A Worldwide Web of Virtual Learning

Approaches, models, and keys to success for virtual learning to help sustain international education during uncertain times.
Many institutions have adopted online tools and models as part of a continuum of experiences that support the internationalization mission. Illustration: Shutterstock

Like countless students who had plans to study abroad this spring, a dozen students enrolled in Kirkwood Community College’s six-credit Rome program found themselves unable to travel to Italy as the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak spread. 

“They should still be in Rome right now,” Dawn Wood, MA, the Iowa college’s dean of global learning, said in late May. Instead, students participated in virtual museum tours and completed the program’s learning experiences and assignments at home. 

“We canceled the travel portion, but we didn’t cancel the academic portion,” Wood says. 

Even before the pandemic forced virtually all U.S. institutions and many of their global counterparts to shutter campuses and shift to online learning, virtual experiences had become a vital part of international education. 

From virtual exchange programs targeted at the large number of students without the time or financial means to study abroad to virtual advising and orientation for inbound and outbound students, many institutions have adopted online tools and models as part of a continuum of experiences that support the internationalization mission. 

“We’ve been trying to push all the options. Now we’re limited to the only option,” says Wood. “That’s an opportunity to refine [virtual learning] and give faculty more tools to use it in their classrooms.” 

At a time when higher education faces questions about its relevance and campuses weigh the risks of reopening, virtual international experiences are seen as a way to maintain student engagement. However, creating effective virtual programs requires careful planning and revisiting the overall goals of international education.

“It’s going back to first principles—what are your values, and what are you trying to accomplish?” says Andrew Law, PhD, academic dean of Arcadia University’s College of Global Studies. “Proximity to difference isn’t in and of itself education. It has to be an educational enterprise supporting young people navigating that space to make it meaningful. This has forced us to put our money where our mouth is.”

Challenges and Connections

Serving more than 135,000 students from around the world, Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) is considered a leader in online education. But it also is home to between 700 and 1,000 international students who live on campus every year. Like other institutions, SNHU sent many of them home this spring to finish out the year virtually.

“All the same questions largely apply with a set of twists that come with an international lens,” says SNHU President Paul LeBlanc, PhD. “The mark of success was not whether we were able to give students an equal experience—it won’t be. But it could be better.”

In similar fashion, after bringing students home who were studying abroad this spring, Arcadia shifted its upcoming study abroad programs to shorter six-week academic blocks, providing the flexibility to offer online experiences first, then moving to in-person learning later in the fall if conditions allow. In the meantime, Law says, the goal is to ensure online study abroad offers the same focus as in-person programs. 

“Our stock in trade is community-based engaged learning,” he says. “What does it mean to shift that to the virtual realm?”

These issues have ramifications that go far beyond the international office. One study suggests that U.S. four-year colleges may see fall enrollments drop by 20 percent. Nearly half—40 percent—of incoming freshmen are considering taking a gap year to avoid beginning their college careers virtually, and questions remain about whether international students will be able to obtain visas in time for the fall semester. 

Illustration of virtual learning
When executed well, virtual learning can keep students engaged, say experts. Illustration: Shutterstock

Ensuring students stay engaged in online learning is critical—and has long been considered one of the greatest challenges in the move to virtual instruction. But international educators say that when well executed, virtual international programs can do just that. Only one of the students enrolled in Kirkwood’s Rome program withdrew after it shifted completely online. At Arcadia, “we had no students just outright not show up and fail a class,” Law says. “The students have remained engaged, which is always the problem with online learning, and especially so in this instance.”

Virtual Approaches and Models

Virtual international education can range from standard online courses and one-off events to sustained interactions through virtual exchanges and internships. 

Virtual exchanges

Arguably the most prevalent online model for internationalizing a wide range of courses and disciplines, virtual exchange has become a key strategy for engaging students through facilitated, peer-to-peer online experiences. (Read more about virtual exchange.) The challenge is that doing these exchanges well requires partners and planning, so institutions are now seeking ways to scale the model to extend peer-to-peer international experiences to more students.

Virtual internships

Both domestic and international summer internship programs have largely shifted online for 2020. Like virtual exchanges, virtual internships will likely grow in importance for students who are not able to travel abroad even after the pandemic subsides, says GianMario Besana, PhD, associate provost of global engagement and online learning at DePaul University. 

Whether domestic or international, the challenge is that “there’s no fallback for a failed match” when internships are virtual, cautions Law. That means that programs must develop partnerships with employers who are willing to work with students with varying skill sets—a vital part of ensuring equity, he says. Advisers also must work closely with students to understand their objectives in order to ensure good fits with employers. And international internships should be supported by in-country faculty whenever possible, Law says.

Advising and tutoring

Many institutions have already moved these functions online or to hybrid models. The key to success in virtual advising, says Wood, is to be more proactive than an in-person setting requires. “You can’t just rely on people walking into your office anymore,” she says. “You have to reach out to them.” 

But advising and support activities do not all have to be staff-led. For example, education abroad offices could create groups on LinkedIn or other social media platforms for study abroad students whose programs were canceled so they can discuss alternative options, with or without the support of counselors or career services staff, Wood says.

Virtual orientations

Many institutions have already adopted virtual predeparture planning for inbound and outbound programs. But to prepare students for virtual international activities, it is critical to shift from only discussing logistics to jumpstarting the interpersonal relationships that will make remote collaboration work well, Law says.

English (and other) language instruction

Language instruction is challenging online, but some institutions have made it work. At Kirkwood, which has an English language program serving nearly 500 students, many of the six full-time and 30 adjunct faculty had never taught online. The institution scaled up tools from an online program that saw comparable success rates among Brazilian students, says Wood.

Illustration of virtual learning
International educators should prepare students to build the interpersonal relationships that will make remote collaboration work well, says Andrew Law.

Also, seek opportunities to build language skills virtually for U.S. students. The online courses with the largest uptake among Arcadia’s virtual global offerings, says Law, have been Italian language classes. And while many collaborative programs use English as the default language, do not overlook the opportunity to provide “intercultural humility” by having students navigate at least some materials and experiences in other languages, says Hope Windle, MFA, community development lead at the State University of New York (SUNY) Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) Center. 

Strategies for Success

Whatever the model, focus first on learning outcomes and objectives. Doing so “forced us to think through everything productively,” Law says.

It is also important to recognize what is lost when face-to-face interaction is no longer possible, says LeBlanc, including in-person peer groups, clubs and affinity groups, and counseling and other in-person supports. 

“The whole of the student experience is right there in the intentionally designed campus community,” LeBlanc says. “Much of that falls away in the virtual space.”

Experts identified six key strategies for success in virtual learning:

1. Foster community. 

Just as it is important for in-person experiences, a sense of community is essential in online learning. To that end, at least some component of virtual experiences should be live and in real-time, according to Besana. 

“Asynchronous experiences tend to be transactional,” he says. “We see better, deeper relationships develop among students when synchronous virtual interaction is in one way or another part of the portfolio.”

To ensure students have collaborative experiences, Arcadia is expanding a collaborative capstone presentation for its STEM programming to all summer programs, Law says. “What [faculty] realized is there were lots of ways to deliver in an inviting, human-scaled way those kinds of interactions,” Law says.

It is also vital to encourage online alternatives to structured affinity groups, like clubs and similar activities, as well as the more organic ones that are part of in-person campus life, says LeBlanc. Fortunately, most of today’s online students “are digital natives and comfortable with social platforms,” he says. “We have to recognize those [platforms] are more powerful when students drive them than when we do.”

2. Address the digital divide

International educators have dispelled many of the myths about the affluence of inbound students, but the pandemic has exposed deep divides in access for all students. While it is clear that institutions need to ensure students have access to devices and the internet wherever they are, fully addressing equity also requires educators to think about other components of online instruction in new ways.

For instance, the synchronous-asynchronous debate should be examined through an equity lens, LeBlanc says. “Some of our students from more modest backgrounds are most active from midnight to 4:00 a.m. because [during] the day there may be only one computer in the household and the parents are using it for work,” he says. Usability is another important issue with equity implications, particularly for students with disabilities. 

3. Support faculty

At a basic level, support means help desks and other resources, particularly around the clock to help faculty and students dispersed throughout the globe. But support extends beyond technology and into pedagogy for faculty. 

“One of the lessons learned from remote teaching is that engagement isn’t necessarily there when you lecture,” says Mary Lou Forward, MIA, executive director at SUNY's COIL Center. “It happens by students interacting with professors in more informal ways. The intentionality of moving [courses] online can help those new to remote teaching embrace it.” 

Illustration of virtual learning
Engagement often happens when students interacting with professors in more informal ways, says Mary Lou Forward. Illustration: Shutterstock

At the College of William & Mary, which canceled summer study abroad programs for around 500 students, the cross-disciplinary Studio for Teaching and Learning Innovation provided support in both “technology and learning more generally” as faculty redesigned curricula for online instruction in the spring, says Stephen Hanson, PhD, vice provost for international affairs and director of the Wendy and Emery Reves Center for International Studies.

4. Provide institutional support. 

Because rich online learning experiences require a wide range of institutional resources—technology, advising, career and counseling services, and support from different academic departments—international offices must engage with leadership and align virtual activities with broader institutional objectives as they work across departments.

“You’re building an institutional, sustained effort. All these pieces need to be working in sync,” Besana says. “If the fundamental motivation of why your institution is engaging in this is not clear, you’re not going to have the glue that’s going to keep [these departments] together.”

5. Manage expenses

International programs, like their parent institutions, are facing an uncertain financial outlook. Many virtual international offerings are less expensive than their in-country counterparts, which intensifies the pressure to focus funds on the most effective experiences. 

“You’re reproducing a tiny portion of your revenue stream, so you can’t invest endlessly in this,” Law says. “But we made a commitment not to do this on a shoestring either. The commitment was to choose wisely.”

6. Consider counseling and other supports. 

LeBlanc urges institutions to think about virtual mental health supports—already a challenge for inbound students and those studying abroad in countries with differing norms. 

“This is a generation with historically high levels of anxiety and depression, and we’ve given them a pandemic and a global recession and removed all the support on the campus,” he says. 

The goal, LeBlanc says, is not “taking our mental health and counseling services with the same hours we’ve always offered and just doing them over Zoom instead.” To supplement these services, look to science-based mental health apps and other resources that can expand services.

Keeping the Door Open

As institutions dedicate more time and resources to develop virtual international opportunities for students, they are aware of the importance of continued iteration. 

“All the bricks are being put in place right before the door is about to open,” Law says. He considers online models as “pilots” for the overall enterprise, with each shortened term informing the design of the next.

“We may never go back to doing things the way we did before,” he says. 

But, like virtual exchanges, many of the lessons learned from developing online activities will likely persist long after the pandemic subsides and mobility resumes—in part for equity reasons, and in part because some models offer additional benefits that are harder to achieve with in-person learning. 

“It’s always going to remain a component, and it should be a priority for everybody,” says Wood. “If we’re really trying to provide access to everyone, there has to be a menu of opportunities.”  •



Illustration of virtual learning
Lessons learned about virtual learning during the pandemic will persist long after it subsides. Illustration: Shutterstock

Strategies for Virtual Instruction 

A NAFSA webinar on virtual teaching and learning offers additional strategies for dynamic educational experiences online:

Team-based learning. Breaking classes into small virtual teams can bring together students with different perspectives and cultural backgrounds. “The idea is to engage not just intellectually on the content, but to engage emotionally and [participate] in the activities and thought processes,” says Robert Ubell, vice dean emeritus at New York University's Tandon School of Engineering. 

Project-based learning. Collaborating on a project can help students “learn how people from other parts of the world can creatively and effectively build something together,” says Ubell.

Engagement through reinforcement. Based on the premise that content alone is not enough to keep students engaged, former Olympian Anthonie Wurth developed a methodology that focuses on striking a balance between friction and direction, managing reinforcement, and keeping the learner at the center of instruction. 

Backwards design. Start with the intended outcome, “not an activity you want to copy in a virtual space, but a virtual experience that helps you achieve that outcome,” says Nicholas Dunn, assistant director of international student and scholar services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

Collaboration. Among faculty and students, “create opportunities virtually where everybody is teaching and learning,” Dunn says. It is an example where online platforms can be more “democratizing and leveling” than hierarchical in-person classrooms, he says. By comparison, there are more opportunities for all students to speak and guide conversations.

About International Educator

International Educator is NAFSA’s flagship publication and has been published continually since 1990. As a record of the association and the field of international education, IE includes articles on a variety of topics, trends, and issues facing NAFSA members and their work. 

From in-depth features to interviews with thought leaders and columns tailored to NAFSA’s knowledge communities, IE provides must-read context and analysis to those working around the globe to advance international education and exchange.


NAFSA: Association of International Educators is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA's 10,000 members are located at more than 3,500 institutions worldwide, in over 150 countries.