New technology is producing rapid and dramatic change throughout the international educational exchange profession. My panel colleagues, John Deupree of the College Board, Carl Herrin of the International Exchange Association, and Timothy Thompson of the University of Pittsburgh have covered some implications of these technologies from their perspectives within American higher education. My perspective will be from outside the U.S. It will include views of the overseas advisers who counsel students planning to enter U.S. colleges and universities, and also a look at how technology may affect the students themselves.
New electronic communications technologies especially are being welcomed by exchange professionals outside the United States. I shall briefly review their impact. But while applauding the benefits of a technology, problematic implications of its employment should not be overlooked. Let me begin by reviewing some of the benefits for overseas exchange advisers and exchangees from one of these new technologies: electronic mail.
E-Mail Benefits to Overseas Advisers
Overseas advisers have often been hampered by an inability to obtain critical information quickly from their U.S. colleagues. Postal service is too slow. The telephone is often not realistic with time zone differences and budget restraints. FAX has helped somewhat, but is expensive, awkward for more than a few pages at a time, lacking in privacy, and complicated by documents often being of insufficient legibility to be usable by the receiver.
By contrast, electronic mail provides a quick and low-cost communications channel for advisers in the U.S. and worldwide. E-mail can help advisers network more easily with each other. E-mail enables advisers to retrieve on an equal basis with their colleagues elsewhere current information instantly from on-line data bases and remote information services.
With E-mail, advisers can easily question each other for needed information. They can relay updates instantly to one or one hundred colleagues with the touch of a button, send advising files and other exchange documents from one center to another in a form that is easy to modify and reproduce locally, co-author advising documents more easily, and indeed with the help of the data brought in by E-mail, publish with their own DTP systems topical information for their local advising operations more quickly, easily, and cheaply than before.
All these things are currently happening, and will increase exponentially as more advisers throughout the world gain electronic enfranchisement. Advising has benefitted remarkably from this new technological resource. Advisers are becoming better prepared for their profession than ever before. More and better advising data may be obtained and distributed more quickly and less expensively through electronic mail and the access it enables to remote telematic resources.
E-Mail Benefits to Exchangees
Exchangees are also able to use electronic mail to better prepare for their studies abroad. University staff and students both frequently have E-mail accounts, provided free through their university computing center. Electronic enfranchisement is also gradually being extended to secondary-level teachers and pupils. How does this impact exchanges?
Use of electronic mail may enhance both linguistic and cultural preparedness for the exchange experience. In Finland, for example, secondary pupils in remote Arctic Lapland now have access to the entire range of Bitnet/Internet resources. Although living in what might be considered one of the more geographically and culturally-isolated environments of Europe, they can now participate from their school or home in direct or list-mediated discussions worldwide on an equal basis with the most cosmopolitan professor at Helsinki University or for that matter students or professors at Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, The Sorbonne or any other node on the Internet.
E-mail enables a democratization of communication and information access which was not possible with previous technologies. This rather remarkable new relationship to the outside world will also impact the exchange process.
The English language proficiency of exchangees should improve. As the predominant language of the Internet is English, those who participate in E-mail discussions will have a constant, personal incentive for communicative English. It is reasonable to assume that such exchangees would be more proficient in reading and writing English from their Internet experience. They would have benefitted from a wealth of interactive learning stimuli that would rarely be available in classroom language study.
One might also expect the exchangee's intercultural sensitivities to be sharpened through this increased language exposure. All messages are cultural artifacts which expose the recipient to the linguistic and ethnic values of the sender. Many Internet discussion forums in which students participate are dedicated to exploring comparative intercultural issues (indeed universities are increasingly using the Internet as a scholarly resource).
Students should gain from their Internet participation at least a greater awareness of the problematics of cross-cultural communication, if not an understanding of how to resolve them. Participation on E-mail networks can be seen as a unique, compelling, and powerful self-directed new pedagogical tool for learning foreign languages and cultural values.
Benefits in Exchange Advising and Orientation
I have mentioned the benefits of advisers obtaining information via E-mail. Students can also access many of the same electronic resources as advisers. Potentially, this would enable advisers and clients to interact more efficiently. Students would be better prepared when they visit an OSEAS Advising Center. The adviser could use precious time to convey more specialized information more quickly to semi-prepared individuals. Advisers would thus serve more clients more ably, and both adviser and client would gain a savings of time.
Students may also consult with their home-university adviser via E-mail. Further, once placed in a host institution, the exchangee could quickly be in E-mail contact with the host Foreign Student Adviser and host professors. This would enable the exchangee to receive direct, individualized information about academic and other preparations which should be undertaken before departure.
With bilateral reciprocal exchange programs, home and host international advisers could better coordinate with each other their outgoing and incoming orientation arrangements. E-mail can enhance the overall exchange process. It can enable better advising, better academic preparation, and increased linguistic and intercultural awareness. Such benefits are already a reality. They have been enabled, in practical terms, only with the use of E-mail technology.
Implications of These Benefits
Unfortunately, dark clouds may appear in the sunniest of skies. There are few new technologies which do not carry less-obvious implications. Let me review several for your consideration. These as well are already realities.
- Access to technology is not universal, and will spread only very slowly to certain regional and global areas. The schism is not only between developed and developing countries. Large areas of the U.S. heartland which still have only party-line telephones are disenfranchised from the telematic world just as effectively as the most impoverished developing country. Interruptions on a party line may not significantly hinder human voice conversation, but they ruin the modem signalling by which E-mail must work.
The disparity between those who are, and are not, enfranchised is real and will be exacerbated by the rapidity with which telematic resources and use is expanding. With placement and admissions information increasingly being conveyed electronically, how will the admissions competitiveness of individuals, regions, and nations without electronic enfranchisement be affected?
- The ease and power of electronic communications will result in greater demand to use telematic resources. This in turn will increase the time overhead to access and process a growing volume of data. It will necessitate more training for advisers and require increasingly better hardware and software to be able to effectively organize and employ the increased volume of data.
The educational and training requirements and administrative workload for advisers will both increase. Will advising jobs soon be unable to attract qualified applicants? Those with the required skills would be able to earn far more on the private market than under any advising center budget.
Moreover, the ease of E-mail will also bring increasing demand for "distance advising" VIA E-mail. To a limited extent, advisers may first welcome this as more manageable than personal visits. As the volume of E-mail advising increases, however, advisers may be overwhelmed by the extra electronic work often "unseen" and unappreciated by their superiors in addition to continuing personal visits by clients and the demands of office routine. The threat of overload is very real in both the management of information and the demand for its employment.
- Electronic mail is unconstrained by national or geographic boundaries. This is already of concern to advising hierarchies. A student who can contact his home adviser in the next building by E-mail can use the same technology to contact advisers in the next city, the next country, or the next continent. With E-mail, it is as quick and easy to solicit advice from across the ocean as across the street.
If we assume that students will seek information from what they perceive to be the fastest, cheapest, and easiest source, then it follows that students who are using E-mail for other purposes anyway will also attempt to use E-mail to solicit exchange advice.
But students are seldom capable of judging the validity of unfiltered information, particularly advice outside the context of their own educational background. While E-mail does make it easy to test first-source answers against second and possibly further responses, students left to their own devices might easily simply employ this methodology to search for answers they perceive to be "best" or "right" (do I REALLY need to take this exam, can't I REALLY get MORE money from school X, is that REALLY the best school or program for me after all, etc.).
Three Scenarios . . .
Three scenarios based on this assumption come to mind:
- Both unenfranchised advisers and advisers who may be electronically enfranchised but are not adept at using the technology will soon be bypassed in favor of sources elsewhere (legitimate or not) who are faster, more personally responsive, and/or perhaps perceived to provide "better" information.
- The process of second-and third-sourcing advice, made so easy by E-mail, may produce an enormously greater and ultimately untenable burden on responsive advisers especially those perceived as the "better" ones. Burnout will quickly follow.
- Advisers who have access to the technology and are active in using it will quickly gain significant new influence. As Stewart Brand observed, "Fluency in the new forms of communication is a shortcut to power... Communication is control... Whoever... becomes fluent first shapes the environment for everyone else."
New sources of exchange advice will emerge and gain dominance, perhaps outside the established advising structure, precisely because of their command of the means of delivery.
What might be the implications of such scenarios for the current structure of educational exchange advising?
- The dynamics of E-mail communication must be considered. While E-mail is often thought of in terms of "instant" notes which elicit lightning-fast responses, printouts of such notes may have a Rosetta Stone permanence for hopeful exchangees in faraway places who ponder these strange new texts before them, hoping to decode from the inscriptions the keys to their futures abroad.
- Language precision, composition style, and textual appearance are vital when communicating to anonymous recipients, especially when messages cross linguistic and cultural boundaries. With the ease of electronic forwarding, there may be many "recipients" beyond those the sender originally anticipated. The vast majority of electronic messages are read by persons who have never met or even know the sender. In such cases "the medium is the message" is clearly a factor in the reader's perception of the sender.
- Typos, mis-spellings, all-caps "SHOUTING," messy layout, top-of-one's-head wordings, idiosyncratic humor and other frequent characteristics of all-too-many "quick" E-mail messages convey a picture of the perceived competency and reliability of both the sender and his information to the mind of the recipient.
- "Humorous" comments which may be acceptable if one knows the personality of the sender are frequently misperceived by anonymous recipients, often with unfortunate consequences for the sender's reputation. That idiom, jargon, slang and figures of speech may have unexpected interpretations by non-native speakers of English should go without saying.
- E-mail is not "instant" except in relative distribution time. The same care must be used in composing E-mail documents as with those leaving your typewriter on a letterhead. In principle MORE care should be used, as electronic documents may so easily be relayed to further audiences, whether the writer intended this or not. E-mail technology may INcrease the time and quality demands of document composition, and linguistic requirements for advising positions may become even more demanding than before. Will this ultimately result in a net gain or loss of advising capacity?
A New Dimension of Communication, But It Must Be Carefully Monitored
Electronic mail brings a new dimension of communication to the field of international educational exchange, with benefits especially for overseas advisers. But each new technology carries with it an impetus toward new administrative structures and working habits for those who will employ the technology.
As the structured hierarchy of exchange advising rapidly changes toward a decentralized market of advisory supply and demand, we should reflect on how the adoption of new technologies will imply changes to traditional methods of work. As exchange professionals we must monitor and consider these changes carefully.
This article was adapted from one of three presentations on "Implications of Technology in Educational Exchange" by a panel comprising Carl Herrin, John D. Hopkins, and Timothy S. Thompson, introduced and chaired by John Deupree, at the 42nd Annual Conference of NAFSA: Association of International Educators in Portland, Oregon on 15-18 May 1990. It was published in Issue 10 of the MicroSIG Newsletter (Microcomputers in the International Office), February 1991.