Creating Global Learning Communities

"Raising the Bar," a recent survey of employers conducted on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, indicates a clear majority of employers believe college students should develop a greater understanding of:

  • The global context of situations and decisions
  • Broad global issues and their implications for the future

As businesses have expanded their reach across national borders, a familiarity with global political, economic, and social realities and an appreciation for other cultures, gained from firsthand experience, have become essential for virtually all managers and particularly for those who aspire to top leadership positions.

To fully prepare students for work in the global economy, colleges and universities are expanding their already robust foreign study programs, and they are adopting technologies that make international education accessible to many more students, who for reasons of cost or curriculum, may not be able to take advantage of off-campus study.

The Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA), a consortium of 13 liberal arts institutions including Albion College where I am president, has recently launched the Global Liberal Arts Alliance to encourage transnational exchanges between its members and 13 higher education institutions in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Partnerships will be established among the member institutions, and through these associations new forms of faculty and student exchanges will be created to enhance student learning both academically and culturally. Students will gain a heightened capacity "for engaging people of different backgrounds in ways that are conducive to increased understanding and appreciation."

As GLCA President Richard Detweiler has noted, "Our premise is not that institutions abroad should learn from the refined American example of liberal arts education. Rather we begin with the conviction that there are reciprocal benefits to all parties in a program that regards each institution as having valuable insights to contribute."

So how are we creating deep and meaningful connections with our partner institutions abroad? Among several initiatives, faculty at a number of the member institutions have teamed up this year to teach paired courses in a broad range of subjects. The first offerings deal with such topics as food and agriculture, literature of the environmental movement, monetary theory, and human resources management. Typically, American faculty and students are linked with their counterparts overseas through Internet technology. Unlike MOOCs (massive open online courses), which may have enrollments in the thousands, these 'virtual learning communities' are purposely kept small to encourage the face-to-face interaction that makes liberal arts education so effective.

Albion College has also pursued a number of international partnerships on its own, including an initiative begun this year for a sustainability studies program offered in concert with France's University of Versailles-St. Quentin, a global leader in this area. Another example: Our economics and management faculty have jointly offered seminars for several years on business development and entrepreneurship with French business schools. These programs include both distance learning and in-person collaboration.

Finally, we have capitalized on the sister-city relationship that our home community has established with Noisy-le-Roi, France. The relationship began 15 years ago with cultural exchanges for local secondary school and Albion College students and has now grown to include internships in both countries, native speaker teaching assistantships, and an array of academic programs, including a novel teacher education experience in French schools.

From my own experiences during my college years and also as a visiting faculty member at Ireland's University College Dublin, I know how valuable these international exchanges can be. I gained a depth of understanding of the social fabric, people, history, and politics of the nation by immersing myself in Irish culture. I left Dublin after a year as a profoundly different person--both personally and professionally. I hope all of our students and faculty members can have such an opportunity.

By developing innovative transnational programming, liberal arts colleges can move to the forefront in producing leaders who are knowledgeable, insightful, and culturally adept--truly global citizens in every sense.