Off-Campus Study in the Age of COVID-19

Residential liberal arts colleges have been significantly impacted by COVID-19. In March of 2020, nearly all small colleges rapidly depopulated their dormitories, quickly shifted to teaching courses online, and began conducting campus operations remotely. The authors of Faculty as Global Learners: Off-Campus Study Leaders at Liberal Arts Colleges and creators of the podcast “Postcard Pedagogy” offer some suggestions for how colleges can deliver global learning experiences during a global pandemic.

When we set out to produce the first book that examines the role of faculty members in off-campus study, we hoped to accomplish three things. First, we wanted to respond to often-inaccurate or incomplete perceptions of off-campus study programs and the faculty who lead them. Some of these myths included that leading a program is “a vacation, not work,” or that it is somehow easier or less important than teaching on campus. Second, we wanted to shine a light on the “unseen” and often unrecognized work that faculty members do when they lead off-campus study programs. We wanted to highlight examples of creative teaching and document the full extent of the responsibilities that leaders carry. And third, we wanted to propose concrete steps to strategically align this high-impact practice for students with resources and recognition for faculty and staff.

We wrote our book (and started this project) in what feels like a really different world, pre-COVID-19. Using some of the lessons we learned in writing Faculty as Global Learners, we created the companion podcast “Postcard Pedagogy.” In it, we consider the role and place of faculty-led off-campus study programs in a changed and changing world. This could be a moment for liberal arts colleges to do what they do best, to take what seems like a limitation and transform it into an opportunity.

Dana Gross: Mobility is not the whole point. Even though global and domestic travel is not fully possible right now, faculty who have led off-campus study programs in the past have valuable experience—knowledge, skills, interests, and connections—that can still advance strategic institutional goals for global learning, whether on campus or online. As we highlight in Faculty as Global Learners, long before the pandemic, many colleges and universities articulated and documented definitions and outcomes of global learning. Although they were not originally conceived to be used at a time when off-campus study programs around the world would suddenly have to close temporarily, these valuable resources—along with publications, webinars, and assessment tools from the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U)—offer concrete ideas for keeping global learning front and center. Using technology, it’s possible for faculty members and their students to communicate with their counterparts in other parts of the world. Whether technology-enabled guest lectures and conversations happen synchronously or asynchronously, they can inform students’ learning about course concepts, the world, and themselves.

The unique needs and contributions of diverse faculty and staff are still important. Many chapters in our book highlight the value of learning communities. It is perhaps even more important that experienced faculty leaders and those who aspire to lead off-campus programs in the future have support and resources to gather, share and test ideas, and make plans for the time when it will be possible to lead off-campus programs again. Thinking strategically about supporting faculty in teaching, scholarship, and service is still important—perhaps more so in a time of tightened budgets and uncertainty.

Lisa Jasinski: Look to our own backyards. Presented with the luxury of global travel, I wonder if colleges have not inadvertently overlooked the cultural, linguistic, artistic, and environmental diversity of their own communities. Recognizing that some site-based learning options might be limited in the short-term, making traditional on-campus courses more like off-campus study might be a good “transitional” option as we wait for it to again become safe to globetrot. Readers of Faculty as Global Learners might find inspiration in the essay by Linda Horowitz (Lake Forest College) in which she adapts elements of a course taught in Florence to one taught in neighboring Chicago. In Chapter 5, Susquehanna University—one of the few institutions in the country that requires an off-campus, cross-cultural experience for all students—might give us a roadmap to rethink domestic settings as sites for rich global learning.

Adapt the signature pedagogies of off-campus study to address the challenges of the current moment. In Chapter 3, I identify some of the distinctive pedagogies of off-campus study programs (recognizing that there’s a great deal of diversity in how faculty adapt these strategies). I see potential to repurpose these distinctive pedagogies to the benefit of students. For example, instructors might use structured debriefing exercises to help students make sense of challenge or change. Off-campus study program leaders often find success by “leveling the playing field” with their students. This could be achieved by sharing how they have been affected by the pandemic; rather than pretend that nothing has changed, students are comforted when their professors acknowledge their own responses to a challenging situation. Finally, seasoned off-campus study program leaders know the value of setting aside the scheduled “lesson plan” to take advantage of an unexpected teachable moment. I encourage instructors to follow their instincts and realize that much could be gained by bringing the lessons and questions of COVID-19 into the classroom through revised assignments or just-in-time discussions. These seemingly small adjustments provide students with beneficial structures to make sense of a global pandemic.

Joan Gillespie: Partnerships matter more than ever. Small liberal arts colleges have typically expanded their resources and expertise through partnerships, making the most of limited staffing and funding. We discuss implementing such partnerships in Chapter 4 of Faculty as Global Learners. In the current health crisis, with on-campus and off-campus programs curtailed, these partnerships are more important than ever, at both the institutional level and in the classroom--on-line, on campus, or in the field. While existing institutional partnerships are redirecting their energy and resources to collaborative research to find a vaccine for the Novel Coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the pandemic suggests research in other fields as well—demographic studies, history, the arts, international relations. New partnerships may be formed to study the myriad story lines of the health crisis to inform policy decision-makers and community activists.

In this environment, faculty-to-faculty collaborations can develop and thrive. Many faculty members who participated in the research that formed the basis for our book signaled the importance of using a multidisciplinary lens to approach a topic, either by co-teaching a course or working with colleagues to weave together themes across a number of courses. These co-teaching experiences changed faculty members’ thinking about how to construct a course and course assignments by drawing on various disciplinary practices and perspectives. Students are required to think beyond their training in a single discipline to consider different ways of looking at a problemone of the strengths of the liberal arts.

To hear more about how liberal colleges might continue to support rich global learning experiences for students and faculty, check out our companion podcast, “Postcard Pedagogy” from Apple Podcasts or the Google Play Store.

Lisa Jasinski, Ph.D., is special assistant to the vice president for academic affairs at Trinity University. She has led multiple service-learning trips for pre-service teachers in Dominica and written about ways to improve international research experiences for graduate students drawing on her experiences in Brazil. She was selected by the U.S. Department of State as a Fulbright Specialist to Finland and looks forward to resuming that project when it is again safe to travel internationally.

Joan Gillespie, Ph.D., is an independent scholar and instructor at Northwestern University School of Education and Social Policy graduate program in Higher Education Administration and Policy. She worked for 20-plus years developing and managing academic programs abroad and collaborated with faculty in the U.S. and abroad on site-specific learning and development opportunities for students.

Dana Gross, Ph.D., is professor of psychology at St. Olaf College. As associate dean of Interdisciplinary and General Studies (2013–2019), she worked closely with the Office of International and Off-Campus Studies. She is a contributor to and co-editor of Internationalizing the Undergraduate Psychology Curriculum: Practical Lessons Learned at Home and Abroad (APA Books, 2016). She has led January-term psychology courses for undergraduates in India and China; her next off-campus program will be in Norway.