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Studying Abroad from Abroad: Moving from Onsite to Online Learning in the Wake of COVID-19

Meghan Callahan
Syracuse University London

In February 2020, when COVID-19 began to spread through Italy, Syracuse University Florence was one of the first study-abroad programs in the city to send students home. On 13 March, the Syracuse London program, where I work as the Assistant Director for Teaching and Learning, ended face-to-face classes, as did Syracuse home campus.1 In two weeks we started teaching entirely online. Ending face-to-face instruction is difficult for everyone involved. For study abroad programs, the problems are compounded by the fact these use cities as classrooms for onsite learning and rely on immersive cultural experiences. The university decided on 22 June to cancel all study-abroad programs for Fall 2020, and we are hopeful that we will resume in Spring 2021. The likelihood that the novel coronavirus will still be around means we will be creating hybrid classes with online and face-to-face components. Changes to protocols for site visits and possible closures of museums, theatres, and cultural sites will make us reconsider how we use London as a classroom.

While working as an administrator this spring, I also taught a new history class called Underground London. Examining the hidden lives and histories that are buried under London in both the physical and conceptual underground, the class covers prehistory to the modern era. Site visits included the Roman Amphitheatre under London’s Guildhall, the Brunel Museum, and the Cabinet War Rooms. We also study hidden groups that banded together for survival, from early modern Catholic recusants including Guy Fawkes, to the twentieth-century gay men who used the coded language Polari to recognize each other when homosexuality was illegal. Teaching a new class as an administrator during a pandemic was a challenge. I had to do the “heavy lift” and “pivot” that I (along with the rest of the administration) was asking of the faculty by transferring my own class online, working with student concerns, grading, and filming my lectures. At the same time, I was offering instruction and advice to faculty on delivering their classes, modifying assignments for online access, and grading while communicating with administration across different abroad centers and on home campus. I’d like to provide some of what I learned about online teaching from the point of view of an administrator and faculty member working in the study-abroad sector.

Sixteen percent of students in American undergraduate programs studied abroad in 2017/18, with the United Kingdom as the top destination, followed by Italy, Spain, and France.2 Native English speakers often choose the UK because they feel it will be easier to adapt with a common language, but upon arrival find that British and American culture are further apart than they realized. Aside from vocabulary (crisps/chips, rubbish/trash, pants/underwear, bin/garbage can) British reserve is often met with confusion from outgoing Americans, and the unwritten rule of no talking on the Tube causes many students to check their behavior once they get “tutted” at during commutes. Many students come abroad with high expectations for travelling Europe, partying, and meeting up with friends from home at Oktoberfest. They also come to escape pressures of home or campus life, to immerse themselves in history, and to learn about themselves and another culture. Very often one student holds all these goals.

In study abroad, a lot of learning takes place outside the classroom. Classes meet in museums, in theatres, and in the streets. Professors teach in busy and sometimes noisy environments, and students must retain focus. For early modernists, teaching on the site of a battle or in front of a sixteenth-century painting allows students to more fully understand the circumstances surrounding an event or an object’s creation. Wall labels, interactive learning elements, and nearby objects in museums also enhance learning. Professors need to give adequate time for student reflection while on site and require students in assessments to recall information and the experience.

In March 2020, in only two weeks, thanks to the hard work of our professors and staff we moved over fifty classes in as many subjects to online delivery. Since students had returned to places across the United States, China, India, and Europe, the time zone differences meant all classes were taught asynchronously. Although asynchronous teaching naturally created issues of less contact between faculty and students, we encouraged faculty to hold office-hour sessions using Zoom, Teams, or Blackboard Collaborate Ultra.

For faculty accustomed to teaching in museums, galleries, theatres, and the streets of London, moving courses online is especially difficult. Almost all of our classes incorporate site visits and guest speakers throughout the semester, and they are a vital part of students’ learning experience. Nevertheless, faculty responded creatively and recorded themselves in the relatively empty streets of London, discussing the queues outside markets, or the signs instructing commuters to not make nonessential journeys on the Tube. This allowed students to contrast their experience in London with the current situation and reflect on global differences when they examined how people in the United States were adapting.

Faculty also used the virtual sites created by museums and galleries. They referred students to our “Virtual London” webpage, and incorporated clips into their lectures.3 My students were lucky as the majority of site visits took place before they went home, although missing out on the Postal Museum’s underground Mail Rail was a disappointment to all of us. Fortunately, the museum’s website includes a short tour, and longer versions are available on YouTube, which allow students to experience a virtual ride.4 I included these in my recorded PowerPoint lecture and asked students to compare their experience with our physical visit to the London Coliseum and the London Mithraeum. I asked them to consider the differences between sight, sound, and smell and linked them back to our first lecture, when I passed around objects I collected while mud larking on the Thames foreshore. These objects included the ends of clay pipes, bones, flint, ceramics, and tiles, and I asked the students to guess what they were. Examining the objects allowed students to test their practical identifying skills, consider their own material culture, and get a tangible sense of early modern London. I then shared a video of the sound of an early modern animal bell found on the Thames foreshore, so they could hear some history.5 The exercise helped us talk about who researches history, the difference between trained and self-taught historians, and the many ways in which historical information is created and shared. Later, the students considered how they gained knowledge in London by physically going underground in museums and tunnels, and how they needed to differently employ memory and imagination when learning online.

Some of the biggest difficulties were faced by our architecture and design classes, as professors and students are used to working together at close range and getting immediate feedback on drawings or designs. However, faculty held productive classes by offering multiple sessions at different times, using online whiteboards, recording feedback, and using discussion boards. All faculty reconfigured assignments. Many asked students to use discussion boards in an attempt to recreate the feeling of a seminar and included reflections on the pandemic in Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States. One of the biggest concerns for many professors was how to reassess group work and presentations. Students were unable to work together easily due to time zone differences. If the initial assignment was a presentation in which the class members would critique their fellow students, then that became much more difficult when we moved online with twenty or more students in an asynchronous class. Some faculty dropped the group aspect, while others had students organize WhatsApp or Zoom meetings on their own time.

My class included a “work in progress” presentation, due two weeks before the final project. I have successfully used this before, as it compels students to start working on their final project earlier and allows them to give and receive constructive criticism. I held Zoom meetings with several students to discuss their projects. I uploaded instructions on how to write strong constructive criticism, directions for the length of the video, and alternatives for recording (mobile phone, MP4, or Screencast-o-matic). Videos were kept under five minutes, and students uploaded them to the discussion board in Blackboard. This allowed everyone to see everyone else’s work. I divided students into groups of three and each person had to comment on the video uploaded to the discussion board by their group members. Students were free to view and comment on presentations outside of their group. After every student had uploaded their critiques, I gave individual feedback to everyone via email or a Zoom meeting.

While in a face to face classroom setting everyone would have been able to comment on everyone else’s work, that would have been unwieldly in a discussion board. By changing the format to groups of three, students could concentrate more deeply on providing strong constructive criticism. Given the success of their critiques, I will likely use groups again in face-to-face classes. It will ensure that everyone speaks in class and provides written commentary on fellow students’ work, which the students can then apply when working on their final projects.

From the beginning, I had assigned the final project for my class to be an “unessay.”6 Students could deliver a video, a model, drawings, a paper, or any other project they wished, as long as we discussed it ahead of time. Though they had to make some adjustments due to working from home, the quality and creativity of the students’ work was spectacular. I received an Instagram account detailing LGBTQ+ history in the UK, an interview with a Tube driver, a board game based on the class, and videos that used Doodly to share research on female suffrage and TikTok to examine physical movement and behavioral patterns in the Tube. All of these projects are easily adaptable to early modern subjects; imagine Anne Boleyn’s Instagram, a Doodly video explaining how Crispijn de Passe’s seventeenth-century print of the Gunpowder Conspirators became the source for the Guy Fawkes mask worn by Anonymous protestors, or a layered digital map of London’s hidden rivers.

Many other professors also remarked on the success of their students’ final projects, and with the help of the program staff, we created a virtual classroom to highlight student work.7 The webpage gives a short course description, briefly introduces the professor, and provides links to student projects. The page is featured on our Syracuse London site, and the Syracuse Abroad site. We will continue to update this website in future, to provide students and faculty a wider platform to share their work. It is a very useful source for stakeholders in Syracuse University and partner schools, including future students, professors and advisors, and parents, all of whom want as much detail as possible before coming abroad. The Virtual Classroom highlights our academic strengths and rigor and demonstrates to students the academic success they can achieve while abroad.

The loss of the semester abroad was extremely upsetting to students, many of whom view study abroad as their only chance to leave the country, their first time living truly independently, and a time to immerse themselves in a new culture. When students returned home, they faced illness of COVID-19 and restrictions on movement; ill, dying, or unemployed family members; parents, grandparents or younger siblings who needed care; financial and domestic instability; and uncertain internet access. Yet students showed admirable resiliency and the majority emerged successfully from the semester. Our professors extended as much understanding and empathy as possible around due dates for assessments and students returned the same patience as professors grappled with new technologies, working from home while caring for parents or children, or facing illness themselves.

Heading into Spring 2021, we will be better prepared to use technology, and more importantly, empathy, to meet the challenges created by COVID-19 in the study-abroad sector of higher education. We will be holding regularly scheduled training sessions in October and November. These will include how to reconfigure syllabi for Spring 2021 to make all classes incorporate online elements and be accessible; how to blend video, quizzes and discussion boards with classroom lectures; and how to best use continuous assessment. Many professors learned they needed to drop any stereotypes of “rich Americans” studying abroad as they discovered not all students have reliable access to internet, adequate computers, or come from homes that allow them space and silence to study. This surprised some of our faculty and they needed to reconfigure assignments and due dates so all students could complete the class successfully. At the same time, faculty maintained academic rigor by changing parameters of assignments (writing about one’s hometown street instead of a London street for example) which allowed students to employ critical thinking with less pressure and ultimately do better work.

But empathy of course is not extended to everyone. The recent murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by police, and those of countless other Black men and women caused an outpouring of global protests against systemic racism and police brutality through Spring 2020. We must support the Black Lives Matter movement in our responsibility as educators to teach out against systemic racism and work towards a more equitable world. This is especially important in the study-abroad sector, which in Europe and the UK is not known for its diversity in faculty or students.8 Nor do host countries necessarily welcome foreigners.9

Though London is not immune from racism, it is a global city with roughly nine million people. 37 percent of Londoners are born outside the UK with 40.2 percent of residents identifying in 2011 as either Asian, Black, Mixed or Other, and 44.9 percent as White British.10 In 2019, the Syracuse University undergraduate student population was majority white, at 56.2 percent, with Asian and Black students at 6.4 percent each, Hispanic or Latino 9.4 percent, American Indian or Alaska Native 0.6 percent.11 For many students, studying in London is an exercise in contrasts. They may be the only Black student in a small class but are living in one of the most diverse cities in the world. White students might have their usual experience of being in the majority reversed as they walk through the different neighborhoods of London. Students studying abroad who are willing to leave their “American bubble” and reflect on their role in society can learn not only about diverse cultures, but about themselves. Study abroad teaches students to become more comfortable with recognizing discomfort, differences, and the unknown, which can hopefully help achieve greater understanding throughout the world.

Meghan Callahan is Assistant Director of Teaching and Learning and an adjunct professor at Syracuse University London in the UK. She currently teaches a history course on Underground London. Trained as an art historian, she also writes about Sister Domenica da Paradiso and female patronage, and Renaissance and Baroque bronzes.

1 My counterpart in Florence, Dr. Bob Vallier, was instrumental in providing instruction and conversation as this process unfolded, as were our Assistant Director for IT and Operations, Marco Figueiredo, IT Assistant Goks Joshi, and the IT department on home campus. Luckily, in June 2019 Bob and I, along with colleagues from Syracuse Madrid and Syracuse Strasbourg, had attended Syracuse University’s SITETL: Summer Institute for Technology-Enhanced Teaching and Learning, run by Michael Morrisson and his colleagues in the IT department. Over a week we learned about a variety of platforms (including Kahoot, Camtasia, and Pear Deck) to enhance teaching and learning, and make using technology a natural part of teaching. This June, SITETL was held on Zoom and opened to the entire university to provide a forum for learning and discussion about many of the issues created by moving online as quickly as we did. Dr. Martha Diede, the Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence at Syracuse discussed syllabus design for online/hybrid courses.

2Open Doors, Fast Facts,” IIE, 2019.

3 For a list of sites, see “Virtual London,” Syracuse University London, accessed 2 July 2020.

4The Mail Rail,” The Postal Museum. See also “The London’s Mail Rail at The Postal Museum,” YouTube.

5 Nick Stevens, Jim Powell, and Seán Clarke, “Thames Treasures: Mudlarking Finds from the Foreshore—3D Pictures and Audio,” The Guardian, 21 Mar. 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/mar/21/-sp-thames-mudlarking-foreshore-3d-pictures-audio-nick-stevens.

6 I was inspired by Cate Denial’s blog “The Unessay.”

7Virtual Classroom,” Syracuse University London. Thanks especially go to our Community Outreach Advocate Dr Becca Farnum for her work on this.

9 Nicole Phillip, “My Very Personal Taste of Racism Abroad,” New York Times, 23 Oct. 2018.

10Regional Ethnic Diversity,” GOV.UK, 11 July 2019. In contrast, the 2010 census for Syracuse, New York reported 55 percent white, 29.7 percent Black, 0.8 percent American Indian and Alaska Native, 6.8% Asian, two or more races 5.4 percent and Hispanic or Latino 9.3 percent. “QuickFacts: Syracuse City, New York,” US Census Bureau.k

11Student Enrollment by Career and Ethnicity, Fall 2019 Census,” Syracuse University. There were several racist and anti-Semitic incidents at Syracuse in Fall semester 2019, leading to the #NotAgainSU movement, see “What Do #NotAgainSU Protesters Want from Syracuse University? Here’s Full List of Demands,” Syracuse University News, 5 Mar. 2020.

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