Virtual Study Abroad

Through a new online approach to learning, students at the University of Washington Bothell travel to classrooms across the world via the Internet

As the first member of her Ukrainian immigrant family to attend college, Victoria Vedmed understands the importance of getting a global education. Yet, as a pre-med biology major, the most obvious path to getting this type of international learning experience — through study abroad — could actually lead her
off course.

Victoria Vedmed, a UW Bothell student
Victoria Vedmed,
a UW Bothell student

“I think that I’m going to put that on hold, and I’m going to try to finish [college] a little bit sooner to get into medical school,” says Vedmed, who is a freshman at the University of Washington (UW) Bothell.

One of three UW campuses in the Greater Seattle area, Bothell is using other means to help students get a global education. Through Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL), UW Bothell students in the U.S. connect with students in classrooms around the world via the Internet for a unique international learning experience.

Last quarter, Vedmed got her first taste of what is probably the closest thing to study abroad without traveling. Through a course called “Creating Social Change Using an International Lens,” she got to know and work with students in Tibet.

In this class, Vedmed and her classmates were grouped with Tibetan students abroad with whom they worked throughout a portion of the course. Using Skype video chat, the two classes introduced themselves, and then individual groups got acquainted via Facebook.

At UW Bothell, most COIL courses are set up like this.

“During the course of the quarter, they have two large class Skype sessions, and then the rest of the collaboration [is] done in small groups,” says Natalia Dyba, director of global initiatives at UW Bothell. “Students are either paired up with students on the other side, or they have teams of maybe four people, and then they create their own Facebook group and work on their project.”

During the online, collaborative portion of COIL courses, which typically lasts between four and six weeks, partners or groups work together on a variety of assignments — sometimes synchronously, other times asynchronously. In addition to using Facebook and Skype, students also communicate and collaborate via email and other online programs.

“Every single week we would post articles [to Facebook], and we would comment back and forth to see each other’s perspectives, and then, once or twice a week, we would Skype,” Vedmed says.

Fortunately for UW Bothell, these international partnerships have come about naturally, often from professors who already have connections abroad they want to strengthen. The university currently has partnerships in five countries, but Dyba says they aim to increase that number and connect more faculty in the U.S. with professors abroad.

In 2014, the university came closer to realizing its goal when it received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a portion of which went to supporting and further developing UW Bothell’s COIL program.

Natalia Dyba, director of global initiatives at UW Bothell
Natalia Dyba, director of global initiatives at UW Bothell

“The grant allowed us to hire a part-time international collaboration facilitator who developed a lot of the resources we use and the trainings we’ve done for faculty, [and it] has been really instrumental in building some of the infrastructure for supporting COIL,” says Dyba.

The grant also led to the creation of the COIL International Fellows Program at the university, which uses stipends to incentivize faculty to teach COIL courses. In order to be considered, professors must submit a proposal for the course they want to develop.

“If selected, they commit to working with the Global Initiatives Office over the course of the academic year to move that idea forward, to develop their syllabus and the partnership with their international counterpart,” Dyba says.

Once they complete this process and meet all requirements, these fellows put their training into practice in the classroom and online. The university’s first cohort of fellows consisted of eight professors across the three campuses, and Dyba expects even more in the next cohort.

A Lightbulb Moment

In 1999, upon returning from Belarus on a Fulbright fellowship, Jon Rubin landed on an idea that would change the way students learn about other cultures — and transform his teaching career.

Back in his classroom at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Purchase, Rubin found himself surprised, yet inspired, by students’ reactions to short videos made by the Belarusian students in the “Alternative Western Media” class he taught abroad.

“The questions and comments they made, even though these students probably knew nothing about this little country named Belarus, clearly showed that they were completely filled with stereotypes, and [they] were shocked that these students were intelligent and doing really interesting things and creating really interesting images,” Rubin says. “For me, that was a lightbulb moment.”

Rubin began exploring the idea of his students connecting with students in other countries using online tools, and ended up teaching his first collaborative course with a colleague at the European Humanities University, then in Belarus. Through this course, students were paired with an international peer with whom they worked on video-production projects.

Since then, Rubin’s idea has gained momentum, its own department, and a name. He now serves as director of The COIL Center at the SUNY Global Center, developing and implementing COIL courses and initiatives for all SUNY campuses. But another aspect of his job involves spreading the word and providing assistance to other schools wanting to establish similar programs, which is how Dyba was first introduced to the concept.

“I found the idea to be really compelling and a good match for our campus,” says Dyba, who heard Rubin speak at a conference, “because these types of courses could provide easily engaging international opportunities for our students who are place-bound, who aren’t likely to be able to travel abroad because they have family, or they work or have financial restrictions.”

The concept of COIL goes beyond just providing an alternative, or supplement, to study abroad, and the obvious professional development opportunities it affords students. It also offers students a new, cross-cultural perspective, helping break down baseless stereotypes.

“In this wild world we’re in, where there’s so much bad stuff going on, people form prejudices, and one way to start to dig out from those prejudices is to have experiences with people different than yourself and realize that what you were thinking was maybe way off base,” Rubin says. “So I think that has its own benefits beyond a CV or a job outcome.”

As a relatively new concept, COIL also presents some challenges. While time differences, language barriers, and technological capabilities all come with their own set of problems, they are all manageable. The difficult part, Rubin says, is being sensitive to cultural tendencies and the misunderstandings that may arise when students of different cultures are forced to work together.

“Sometimes it requires thinking about the cultural sensitivities of the people you’re working with. You don’t want to make overly simple cultural generalizations, [but] some students are more likely, let’s say, to jump into a group project, and others are more likely to pull back,” Rubin says. “It’s the same issue that comes up in a diverse classroom, particularly an interculturally diverse classroom where you have students really bringing different attitudes to how they present themselves and perform. They don’t always mesh easily.”

Giving Diversity its Dues

Internationalization — a buzzword for the process of advancing cultural competence and global learning — may require a certain skill set, as well as cultural awareness, but the benefits it provides are immense.

At UW Bothell, where the student body is made up of more nontraditional students, Dyba says COIL is leading the way for “deeper integration of diversity” in the classroom.

“We have a lot of students who come from multicultural backgrounds. … These students are often somewhat marginalized because they may not feel confident that they belong in college or can even make it through,” she says. “In our COIL classes, these students have a voice. That’s something that I think doesn’t happen as much as we would like, and certainly on our campus, it has been a challenge to integrate the diverse student population that we have and take advantage of the diversity.”

And these COIL courses seem to already be having an impact on UW Bothell’s campus, where Dyba says more and more students — particularly those who are underrepresented — are getting critical firsthand experience with other cultures and are expressing an interest in study abroad.

“I think that COIL is kind of like a study abroad class. I went to Tibet without going to Tibet,” Vedmed says. “It kind of shows you what study abroad is without actually having to go there, having to move away, and so the classroom is like Tibet, and then you can walk out and go to your calculus class.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.