Metropolia’s International Relations organised a project in 2021 to support teachers in setting up virtual exchanges as part of their teaching. The project resulted in ten virtual exchange implementations that benefitted hundreds of students at Metropolia University of Applied Sciences.
What is virtual exchange?
Virtual exchange is a form of internationalisation at home. It’s a way to internationalise the curriculum and offer students an opportunity to interact and collaborate online with peers from partner institutions abroad. During virtual exchanges students gain different perspectives on issues related to their field of study and at the same time develop their transversal skills, such as cross-cultural communication. In addition to students, virtual exchanges provide international experiences for teachers as well. Virtual exchange collaboration can help teachers develop and expand their networks globally.
Virtual exchanges help make internationalisation more inclusive. Despite the multitude of opportunities and travel grants that are available for students to enable them to travel abroad for student exchanges during their studies, not every student feels that a mobility period abroad is a viable option for them, for a variety of reasons. Virtual exchanges that are part of Metropolia degree programs provide a very accessible way to internationalise the curriculum, making internationalisation more equal and inclusive for all students.
The COVID-19 pandemic has understandably resulted in significantly decreased student mobility numbers and numerous cancelled travel plans during the last couple of years. On the other hand, the pandemic has also resulted in increased distance teaching and learning; higher education institutions all over the world have been on a forced learning curve in their use of online teaching tools and development of online pedagogy (1). Although virtual exchanges have existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic, the pandemic created a situation where many higher education institutions for the first time started to truly look for ways to bring global engagement into their teaching and learning online and found the solution in virtual exchanges.
What support did teachers receive?
To encourage and enable the planning and organisation of virtual exchanges at Metropolia, the International Relations channelled working hour resources to teachers who had a plan for developing a virtual exchange with a partner institution abroad. The virtual exchanges were required to have the characteristics of COIL, short for Collaborative Online International Learning, which is an established and widely used model for virtual exchange and emphasises collaborative teaching and learning and intercultural interaction between the students (2).
During 2021, Metropolia teachers also had the opportunity to participate in a COIL training that was organised by the European U!REKA network of universities of applied sciences. In addition to COIL skills, the training provided teachers an opportunity to find partners for setting up virtual exchanges.
Apart from the U!REKA COIL training, the International Relations organised meetings where each teacher reported on their progress, successes and possible challenges. The meetings were also a means for sharing best practices and peer support. In addition, we set up a Microsoft Teams channel where the teachers were able to access support material, share advice and peer support and get tips of useful resources and trainings.
What was the achievement in numbers?
Ten virtual exchanges took place during the spring and autumn semesters of 2021 through the project. One to three Metropolia teachers were generally involved in implementing one virtual exchange. In most cases, the virtual exchange formed an independent implementation in itself, but there were also some smaller virtual exchange components, such as international workshops, that were integrated into existing Metropolia implementations. Most of the virtual exchanges were completely new collaborations, with the exception of a couple of implementations that had previously been organised onsite, involving physical mobility of students and teachers, and were now organised online for the first time.
Altogether 30 Metropolia partner institutions collaborated in the virtual exchanges. Usually one or two international partners were involved in setting up one virtual exchange, but there was also a bigger virtual exchange that involved more than ten partner institutions. The majority of the partner institutions were European. However, also institutions from South Africa, Singapore, Canada and Mexico, for example, participated in the collaborations. Several of the Metropolia teachers reported that they intend to continue virtual exchange collaboration with these institutions also in the future.
More than 400 Metropolia students from 13 different degree programmes benefitted from virtual exchanges organized in this project. Combining the number of Metropolia and partner institution students, the number is close to an impressive 700.
What to consider when implementing a virtual exchange?
Teachers reported their most significant successes and challenges in interim and final reports. The most common challenges were related to
- time differences and scheduling issues
- collaborative use of online learning platforms, such as Moodle, and
- differences in the level of language skills between the participants from different institutions.
Many teachers noted that when implementing virtual exchanges, extra attention must be paid to various ice-breaking activities in the beginning of the virtual exchange to facilitate the interaction between the students. The ice breakers used ranged from virtual picnics to virtual tours of each other’s homes.
Student feedback was mostly very positive. Students reported that
- they were inspired by the approaches, experiences and ideas of the teachers and students of the partner institution and that
- it had built their confidence when they had been challenged to present and answer questions in English in front of a large audience online.
Some teachers also noted that the students’ learning from the virtual exchange had been evident in other courses afterwards. One of the virtual exchanges that was part of a larger project even resulted in several peer reviewed articles written by the students, which students found extremely motivating.
Leigh Ann Rauhala was one of the Metropolia teachers who participated in the project. She implemented a virtual exchange for social services students and has described it in a Hiiltä ja timanttia blog article Ethnographic writing and Qualified Empathy: skills for social service professionals, working in urban areas.
Katja Ahopelto, second year student of Business and Logistics, participated in the Metropolia Business School’s International Project Week which was organised virtually for the first time, and writes of her experience in the School’s Blog: Virtual International Project Week 2021 through the eyes of a student.
Will virtual exchanges still be needed after the pandemic?
I don’t believe virtual experiences can ever replace the immersive, transformative learning experience of moving abroad for a period of time to study and live inside another culture, nor do they need to replace it. I believe that traditional student exchanges abroad will continue and start to increase in number again when the pandemic subsides.
Instead of alternatives to mobilities, virtual exchanges should be seen as another important tool for internationalising the learning experiences of students also after the pandemic. This was evident also in the feedback from the teachers in our project; most of them reported that they plan to continue to organize virtual exchanges also in the future. The inclusive nature of virtual exchange makes it a very important tool for internationalisation at home. Mobility periods abroad and virtual exchanges at home are very different experiences and tools that do not cancel each other out, but rather complement each other, as vital components in an ecosystem for internationalisation in higher education institutions. They help make internationalisation of the curriculum stronger and more versatile than before.
Metropolia and other Finnish universities of applied sciences have outlined that the ability to work in multicultural and international environments and networks should be a shared competence of all our graduates (3) and it is imperative that we strive to ensure this, making use of all the new and older tools at hand. Therefore, Metropolia’s International Relations is organising another project in 2022 to support more teachers in setting up virtual exchanges.
Niina Huovinen is Head of International Relations at Metropolia University of Applied Sciences and leads Metropolia’s team of passionate internationalization professionals. Enabling international experiences for students and facilitating connections between experts in Metropolia and abroad brings her great joy.
- OECD 2021. The State of Higher Education – One year into the COVID-19 pandemic. OECD Publishing. (pdf)
- Rubin, Jon 2017. Embedding Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) at Higher Education Institutions, An Evolutionary Overview with Exemplars. Internationalisation of Higher Education, Volume No. 2. DUZ Acadmic Publishing
- Arene 2022. Recommendation on the shared competencies of universities of applied sciences and their application. Arene. (pdf)