Even one week’s study abroad can boost skills, experts argue

Trend for ‘shorter and closer’ overseas study options among Japanese students puts premium on demonstrating educational value, EAIE conference hears

September 26, 2019
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Studying abroad for as little as one week can improve the critical thinking skills, resilience and international outlook of students, education experts have argued.

While advocates of international study generally recommend that students undertake immersive placements of at least six months, universities and policymakers should not ignore the benefits of briefer visits, especially given the recent trend towards “shorter and closer” study abroad among Japanese students, said Hiroko Akiba, assistant professor at the Center for Global Education at Hitotsubashi University, a social sciences university in Tokyo.

“Students are shifting to studying [abroad] for a few weeks from going for a semester or a year,” Dr Akiba told a session at the European Association for International Education’s annual conference in Helsinki on 25 September. She said government figures showed that just 56,000 Japanese were abroad on longer placements in 2016, down from about 83,000 in 2004. Visits to the US had suffered the most, with the number of Japanese on US campuses more than halving from 42,215 to 18,780 over that period, she added.

However, the number of Japanese on short stints abroad – often in China, South Korea or Taiwan to gain academic credits – had risen significantly, with some 69,000 taking courses lasting less than one month in 2017, up from just under 17,000 in 2009. A further 21,000 enrolled on overseas courses of between one and three months’ duration in 2017, up from some 10,000 eight years earlier.

“Everyone is asking how we balance the quality and quantity of study abroad opportunities,” said Dr Akiba, who warned that educators had now been challenged to “prove that it is worthwhile for students to study abroad, even in the short term”.

“Of course, [the government] wants to see students go abroad for the longer term, having seen how Chinese students have gone to the US, gained PhDs and stayed in America to build a research connection to the US,” Dr Akiba told Times Higher Education.

“But the majority of those studying abroad are doing short English courses, often located elsewhere in Asia,” she said.

It was now a “critical time” for educators to demonstrate the improved learning outcomes linked to “shorter and closer” study abroad given the considerable scholarships and grants provided for such opportunities, said Dr Akiba, noting that the status of this government support beyond 2020 was uncertain.

Robert Coelen, professor of the internationalisation of higher education at NHL University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, said even one week’s study abroad was “not a useless experience, but students would need a lot of preparation and integration before they go [to get the most out of it]”.

He recounted organising a one-week expedition to Gambia for 17-year-olds, in which they were required to write a diary about how their stay had challenged them intellectually and emotionally. “Solo flyers on short-term trips will get less out of it unless they are led by an experienced coach,” said Professor Coelen.

Those on shorter placements were less likely to undergo the transformative experience of having to adapt to unfamiliar surroundings, he added.

But even brief experiences could spark insights and build competencies among students, particularly if trips are structured properly, Professor Coelen said. “Sharing the experience with others is incredibly important.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Just one week’s study abroad can boost skills –  but preparation is vital

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