The summer before my senior year in college, I traveled to Moscow for a Russian language program. It was 1990, so no email, no smartphones; I spoke only basic Russian. Terribly homesick, I stood for two hours one afternoon in a long line outside a government public office, waiting for my turn to use a pay phone to call home. Once I made it inside, it took several tries to punch a call through—and after only three minutes of conversation with my family, I got disconnected. I frantically dialed again. This time, I got through just long enough to blurt out, “I don’t know how long I have, so—” ... click. Tears. Seeing my distress, an older Russian woman nearby patted my arm to comfort me.
Today that sense of disconnection may be as much of a historical relic as that pay phone. Just recently, I traveled to Singapore, where I was able to purchase a sim chip for my smartphone for just S$20; it offered a data plan and calls to the U.S. at local rates. During a stay in Bali, Indonesia, I was never far from free wi-fi. I sent my family emails, I posted photos on Facebook. If not for the 13-hour time difference, I would have thought my family and I were in the same city.
That ability to stay connected, regardless of distance, is driving big changes in education. I recently read about “telecollaboration,” which connects students from different countries to each other via Skype or Google Hangouts so they can teach each other their native languages. Then, there’s Duolingo, a mobile app that offers free courses in five languages, with a course in Russian soon to come. How much better could my Russian have been if I’d had access to such resources?
In this issue, we take a look at technology’s swift transformation of higher education. “The Blended Campus” examines how today’s robust web-based technologies support richer online interactions and different learning models. In “Two Modes, One Experience,” the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst shares its strategy to integrate its online and on-campus students in a single program. Educators are discovering how strategic choices in course design and technology can bring people together and support new ways to learn.
I never tried to call home again during my stay in Moscow. By just a week later, my homesickness had eased, and I ended up having a great time. But I wonder what my trip would have been like today, with social media, Skype, and smartphones erasing some of the distance and easing my transition into a different culture? Today, technology keeps us all in close contact—with home, with campus, with each other. And it promises to take us all to places we’ve never been before.