Published: March 5, 2023

Image of House & World connected by cables

The significance and relevance of global learning are not always obvious. This is especially true at public universities, where students often have other priorities than things like “seeing the world” or “learning about a new culture” due to time constraints and limited resources. The pandemic that disrupted study abroad and international pedagogical collaboration has further reduced global learning opportunities. Perhaps it is time to ask: What is global learning, and what role can it play in public universities? Can it meet the needs of students from various backgrounds with varying priorities during their college years? How can we make global learning “work for all” and align it with our university's broader visions of creating an inclusive learning environment and tackling “grand challenges” that affect our global and local communities?

Before delving into the meaning of global learning, let’s first consider the standard inventory of global learning activities in colleges and universities. It often includes foreign language courses, area studies programs, cross-cultural communication, study abroad, and international partnerships and collaboration. These activities demonstrate to students the diversity of human perspectives and behaviors, as well as the growing interdependence of the world's economies, cultures, science, and technologies.

However, global learning can mean more than these items. Global awareness can empower students to become supporters and actors in resolving not only global but also pressing local issues in their daily lives. Because of its potential to increase students’ sense of civic responsibility, global learning should be part of every college student’s learning process. Hilary Landorf and her co-authors explain in Making Global Learning Universal: Promoting Inclusion and Success for All Students that the goal of global learning is “experiencing how complex problems transcend many kinds of borders of difference.” Here, “border” refers to differences not only in geographical location and citizenship, but also in race, class, religion, gender, and sexuality, among other things.

Whether or not you agree with this definition of global learning, it presents a possibility to make global learning essential for all college students, regardless of academic interests or career path. The key learning goals associated with global education, such as recognizing the world's interconnectedness, synthesizing different sources of knowledge, and addressing complex issues collaboratively, can be equally effective in understanding and solving problems in a more local and immediate environment. In my History and International Studies courses, I asked students to make connections between the global and local. They paid attention to historical trends in forming the modern world, while considering that both the world and individual societies were shaped by interactions among groups from different origins with diverse perspectives. Students also looked for precedents and models from other cities or countries to address local issues in Denver, including food insecurity, the health-care crisis, and a lack of affordable housing. Together, my students learned to evaluate the relevance of contexts and identify the complexity of human societies with a global awareness and perspective. They were able to recognize the connections between other societies and their own. But more importantly, students learned to examine and question their own preconceived notions and assumptions by being exposed to multiple perspectives and reflecting on their own identities.

The phrase “think globally, act locally” was originally associated with environmental sustainability, encouraging people to take even the smallest actions to protect the well-being of our planet. Being a Faculty Fellow at ThinqStudio, a community of educators committed to inclusive and innovative learning, has inspired me to consider how to apply the concept of “think globally, act locally” to higher education. We may still want to keep the standard menu of “global learning” and make things like study abroad more affordable and accessible. To make it work for all, however, the content and approach must go above and beyond. One of the central goals of global learning may be to “Thinq globally, act locally" —to Thinq outside of our routine conceptual boxes. This way we can help our students to identify the relationships between different groups, recognize the uneven impact of developments, and ultimately develop more equitable solutions to both global and local problems.