-cultural study abroad experience remain the same.

Before computers there were index cards and shoe boxes. That’s where I began. From there to here has been an interesting journey.

It all started in 1977, when my college asked me to be its study abroad adviser. The first person I turned to for advice in setting up a resource library was Lily von Klemperer. But Lily did much more than help me identify and assemble resources. For many years, she made the five-hour bus ride from her apartment on Morton Street in Soho to the apple orchards and sheep pastures of Amherst, Massachusetts. She was the annual guest of honor and speaker at an enthusiastically attended and festive Study Abroad Night. The next day she met with students singly and in groups until she answered all their questions — or assured the rare student whose question she couldn’t answer that she would go home and search through her box of index cards until she found the answer and get back to them through me. (During these daylong advising marathons, I mostly sat still and listened.)

Without her box of cards, Lily relied on the New Guide to Study Abroad, her own selection of U.S. programs abroad and courses open to U.S. students in overseas schools. Unfortunately, much of the information in the book soon went out of date and the book itself eventually went out of print. Before it did, I enlisted Lily’s help to introduce a periodical guide to international educational opportunities, “Transitions,” so that we could systematically gather, update, and share material on study, work, and educational travel abroad. (I wanted to introduce students to all the ways to gain international experience and adults to ways to include an educational component in their travel.)

While some compiled lists of study abroad programs already existed, none, except Lily’s New Guide, provided judgments about the quality of the programs — judgments that were largely implicit in what was left unsaid, and unlisted. I wanted to be more direct and more empirical in assessing the quality of programs. One of the first things I did with “Transitions” was design an evaluation form and send it to all overseas program directors for their students fill out and return to me; I then edited the responses and printed my summaries in the magazine. Unfortunately, the volume of responses and increasing unreliability of the sources meant I had to give up this part of the project. Lily, meanwhile, continued to write her own overview of programs: “Study Abroad Advisor” in each issue of the magazine.

The Internet and Advising

After I abandoned my perhaps naïve attempt to evaluate programs through student questionnaires, I turned my attention to evaluating resources. In 1980 I published “Internships, Traineeships, and Work-Study Experience Abroad: References and Resources.” A few years later I located a young man in Toronto, Jean-Marc Hachey, who was compiling an extensive list of work abroad opportunities for Canadians. Hachey agreed to share the information he had compiled on computer disks. I could edit and add my resources to them. I don’t recall the name of the software, but for me it was a fantastic revelation! We were on the way to creating the first comprehensive guide to work abroad resources.

Other resource guides followed, including not only expanded guides for undergraduate study abroad, but resource guides for high school students, seniors, persons with disabilities, and other groups of learning travelers.

In 1993, William Nolting, then the Study, Work, & Travel Abroad Manager at the Univ. of Michigan, picked up on our Work Abroad Resource Guide, added to and improved it, and agreed to join an expert on work and teaching English abroad, Susan Griffith, as Transitions Abroad’s work abroad editor. Nolting’s own extraordinary work on the Univ. of Michigan, evolved with our own. (Work Abroad: The Complete Guide to Finding a Job Overseas, edited by William Nolting and Susan Griffith, now in its fourth edition, covers resources and programs for students and recent graduates along with reports from participants.)

Meanwhile, my work with Transitions Abroad continued, with exactly the same purpose as my work as the faculty member responsible for international education advising at Hampshire College: to gather information on international educational opportunities, evaluate it, and share it. Communications technology made this possible to an extent that I could not have imagined when I entered the field in the l970s. Transitions Abroad now maintains an active mailing list of nearly 30,000 organizations, divided into “Programs” and “Resources.” Continuous updating, much of it online, assures us that none of our information can be more than a few months old.

By the early 1990s advisers had begun to use computers to track and communicate with students, and by the mid-1990s, as Bill Hoffa points out in his well-argued piece on E-Mail and Study Abroad: The Pros and Cons of Travel and Living in Cyberspace (in the January/February 1996 issue of Transitions Abroad), electronic technology now played a central role in international education.

The internet and Marketing

Simultaneously with its appearance as a major communication and tracking device, the internet became a marketing tool for program sponsors.

Mark Landon, who, with Mark Shay, started on Labor Day weekend 1995, recently told me that program directors as well as students loved his site from the beginning, and that there was little resistance from international education advisers to the use of the internet for marketing. If a potential client lacked a website, Landon and Shay would create one for them at a nominal cost so that their sites could be linked to At Transitions Abroad, although we had not planned to sell banner advertising on our website, a number of the magazine’s advertisers insisted they wanted to be represented there. We of course complied.

Heather O’Conner, the Study Abroad Adviser at Bentley College, argues in the March/April 1999 issue of Transitions Abroad (Marketing on the internet: Using the Web to Sell Your Programs and Support Study Abroad) that promoting your own overseas programs and promoting international education go hand in hand. With a website, program sponsors can reach a large and growing audience of students, parents, and international educators without spending a fortune. Websites can promote programs day and night and be updated as changes occur. In short, the internet is a natural for promoting study abroad programs.

But is the internet equally as valuable to advisers? In researching the article mentioned above, Hoffa received responses from 40 schools of all sizes and descriptions. Students at half of them reported that they already used the internet to get information about where they were going, particularly by linking to the receiving school’s website. Once the possibility for students to do their own research existed, students apparently took full advantage of it. Who needed advisers anyway?

Another respondent to Hoffa’s survey, John Pearson at Stanford Univ., put it this way: Student access to overseas host institution information puts them “ahead of their advisers (me!) in figuring all this out. . . . We can’t control this information anymore.”

Pearson thinks this is good (or at least he did at that time). Others have reservations.

Katherine Sideli, writing on “Technology and Study Abroad: Lessons I Have Learned” in the Fall 2000 issue of International Educator, describes five “ironies” associated with the uses of technology in international education advising. The first, says Sideli, is that the more information the students have to choose from, the more they seem to resist absorbing any of it. The second, which follows from the first, is that schools have become so sophisticated in their ways of presenting information that students do not easily distinguish between quality and the lack of quality. Sideli continues:

"One effect of the rise of dot.coms has been that advisers have lost ground as the chief sources of information about programs. The obvious lesson here is that flashy websites are not necessarily representative of the quality of a program. How do we ensure that students somehow get this message in time to save them from a costly error?"

In my own experience, we often don’t get to students in time. Sometimes we may not get to them at all. Compared to my early years as an adviser, I found my last years somewhat less satisfying. It was wonderful to be in instant email contact with students who were in schools abroad where, by working together, the student and I had located the right match. It was also great to be able to talk directly with the on-site directors and hear their versions of what was happening with the students. In short, I found email a boon to advising. Websites, however, were problematic. The “internet Resources for Education Abroad” that Bill Nolting selects, compiles, and updates for the NAFSA/SECUSSA website, are of course extremely valuable to students and advisers alike. But many internet sites are effectively circumventing advisers and going directly to students. And, as Troy Peden at recently commented, many internet sites have done little more than legitimize operations on the periphery.

While modest, I thought the website I put up for my college was pretty good. I thought it communicated what needed to be said. But our students didn’t seem to use it. Our simply presented message couldn’t compete with those of the slicker and glossier sites.

At the end of my tenure as international studies adviser, despite all the computers and databases and listservs with knowledgeable advisers standing by, I missed the early days when Lily von Klemperer sat beside me with her dog-eared copy of the New Guide to Study Abroad and answered students’ questions. Obviously, she didn’t know everything, but students trusted and believed her because she had done her research on the quality of the programs. Finally, lists of programs are only lists of programs, whether they’re on my website or someone else’s, and the looks of a website depends upon how much you can afford to spend to develop it.

After nearly 30 years as an adviser on international education, I agree with Katherine Sideli in the article mentioned above (and I’m glad a younger and much more technically proficient adviser than I said it): “Study abroad, although enhanced by technology, is basically a field with core objectives and results that remain virtually untouched by technology... We have a long way to go before we know how to marshal the power of technology to enhance the academic and intercultural components of study abroad.”

No doubt we will get there, but only when our websites — following the example of Lily von Klemperer’s New Guide to Study Abroad — do a better job of selecting and providing a context for the program information we include. Maybe what we need, as Bill Nolting suggested after reading this paper, is a slightly revised version of Lily’s “How to Read Study Abroad Literature” for websites. Even then, the need for the knowledgeable human touch will not disappear.

Dr. Clay A. Hubbs, the founder, editor, and publisher of Transitions Abroad, is former Associate Prof. of Humanities and Arts and International Studies Director, Hampshire College.

Related Topics
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Bio of Founding Publishing and Editor Clay Hubbs
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