Studying Abroad Without Leaving the Classroom

Online educational exchanges can be an integral part of our foreign policy.

A globe.
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In today's interconnected world, our security and prosperity do not come from within our borders alone. We are increasingly interdependent on countries and individuals around the globe for our safety. In order for our nation to thrive, we must invest in thoughtful relationships with Africans, Asians, Latinos, Europeans, Middle Easterners and so forth.

These relationships must not be limited to diplomats, military and political leaders. Perhaps our most important diplomats are our nation's students – our future leaders, our future opinion-shapers, our future businessmen.

This week, as schools and universities celebrate International Education Week, it makes sense to step back and consider how we prepare our young people to engage with their peers in all corners of the world. Meaningful cross-cultural connections between our younger generations can help to bolster moderate voices in areas hostile to the United States, encourage new business partnerships and innovations and prepare the next generation for an increasingly global world.

It is imperative that more American young people learn about the rest of the world. Study abroad has long been part of U.S. education, especially at the postsecondary level, and the U.S. State Department spends over half a billion dollars on educational and cultural exchange programs each year. Still, only about 2 percent of students participate in overseas education programs, and the majority study in Western Europe.

There are obvious reasons for this, of course. Students are juggling their studies with jobs, burdensome student loans, and familial responsibilities. But American education needs to make more of an effort at expanding participation in study abroad programs and reaching out to those places for which most Americans have relatively little real knowledge or understanding. And it is precisely these places that also need to learn more about the United States.

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So how do we create meaningful opportunities for our students to engage the world?

Thanks to technology, expanding study abroad programs does not require huge sums of money and extended travel abroad. Through virtual exchange programs, students can interact directly with other students and create forums to engage individuals with a variety of backgrounds in conversations that can open minds. Today, universities in the United States, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East are providing classroom opportunities for a diverse range of their students to participate in facilitated face-to-face discussions on the issues, beliefs, and customs that often divide us. These programs are being thoughtfully integrated into curriculum and research from leading institutions shows that they are having a demonstrable impact on students.

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We are seeing a number of educational institutions and nonprofits partner together to establish face-to-face classroom interactions. Students in Kentucky are logging into class with students in Lebanon, Germany, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia to discuss current events, economics, religion and history. Through facilitated conversations, these students are able to establish new friendships while learning about a new culture and developing a deeper understanding of American values and culture among their international peers.

What's more, American students are connecting with students in high-risk areas that they may not be able to visit otherwise. Today, the cultures Americans least understand – for instance, many areas in the Middle East – are also areas where there is, understandably, reticence to travel. But it is these very areas where we most urgently need better understanding in order to begin to see a more peaceful and prosperous world.

While academic exchanges have traditionally been the domain of universities, whose students are old enough to leave home and navigate foreign lands, virtual exchange programs are not restricted by age. High school, middle school and elementary school classrooms around the U.S. are now connecting their students with counterparts around the globe, especially in communities that are isolated or not often visited. And while study abroad programs have been affordable for only the most elite students, technology now provides students of all economic backgrounds the opportunity to engage across cultures and geographies.