Strengthening the Global Connection

by Tom Hanlon  /   Sep 21, 2018

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As author of the book Shifting Tides in Global Higher Education, Allison Witt has her finger on the pulse of global education.

She has studied it, lived it, and taught it for more than 20 years. And she believes the importance of global studies has never been greater.

“We’re at a point in society where we recognize that everything we do is globally connected,” says Witt, director of the Office of International Programs in the College of Education at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. She also directs the International Education Administration & Leadership track in the Global Studies in Education (GSE) online program.

“The decisions we make and the challenges we face impact all of us,” she continues. “We are not working by ourselves anymore and we can’t think that we are. All of our decisions are globally connected. In order to do this well, even for the survival of humanity, we have to work together, we have to think about how what we’re doing impacts others.”

Witt was there at the inception of the online version of the GSE program in 2005. As she was earning her Ph.D. in Education Policy, Organization & Leadership, the College was in the midst of creating an online version of Global Studies in Education.

“We were one of the first online programs offered at the university, and really pioneers for this,” Witt says. “It was very innovative and pretty revolutionary because it was full professors starting the online program.”

The Power of Real-Time Sharing of Ideas Around the Globe

Global Studies in Education is a cornerstone piece of the College’s strong portfolio of graduate online courses.

The program focuses on education and global change, examining the globalization of policy and pedagogy and the internationalization of schools, universities, children, and youth in a global context.

GSE attracts a varied group of learners—teachers, administrators, professionals in international agencies and non-governmental organizations, study-abroad officers, and others interested in or connected to the international field. These learners share their experiences with one another and work with their colleagues and fellow students around the world in real time.

“They are not just collaborating with each other; they are supporting each other,” Witt says. “As you come upon a challenge in your classroom, it’s wonderful to be able to reach out to your colleagues in very different contexts and see what solutions they’ve come up with. You’re no longer just working with a teacher in the room next door in the same school as you. You can work with teachers all over the world. And administrators are doing that as well.”

That, of course, is one of the beauties of online programs—the instant sharing of ideas across the world. And it’s especially important now, Witt says. “The challenges that we face in education are global. Everyone’s dealing with the same sorts of issues.

“When we are discussing the challenges of visas or something like that, we can get the perspectives of people who just left their office in China or in India or in Europe. We can discuss in real time what we’re experiencing right now.”

That is important, Witt says, because the field is ever-evolving.

“Things change very quickly, and to be able to share with each other what it’s like on the ground every day in our education settings is such an advantage,” she says. “There’s no way we could make that happen face-to-face, but it’s a tremendous advantage of the program. And it’s really why GSE started online in the first place.”

Other Advantages of the GSE Online Program

Besides the real-time sharing of ideas, learning from others’ experiences around the world, and the collaboration and support that are emblematic of the program, Witt points to three other strengths that attract learners: the University of Illinois itself, the College of Education faculty, and the study-abroad component of the program.

“We have one of the world’s greatest libraries,” she says. “I believe we’re first in public libraries in the world, and second to the Library of Congress. That is all available to students online. I can’t stress enough how great that is. If you’re working in a remote area in China and you want to do research and you suddenly have access to the U of I library system, which comes with fully trained academic librarians and all sorts of research support, that’s an amazing asset that you really can’t get from any other program.”

Witt names the Institutional Review Board (IRB), which ensures the ethical and legal conduct of human subject research at Illinois, as another asset that enriches the experience of online students. “They do a fantastic job of helping students put together their IRB proposals,” she says.

The greatest asset on campus, though, is the faculty.

“One of the unique things about our programs is you do have access to full professors,” Witt says. “We have world-renowned faculty who are teaching in this program, and many other faculty members who are teaching the courses as well. It’s not farmed out to TAs or lecturers. It’s a very heavy investment from our top faculty in terms of time and commitment to the program. And that commitment has been critical to the success of the program.”

If the faculty are the greatest asset, the study-abroad aspect of GSE is its most unique, says Witt.

“It’s very unusual for a graduate program to have a study-abroad component,” she says. In these short-term experiences, students travel with faculty to do field work.

“That’s been a really popular part of the program because we do all of this experience online and then all of a sudden we’re on location somewhere in the world,” Witt says. “Because we’re traveling when we do it, it puts us on equal footing, because we’re all in a new space together. The dynamics of that are really special because suddenly we’ve been friends and colleagues and we’ve worked together, but now we have this intense learning experience together and the faculty themselves find that they learn a great deal when they’re on location working with students. It’s been a great bonding experience for all of us and also an amazing developmental opportunity for us.”

In considering all of the program’s advantages and strengths, Witt sums it up this way: “It’s an embarrassment of riches, really.”

Constantly Changing, Never Dull

Witt has been teaching in the GSE program since 2014. In that time, she’s seen growth and change. The online program had been offering a master’s degree in education; now it offers a certificate, which allows people to try out the program before committing to a master’s, and an Ed.D. as well.

“We’re in our second year in the Ed.D.,” Witt says. The demand for the doctoral program, she adds, came from master’s students who wanted to continue their education. “They want to stick with the faculty they know. They like the expertise that we have here,” she explains.

Program growth has also been spurred by the addition of the International Education Administration & Leadership track, which Witt not only directs but teaches in.

“GSE has been growing by leaps and bounds!” she says. “The interest in it is tremendous. Because as globalization is happening in every sector of society, education is no different.

“You have to be able to understand the global context to work in pretty much any field in education now. Teachers and administrators are hungry for this knowledge, and of course those of us who work in universities in a global context, we need it as well.”

Change is a constant in global studies because of the real-time component, Witt says. “Because we’re bringing in voices from around the world every day, it’s not really possible to get stagnant,” she notes. “I’m never able to use the same materials for a new semester! We have to do all-new everything every semester because it’s such a fast-paced, quickly-changing context. There’s never a dull moment, that’s for sure!”

Working Toward Global Solutions

Most people enter the GSE program to either move up in their field or make a career change—for example, switching from a domestic sphere to an international one. Regardless of why they enter, what they leave with, Witt says, is strong connections with peers and colleagues around the world with whom they can share advice, support, encouragement, and experiences that deepen their understanding of their own situation.

Learners also leave with a greater understanding of the structural challenges that go with the field.

“We deal in a very political environment, because decisions that are made by administration impact our ability to do our work,” Witt says. “To have other people who understand that and also have the skills and training to think through how to work in those contexts really helps you do your work to a much higher level.”

Universities have a responsibility to prepare people for a future that is globally connected, Witt says.

“If we don’t do that we won’t continue to thrive,” she says. “I think all of the challenges ahead involve global solutions, and we need everyone at the table to make these decisions, to come up with the solutions and to think creatively together.

“That’s what this program does. It allows us to not only get together ourselves but to make environments, institutions, and schools where our students are able to work together. That’s what’s really exciting about it.”

Student Mobility an Issue in International Education

Mobility has its advantages—and that’s not always good, at least when it comes to global education, says Allison Witt.

“As students at the university level are able to choose universities around the world to participate in, that advantages some countries over others, because when you have the brightest minds collecting in certain locations, that also means that innovation and the positive results that come from innovation also collect in certain places,” Witt explains. “And that leaves some people out. So we need to think about how to manage and accommodate student mobility.”

Mobility is also an issue at the K-12 level, she adds.

“Our schools function very much as a part of a community, yet our communities are very much in flux,” Witt notes. “People are moving in, they’re moving out, they’re coming in from different cultures with different ideas of what schools might be like, and that’s really challenging if you’re a teacher or an administrator because you want to accommodate all of these cultures yet somehow cultivate a cohesive whole community from these various perspectives and help people adjust to what our version of school is and what our community is like.”

She points out the research that extols the virtues of having a diverse classroom.

“We need to be able to find ways to take advantage of that diversity,” she says. “But that requires a great teacher and a great administrator that can make all those people feel welcome and able to contribute. And that’s challenging, and we need to be able to do that well.”