Will virtual student exchange become the future of study abroad?

As we emerge from the pandemic, we can expect to see a new range of online and blended options, says Mark Stevenson

July 3, 2021
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The virtual student exchange model has already been around for many years. Covid-19, however, has increased the number of universities and students getting involved in such programmes – also known as collaborative online international learning or online study abroad. The question is whether this will be the catalyst for longer-term growth.

Virtual student exchanges are typically short-term programmes that bring together geographically dispersed students in an online learning environment. They tend to be cheaper than studying abroad, and avoid issues such as language barriers and the potential impact on grades and length of study. This makes them particularly attractive to poorer and more risk-averse students who are keen to access the reputational cachet, learning resources and network of connections of an overseas institution on a short-term basis. Meanwhile, a long-term virtual exchange offers students many of the advantages of a wholly online degree.

Virtual exchanges can also help universities better align their global agendas with their increasingly important commitments to sustainability. They are also a mechanism for forging or enhancing partnerships while providing students with a choice of modules beyond those each institution offers domestically.

Furthermore, continuing to embrace the virtual exchange model post-pandemic will enable universities to exploit the advances in online pedagogy developed during Covid-19. Finally, there may be recruitment benefits: an undergraduate who studies with a university online might be more likely to apply there for face-to-face postgraduate study.

Critics of the virtual student exchange, on the other hand, point to its inability to replicate the deeply immersive – and often transformational – nature of traditional study abroad, which takes students outside their comfort zone and embeds them in a different cultural and linguistic context. While the taught content can be reproduced online for many subjects, the out-of-classroom, wider experiences are much harder to replicate.

Do students who study online still develop the rounded, independent outlook and confidence of the traditional study-abroad student? Do they acquire the same graduate attributes that employers are looking for? Advocates would assert that online student exchange models build skills well aligned with the post-pandemic world, such as the ability to work effectively in a remote team setting, with colleagues distributed around the globe. But not everyone will be convinced by that argument.

Moreover, many students will be looking forward to travelling again post-Covid. So it is likely that the traditional study-abroad model will continue to be an important part of what universities offer as we emerge from the pandemic. Yet it is easy to imagine variants that lead to a blended approach, such as pre-travel online events that convey basic knowledge and build cohort identity, with face-to-face time then used in more innovative ways to add the most value.

We are also likely to see increased online choice. With digital content and competences having been developed during the pandemic, some universities that did not previously offer an online exchange programme may well now continue to do so – and this may attract a different type of student from the traditional model. Furthermore, the sophistication of online exchange offerings may develop over time to replicate more closely traditional study abroad experiences.

Another possibility is that online exchanges will become as a pathway to traditional exchange. Students who initially lack the confidence for traditional study abroad may find that a short online exchange motivates them to become more intrepid educational explorers.

A final possible development is a new hybrid, connected model, whereby groups of students within a region or continent come together physically for an exchange experience and connect digitally with students in other parts of the world. This could offer the benefits of a traditional exchange without the full carbon impact of a global programme.

Whichever model (or combination of models) universities adopt, they must not retreat into business-as-usual. Rather than seeing virtual student exchange models as just a short-term sticking plaster to provide continuity during Covid-19, they should build on the digital momentum as part of their combined global and sustainability agendas. And a wider range of choice can only be good news for learners and their institutions.

Mark Stevenson is cross-faculty associate dean for global engagement and professor of operations management at Lancaster University. 

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