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Author: Amy Anderson

Over the past half century, colleges and universities have prioritized students’ global awareness and intercultural communication skills as institutional outcomes. The goal is that graduates will be prepared to contribute to diverse workplaces and be able to communicate with people from different cultures. Historically, these institutions promoted study abroad programs to give students an opportunity to learn about other cultures in an impactful way. But these immersion activities are expensive and not readily available to all students.

With the advent of the internet, educators began contacting one another to foster virtual collaboration between classes and called this new pedagogy Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL). COIL is a virtual study abroad program or simulated global exchange experience that uses technology to bridge the gaps between classrooms worldwide. Two or more teachers from various geographic locations connect and plan a course or unit that combines the curriculum from each class. Small student groups from each class work collaboratively on projects, typically with a problem-based learning (PBL) approach. As a result of this experience, students can build rapport with their international classmates, increase their understanding of other cultures, and familiarize themselves with innovative technologies.

Educators who want to create COIL courses have various training options. One organization that facilitates COIL training is the SUNY COIL Center. Created by an informal network of educators in New York, the center serves as a clearinghouse of COIL resources. This center offers workshops on integrating COIL into a course and serves as a means of connecting with educators worldwide looking for virtual collaboration. There are a few steps that you can take to start creating your own COIL class.

Steps to get started

  1. The first step to creating a COIL project is to check the SUNY COIL Global Network or COIL Connect websites to see whether your institution is a partner in the program. The partnership will provide you with resources and discounts on workshops. If not, you can ask whether your institution is willing to join. You might also find that your institution has already purchased multiple seats for a workshop or will purchase seats on your behalf, especially if others at your institution are interested in the opportunity as well.
  2. The second step to creating a COIL project in your course is to sign up for one or more COIL workshops through SUNY COIL. These workshops guide you through the process of finding a collaborator and creating a COIL project. There is also a workshop on how to form a COIL program at an institution.
  3. Once you understand the program, you can search for international educators on the UNICollaboration website. If your institution is a SUNY COIL network partner, you can use the COIL Engagement and Partnering Platform to find educators. You can also check sites on social media where teachers make international connections, such as the Virtual Exchange Network on Facebook.
  4. Once you connect with an international teaching partner, you must pick a collaborative small group project. The Stevens Institute, which facilitates collaborations between educators around the world, hosts a number of projects that can give you ideas for one. Many COIL courses use the PBL model for these projects. PBL is a student-centered approach where students learn about a subject by working in groups to solve an open-ended problem. For example, Dr. Shamika Mitchell of the Department of English at Rockland Community College created a three-way collaboration. Her COIL class connected students in her college writing course with students from the business entrepreneurship course at the Centro Universitario del Norte and a photo journalism class at the Universidad de Monterrey (both Mexico). These classes worked collaboratively to create short films and business plans to improve their local economies. These students are in courses from different disciplines, but they worked collaboratively on projects that combined the curriculum from each class.
  5. After picking a COIL project, teachers decide whether they want to meet synchronously, asynchronously, or both. Since the COIL network does not provide technology for these classes, teachers can determine what online platform and tools would be most appropriate for their COIL class and small group projects. Microsoft Teams, Slack, and Tribe are all viable platforms for hosting group work. These are collaborative workspace tools that are readily available to individuals worldwide, and they can be a central hub for group meetings, synchronous or asynchronous discussions, and file sharing. As teachers consider options for real-time collaboration, COIL teachers may use Zoom, Miro, MURAL, or Padlet. These sites typically have an interactive whiteboard feature that allows students to brainstorm, design polls, and work collaboratively in a digital workspace. Various other options exist for asynchronous video platforms if student groups cannot work synchronously. For example, Flip and VoiceThread are valuable tools for COIL classes. Students can post short videos to introduce themselves or answer discussion questions in a virtual format.
  6. Next, international teaching partners can work together to design their syllabus, class assignments, and schedule. Teachers should consider using the online collaboration tools their students will use during this planning stage to familiarize themselves with the platforms and identify any problems they might present to students.
  7. Once a COIL project begins, teachers place students in small groups of five to seven. Each group is given one or more icebreaker activities to help build rapport between students. For example, students could use Flip to create short videos introducing themselves, and their classmates can respond with follow-up questions to get to know them better. Alternatively, students could connect on Zoom to create a short video explaining an artifact that is meaningful to their family or culture.
  8. After completing their projects, students can present their results in various formats. They might create a presentation using PowerPoint, Google Slides, or Canva. They could also create a poster session or video to highlight the results of their collaboration.
  9. Finally, after working collaboratively with international students, COIL teachers may find it helpful to reflect on the experience during class. This reflection allows students to process their feelings and takeaways as well as helps teachers adjust future COIL classes if there are glitches. For example, teachers might not account for a daylight saving time change that affected their students’ ability to meet synchronously.

Benefits of COIL courses

There are many benefits of COIL courses. These classes are an excellent option for instructors who want to offer students a high-impact activity to solidify course content using various online tools. Also, collaborative group projects are engaging and memorable class assignments. Furthermore, COIL classes are also an equitable way for students to enhance their intercultural communication skills in an engaging way.

Amy Anderson, EdD, is a communication studies professor at Spokane Community College, Gonzaga University, and Whitworth University.