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An International Experience—Online

When the pandemic shut down opportunities for study abroad, the University of Leeds designed a digital alternative.

At the Leeds University Business School (LUBS) in the U.K., postgraduate students generally are exposed to international business and culture when they go on study tours to countries such as Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, and France. During these weeklong trips abroad, students make site visits to companies, polish their intercultural skills, and develop as global citizens. Typically, 50 MBA students and another 70 postgraduate students from other master’s programs participate in the study tours annually.

When the pandemic rendered such travel impossible, the school’s Faculty International Team created Virtual International Programme, or VIP2020, as an alternative. The weeklong event gave students the chance to develop their international awareness through online workshops, webinars, and lectures.

It quickly became evident that the virtual nature of VIP2020 had one key advantage: It was accessible to a wide range of participants. Students who could not complete international study tours because of financial constraints, scheduling conflicts, or visa-related travel restrictions were able to attend online. Presenters—who included alumni, faculty, and external partners—could join from anywhere in the world. Ultimately, 22 guests from 20 different countries delivered presentations to 743 participants at the LUBS event. School officials described the specifics of VIP2020 in a submission to the 2021 Innovations That Inspire initiative sponsored by AACSB.

A Global Exploration

VIP2020 ran over five days in July and addressed the theme “How to Respond to Changing Environments.” Three sessions per day were hosted on Zoom and open to all master’s students at the school. Nine sessions were also offered to alumni. Speakers explored global trends and issues such as artificial intelligence and ethics, corporate social responsibility in global supply chains, the effects of COVID-19 on emerging markets, and the digitalization of service companies.


Because of the virtual nature of VIP2020, students who could not complete international study tours because of financial constraints, scheduling conflicts, or visa-related travel restrictions were able to attend online.

One of the most popular sessions was on luxury management, a topic that LUBS does not currently cover in any of its modules. Says Ellen Wang, faculty international manager at the school, “Students were really interested in how the luxury markets dealt with COVID and how they would achieve continuity or transformation. So it was very topical.”

Because online events can be subject to technical glitches, the school took precautions to guarantee that sessions ran smoothly. “We always ensured that multiple devices were signed in, so that if one user dropped out, we had users on other devices that could cover,” says Wang. “To be prepared for speaker connection issues, we asked the speakers to provide us with questions in advance. The host could ask students these questions while the speakers reconnected.”

A Chance to Connect

Another problem with online events is that they don’t offer participants a chance to socialize easily. Therefore, the school created several avenues for virtual interactions:

An MS Office Teams community. About 160 students joined the MS Teams platform where they could network with each other, ask questions of instructors before the sessions, or contact speakers afterward.

Professional development events. These included webinars on developing international skills and displaying authentic leadership.

Virtual networking. Called LUBSConnect, this event opened with a panel discussion where LUBS alumni shared the experiences they’d had so far during the pandemic. It was followed by a Zoom networking session in which 69 participants were assigned to breakout rooms where moderators were on hand to facilitate interactions. “The networking event was scheduled for 13:00 British Standard Time, which we found was the most suitable time slot for Asia as well as North America,” says Wang.


VIP2020 provided a safe online space where students could gain skills and build confidence by participating in workshop and networking sessions.

A voluntary competition. To test what knowledge they’d gained throughout the week, students could take a quiz during the final wrap-up session. The quiz was delivered through the game-based learning platform Kahoot. Participants could see the leaderboard as soon as they finished answering the questions, which enhanced student interaction through friendly competition. The quiz also reflected the assessment element that would have been present if attendees had gone on an international study tour. Participants who completed seven or more sessions received a certificate of attendance, but they did not have to take the quiz to earn the certificate.

Goals Achieved and Plans Made

While COVID-19 made travel nearly impossible in 2020, the VIP program helped the school meet its goal of introducing students to the international contexts that affect management. There were other benefits of the online event:

  • It was inclusive, because all students could attend.
  • It provided a safe online space where students could gain skills and build confidence by participating in workshop and networking sessions.
  • It helped move the University of Leeds closer to its commitment of having a net-zero carbon footprint by 2030 by reducing the need for global travel.

“We have VIP2021 scheduled to run during the last week of July, and it’s themed around ‘the business of sustainability,’” adds Wang. “We will not abandon immersion weeks or overseas study experiences, but we are developing a sustainable approach that enables the widest access to learning opportunities.”


Sharon ShinnSharon Shinn is an editor with AACSB Insights.