Why virtual exchange is more important than ever

“Virtual exchange, when done correctly, can be an extremely enriching, engaging and rewarding experience”

Suddenly we find ourselves at a crossroads in higher education, writes Matthew Hightower, CEO and founder of Class2Class. Many educators worldwide don’t know which way to turn. We cannot exactly go back in the direction from which we came, but taking the path less traveled into the unknown can be equally as daunting.

As educators we have to ask ourselves: Isn’t one of our primary goals to foster the development of 21st century skill sets within our students? If our answer to that question is an emphatic “yes”, then shouldn’t we be encouraging open-mindedness and risk-taking from ourselves as well as from our students as we reimagine what higher education could and should look like?

Virtual exchange, also known as collaborative online international learning (COIL), has been growing in popularity over the last decade and thanks to human ingenuity and ever-expanding technical capabilities. Given our current global challenges, however, education abroad is being reimagined due to physical mobility and international travel restrictions.

VE, when done correctly, can be an extremely enriching, engaging and rewarding experience that opens students’ minds to other cultures and allows them to see things from different perspectives.

Virtual exchange is, for many instructors, uncharted territory. But VE is territory that can be explored by all institutions of higher learning, especially given its increase in accessibility in recent years.

The importance of virtual exchange

Why is virtual exchange so important, especially given our current global climate? VE takes instruction out of the confines of a single classroom with a single instructor and opens the door to a world of possibilities. It makes learning relevant to students as they collaborate and problem solve real-world scenarios and situations with students from different cultures across the globe, often requiring the use of a target language of study.

Virtual exchange connects isolated classrooms to a network of global learners who are ready to collaborate and, more importantly, it increases students’ intercultural competence as they learn to see the world through different cultural filters.

Our goal at Class2Class is to create future-ready global citizens by helping higher education institutions across the world develop, maintain and enhance collaborative activities with other institutions, governments and companies.

Virtual collaboration

Through our platform, ImmerseU, teachers and administrators connect with other universities and organisations to create virtual project-based courses. One of the many collaborations that are currently taking place through ImmerseU is The iKudu project, an EU-funded Capacity Building in Higher Education project that will be implemented over a three-year period from November 2019 to November 2022.

The iKudu project has been conceptualised to develop a contextualised South African concept of Internationalisation of the Curriculum (IoC), which integrates COIL virtual exchanges. The concept will allow South African partner universities to become the country’s leading HEIs in IoC, curriculum transformation, and COIL virtual exchanges.

Another ImmerseU collaboration is The COIL BEVI project, sponsored by American Council on Education in the United States, the United States Embassy in Japan and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology in Japan.

Starting in June of 2020, this multi-year initiative brings together a diverse set of higher education institutions in Japan, the U.S., and beyond who are interested in using best practices to support selected COIL courses with faculty and students in a partner country while also facilitating and evaluating the impact of COIL via the Beliefs, Events, and Values Inventory (BEVI), a comprehensive and mixed methods measure of learning, growth and development.

Technology and international exchange

Thanks to virtual exchange, educators do not have to surrender their global curricula because education abroad programs have been cancelled. Connective technologies have made it possible for corporations and government agencies to conduct business in ways that would have been unimaginable to previous generations. The same holds true for higher education.

Let’s face it, although our students are more connected with each other than ever before, their global interactions are often not targeted towards educational goals and objectives. Virtual exchange guides our students, connects their worlds and models the effectiveness of true collaboration without borders.

Collaborations such as those described above are the key to helping students gain 21st century skills and to developing cultural competence, both of which are critical in building a more open-minded and peaceful global society.

About the author: Matthew Hightower is the CEO and founder of Class2Class, He has delivered talks worldwide on the future of education, including at EdX Europe, RISE and Aoyama Gakuin University.