A new way to study abroad—without going abroad

Education Abroad offers new online programs during coronavirus pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt activities and change routines, Portland State’s Education Abroad office did what many other programs were forced to do—it went virtual.


Virtual study abroad courses can’t replace physically being in a different culture, but Education Abroad is developing programs it hopes will provide students with cross-cultural experiences.


When the pandemic worsened and traveling became too dangerous, Education Abroad worked to create fully online virtual courses to offer in lieu of the travel abroad programs. The virtual courses also came with a surprise benefit: virtual study abroad opened a pathway to international experiences for students who weren’t able to spend the time or money to travel abroad.


“We originally developed these [virtual] courses as a way to retain students who were planning to study abroad, but what we found was a new population of students who wanted an international component to their online coursework,” said Hannah Fischer, the faculty-led programs coordinator and advisor with Education Abroad. “The bulk of the students participating in these programs were not originally planning to travel with the summer programs.”


Education Abroad offered five programs this summer. Students could virtually travel to places such as northern Spain, a Buddhist monastery in Tibet and Edinburgh, Scotland. The courses provided opportunities to speak with international professionals and student language buddies, but they cost the same as a regular online course.


“Feedback from students so far has been overwhelmingly positive,” Fischer said.


Dr. Rachel Noorda, the director of the book publishing program at PSU, led the virtual program in Edinburgh.


“I was really disappointed, as I think many of the students were too, at first, when we had to cancel the in-person study abroad,” Noorda said. “I’d done a lot of work to prepare, and I was excited for the students to have the experience.”


Because of the travel restrictions, she decided to create a virtual program.


“We wanted to have an online option to be able to at least learn about Scottish publishing,” Noorda said. “Students were still able to hear Scottish accents and hear about some interesting research that is coming out of Scotland.”


One of the speakers specialized in publishing in the Scottish Gaelic language. “[The presentation] opened up a discussion about economic value versus cultural value in publishing,” Noorda said. “We talked about how the Scottish government provides a lot of funding and support to the revitalization of Gaelic.”  


Selena Harris, a graduate student in the publishing program who attended the virtual study abroad, found the presentation on Gaelic language publishing interesting because it was a topic she’d known nothing about.


“It seems impossible to study Scottish book publishing without diving into the rich and proud history of the Scottish people, and this involves Scottish Gaelic,” Harris said.


The virtual program provided an opportunity to dive into a culture without the cost of traveling overseas.


Education Abroad plans to continue offering fully online, internationally focused courses in addition to traditional study abroad programs.


“Our goal is for these courses to increase students’ cross-cultural competency,” Fischer explained. “Students need to have these softer skills of intercultural communication and cultural competency in general, so being able to incorporate a class like this with structured, intentional, cross cultural experiences is really helpful.”


With five successful virtual courses now under its belt, the office is planning ways to make next summer’s sessions even more impactful.


“We’ll have virtual friendship families instead of homestay families,” Fischer said. “Students will be able to do virtual cooking classes with their family and have cultural interactions that way.” There will also be local guides leading live city tours via Zoom—the next best thing to actually being there.


However, according to students, nothing can replace physically experiencing a new culture. 


“I feel that I missed out on much of the information and connectivity that a traditional study abroad encourages,” Harris said. “An online experience can never replace true immersion in a culture, the networking that comes with in-person interaction and the lessons learned by traveling with a group of students with similar interests.”


The book publishing program also plans to do both an overseas and a virtual program next summer, according to Noorda. Even though traveling abroad may be the best way to experience a different culture, the cost, for many, can be prohibitive. Having both options available makes a cross-cultural experience more accessible.


“I certainly don’t see [the virtual course] as a long-term replacement for cultural immersion experiencing the history the same way you can when walking down the cobble-stone streets,” Noorda said, “but I think it can be a nice supplement.”