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Learning Goes Global

international flags

International education isn't exactly a new concept. For years, students have traveled abroad for exchange programs and to obtain degrees. "For many, attending a university in another country is viewed as an ideal way to gain exposure to another culture, learn a language, and participate in an interesting and enriching experience," explains Peggy Blumenthal, chief operating officer for the Institute of International Education in New York City. "It's an important part of the academic environment."

However, in a world that's increasingly global and interconnected, international education is growing, changing, and evolving. Overall, more than 1.5 million students a year study at schools outside their country's borders. According to the Institute of International Education, 173,122 new students enrolled in undergraduate, graduate, and non-degree programs worldwide in 2008—an increase of 7% over the previous year. At the same time, the number of U.S. students studying abroad grew by about 8% to a total of more than 241,791. Some places, such as China, are now experiencing double-digit growth rates.

It's certainly not your mom and dad's summer abroad. What's more, a growing number of these students are from fields such as mathematics, computer science, and natural sciences. "The nature and types of programs are expanding. We're seeing everything from short-term programs that are eight weeks or less to master's programs with a full term abroad," states Brian Whalen, president and CEO of the Forum on Education Abroad and associate provost at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA. "Technology and communication are changing the way people think about education and making international studies more accessible and popular."

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Making the grade

Study abroad programs once centered mostly on sketching pictures of the Eiffel Tower or learning the finer points of Italian art or German literature. Students in disciplines such as mathematics, computer science, or engineering usually found it difficult, if not impossible, to leave their home institution's program without risking falling behind or veering off track. What's more, most universities weren't inclined to develop exchange programs for those majoring in the sciences.

The situation is changing, however. Thanks to computers, the Internet, and other communication and collaboration tools, the ability to link people and course content is entirely viable. Email, social networking applications such as Facebook, and low- or no-cost calling services such as Skype make it possible for international students to stay in touch with family and friends. In addition, technology and collaboration software—as well as ultra-high-speed Internet2—have made it possible for schools to link programs to one another and create a seamless learning experience. Increasingly, these programs include master's degrees and doctorate degrees.

Hochschule Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences in Germany is among the schools that have jumped onto the international studies platform. The institution, which serves 11,000 students, commenced its Joint International Master program for computer sciences in 2003. The school partners with the University of Wisconsin, Platteville and James Cook University in Townsville, Australia. At any given time a dozen or so students from these schools venture abroad to study for half-a-year at the partner school. At Hochschule Darmstadt, master's level instruction is entirely in English and graduates receive a joint degree.

"The program provides students with a global perspective and helps them become more attractive on the international job market," says Lucia Koch, director of the International Office for Hochschule Darmstadt. "It also raises the visibility of the school and makes it more attractive and respected."

Koch believes that students who participate in the program gain knowledge and expertise that isn't available in a conventional classroom. "They gain a perspective that can help them understand the field and their future profession better."

Nearly 4,400 miles away in Platteville, WI, Richard D. Shultz, dean of the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Sciences, is reaping benefits as well. A decade ago the school formed a partnership with Hochschule Darmstadt at the undergraduate level. It allowed students from both schools to participate in a conventional exchange program. The relationship evolved after Hochschule Darmstadt suggested expanding the exchange to include its master's program. "It made sense to have a degree that helps students become a citizen of the world," Shultz says. "Students learn different perspectives and discover how people research and work in different parts of the world."

Megan Brenn-White, executive director of the Hessen Universities Consortium, which represents Hochschule Darmstadt and 10 other schools in Germany, believes that an increasingly competitive recruiting environment and a shrinking globe will continue to boost international studies. "Schools are looking to become world-class institutions or boost their stature in the research arena. They're also looking to attract international students for full degree programs because it's often more profitable."

Schools are increasingly developing joint curriculum and collaborating on courses, particularly in computer science and engineering.

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Setting a Course

Not surprisingly, the growth of international studies has opened up an entire world of opportunities. Chinese or Argentine students may travel to Germany to receive advanced instruction in mathematics; American or Russian students may venture to New Zealand to receive an education in volcanology. As increasing numbers of schools introduce joint programs—and many institutions turn to U.S. accreditation organizations to gain international acceptance and stature—the playing field is leveling out.

Schools in English-speaking countries, including England, Scotland, Ireland, and Australia, are increasingly the beneficiaries of the trend toward international education. Many of these schools offer outstanding programs at a lower price than students would pay back home.

For example, at the University of Limerick in Ireland, Liam O'Dochartaigh, director of international education, has witnessed an enormous transformation over the last decade. The University of Limerick now has 1,283 students attending from abroad, including about 400 students from the U.S. It also boasts 259 of its own students attending classrooms abroad. The number of international students has spiked more than 100% from a decade ago, he says, and approximately 10% of the student population (the school has approximately 12,500 students) now comes from outside Ireland.

"Universities realize that international study and accessibility is important for financial reasons as well as for international standing," O'Dochartaigh says. He points out that universities are increasingly internationalizing curriculum and schools in different countries even collaborate on course-work and content. The University of Limerick currently has partnerships with 24 schools in Europe and 15 schools in the U.S. and Canada. Tuition derived from international students supplements state funding sources, O'Dochartaigh notes. One foreign student can bring in more than euro.gif12,000 per year.

Government organizations are promoting international education programs as well. In the U.S., the National Science Foundation (NSF) has matched more than 2,000 students with intensive eight-week science study grants under its East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes program since 1990. "There has long been a large interest in students coming to the U.S. to study and do research," says Jong-on Hahm, program manager for the NSF. "But there's a lot of very interesting research that goes on in other countries and American students now have access to it."

The march toward international education will undoubtedly continue. Fueling the trend is the adoption of international standards and the ability to put credits to work at home. In Europe, for example, the Bologna Process—which links ministries, higher-education institutions, students, and staff from 46 countries—guarantees that students receive credits for time spent studying abroad. In addition, schools are increasingly developing joint curriculum and collaborating on courses and studies—particularly in the computer science, engineering, and natural sciences arena.

To be sure, this brave new world of education is creating new vistas. "The educational boundaries between countries are disappearing," says Whalen of Dickinson College. "Students and schools are recognizing that there is a world far beyond their local campus. They're learning that studying aboard presents tremendous opportunities—and advantages."

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Samuel Greengard is an author and freelance writer based in West Linn, OR.

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UF1Figure. Students learn about studying abroad at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville's International Programs Fair.

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