Virtual exchanges are challenging the traditional paradigms of student mobility

Long before Covid-19 necessitated universities to adapt their education models and go online, Virtual Exchange (VE) existed. Through the pandemic, familiarity with relevant technology has increased significantly and created possibilities for educators to change the way in which students can engage in intercultural learning, despite not being able to travel.

‘Virtual Exchange 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.’

The Chartered ABS International Committee recently held a webinar to explore the topic of how VE is challenging the traditional paradigms of student mobility. Participants discussed the advantages and barriers to VE in breakout groups and in the final plenary session, several key themes emerged from the discussions:


VE should not be a substitute for in-person experience

VE is complementary and can be preparatory, but it cannot replace in-person experiences in terms of cultural immersion and personal development. That said, VE can offer a wider student population an international experience, as not all students will or can undertake a semester or whole year of physical mobility. Ideally, VE projects should be in the first and/or second year of undergraduate study where they may also encourage students to take up an in-person experience later. However, it can also open up an international experience to postgraduate and part time students for whom it may be difficult to accommodate in-person experiences in their programme of study.


VE should be embedded within the learning and teaching of the home institution

The challenge is to ‘mainstream’ VE, which will require both faculty champions and significant resources. Indeed, staff engagement is paramount to achieve successful VE activity: it will require training, both in managing the project and use of technology. It will need to be recognised and valued by the school and deserves formal recognition through an uplift in learning and teaching workload allocations. For meaningful student engagement, ideally VE projects need to be embedded into the curriculum and attract credit. However, it is recognised that VE may initially start as a pilot project without credit.


VE shifts the focus of activity

The focus of activity will shift from the international office, where the management of physical mobility traditionally resides, to the academic schools and faculty who co-create and implement the activity with academic colleagues at partner schools. That said, the international office will still provide a coordinating role across the institution and with international partners.

At Hertfordshire Business School, in line with the University’s Strategic Plan 2020-25, VE is a key objective within the Global Engagement strand. The school already has a significant level of student and staff mobility including an annual international week, now called Global Week, which has brought faculty from partner schools into the classroom. VE in the school is building on these strong staff mobility links and thereby identifying academic champions and suitable partner schools for VE projects. Next year, the school will also be piloting VE with its franchise partners, where it can build on existing faculty links at module level and shared course content, enabling such VE projects to be more readily included within the curricula at both institutions.

In April 2021, Newcastle University Business School’s international network for Systemic Ethics, Responsibility and Sustainability hosted a case competition with an Italian and US partner school involving full-time and part-time MBA students from all three institutions. Organised in mixed teams, these students worked virtually over a period of 4 weeks on a business challenge presented by an international corporate partner. Academic mentors from each of the institutions were assigned to the student groups and the set-up was designed to enable student participants to apply knowledge and skills learned during their programme to a real-life business scenario.

Participants in the webinar agreed that VE has great potential to foster a range of 21st century employability skills, including global awareness, intercultural competences, empathy, communication skills, critical and analytical thinking, media and digital literacy, and possibly even foreign language proficiency. From the discussion, it was also apparent that the pandemic has kick-started many conversations at institutional and business school level. Hopefully this webinar will provide a useful building block to inform such conversations and facilitate successful future VE activities with our international partners.

The keynote speaker of this event was Dr Robert O’Dowd, Associate Professor for English as a Foreign Language and Applied Linguistics, at University of León in Spain. Dr O’Dowd is a leading authority on VE and is an often-invited speaker within Europe and beyond on this subject. He was also a member of the EU-funded EVOLVE (Evidence-Validated Online Learning through Virtual Exchange) project which is now an important online resource.


Michael Rosier, Associate Dean (International Education and Accreditation), Hertfordshire Business School and Professor Gabriele Vosseberg, Deputy Director (Education and Internationalisation), Newcastle University Business School chaired this webinar session on behalf of the Chartered ABS International Committee.


For further information about Virtual Exchange, we invite you to access the following resources:


  • O’Dowd, R (2021), Virtual Exchange: Moving forward into the next decade, Computer Assisted Language Learning, Volume 34 (3), pp209-224
  • O’Dowd, R, & Lewis, T (2016), Online intercultural exchange: Policy, pedagogy, practice. New York; London: Routledge
  • EU-funded EVOLVE project (Evidence-Validated Online Learning through Virtual Exchange) -
  • State University of New York ‘Collaborative Online International Learning’ (COIL) -