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PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Virtually every college says it puts a priority on "global" or "international" learning and, in recent years, many have added language to that effect to their mission statements. But in the haste to do so, some institutions haven't quite fleshed out what they mean by it or what strategies will best support it.

“Now I think we’re backfilling, and being more specific about it, in a context where we’re being more specific about all learning outcomes,” said Kevin Hovland, senior director of global learning and curricular change at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which hosted its first conference on “Global Learning” last week.  Underlying the conference were a few key questions: What do colleges mean when they say “global learning,” exactly? What objectives are they trying to accomplish? And how can colleges lend coherence to what are often disparate, grassroots initiatives or classes across an institution to create a deeper and more meaningful learning experience for students?

“There have been two conversations,” said Hovland. “There’s been an international conversation, which is really about moving people around, and there’s been a global learning conversation, which is what we expect students to learn.”

Clearly the two conversations are connected, he said. “But I personally think the curriculum hasn’t had as much attention as it needs.” 

About 450 faculty, deans and administrators attended last week’s conference, which featured presentations on a wide array of globally focused programs, ranging from the creation of full-fledged global studies majors to the infusion of global objectives into core curriculum courses to thematic co-curricular programming (Kennesaw State University in Georgia, for example, has a longstanding “Year of  (Insert country)”  initiative). Sessions here discussed topics such as study abroad and service learning, and the link between the global and the local. “Interdisciplinary” was a buzzword. Social responsibility was a pervasive theme. Speakers emphasized such goals as cultivating "perspective-taking" -- the ability to learn from multiple perspectives and to recognize the limits of one's own -- and "global awareness." Everyone was in agreement that they want students to be better-prepared to grapple with complex, multilayered problems that transcend national borders (and disciplines).

An Array of Models

A session featuring three case studies from New England institutions offers something of a snapshot of the types of initiatives highlighted. 

Among the models that were discussed was the University of Rhode Island’s longstanding International Engineering program, in which students earn dual degrees in an engineering discipline and a foreign language in a five-year course of study. Fully a quarter of Rhode Island’s engineering majors participate in the program, which includes a required yearlong experience abroad: a semester of study at a partner university, followed by a semesterlong paid internship. To help keep the costs of the five-year undergraduate program down for students, they’re charged in-state tuition the semester they study at a partner university (no matter where in the world they study, and no matter where they’re from), and they don’t pay any tuition for the semester they spend doing an internship, said Sigrid Berka, the program’s executive director.

The foreign language and study abroad levels for Rhode Island engineering students are much higher than the norms elsewhere. (While the numbers of engineering students going abroad nationally has been growing, much of the growth has been in short-term programs and internships, not all of which require students to speak a second language.) “This program is creating students who know how to live abroad on their own," Berka said noting that while the students have faculty mentors looking out for them at the host universities, it is not a faculty-led program.

Nick Longo described Providence College's global studies major, which he directs and whose evolution he described as something of an "If you build it, they will come" scenario. The admissions office had begun to hear that students weren't coming to Providence College, a tuition-driven Roman Catholic institution, because it lacked a program like this, said Longo. "That quickly gave us the administrative support we needed to create a new major." 

The program started in 2005 and is now the 11th-largest major on campus, with about 100 students. An interdisciplinary program, it has four faculty -- all of whom hold joint appointments with another department -- but the program recently gained departmental status and is making its first full-time global studies hire. As the program has developed, Longo said that Providence has moved away from a cafeteria-style approach in which students choose from different courses in the catalog with "international" in their title to a more structured curriculum, which includes, among other elements, two introductory global studies courses, a capstone seminar and thesis, and two upper-level courses in a foreign language. Each student takes a course in economics, philosophy, political science and theology and designs his or her own thematic concentration, taking an additional four courses around issues like food justice or international business. An international experience is required.

How to reach students who won't study abroad was a major preoccupation at the conference. Li Li is a professor of history and coordinator of Asian studies at Salem State University, a regional public university where many students are the first in their families to attend college. “They work a lot,” he said. “We have real difficulty having them engage in study abroad. It’s a real challenge for us.”

How then to bring internationalization home? Among the initiatives Li described at Salem State: the university has a new core curriculum, which includes a “World Cultures” requirement. It has attracted about 30 Chinese students a year through 1+2+1 exchange programs. It has a freshman learning community organized around intercultural leadership. And Li has spearheaded a faculty learning community in which participants work on a project to integrate themes pertaining to globalization in one class.

Throughout the conference, speakers presented on specific classes they had developed around global themes. Two professors at Spring Hill College, a small Jesuit institution located on Alabama's Gulf Coast, presented on a class they created with global ambitions but a tight budget in mind. The course depends on teams of professors from different disciplines who commit to teaching just two to three class sessions in addition to their normal teaching load. The class is designed around an issue of local relevance and global importance: the first iteration of the course focused on petroleum, for example, which hit close to home given the BP oil spill. Leigh Ann Litwiller Berte, an associate professor of English and Caestecker chair in the liberal arts, explained that the idea of "nested geographies" -- the local nested in the regional nested in the national in the global -- is an important principle guiding the class, as is the idea of "systems thinking." In terms of pedagogical practices, there is an emphasis on interdisciplinarity, of course, and active- and problem-based learning. 

To teach such a course, you do need to pay a faculty member to serve as the course coordinator, Berte said, and you might consider paying modest stipends to the faculty who take this on as an overload. “But for two adjunct salaries, basically, you can run the Cadillac version of this course," she said.

'Comprehensive Internationalization'

There was a lot of energy around student learning and curricular matters at the conference, but a speech from Harvey Charles, vice provost for international education at Northern Arizona University, served as a reality check of sorts: a reminder of the administrative structures and financial resources that he argues need to be in place for the global learning agenda to thrive. 

"While the global learning agenda must be led by the faculty, it can only succeed if it is supported by comprehensive internationalization. And comprehensive internationalization is best led by a senior international officer who can provide credible leadership in this area," Charles said. Echoing a finding from the American Council on Education that the most effective catalyst for internationalization is the president, Charles argued for the need for a senior international officer at the level of vice president, vice provost or dean who sits at the president's table. Too often, he said, presidents define internationalization too narrowly, with an aim only toward maximizing the number of international students and the tuition revenue they bring in. At the same time, Charles criticized the treatment of international student programs as a "cash cow," he pointed out that that some of that tuition revenue can in fact be captured and reinvested into expanding international programs.

"It is a mistake to believe that funding comprehensive internationalization is a cost that cannot be afforded," he argued. "The exact opposite is true. A well-resourced internationalization infrastructure means that there are resources to fund global learning projects and other university priorities. In fact, making an investment in comprehensive internationalization can actually generate even more resources.”

In sum, Charles argued that rather than disparate offices housed in different divisions around campus, "the most ideal structure to support global learning is a comprehensive, integrated one that allows the global learning agenda to draw on multiple sources," ranging from international engineering to international student teacher to faculty lecturing programs. He emphasized the need to make international teaching and research opportunities available for faculty and described one program at Northern Arizona in which faculty spend two weeks lecturing at universities in China, Myanmar, and Vietnam. They receive a $1,500 grant from his office to cover international airfare and their in-country expenses are picked up by the host institutions.

“All of these programs can conspire together to support a global learning strategy on your campus," he said.

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