Developing virtual exchange at the University of Edinburgh

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Credit: pixabay, geralt, CC0

As part of its ambitious Vision 2025 strategy, the University of Edinburgh is committed to provide all students with an international experience. In this post, Dr Justine Seran, who works in Go Abroad, explains how Edinburgh Global is keen to build capacity and develop skills in virtual exchange and experiential learning to provide new, flexible opportunities for students who cannot go on traditional year-long exchanges abroad…

With our university graduates entering increasingly globalised workplaces, the need to foster the acquisition of intercultural skills and global citizenship attributes is becoming ever more pressing. It is in this context that the University was awarded its first Key Action 203 Strategic Partnership funding by the European Commission in 2017 to develop the Network for Intercultural Competence to facilitate Entrepreneurship (NICE) in collaboration with 7 other European universities*. NICE aims to enhance student employability by facilitating the development of intercultural competencies and entrepreneurial skills, and their practical application in “real-life” situations to address global challenges by collaborating in virtual, transnational groups using tailor-made ICT tools. Students can also achieve academic recognition for their participation in NICE via a SLICC.

NICE Logo and strapline

From the NICE materials grew the INCiTE Summer School programme**. This is a fully blended learning opportunity that integrates online modules, virtual transnational student groups from Europe, Asia, and Australia working together on creating business solutions, and social enterprises to address global challenges. They also offer a physical summer school in China with a focus on project-based learning, design thinking, social innovation, and business in context.

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At the heart of both projects is the idea that collaborative decision-making can be used as a learning tool. But how do we shift students’ expectations towards transformative peer learning after years of transmissive teacher-led education? Virtual Exchange Facilitators are crucial to this endeavour. They model best practice in intercultural communication, enable discussion, and encourage students to reflect on their experiences. Facilitators also set objectives and help to clarify the learning and progress achieved, accompanying the group through the stages of collaborative decision, activation, and reflection.

It is our hope that this new portfolio of funded, short-term, blended opportunities will allow students from a widening participation background, with caring responsibilities, and/or different abilities, to engage in high-impact, meaningful intercultural encounters, and access the personal and professional benefits of an international experience. However, we are also aware of the inbuilt inequalities inherent to virtual exchange initiatives, i.e. unequal access to technology and reliable high-speed connection, and the use of English as the primary vehicle for communication between students from all over Europe and further afield.

Here at Edinburgh Global, our virtual exchange initiative is just getting started through the blended learning programmes mentioned above. In the future, we will deliver a range of activities to help academic and professional staff create, implement, and support virtual exchange projects and new opportunities for students. These can take many different forms, for example:

  • Connecting existing courses at different universities through a shared project.
  • Designing a new course around cultural dialogue taking place in a virtual environment.
  • Blending virtual and physical exchange, with the virtual component taking place over a period of months and allowing for a shorter physical exchange that is both highly impactful and cost-effective for students.

As with any innovation, virtual exchange is not immune to critique, but it is an exciting development in Higher Education with far-reaching potential, and we will ensure that the University is a leader in this particular revolution.

UoE Students: You can apply for NICE here and INCiTE here!

UoE Staff: Join us as virtual exchange facilitators! Email goabroadprojects@ed.ac.uk to find out more.

*NICE partners: University College Dublin (Ireland), University of Lund (Sweden), University of Padova (Italy), University of Goettingen (Germany), University of Iasi (Romania), University of Salamanca (Spain), and University of Amsterdam (Netherlands).

UoE contact: Anna Creery, Go Abroad Projects Advisor.

**INCiTE partners: Nanyang Technological University (Singapore), University of Sydney (Australia), University of Amsterdam (Netherlands), and Jiangsu Education Services for International Exchange (China).

UoE contact: John Bennett, Go Abroad Projects Manager.

Justine Seran

Dr. Justine Seran works in the Go Abroad Projects teams in Edinburgh Global. She specialises in new forms of mobility, including virtual exchange, and is passionate about enhancing the student experience through the provision of holistic support including academic skills, social integration, culture shock, mental and emotional wellbeing, and employability.

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