Teaching for the future

We are saying to our students that they will have to address major global challenges, virtually all of which will require multi-lateral and cross-cultural cooperation, while trying to secure jobs in an increasingly diverse and globalized workforce. How are we preparing our students in HE for this type of future?

Education exchanges and study abroad programs are among the best means to prepare young people for such a world. They increase their inclination and capacity to deal effectively with difference and to communicate and collaborate across cultures.

The catch is that not enough young people are participating in international exchange programs. One possible solution is to introduce virtual exchanges within the curriculum design. This will make it possible for every young person to access high-quality international cross-cultural education, potentially from the first week at university.

Virtual exchanges

·      Are sustainable technology-enabled and people-to-people education programmes.

·      Create opportunities for intercultural exchange and international learning environments without the need to travel abroad, and therefore, generating far less emissions than those produced by flying, for example (being mindful of  the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs).

·      Facilitate access to intercultural exchanges for students who do not have the time or financial resources to study abroad.

·      Can be integrated at all levels of education from pre-school through university and enable deep, interactive social learning.


There are many types of virtual exchanges, and here I am going to focus just on one specific kind: a Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) experience. This is, strictly speaking, a new teaching methodology developed at the State University of New York in 2004. It is one of the possible ways of connecting instructors and students in different countries or distant geographic locations and from different cultural backgrounds, and it is specifically designed to use Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to complete a subject-specific learning task or activity together. Through this methodology, students can participate in projects designed to boost their understanding of various fields and to help them acquire specific skills.

In COIL, unlike distance learning or Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the focus is placed upon the students and their collaboration with one another. This encourages them to take a proactive and participatory role in their education. COIL is framed within the teaching curriculum and requires an intentional design that facilitates and promotes interaction, collaboration and subsequent reflection. Students work in teams on tasks that facilitate the development of digital and intercultural skills.

Therefore, COIL consists of combining course content with a collaborative, international, online dimension:

  • Collaborative in terms of design and teaching (teachers) as well as in terms of teamwork and learning (students)

  • International because it takes place between two countries, generating a space for intercultural learning

  • Online because it happens via the Internet (where the interaction can be synchronous or asynchronous)

However, the central focus of COIL is learning and the student. We can facilitate a collaborative "international" experience in a variety of contexts, even with a cross disciplinary approach and/or civic-engagement through links with community partners. Each COIL experience is unique, depending on who we team up with as educators, but fostering the development of global skills without ever leaving home is indeed a common denominator.

COIL is also a tool for the internationalization of the curriculum, a chance to create a network, both for research and professional development, a means by which to expand global and digital skills, an opportunity to expand the teaching curriculum, a possibility to generate an experience of great impact for our students and a way to create new and motivating projects with like-minded peers that take educators and students out of their comfort zone. Also, although not the main objective, COIL is an opportunity for research and possible publication for academics. 


In recent years, the increasing impact of globalization has caused a significant shift in the key skills required in the future workforce. Therefore, helping students develop 21st century skills and intercultural competency through new innovative means such as cross-cultural interactions and collaboration projects has become increasingly crucial. Universities across the globe are working to weave this into their curriculum. 

In a nutshell, a COIL project makes it possible for students and educators in different countries to connect and learn together and from one another. Educators can get started by designing and implementing a task relevant for both groups of students. This will require from the participants to work in teams. This task would be integrated and be a part of the students’ coursework, meeting their learning needs. These teams offer meaningful and significant opportunities for developing global competencies across disciplines.

COIL promotes sustainable internationalization, empowers global citizens and improves collaboration and flexibility. COIL requires flexible and open-minded teachers, prepared to "manage" an intercultural experience within their classes. It is based on technology, but is not dependent on technology: students and teachers are free to choose which tool, platform or application suits them best, and they can interact synchronously or asynchronously.

Any student in HE, and indeed any educator, can benefit from a COIL project. Developing global competencies to be able to function within different worldviews and interact successfully in multicultural contexts, for example, with colleagues, with neighbours or in any other setting, is something invaluable. It is also something we can offer to our students from the very start of their studies at university. By embedding international partnerships in our teaching we can model the kind of contexts where learning goes beyond subject-specific content and includes in practice scenarios where interpersonal and intercultural communication skills and competencies can also be fostered and actively and meaningfully encouraged.


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