Universities ‘reinventing the wheel’ on virtual student exchange

Rather than repeating other institutions’ mistakes, universities should embrace established ‘modalities’ for collaborative online international learning – and appreciate it as more than a Covid stopgap

June 12, 2022
Online lecture
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Universities around the world are “reinventing the wheel” as they embrace a stay-at-home model of international education geared to the 98 per cent of students who lack the means to study abroad.

GianMario Besana, associate provost for global engagement and online learning at DePaul University in Chicago, said the global higher education community had pursued virtual exchange – also known as collaborative online international learning or COIL – as an “expedient measure” during the pandemic.

He said universities had overlooked the lessons from institutions that had “perfected the pedagogy” over the past two decades. And, perhaps more seriously, new adopters had regarded virtual exchange as a “second-class study-abroad experience”, oblivious to the implicit benefits of an approach that required academics to leverage their international networks instead of forcing students to stump up cash.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Professor Besana said the “simplicity” of the model was arguably its greatest strength. “There’s no money [or] credits exchanged. I don’t need to sign a piece of paper. The fundamental concept is not complicated. Implementation can be complicated because so many things can go wrong due to time difference and technology. But when it works, it’s fantastic.”

Under COIL, students from universities in two different countries undertake joint research projects in groups. Advocates say the approach delivers many of the benefits of overseas study, teaching graduates to collaborate internationally and to handle differences in culture, language and time zones, in an era when combinations of virtual and in-person are becoming the norm in work and study.

DePaul, which launched its first virtual exchanges in 2013, now has COIL partnerships with institutions in countries including Brazil, Chile, Croatia, France, Ghana, India, Italy, Nigeria and the UK. But it is a relative newcomer, with some universities pioneering the model in the mid-2000s.

“They made mistakes that many institutions are making now,” Professor Besana said. “We have particular modalities with fairly distilled principles that work. We were doing it before the pandemic, and we know that it works. Instead of reinventing the wheel, [universities should] just read up and do it.”

The principles address more than the logistical problems, he said, with successful virtual exchanges taking three distinct phases. They begin with a two-week “empathy building” stage where students became acquainted personally before starting any content-related work. Then come joint classwork and research, followed by “a structured, formalised opportunity to reflect”. Students usually undertake this last stage individually.

While Covid border closures motivated many universities to give virtual exchange a try, Professor Besana said it addressed a problem that predated the pandemic: the limitations of an “elitist” model of international education.

Global higher education enrolments are projected to rise from around a quarter of a billion in 2020 to 377 million in 2030 and almost 600 million by 2040. Market intelligence firm HolonIQ has found that a mere 5 million people studied abroad at the outset of the pandemic, rising to perhaps 8 million by 2030.

Addressing last month’s Worldwide University Network conference in Lausanne, Professor Besana urged members to adopt virtual exchange “as a way to plant seeds” for equity and inclusion. “The promise of increased access will be realised only…if institutions commit to implement virtual exchange at scale,” he stressed. “This cannot be a vanity project.”


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