SYA News

In the Field: What's In a Photo, and What Isn't

Writing by Head of Schools and Programs Dr. Aric J. Visser

I'm standing on Calle Alfonso I in Zaragoza in the midst of the yearly Pilar Festival. The streets are the kind of crowded that makes you a bit anxious, and the crowds on this evening aren't even on their way to an event. They are just walking around, which is a bit of a national tradition.

The smell of hot cooking oil drifts in from a stand selling all sorts of fried goodies. The basilica shines in the distance. The warm fall air swirls around enough that the locals know that they will soon need that sweater draped over their shoulders before they return home. There is music in the distance, and the sounds of an anti-bullfighting protest flow from Plaza de España around the corner, but nothing is louder than the constant roar of conversation — another national tradition.

SYA moved our school here nearly two decades ago for many reasons, but one of them was the constant exposure to spoken Spanish. Zaragoza is a large but somewhat provincial city. English is still not spoken here at nearly the rate that it is in Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, or even Valencia. It really is a great environment to learn a language.

As I stand immersed in the most Spanish of Spanish scenes you see in the photo, what you can't see from my vantage point is the Taco Bell that opened up last year two blocks ahead. You also can't see the first Starbucks that opened in Zaragoza this year. Then there is the "American store," and the movie theater that runs movies in English. You can't see the Burger King that lets you order a Triple Whopper even though it isn't on the menu (guilty) or the bookstore with the huge English section. You can see lots of kids, but what you can't see is their access to a vast network of private English schools.

Perhaps the most important thing that you can't see in the photo is the cell phone camera that took it — the same one that I am using to write these words; the same one I will use to talk to my family after dinner, and the same one on which I will buy my plane ticket home and read BBC news. It is never more than a few feet from me, and because I am in constant contact with all of our schools, it even sends messages to my watch so I don't have to dig into my pocket every time I get a message or email.

Our students also have these phones, and more than any other development in the last ten years, student access to the internet through a mobile device has fundamentally changed study abroad. In research that we conducted four years ago, we found that students spent an average of 16 hours per week looking at a screen for leisure purposes, most of it on a phone and almost all of it in English.

Usage like this is completely predictable and understandable. Many of our students arrive with usage habits that far exceed the numbers in our study. Even those who are not heavy users feel the pull of the familiarity of their phone. When students are frustrated with the language or nervous about engaging with locals, they can speak to someone they already know. When they are homesick or miss their friends, they can connect through social media. The problem is that you can't be two places at the same time, and for students who spend a great deal of mental time back home they do it at the expense of what is right in front of them.

There is also a measurable effect on language learning. The American University Center of Provence conducted a study that corresponded with the installation of wireless internet in the school. In the year that the school offered unlimited Wi-Fi in common areas as part of the program, student scores on a standardized French language exam dropped by 40%.

So what can a school like SYA do? We can't run away to increasingly smaller cities to escape Starbucks and Triple Whoppers (and let's be honest, an occasional Whopper isn't hurting anyone). And we can't ask locals to stop learning English. To do so would be to take the people of our host cities and treat them like products instead of partners.

We also can't isolate our students from technology. The phone that connects them to Instagram is the same tool that provides teachers and staff a constant link to the entire student body and has made responding to emergencies easier and more reliable than ever before. We also (philosophically) can't ask them to live in a world that doesn't exist.

In the end the only choice we have is to adapt, and to help students learn skills to manage their time abroad in a mission-driven way. Increasingly that means partnering with groups of local students for language exchanges in which all participants speak the other's language. It takes the form of the student body collectively deciding on community norms around language use and committing to support each other when frustration sets in. Increasingly it is shown through commitments to student language pledges that last various lengths of time.

It also means teaching and practicing appropriate use of technology, which may seem like something you wouldn't focus on in a program abroad. Either we choose to guide students through a discussion, or the students will make the decision for us. It also means setting high expectations, sharing the reliable data of the effects of technology use with students, and encouraging them to make smart choices.

Simultaneously, it means students turning in math homework with their phone or logging into our Learning Management System (LMS) to document a fieldwork exercise, or using Slack, an online messaging system, to let their teacher know that their bus is running late. It also means being an independent young adult who can explore the far corners of their adopted land and still be a only a text message away from a helping hand.

In short, studying abroad in today's world demands responsible use of technology. Oh, and those students in Provence? The following year the school gave them a choice to decide if they wanted the Wi-Fi access or not. Those who denied 24/7 access (but still engaged with technology) saw their scores jump right back to normal.

So as I get ready to put this phone back in my pocket, I do so knowing that while we don't pretend to have all the answers, that we are doing our best to meet our students where they are, taking a reasonable approach to technology and encouraging each SYA class to make the decision to learn as much as they can.

The sun is almost completely down now, and all the locals have put on their sweaters. The Basilica still glows in the distance beckoning all of us to join in the national tradition. Time to put away the phone.


Dr. Aric J. Visser assumed the role of head of schools and programs in 2017 after serving for three years as SYA's director of curriculum. Prior to this, Visser served in a number of roles including instructor of the Joven Erasmus program in Zaragoza, college counselor in Rennes, and as an independent researcher looking at the impact of SYA's programs on students abroad. Visser brings vast experience in international education to SYA, as well as a deep commitment and investment in SYA's mission. He has worked with students on five continents and regularly speaks on topics of international education and creativity at education conferences around the world. Visser earned a BA in Spanish, journalism and telecommunications and film from Eastern Michigan University and received his PhD from the University of Zaragoza. His doctoral dissertation, "Study Abroad on Purpose: Promoting student growth in intercultural competence and creativity," focused on a multi-year study of the social and educational impacts of SYA programs abroad.