By Cynthia Belliveau, Ed.D.
Dean of UVM Continuing and Distance Education
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
This passage from L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between is what I’m thinking about as I listen to the young woman, Clara, talking in the next room to her “clients” via Skype. I’m teaching a college course in Oaxaca, and for the past three weeks I’ve been sharing an apartment with her. Clara is the assistant director of this study-abroad program, sponsored by The University of Vermont. She’s an alum of UVM and this program, and she’s been living in Mexico for the past three years, teaching English through an online company to roughly 12 regular customers from all over the world.
I hear her talking to a young professional woman in Romania, discussing this woman’s job and aspirations. They are talking about racism and politics. Yesterday, I heard her talking to an anesthesiologist in Brazil about their corrupt president, as well as an epidemiologist in Turkey who’s learning to argue in English. She has regular conversations with a physicist from Korea, a student in Russia, and a merchant in Taiwan.
Clara is only 26. It’s fascinating to listen to her correct their English and learn about the world. Her education with diverse people has her exclaiming after each call, “Wow, I didn’t know… [fill in the blank, anything, from politics to geography or culture]. From this sunny apartment in southern Mexico, she is also taking a free MOOC through Coursera, an entrepreneurship from the University of Maryland, and if she passes, she’ll receive a certificate of completion, which makes her very happy. I’ve also watched Clara keep her long-distance relationship with her boyfriend going by way of regular, lovey-dovey conversations on FaceTime (and I try not to be in the apartment then). She reads voraciously on her Kindle and watches movies on Netflix.
Clara gets out, too. She interacts with the students in the program and friends she has made by joining them at art shows, dinners, and dancing. She goes to Zumba with her girlfriends every other day. She’s social and connected.
What’s new about this world, however, is that she is very much in control of her schedule and how she chooses to use her time. What’s new is that Clara has a global reach and is learning about the world in a way that’s dynamic, immediate, and on her terms.
As I observe this new world, I admit that I have a bit of dread. I know the magnitude of change that needs to occur for the Claras of the world to access my institution. But the dread soon gives way to optimism because I realize that as a college dean in the fast-paced and flexible world of Continuing and Distance Education, we’ve been preparing for this world for a long time, and finally, our time has come.
Vermont’s Impact in Global Education
We, as a sector within the academy, have often played on the sidelines, beneath the radar, or in a parallel universe. But in this new world, where the Claras exist, if we are to attract them, it will be through the know-how of Continuing and Distance Education.
Higher education as we know it will continue to survive, but I’m not sure it will thrive, given student options and expectations. As I listen to Clara and all the people she’s talking to around the world, it strikes me that the changes we’re seeing are seismic: there are just too many choices out there, and really good ones. The smart, interesting students who want to explore the world on their terms can do so, without being tied to a classroom or a lecture hall with 300 other students.
Though this new world is not quite formed yet, the past is already a foreign country. How students will be educated from high school through graduate school remains to be seen. There’s instability, of course, as options move from their nascent stages to something mature. But as I watch Clara, I have to believe that the path keeps getting clearer. And I really want to be ready.
Cynthia Belliveau, Ed.D., is the Dean of UVM Continuing and Distance Education.
(Main photo: Russ Bowling/Flickr Creative Commons)