Announcing the Virtual Exchange (VE) Sub-Group

Virtual Exchange (VE) is a practice, supported by research, that consists of sustained, technology-enabled, people-to-people education programmes or activities in which constructive communication and interaction takes place between individuals or groups who are geographically separated and/or from different cultural backgrounds, with the support of educators or facilitators. Virtual Exchange combines the deep impact of intercultural dialogue and exchange with the broad reach of digital technology (EVOLVE, 2019). In the US it is more commonly known as Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) and is associated with the SUNY COIL Center.

In higher education in Europe and beyond, many see VE as “the” solution to internationalisation at home (IaH)”, that is “the purposeful integration of international and intercultural dimensions into the formal and informal curriculum for all students within domestic learning environments” (Beelen & Jones, 2015).

Institutional IaH strategies are usually driven by the fact that the majority of higher education students are not internationally mobile, but that universities are seen as being responsible for preparing students for a global society and a globally interconnected world. Currently, the IaH through VE trend is reinforced by a growing number of educators who are concerned about the sustainability and the environmental impact of international mobility and who call for other – more climate-neutral – forms of mobility and exchange (e.g. de Wit & Altbach, 2020).

And last but not least the current pandemic has added its own weight to the argument in favour of VE. At a recent webinar hosted by Class2Class on Increasing Student Engagement when faced with Limited Physical Mobility, Mary Lou Forward, director of the SUNY COIL Center, attributed growing institutional interest in VE to the fact that we live in a time of tremendous social change and people are demanding social justice. We will need to make sustained connections to understand where other people are coming from to be able to transform our own societies into the kinds of places we want for the future.

We wholeheartedly subscribe to all facets of the argument in favour of VE, but in alignment with the remit of the Critical Internationalisation Studies Network (CISN), we want to draw attention to some of the challenges that come with the drive to institutionalise VE. These challenges are starting to be identified and explored in published VE research based on the realisation that VE, in fact any online learning and teaching, is prone to reproduce similar unequal power dynamics as f2f classrooms. The knowledges which are made relevant in VEs and the terms under which the exchanges take place, can be influenced by many different factors: the teaching partners’ academic positions, their linguistic competence, the linguistic competence of their students, access to and experience in the use of technology, institutional constraints (lack of support, acknowledgement, rewards etc.), gender, race, age, geo-political issues (Helm, 2020).

We have joined the CISN to explore more systematically with those among you who are interested, issues related to equity and power:
· How it operates in the digital spaces we use in VE, and
· How it shapes ways of thinking and doing that perpetuate social and cultural inequalities both on- and offline.
We strongly feel that these issues need to be brought to the fore in the exchanges themselves and in our research into VE.

We invite you to take a critical stance and start to unpack some of the assumptions and ideologies in the discourses surrounding educational technologies in general and VE-based IaH in particular.

We will be in touch with a date and a time for a meeting of the Critical VE subgroup of the CISN soon. And look forward to working with you.


Authors: Dr. Mirjam Hauck and Dr. Francesca Helm

Dr. Mirjam Hauck is Associate Head for Internationalisation, Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion in the School of Languages and Applied Linguistics at the Open University/UK and a Senior Fellow of the UK’s Higher Education Academy. She has published widely on the use of technologies for the learning and teaching of languages and cultures, in virtual exchange contexts in particular.

Dr. Francesca Helm is Assistant Professor of English Language and Translation at the University of Padova (Italy). Her research interests lie in online intercultural dialogue and exchange, language education and policy, critical approaches to internationalisation of higher education and online education, academic freedom, and social justice. She is co-coordinator of the Italian section of Scholars at Risk.

Note: The video from Dr. Mirjam Hauck and Dr. Francesca Helm’s November 12 presentation, “Critical Internationalisation through Critical Virtual Exchange (VE)”, is now available to view: https://youtu.be/S1EZL4DLjew