This event features Robert O’Dowd from the University of León, Spain, on Developing authentic international learning experiences through Virtual Exchange.
Reported by Vicky Yongkun Wu, Class of 2026
Virtual Exchange (VE), also Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) or telecollaboration, refers to students and teachers’ engagement in intercultural collaborative projects with partners from other countries using digital technologies. In the post-pandemic and technologically advanced era, VE is crucial in fostering a range of employability skills, preparing students for physical mobility, and promoting university inclusivity.
In the research talk, Prof Emmanuelle Chiocca first briefly introduced the Third Space Lab and Dr. O’Dowd. The Third Space Lab focuses on identity, language, language learning motivation, and student change in intercultural and translingual environments. Major events of the lab include guest lectures, Brownbag lunch talks delivered by LCC faculty members, workshops, etc. According to Prof Chiocca’s introduction, Dr. O’Dowd is an Associate Professor of English as a Foreign Language and Applied Linguistics at the University of Leon, Spain, and have published works on the application of Virtual Exchange in higher education.
Dr. O’Dowd organized the talk into four parts: the definition of Virtual Exchange, why it is interesting to discuss VE, what students and teachers learn from VE, and how teachers can help students.
According to Dr. O’Dowd, Virtual Exchange (VE) is an umbrella term to describe the different ways learners engage in sustained online intercultural interaction and collaboration. Participants come from diverse cultural backgrounds or geographical locations and collaborate as an integrated part of coursework under the guidance of educators. Dr. O’Dowd deconstructed the abstract definition by visualizing the process of VE, providing the stages of virtual exchange, starting from contacting research partners to grading student works.
Virtual Exchange inspires research interest for several reasons. First, the current rate of students studying abroad can reach over 30% in the European Union. In China, despite the less-than-one-percent rate, the population in China is large and experts are expecting the total number of Chinese students in overseas higher education degree programs to peak within five years and then enter a track of stagnation or even a slight decline. However, the high demands of studying away need corresponding psychological make-up to render international learning effective. Second, COVID-19 has pushed students to search for online solutions. Data provided by the International Associate of Universities in 2020 has shown that 60% of students reported an increase in virtual mobility and/or collaborative online learning. Moreover, multiple organizations/projects, including the Stevens Initiative and Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange, have initiated VE projects.
In regards to students’ VE learning outcomes, Dr. O’Dowd discovered that virtual exchange is a very popular learning activity among students – especially for those with little experience of intercultural contact. In addition, VE contributes to key aspects of foreign language development, including comprehension/reception of the target language, vocabulary language, and the ability to interact with other speakers in the target language. The VE practice also enhanced students’ awareness of the cultural difference in interactional norms. One Spanish student recounted that during VE, she found that Spaniards are more straightforward and extroverted. Therefore, students who engage in VE report developing different forms of cultural knowledge during exchanges. Furthermore, VE enables the development of a wide range of transversal or “soft skills” which are considered relevant for the modern workplace. One impressive point Dr. O’Dowd made and was later addressed by the audience was that skills are developed when things get challenging. For instance, students’ collaboration skills and adaptability increased in “tricky situations.”
Teachers engaged in VE also reported a series of positive benefits. For instance, valuable experience in continued professional development and methodological innovation is accumulated, and online intercultural collaboration skills are developed. Moreover, teachers’ general professional competence increased and opportunities for future professional partnerships and collaborative academic initiatives are broadened.
Dr. O’Dowd particularly mentioned that just because students are digital natives doesn’t mean they are natural online intercultural communicators. VE skills are learned step by step through practice and mistakes. For instance, different emojis can convey different meanings in different contexts, which Dr. O’Dowd suggested teachers make students aware of.
In conclusion, it is vital for teachers to actively take the role of mentoring interactions and designing tasks that facilitate telecollaborative learning. Moreover, VE is not a replacement for physical mobility programs but a complement to them. VE requires integration into the university curriculum and explicit recognition of students learning outcomes. There is still a long way to go before achieving an ideal virtual exchange.
The recording of the talk is available: https://sites.duke.edu/dkuhumanities/third-space-lab-presents-brown-bag-lunch-with-robert-odowd-on-developing-authentic-international-learning-experiences-through-virtual-exchange/