Virtual learning brings ‘quality education’ a step closer17 Sustainable Development Goals.
In particular, the UN warns that “entrenched inequities in education have only worsened during the [COVID-19] pandemic”. Their Sustainable Development Goal 4, ‘Quality education’, states the desired goal clearly: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”
This goal must begin at home – right at our own institutions – and with a focus on providing access to all forms of learning. Global education plays a critical role by developing worldwide learners who can access educational opportunities across the globe.
Over the past five years global education has expanded to include multiple opportunities to bring quality international experiences to the broadest possible audience.
Through the exponential growth of virtual internships, online degree and training programmes, collaborative classroom learning and virtual curricular units to enhance course syllabi, the world of global learning is available to an expanded domestic audience in ways never realised previously and, by extension, to students around the world.
Internships have long played an important role in preparing students for their professional careers and international education has increasingly incorporated internships as part of education abroad programming.
This effort recognises the current realities of our interdependent and interconnected world, which University World News underscored in a recent article. It also provides opportunities for young adults to gain valuable marketable skills and hosting organisations with an opportunity to tackle projects that are well-suited for these discrete short-term learning time periods, and which can build desirable skillsets in upcoming young professionals.
Over the last few years, these internship opportunities have expanded into the virtual realm, offering even greater access to this form of learning and skills building.
Organisations offering virtual internship opportunities such as NEXSTEP, Virtual Internships and the Spanish Institute for Global Education provide students with a wide range of cross-cultural, ‘hands-on’ learning experiences through virtual connections and placements.
Not only do these virtual internships broaden the range of opportunities beyond traditional geographical locations, they realise unique cross-cultural experiences for students who might not otherwise have the means to participate in person due to personal, financial or curricular reasons.
In addition, these opportunities reach students at institutions that lack the infrastructure and funding to offer and coordinate their own international internship placements for students. The resulting beneficiaries of these virtual opportunities transcend traditional boundaries – both geographical and socio-economic.
Global virtual content
A second initiative gaining traction across institutions of higher education is to bring the world directly into the classroom for all students. This is realised through collaborative online international learning (COIL) between institutions and through virtual global modules embedded in on-campus courses.
COIL brings students together virtually through joint course sessions, shared learning outcomes and collaborative projects and dialogue.
Virtual modules, on the other hand, are recorded virtual experiences at a particular location and with a theme or focus to enhance on-campus learning. Examples include video interviews with company executives and scientists and tours of markets and historic locations utilising GPS technology.
Faculty utilise these units to create an immersive and interactive international learning experience as part of their courses, and education abroad offices often use these virtual experiences to enhance their education abroad pre-departure orientations.
Organisations such as the Study Abroad Association design asynchronous content that focuses on a variety of subject areas, provide virtual visits to locations of historical and political significance and offer virtual interviews and discussions with in-country stakeholders, such as global businesses, marine biologists and locals.
This virtual content can be combined with suggested classroom activities, evaluation rubrics, syllabi and real-time engagement activities. In this way, virtual learning not only has the potential to reach each student, it also provides faculty with the opportunity to enhance their courses with dynamic cultural interactions.
A third area of rapid growth focuses on online education and training. Organisations active in this area offer skills building and intellectual growth through online learning – from specific employer-focused training to full degree programmes – all available regardless of a person’s physical location, as long as internet access can be made available.
These programmes often offer asynchronous learning so that a person can proceed at their own pace regardless of world time zones.
Coursera, for example, is currently engaged in online learning across all continents, with active initiatives in non-traditional locations. Over 200 companies and institutions of higher education use Coursera to reach new audiences.
Companies such as Meta, Google and IBM collaborate with Coursera to offer training programmes and develop desirable technical skills. Coursera further facilitates and supports connections to hiring opportunities through job boards and by awarding certificates of completion for its training programmes.
Institutions of higher education partner with Coursera to offer online degrees and to develop and sustain their COIL engagement opportunities and partnerships.
Podium, as another example, combines elements of internships and COIL through its flagship programme, the Global Tech Experience, which offers asynchronous learning with interactive virtual global labs and intentional cross-cultural training.
Students develop software skills, for example, in such systems as Tableau, Shopify and Java by working on real-world projects with well-known organisations like Netflix, UNESCO and Airbnb. Students attend a weekly global LiveLab where they work in global teams practising collaboration across cultures.
In summer 2022, the Global Tech Experience had students joining the global LiveLab from 41 different countries around the world. The programme has helped universities foster global career readiness among their undergraduate population.
These innovative manifestations of experiential learning not only bring unique learning opportunities to the student, they can help facilitate student career planning, an area of increasing focus for international education learning outcomes.
Critical to a discussion of accessibility is the question of affordability. The United Nations warns that income inequality is on the rise and that the solutions require global engagement (Sustainable Development Goal 10).
The organisations mentioned above have responded to this challenge by tailoring service fees to match institutional fiscal realities, packaging offerings in different ways to meet institutional needs and ensuring that their products are easily accessible on a variety of platforms without requiring specialised technology.
These examples are, by no means, the full scope of international education organisations engaged in virtual learning. A number of long-standing education abroad organisations, including AIFS (American Institute for Foreign Study), CIEE (Council on International Educational Exchange) and IES (Institute for the International Education of Students), have incorporated aspects of these virtual opportunities alongside their in-person education abroad programme offerings.
What all of these organisations demonstrate is that virtual learning is no longer just a short-term bridge to sustain a commitment to global education during the COVID pandemic. Virtual learning has now entered the mainstream and will reshape what global education sets as benchmarks to reach the broadest possible audience.
Dr Heidi M Soneson is a senior international education professional and an affiliate with the Gateway International Group, an organisation that supports institutions and organisations with leveraging strategic new directions and emerging opportunities in international education. Dr Soneson has a PhD in German literature, has taught at the university level, served in senior leadership in international education and published and presented extensively on topics in international education nationally and internationally.