The Foreign City as Classroom: Adult Learning in Study Abroad

By Coryell, Joellen E. | Adult Learning, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

The Foreign City as Classroom: Adult Learning in Study Abroad


Coryell, Joellen E., Adult Learning


To live and work in today's global community, adults need to develop an intercultural responsiveness and flexibility in order to interact sensitively in situations involving international cultural contexts, practices, beliefs, understandings, and communications. One way to support this development in adult and higher education is to offer opportunities to study abroad. These experiences can present adult learners with a setting in which to learn about global diversity and the interrelationships of issues across the world's population today. The Institute of International Education (2009) reported that study abroad participation in American colleges and universities increased over 150% in the past ten years. Of those participants, juniors, seniors, and graduate students comprised close to 70% of the study abroad population. It is clear adults of all ages are participating in study abroad programs across US institutions of higher education.

Currently, short-term programs comprise over 50% of study abroad offerings nationally (Institute for International Education, 2009). Short-term study abroad programs typically last between one and five weeks and often include faculty-led groups of students from one or more institution. Chieffo and Griffiths (2009) reported these programs tend to be appealing to working adults and other nontraditional students. Indeed, adults may find that short- term programs fit better within their financial limitations and time constraints of work and family. However, critics sometimes question these programs with the concern that the focus may be more on travel and adventure than on academic learning objectives. Unfortunately, not all study abroad programs provide experiences with significant learning, development, and transformational outcomes (Gray, Murdock, & Stebbins, 2002; Green, 2002). However, some recent research suggests that studying abroad transforms students' global perspectives and cross-cultural effectiveness (Dwyer, 2004) and can increase self-reliance and self-confidence (Corda, 2007).

We have very little current evidence, however, about adult learning in study abroad. Therefore, I conducted an extensive investigation that examined adult learning within the context of a short-term program in Italy. To help frame this inquiry, I looked to Wenger's (1998) concept of learning and knowing within the social learning system of a community of practice. He suggests a community of practice is a collective learning enterprise encompassing socially-constructed practices and relations. In formal education settings, a community of practice includes instructors, learners, resources and materials, the physical setting, and a variety of cultural and social influences and behaviors that affect the learning that occurs, or does not occur (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998). Correspondingly, the research question guiding this component of the larger study was: What is the nature of the learning interactions (the socially-constructed practices and relations) within a short-term study abroad community of practice? In this paper, I first offer further clarification of the adult learning theory that frames this study and provide an overview of the relevant literature. I then explain the research methodology, followed by a description of the short-term study abroad program under investigation. Finally, I present the findings of the research and the implications on what the data suggest about

the nature of adult learning and communities of practice in study abroad experiences.

Theoretical Framework and Literature Review

Situated cognition frames this study (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998). Situated cognition is based on Vygotsky's (1978) social learning theory, which offers a way of understanding human decision-making and action through a sociocultural perspective. This perspective proposes that we construct knowledge both individually and together with those in the world in which we live. …

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