COVID-19 has changed how we understand short-term study tours for virtual, online, and face-to-face delivery modes. Face-to-face (in-country) short-term mobility, as part of internationalizing the curriculum, was a normal part of student’s degree choices pre- COVID-19. However, in many situations, and due to the global pandemic, travel restrictions are now preventing face-to-face (in-country) mobility from occurring. As a result, international education is struggling to regain its important seat around the education table.
In this article, drawing on my own research and experience into the positive and negative impacts of COVID-19 for short-term, international learning experiences, I discuss how short-term, employability-focused mobility has dramatically changed. In addition, I discuss a new perspective about alternative modes through a return to internationalizing the curriculum that includes immersive virtual mobility, which is more than offering mobility online and needs to be considered as part of the new ‘mobility’ normal for higher education.
What has changed?
Not that long ago (i.e., pre- COVID-19), I often travelled with my students to undertake short-term mobility across the globe, which often occurred during our winter or summer vacation periods. For instance, short-term, employability-focused mobility offers students the chance to undertake study tours, placements or industry-based projects and field trips that occur overseas, working on client-facing projects, enhancing students’ non-technical skills for graduate employment. Students undertook such experiences as they learned about different cultures, foods, languages, and most importantly, themselves and others. Students would often inform me, upon their return, about how much they had valued and learnt from these experiences. They expressed this by suggesting that mobility programs were a highlight of their degree, helping them pursue an international career or assisting them in discussing real, work-related examples when in a job interview. However, I found designing and delivering short-term mobility experiences one of the most challenging teaching gigs I have ever undertaken, but one of the most rewarding too.
Scholarship of Learning and Teaching
It was because of the many tensions, such as trying to balance the management and set-up of mobility programs alongside student learning gains, that I decided to delve deeper and complete several evidence-based explorations, publishing my findings of the advantages of short-term mobility for student employability gains (Hains-Wesson & Appleby, 2017; Hains-Wesson, 2017; Hains-Wesson & Ji, 2020). Upon delving into this practice-based research area, I discovered a burgeoning research community that was also beginning to highlight the worth and benefit of short-term mobility programs to increase students’ employment destination outcomes. The work by Li, Mobley & Kelly (2013) is a good example. These scholars investigated effective practice in curriculum design and delivery for high-impact mobility experiences. They illustrated several ways to assist teachers to better support their students before travel, during the in-country experience, and post-learning. They argue that through a purposely designed, short-term mobility program, students will learn an incredible amount about themselves and others, becoming a well-rounded citizen of the world.
Now that COVID-19 has disrupted the short-term mobility field in higher education, and forever, I am not entirely certain myself what mobility will look like in practice or how it will be portrayed in the literature, especially if travel remains off the agenda.
What is next?
Whether mobility is offered face-to-face, virtual, or online, it is a challenge to design and deliver effectively. It can often take up to twelve months to organise industry partnership arrangements, finalise agreements, and develop authentic, immersive learning activities for students to enhance their employability outcomes. In addition, there are industry relations to navigate, suitable accommodation to organise (when in-country), risk management, publicity and marketing, budgets and program fees and scholarships to establish. One of the main advantages of COVID-19 (with no travel) is that I no longer need to travel with students, be on call 24 hours a day and be available around the clock. Pre-pandemic, and when mobility was offered in-country, the amount of work, stress, and student support that I needed to offer was massive compared to online or virtual delivery. Therefore, the workload, risks and curricula design required are different too.
Today, more emphasis is required on ensuring a complex, authentic, and relevant online experience is achieved for online and virtual short-term mobility than the worries of getting the logistics right when delivering face-to-face (i.e in-country). Additionally, now that COVID-19 is disrupting mobility, the need to focus my research on online and virtual modes is at an all-time high. I have also needed to change direction quickly when re-designing and delivering online and virtual programs as part of a growing scholarship of learning and teaching. However, when one looks at the literature, the benefits, challenges, and best practice reports for designing and delivering online and virtual mobility is modest.
Waiting out the pandemic to see if we go back to the glory days of pre-COVID-19 travel time is not wise. We now need to rethink mobility, transfer what we know to work, and create new ways of doing mobility that meets future-facing learning needs. Therefore, online and virtual mobility experiences must be defined clearly because virtual mobility is more than delivering content through zoom meetings or other online conferences and educational tools. Therefore, we must rethink mobility for the online and virtual audiences so that it remains creative, engaging, fully immersive, working alongside industry and clients as well as community members, industry partners, and focuses on developing our students’ global mindsets. We need to ask ourselves difficult curricular questions, fearlessly create and innovate in this new Post-COVID-19 world.
What is needed?
It is crucial that mobility teachers are provided with a safe place to fail, create, learn, and evaluate what can be effectively transferred from the face-to-face model, ceased and/or newly created. It will be vital that we share these learnings with others, be at the cliff’s edge of evidence-based technological innovation, and clearly define the differences between online, virtual, and face-to-face mobility.
As an educationist and researcher, I must continually re-evaluate where I am now and where I want short-term mobility to head. I need to do this scientifically, because making decisions on gut instinct alone will not be enough to meet the future demands for ensuring students gain the skills that an international learning experience can provide.
Given the potential strengths that have already been associated with measuring students’ inexplicit employability skills for short-term, international study tours, future investigations around what constitutes ‘best practice’ for the delivery of such programs, which also includes authentic, immersive online and virtual (rather than just face-to-face deliveries) would be ideal. This would provide mobility educators, higher education institutions, and government organisations to refocus on internationalising the curriculum by creating a new paradigm for designing, delivering, and evaluating online, virtual and face-to-face mobility modes. We will then be in a better position to continue to prepare our students for the future labour market, and where COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon.
This post draws on the author’s article, Students’ perceptions of an interdisciplinary global study tour: uncovering inexplicit employability skills published in Higher Education Research & Development.
Featured photo: Pre-COVID-19 short-term study tour to China: A preparation workshop with students. By Dr Rachael Hains-Wesson.