COILS Create Common Connections
Collaborative online international learning environments allow students to see the world through the eyes of peers in other countries.
The opportunity to learn and explore beyond the typical classroom can be a transformational educational experience, enabling students to interact with peers from different cultures. But international travel is not always an option, whether students are held back by lack of funds, lack of time, or global disruptions like the COVID-19 emergency.
One way business schools can create international experiences without sending students out of the country is to implement collaborative online international learning (COIL) experiences. That was the approach taken last fall by the Trinity University School of Business in San Antonio, Texas, and Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico. Students from the two schools participated in joint assignments that developed their interpersonal skills, enhanced their problem-solving techniques, created deeper intercultural awareness, and introduced them to concepts of global citizenship.
The COIL was designed by Amy Foshee Holmes, associate professor of accounting at Trinity University, and Teresa Elizondo, a faculty member at Tec de Monterrey, educators who had previously worked together on research projects. While they teach some of the same subjects, they created the COIL for two courses that were complementary rather than identical.
“We wanted students to integrate knowledge and think critically about the issues rather than focus on the differences in course content between universities,” explains Holmes, who described the program in a submission to AACSB’s 2021 Innovations That Inspire initiative. At Trinity University, students were in a class on sustainability and corporate social responsibility; at Tec de Monterrey, they were studying advanced managerial accounting.
To design the COIL, the instructors met weekly over Zoom in the weeks prior to the launch. They also frequently emailed to communicate challenges and discuss assignments. Throughout the collaboration, the instructors worked together to assign common grades for both the teams and for the individual students.
Ultimately, 24 students from Trinity University and 28 from Tec de Monterrey participated. Students were divided into 12 teams, with each four- or five-person team including at least two students from each university. Within her own class, Holmes had already created diverse pairs to work on an early-semester project, and these pairs were randomly assigned to groups within the COIL.
The COIL took place over a five-week period during the fall 2020 semester. Formal team meetings were held through Zoom, which allowed students to record the sessions and use the videos for required assignments. Every week, students had a different deliverable:
Week one. Students had to introduce themselves to their team members by creating videos and posting them to the video-sharing platform Padlet. “Students were then required to communicate with new teammates by posting comments to their videos,” says Holmes. As the COIL progressed, students were encouraged to use Slack for ongoing team communication, although many chose to stick with more familiar tools such as email and WhatsApp.
Week two. Students learned about critical concerns in global water management before creating videos discussing what the team members considered the most important issues. “Each member was required to have a part in the presentation video,” says Holmes.
Students had to introduce themselves to their team members by creating and posting videos, and then they were required to communicate with new teammates by posting comments on their videos.
Week three. Teams worked on a case study that covered issues related to human capital and supply chain management, including fair wages. Afterward, they created videos to address specific questions that were assigned from the case study.
Week four. To explore the topics of natural resource consumption and environmental impact, each team chose two companies and analyzed their reporting on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues. Then they created videos that compared the different ways the two companies utilized resources and managed waste.
Week five. Students were required to write reflection papers that answered a series of questions: What was the most important thing you learned during the COIL experience? What were some of the most interesting discoveries you made during the collaboration? What was the most challenging issue for your team? What were some things your international partners did that helped to improve your communication for future interactions with colleagues from different cultures? How did you contribute to the success of your team? How will you use the information you learned in the future?
The assignments were progressively structured so that, at the beginning, students received detailed instructions for lower-level tasks; by the end, the teams were free to choose companies for comparison and critically consider appropriate analysis for their presentations. This structure was a strength of the program, according to one student, who noted that team members had built enough chemistry by the end to focus on what they wanted to cover in their presentations.
Each student who successfully completed the COIL assignments received a digital badge for the Global Classroom COIL experience.
Lessons and Challenges
At the end of the COIL, Holmes and Elizondo held a debriefing session where the students could discuss the lessons they’d learned. It was soon clear that the COIL had achieved its primary goal of helping participants understand the perspectives of students from other cultures. For instance, because the economies of Mexico and the U.S. are so different, students had illuminating discussions about fair wages and expectations surrounding supply chain management.
“Some students were surprised by the insights from their peers in the other country,” says Holmes. “This type of learning cannot be duplicated through lectures, videos, or reading assignments.”
One student, who admitted to being skeptical about the COIL before it began, ended up being “happily surprised by how many successes our group faced. The project reminded me of the purpose of an international group project. It is about learning from others who are different from you, learning a global perspective, and accomplishing a meaningful task.”
Another student said, “After this experience, my perspective of the world has certainly broadened. I have more interest in exploring global environmental opportunities and collaborations. With this, I don’t feel as intimidated anymore to work with people from different countries and cultures.”
It was soon clear that the COIL had achieved its primary goal of helping participants understand the perspectives of students from other cultures.
According to a third student, interacting with peers from other countries “made me feel more accountable for my actions that I make in my everyday life. Those actions don’t only affect my household, city, and state. They affect people around the globe I don’t even know. I believe that it made me a more empathetic person.”
But some of the conversations also revealed problems students faced during the COIL experience and gave the instructors ideas for how the course might be revised in the future.
“The biggest challenge that students reported was scheduling meeting times to accommodate four or five team members, which is an issue common to any team collaboration,” says Holmes. “Although the COIL was an international collaboration, all students were in the Central time zone, so time differences were not a problem.” While smaller teams might have made it easier for students to find convenient times to meet, Holmes says, the professors were convinced that having two students from each school would improve the quality of international collaboration and diversity of thought within the groups.
Only one team reported having issues with a teammate who was less engaged with the course and failed to meet with other members of the group. Faculty intervention might have helped improve the experience for this team, Holmes notes—and, originally, she and Elizondo had planned to join each team for some virtual meetings. However, many groups met in the evenings or on weekends when it was not convenient for professors to participate. In future iterations of the COIL, says Holmes, the professors plan to make it clear that they’re willing to attend meetings to offer assistance to any struggling teams.
The debriefing session also revealed that students found the five-week format a little rushed and wished they had had more time to work together on assignments. “In the future, if possible, we will extend the COIL beyond five weeks,” Holmes says. “Since the timing of the semesters is different for the international partners, a full semester is not an option.”
An Appreciation of Other Cultures
While the Trinity University/Tec de Monterrey COIL had been in process before the onset of COVID-19, the pandemic highlighted how important it is for business schools to create opportunities for students to interact with peers from other cultures, says Holmes.
“A COIL exchange can raise the awareness of the importance of diverse opinions and experiences so students critically consider all aspects of issues for optimal problem solving,” she says. “Students embrace cultural diversity and understand the importance of international collaboration.”
For faculty who want to find partners for their own COIL experiences, Holmes suggests a number of ways to start: Reach out to international universities that already have a connection with your school; seek suggestions from colleagues with international connections; discuss the opportunity with colleagues from other schools who have collaborated on research projects or interacted at conferences; or post messages on the AACSB Exchange or AACSB Member Forum.
While delivering the COIL takes extra effort, says Holmes, that effort pays off in increased student engagement during the course. She adds, “Our COIL was a wonderful experience for all the students and faculty involved.”
Sharon Shinn is an editor with AACSB Insights.