Lessons from Virtual Exchange in Europe: An Interview with Rositsa León
DePaul University in Chicago recently earned a NAFSA Senator Paul Simon Spotlight Award for its efforts in the area of virtual exchange or COIL (collaborative online international learning). DePaul has been a US leader in developing this strategy for student learning and faculty development. Virtual exchange can take different forms, but typically involves faculty at two different institutions co-teaching part or all of a course with students from both institutions engaging with each other in structured ways. Although virtual exchange has deserved more attention as a tool for international collaborations in its own right, it has been receiving increased attention at a time when the immediate viability of study abroad has been thrown into doubt for most of 2020. This interview with Rositsa (Rosi) León, Director of Virtual Exchange and Online Learning at DePaul, seeks to highlight a few observations that faculty and staff at DePaul have made about the particular benefits of virtual exchange involving partner universities in Europe.
—Jonathan Larson for EuropeNow
EuropeNow Rosi, thank you so much for agreeing to this virtual interview about virtual exchange, especially at a time when your office must be receiving a lot of inquiries about your work. It will interest readers to know a little about your background, given that you are one of many Europeans to make a career for yourself in US higher education. How did you become involved in DePaul’s project of building virtual exchange? Do you think that any aspects of your own bicultural experience played a particular role in it?
Rositsa León Thank you so much, Jonathan, it is an honor to speak to you. International Virtual Exchanges (VEs) have certainly taken a central place in higher education in the recent months and I am excited to talk with you about the opportunities they bring to faculty, staff and students.
Indeed, I was born and raised in Sofia, Bulgaria and have been living, studying, and working in the States for over eighteen years. I completed both my undergraduate degree (with focus on adult education and foreign languages), and graduate degree (in bilingual/bicultural education) at DePaul University and have been part of DePaul’s Global Engagement and Online Learning team for over twelve years. I have been involved with our virtual exchange program, called the Global Learning Experience (GLE) program, almost since its inception back in 2013. Looking back, I really wish I had opportunities for virtual international learning as a student. Some people joke that moving to the States from Bulgaria was a study abroad experience in itself, and that is probably in part true, but I remember very clearly the disappointment of not being able to go with my undergraduate adult cohort on the only study abroad program offered in my undergraduate program. It was a program to Colombia to work with low-income communities and teach English as a second language. It was the perfect fit, since I was fluent in Spanish and passionate about foreign language teaching and learning, as well as working with communities in need. Until one day, during initial trip planning meetings I learned about the actual cost of participating, including tuition and fees, and realized that as a working, full-time student, it was impossible for me to participate. It is one of the many reasons why I became so passionate about virtual exchange, as it is an amazing opportunity for students, at no extra cost to them, to have potentially transformative international experiences.
EuropeNow How has your position allowed you to facilitate curricular innovation on your campus outside the traditional faculty track?
Rositsa León Virtual Exchange is a perfect opportunity for curricular innovation. At DePaul University, there is a lot of flexibility for faculty members to make adjustments to their classes in order to incorporate international virtual collaborations. Within certain parameters, really the sky is the limit, and we have seen so much creativity spur through these collaborations. We hear from faculty members about how sometimes VE impacted the way they had been teaching a class for years, changing their own perspectives and enriching their own curriculum. With the right institutional support and faculty motivation, the opportunities are endless.
As a director of virtual exchange, part of my role involves facilitating faculty-to-faculty partnerships, whether I deal with general inquiries (when a professor needs a partner and is open to work with any region around the world), or specific inquiries (when a professor has more concrete parameters like location, language, or time zone that more easily allow synchronous activities, etc.). The process of faculty matchmaking, which takes in consideration course content/disciplines (including interdisciplinary projects), ultimately impacts the content of the VE projects, even though the two faculty members have control over the design of the actual project. My role is similar to that of a chef who sees two ingredients that may work well together and tries to mix and match them. I don’t make the ingredients, nor do I know that they will always work well together, but I can see the whole array of ingredients in the cabinet and make possible pairings. It is a very rewarding experience when faculty partnerships facilitated through our office result in a fruitful international collaboration.
EuropeNow I’d like to turn now to a question on student learning about Europe at US colleges and universities. What have you found are some of the most common topical points of entry for DePaul students to engage with Europe?
Rositsa León European cities are still a primary destination for US students in general, and I think it is a combination of many factors, like rich history, fascinating architecture, and certain linguistic and cultural familiarity, among others. For many DePaul students in particular, the primary attraction to Europe is often based on family history and ethnic origin. We see this very often with students of Irish, Italian, Greek, and Polish descent, as Chicago is a city of immigrants with very large waves from those countries. The second significant “topical point of entry” is language, particularly with Spain. Some of our students’ interest is sparked by living in the diverse city of Chicago where they have access to numerous Hispanic communities, and can practice their español while exploring festivals, museums, neighborhoods, and restaurants, and experiencing the richness of the Spanish-speaking world.
EuropeNow How well have these interests translated into study abroad or physical mobility to Europe for DePaul students? As the students of almost every campus have faced (even before the pandemic) some impediments to physical mobility to another world region, what have been some particular challenges that your students have faced?
Rositsa León If we take into consideration interests such as language and affordability, for example, London and Budapest have been our two most popular study abroad programs. London has the attraction of ease of language and perceived cultural proximity, in addition to the big city attraction. Budapest has historically gained popularity because of affordability and the fact that our partner offers a broad curriculum in English; also because of the ease of travel from Budapest to the rest of Europe. However, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, only about four percent of DePaul students were able to study abroad annually for a variety of reasons (family obligations, work commitments—as many of our students also have to work to support themselves—or cost).
For us, one of the main goals of our GLE program is to provide access to international experience to the largest number of students possible. The COVID-19 pandemic certainly disrupted our lives in myriad ways. As educators with a particular interest in global engagement, we were concerned about all the immersive opportunities for intercultural interaction that our students had to forgo. For example, over 700 students who had planned to study abroad during Spring Break, Spring quarter, or Summer had to alter their plans, due to the current circumstances. Our global engagement division tirelessly continues to work in finding new ways, such as virtual internships, or expanding existing opportunities, such as virtual exchanges, for students to gain valuable international experiences in the current global crisis.
EuropeNow What was the level of student interest in Europe like before DePaul started building its program in virtual exchange? Is there any evidence that virtual exchange has changed that level of interest, or at DePaul would we be speaking more of a diversification of how students are engaging with Europe?
Rositsa León We do have some evidence of increased level of interest in Europe, based on some of our virtual exchange projects. For example, in a political science collaboration with the University of Dubrovnik, Croatia, the VE component certainly increased interest in a country and destination that wasn’t on our radar before. In another VE collaboration in sound design with the University of Dundee, Scotland, the faculty collaboration brought along interest in Scotland’s gaming scene that produced the participation of a group of DePaul students in Dundee’s summer gaming competition. Even beyond what we have seen so far, there is a lot more potential for VE collaborations to further increase interest in Europe, and certainly more can be done in expanding existing collaborations into new international opportunities for students. One goal ahead of us at DePaul is to increase student awareness of what VE/GLE means, so when they see (in our internal university system) that a course has a “GLE” component, they know exactly what that means and purposefully look for those courses in the future, in order to build their international portfolio.
EuropeNow Tell us a little about your faculty. How would you characterize their own level of international engagement before DePaul started building its program in virtual exchange, and how has faculty interest in Europe changed with virtual exchange as an option?
Rositsa León It really varies, we have had faculty with a lot of international experience participate as well as faculty with very limited experience, and faculty with multiple international collaborators, as well as those who don’t have any partners abroad but are really intrigued by the VE pedagogy and want to try it. VE welcomes anyone to get engaged, regardless of their experience. In most of our projects, the driving force, more than the actual partner country location, has been a solid partnership between the two faculty members, including match in personalities, teaching styles and disciplines, and course scheduling similarities. Some faculty have come to the table with already established European partners, and some have come to us for help asking for partner contacts in Europe. Some have come with an open request for partners, and we partnered them with a professor at a European institution.
EuropeNow Each world region sparks associations in the imaginations of people who are not from there, and undergraduates of US institutions (while diverse) are of course no exception. As someone originally from a country in Europe, do you have any favorite or least favorite stereotype of what people in the US think that “Europe” is like?
Rositsa León This is a great question. One common stereotype I often come across is when people refer to “Europe” as if it were one thing; for example, when they say “my children spent a semester studying in Europe.” For me “Europe” is so incredibly rich, and each country and region has so much unique history, culture, language, and charm, that there is never going to be just one “Europe,” but rather a million special places within it. The picturesque seaside of Bulgaria’s eastern border (the Black Sea) differs quite a lot from the vibrant capital city of Sofia (in Bulgarian: София), or the historical city of Panagiurishte (in Bulgarian: Панагюрище), the center of the 1876 April Uprising against the Ottoman rule- all of which are beautiful and unique in their own way. The same goes in many other countries and regions within Europe.
EuropeNow How do you think that virtual exchange with European partners has offered DePaul students opportunities to challenge those images or stereotypes and discover something else?
Rositsa León One example that comes to mind is related to the misconception that everyone in Europe speaks English, especially in countries where one of the official languages is English. Therefore, it is assumed that communication wouldn’t be a problem. In the VE project with Scotland that I mentioned earlier, the US students quickly realized that English is certainly not spoken in the same way everywhere and that language adjustments and clarifications are part of intercultural communication even if we all speak “English.”
EuropeNow Do you have any basis for comparing how different these students’ experiences might have been through physical mobility, such as study abroad? Was there anything about the virtual exchange environment that may have thwarted the potential in study abroad for a US student “bubble,” or for the very powerful pull of the tourist’s gaze?
Rositsa León Though we don’t have specific comparative data between study abroad and virtual exchange, based on internal data collected from ninety-two GLE courses over twelve terms, almost sixty percent of DePaul students agree or strongly agree that participating in a GLE “increased their interest in further opportunities for international cultural exchanges such as study abroad.” Certainly, both GLE and study abroad are very valuable and potentially transformative experiences, while at the same time each of them provides a different set of learning opportunities to students and a chance to leave their comfort zone. We can certainly make the argument that since in VE projects students must collaborate directly with peers from other countries, there is rarely a duplication of the “American bubble abroad” phenomenon, as our students cannot simply “hang out” with their American classmates, because of the structure of the VE projects.
EuropeNow Many readers of EuropeNow of course speak multiple languages and promote the study of other languages. How does virtual exchange compare with study abroad immersion when it comes to language learning? Have you and your colleagues at DePaul or elsewhere found anything that might surprise us about language acquisition through virtual exchange?
Rositsa León Going back to the example with Scotland, because the majority of VE projects are conducted in English as a common language, often times the surprise comes from the variety of “englishes” that students encounter. Unlike in a study abroad experience, where students are immersed in another language and culture and expect that from the beginning, in a virtual exchange project where they know collaboration will take place in English, the negotiation of meaning even within the “same” English language is a very interesting experience for them. Some realize for the first time the extra effort it may take from a non-native English speaker to collaborate in a project in their second or third language, and there is, hopefully, a great appreciation that comes with that.
Furthermore, eTandem or Teletandem projects, which share some commonality with VE projects, focus exclusively on second language learning, at a distance, in a peer-to-peer format. In these collaborations, students are paired with native speakers in another country in order to practice their second language in oral and/or written form. The goal is to deepen students’ cultural and linguistic knowledge by using a variety of technology tools. Currently, at DePaul, almost all intermediate level Spanish courses include an eTandem component, in collaboration with two of our partner schools in Mexico and Colombia.
EuropeNow Would you mind sharing with us a brief description of one or two of your favorite courses involving virtual exchange with European partners? What, in particular, excited you about what the faculty and students accomplished?
Rositsa León It is really difficult to pick favorites as each of the projects has a very unique design and flavor to it, which is one of the great things about VE. Perhaps focusing on a couple of our longer-standing projects, one collaboration that comes to mind is with one of our partner schools in Croatia in the political science discipline. This GLE project initially began with regular synchronous class-to-class discussions about political problems and issues, exploring the sharp differences in perception of and experiences with “democracy” in Croatia and the US During the initial iterations of the project, students engaged in a variety of assignments, such as reflecting on the significance of the longevity of “democratic systems,” and their challenges and prospects within each local context. They produced their own operational definitions of “democracy,” including arguments for and against defining democracy.
Well into the second year, the two professors decided to tackle the absence of civic education in the public school system in Croatia, and engage their students in addressing the problem by creating an interactive digital game, which introduces students to basic political concepts. With additional support from the Erasmus+ program, student visits to Chicago and Dubrovnik, respectively, were planned during the game project development.
EuropeNow I know that you and your colleague GianMario Besana, Associate Provost for Global Engagement and Online Learning at DePaul, are not at all Pollyannish about virtual exchange as a tool to facilitate engagement with other peoples and places. What would be one or two cautions you might offer about people interested in trying to develop it on their campuses?
Rositsa León One of the main recommendations we have in the current climate is not to rush it; a good virtual exchange project, in its true pedagogical form, requires time to design, and professors need the necessary preparation and support in order to implement it successfully. VE projects require careful planning and can take months to design, but the benefit to the students, as well as to the faculty and staff involved in making them a reality, is worth the effort.
EuropeNow Have you found that there are particular challenges of implementing it with European partners? Conversely, what have been some of the benefits?
Rositsa León Sometimes a possible obstacle in working with some European countries can be the slightly different structure of course assignments and assessments. In some cases, Europeans tend not to have assessable intermediate projects, but only one large final exam at the end of the term. This can create some difficulties when trying to design assessable VE activities with U.S. partners, many of which have mid-term projects/exams, as well as other assignments due throughout their term.
Sometimes challenges are really a matter of perception. Let’s take time difference, for example. For some U.S. faculty working with European partners, time difference could be seen as an obstacle, but for other faculty, that is one of the reasons why they engage with that part of the world, especially if they teach morning classes in the U.S., which match with afternoon classes in many European partner locations.
Despite any potential (or perceived) challenges, however, the main factor in implementing a successful project is finding the right faculty partner match, regardless of where they may be located in the world. If there is a solid institutional partnership going along with two equally engaged professors on each side, there are plenty of options to make VE a reality in any institution, within any discipline. VE is a rapidly growing field, and I encourage anyone interested in learning more to get engaged with the VE community around the globe.
Rositsa (Rosi) León is Director of Virtual Exchange and Online Learning at DePaul University in Chicago, IL. She provides management and support for DePaul’s award winning virtual exchange (VE) initiative, the Global Learning Experience (GLE), across ten colleges. She facilitates the matching of DePaul faculty with international counterparts, oversees program marketing efforts and course and program assessment, and manages GLE faculty grants.
Jonathan Larson is Associate Director of the EU Center at the University of Illinois. A linguistic and sociocultural anthropologist by training, his teaching and scholarship has explored changes in communicative practices during times of political and economic transformation, the social foundations of critical thinking, censorship and surveillance, media ethnography, and the internationalization of higher education.
Readers interested in more general background on DePaul’s approach to virtual exchange and on the field in general are encouraged to review the DePaul’s website for its Global Learning Experience program in virtual exchange, or other resources such as the SUNY COIL Center, UNICollaboration or the International Virtual Exchange Conference.
Published on August 4, 2020.