Maverick Citizen


Rethinking the university experience: Can undergraduate international exchange programmes go virtual?

Rethinking the university experience: Can undergraduate international exchange programmes go virtual?
Virtual student exchange programmes offer the benefit of being more accessible, bridging the gap between marginalised and ‘elite’ students. (Photo: People Images / / Wikipedia)

International exchange programmes are expensive and often only benefit 2% of the student population. With the global pandemic, educators and institutions have had to come up with creative ways to take the learning experience online. Now, they attempt to push the boundaries of digital education with virtual exchange programmes in the hopes of becoming more inclusive.

The past decade has seen a dramatic increase in the number of undergraduate students travelling internationally for a part or the entirety of their degrees.

These international experiences can be rich, even life-changing, providing exposure to new ways of thinking and to new ways of living. However, the impact of this travel on the environment is seldom explicitly addressed.

Data from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) indicates that the greenhouse gas emissions generated by student mobility are equivalent to those of entire countries such as Croatia and Tunisia.

The impact on the environment is not the only challenge of undergraduate student mobility: while some students are on exchange programmes or scholarships, the majority pays exorbitant fees.

Those without scholarships or private wealth simply do not have the opportunity to participate in such programmes.

“Student mobility must be one of the most elitist activities in which universities participate. Only about 2% of the world’s student population can benefit from study abroad,” says University of Cape Town (UCT) vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng.

The pandemic brought most of this mobility to a halt. Using what we are learning from the global shift to emergency online teaching and learning, Phakeng asks whether we can envisage a more sustainable, equitable mode. What are the most valuable aspects of the international experience for students, and for which of those can institutions and educators find creative virtual alternatives?

This week, five experts met to discuss these questions. The webinar was the third in a series of virtual events hosted by UCT between June and September around how to reimagine the global university in the current and post-Covid world.

Physical exchange versus virtual exchange

Mokgadi Marishane, a masters student in psychology at UCT, visited the University of Amsterdam in 2017 as part of her undergraduate programme.

Marishane says that travelling to a country like the Netherlands expanded her perspective on life, both culturally and politically.

“In South Africa, where every moment you are confronted by inequality, to see a nation in which someone can ask a government minister to clean up his own mess in a building was really interesting to see.”

Speaking about her experience in Amsterdam, Marishane says “they [locals] will often make assumptions about where I was from based on how I spoke or the fact [that] the rest of my cohort at the time was predominantly white. It was also having to defend South Africa, but also finding out that there were ways in which South African exceptionalism was being carried out in those spaces. People would [make] sweeping negative statements about Africa and I saw how people internationally perceive South Africans and South Africa in general.

“I also found a great deal of freedom and safety as a woman in Amsterdam that I have never experienced in my upbringing in South Africa, where from day one, you are taught how to behave defensively. In Amsterdam, I could safely walk home at night.”

UCT masters student Athenkosi Nzala was recently honoured with the vice-chancellor award and was due to travel to Mexico and New York with UCT’s vice-chancellor to attend the annual general meeting of the Worldwide Universities Network.

Unfortunately, Nzala’s travel plans were put on hold by Covid-19. Nzala says that while it is possible to maintain a virtual connection, he finds that you need to start with a “physical” connection first.

“There are some virtual links that can be sufficient and sustainable through telecommunications. But sometimes what you need to start off the virtual networking is the initial physical contact.

“I feel like one of the things that I lost out on with regards to going to Mexico is my personal and professional development. Being given a platform to connect with people who are decision-makers and people who are making an impact is not the same as linking up virtually.”

Vinicius Camilo, a student in business-oriented computing at a technology college in São Paulo State (FATEC) in Brazil, has worked on three international projects, all of which were done virtually.

“A virtual exchange can be a very important tool in widening your perspective and building connections. But… we cannot think that virtual exchange can replace in-person exchange. Rather, it can be a supplement, it can be a complement, but it can’t replace that.”

Focusing on the positives of virtual mobility, Andrew Gordon, founder and CEO of US-based Diversity Abroad, says that with opportunities like virtual internships, they are seeing students who in the past hadn’t had access to global educational opportunities, but now do.

Ben Nelson, founder and CEO of the US-based educational innovator Minerva Project, says nuances are important, as Camilo expressed.

“There are physical experiences that simply cannot be replaced virtually, but what you can do online, think about some of the mindsets that you get by going abroad and then think about how you can improve upon that,” says Nelson.

The African perspective

If we look at this purely from an African perspective, how viable is virtual mobility, considering the costs and access to quality internet and laptops?

Professor Sue Harrison, deputy vice-chancellor for research and internationalisation at UCT, says connectivity and equipment may be an issue with African partners, but there is no need for virtual exchange to be more demanding than the institutions currently experience with emergency remote teaching.

“Many universities would use the facilities and equipment available to students for on-campus learning and with much of Africa being in the same time zones as South Africa, online engagement would likely be on-campus during scheduled learning hours. Using the university’s facilities would also reduce the cost – or limit it to in-course costs already covered by the tuition fee.

For African students, travel and living expenses are high which Harrison explains limits participation and uptake in fee-paying mobility programmes.

“One of the real learnings from the emergency online learning we’ve had in place during the pandemic is that much depends on choosing the right technology platforms and giving careful thought to course design. The course needs to be built around student engagement and participation.  The technology that enables that can be as simple as WhatsApp,” says Harrison.

Phakeng emphasises that virtual exchange programmes offer the benefit of being more accessible, bridging the gap between marginalised and “elite” students.

However, what about the costs? The cost of physical mobility programmes is extreme, not only travel and living expenses, but the programme itself. How would this change if these mobility programmes were virtual? If students still need to pay an international fee to the institution, would that not still marginalise students who cannot afford it?

Harrison says that this is a complicated question, but has the potential to become simpler in the online space.

“With physical mobility programmes, we differentiate between one-directional fee-paying students and reciprocal exchange where students from two universities swap places with each other. One-directional students pay an additional tuition fee to the receiving university. Added to this, they must also fund their own travel and the cost of living in another [often more expensive] city.”

For African students, travel and living expenses are high which Harrison explains limits participation and uptake in fee-paying mobility programmes.

“Receiving universities also rely on this income and programmes are limited to those who can pay. This situation will likely continue with online programmes, though there are already signs that universities are charging less for virtual fee-paying mobility programmes.”

There have been instances of reciprocal virtual exchange, which is where virtual mobility could really broaden access, says Harrison. 

“There is no additional cost to students in an exchange. They pay the regular tuition fee to their home university and no longer have the burden of travel costs or living in a foreign city. So, it could be fee-neutral.”

However, international exchange programmes are limited and highly sought-after with vigorous selection processes.

Harrison says that it is “likely we would always have a selection process for mobility programmes. Whether physical or virtual, exchange is an academic programme. We need to ensure participating students have the right skill set to make best use of the programme – in terms of their own learning but also their engagements with other students and contribution to their peers’ learning.  That needs some form of selection.  Exchange places are also limited, and the selection process is competitive.”

Camilo says physical exchange programmes introduce one to travelling and that being in a different country allows you to learn about different cultures and gain new perspectives. Face-to-face programmes are immersive. So how could virtual programmes allow for meaningful cultural exchange?

Harrison says that virtual exchanges are not just online courses, they are intentionally interactive.

“It is likely many would require group work and seminars and we would need to limit numbers for high-quality interactions. The virtual exchange space also needs to be facilitated and managed by the course convenor to ensure students develop the non-academic competencies embedded in the course.

“We are still working on how to take the cultural exchange online – to challenge students’ worldviews by immersing them in the unfamiliar or facilitating conversations from completely different perspectives. 

“While virtual mobility dilutes the learning that comes from immersion of all the senses in a different environment, the potential to create conversations that enrich a whole class is a new outcome that we don’t normally see with the exchange of individual students. We would hope to increase the diversity of voices by going online.” DM/MC


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