Blog Viewer

Online Study Abroad: Using Mobile Technology to Reinvent Student Options for International Engagement

By Shanna Saubert posted 03-16-2022 04:44 PM


Online Study Abroad: Using Mobile Technology to Reinvent Student Options for International Engagement

By: Oliver McSurley, MEd; Wendy Howard, EdD; Anne Prucha, MA; and Kacie Tartt, MA (University of Central Florida)

When we mention “online study abroad” people sometimes do a double take. Is it even possible?

The answer is “yes.”

Don’t you have to go to another country to do study abroad?

The answer is “no.”

The traditional study abroad experience is still an option of course and remains an excellent way to foster authentic engagement with host communities abroad. But not all students are able to participate in study abroad in the traditional way.

There are numerous options for incorporating technological innovations and mobile technology in study abroad programming and thereby reaching greater numbers of students who wish to infuse their academic journey with an international experience.

The Importance of Alternatives to Traditional Study Abroad Experiences

Our shared future calls for reinventing traditional models for study abroad experiences. Efforts to internationalize the curriculum through study abroad programming are increasingly becoming an essential complement to the traditional undergraduate experience, and the number of students taking advantage of such opportunities is growing rapidly. Data presented in the Open Doors Report, as well as other resources, have continued to show promising growth in student mobility and diversification of participants.

However, while more students are participating in study abroad programs it has become clear that advances in access to such experiences for all student demographics have grown unevenly and, in some cases, not at all. For example, we continue to see familiar trends in the overrepresentation of select demographic groups and academic majors in student study abroad participation. Students, along with those who support them, continue to face challenges with making international experiences more affordable and accessible for those groups that continue to be underrepresented.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic introduced new challenges to accessibility and forced novel evolutions in modalities for international engagement. Technological innovation has long been a hallmark of education abroad and our field’s response to the pandemic has accelerated both the development of options for incorporating technology and its general acceptance as a viable complement to a mobility portfolio. For evidence of these trends one need simply look at the recently reinforced commitment to Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) programming and the expansion of options for virtual exchange, as well as other models. While the long-term impact and incorporation of these options have yet to be seen, it is clear that perceptions of accessibility and international education must evolve beyond simply physical student mobility to include participation in a more globalized classroom with remote engagement experiences.

Multiple Models for Using Mobile Technology

Technological innovation will play a key role in addressing persistent challenges and shaping our shared future by expanding global engagement options and therefore increasing access to international experiences of different sorts.

The overall number of physically mobile students still constitutes just a small percentage of the overall student population participating in study abroad. Trends with technological solutions in education abroad are increasingly focusing on the larger portion of students on campus who, for many reasons known and unknown, will not pursue study abroad. Opportunities such as remote internships, virtual study abroad, and internationally cross-listed course options seek to provide innovative solutions for exposing students to international experiences. These new options seek not to replace traditional models for student mobility but are instead meant to complement and enhance existing international engagement portfolios and meet the needs of students who do not have the ability to be mobile. In this light, technology-based global programming has the potential to become a powerful tool in comprehensive internationalization efforts.

The Online Abroad initiative is one innovative solution to expanding excess using technology. Developed by University of Central Florida (UCF) Instructional Designer and Technologist, Dr. Wendy Howard, this online abroad model enhances the global classroom and expands access to internationalization experiences by leveraging online technology in collaboration with a field-based, online facilitator. The Journey Cuba program has utilized this model to serve students both at UCF and on-site in Cuba, producing an online repository for students' original, copyrighted, and open access research following program participation as well as content and assets for future reference in the event of travel restrictions. Web conferencing technology allows students to actively participate in live, faculty-led study abroad activities from home or on campus. Online Abroad is one engagement model that allows diverse modes of participation in a single course, with students electing to participate in a travelling or non-travelling cohort, both of which are given the opportunity and experience to engage internationally and develop a global mindset.

To accomplish this goal, an online facilitator travels with a study abroad group with the express responsibility of connecting online student participants to the field-based instructional activities. The online facilitator is both a technologist and a secondary instructor. Using a mobile field kit comprised of a smartphone, gimbal, and microphone, the online facilitator manages the online student experience through a live meeting platform like Zoom by engaging students in simultaneous discussion, connecting them with the group in the field. Thus, online participants not only view and hear what is happening from the perspective of a student physically on location in the other country, they also participate in the live discussion with other students, the instructor, and local experts in the field.

This technical setup and approach to live online instruction may be used in a variety of locations, disciplines, and instructional contexts. While early pilots at UCF focused on accommodating two sections of the same course (one online and one travel) with the same instructor in the field, the flexibility of this model allows for variations in course structure. For example, there may be two sections of the same course, each with their own instructor, so that one instructor teaches the online section and the other instructor travels with their students abroad. Another way to increase the return on investment is to offer the online experience to one or more different courses that address similar topics. This may also be enhanced by connecting students enrolled in similar courses at universities in two different countries through the traditional COIL approach by connecting two classrooms for pre-work and live discussions prior to any travel.

Physical location may also be a variable. With a traditional study abroad course, all the students and the instructor travel to the destination for instruction. What is described above is more of a hybrid offering where some students are online, and some students are in the field with the instructor. At the opposite end of the spectrum, all the students may be online while the instructor is the only one in the field. Similarly, all the students and the instructor may be online with an in-country host in the field.


This approach to study abroad affords students increased access to international learning. Advances in digital innovation are still in the early adoption phase and COVID-19 has brought us to the tipping point for more widespread adoption. Students finding themselves unable to travel in traditional ways are still presented with full access to high impact study abroad experiences. Their involvement in study abroad programs and their international environs no longer needs to be inhibited by their location.


Related publications: