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The benefits of virtual exchange programs and collaborative online international learning

Algoma University’s innovation mobility project used virtual exchange as a way to improve accessibility and participation among underrepresented student groups.


Last year, Canadian higher education institutions welcomed the Outbound Student Mobility Pilot Program, funded by the federal government. More funding is expected over the next four years for the institutions whose Global Skills Opportunity proposals are accepted. This funding has been a long time coming and is in response to the advocacy of international education professionals from Canadian higher education institutions. We hope that funding will continue beyond the allotted four years and be inclusive of innovative virtual exchange (VE) learning opportunities for our students. The students involved will be gaining not only indispensable global learning experiences and intercultural communication skills, but also helping breakdown prejudices and preconceived notions of different cultural groups, countries and societies to become global citizens abroad and at home.

Over the past six years, the promotion of VE activities has increased and gained more attention around the world. However, due to COVID-19, postsecondary education institutions have increased their activity around VE. One example of this is Algoma University’s COIL-VE project, which the university did in conjunction with its global partner universities in South Korea and Spain. Algoma found that this initiative not only filled this gap but also enhanced international partnerships, institutional collaboration and intercultural communication skills for faculty, staff and students.




COIL stands for collaborative online international learning and is a more comprehensive form of VE. According to SUNY (State University of New York) COIL Center, COIL is a new teaching and learning paradigm that promotes the development of intercultural competence across shared multicultural learning environments. Using technology, COIL fosters meaningful exchanges between university faculty and students with peers in geographically distant locations and from different lingua-cultural backgrounds. COIL courses are team taught by educators who remotely collaborate to develop a shared syllabus emphasizing experiential and collaborative student-centred learning.


Internationalization at home

Internationalization at home (IaH) is the purposeful integration of international and intercultural dimensions into the formal and informal curriculum for all students within domestic learning environments (Beleen & Jones, 2015). Internationalization at home can also serve as a means to promote common values and closer understandings between different peoples and cultures, enhance cooperation between postsecondary institutions in their internationalization efforts, while also improving the educational quality of the sector and human resources through mutual learning, comparison and exchange of good practice (Almeida & Morosini, 2019).


Virtual exchange (VE)

Virtual exchange (VE) is an educational practice that involves the engagement of groups of learners in extended periods of online intercultural interaction and collaboration with international peers as an integrated part of their educational programs and under the guidance of educators and/or facilitators (O’Dowd, 2021).

COIL-VE provides accessibility to those students, especially underrepresented student groups, who may not be able to travel to another country for quality international learning opportunities. There are many factors impacting a low Canadian student participation rate such as not having financial resources to travel, work/home obligations and other socio-economic factors. Although VE programs can never replace an in-person experience of traditional exchange and study abroad programs,  if offered in tandem with physical mobility programs, COIL-VE has proven to be valuable and, going forward, an integral part of internationalization at home strategies.

If designed effectively, COIL-VE provides engaging, mutually beneficial and equitable opportunities for all participants and enhances internationalization at home and diversity abroad initiatives for Canadian postsecondary  institutions.

Algoma COIL-VE project

The objective of Algoma’s innovation mobility project was to develop COIL-based courses that improve accessibility and participation, especially among underrepresented student groups, resulting in a transformative and inclusive VE experience during the pandemic. Six COIL courses were developed and over 150 students participated, which resulted in a 600 per cent increase in Algoma’s student VE experience participation rate. Over this same period, Indigenous students’ participation rate increased by 350 per cent in comparison to last year’s traditional mobility programs.

Two separate surveys were conducted, the first before the students started and the second after they completed their COIL courses. According to the results, students expressed that COIL provided interesting experiences and perspectives, cross-cultural learning, appreciation of different languages and people, exposure to a different culture and global skills development by working with a diverse team. During the pandemic, administrators may have wondered whether young people would even be interested in meeting virtually with their international peers when they have already been engaged in remote learning during this academic year. We conducted a survey exploring this question and found that students, during the COIL project, were actually highly motivated to connect and work synchronously through social media platforms with their international peers.

In terms of faculty engagement and feedback, all six faculty members felt that their COIL pilot was very successful in promoting, integrating and enhancing international education despite the number of challenges they faced across the curricula.

Canadian higher education leaders should understand that running a successful VE requires careful planning, resource dedication, capacity building and thoughtful partnerships, none of which can be achieved overnight. The success of COIL depends on three key pillars – active partnerships, flexible institutional policies and innovative pedagogies. This means that COIL requires commitment and collaboration from all key stakeholders in postsecondary education. Building trust among partners, by incorporating all perspectives, from the earliest stages of planning may not seem possible when under time constraints, but the efforts often prove indispensable.

Eunjung Riauka is the coordinator of global engagement and mobility as well as internationalization lead in the department of experiential learning and international affairs at Algoma University.
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