Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Study Abroad and Technology

A friend brought this Chronicle article on study abroad and technology from earlier this year to my attention. It laments the loss of culture shock as students are able to connect effortlessly and constantly to home. I am torn. I spent my junior year (1990-1991) abroad at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid and some of this resonates with me:

Although stressful and, frankly, painful at the time, the periods of intense loneliness and homesickness I experienced in Mexico City contributed significantly to core and treasured sensibilities such as empathy, tolerance, perseverance, perspective, and gratitude. In the rush to protect our students and our universities through the adoption of digital technologies, we unwittingly have extinguished the necessary conditions for personal transformation that justify the expense, risk, and sacrifice of study abroad.

I lived in a dorm with hundreds of Spanish undergrads and just 1-2 Americans. On the middle of each floor there was a single phone in a small closet. If someone called you, they first got the dorm's receptionist, who then hit a buzzer that went off in your room. You then jogged down to pick up the phone. It was difficult and expensive to talk to my parents (and impossible for my friends) so it didn't happen often. I believe I ventured out into Madrid more because there was no way to sit and interact remotely. But "shock" should not be the main goal of international experiences. Learning and understanding should, and it can happen even if the level of shock is lower.

Further, I don't like the suggestion that access to technology is inherently negative. Personal transformation comes in many shapes and sizes. Yes, I suppose you can sit in your room and text your friends all day, but I suspect most people don't. But I get the point: the author and I didn't even have the option, so we either sat and stared into space or went and found something new to do.

However, I really do not like the punitive angle:

Likewise, we should adopt policies that check computer and cellphone uses that we know undermine cross-cultural growth and understanding. Just as some academic programs enforce "language pledges" that forbid students to speak English while abroad, we should institute "media pledges" that prohibit television reruns, instant messaging, and music libraries. We should then dismiss from the program those who violate the pledge.

Seriously? You listen to your own music and get kicked out? This isn't military school, so this sort of thing should be roundly rejected. I had never heard of pledges to force kids not to speak English, and it seems a bad idea to me. My Spanish grew by leaps and bounds when I lived in Spain, but I spoke plenty of English to friends I made in the program. It can even be a welcome relief.

Even more importantly, from the website it is clear that the Spanish dorm where I lived is now loaded with technology, as are its students. If I were there now, and someone said they would text me to let me know when people were getting together, or friended me on Facebook, should I tell them I was bound by a pledge that I would remain stuck in the 20th century?

Since technology is real and permanent, I would prefer to think about how to make the study abroad experience as rich as possible without trying to pretend we live in a different era and claiming that what we did in the past was better.


Anonymous,  8:30 AM  

In my first year or two in Latin America, I learned a lot of Spanish by chatting online with potential romantic interests. Banning that is just dumb.

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