Travel and Study Abroad–Digital Edition

This week’s Digital Pedagogy workshop, “Travel and Study Abroad: Digital Edition,” will occur Tuesday, December 1, from 4:30–5:30 pm, with a repeat on Wednesday, December 2, from 11:00 am–noon. The location is the library computer lab (Abell 208).


For our final DP@AC workshop of the semester, we thought it would be appropriate to devote a session to digital pedagogy and the study abroad experience, what with many of our faculty and students preparing for international travel during Jan term and beyond. With so many experienced travelers in our community, there should be plenty of wisdom about what to do (and what not to do) with technology during study abroad. Let’s see if we can share some of that collective knowledge for everyone’s benefit.

International study takes a variety of forms at Austin College, and technology needs may vary accordingly. A three-week Jan term differs from a semester or year abroad, and Global Outreach Fellowships and internships also offer distinct contexts. Many variables affect how you approach the use of digital tools when traveling for study. (And I know that some study trips involve only domestic travel…still, much of what we might say here applies in those situations as well.) The specific locations, the time length of the travel, the nature of the activities, the expectations and requirements of the instructors…these and other factors obviously shape how you might use digital technology.

Right off the bat we should acknowledge a paradox regarding this topic. On the one hand, attention to devices and screens should not draw time attention away from immersion and experiences in new cultures and surroundings. You’re there to learn with and from the people of whatever region you’re visiting, so, as much as possible, be in the moment in a more immediate (and less mediated) way. On the other hand, a study abroad trip is an ideal opportunity to document and construct a rich digital record of what you are learning and to share that learning with others.

Typical study abroad digital pedagogy projects include digital storytelling and blogging. Digital stories are particularly common and may be a requirement not only of the instructor but also possibly of a scholarship, funding source, or program. GO Fellows and Stevens Scholars, for instance, are expected to produce digital stories upon completion of their programs. For dozens of examples of digital stories produced by AC study abroad students in the last several years, check out the “International Experiences” and the “Global Outreach (GO) Fellows” playlists on the Austin College YouTube site. Instructors may also expect students to keep journals with daily or regular entries during the travel time. Blogs are ideal for capturing these reflections and making them available for a wider audience.

In terms of the technology itself, what you need to think about falls into these categories:


The main decision here is whether to use a smartphone or a dedicated digital camera for taking pictures and recording video. The phone is likely to be the device of choice, since everyone probably already has one. But for certain projects there may be a need for high quality images, in which case a camera may be preferable. A camera might have longer battery life, and of course you  would also bring your charger and possibly some extra battery packs. If you are doing interviews and/or want to capture just audio, you might consider a dedicated voice recorder, though there are apps for the phone that might work as well.

Bringing a laptop obviously gives further computing power, but may not be necessary for shorter trips. If you are going to be blogging to document the trip, a laptop is certainly handy. Check ahead to see if there are reliable internet cafes where you are going…that might obviate the need to bring your own computer. Tablets are also a possibility.

Every device carries a risk of being damaged, lost, or stolen, and of course security arrangements can vary widely.


Because electrical systems around the world vary in terms of outlet configuration and voltage, you’ll need to bring a universal adapter plug-in kit and, possibly, an electrical voltage converter. Look at this world standards table, which gives plug, socket, and voltage information by country, and links to diagrams of different plug types (there are 15 around the world). Check ahead and make sure that whatever you buy will work in the places you’re going. Many adapters these days have one or more USB ports built in, which might be helpful.

Most electronic devices these days are designed for a global market and will automatically handle electrical voltages of 110-240 volts (the range around the world) and frequencies of either 50 or 60 Hz. But you should be sure about this by checking the labeling on the device or the owner’s manual. However, you may also be bringing other electrical devices, such as shavers or hair driers, that only work on the 110 volt system here in the US. To use those in many places abroad, you will need a voltage converter, or your appliance will get fried.

A typical power problem is that a phone will not make it through the day on a full charge. In these situations, it may be worth having a small portable battery charger on hand to keep you juiced up. A good choice would be this model by Anker. Charge it ahead of time, and then take it with you to recharge your phone as many as four or five times. It is one more thing to carry around, but could be a lifesaver when you have to use your phone and the battery is running out.


You will need adequate storage for the anticipated number of photos/videos and other data, either internally or with memory cards. Phones have a certain amount of internal storage (16 GB, 32 GB, etc.), and may or may not have a slot for a memory card. Cameras also take memory cards to store their images. Look at your device to be sure what kind of card it takes…standard SD, mini-SD, and micro-SD are the typical sizes. Each kind of card also has a specific speed class and storage capacity. Consult your owner’s manual (look it up online if you don’t have the hard copy) and check out articles such as this to help you determine what you might need. Storage is relatively cheap, so you might as well get more rather than less.

Typically you will offload you files on a regular basis from the phone or camera onto a laptop hard drive and/or into a web-based storage service such as Google Drive or Dropbox, or a social media repository (Flickr, Instagram, YouTube, etc.). Be sure you have the right cable to transfer to a laptop. For uploading to the cloud, the main issue will be internet connectivity, about which see below.


Just like at home, having a reliable connection to the internet is often the sticking point in an otherwise smooth digital experience. Connections will come either via Wifi (for laptops and mobile devices) or cellular networks (for phones and some tablets). In general, you should not count on solid internet connectivity ahead of time, unless you are absolutely sure. Wifi availability, reliability, security, and costs vary widely. You’ll have to do your research ahead of time and on the fly to determine whether and how wifi will be available where you are traveling. Many places of lodging will provide access, as will public spaces such as trains and shops, but find out about costs and security beforehand.

Using your phone with cellular networks abroad is even more complicated. This article by Holly Oberle, “Cell Phones and SIM Cards for Living Abroad–Update,” is the single best resource I have located to cover the range of variables to be considered here. The major US carriers do offer international plans, but at a steep cost. In lieu of that option, the first question to ask is whether your current phone will work when traveling abroad. In general, the answer is “yes” if 1) you are not in a contract; 2) your phone is GSM compatible; and 3) your phone is unlocked. If that’s the case, then all you’ll need to do is to buy a SIM card for wherever you are going. Oberle suggests purchasing the card before leaving the US, so that you can use your phone as soon as you arrive at your destination. Then you can always buy a new SIM with better rates later.

If your phone does not meet these criteria, and you still want cellular internet access, then you’ll need to acquire an unlocked, out-of-contract, GSM-compatible phone, either here or in the host country. Then you’ll need a SIM card to go with it. If you are traveling to more than one country, you may need to buy multiple SIM cards. The other option for using your phone for communication, apart from cellular networks, is through using applications like Skype and Viber when you have a good wifi connection.


Mobile apps for travel and study abroad may include many that you are currently using. One of the major considerations with apps is whether you will need a network connection (see above) in order to use them. Mapping and geolocation apps are obviously very useful when traveling, and, fortunately, are increasingly being designed to function well even without network connection. For example, Google Maps, probably your best overall choice, has just introduced “Offline Maps,” with enhanced capabilities for offline use of directions, turn-by-turn voice navigation, and search for information about local places of interest (galleries, museums, restaurants, etc.). You’ll need to download the maps ahead of time, when you do have network access. There are limits to the size of the offline map you can download, but you can download multiple maps. So if you wanted, say, an entire country, you could save multiple maps of its different areas. Offline Maps is currently available for Android, with the iOS version promised by the end of the year. You can also find other apps in this category, such as CityMaps2GoPocket Earth Pro, and Maps.Me.

Travelers to non-English speaking regions should consider downloading a good dictionary of the host language. Again, I recommend storing on your phone rather than relying on the chance of an internet connection. Most good dictionaries and language resources cost a few bucks, but unless you are absolutely fluent in the host language, it’s probably well worth it. Check with your instructors or other folks in the know and read reviews to find out what apps would be best for you.

Many museums, galleries, and other places of cultural interest, as well as cities and locales, have their own official or unofficial apps to provide visitors with an enhanced experience. Just search the app store and look online for reviews. You can probably find guided audio tours of many major sites; but plan ahead, and download the audio files to your device when you have internet access. That way you can listen to them at the site without a connection. Be sure to bring earbuds along.

Messaging and voice-over-internet apps are obviously useful, as long as you have a network connection. There’s Skype, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Viber, and a host of other possibilities. In addition to the map apps listed above, other transportation related apps specific to a region or carrier (e.g., DB Navigator for Deutschbahn) might be worth installing.

These are just a few things to keep in mind among the many details of planning for travel and study abroad. Again, I’m sure our travel veterans can augment this advice, so please contribute your ideas, either here in the comments, on the Facebook group page, or, of course, at our two sessions this week.

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