Managing Virtual International Exchanges


The COVID-19 pandemic will have long-term effects on international education exchanges. The Institute of International Education is already studying these emerging trends and has produced several publications that examine the new realities of global student mobility and higher education.

Like other Higher Ed faculty across the world, I readjusted my recruitment and teaching strategies for a cohort of Communication students from Yangzhou University in China who are studying online this semester with the University of North Alabama.

Yangzhou University
Yangzhou students are studying at UNA this semester.

Prepping the Exchange Virtually

The original plan was to travel to the city of Yangzhou, China, in May. I was going to spend two weeks with more than a dozen Yangzhou University students to get to know them and help them prepare for their studies at UNA. By March, though, travel to China was out of the question, so the first adjustment was to hold a series of virtual meetings once a week for six weeks during the summer. These sessions were intended to introduce UNA, explain our academic program, and begin building relationships with our Yangzhou University guests.

It was worth the effort, but there were some challenges. I entered the first Zoom session prepared for an enthusiastic hour of conversation and questions. Less than five minutes into the meeting, I remembered the significantly different cultural expectations at play regarding teacher-student interactions in other parts of the world (I taught a decade ago in South Korea). The next several weeks featured shorter lessons: I talked, and the students listened. To my relief, I later learned through their Yangzhou professor that they found the sessions helpful and informative.

Revising Course Delivery

Nearly all of these students intended to spend only one semester at UNA, so every course they needed to take would be within Communications. These courses also had to be delivered online, which was a new challenge for our department. We have been slow to put certain courses online (such as production-heavy ones) because we value hands-on, in-class instruction for those. The pandemic and geographical separation forced us to change our models in a hurry.

Course Videos screenshot
Online course lessons I’ve made available through Canvas.

I added an online version of our introductory mass communication course and created a parallel online section of my broadcast news writing class to accommodate our Yangzhou University students. Teaching broadcast news writing lessons 1) asynchronously 2) to non-native English speakers 3) who live about a dozen time zones away 4) through recorded lessons that do not have that in-class back-and-forth I enjoy has been an education for me. I hope this experience has been more than merely mediocre for my students.

Managing Expectations

Give yourself patience and grace. That’s what I’ve been telling my colleagues all semester, and I try to practice that, too. But I also want to improve, so here are a few lessons I’ve learned so far.

  1. Cultural differences are natural, but they can seem a bit exaggerated in a virtual environment. Give everyone (including yourself) some slack. Managing these expectations may be a bit uncomfortable at first, but it’s helpful to remember that your students are adjusting to your cultural norms while you are adjusting to theirs.
  2. Regular correspondence with international students is critical to building good relationships, particularly when the learning environment is online and asynchronous. Establish a way to consistently stay in touch, whether it’s through official university channels such as email and course management platforms, or it’s through something less formal like WeChat or GroupMe.
  3. Appropriately adjust your expectations as an instructor. You shouldn’t chuck your academic standards, but you may need to reconsider the types of assignments you require, how they achieve course learning outcomes, and whether strict submission deadlines may be counterproductive. I have extended deadlines, been less concerned about late work, and have reconsidered what I believe my students are realistically able to accomplish in an online environment under the present circumstances.
  4. This is valuable professional development. I’ll use the experience to create better online courses for all of my students.

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