24 Jun 2021

Virtual mobility and the new normal: how can students still reap the same benefits?

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Do the usual benefits from student mobility still apply in pandemic times? This next article for Summer Forum week looks at seven key benefits of a traditional mobility experience and how we can reinvent them to ensure that students still acquire the same skills and opportunities. 

A Greek student enrolled in a French grad school, on a study abroad programme in Portugal, attending online classes with a computer on her lap at her parents’ house in Greece. Something one could not have imagined a year ago. The new norm. The new student mobility.

Students have stopped asking when classes will return to the classroom. The fact is that if that happens, many students will not be able to join in. Given the travel restrictions in place, the delivery of lessons online or at least in a blended form will prevail for a while yet.

For years, studying abroad (physically) has been a key aspect of building a student’s mobility skills, which many employers value. Internships and traineeships abroad can also play a key role in building a student’s mobility ‘portfolio’. Both types of mobility add an international element to the student's tertiary education. But what kind of international experience is gained by a trainee working on the sofa at home for a transnational corporation located overseas?

The fact is that if teaching does return to classrooms, many students will not be able to join in.

What do virtual, pandemic-induced forms of mobility bring to personal development? How do they add to future employability? How have the commonly listed advantages of gaining international experience during studies been affected by the pandemic? Let's take a closer look at the traditional benefits and what the situation is now.

1. Improve your language skills

In the new normal, there are fewer opportunities for in-person conversations to help build up language and social skills. In the classic study abroad scenario, just stepping outside is an opportunity to improve your language skills by talking to and socialising with locals. With life under the pandemic, it’s likely that your language skills are not improving in the same way – but you can still try to improve them by focusing on what someone is saying from behind their face mask, without being able to see their mouth articulating the words.

2. Experience a different style of teaching

Teaching and studying during a pandemic are a challenge for all involved. Lots of education is taking place in the virtual world. You may still experience different types of delivery and different technical means available to educators, and you can judge how well (or not) they are used. Each institution has adopted different and unique means when providing classes virtually, and the style of teaching still varies from country to country and from institution to institution. Being able to adjust to these styles enhances your ability to adapt to any future workplace's demands and work assignments. You become more versatile, adaptable and resilient – all skills that are attractive to employers.

3. Impress employers

Maybe you went abroad, got stuck in the host country due to limited travel options or tested positive for COVID-19 and had to go into quarantine – and then you still managed to get back home in good shape. Such experiences speak to your character and resilience and will definitely impress employers. You have proved that you are flexible and able to cope with (and adapt to) new challenges.

Some of these virtual cups of coffee may turn out to be just the thing to create meaningful connections. Besides, the pandemic will be what bonds us.

4. Enhance your network

This area is somewhat uncertain. Long-lasting friendships and connections are usually built over lunch, coffee or a pint of beer. During the pandemic, you typically do not get to meet people face to face, which is often key to remembering someone. As with virtual classrooms, today’s lunch breaks and coffee breaks are happening online (if they happen at all). But some of these virtual cups of coffee may turn out to be just the thing to create a meaningful connection. Besides, the pandemic is something that bonds us, which is another factor in building connections.

5. Learn about new cultures and perspectives

The ability to expand your world view by learning about a new culture has taken a big hit. The option to meet locals is non-existent. Visiting museums virtually, or doing other cultural sightseeing online, does not bring the same exposure to a different culture as doing those things in person would. Nevertheless, we are learning about other cultures by witnessing how different parts of the world have responded to the worldwide pandemic and how they have imposed restrictions and lockdowns.

6. Develop your confidence

The continuing lockdown and restrictions on travel may leave some struggling for self-motivation. Studying or interning abroad during tertiary education, in the long or the short term, boosts anyone's self-confidence, which is one of the benefits that graduates often list. But the pandemic has created a new environment, and you are learning how to adapt to it. Adaptability and the ability to learn – and continue to learn upon graduation – are skills that will help you in the ever-changing global labour market.

7. See the world and discover career opportunities abroad

Travelling is limited now and so are your options for seeing the world. Due to the pandemic and related restrictions, many countries are not letting people in from abroad.

A time for reinvention

Where does this leave the present and the future of the international mobility experience? How can students still develop their intercultural competency? Studying abroad provides intercultural situations where one learns to communicate effectively, which can help to make students more successful in their future careers. But the pandemic has caused everyone in the education field to ask themselves: Is the education practice that requires students to travel sustainable in the long run?

There is a growing need to reinvent aspects of international student mobility to ensure that the same traditional benefits can still be acquired – but differently. Universities are responsible for preparing the next generation for a new world. This might mean adopting alternatives to studying abroad that do not require students to leave their home countries.

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