With no end in sight for the COVID-19 pandemic, universities around the world are accelerating efforts to offer student exchange programs online. Immediately after the pandemic began in 2020, Ritsumeikan University had already launched online exchange programs with partner schools in the United States. These programs have proven effective, and they provide students with valuable experiences. How will overseas experience change in the post-pandemic era and what kind of value will online exchange bring to the table?
[Key Points of this Article]
● The biggest advantage of online exchange is the reduced cost
● Real-time classes are key to the online experience
● Even online, students can build relationships with overseas faculty and students
● Students can “study abroad” while searching for a job in Japan
● Online exchange is creating new forms of learning
How has study abroad exchanged with the suspension of overseas travel?
Many students consider study abroad during their time at university to be highly meaningful for their post-graduation career development. With efforts to further promote globalization and the use of English, universities have strived to offer study abroad support to their students. However, study abroad was completely transformed due to the global COVID-19 pandemic that struck in 2020. With massive restrictions on overseas travel, it still remains difficult to actually study abroad.
Amid this backdrop, Ritsumeikan University acted quickly to work with the foreign partners universities with which had previously been operating exchange programs. The university developed an online exchange program early in 2020, and it has proven popular with many students.
We sat down with Associate Professor Saori Hagai, who was involved in the development of online exchange programs as the Associate Dean of International Affairs at Ritsumeikan University, to explore the wide-ranging value of online exchange.
Student Benefit 1: Reduced cost makes it easier to participate
"I think the thing that has the most direct impact on students and parents is the cost. Of course, there are pros and cons to not being able to have the local experience, but in the very least, the cost of living in the host country is completely eliminated,” explains Associate Professor Hagai.
As the birthrate continues to decline, university budgets will shrink, and there are indications that scholarships may decrease in the future, so there is no question that the cost of study abroad is a major burden for many households. Under such circumstances, it will be important to give some weight to online exchange in order to promote the study abroad experience for students.
Student Benefit 2: Real-time learning that wins high student satisfaction
"The online study abroad programs offered by Ritsumeikan University emphasize real-time classes with local faculty members. Due to the time difference, students may not be able to attend classes during the daytime, but I think this style of teaching is essential to ensure an overseas experience that transcends distance,” explains Associate Professor Hagai.
Some programs offer a curriculum where students can simply watch videos of lectures given by instructors overseas, but it is highly meaningful to share the classroom with the faculty and other students at the same time. Conversely, it is difficult to achieve the same level of experience as studying abroad by simply watching videos of lectures given by instructors overseas.
Student Benefit 3: Building lasting relationships with foreign faculty and students
“It goes without saying, but a real-time setting is important for deepening interpersonal communication. In fact, many of the participants in online exchange programs continue to exchange messages with their teachers and classmates overseas even after they finish their program. The university also provides students with support to help them sustain this kind of post-program communication. Online exchange programs have certainly created the kind of communication that can lead to actual encounters between classmates who have shared the same learning experience after the pandemic subsides,” says Associate Professor Hagai.
Student Benefit 4: Significantly improve your online communication skills for the DX age
Having implemented online exchange programs, Associate Professor Hagai points to a growing sense that these programs can foster communication that transcends distance.
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated digital transformation (DX) in the way companies hold meetings and communicate with each other. The world that students will be stepping into is one where online communication is an everyday occurrence, so these skills are essential.
“When they participate in online exchange programs, students must communicate online and in English with people from different environments and cultural backgrounds. This is a skill that will be extremely important in the business world of the future. Our program also includes classes on international social issues, such as the SDGs, so that students can develop intercultural understanding and create new value that will be useful in the future,” says Associate Professor Hagai.
Student Benefit 5: Study abroad while you look for a job, engage in club activities, or work part-time
Of course, not being able to actually travel to the country is one of the disadvantages of online exchange. On the flip side, one advantage of online exchange is that students can have the same learning opportunities as studying abroad without leaving Japan or changing their daily routine.
"Some students even do an internship while participating in an online exchange during their summer vacation. In addition, studying abroad for a long period of time may have some impact on students’ job search, but that impact can be minimized with an online program,” explains Associate Professor Hagai.
And of course, students can still go about their same daily routine, such as club activities and part-time jobs, as before. In this way, being able to incorporate learning in a foreign setting without sacrificing what you want to do as a student is one big advantage of an online exchange program.
How will online exchange change overseas study going forward?
Here we have listed the benefits of online exchange for students, but the value of these programs is fast becoming significant not only for universities, but for education as a whole.
"There is no doubt that virtual learning, such as online exchange, will spread rapidly around the world in the future. In this context, it will be important for universities and national government to lend credibility to virtual learning. Even now, there are curriculums like the Joint Degree Program that allow students to earn degrees from both Japan and the U.S. at the same time. Going forward, I think there will be more in-depth discussions on how to recognize credits and degrees for short-term online study abroad programs as well,” remarks Associate Professor Hagai.
In terms of what students should study via online exchange, many new forms of learning are emerging.
One of these is the online study tour. Associate Professor Hagai explains: “For example, students can visit orphanages in developing countries such as Cambodia and the Philippines to see how social development initiatives are actually being carried out. Until now, the definition of a study tour has been in-country fieldwork, but there is a growing movement to offer similar experiences online. Also, in Cambodia, where I am conducting my research, we are trying to implement a program where students learn local dances online as part of the curriculum of an art university. If we can offer something as physical as dance online, I expect that the definition of online exchange and study abroad in general will expand greatly.”
According to Associate Professor Hagai, students seem to have become unstable due to the pandemic and the uncertainty of the future. While some students insist on going abroad, others are choosing to “do what they can” by studying abroad online. This kind of "transitional instability" is something that those of us in the working world also face. Some people may argue that study abroad is not study abroad unless you visit a foreign country, and it goes without saying that in-country experience is invaluable. However, taking a stance of proactively adopting new values in step with the changing times is what will create the new values of the post-COVID era.