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Breaking Down the Barriers to International Education: Distance Learning Opportunities for Adults

Breaking Down the Barriers to International Education: Distance Learning Opportunities for Adults
International learning opportunities typically considered beyond the reach of adult students may now be within grasp with the advent of new distance education technologies.

Could distance education (DE) units effectively develop international programs that reach adult non-traditional learners? Several thoughts come to mind.

Clearly, it is important for all learners to become global citizens and be exposed to the international and cross-cultural aspects of their studies. Leading cross-disciplinary scholars have noted that exposure to other cultures presents the possibility of greater sensitivity to difference and diversity at home (Banks, 2013). Furthermore, an understanding of other cultures and communities better prepares learners for a world that is changing from one driven by American interests to one driven by multiple emerging political and economic powers, such as Brazil, Russia, India and China (Kupchan, 2012).

In the lifelong learning and extended education field, we have a special concern for making learning opportunities accessible and affordable for adult learners, many of whom cannot physically travel for reasons of family responsibilities, work/professional commitments and costs (Matkin, 2010). If these learners can somehow afford to travel, work and family commitments surely shortens the time available to devote to an international or study-abroad experience.

Technology cannot open an educational vessel and instantly allow the pouring out of international learning experience, but distance technologies and methods could present possibilities, and even a few examples, of learning opportunities that internationalize formal training, certificate and degree programs for learners that have heretofore been considered unlikely candidates for international programs (Amirault and Visser, 2010).

1. Reducing the Risks of Harm While Enabling Authentic Engagement

DE tools can be used to provide ways to engage in communities and cultures where a physical presence would otherwise be dangerous or problematic. Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Lebanon, for example, are rich with cultural and economic learning opportunities, but extended residencies may be problematic from a personal security perspective. Audio and video web conferencing can be used to provide students with real engagement with scholars within these communities. There is some pedagogical research beginning to emerge regarding the use of audio and videoconferencing to build trust and rapport (Connor and Kennedy, 2013). Further, if there are constructive opportunities to collaborate with professionals or students in the target countries/cultures, learning experiences could conceivably advance beyond the superficial level of engagement toward authentic engagement. By authentic engagement, I am suggesting learning experiences that may involve opportunities such as project-based assignments or engagement in cross-cultural studies of common professional issues where collaborations would be purposeful, active and sustained through a period of time.

2. Opportunities for Adequate Preparation and Reflection

DE tools can be used to extend traditional place-based study-abroad experiences, both before the trip and after students have returned home. Drawing on the same pedagogical concepts of the “flipped” classroom, planners and administrators can make place-based visits more focused and purposeful if preliminary work and post-visit reflections can be arranged.

This helps to leap one of the traditional hurdles of studying abroad. It significantly reduces the period of adjustment into target cultural environments and the risk of “culture shock” by developing networks of peers and mentors through web-based communications prior to the place-based visit. Furthermore, the development of virtual reality tools such as Second Life or Kitely may offer learners the opportunity to simulate and negotiate a version of the target cultural community in advance, and designers of the virtual environments could create models and contexts that learners would become aware of, and even familiar with, prior to their visit.

3. Creating International Work Opportunities

In the area of virtual internships, for-profit, distance-oriented, adult-serving institutions seem to be leading the way. For example, Kaplan University developed a virtual internship experience for their information technology (IT) students to do technology consulting projects for NGOs in Moldova. The internship involved the use of web-based collaboration and communications technologies, a faculty mentor and a language interpreter to provide students opportunities to develop and refine IT projects on issues such as web development, network security protocols and database architectural design. Kaplan students, monitored and mediated by a professor knowledgeable in both the IT field and its applications in Eastern European contexts, and a Russian language interpreter provided through the Peace Corps, worked on projects over extended periods. Synchronous conferences with Moldovan clients were made possible through web conferencing, and electronic cloud-hosted hard drives (such as Dropbox) were used to deposit, revise and transfer project deliverables. The professor’s role was largely to act as a mentor and advisor on project timeline management. In the first cohort of the internship, two out of three projects were developed and delivered to Moldovan clients successfully (Selby and Giovanni, 2013).


Leaders of lifelong learning and extended education organizations may well be faced with an unprecedented opportunity to innovate programmatically and expand educational access.  Through the application of DE methodologies many of us are already accustomed to using, we may now be able to find many untapped opportunities to provide our non-traditional learners experiences to strengthen their credentials with authentic internationalized learning opportunities that might intellectually engage, increase sensitivity and even add skills and knowledge that are attractive to potential employers.

The first step is for those of us in the lifelong learning and extended education fields to discuss with international and study abroad program professionals about how the tools and methods of distance learning might be applied to study-abroad contexts, whether they be place-based or virtual in scope, or a bit of both. The benefit will be in the creation of learning that is accessible, affordable and useful in social, intellectual and workforce development contexts (Scull, 2012; Scull and Han, 2014).

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Amirault, R. & Visser, Y. (2010). The impact of E-learning Programs on the Internationalization of the University. New York: Nova Science Publishers.

Banks, J. (2013). An Introduction to Multicultural Education, 5th Edition.  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Connor, C., and Kennedy, A. (2013). Instructor Engagement: Building Trust with Innovative Technology. Summary of the 16th Colorado Learning and Teaching with Technology Conference (COLTT), Boulder, CO. Abstract retrieved from:

Kupchan, C. (2012). No One’s World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn. New York: Oxford University Press.

Matkin, G. (2010). The Distance Educator’s Opportunity for Institutional Leadership. Continuing Higher Education Review, 74(1), 32-39.

Selby, A. & Giannoni, D. (2013). Global virtual internships: Technology integration for international collaboration. Proceedings of the 29th Annual Distance Teaching and Learning Conference (pp. 501-504), Madison, Wisconsin.

Scull, W. R. (2012). Distance Education and the Diversity Imperative: Evolving our Organizations Beyond the Fringe and Adding Social Value. The EvoLLLution.  Retrieved from

Scull, W. R., and Han, K. (2014 in press). Continuing and Distance Education: The Overlooked Potential of Professional Resources to Advance the Interests of Diversity in Higher Education. Journal of Educational Practice for Social Change.

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