Virtual exchange: How can it internationalise your university?

Virtual exchange: How can it internationalise your university?

Tomorrow is the day: the largest event in international higher education kicks off on Tuesday 12 September in Seville. The 29th Annual EAIE Conference and Exhibition has arrived, and with it comes a spate of opportunities to network, share ideas and collaborate. On that note, today’s blog is all about a relatively new and continuously evolving form of collaboration: virtual exchange. Read about this innovative trend in education, then mark your calendars to attend the related sessions on Wednesday afternoon. See you soon!

All over the globe, a growing number of higher education institutions are engaging their students in virtual exchange – a rich and multifaceted activity which brings together classes of university students in online intercultural collaboration projects with partner classes from other cultural contexts under the guidance of educators. In contrast to many forms of online learning which are based on the transfer of information through video lectures, virtual exchange is based on student-centred, collaborative approaches to learning, where knowledge and understanding are constructed through learner interaction and negotiation.
 
Although it can take many different forms, virtual exchange generally involves students using online communication tools to collaborate with international partners in tasks related to their subject area which require collaboration and negotiation. These online projects are integrated into their course curricula and students receive credit for the outcomes of their online interactions.

Virtual collaboration in every culture

Virtual exchange goes by many names. In the field of foreign language education, it is commonly referred to as Telecollaboration or eTandem and involves using foreign languages to communicate with partners. In the USA, many universities have been engaging their learners in Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL), thanks to the work of the Suny COIL Center. In the field of business studies, many students have participated in Global Virtual Team (GVT) projects based on themes related to international marketing. X-Culture is a good example of these initiatives.
 
This approach to online learning has been present in university education for more than twenty years now, and research has shown that virtual exchange offers numerous key benefits to both students and teachers:
 
For example, virtual exchange projects have been shown to contribute significantly to learners’ foreign language skills, intercultural awareness and digital skills, which are vital for the modern global workplace. The Agenda for Modernization of Europe’s higher education systems points out that these skills are often lacking in current graduates and virtual exchange gives students the opportunity to develop them in a practical and authentic context.

A stepping stone to physical mobility

Additionally, virtual exchange can also serve as a tool for preparing students for physical mobility abroad and as an alternative for those who may not be able to engage in physical mobility programmes. In the current context, where only 5% of students in the European Union engage in physical mobility programmes, this makes virtual exchange a valuable option.
 
Finally, the report by the High Level Group on the Modernisation of Higher Education on New Modes of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education indicates that in many parts of Europe, higher education is still predominantly lecture-based, with transmission of knowledge being the main pedagogic paradigm. The introduction of virtual exchange within university courses allows for the internationalisation of curricula and an opportunity to innovate teaching methods by introducing student-centred, collaborative teaching projects using online technologies.

Advocating for virtual exchange at every institution

There has been a growing demand among practitioners to establish a framework which would provide greater support for practitioners and researchers in the field of virtual exchange. Stemming from this demand was the launch of UNICollaboration, a cross disciplinary organisation for the promotion and support of telecollaboration and virtual exchange initiatives in higher education. Likewise, the EVALUATE project has been established, a European policy experiment aimed at analysing the impact of virtual exchange in teacher education.
 
If you’re with us in Seville this week and interested in learning more about virtual exchange, there are a few opportunities to do so on Wednesday 13 September. The Language and Culture Expert Community are hosting a session on virtual exchange, Language and Culture presents: Internationalising education through virtual collaboration and exchange (S3.02) from 13:00–15:00. Additionally, Exploring different approaches to virtual exchange and collaborative online learning (S4.16) will take place from 15:30–16:30. We hope to see you there.
 
Robert O’Dowd teaches English as a foreign language at the University of León, Spain.