For committed international educators, there is a need to clarify the purpose of virtual exchange before the trend takes hold, says Benjamin Tak Yuen Chan
The great pause to student mobility caused by the Covid-19 crisis has brought about a renewed interest in virtual exchange (VE) across higher education systems around the world. Many international offices in universities have been quick to market it as a replacement for study abroad (semester exchange) and other overseas experiential learning schemes requiring travel.
Given the remedial undertone, most courses offered under the VE label nowadays can be found to attract credits for transfer to increase their appeal to students. This arrangement is generally facilitated by transnational university alliances that promote intra-institutional recognition of VE course offerings.
The creation of a new ecology for international learning courses through virtual mobility should be welcomed, but at the same time, it runs the risk of overshadowing the educational goals that VE is supposed to advance. For committed international educators, there is a need to clarify purpose now before the trend takes hold.
We should start with this basic question: how can the nature and objectives of VE courses be defined?
It’s useful to take note of the working definition used by the Evolve project, which categorises VE as an educational method based on technology and collaborative learning by learners located in different geographical regions. Although VE is practised across a wide range of subjects, its goals are common and rather unambiguous in fostering intercultural awareness and building global citizenship competencies irrespective of the discipline of study.
The distinction between internationalising the classroom and simply taking an overseas course online makes for an obvious difference to what can be considered as true VE. When courses with an international dimension (participant or content) were shifted online because of the pandemic, those designed with an underlying objective to associate learning with cross-cultural thinking about the subject matter would rightly fall within the above definition for VE, but that’s not necessarily the case for every other course carrying the VE label.
Moving from definition to practice, a lot can be reflected upon based on how VE has been practised in the past. While institutionalised forms of provision such as those structured into course syllabuses in universities (for example, COIL SUNY) and in extracurricular learning programmes of non-profit providers (such as the Virtual Exchange Coalition) have gained the upper ground, these off-the-shelf initiatives might not be as effective and impactful as faculty-developed projects.
Paradoxically, the bottom-up approach also has its pitfalls, as only a few enthusiasts or even solo staff are willing to experiment in each institution, and their efforts can easily turn into a boutique showcasing of successful one-off cases.
In my school, we have tagged on VE initiatives to external partner engagement. Mapping is undertaken to identify subject areas where the two sides’ staff interests and strengths could merge to create conditions for collaboration in delivering VE as part of the memorandum of understanding (MoU) undertakings. This helps to encourage more than one project to be launched and for the experience to be shared later with teams working closely with one another.
Another common assumption that requires debunking is that VE must be structured into course learning to gain credence and acceptance. While it’s true that this could help with marketing the product to learners who would be looking for credit transferability, it might not necessarily be the best way to achieve a deeper level of learning to achieve intercultural competence.
Key to a successful pedagogy using VE is to espouse active learning, which can take place in a course, or any other forms of structured learning of a sustained duration. In so far as the arrangements would allow the learners to take control, with teachers playing a moderator’s role, the desired outcome of raising intercultural awareness could stream out naturally as a by-product of the interaction and collaboration in group activities.
In our school, we have in place a co-curricular learning initiative to promote inclusiveness, intercultural awareness and internationalisation-in-place. One of the successful co-curricular learning projects involved learners scattered in different geographical locations working together to make a 13-episode radio programme for a public broadcaster that met the traditional criteria of VE for learner-led, sustained and structured learning.
Finally, for institutions and practitioners wishing to take their VE to the next level, brushing up on learning design expertise and creating staff capacities are crucial. It would also benefit everyone involved with VE if common standards to inform programme design and manage the administrative process could be formulated as guidance for best practice. As an evolving educational method with interdisciplinary applications, research on VE practice is growing, and it is advisable to make reference to this evidence base where applicable.
Benjamin Tak Yuen Chan is dean of the Li Ka Shing School of Professional and Continuing Education at the Open University of Hong Kong. He is also honorary associate professor in education at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Professional and Continuing Education.