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DIY Study Abroad: 10 Ways to Educate Yourself While Traveling

by Craig Martin Feb 17, 2009
1. View any trip as a research trip.

You don’t need a grant to go on a research trip. Approaching your next destination with an academic goal will help keep your mind sharp and active throughout the journey and bring purpose to your decision making.

Recording people’s stories, researching and then hunting out architectural styles, or photographing and geotagging a suburb’s graffiti can be educationally rewarding and enjoyable.

2. Visit libraries, galleries, religious centres, and museums.

At some point, normally quite early in our travel careers, we spend hours trailing from art gallery to museum, pretending we know what we’re talking about. At our third cathedral, we mutter something about Gothic arches and Romanticism.

As time goes on, we become increasingly jaded and start avoiding anything that might once have been considered for inclusion in a guidebook.

Move beyond the banal by choosing an area of knowledge and focusing on it. Keep a notebook or file on your topic and start gathering background information and reading about it. Eventually, you’ll find questions that interest you and be able to do first-hand research to develop your knowledge and your own thesis.

3. Conduct online research.

It can be difficult to locate and sift through specialist information online. Tools such as Project Gutenberg opens up the world of public domain research.

If you’re working from Internet cafes, write key points, arguments and quotes into your notebook for constant access. Clip and sort useful source material using an online notebook and consider printing relevant information to digest and annotate on your next flight or train trip.

4. Talk with locals.

Be intentional: Why are you going to talk to locals? Recording everyday stories, discovering quiet cafes, or gleaning first-hand historical accounts are all good reasons to interview the people you meet.

If you intend to publish your findings in any way, consider creating a simple release form which states that the person knows they are being interviewed, allows publication and will not seek any future compensation for their involvement in the project. This isn’t currently necessary in most countries, but you never know how law is going to evolve.

5. Tune into a podcast.

Now that educational institutions are competing in the new media market, literally thousands of lectures from illustrious universities are available for free download.

The best directory of these is iTunes U, a category within the iTunes store (free download for Mac and PC).

Podcasts are often available from university websites, too, although it may take some digging to find and download them.

Two of my favourite general knowledge podcasts are BBC Radio Four’s In Our Time with Melvin Bragg and Stephen Fry’s Podgrams. These are highly anticipated downloads and never fail to provide insight and interest.

6. Arrange some meet-ups.

Meet-ups are a fun and casual way to explore areas of mutual interest with complete strangers who may soon become friends. Think of it as an intentional group.

Meet-ups are easy to find and to start. One website facilitating these local movements is Meetup. Choose your location and area of interest to get started. If meetings are happening in your area, you can see the attendees, time, and place and, if you wish, register to announce your own participation.

7. Volunteer.

You may think that volunteering, also referred to as voluntourism, is more about doing than learning.

Within hours of work, however, there are many lessons to be collected that support or detract from your working thesis.

Volunteering can also be a practical way to spend your university holidays, especially if budding indies can make their way onto an archaeological dig team in China or future Jane Goodalls spend time in environmental care teams around the world.

There are many practical skills to be learned, too: from avoiding uncomfortable situations with a colleague to plumbing a house. There are many voluntary opportunities to investigate through Matador Change.

8. Take a language course.

Many travellers dream of learning or perfecting a foreign language, and there is a large and competent industry available to help us. Immersion language courses, textbooks, CD’s, podcasts and specialised software exist, as do private tutors and informal meet-ups.

As a language education professional, I must report my preference for immersion study guided by a qualified teacher as a highly successful learning model.

9. Do distance study.

All our efforts are fruitful and meaningful for us but they might not hold that much water with a future professor or employer. Perhaps you don’t feel you’re getting enough out of your research or you’d prefer a more guided approach.

You may be able to formalise your study by working towards a diploma or degree with a local college’s distance learning programme. By completing quizzes online and filing your essays by e-mail or a proprietary submission programme, you’ll be able to earn points as you travel.

10. Enroll in the Open University.

Highly recognised English-language distance courses are run by the Open University. With well-ranked research facilities, this is a premier choice for formal correspondence study.

For undergraduate students, the Open University provides qualifications which can often be cross-credited into many traditional courses. If you already have a degree, the Open University offers teaching and coursework-based post-graduate courses which might, with appropriate sponsorship, be a fruitful path for the traveling scholar.

Whichever path you choose to follow, from reading about art history before entering the Louvre to digging for dinosaur bones in the Chinese countryside, we wish you all the best with your DIY attempts to keep studying while traveling.


For more on self-directed learning on the road, check out How To Take a Foreign History Crash Course in 5 Easy Steps, 5 Reasons Dating Abroad is the Best Way to Learn a Language, or 5 Tips for Better Sessions with a Language Exchange Partner.

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