UW students often don't apply for study abroad because they don't know how to choose a program, struggle to parse information on the website, and/or feel that it isn't possible to fit into their schedule.
1. Changes to the study abroad website to help students search and compare programs more efficiently and get inspired by other students.
2. A search tool that lets students search for programs based on factors that are important to them and connect with program alumni
When I started college, I wanted to study abroad. But it never happened. I got distracted by other opportunities, I perceived it to be difficult as an engineering student, and I didn't really know where to start.
When I started working for UW-IT, I wanted to help more students study abroad. I interviewed students currently looking for a study abroad program and peer advisors in the Study Abroad Office, and drew from prior research on student barriers to studying abroad.
Students had a range of motivations that factored into their decision; language, wanting to visit a specific region, “a different perspective”, independence, a culturally immersive experience, exploring a specific skill or interest. The study abroad website doesn't address how these motivations can influence your approach to choosing a program.
Cost. Uncertainty about cost, and the perception that study abroad will cost a lot, discouraged many students from going abroad. Cost of programs is difficult to compare; students usually calculate it by hand.
Peer inspiration. Many students chose programs based on recommendations from someone they knew in a similar academic situation
Can't find information on the website. Students struggled to find a program based on their unique situation, and were confused about what programs were actually being offered.
Fitting it into their academic plan. Students are weary of study abroad because they feel it will conflict with their academic plan and/or extend graduation (especially in competitive majors)
Fear of the unknown. Students are discouraged by the multiple levels of uncertainty; will I get get into the program? Will I be able to adjust to another culture? What will happen if I miss extracurriculars?
After they were initially hooked, students usually started by browsing the website. Students I talked to first thought about how they'd fit it into their schedule and where in the world they wanted to go. Logistics like housing and cost usually followed, but could still make or break a program in the students' mind. Many students were open to new locations, at least within the region they were looking for.
I looked for ways I could help reflect on what kind of experience they were looking for and sort through their options in meaningful ways.
Encourage academic planning by letting students test different study abroad programs in MyPlan (UW's schedule building system)
Educate students about how the type of program they chose would affect their experience. Also help students prioritize certain factors in their decision by prompting them to rank their filters
Engage students by using the reasons they had for studying abroad and their goals as search criteria. Attach student stories since students tend to inspire each other to study abroad.
I had lots of ideas for how to improve the process. I decided to focus on two solutions:
1. Make a list of adjustments to improve the effectiveness of the current study abroad website
2. Mock up a new search tool that lets students filter programs by both logistical and experience-related factors that are important to them.
Label programs as "Accepting" or "Not Accepting" applications to help them focus on current programs without wading through old ones
Students were annoyed that their search results contained new and old programs. Add a "Now Accepting Applications" filter in the Search Tool
The site guides students to explore one factor at a time, which makes it hard to personalize their search. I recommend tabs that give students guidance on searching based on different factors, and then directs them right to the advanced Program Search Tool where they can play with their search criteria freely.
Since students are heavily influenced by hearing about peers' experience abroad, incorporate specific links to blog posts associated with different locations, types of programs, and topics.
Show students how to plan around study abroad with the tools they're already using. They'll be more likely to work it into their schedule even with conflicting academic pressure.
These recommendations could help, but I saw an opportunity for a new type of search tool that would support students in searching for programs based on meaningful criteria, and easily compare program in a way that isn't possible on the current site.
Rationale - Get students invested in their exploration process by letting them define what kind of study abroad experience they want
Rationale - Tap to expand categories to make it easier to conceptualize different criteria while still keeping them in one place.
Rationale - List matching filters for each program so students can compare them quickly.
Incorporate student reflections so students because students can be inspired by peer experiences, which is more natural to them anyway.
Rationale - Let students quickly scan a program to gauge initial interest
Rationale - Lots of students base their choices on students in similar academic situations who went abroad in the past
Rationale - Since students make decisions based on peer stories, organize a list of student stories that address common barriers to studying abroad
This is an active project that I'm working on right now. I've presented my findings and ideas to the UX Team at UW-IT. Now, I'm usability testing my ideas with real students.
One difficult part of this project was looking at what I found in my research and deciding what type of solution was in the scope of the project; I initially wanted to move straight into creating a new tool, but then realized that I could improve the process for students a lot with a few simple website recommendations.
I had so much fun learning about the very personal and powerful reasons that draw students to study abroad. Hearing about what the experience meant to each person I interviewed made me consider my own goals and values, and encouraged me to keep seeking out adventure and new perspectives.