New Outlooks on Internationalization at Home: Collaborative Online International Learning
Internationalization at Home (IAH) addresses the important question of what can be done, apart from study abroad and related mobility programs, to help students acquire the ‘international awareness and intercultural competencies’ deemed critical for their ability to ‘successfully navigate global waters’ (Rubin and Guth, 15). Whether pursued in the name of allied concepts such as ‘internationalizing the curriculum’ or ‘comprehensive internationalization’, the aim is to implement a host of mutually-reinforcing initiatives which, in the words of one scholar, incorporate ‘international, intercultural and global dimensions into the content of the curriculum as well as the learning outcomes, assessment tasks, teaching methods and support services of a program of study’ (Leask, 50).
Previous articles in this series discussed recent research on co-curricular initiatives consistent with the aim of internationalization. Attention shifts here to the development of ‘globally networked learning environments’ (GNLEs) -- a component of IAH which has also become the subject of growing interest and experimentation.
Globally networked learning environments most commonly take the form of tech-assisted ‘shared’ courses which provide students with the opportunity of working with their peers in other parts of the world. These initiatives are perhaps most widely known by the acronym COIL (Collaborative Online International Learning), a term that was first used in 2006 by leaders at the State University of New York and has since been adopted by practitioners elsewhere. Although similar ventures are being conducted under different names, all share, as SUNY COIL director Jon Rubin writes, the aim to develop student ‘intercultural awareness through direct interaction with peers in geographically distant locations using digital technologies’ (Rubin and Guth, 16).
A review of the literature produced on globally networked learning efforts to date reveals considerable enthusiasm for the concept and above all its potential for bringing the goal of internationalization closer within reach. Important advocates include Hans de Wit, who believes that internationalization efforts are still ‘too closely identified with the physical mobility of a relatively small number of students and academics, whereas the global knowledge society of today requires all students and academics to be more interculturally sensitive and competent.’ ‘Online intercultural exchange,’ he continues, ‘is better able than physical mobility to accomplish this on the scale required’ (de Wit, 80). Authors Alexandra Moore and Sunka Simon write similarly of COIL as an innovation that ‘democratizes internationalization’ in the sense that ‘not every student has the opportunity to study abroad’ (Moore and Simon, 6).
These initiatives also hold promise for adding an intercultural dimension to the academic experience of students in fields (notably STEM) which have traditionally not been highly represented in mobility programs. As the authors of another study write, ‘STEM majors in particular are characterized by large numbers of required classes and strict course sequences that discourage study abroad (Abrahamse et al, 141-2).’ However, ‘with virtually shared classes, students can have the experience of working with peers in other countries without leaving their campus.’ Additionally, COIL makes it possible ‘to have long-term (full semester or longer) interactions without the need to take “time out” of a regular course of studies’ (Abrahamse et al, 142).
Globally networked courses present finally the still more fundamental advantage of relative ease of use. As Rubin and Guth observe, because students ‘are enrolled, charged tuition, and awarded grades only at their home institution’, COIL represents a ‘revenue-neutral model’ which greatly ‘reduces the administrative complexity of bilateral institutional agreements’ (Rubin and Guth, 18). Such programs also ‘offer a great potential for scale-up’ in the sense that ‘once the infrastructure is in place, the incremental cost per additional student is relatively low (as opposed to, say, scholarships for study abroad)’ (Abrahamse et al, 142).
As indicated above, COIL courses tend to share a number of common characteristics. These include initial ‘icebreaker’ activities designed to bring students together and open lines communication, followed by ‘synchronous’ and ‘asynchronous’ forms of collaboration. The inclusion of both forms of collaboration, write the authors of one recent comparative study, hews also to the pedagogical goal of exposing students ‘to different modalities of interaction (one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many, etc.)’ -- a strategy which they deem critical as a means ‘to allow the manifestation of cultural differences’ (Ruiz-Corbella and Álvarez-González, 176).
The ‘synchronous’ forms of interaction alluded to above include shared lectures, discussions and other types of in-or-out of class group work. A typical format is described by the faculty leaders of a course on sustainable development involving students from Siena College and the Universidad Privada Boliviana (UPB): In addition to holding shared lectures by linking the classrooms together via webcams and Webex software, the students were divided into mixed Bolivian-US teams and assigned various short- and long-term projects, many of which were expected to be performed on non-lecture class days ‘via Skype or another free video-conferencing software’ (Abrahamse et al, 2015, 148-49). Ideally, as other practitioners write, these joint projects should require ‘students to demonstrate increasing levels of interdependence’ over time (DeWitt et al,82).
‘Asynchronous’ interaction refers meanwhile to the many ways in which students might engage with each other independently, such as via communication through electronic bulletin boards and similar platforms. In the case again cited above, the coordinating faculty describe how these goals were put into practice:
The class was organized on a wiki hosted by Pbworks. Students initially created individual profiles on the wiki, and early assignments included introducing themselves and commenting on foreign classmates’ profiles. As the class progressed, student groups created project pages on the wiki where they submitted project-related assignments (Abrahamse et al, 2015, 149).
Incidentally, the Siena-UPB course discussed above represents too a good example of an attempt to implement the larger principles of ‘comprehensive internationalization’. This is to say that the course was originally intended as a means to provide Siena students with an opportunity to interact with their Bolivian peers in advance of a planned study abroad. In the words of the Siena course leader: ‘Faculty at Siena wanted to both improve students’ preparation and deepen the intercultural exchange by providing interaction prior to travel’ (Abrahamse et al, 147). As observed in other articles in this series, researchers believe that the acquisition of intercultural competencies associated with successful internationalization requires a host of reinforcing activities. Rubin and Guth report approvingly in this connection on an increasing tendency ‘to use COIL for several weeks before and after a short-term study-abroad sojourn’ (Rubin and Guth, 18).
With ten years or so of COIL courses behind us, a considerable amount of data is now available for review. The SUNY COIL site, to cite one source, contains a number of course assessments written by coordinating faculty, some of which also include student feedback. In general, the comments from both faculty and students suggest that the experiences have been positive. That said, a number of issues have also been identified. In some cases, these involve the kinds of difficulties that may be expected to follow from the challenge of establishing shared courses between institutions which have different academic calendars, technological capabilities and institutional support.
These issues, if not insurmountable, place nevertheless considerable demands on the coordinating faculty and raise in turn the question of institutional support. As Rubin and Guth write, faculty reviews ‘clearly indicated that the sustainability of COIL courses across campuses depends on the efforts of many different stakeholders, but when courses depend solely on the enthusiasm of innovative teachers with little or no support, the novelty may wear off, and the course may prove to be a one-off experience rather than a launching pad for broader campus internationalization’ (Rubin and Guth, 21). The ‘normalization’ of COIL thus requires, they continue, the willingness of institutions to create a ‘home office’ for such initiatives led by a director not burdened with ‘an overload of other responsibilities’. Additionally, a master plan specifying some key goals (timing, number of students, programs to emphasize, etc.) is also deemed critical. (Rubin and Guth, 26-27).
In summary, this article has sought to provide an overview of globally networked learning initiatives and experiences to date. As such, it offers only a glimpse of the information available on matters of course design, pedagogy, technological options, and other areas of theory and practice. Given the importance of the subject, readers can also look forward to frequent AHEA research updates on COIL and allied ventures in future articles within this series.
Abrahamse, Augusta, Johnson, Matthew, Levinson, Nanette, Medsker, Larry, Pearce, Joshua M., Quiroga, Carla, and Scipione, Ruth, ‘A Virtual Educational Exchange: A North–South Virtually Shared Class on Sustainable Development’, Journal of Studies in International Education 19, 2 (2015), pp. 140-159.
DeWitt, Janine, Damhof, Loes, Oxenford, Carolyn, Schutte, Ingrid, and Wolfensberger, Marca, ‘Global Partnerships for Intercultural Learning’, in Moore and Simon, Globally Networked Teaching in the Humanities, pp. 79-92.
Leask, Betty, Internationalizing the Curriculum (New York: Routledge, 2015).
Moore, Alexandra Schultheis, and Simon, Sunka, eds., Globally Networked Teaching in the Humanities: Theories and Practices (New York: Routledge, 2015).
Rubin, Jon, and Guth, Sarah, ‘Collaborative Online Learning: An Emerging Format for Internationalizing Curricula’, in Moore and Simon, Globally Networked Teaching in the Humanities, pp. 15-27.
Ruiz-Corbella, Marta, and Álvarez-González, Beatriz, ‘Virtual Mobility as an Inclusion Strategy in Higher Education: Research on Distance Education Master Degrees in Europe, Latin America and Asia’, Research in Comparative and International Education 9, 2 (2014), pp. 165-180.
de Wit, Hans, ‘Internationalization and the Role of Online Intercultural Exchange’, in Robert O'Dowd, Tim Lewis, eds. Online Intercultural Exchange: Policy, Pedagogy, Practice (New York: Routledge, 2016), pp. 69-82.