This topic has been on my mind for some time. I’m grateful for a recent conversation with Mark Shay of Abroad101.com, as it reminded me to hit the pause button and write about the power of transparency. Bear with me, this post may be a bit longer than most…but I think the topic is well worth the time.
From where I sit in this field and world, I am seeing a lack of transparency in education abroad as it relates to information about safety. I believe some of this, at least, has to do with fear.
Let me back up and first frame higher education abroad today in the US. We know that education abroad has grown exponentially over the years. With the advent of social media, information on every subject possible seems to be available at our fingertips, including the ins and outs of education abroad. This has resulted in more sharing of news of the untimely death of students (and at times, faculty) while overseas on educational programs. However, there is no governing body (to date) to regulate and report on safety in education abroad programs in a completely transparent way. While the Forum on Education Abroad maintains a Critical Incident Database (CID), only member institutions may use the tool to track incidents at no extra charge. The Forum anticipates issuing a general report of their data in 2015, but it will not drill down by program. The Forum also maintains a detailed set of safety standards and NAFSA also offers guidelines around this subject. The Clear Cause Foundation is the newest addition to the dialogue around safety. Formed by the mother of Tyler Hill, a teen that died while on a program in Japan, Clear Clause Foundation’s holds an ideal vision – that every youth and student going abroad on programs has safe, rewarding experiences in an industry held to the highest standards with zero preventable deaths and injuries. While the Clery Act is in place, I understand that most schools do not link directly to the annual report on incidents on campus/overseas programs from their education abroad web pages (although this is a nice example of one that does.)
With that said, let’s consider the following:
Open Communication + Action = Trust
When we openly communicate with transparency and act in a manner that reflects our ethics and values, we establish trust. However, when it comes to the issue of safety abroad, unconditional trust does not always exist between of our “customers” (students, parents) and “providers” (universities, 3rd party providers, etc.).
What contributes to this?
In our US culture, we are taught to avoid sharing any information that can potentially lead to a lawsuit. We fear being wrong or perceived as such – and then we are afraid of the possibility of being sued for it. Higher education in the US values reputation. Essentially, we value customers, until they sue us.
2) Slow to Change
Despite the tech world moving to an open source model years ago, higher education is still very traditional in many ways. There are study abroad offices out there that still use paper evaluations and even some that believe that putting them in resource room for public consumption is facilitating an environment of “transparency.” In these cases, if you are a parent or young person seeking information about the experiences of past participants abroad, you will likely not drag yourself to a physical office to find such data. No offense to those who have good intentions around providing paper evaluations, but this is not easy access or transparent for parents who live out of state or students who are working two jobs just to be able to eat while in college (and therefore can’t easily get to our offices). Our reluctance to change to processes that facilitate more transparency is slower than other industries, despite several companies offering free evaluation tools (e.g. “open source”) such as www.abroad101.com, www.gooverseas.com and www.goabroad.com). Each provides 24/7 access to student feedback on programs abroad. While I’m not an expert in the fine art of evaluations, I can say that Abroad101.com appears to have the most extensive and standardized review questions.
The irony, for me, is that education in this country is so incredibly data driven, yet some universities are not standardizing evaluations (or in many cases, even tracking feedback) of educational programs abroad. Our senior international officers at colleges/universities are endlessly requesting metrics required for countless reports to show progress and to identify patterns. We have tools available to us to make reporting on programs abroad more efficient and metrics driven, yet our education abroad offices are so understaffed that they can barely keep their heads above water. I have heard many a study abroad adviser say that they cannot take time off or must limit it in the fall because of the work load.
Keep in mind that if you ask nearly anyone who works in education abroad about their prioritization in education abroad (especially if talking with a parent), they will quickly tell you that “safety is their first priority.” Except it isn’t in most cases because most faculty leading programs abroad have not been trained in basic first aid, emergency planning or cultural differences that can conflict with access to US expectations of health care. Many won’t get permission to carry a satellite phone over a cell phone simply because of the cost. Many won’t be funded for conferences on these subjects because they are not flowing in cash and are often too busy to consider leaving the office during peak seasons. Their colleges are too poor or run too poorly to consider adding more staff to their teams.
I also find it ironic that we teach ethics courses in our classrooms, yet we can resist ethical access to information when it comes to sharing the realities of what can happen abroad. People get mugged. They are raped. They do die because of accidents (preventable and otherwise). Yet I’ve heard colleagues defend any suggestion that more could have been done to prevent accidents and deaths by retorting ‘how people don’t realize how many students do return home safely’ (as if that is some sort of consolation to a grieving parent who has no knowledge or understanding of access to data about past students on the program and who is rightfully concerned about the lack of transparency). We are trained to hand unfortunate safety issues abroad over to the legal folks, feel dreadful about one of ‘ours’ suffering and we are forced to march on. Does that feel good? Is this truly ethical?
5) Lack of clarity in responsibility
What keeps your university’s risk manager(s) up at night? One of the many issues is the lack of clarity over who is responsible for the countless students who travel (and then seek academic credit) during the summer, often bypassing an approved education abroad list. We learn about them after the fact in many cases – and when something goes wrong, we ponder who is ultimately responsible. With many hands in the education abroad process pot (from the education abroad office, to academic advisers, to financial aid, etc.), it becomes a matter of hearsay and this can have your risk manager pacing the floors at night, adding to the culture of fear.
What can we do about this?
Short of sending your organizations’ legal departments to Outward Bound style trust building retreats or re-writing the course of US history to decrease our love affair with all things legal, we have to consider how else to change this pattern of distrust that has grown alongside the volume of education abroad programs.
Here are some thoughts:
1) Consider the worst case scenario
What is the worst thing that would happen if you published your data on safety in your education abroad programs in a very intentional, high trafficked place? Perhaps someone will read it? Perhaps someone will gasp audibly to learn that five ipads were stolen when someone broke into student housing, or that someone was raped walking home from the subway? And perhaps these same people reading this will realize that if they called their local police department or review the domestic campus portion of a Clery Act report, stats will tell the same or a worse story here at home. (This time, the story may also include guns, which are prevalent in our US culture.)
2) Participate in and encourage open and transparent evaluations
We rate teachers. We rate hotels. We rate restaurants. We rate movies. We like to rate things. And our field already rates how professors, our textbooks, our teaching styles and more, so why not actively use data that rates study abroad safety?
The beauty of doing so is that students can then use these open source tools when factoring in program application decisions. They can attend a campus information session on education abroad and then read more about academics and safety online. For free. Really. Why wouldn’t we want to encourage that?
I asked Mark Shay from Abroad101 for his perspective. Mark replied, “When reviews and published, evaluations become part of the complete cycle of education abroad. We see students guiding students, a kind of peer advising. Reviews help students set their expectations and help parents better understand the environment in which the student is headed. Firsthand accounts of adventures in foreign health care systems or encounters with public safety help all become aware of the realities of heading abroad. When it comes to health and safety, students have a unique way of putting it all in perspective, which we hope will translate into wiser behavior from the next cycle of students.”
3) Be the change
The reality is that educators are being asked for more and more data. Why not just prepare it and put it out there with some information to frame it? Your constituents will actually admire you for doing so. You may save your legal department a bunch of drama by having the data ready and available, suggesting there was nothing to hide in the first place. And in the case of a crisis abroad, I’d imagine that there would be more room for open hearted dialogue because an iota of trust would have already been established. Wouldn’t that be nice for a change?
Another option is to carefully review data from online resources mentioned earlier. You can use examples of comments on safety in your pre-departure orientations as well as cite local home data on similar safety topics to facilitate dialogue around safety and awareness of your surroundings. Ideally, you can also have past reviewers from your own campus share their real experiences abroad so that students are hearing it directly from a ‘reliable’ source, as they often take the wisdom of their peers over the decades of experiences of ‘administrators.’
Safety is on a lot of education abroad departments’ agendas, yet when we are required to actually report to others about safety, we are forced to take it more seriously. As a field, we are weak in this area. How many of us can honestly say that we’ve role played an education abroad crisis with our Emergency Team across campus(es)? Few have the right to say that because as much as we may send colleagues to conferences and trainings, we aren’t pulling our weigh in something as basic as ensuring we have steps in place that make sense during a real crisis. We have an opportunity to be the change we want to see in this area. We know is professional to behave with transparency, ethically right and just, yet we have not mandated it as a field and embraced it with open arms.
What are your thoughts?
I’m curious to hear your thoughts about transparency in education abroad. What prevents you from being more transparent? What unique examples of transparency have you seen? Do you use open source evaluations and how has that changed your ability to serve students?
Note: In the spirit of full disclosure, I am also guest blogger for abroad101.com
About the Author: Missy Gluckmann is the founder of Melibee Global. You can learn more about her here.