The Role of Technology in International Education (Hopkins)

The Role of Technology in International Education:
"Changing Identities in a Digital World"

Opening Plenary Address, CIEE 49th International Conference on Educational Exchange
The Roles of Learning, Technology and Language
November 10th, 1996 — Hyatt Regency Conference Center, Monterey, California
John D. Hopkins

Associate Provost Strolle, Vice-Chancellor Schwartz,
Members of the Faculty and Staff of the Monterey Institute for International Studies
And Participants in this 49th International Conference of the Council for International Educational Exchange
Good afternoon!

We are living in an era of rapid and significant change. This change is perhaps most visible in the information and communications technologies on which our profession relies, and in the rapidly increasing 'globalization' — also central to our profession — that is resulting from the application of these technologies.

Changes in the demographic and economic profiles of those to whom we provide education and training are rapidly producing a globalization of higher education. In consequence, our role as educators is changing. In the new global marketplace, our ability to compete will depend on our ability to harness new information technologies. These technologies will be intrinsic to the production and deployment of the services we provide.

My task is to address 'The Role of Technology in International Education.'
What has the role of technology been thus far? What lies ahead?

New technologies are primarily tools of communication. They can provide a dramatic increase in networking and outreach for both individuals and institutions. Over the past decade, even the simpler 'new technologies' — electronic mail, word-processors and standalone databases — have brought significant advances to almost every sector of educational mobility.

Let me give just a few examples of how simple technologies have changed the way we work during the past decade, from times when the telex, telegraph, cable, airmail and telephone were all most of us had to work with in our international communications.

E-mail has replaced modes of international communication that were either very time-consuming or very expensive with one that is quick and insignificant in cost. In situations such as helping students decide whether placement in a particular institution or program abroad is the most appropriate option, e-mail can reduce the interval of correspondence from weeks to hours, and the cost per message unit to a fraction of what it was before. Details which previously had required too much time, effort, or money to check consistently can now be quickly confirmed. Ease of communication has resulted in more communication, and more information being made available. This has led to more informed choices for our students, and to the production and delivery of higher-quality educational services. In consequence, our identity as international education professionals is also changing, to a more positive and proficient image.

Students — and their deans, registrars and parents — can now be assured that the courses of study they plan to take will be available at the right level, in the right language, and during the right term. The productivity and reputation of study abroad has benefitted accordingly. Many of the risks and unpleasant surprises of exchanges in the past have now become history.

Other simple technologies are also improving our profession. Databases in international offices help us track which programs international students have chosen, found useful, and succeeded in. Our curricula can be tailored accordingly. Productive courses can be bolstered; the unproductive pruned. The database also tracks from which institutions, countries and world regions students have come, and any aspects of academic or cultural adjustment which records over time may show to be particular to different backgrounds. Using this data, orientation services can be tailored from the general one-size-fits-all model to highly profiled briefing modules which can be combined into individually customized packages and e-mailed to students in advance for their pre-departure preparation.

For institutional linkage exchanges, or within sponsored programs involving mobility among relatively few institutions, e-mail enables international office administrators on both the departing and receiving ends to share these modules for a coordination of their pre-departure and post-arrival orientations; students will hear both outbound and inbound what adjustment factors are likely to be part of their experience abroad, and accordingly can prepare more thoroughly. For short-term studies particularly, this greater knowledge of the conditions and expectations into which one is moving means more effective use can be made of one's limited time abroad.

In these examples, technology has helped reduce the risk and enhance the incremental value of each exchange experience. Data can be recorded, supplemented, expanded, analyzed, profiled and distributed more rapidly and more easily. There is always a certain risk in any venture abroad, no matter how informed one's preparation. But technology helps us manage risk, and reduce it to minimal margins. It allows us to promote international education to students, parents, professors, institutional lawyers and public relations managers in good faith that we are offering sound value to all who are concerned. The reputation of study abroad increases; in turn, exchanges increase.

As we continue to collect and process new data, knowledge banks of cumulative experience emerge. Incremental values can multiply exponentially. Our database can be used to identify and invite past exchangees from specific programs to local orientations for new exchangees; track the influence of study abroad on the job placements and career advancement of our graduates, and help us solicit community support. They can support fundraising and sponsorships from alumni and their employers where our records and continuing contact with them indicate that they have benefitted from the experience abroad we helped them to get. In short, with the knowledge banks we have created, the administration of our programs can be more efficient, our marketing and recruitment can be more informed and effective, and greater value will accrue to the field in which we work.

As we become more proficient, our outreach potential grows. Using e-mail, we can easily share our expertise with colleagues nearby, or in neighboring countries or regions, or in distant corners of the globe. Sometimes these are colleagues we have never met in person, but through the proximity or 'telepresence' of rapid communication by e-mail, we might soon feel we 'know' them better than even our workmates in their offices next door.

Through such mentoring and consulting, expertise in international exchange can spread more rapidly into new world regions, opening further options for our students, increasing the flow of human capital, of ideas and understanding — or perhaps from the more prosaic institutional perspective, new institutional linkage partners, research data, and publication opportunities.

Technology has made all this possible, nor are these 'high' or even 'new' technologies. All that has been required is basic e-mail, a standalone database, and simple word processor or text editor. But one tool leads to another. If we wish to extend our range of contacts and sample a wider range of opinion, we may join e-mail lists to share ideas simultaneously with thousands of colleagues worldwide.

We can use these lists to check identities of institutions or credentials in newly-emergent nations whose former names have changed, request help with interpreting new visa and work permit regulations for scholars and their dependents, quickly create and share responses to health or political emergencies abroad, announce last-minute program openings where slots might still be filled and funding not wasted, or seek help with any of the dozens of other problems we are facing for the first time, where others may have solutions — all this as most of us in this room have been doing, somewhat routinely now, for years.

In these examples, the role of technology has been one of empowerment and enfranchisement. Individually, we are empowered to communicate more widely, frequently and cost-efficiently than was possible before. Collectively, our voices enfranchise new dimensions of professional capability and achievement, and create new identities for the field. We can record the data of our work more efficiently, analyze and learn from it more effectively, and communicate it more capably. There can be simultaneous, and largely transparent, advancement of personal professional development, institutional and program outreach, and the concept and good practice of mobility itself.

But there are also concerns, even at this simple level. There is little coordination, or systematic analysis. Even our best achievements are mainly individual, standalone efforts. Cooperation is difficult. Our databases work on different platforms, use different data fields, and assess the data in different ways. We know much about the experience of some institutions and organizations, but not enough about the field as a whole. To truly understand the dynamics of what we do, and to develop as a profession, we must establish ways and means for significant research.

Broad-based access and equal opportunity also remain a concern. Study abroad has often been portrayed as a privilege of the affluent. Will the increasing digitalization of educational services, and expectation that students will be able to use these services, result in more enfranchisement across economic divides, or produce the opposite result? At present, access is expensive. While the cost of technology continues to fall, its curve of obsolescence is rising ever faster. Many cannot afford either the tools or the ongoing training to fully participate in the digital world. This issue grows more urgent as severe bandwidth shortages on campuses worldwide are forcing students, and staff, into the private sector for their internet access, and as pressure on the capacity of our telephone system itself is bringing higher user charges for modem-based access.

Another potential threat may be more insidious. For students abroad, will the ease of e-mail communication reduce the depth of host-culture immersion that ostensibly they went for? While on the positive side, e-mail allows students to quickly check questions of course equivalence or credit transfer, or resolve other uncertainties that might complicate their experience abroad, it is also an umbilical cord to the friends and associations of their mother culture. Will the ease with which they can stay in touch with old contacts in their home culture reduce the making of new contacts in their host culture?

Technology also provides concerns for us, the providers and administrators of study abroad. Are we sufficiently adept at using our technologies? Do we understand their roles? Technologies change the way we work, and may well change us too. As we come to rely ever more upon technology, we find ourselves caught up in its underlying logic, that we should do ever more, ever more quickly, and ever more efficiently, as if to become as one with the machines with which we work.

In our professions, we cannot choose not to participate in this culture. Rapid, widescale communication has become essential to our work. Responsiveness is expected; it is presumed by the nature of the medium. It is assumed that we will be on-line, have the knowledge at hand, and be willing and able to help. The more our colleagues or clients assume that we know, the more inquiries we get. To whom do we say No? When we fall behind, what perceptions do we leave? To delay in reply, or not to reply, is often perceived as indifference or even affront, by those who want help Now. So the logic has come to be — ever More, and Faster. Thus the question is raised: what is the effect of our tools upon us?

We are judged by what we send. Each message we post sends clear signals about our proficiency with the technology, even before one reads what we have written. What we write also carries a message: layout, spelling, style, tone; the questions we ask, the responses we send, the perception we give of our knowledge. Or, how frequently we post, how strident we may sound, what turf we claim as ours, what our agendas may appear to be to others?

When looking at traffic on our electronic forums, one may wonder what collective impression we convey of our stature as 'professionals', or of the institutions we represent? Yet what is the solution? It is not just our knowledge of technology at issue. Reflected in our communication is an image of our knowledge and conduct overall, amplified and defined more sharply — and occasionally distorted — through the technology. This image may also be changing our identities, though no longer in a positive way.

Technological training and a sharper awareness of how and what we communicate will assume more importance as we move from simple technologies into the multimediation of the World-Wide Web. There is fantastic new potential for our empowerment to learn. But it will require enormous amounts of time and money, expertise with the new technologies, thorough research in the field, and coordination of effort across institutional boundaries for us to produce the content which will allow us to realize the potential of our new technologies in a meaningful way.

The churning innovation of the evolving Web, and our relationship to it, has been described with different metaphors. One has been taken from the Hollywood film Field of Dreams, in which the phrase of that film, "if we build it, they will come"; has come to be a mantra to justify innovation. Or, it is described with historical imagery, as a virtual Land Rush, a reincarnation of 1890s Sooners galloping into the new territories of Oklahoma, desperate to stake out claims before others get there first. Or, it is described as a frontier-era Patchwork Quilt, each component its own unique creation, with little coherence apart from association within the larger whole.

As with all of these metaphors, the Web itself projects a very American assumption of cultural identity, requiring those in other countries to learn and understand our language and culture to use the technology. For those of us in American Studies abroad, it can be, with proper guidance, a powerful didactic tool. But for American students abroad, the seductive appeal of this omnipresent mass of home culture can easily tempt them away from the real world in which they are living into a virtual world from which it may be difficult to escape.

What lies ahead? We live in an era of changing definitions of who we are and what we do. Increasing demands are being placed on our knowledge of our own and other cultures, and on our ability to work effectively in the intensely 'intercultural', 'transcultural' or 'virtual' environments in which we live.

Our tools are also changing. Today we still have telephones, telefaxes, televisions, radios, VCRs, computers, and on-line services as separate media; tomorrow their functions will be subsumed into new technologies, and converge into a single mode of delivery.

This convergence will bring a transparency of communications, or 'ubiquitous computing' — communication instantly wherever we may be. Through personal devices that will always be with us, and indeed even become part of our personal identities, we will be able to communicate with others and entertain ourselves and each other, wherever we are, 24 hours a day. This is the 'promise' of ubiquitous computing. We will become part of the information itself, virtually 'present' as never before.

What will be the impact on study abroad? Up to now, students have had to go for their educations to the information — or to put it another way, to the books and teachers who are regarded as the holders of that information — located in physical places we call "universities." Today, virtual information can come to us, wherever we may be. Some question whether this virtual culture will soon make traditional universities obsolete. For those who work with 'educational mobility' the question is even sharper. In future, education will certainly be more mobile. But will students need to be?

Already, European Union policy calls for more virtual classrooms and virtual campuses, where any student in any part of Europe (or elsewhere in the world) will have 'access-on-demand' to education and training — to professors, counselors, libraries, and self-paced multimedia instructional modules.

In taking education to the students, rather than needing to bring students to the education, life-long learning and training for a highly-educated workforce can become a reality; mobility back and forth between virtual learning and an increasingly virtual workplace will be available when and where one needs it.

But with education-on-demand available to our students as well, will there still be a market for traditional study abroad, with its higher costs for travel and displacement inconveniences?

Will a 'virtual study abroad' evolve, building on our technical ability to be telepresent in other cultures and languages, while never physically leaving home? If so, how would this impact the traditional exchange experience? What would our roles become?

Thinking of these questions, I am reminded of my first experience abroad, transported at the age of 20 from small-town Mid-Missouri to rural Middle East. There, in the midst of that human panorama of histories, cultures, languages, rhythms, aromas and personalities as different from my home as one could imagine, I began learning who I really was.

Reflecting on that experience, I think of the cultural allegory of the fish and its water. Swimming in the water, a fish is seldom conscious of the environment which nurtures and sustains him. Removed from that water, the fish becomes acutely aware of all that is absent.

Before my first trip abroad, much like the fish in water, I had not been aware of the signficance of the culture and language in which I had been living. Abroad, a fish out of water, I became acutely aware of my linguistic and cultural identity.

Removed from the setting with which I was familiar, I began learning who I was, by the cultural reflection of who I was not. It was an experience that changed my life, and my identity. It was the sort of experience I firmly believe that our students today should continue to have. But will such experiences remain available in the years to come?

Among the roles technologies may play, none may be greater than their challenges to our various identities, as individuals and as professionals. As technologies are gradually converging us into the virtual world, we need ever more the humanizing experiences the physical dimension of international education can provide.

Through technology, or despite it, it is our role to provide these experiences. How we do so will change our identities.

Thank you.

Selected Publications by John D. Hopkins