You can’t create virtual exchange overnight: what we have learnt from moving international experiences online

Like every mobility office in the UK and beyond, our world has been turned upside down by the pandemic, with the concept of physical mobility becoming a distant memory or far off dream for most. Here at De Montfort University (DMU) we were able to send a small number of students abroad for the year to a select number of countries, but the impact on our short-term mobility activity which supports about 2,000 students annually to have international experiences has been hardest hit.

It became apparent early on that the pandemic was here to stay, travel would be paused for a while and that we would therefore need to adapt as a team to stay relevant, motivated and ultimately to continue offering a high-quality experience to our students. We turned our thoughts to online international experiences, something that had barely registered on our radar in the past and luckily found a wealth of research, good practice and a community of experts globally working on delivering Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) and virtual exchange.

Perhaps naively we started to look at how we could replicate these models at DMU to offer similar experiences in the 2020-21 academic year, but soon learned that you can't create virtual exchange overnight. Nonetheless, since September 2020 we have offered over 40 online international experiences with over 400 students participating to date. As a team we've learnt a lot about 'virtual mobility' and can share these reflections.

Virtual opportunities may be cheaper, but they aren't any less resource intensive to organise

Changing our international offer from over 150 short-term mobility opportunities per year to only online and on-campus experiences has definitely saved the university a significant amount of money, and there is perhaps the perception it has saved us a lot of time. But shifting the focus from overseas travel to online learning, discovering new technologies, creating processes and developing an entire new way of operating as been incredibly resource intensive. The work, however, has brought our team together and allowed us to reflect more on what we are hoping to achieve as a mobility team. With targets to widen access to international experiences against a backdrop of financial and environmental pressures, we are making a longer-term commitment to this way of working.

Academic buy-in is vital to making it a success, but it will take time and effort to get them on board

We've had great success in offering a range of co-curricular activities, but that only takes you so far, and you do need academic staff engagement. To date we have supported ten academic opportunities, which have been a huge success, but a part of me hopes we could have engaged with more staff considering how many of them run annual overseas opportunities with us. The reality of the pressures facing staff due to COVID-19 meant that many academics haven't had the time, headspace and training to do this right now. Therefore, with a view to teaching returning to some degree of normality next year, we are taking a number of steps to re-engage staff. These include organising in-house training about how to design virtual exchange opportunities, establishing a Community of Practice for sharing case studies and best practice, and creating faculty champion roles. Lastly, we are also going to create a pot of funding to support professional development, site visits and other operational costs to help support staff in creating new opportunities.

Don't get too hung up on the terminology and the different models of online learning

Having attended a range of conferences, and undertaken plenty of research about the topic, it has become clear to us that many terms are used interchangeably and loosely, often to the ire of experienced practitioners. But whilst using virtual exchange or COIL in the correct context is important, it's not critical to your success. Virtual exchange is just one model that may or may not work for you, and we have tried our best to be open to all types of opportunities in the spirit of 'piloting' the concept. There is an array of online opportunities out there, so choose what works for you and your students. Virtual internships, tours, collaborative projects, and one-off webinars are all options. There are ways to modify the virtual exchange model to make it scale more readily, as the State University of New York (SUNY) COIL Center has done with its COIL Global Commons

Technology and the digital tools you use are secondary concerns

When starting out on the journey, and attending events like the International Virtual Exchange Conference, we were desperate to learn about all the exciting digital platforms and technology that are being used to organise virtual experiences. What became apparent pretty quickly was that the technology isn't as important as you might think, and you need not spend too much time thinking about this early on. Instead, focus on the learning experience and you will likely figure out what technology you need. We have found that in most cases the tools already at your disposal are sufficient. Moreover, there is often no need to go and spend money on new tools, the free versions of tools like Padlet have proved sufficient for us.

It is hard to do these kinds of things alone, so make sure you surround yourselves with colleagues, friends and partners

Working with academic and professional services colleagues at your institution goes without saying, but we found to respond quickly that we needed to work with external friends and partners. Working with partner universities, NGOs, social enterprises (Common Purpose) and businesses (Pagoda Projects and ThinkPacific) already working in the field has helped us realise our ideas much quicker. They have all been nimble, flexible and innovative, listening to the sector need to continue offering international experiences to students. Also, with our stated aims to widen access to such opportunities, providers have been able to deliver low or no cost activities removing perhaps the biggest barrier to travel.

Listen to student feedback and respond to consumer behaviour

What we learnt is that you can advertise every virtual experience on your website and through social media, but that doesn't mean students will be interested. We developed frameworks to review and evaluate each opportunity, to ensure it was meaningful, high-quality and would be of interest. In a year where students have spent a lot of time at a computer screen, convincing them to do so for even longer meant that they wanted experiences that were of value to them. We found that they responded much better to more immersive experiences that required greater commitment, rather than shorter one-off webinars and talks. Additionally, when thinking about topics, we found that students seem interested in all things related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, dealing with global challenges, global citizenship and intercultural learning.  Activity that required reflection, goal setting and that helped empower them (at a time when they may feel helpless) is what we feel is needed, rather than passive experiences.

The list of lessons really could go on, and I would say that it is a good thing. Piloting a new concept requires significant reflection and critical thinking, and will allow our team at DMU to look at what worked best and invest more time and effort in that for the next academic year. We are really excited to see how online international experiences can become a core part of our international offer, aligning with wider commitments to widening participation, acting to reduce our carbon footprint and embedding internationalisation at the university. For the next six months, our team will be focused on:

  • Showcasing the benefits of these experiences and sharing student stories about their online international learning. This will help promote and raise awareness of the value of this activity to their peers, staff and employers.
  • Evaluating the data that we collect so that we better understand who participated in our opportunities, and whether they did truly widen participation. Was there a demographic shift in our participants, and did the low cost, flexible approach engage students who may not be able to travel? We will look at student feedback and evaluations using a range of quantitative and qualitative methods to understand the impact of the experiences, and help inform our future decisions.
  • Piloting the use of digital badges as a way of recognising learning and competency development, with a specific focus on online experiences and the associated intercultural learning.
  • Exploring a blended mobility model whereby we will look to combine the best of our online experiences with short-term overseas opportunities that we have become so well known for. This model could ensure that short-term mobility experiences move away from what some would call 'cultural tourism' or 'field trips' to immersive and meaningful learning journeys, where students will be required to engage internationally with peers before, during and after their overseas trip.

If you would like to know more about DMU Global Online Learning and the approach we have taken at De Montfort University, please feel free to contact me at Also, why not take a look at our video about DMU Global Online Learning.

Leo Smith is Head of Global Mobility at De Montfort University.

On 23 April 2021, UUKi and The University of Kent will host a live event about Internationalisation at Home. You can find out more and register here.

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