How the Internet Screwed Up Study Abroad

I'm not sure what it is...but there's something changing about study abroad. And I'm not just talking about the morphing of the traditional "Junior Year Abroad" model to short-term faculty-led programs. We all know that's changing; we've all read the "Open Doors" data. No...something else is shifting. As I think about my first study abroad experience in college (nearly 10 years ago) and the experiences students have been having since then, it seems that technology is changing the nature of the study abroad experience.

I remember studying in Geneva during the spring semester 2001 and painfully counting out and relinquishing a few Swiss Francs for a few fleeting minutes at the internet cafe around the corner. At that time, taking a laptop abroad was still unheard of...let alone having internet in your housing or room. That would just be ridiculous. My housing still had rotary phones shared by the residents at the end of the hall. (However, from what I've learned, my old room at L'Accueil near the Augustan tram stop now has wireless internet on every floor. Incredible.)

Now, when I'm advising students or leading a pre-departure orientation, the advice I give, and the questions I get about connectivity is completely changed. I think now we all assume that students have and will take laptops with them on their experiences (sometimes, even on the two-week 'glimpse trips'). And what's even more interesting is their ability to connect those magical devices to the internet (read: Facebook, Twitter, email, Skype, etc.) almost anywhere they go. For some students, their entire experience can be shared (almost) instantaneously with their friends and family back home. [Granted, this proliferation of connectivity around the world impacts all travel, not just study abroad.] Some universities are even requiring more connectivity and "reporting back" from experiences abroad. And sites like The GoAbroad Network are integrating the study abroad blogging world with a Facebook-esque social networking tool. Wow. Technology and study abroad sure have come a long way...

Does that lessen the value of the experience? Are we concerned that students will be less willing to give in to complete immersion, the disconnection of sinking deep into a culture, a people, a place? It's hard to do that when one hand is tethered to a twitter feed. I'm just sayin'.

On the flip side, the internet and information sharing now means that students have access to perspectives, opinions, experiences that would have never been availed to them otherwise. Encyclopedia Britannica didn't include first-person narratives, but the internet, oh the internet, has so many blogs, and blogs about travel and other places that you can glimpse the world from your sofa while watching the Daily Show or the Real World.

What do you think? Technology? The internet? Social Media? Is it helping or hurting? Or does it just change the goals and the rubric on which we measure success? If it does change the way we measure/assess the experience...what are our goals? And with this new medium to work with/compete with, how will we begin to reframe the experience? Is it enough to send them on their way and hope that the tactics of the past (even the recent past) will be enough to achieve the learning we're after? Technology: Friend or Foe?

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