Collaborative Learning in Global Online Education Using Virtual International Exchanges

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Key Takeaways

  • Virtual international exchanges (VIEs) are a form of collaborative online international learning (COIL) in which an online, on-campus, or hybrid course connects virtually with a similar course in a different country.
  • VIEs let students connect with peers in other countries to discuss concepts and ideas learned about in shared course materials, including presentations, videos, podcasts, songs, blogs, websites, and articles.
  • The ideal VIE timeframe is three to eight weeks, which lets instructors bond and gives students sufficient time to interact with and learn from each other, as well as creating a new space for virtual social engagement.

In its current form, global online education through MOOCs focuses on videos (often talking heads) and minimizes interactions among students and the instructor. We therefore need to rethink digital social engagement and collaboration. One possible approach that promises to address social engagement is the use of Virtual International Exchanges (VIEs) []. VIEs are small, private online courses (SPOCs) that facilitate international social engagement using tools such as Canvas, Moodle, or Edmodo. VIEs can exist at any level, including high school, community college, or university, provided that the students learn the same language, learn the other country's native language, or already share a common language.

The value of VIEs is that they encourage communication between students. However, some online instructors see the approach as a threat. Indeed, in what is likely one of the best quotes this year in higher education, Jeffrey Young's EdSurge article on massive open online courses (MOOCs) noted the following:

The thing is, moving a university is a little bit like moving a cemetery. You can't expect any help from the inhabitants. It's tough for universities to take the idea that there could be really good online materials that are better than what I might present in class. I mean in the old days, in the 1400s, when textbooks first came out, professors were livid and horrified because they said, well textbooks are going to replace our classrooms, and we won't be needed anymore. And of course, that's not really true at all. They enhance the classroom.1 [emphasis added]

Although Young is referring here to online content in general, the same fears arise in global online education, particularly MOOCs, and also in relation to both VIEs and Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL). That is, some online instructors are afraid that introducing VIEs into the curriculum of their courses — whether on campus, blended, online, or MOOC — will replace rather than enhance their expertise, yet in reality it enhances their expertise as instructors.

In this article, we describe our use of VIEs and our informal study of their effectiveness in several recent courses on which we collaborated. Our experiences with the approach vary; one of us, the researcher, has been conducting research on VIEs since 2010, while others, instructors and coordinators, had their first VIE experience in these pilot collaborations. All of us, however, have now experienced the benefits and the potential of VIEs to enhance student involvement with course materials and to increase intercultural competency.

Our research has three primary goals:

  • To use VIEs to spark interest in digital course formats that incorporate social engagement and collaborative work similar to COIL;
  • To partner with international universities; and
  • To reduce the costs of online courses and MOOCs, thereby creating online education that is affordable and accessible globally.

Global Online Education

As we globalize education, new models for connecting courses to global partners emerge. Our work with VIEs is related to existing efforts including telecollaboration and COIL.

Virtual Collaboration

Early use of virtual collaboration often focuses on language learning, probably due to its long history of international exchange as well as early adoption of teaching technologies such as language laboratories and language pen pals. This language-learning focus is particularly true of telecollaboration, which Julie A. Belz defines by focusing on the students and what they do:

…use of Internet communication tools by internationally dispersed students of language in institutionalized settings in order to promote the development of (a) foreign language (FL) linguistic competence and (b) intercultural competence2 (2003, p. 68) [emphasis added]

Robert O'Dowd and Markus Ritter further describe telecollaboration as follows:

The application of online communication tools to bring together classes of language learners in geographically distant locations to develop their foreign language skills and intercultural competence through collaborative tasks and project work.3 [emphasis added]

In contrast, COIL is more broadly defined. For example, Hans de Wit defines COIL as

…a new teaching and learning paradigm that promotes the development of intercultural competence across shared multicultural learning environments. Through innovative online pedagogies, it combines the four essential dimensions of real virtual mobility: a collaborative exercise of teachers and students; applied use of online technology and interaction; international dimensions; and it is integrated into the learning process.4

Typically, COIL links a course at a US institution with one at a college or university abroad. As SUNY defines COIL, these two courses are equal and team-taught by instructors who develop a shared syllabus.


Although VIEs can be telecollaboration, the current implementations align better with COIL, which provides a more open definition; that is, unlike telecollaboration courses, VIEs do not always focus on language learning, and they often emphasize intercultural competency.

VIEs are in the initial pilot stages, and a sustainable course format plan is currently underway. Originally, early VIEs had the following goals:

  • Continue introducing cultural diversity
  • Continue research on intercultural competency
  • Encourage partnership between universities across countries
  • Incorporate VIEs with Skype for interviews between the students
  • Add in-class oral presentations about the interviews

As we move toward a new course format, we have added the following two goals:

  • Initiate new courses and course formats to enable more students to complete degrees and have more course opportunities
  • Add social engagement to global online education

VIE courses typically run as follows: the participating instructors from different countries connect their courses — ideally, for at least three weeks and as many as eight weeks — via online discussions and video/audio interviews. During the first week, students introduce themselves in their target language. Instructors then provide an article or video each week, and students discuss these and other materials from the online course. After the third week of interactions, students are given interview questions to ask their counterparts in the other country. At the end of the course, students submit a reflection paper about their experiences.

Recent Studies

Although they might include it in the future, most of our pilot VIEs do not include collaborative work, focusing instead on instructor bonding and students achieving the instructors' goals for the interactions. These goals include getting students into the shared course space, getting students to engage with one another, and helping students overcome their fears of using the target language with native speakers.

The Anderson Language Technology Center launched its first VIE pilot in the spring of 2016, between the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU) and Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla (BUAP) in central Mexico after hiring their first VIE researcher. During the second semester of this pilot offering, the VIE course had a waitlist at CU because students from the first semester had encouraged other students to register. The success of the exchanges between these two universities in turn sparked interest in pilots with Peru and Japan in spring 2017. Future projects are still being planned, and a CU course in English and an English course with O'zbeiston Davlat Jahon Tillari Universiteti in Uzbekistan. This new project is on the brink of piloting this fall 2017 semester.

The following brief descriptions include a comparison of the results of pre- and post-course surveys that we conducted with participating students at the partner universities. Participation in the VIE was voluntary for students in the courses. Pre- and post-surveys conducted at each university included questions with responses on a 1–5 scale, with 1 = least interest and 5 = most interest in addition to open-ended opinion questions and fill-in-the-blank questions.


This study included two courses. In spring 2016, 7 students in the University of Colorado, Boulder's Spanish 2150 course, coordinated by Professor Alicia Tabler [], connected with 25 students in the English Pragmatics course at Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla (BUAP). The following semester, 12 students from Spanish 2150 participated in the VIE with 13 students from the English Pragmatics course. These two pilots were showcased in an article in the

Our pre- and post-course surveys showed positive results based on a Likert scale where 1 = no, 2 = some, 3 = a moderate amount, 4 = a significant amount, and 5 = yes. Average responses to our questions before and after the course follow:

  • Question 1. Do you expect to find lots of similarities? (Similarities with their foreign peers): before interaction = 2.9, after = 3.5.
  • Question 2. Do you expect to find lots of differences? (More differences before and after study): before = 3.8, after = 3.2.

Our survey also sought to understand how students viewed their own and their peers' intercultural competency, though we did not define the term "intercultural competency" in the survey. Responses were on a 1–5 scale, where 1 = never heard of intercultural competency and 5 = high intercultural competency.

  • Question 3. What do you think is your level of intercultural competency? (Rate your own intercultural competency): before interaction = 2.7, after = 3.2.
  • Question 4. Do you expect your peers abroad to have a different level of intercultural competency than you do? (Rate your peers' intercultural competency): before interaction = 2.8, after = 3.8.

In the survey's comments section, students from both universities said that they found their peers to be very similar to themselves. As one US student noted, "A lot of the ... students [in Mexico] also wanted to go into teaching after they graduate, like me." Students also found that their peers had similar ideas and experiences:

"I learned that they are going through the same things that I am in learning a new language." (Student, US)

"Fortunately, even when neither of each other speak well the second language … we can share the ideas and have a good interaction." (Student, Mexico)

"We basically have a lot of similar thoughts and opinions based on the videos we watched and articles we read." (Student, US)


Two Spanish courses, Spanish 1020 (10 students) and 2110 (21 students), offered at the University of Colorado, Boulder were connected to CENFOTUR - Centro de Formación en Turismo in Lima, Peru, that focused on teaching English to tour guides, hotel managers, and chefs. This three-week course, which had 25 students, was unique in that the VIE started off with a joint Skype call where both students groups sang to one another. In that initial Skype call to describe the VIE and introduce the students, students from both locations showed immediate interest. When asked if they would like a course dedicated to VIEs, 15 students said yes, 2 said no, and 7 said they were not sure (note: not all students completed this question). Students were also asked what course format they wanted; the consensus was for a new blended course format that incorporated online and study abroad.

The VIE pilot course took place with a total of 21 US students (from the two Spanish courses) and 25 students from the institute in Peru. Averaged study results from the pre- and post-course survey were again positive. Our pre- and post-course surveys showed positive results based on a Likert scale where 1 = no, 2 = some, 3 = a moderate amount,  4 = a significant amount, and 5 = yes for questions 1 and 2; for questions 3 and 4, responses were on a 1–5 scale where 1 = never heard of intercultural competency and 5 = high intercultural competency. Average responses to our questions before and after the course follow:

  • Question 1. Similarities with their foreign peers: before interaction = 2.9, after = 3.9.
  • Question 2. More differences: before study = 4.2, after = 2.7.
  • Question 3. Rate your own intercultural competency: before interaction = 3.2, after = 3.5.
  • Question 4. Rate your peers' intercultural competency: before interaction = 3.5, after = 3.1.

Following are quotes drawn from the survey's comments section by student participants in the Peru VIE from both countries:

"I had a lot more in common with these students than I originally though[t]. It made the world a little smaller in my eyes."

"I found that we were able to practice our language we were learning without pressure and easily through normal conversation. It was interesting and nice to be able to talk to a real Spanish speaker without feeling nervous or insecure."

"The chance to speak to native speakers was incredibly valuable."

"I was very pleased and happy the way this turned out. Great to know others in my learning situation that are working for a common cause of learning a language."

"I think diversity is so important because it helps us learn about the world we live in. There are so many different cultures, countries, and languages that we do not get to experience because we don't have the opportunity. Diversity makes an individual worldly and more aware of what is going on in other places."

"I found that there were some differences in cultural values, for instance, the importance that is placed on deadlines in the USA compared to the appreciation for sights and food and the tourism industry in Peru."


We conducted a third VIE between the University of Colorado, Boulder's Japanese 4120 course (8 students) and the elective Top Level English course (21 students) at Shinshu University in Japan. However, this course had timing issues due to differences in both the semester start dates and the time zones.

The Japanese course's semester started at the end of our spring semester, leaving just two weeks for the courses to connect. Given this VIE's compact timeframe, the instructor in Japan created the course shell through Moodle, which was familiar to the students in Japan and wouldn't require them to learn new technology at the start of their semester. The instructors set up one Japanese-language and one English-language forum; the US instructor provided the content for the exchange.

During the course's introduction, students seemed to focus more on the Japanese-language discussion, possibly because the students in Japan were just starting their semester (and academic year) and US students were almost finished with their semester, which could contribute to the difference in student numbers and motivation. In the end, both the instructors and the researcher felt that two weeks was not enough time for the interaction; three weeks at a minimum seems preferable. Unfortunately, given the differences in semester schedules, the spring semester no longer seems like a good fit for a VIE between the US and Japan. However, the summer and fall semesters are suitable, and the instructors are planning a VIE for the later portion of fall 2017.

Given the shortened timeframe, students didn't complete a survey at the end of this VIE. However, they did complete the pre-course survey and participated in the online discussions. Following are the averaged results of the pre-course survey, compared with our other VIE pilots' pre-course survey averages. Questions 1 and 2 are based on a Likert scale where 1 = no, 2 = some, 3 = a moderate amount, 4 = a significant amount, and 5 = yes; questions 3 and 4 are on a 1–5 scale, where 1 = never heard of intercultural competency and 5 = high intercultural competency. Average responses to our questions before the course follow:

  • Question 1. Similarities with their foreign peers: before interaction = 3.8 (Peru and Mexico = 2.9).
  • Question 2. More differences before and after study: before = 4.2 (Peru = 4.2, Mexico = 3.8).
  • Question 3. Rate your own intercultural competency: before interaction = 2.4 (Peru = 3.2, Mexico = 2.7).
  • Question 4. Rate your peers' intercultural competency: before interaction = 3.6 (Peru = 3.5, Mexico = 2.8).

Two University of Colorado Denver Spanish courses are currently considering three-week VIEs in their 2017 fall semester courses.

New Models

In the past year, students who participated in the VIEs helped market the course to peers, and several of the courses with VIEs increased enrollments after the first semester. Further, participating students and instructors requested more social engagement, new courses, and new course formats; this gave us a great opportunity to review our models and explore ways to improve VIE learning.

The following are a few examples of approaches we are applying or contemplating.

Digital Social Engagement + MOOCs

VIEs could be used in conjunction with MOOCs that incorporate podcasts to enable students in developing countries to have accessible and affordable education while completing courses and interacting with global peers. Because the MOOC platforms are similar to other learning management systems, the VIEs can be added to the MOOC platforms and maintain one LMS for the new MOOC + VIE course format. If two universities agree to use the same MOOC and virtually connect with one another through Canvas and/or Facebook, it might be possible to make the virtual educational borders between countries more open. We are now beginning our initial study of MOOC + VIE [] and will present our early findings in a conference paper and presentation about the new course format at E-Learn 2017 in Vancouver October 2017.


At the University of Colorado, Boulder, the Center for Language and Learning uses robotics to communicate with offsite students. Sydney Johnson's EdSurge article, "Robot Students? College Classrooms Try Letting Far-Away Students Attend Via Remote-Control Stand-In," highlighted the experiment that Jean Bouchard, director of CU's Modified Foreign Language Program and director of the Center for Language and Learning, carried out this past year in a blended Spanish course with 14 students — 6 in person, and 8 through the Kubi, a telepresence option using interactive student-controlled robots for a face-to-face classroom experience. Bouchard is leading the Kubi Robotic project. The Kubis are used in modified class sections to meet the needs of students who are completing their language requirements but cannot be on campus due to having moved away from Colorado. This project serves a neuro-diverse student population at the university who otherwise would not obtain their hard-earned degrees. Bouchard also wants to use robots to connect with people internationally and has interest in piloting sustainable VIEs in the future. As quoted in Johnson's article, she said, "We want to start bringing in conversation buddies from other countries, and I'm working on those relationships right now for a future semester."5 [emphasis added]


Currently, our VIE course with Peru is moving into a hybrid format by adding Skype/Zoom interviews and oral presentations. The instructors will ask students to create video tours of their local city in the target language, then post the videos in Canvas for other students (native speakers) to watch. Students studying Spanish and English in the VIE courses will thus get a unique tour of a foreign city from the perspective of a peer — an option not necessarily available to students taking standard language courses.


Several of the VIEs will be using VoiceThread, a discussion tool that enables students to post their comments via phone calls or video/audio recordings. Several pilots currently underway will include a discussion and/or survey on Women in Leadership. The topic has been accepted in a conference paper and presentation focused on Women Leadership at Oxford University in December 2017.


As our results show, current VIE efforts are growing and increasing student interest in language studies. As a branch of COIL, VIEs represent a new global online education format focused on social engagement that connects instructors abroad. Based on our experiences, we recommend that VIEs be at least three to eight weeks long and include online discussions, Skype interviews, and oral presentations.

Currently, no mechanisms exist for two international universities to share online courses for credit, yet this model could greatly benefit students who plan to pursue a master's degree in another country or to travel for an extended time. For now, a new online course format focused on podcasts and social interaction, and connected to their home university, is more realistic.

VIEs let students connect virtually with their global peers, while drastically reducing the resources needed to make this connection. Still, few language students currently have this opportunity. We hope that research such as ours will enable more students to gain the advantages of VIEs in the near future and that this will increase opportunities for more digital social engagement at CU Boulder, UC Denver, and abroad.


The research projects have been supported by the School of Education at the University of Colorado Denver and the University of Colorado Boulder's Anderson Language and Technology Center, College of Arts and Sciences, Continuing Education, Spanish and Portuguese Department, and Center for Asian Studies.


  1. Jeffrey Young, "What if MOOCs Revolutionize Education After All?" EdSurge, July 25, 2017.
  2. Julie A. Belz and Andreas Mueller-Hartmann, "Teachers as Intercultural Learners: Negotiating German-American Telecollaboration Along the Institutional Fault Line," Modern Language Journal, Vol. 87, No. 1, 2003: 71–89.
  3. Robert O'Dowd and Markus Ritter, "Understanding and Working with 'Failed Communication' in Telecollaborative Exchanges," CALICO Journal, Vol. 23, No. 3, 2006: 1–20.
  4. Hans de Wit, "COIL: What it is and why it matters," University World News, June 1, 2013.
  5. Sydney Johnson, "Robot Students? College Classrooms Try Letting Far-Away Students Attend Via Remote-Control Stand-In," EdSurge, May 11, 2017.

Naomi Wahls is a Teaching and Learning with Technology Consultant at CU Boulder and performs doctoral research on global online education for CU Boulder and UC Denver.

Alejandro Méndez-Betancor, PhD, is a creative writer and the author of "El Sueño de Doramas." He currently teaches at Strive Prep Excel [] in Denver.

Mark Brierley is an English professor at Shinshu University in Japan.

Vicky Ariza Pinzón is an English professor at the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla (BUAP) and is in a PhD program there.

Yumiko Matsunaga, PhD, is a senior instructor of Japanese at CU Boulder.

Nancy Bocanegra is a Spanish professor at CU Boulder and teaches Spanish at Jefferson Academy.

Madeleine Burns Vidaurrázaga is the director of the English program at CENFOTUR - Centro de Formación en Turismo.

© 2017 Naomi Wahls, Alejandro Méndez-Betancor, Mark Brierley, Vicky Ariza Pinzón, Yumiko Matsunaga, Nancy Bocanegra, and Madeleine Burns Vidaurrázaga. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review online article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 license.