Virtual Exchange at Community Colleges: Promise and Pedagogy for Expanding European Ties
For over twenty years, virtual exchange (VE) has been a growing part of international higher education practice and policy, harnessing the power of increasingly user-friendly and low-cost technologies. In this article, we focus on the connected classroom approach to VE, variously called globally networked learning, telecollaboration, Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL), and Collaborative Learning for International Capabilities and Knowledge (CLICK). Through these models, faculty in different countries create a third learning space where their students work in cross-cultural teams using technology and well-designed problem-based learning activities. In these programs, typically, students pay tuition to and earn grades from their home institutions while collaborating internationally. VE provides access for many students to engage globally through the curriculum, spurring at-home international studies and exchange abroad while adding risk management and carbon footprint benefits. Two major bridge organizations—US-based SUNY COIL and European-based UNICollaboration—serve as hubs for overlapping global networks. They help their institutional and individual faculty members meet VE’s three main operational challenges—connecting partners, training teachers in effective pedagogies, and supporting institutional development. Overall, the field is growing with new regional VE networks, an annual International VE Conference, a newly created journal, and efforts to establish research and assessment systems and standard practices. Higher education associations in Europe, the US, and other regions have developed VE support and guidance programs. Domestic national policy groups in the US also have intensified VE support.
In particular, VE fills an important gap for US community colleges and their counterparts in Europe, especially in fulfilling their global workforce aims. Roughly 40 percent of US college students are enrolled in the 1,050 US community colleges, but less than one percent of these students participate in education abroad compared to 11 percent of all undergraduate students. Gazelle International, the US nonprofit founded by Nancy Ruther, helps community colleges close that gap with VE bridge services called CLICK (Collaborative Learning for International Capabilities and Knowledge), which includes high-impact pedagogies to develop team, technology, and cross-cultural skills along with subject learning. We present here two specific CLICK projects we have led with community colleges and for which we share institutional details, pedagogy training that helps teachers adapt to the demands of VE collaboration, and teacher and student perspectives.
Case study of a community college VE initiative
The Connecticut Community Colleges’ VE initiative began in 2017 and is named “CT CLICKs +.” It is anchored in faculty-led VE courses “plus” live student and faculty exchange between partners. The lead partner, the Connecticut College of Technology (COT) matches its engineering and technology fields with the same or transversal subjects in theFrench Instituts Universitaires de Technologie (IUT). Serendipitously in 2017, the French Embassy (US) shifted its mobility focus to community colleges and made introductions to possible French IUT and engineering university partners. With early support of French transatlantic mobility grants, Connecticut students joined intensive summer programs in France. Gazelle International intermediated these connections—institutionally with Connecticut and French partners and individually with training and support for teachers new to VE, CLICK, and assessment. We present here student and teacher results from two CLICK modules connecting US and French courses to develop students’ twenty-first century intercultural competencies, and regional and linguistic engagement. The two modules we consider are:
- A Fall 2019 interdisciplinary module titled “Communicating in Color: Artists and Engineers” joined an Art class from Tunxis Community College (US) and an English for Electrical Engineering class from IUT de Cachan, Université Paris-Saclay (FR). The module involved two teachers, twenty US and twenty-five French students, who completed their projects over twelve weeks in teams of four to five students each.
- A Fall 2020 same-discipline module titled “E^3: Engineering Expertise Exchange” joined an Engineering class from Middlesex Community College and an English for Engineers class from Polytech Paris-Saclay (FR). The module involved two teachers, twenty US and twenty French students, who completed their projects over eight weeks in teams of four students each.
CLICK workshop training and benefits for teachers
Teachers ultimately created the magic of engaging students in international and European studies and nurturing their plans for further study or work abroad. Bridging US-FR institutions, Gazelle International provided teachers design-focused training. By the end of our 18-hour Design Workshop for teachers to develop their VE projects, the teaching partners were ready to run the full 8-12 week CLICK modules. Addressing team-based pedagogy, project-based learning and collaborative teaching, teachers emulated the collaboration that they would ask of students in the CLICK module. Using backward design principles, teachers created shared CLICK goals, outlined the final capstone project that the international student teams would produce, and created an avatar highlighting their shared purpose. They scaffolded learning activities, resources, and schedules that incorporated: team-building activities, intermediate activities, and a capstone project. The Design Workshop culminated in making final choices around techno-pedagogy, monitoring and assessing individual and team progress, and integrating the module plan into their home course syllabi. In running their CLICK modules, teachers received support from Gazelle International facilitators and the facilitated CLICK Network, a learning community of CLICK teachers.
The CT CLICKs program’s desired outcomes for teachers included: increased confidence and skills to support students in achieving twenty-first century skills (teamwork, technology, and cross-cultural communication); increased ability to co-teach and work effectively with an international partner; and greater motivation to sustain international partnerships and programs. Now that we have reviewed the desired outcomes, we will share teachers’ results in their own voices from post-module assessments. Overall, first-time and experienced CLICK teachers found the in-depth design training and guidance essential and most welcome. A sign of success was partners planning to repeat and develop new modules together or with other teachers. All indicated wanting to continue building the program with their partners via travel post-COVID-19. Teachers welcomed collaborative teaching and new techno-pedagogy tools for their own professional development and to transfer to other courses. In the post-module assessment, one teacher said, “I didn’t have any experience co-teaching a course before and this project filled that gap. Great experience!” The results for their students were the most important outcome for teachers on both sides. One teacher explained, “I really wanted to introduce some kind of . . . global opportunity for my students just to be connecting with people outside of their community.” Another noted, “the most significant success was the students’ enthusiasm” for the project, and added, “It was a wonderful experience and gave me a new outlook to my relationship with the students.” In summary, one of the greatest rewards of VE for instructors is that it energizes one’s teaching.
CLICK student learning outcomes and survey results
Student results are the ultimate test of success of the US-European VE connections. Beyond the completion of the module and home courses, student reflections on the goals are revealing. The teaching partners designed student goals of collaboration, online citizenship, effective use of technology, and intercultural competence. The modules, culminating in a capstone project, also aimed to fulfill specific subject goals. In the Fall 2019 module, “Communicating in Color,” US/FR artist-engineering student teams designed and carried out an experiment to answer their internationally-focused color-related question, e.g. How does food color affect appetite? Students presented their results demonstrating how artists and engineers use color in different cultural and professional settings. In the Spring 2020 module, “E^3: Engineering,” the primary goal was to communicate as engineers, applying principles of engineering theory and oral communication skills. US/FR student teams’ explainer videos relayed the challenges and accomplishments of different engineering fields with detailed scripts and visual aids.
Post-CLICK surveys and debriefings revealed that students largely achieved the goals set by their teachers and gained additional rewards. Table 1 summarizes positive results for both modules, Fall 2019 and Spring 2020. For the statement “It is important to communicate in more than one language,” overall students “Strongly Agreed” and “Agreed,” indicating both modules’ positive impact on appreciation for cultural and linguistic diversity. For “I appreciate the value of different cultural perspectives,” over 90 percent of US students in Fall 2019 answered “Strongly Agree,” up from 70 percent in the pre-CLICK survey. The US students bonded well with the French students, gaining meaningful experience, workforce skills, and appreciation for French language and culture. Significantly, of US students, 72.73 percent in Fall 2019 and 69.23 percent in Spring 2020 reported that the module changed their perception of France. Several US students in both modules reported their participation influenced them to adjust their major, field of study or career aspirations. A Spring 2020 US student said, “The CLICKs project helped me realize how big the engineering field is. People from all around the world are involved, and this project help [sic] me notice that.” The scaffolded, collaborative activities allowed students to determine an area they wanted to study further, become more open to trying new things in the future, broaden their perspective, appreciate international networking opportunities and collaboration, and develop greater interest in languages. These exchanges helped the community college students think more globally about their futures, especially with Europe and France.
|Fall 2019 Module
| Spring 2020 Module
|The CLICK project introduced me to a new outlook and new ways of thinking about the world.||82.35%||67.74%|
|I appreciate the value of different cultural perspectives.||94.12%||90.32%|
|Learning to collaborate cross-culturally will help position me to succeed in the global workforce.||70.59%||83.87%|
|It is important to communicate in more than one language.||100%||90.32%|
Table 1. Post-CLICK, anonymous survey responses from US/FR students indicating “Agree” or “Strongly Agree.”
In the pre-CLICK survey, students’ open-ended responses indicated what they thought would be the greatest reward of the upcoming module, i.e., gaining new friends and relationships, an increased cultural awareness or appreciation, and the overall experience. In the post-CLICK survey, students raised these along with new rewards, as seen in Table 2. In post-CLICK debriefings, one US teacher underscored how impressed she was with the lasting friendships that students formed: “I wasn’t expecting the relationships to develop that much. . . . [The social aspect] was so positive and uplifting for them.” The French students echoed the US students and added great satisfaction with English-language practice and increased fluency. One French teacher lauded the authentic exchange requiring students to use real-life communication to get and share information. She believed that her students confronted their stereotypes of US students with reality, which opened them up to the world.
|# students citing reward – Fall 2019 Module||# students citing reward – Spring 2020 Module|
|Friendships and relationships||7||7|
|Cultural appreciation and awareness||2||6|
|Successful completion of project||2||8|
|Greater insight into subject matter||2||2|
|Personal and professional development||2||1|
Table 2. Post-CLICK, anonymous, open-ended US/FR student survey responses to the question, “What has been the greatest reward from participating in this CLICK project?”
Moving forward with VE to advance European ties
Any pair of motivated, creative and flexible teachers can create a VE module, but the first time is particularly complex. Even great teachers benefit from training to avoid rookie mistakes, foresee challenges, and begin working together to create a seamless third learning space where students achieve VE learning outcomes. CLICK and many VE training programs introduce high-impact pedagogy practices, helping teachers be intentional about the learning goals and ensuring activities where students truly develop cross-cultural skills together. Effective international teamwork does not just happen. VE training is an efficient path, especially for first-timers, to foster students’ success and teachers’ confidence in growing the international program. Experienced VE teachers also benefit from training, refreshing skills, learning from colleagues, and adding new subjects and partners. Access to training has many routes—individual teachers may register independently for a group program or work through their home institutions’ partnerships with VE training organizations.
How readily could the US/French results described above be applied to strengthening European ties? Hopefully, this case study and similar work done by other “bridge” organizations serve as inspiration for those seeking to expand European connections for teaching, learning, and research. This case study of two recent classroom-to-classroom VE projects demonstrates the potential for VE to accomplish a number of goals. It can improve access to international or European studies and deepen relational ties with European students for those studying at community colleges in the US who historically have had less access to traditional mobility programs. VE produces the desired cross-cultural result of mobility but at zero extra cost to students. The students’ motivation in these modules around new friends and peers was palpable and several shifted their work or study plans to add a global or French component. Administrators at community colleges see several VE benefits: to motivate students to take language, culture, or history courses as they collaborate with their European counterparts; to build student confidence in future study and career plans as they feel more prepared to apply to larger international companies; and to encourage teachers to develop new international connections and plan further “live” exchanges. Bridge organizations and their support are valuable because teacher training and instructional support requirements are heaviest in the start-up phase. Although VE partnerships are time-consuming to begin, once established they are sustainable and cost-efficient for community colleges and other institutions with budget constraints.
On the French side, VE fills a gap in internationalization plans since IUTs face similar challenges as community colleges in getting strong international experience for their students. As the IUT system adds a Bachelor (BUT) to the current Diplôme (DUT), VE can help meet the growing demand for global experience. French university administrators also see the value in deploying VE for different stages of the education process, including Masters programs as seen in the “E^3” module with advanced Masters students improving their English during their apprenticeships. Similarly, VE could help prepare engineering students before their international apprenticeships. In conclusion, collaborative international problem-based learning is quite motivating to students and faculty alike. Focused on European or European-US comparative subject matter, VE provides a relatively low-barrier entry point for any campus to add this exciting pedagogy to their curriculum and these opportunities to their students.
Nancy Ruther, EdD is the Founder and Principal of Gazelle International; Yale University MacMillan Center International & Area Studies Associate Director (retired); Chevalier des Palmes Académiques. Her research focuses on public policy and international higher education and assessment.
Sarah Rabke is a fifth-year PhD candidate in the department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese at the University of Virginia, specializing in literature. She works as the Virtual Learning Liaison at Gazelle International for the 2020-2021 academic year. Her research focuses on contemporary Spanish theater and representations of migration and mobility.
Alexa Jeffress is a sixth-year PhD candidate in the department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese at the University of Virginia. She works as the CLICK Teaching and Learning Coordinator at Gazelle International. Her research focuses on virtual exchange, nineteenth and twentieth century Spanish literature and film, and translation studies.
 For reference, UNICollaboration currently has 50-60 members, roughly one-third of which are institutional members in its relatively recently created nonprofit organizational form. Before organizing this way in 2018, UNICollaboration has engaged and trained many teachers in higher education organizations. SUNY COIL currently has 66 institutional partners listed on their website.
 A non-exhaustive list of examples include: European Association for International Education (EAIE), Association for International Education Administrators (AIEA), American Council on Education (ACE), American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU), NAFSA: Association of International Educators, Erasmus, German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), Office of Global Education Programs in the US Department of State.
 The US Department of State supports several international education grant programs that encourage VE with priorities for community colleges. In the EU, the Erasmus EVOLVE (Evidence-based Virtual Online Learning through Virtual Exchange) project supported VE with training for teachers, set up an impact research framework and issued a first major report <https://evolve-erasmus.eu/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Baseline-study-report-Final_Published_Incl_Survey.pdf>, (Accessed 9 January 2021). The French Embassy in the US has created the Transatlantic Mobility Program with grants that recognize VE’s capacity to extend the reach of normal mobility support to more faculty and students. DAAD, the German exchange organization through its recently created digitalisation office, completed its first round of IVAC (International Virtual Academic Collaboration) grants, offering 61 awards <https://www.daad.de/en/information-services-for-higher-education-institutions/further-information-on-daad-programmes/ivac/>, (Accessed 9 January 2021).
 Open Doors (2020). Report on International Educational Exchange < https://www.iie.org/Research-and-Insights/Publications/Open-Doors-2019>, (Accessed 9 January 2021).
 For more details on the network of universities and IUT partners in France as of March 2020, please see <http://www.gazelle-international.org/post/us-community-colleges-cousins-in-france>. For a list of the CT CLICKs modules produced by teachers involved please see <https://bit.ly/CLICKminiCases>, (Accessed 9 January 2021).
 For more information on the overall project, see Gazelle Intl’s Three Year Report <https://bit.ly/39i3GXx>, (Accessed 9 January 2021).
Photo: Abstract plexus structure of many glowing lines and particles. Connection concept. Creative technological background with digital composition and optical flares. 3d rendering
Published on February 9, 2021.