International Opinion

Education Abroad: Six Things You Need to Know About Experiential Learning

By Christine A. Farrugia — May 16, 2016 7 min read
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Generation Study Abroad®, is a five-year initiative of the Institute of International Education (IIE) to mobilize resources and commitments with the goal of doubling the number of U.S. students studying abroad by the end of the decade. Asia Society has been a proud partner in this initiative. Today, Christine Farrugia, Senior Research Officer, Institute of International Education, shares that to increase the number of students studying abroad, we should encourage experiential learning opportunities alongside the traditional semester and yearlong programs.

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American students who embark on education overseas have typically done so through classroom-based study abroad programs. While such programs still remain the norm for U.S. students abroad, a newly released study by the Institute of International Education (IIE) finds that many students today are turning to non-credit experiential learning opportunities, including internships, work placements, volunteering, and research.

In 2013/14 more than 22,000 U.S. college and university students worked, interned, or volunteered abroad without receiving academic credit (Open Doors®, 2015). In addition, there are many students who engage in other non-credit forms of education abroad, including research or field work, conference participation, and travel seminars. Student interest in these forms of non-credit education abroad (NCEA) also extends to high school students, as evidenced by the many organizations that offer volunteer, internship, and gap-year opportunities specifically for high school students. These types of international activities provide the opportunity to gain hands-on experience outside of the classroom and develop international work skills that can be attractive assets on the job market down the line.

Encouraging more students to have a meaningful educational experience overseas involves embracing a wide range of activities to attract as many and as diverse a group of students as possible. Offering these options can help to entice those students who value gaining concrete work experience over classroom learning to do so in an international setting.

The IIE Center for Academic Mobility Research and Impact has been tracking U.S. students’ experiential learning in higher education for several years through its annual Open Doors survey and recently conducted an in-depth study of non-credit education abroad among U.S. students as part of Generation Study Abroad®. Based on our research, I offer the following six insights about non-credit education abroad (NCEA) to inform your international education strategy and help get more students engaged in international education.

1. Students want to make a difference through non-credit education abroad. Volunteering or service learning is the most popular form of non-credit education abroad, with 42 percent of students choosing this type of non-credit activity overseas. Other popular forms of NCEA include travel seminars; research or fieldwork; and internships, which each accounting for just under 10 percent of NCEA students. The strong popularity of volunteer activities abroad indicates that students have high interest in making a difference in the world. Building on students’ interest by offering more international volunteer programs can help boost the number of U.S. students overseas, as well as foster a better understanding of global development needs among U.S. students.

2. Work experience is an important driver of student mobility. A key distinction between NCEA and traditional classroom-based study abroad programs is the ability for students to gain concrete work experience while also immersing themselves in a new culture in a different country. Students have long sought such opportunities to build their skills and their resumes at home, and more of them are now looking to do so overseas. At the higher education level, 27 percent of institutions noted students’ desires to gain international work experience as a major reason for increasing NCEA at their schools, and high school students often reflect similar interests in hands-on experience. In a globalized job marketplace, such experience is becoming increasingly relevant and can eventually set these students apart from other candidates when they enter the job market.

3. If you build it, they will come. While non-credit education abroad can be arranged directly by students themselves, IIE’s research shows that only 11 percent of college and university students do so, and among high school students, that proportion is likely lower. We do know that when educational institutions offer non-credit education options abroad, students respond. Nearly 30 percent of higher education institutions surveyed indicated that their growth in student participation in NCEA was due to the increased availability of such programs offered by their institution, and 8 percent attributed their growth to the increased availability of such programs arranged by third-party study abroad providers. Therefore, it is vital to provide information about structured NCEA options, in addition to credit-bearing opportunities, so that a wide array of program options are available for students with diverse interests.

4. Flexibility is key. While many international educators view long-term classroom-based study abroad as the gold standard with the greatest potential impact on students, this model faces limitations. In many cases, it is simply not feasible for students with certain academic, work, or personal commitments at home to live abroad for long periods of time. Almost 75 percent of students who engage in non-credit education abroad do so during a break period or intersession. Clearly, students value the flexibility that NCEA offers. Indeed, about 26 percent of institutions who saw growth in NCEA attributed that growth to the flexibility that NCEA offers students to study abroad without disrupting their academic programs at home.

5. Experiential learning is an effective way to diversify study abroad destinations. In traditional, classroom-based study abroad, Europe has long been the most popular destination region, accounting for more than 50 percent of study abroad at the higher education level (Open Doors, 2015) and 64 percent at the high school level (Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, 2014). But for NCEA, the picture looks different, with Latin America and the Caribbean emerging as the top destination region for non-credit education at the higher education level. Much of this is due to the popularity of volunteering and service learning in the region. Of the students who did non-credit volunteer work in 2012/13, four of the top five destinations were in Latin America, with Mexico leading the region at 26 percent, followed by Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, and Honduras. For international educators interested in broadening students’ horizons beyond Western Europe, NCEA offers a strong potential.

6. But is it educational? IIE’s research has found a diverse range of overseas activities that institutions consider educational, but there is wide variation from institution to institution. In addition to the categories already mentioned above, including volunteering, internships, research, and study tours, some institutions count other activities as well. Notable ones include participation in international conferences, international travel with athletic teams, religious missions, and performing arts tours.

There is no clear consensus among international educators on which types of international activities should be considered educational. What is clear is that students are seeking experiential learning opportunities overseas and many different types of activities fit the bill. Educators should take as expansive a view as possible of non-credit education abroad to provide a variety of experiential learning opportunities to our students. Redefining study abroad to include experiential learning may create new paths for students who don’t think study abroad is for them.

Connect with Christine, IIE, Heather, and Asia Society on Twitter.

For more information on the Institute of International Education’s (IIE) research on non-credit education abroad, see The World is the New Classroom: Non-Credit Education Abroad. This report was produced by the IIE Center for Academic Mobility Research and Impact as part of Generation Study Abroad®.

Images all courtesy of IIE.

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