To include or not to include?: focusing on academics in short-term programs

I spent some time this winter traveling with some of our faculty-led programs. It was quite interesting to experience the programs on-site after spending time planning them on paper. I learned a lot about many aspects of the programs, but I was particularly looking at program organization, priorities, and how faculty decided what to see and do on a short-term program. As I know you’re all aware, it’s a challenge on a 10-day or 2-week or even 3-week program to choose what to include and what to leave out. When you have students whose only study abroad experience may be your short-term faculty- led course, it makes sense to want to add in as much as the days can hold. We want to give them a rich and valuable program, right? And yet, at what point does adding in as much as the day can hold confuse the purpose of the course and make students wonder what the goals are? How closely should a short-term course zero in on the academic focus? All of the activities and visits? Most? Half?

Inter-cultural experiences are certainly essential in faculty-led courses, and they must be incorporated, but given the costs of travel and tuition, not many students these days can afford to study abroad “for the experience.” In designing a program, then, faculty must be able to answer such questions as, What is the goal of this course? If it’s for credit, what kind of credit are students earning? What are they meant to be learning? What will they be assessed on? If you can’t answer these questions from a home curriculum point of view, is it really an academic course?

There is no standard in the education abroad field for how to design a well-constructed faculty-led course where the on-site activities and resources focus on and support the academic goals of the course. Without standards in the field, each university and college must develop its own guidelines. And if you don’t, you may get a course on the intersection of physics and theology taking students skiing or a chemistry course in Germany organizing a visit to Dachau. Well, why not, you might ask?

After having worked with the UMAIE January term consortium for many years, I believe the proposal form and review process offer a good model for answering that question. They guide and eventually require faculty to set academic goals and to demonstrate how each activity and visit on-site (both academic and cultural) supports their learning goals. The Board also reviews proposals with the following questions in mind: why teach this particular class abroad? What is it about the chosen locations that make it important to teach there, and not on campus? What is it about the chosen locations that enhance the course topic?

These questions compel faculty to think about their syllabus and locations abroad as an intertwined whole. If you don’t design the itinerary at the same time as you conceptualize the academic goals of the course, it’s awfully difficult to discuss the purpose of a concentration camp visit in a Chemistry course.



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