Virtual Exchange, COIL & Intercultural Learning

Sep 06, 2022

It’s September, which means “back to school” in my mind. This school year may be welcomed by many as an opportunity to get “back to normal” after many years of engaging COVID-related uncertainty. My hope—and one I know many others share—is that we won’t simply go back to the way things were pre-pandemic. That instead we’ll keep some of the changes we were forced to make yet have found beneficial, that we’ll take some of the lessons learned and apply them moving forward, and that those things we realized were most important to us during hard times will not now drift into the background.

One shift in higher education that I’d like to see stick around is the growth of virtual exchange and Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL). Virtual exchange programs are those that utilize technology to connect people for education and exchange. According to the Stevens Initiative, “Virtual exchanges are fundamentally different from online learning in that they intentionally further collaboration, as well as reciprocity of knowledge and learning.” COIL programs—the most common type of virtual exchange—are essentially partnerships between individual educators who work together to connect two or more academic courses in different places.

To be clear, virtual exchange shouldn’t be seen as a replacement for in-person experiences, but an expansion of opportunities. Virtual programs can not only increase access to global opportunities, but also enhance, augment, and increase participation in in-person exchange. In addition, I believe virtual exchange done well can positively impact local diversity, equity, and inclusion work.

This is a new and quickly-growing field in higher education. According to a Stevens Initiative 2021 Survey of the Virtual Exchange Field Report, 70% of respondents said they’d been offering virtual exchange programs for five years or less, with 25% reporting they’d been doing so for less than a year.

Not only does the nature of these programs differ significantly, the quality likely does as well. So far, there’s very little research on the outcomes of virtual exchange. While there is some data indicating positive outcomes, most of what exists has relied on self-reported survey data. The Stevens Initiative 2021 Survey cited earlier concluded, “Not much is known about the quality of virtual exchange programs. While our surveys have focused on quantifying and mapping virtual exchange programs worldwide, two key questions for the future are: (1) how do we assess the quality of virtual exchange programs? and (2) how can we learn more about the way institutions ensure quality in their delivery of virtual exchange?”

Despite the newness of virtual exchange, I think those involved can learn a lot by looking at the research and literature on in-person exchange. There are many things we already know about global experiences that can help us consider how to design and facilitate high-quality, high-impact virtual exchange. In particular, educators involved in virtual exchange and COIL can benefit from exploring the research on intercultural competence in study abroad (i.e. in-person exchange).

Intercultural competence is the ability to communicate and act appropriately, effectively, and authentically across various kinds of cultural difference, locally and globally. It doesn’t just entail learning about another culture or even engaging more effectively with people from a specific culture, but developing transferrable skills that can be applied in a wide variety of intercultural situations. While the word “competence” may suggest something static, intercultural competence actually involves an ongoing, developmental process. It’s about increasing the complexity with which one experiences cultural differences and similarities.

Developing participants’ intercultural competence is often an assumed outcome of global exchange, whether in-person or virtual. However, over the past several decades, experience and research on in-person exchange programs have shown that:

  • Contact with people from other cultures—even immersion in another culture—is an insufficient condition for developing intercultural competence
  • Coupling that cross-cultural contact with knowledge and information about said cultures or about cultural differences is also insufficient
  • When educators intentionally and skillfully work to facilitate students’ intercultural learning before, during, and after an experience, students are much more likely to develop their intercultural competence
  • Training for educators that helps them develop their own intercultural competence and teaches them how to facilitate intercultural learning can be extremely beneficial to the outcomes of exchange programs with which they are involved

These are all lessons that I think are highly relevant to virtual exchange as well. I encourage educators involved with virtual exchange and COIL to think not just about the logistical and disciplinary aspects of program design, but also about how to intentionally integrate and facilitate intercultural learning.

Eva Haug, Educational Advisor for Internationalisation of the Curriculum and COIL/Virtual Exchange at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences and a member of the EAIE (European Association for International Education) Internationalisation at Home steering committee (and alum of True North Intercultural’s Facilitating Intercultural Learning program!), explains:

“Virtual exchange, in its essence, is about collaborating and exchanging perspectives with cultural others. Without difference, there is no exchange. When we design for VE—because the most impactful VE experiences are embedded into our curriculum and therefore need a pedagogical design—we need to make sure to not only focus on the content or the topic of the exchange, but also on the process of collaboration and communication during this exchange.”

For example, if students are going to be working in groups, you might think about how you can facilitate conversations throughout the process about assumptions, expectations, and plans with regard to how the groups want to work together. Are there cultural differences in how students tend to approach group work, communicate with teammates, or define success?

Below, I’ve culled a short selection of intercultural teaching and learning resources for educators involved with virtual exchange or COIL who would like to learn more. If you’re an educator looking to fast-track your understanding and capacity around intercultural teaching and learning, I encourage you to join the next session of our Facilitating Intercultural Learning professional development program!

In addition, note that our September 28th Intercultural Leadership Forum will focus on this topic. To learn more and register for this free event, click here.

Intercultural Teaching & Learning Resources for Virtual Exchange Leaders

Vande Berg, M., Paige, R. M., & Lou, K. H. (Eds.). (2012). Student learning abroad: What our students are learning, what they're not, and what we can do about it. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

  • This book summarizes much of the research on intercultural learning in study abroad.

Free Training, The Transformative Intercultural Educator Framework: How to Help Your Students Be & Do Better When Crossing Cultures

  • In this free mini-training, you’ll learn a framework for intercultural learning, and walk through a self-assessment to consider your strengths and challenges related to fostering intercultural learning.

Blog Post, The #1 Thing You Can Do to Help Students Navigate Cultural Differences

Blog Post, Developing Intercultural Learning Objectives

Professional Development Program, Facilitating Intercultural Learning

  • Facilitating Intercultural Learning is a 12-week professional development program for higher education faculty and staff that helps you develop: (1) your own intercultural competence, and (2) your ability to design and facilitate intercultural learning, so that you can be a more inclusive educator and integrate intercultural learning into your courses, programming, or other work.


Stevens Initiative 2021 Survey of the Virtual Exchange Field Report

Stevens Initiative 2022 Virtual Exchange Impact and Learning Report


Photo credit: Chris Montgomery, Unsplash

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Enjoying the blog? You’re invited to join me and an amazing group of higher education professionals committed to fostering intercultural learning at the next Intercultural Leadership Forum! You'll have a chance to connect with others doing this work and gain new insights as you move toward your intercultural goals.