Internationalization efforts and assessment of outcomes are key issues in higher education institutions across the globe. One dominant activity as regards internationalization of higher education is academic credit mobility programs, such as the Erasmus program, which are considered to facilitate intercultural competency, employability and personal development, among other things. Little is known, however, about the conditions under which learning takes place and the learning processes involved from participating in a mobility program such as the Erasmus program.
This study focuses on the process(es) of learning and ‘personal development’ associated with a mobility period abroad via the Erasmus program. It offers an in depth study of students who studied abroad via the Erasmus program at Stockholm University, one of the largest universities in Scandinavia, with a focus on students’ experiences of learning. The aim of the study is to understand how, and under what circumstances, students learn in informal and non-formal settings whilst abroad on a mobility program, and to establish how this learning contributes to ‘personal development’. This study will contribute to knowledge about the long-term value of an international exchange from a learning perspective. Moreover, it will hopefully support a more proactive approach to internationalization in higher education and the design of international mobility programs.
In seeking to fulfill this, the following research questions have been formulated and addressed:
1) How do exchange students describe their experience abroad in retrospect from a personal viewpoint? What experiences are accounted for?
2) What do students learn from the experiences of studying abroad?
3) What experiences of learning contribute to ‘personal development’ and to what extent and in what way does studying in a foreign country contribute to “personal development”?
The present study is inspired by the biographical perspective, which places learning in the life context and focuses on what learning means in the lives of adults in the construction of biographies. From this perspective, individuals construct their experience, understanding and identity in the stories they tell about their lives (Alheit in Illeris, Ed., 2009, 116). The story is assumed to be socially shaped and contextually bound, meaning that the context the individual is in and the societal ‘reality’ is believed to be represented in the biography of the individual. Adopting the perspective that our experiences add to our narrative as learners, we can see how this relates to the concept of ‘self’ development and ‘identity’. Jarvis maintains that the stream of experiences that add to current meanings contribute to a structuring of the world in people’s narratives, and to a development of self, life-world and biography. “People are therefore the result of their own learning” (Jarvis, 2009, 3). Learning is thus understood as a process of meaning making from experiences and as something that develops as both individual and social processes are in interaction (Jarvis, 2006, 2009, Illeris, 2015). In order to understand and analyze student experiences of adjustments, coping, learning and processes of reflection, Jarvis’s model of learning from ‘disjuncture’ (2006, 2009), and some elements of transformative learning theory (Mezirow and Cranton) will be applied in the present study. I will link these processes of learning to Illeris’ assertion that there are always two basic processes involved in learning, “namely an external interaction process between the learner and his or her social, cultural or material environment, and an internal psychological process of acquisition and elaboration” (Illeris, 2003, 396). Concepts central to learning theory including the ‘learner’ (the person who learns), learning as meaning making, experience, the transformation of experience, ‘personal development’ and identity and will be accounted for.
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