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November 17, 2014

Students check out international study abroad options at Middlebury College. (Nina Keck/Vermont Public Radio)

A record number of American college students are studying abroad - 289,000, according to the most recent data released Monday by the Institute of International Education.

Educators say that’s good, since international education promotes critical relationship building and cross cultural understanding. But many in the field worry the influx of technology and social media may be hampering the ability of American students to fully immerse themselves abroad.

At Middlebury College’s annual study abroad fair, program administrators from all over the world recently touted their schools to travel hungry students.

Wairimu Ndirangu has directed St. Lawrence University’s Kenya Program for 15 years. Like many in the field, she thinks students today are too plugged in to friends and family back home. “We talk about it all the time. It’s nice that students get connected and feel safe," said Nkirangu. "But then on the other hand we feel like we’re losing quite a bit of the full student when they’re plugged to the other side.”

Related: Study Abroad Grows More Common, For Some

Barbara Hofer, a psychology professor at Middlebury College, believes it’s fairly new for people to be so connected while away. She’s currently researching the impact of technology on study abroad programs to provide more hard data on the subject. “It’s not just that they can email or text or make a phone call, they also have Skype; they have Face Time; they have Viber," she said, plus all the social media.

That can make it easier for program administrators to handle emergencies, she said, but day-to-day, she believes it’s taking a toll. “Traveling with students who were abroad, I found that before they ate a meal in a German pub they had to take a picture of the big beer and the food before they actually ate it. Because they need to immediately post it on Facebook to let everyone back home know what they are doing.”

Historically, she says students abroad had to find their own solutions to problems that might come up. But Hofer said today, according to her research, students are more likely to call their parents.

That’s making important lessons of autonomy and responsibility harder to learn, she said, as well as impeding language and social skills.

Hofer said she was part of a study abroad program in Kyoto, Japan 10 years ago just as American students were starting to get cell phones. “And the language faculty at the end of that year were quite worried that it had impeded language learning, and the reason was that prior to that time when students lived with host families they had to contact the host family via the land line in order to speak to the student who was living there in order to make plans. That required using the honorific language in Japan; it required using a different form of the language in the way that you interact with your elders.”

"When cell phones came along," explained Hofer, "the students could just call each other and say, 'Meet you at the bar at six,' and not have to go through that negotiation or show up at the kids’ house and pick them up which they once did and have to greet the person at the door." The Middlebury psychology professor said they were bypassing an entire arena of language immersion that they longer no needed because cell phones made that direct contact possible.

Hofer said she’s still analyzing the data she’s collected on technology use, but says one of the most surprising early findings from her research is that face-to-face connections, like Skype, make many students more homesick, not less.

Zoe Kaslow, a senior at Middlebury who spent a semester in Indonesia, said it takes time to find the right balance. “At the beginning of the program I relied a lot on the Wifi and having access to the Internet, but I noticed that I didn’t actually feel better after the Wifi, I felt pretty anxious, kind of waiting to get messages." said Kaslow. "There was a 12-hour time difference from home and it was really frustrating.”

After several weeks, she gave up and began focusing on her surroundings and the people she was with. "Actually since coming back from abroad I’ve made more of an effort to be a little less connected.”

Kaslow said technology is still important to her, but she recommends students who want to study abroad think long and hard about what their goals are before they go.

Liz Ross, associate dean of international programs at Middlebury College, agrees.

“There may be some people out there who say, no technology at all. But the reality is Spanish students are using technology to interact with each other, Argentinian students are using technology to interact with one another, so we’re not going to ban it, because it is the way people are interacting with this generation at this point in time.” But Ross said if the American student can learn to use the social media sites of their host country, in that country’s language as opposed to in English, she believes that would be more beneficial to the experience. And she said her staff is working harder to help students do that.

Meanwhile, Barbara Hofer said she plans to publish the results of her research next spring.

This story originally aired on Vermont Public Radio.

VPR, global competitiveness, study abroad

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