03/30/2012 10:26 am ET Updated May 30, 2012

Internationalizing University Education

Recently a faculty member from a mid-west university called me, saying, "I teach a semester of Modern Latin American History, yet none of my students interacts with anyone from Latin America during the entire course. Can you help us?"

Increasingly, university faculty are realizing that learning "about" the world must be supplemented with an effort to learn "with" it. Interacting with authentic audiences in the global regions or international curricula being studied can bring that curriculum alive and put it into a contemporary and local real context. At the same time, educators worldwide are realizing that direct international experiences can dramatically and positively impact the university experience. For example, a new study presented by the British Council, NAFSA, the Ipsos Public Affairs, has found that international education experience at the university level enhances the chances of employment. Earlier it has been demonstrated that students on the pre-college level have enhanced university and career opportunities if they have acquired "21st century skills" and perspectives that include global competence, familiarity with technology, ability to work collaboratively in teams, critical thinking skills and improved reading and writing skills.

According to the new study employers significantly pointed out that they value international educational experience in potential candidates, especially during the current economically challenging time.

Yet, the number and percentage of US young people who have international experiences at either the high school or university levels are miniscule. According to statistics of the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (CSIET), the number of US high school students who went abroad in 2011 for a semester or year, totaled a miniscule 1,376 students -- out of a high school population of over 16 million (2008 data) students, which represents 1 ten-thousandths of 1 percent. Estimates of the percentage of university students who have a meaningful educational experience internationally (as opposed to a week on Greek or French beaches), are but 2% of all university students.

How can the vast majority of our country's youth have the opportunity to interact with their global peers and acquire the skills necessary for success in the decades ahead when so few of them have the chance to experience another cultural physically? How can we expect them to be global competent when their teachers and faculty members are not?

If we are to foster significant numbers of new generations of globally competent students who aspire to gain or actually obtain international experiences and expertise, it will only be possible through technology-enabled educational experiences. Recently several organizations have come together to form the "exchange 2.0 Coalition," to advocate on behalf of such "virtual exchanges" as a critical and meaningful way through which the vast majority of students in this country will be able to gain global competency and other 21st century skills.

At the same time, university faculty in the US who are seeking to introduce international history, literature and political science to our university students lament that their students are not having meaning international interaction experiences as part of this international course content. A faculty member at Villnova University who teaches global literature pointed out that her students are not interacting with peers in the country from which the literature has come -- missing a major cross-cultural opportunity for the literature to be put into its national context.

As a result, iEARN-USA (International Education and Resource Network) is working with organizations committed to international education at the university level to create collaborative and interactive options within the educational context of the courses that US faculty are teaching. This includes teacher education institutions who are preparing the next generation of K-12 teachers to enter their new classrooms with global competence and access to international education networks through which their students might engage in learning with students in other countries, instead of just about them. To make this a reality at teacher education institutions, iEARN-USA is working with global educators and foundations to create a "Global Teacher Education" (GTE) web-based resource coming in late 2012 on how to internationalize teacher education. According to its preparation document, "This project aims to create a dynamic resource that will provide strategies and encourage linkages to help U.S. teacher educators to become confident and excited about internationalizing teacher education."

It is an effort that needs the collaboration of organizations and institutions of K-12 and higher education. Our nation's high school and university students must graduate with global competence and this will only happen on a scalable level through technology-enabled global interaction.