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VE/COIL: Internationalise your course

Would you like your students to collaborate with peers from a different country within your course? Learn more about Virtual Exchange, also called COIL, to internationalise your course.

Two persons, each in their own mobile phones, are holding a puzzle piece and smiling to each other

What is Virtual Exchange / COIL?

Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL), also called Virtual Exchange, is a learning design bringing elements of international collaboration in your course. COIL is focused on collaboration between students, across universities and cultures.

Instructors work closely together to prepare and implement a COIL module in their respective classes. Their students get the opportunity to develop their intercultural competence, while working on concrete tasks in a multicultural team.

Designing a COIL course

There are typically five phases in a COIL-course:

Pre-COIL student preparation

Before the classes meet, it is crucial to give enough information to your students. Explain early on why you have chosen a COIL-format, its benefits and learning outcomes.

Discuss expectations, potential fears or worries the students might have and go over some practical details with them. The idea is to prepare your students so that they are joining the first COIL meeting with a positive mindset.

See Doscher & Rubin (2022: 188)

Introduction / Icebreaker​​​​

Icebreakers and other small social activities will give your students time to meet their peers, get to know each other and the communication tools they will be using. This first contact will be the foundation of their future collaboration, so make sure they have plenty of opportunities to exchange in a safe and structured way.

Read more about building relations online and icebreakers here.

See Doscher & Rubin (2022: 189)

Engagement / Comparison

Once your students have met through icebreaker activities, they can start to collaborate in groups. It is recommended to start with some smaller activities, where students can exchange about their home country and the way they are used to work. By comparing their perspectives on university work, the group members will start to organise their own team and decide on collaboration rules: when and where to meet, team roles, how to be contacted, and so on.

As a teacher, prepare scaffolded activities that will help your students address these issues and be prepared for the collaborative phase.

See Doscher & Rubin (2022: 189)


This is the problem-solving phase. The students work in groups with a concrete assignment. Remember to facilitate their collaboration and have regular check points with your own students to solve potential communication and collaboration problems early on. You can for example have a regular exchange session in your class where students express what is going well and their frustration.

Some groups will require little support from you, others might encounter intercultural challenges and need input from their respective teachers to continue collaborating.

See Doscher & Rubin (2022: 189) 

Reflection / Conclusion

Once the students are done with their group assignement, they can present to result to the whole cohort.

Set also some time for students to exchange about their experience working in a COIL: first all together, then with your students only. You can also choose to have students write individual reflection notes, perhaps guided by some questions about their learning, intercultural communication, and so on.

This debrief phase is important for students to process their experience and what they have learned from it.

See Doscher & Rubin (2022: 189)


More information on how to design a COIL-course will be added in 2024. Check the resources at the end of this page to learn more about COIL.

Success factors of a COIL project

Good collaboration between teachers beforehand and during the VE-COIL course is a critical success factor. So before you start developing a concrete idea into a COIL module, remember to take time to get to know your partners and their context. This template can help you guide the preliminary discussions with you potential partners.

Other success factors:

  • Common learning outcomes for the COIL module
  • Early and clear communication with students
  • Matching or balanced expectations and outcomes between the classes (ECTS, compulsory vs elective, graded or not, ...)

Do you need a partner for your COIL?

USN is part of the university alliance European Digital UniverCity (EDUC), which links eight European universities in seven different countries. It is easy to find partners for your COIL within EDUC. Read more on USN EDUC's pages or contact Kine Korsmo for more information.

Some universities have also set in place specific systems to connect interested teachers. After filling this form from Penn State University, you will be able to browse the list of Penn State instructors interested in project-based virtual exchange.