287. COIL Virtual Exchange

Studying abroad can help students develop intercultural competency skills to prepare them for a future in an increasingly globalized environment, but many students cannot afford international travel. In this episode, Jon Rubin joins us to discuss how collaborative online international learning programs can provide rich international experiences without the cost of travel. Jon is an Associate Professor Emeritus of Film at Purchase College. His media work has been displayed at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in New York City. Jon is the recipient of Guggenheim, National Endowment of the Arts, Ford Foundation, and Fulbright Fellowships. He is also the founder of the SUNY Collaborative Online International Learning (or COIL) program at SUNY. He is one of the editors and contributors to The Guide to COIL Virtual Exchange: Implementing, Growing, and Sustaining Collaborative Online International Learning, which was recently released by Stylus Publishing.

Show Notes


John: Studying abroad can help students develop intercultural competency skills to prepare them for a future in an increasingly globalized environment, but many students cannot afford international travel. In this episode, we discuss how collaborative online international learning programs can provide rich international experiences without the cost of travel.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist&hellip

John: &hellipand Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer&hellip

Rebecca: &hellipand features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


Rebecca: Our guest today is Jon Rubin. Jon is an Associate Professor Emeritus of Film at Purchase College. His media work has been displayed at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in New York City. Jon is the recipient of Guggenheim, National Endowment of the Arts, Ford Foundation, and Fulbright Fellowships. He is also the founder of the SUNY Collaborative Online International Learning (or COIL) program at SUNY. He is one of the editors and contributors to The Guide to COIL Virtual Exchange: Implementing, Growing, and Sustaining Collaborative Online International Learning, which was recently released by Stylus Publishing. Welcome, Jon.

Jon: Thank you.

John: It’s good to see you again. Today’s teas are:&hellip Jon, are you drinking tea?

Jon: I’m actually drinking coffee, which I just brewed just in time for this interview.

John: That’s one of the favorite teas among our guests.

Rebecca: Definitely. I have an English breakfast today.

John: And I have an oolong tea.

Rebecca: Oh, nice, John. So we’ve invited you here today to discuss the development of COIL virtual exchange programs and your new book on the topic. Could you provide a definition of a COIL course for our listeners?

Jon: Well, I’ll define it really loosely. It’s a course where two professors engage each other, two professors, usually from different countries and cultures, but occasionally, just from two different perspectives and together they create a conjoined class where there are two groups of students who will later on meet spend 4, 5, 6, 7 weeks collaborating and sharing ideas.

John: How did the COIL program get started?

Jon: Well, that’s kind of a long story. I’ll tell the short part of it. But even that short part is fairly long. Well, my background, as you referenced at the beginning, was as a media artist and a filmmaker. And in a strange way, this led to my work with COIL. I was on a Fulbright in the country of Belarus over 20 years ago. And my supposed topic as a Fulbrighter was American Studies. But what I did is bring some digital video cameras, and I had my students make short videos, much like my freshman would have at Purchase college where I was teaching. And I noted that the videos that they made were remarkably different. And I don’t mean in terms of what was in front of the camera, because a landscape looked different. They simply made very, very different choices. And when I came back to the States after the Fulbright and tried to explain to my students what might have been interesting on my trip, they were generally not at all interested. So eventually, I showed them some of these short videos that my Belarusian students had made and they became very captivated. And all of a sudden wanted to know everything they could about Belarus, and I realized that my students in Belarus had communicated with my students in the US sort of unbeknownst to me, because I hadn’t planned this, and that it occurred to me that it would be interesting to then develop a dialogue, using video between my students at SUNY and students elsewhere, for example, back in Belarus. So I created over a period of time, a course called cross-cultural video production, and the structure of it was exactly that. The students would meet, although back in 2002, when we first did this meeting online was a stretch, there was no Zoom, there was very little way to actually meet synchronously back then. But they were able to communicate primarily through email and a little bit through Blackboard and agreed on a theme that they would explore together. And then what happened was one of the student teams on one side or the other would make the first scene of a video on that theme, and post it, 10 days later, the team on the other side was supposed to make the next scene of the video. And this continued for four to six scenes, depending on the different iterations I had developed. So the students were doing a strange kind of serial collaboration, a sequential collaboration, with a small amount of back channel communication, but primarily they were communicating through these videos. And it was a pretty wonderful process. It was not always happy because sometimes the students were actually competitive. In other words, it was kind of like, well, you think that’s strange, I’m going to show you something even stranger, or whatever. [LAUGHTER] They were very varied. They were all over the map, in fact. And since the US students, for the most part, had never heard of Bellarus, while the Belarusian students, of course, had heard of the US and had their own, sometimes mistaken impressions about it. These videos were really remarkable. And the course was exciting. The students were excited by it. And I sort of said, “Geez, this is a model of international collaboration. None of these students are getting on a plane. The Belarusian students probably could never afford to. This is maybe a new modality of exchange.” And I sort of then tried to find ways to propagate this model.

John: How did it grow out of your course to the larger scale SUNY program?

Jon: Well, this is again a long story to be kept short here. And it’s not even necessarily easy to answer that question, what I would do is first step back and say, to create a new program or to innovate at the university, and here I’m speaking generally, I’m not saying SUNY, is difficult. It’s something that I’ve learned, others have learned, that universities are inherently fairly conservative structures. They’re about setting standards, as are grades, etc., and degrees. And they’re a little bit hesitant to open their doors to something really new for fear that somehow, I don’t know, it won’t set the proper standard. And here I was with a model that involves a classroom in the US, in this case, it’s SUNY, actually collaborating for like half the semester with a class in another country, and their teachers and students had never been vetted, accepted, never paid tuition, nothing, they were just sort of partners in the interactivity. That, for a lot of people, was very strange. So to really get down to the nitty gritty, I sort of mounted a campaign, I guess, to do this, and my immediate peers and colleagues at Purchase college in the film program, were very supportive. But the direction this was going would have meant that they would have lost me partially or entirely, if I were to take over this new COIL Center that I had proposed. So they even were sort of against it, because they didn’t want to have to deal with their local repercussions of losing me. In the university context, you lose somebody, you might not get them even replaced. So there’s a lot of that kind of thinking. And so it was a campaign that lasted a couple of years. Ultimately, the man who was back then managing the international office at SUNY system was very, very sympathetic. And he helped turn this around by providing some direct funding at the system level. So it meant that my campus, in fact, could adjunct me. And that got rid of some of the fears of my colleagues, at least I wouldn’t just be missing in action, there would be somebody else who would be paid to take over my spot. And over a period of these couple of years, eventually, also, with the strong voice of a new provost, who arrived in the middle of this kind of conflagration, a decision was made that the SUNY COIL Center would be launched, I would be its first director. But at the outset, it was just me on three-quarter leave, and a tiny amount of money to hire a part-time student to help. So that was the format in which it launched back in 2006.

John: I think it was pretty close to the time when I first met you, when you visited our campus… you visited a number of campuses to talk about this… and you also sponsored a number of COIL conferences at your campus.

Jon: Yes, I think it was one of the good things, good ideas, although it was very difficult to pull off in the early days, because there was no staff or anything and doing a conference is a lot of work. But we began right away, in 2007, was the first COIL conference. And yeah, that was great. The first conference was almost entirely SUNY people, which is, of course appropriate, but many not from Purchase College like yourself, people coming from across the state. And this conference continued for about 11 years, and growing larger and larger and inviting people from a wider and wider range of people. The last COIL conference that I participated in was in 2017, and we had 450 attending. Whereas the first one that you attended, we had about 80 attending. So it grew. And I’d even say to this day, without getting too far afield, soon after I left SUNY, it was decided that maybe this SUNY conference was a bit too much for SUNY. And it should, in fact, become shared with other players at other campuses. And so an entity called International Virtual Exchange Conference was created. And IVEC, as it’s known, began holding comparable conferences, and SUNY kind of went out of the COIL conference business.

John: But more international partner organizations became active in it, so the whole thing has spread quite a bit since then, right?

Jon: Yeah, it’s a pretty remarkable story. Since at the outset, it was a few SUNY campuses reaching out to a few partner campuses around the world. I mean, it was successful in a way, but it was a bit of a battle all the time. For one thing, international offices on campuses… and this is not a SUNY thing, either, it’s somewhat of a US thing… they need to support themselves. And usually their institutions only offer limited funds and they actually generate funds by the international programs that they sponsor, whether it be their students studying abroad and paying them a fee, or in recruiting international students who pay a higher tuition, etc., there’s an economic piece in international education. Nothing wrong with that, but at the outset, nobody could find any economic piece to COIL. And therefore, getting international offices that were primarily dedicated to moving people out of the country or into the country to have this lived experience, it was difficult to convince people beyond a very limited engagement to support COIL at a deep level. So what was happening in those earlier years, say from 2006, to two-thousand, let’s say, 15-ish, was the COIL grew a little bit, little bit each year, rarely was any one school offering any large number of COIL courses, maybe three, maybe four, maybe five. So the number of students who was involved with this new practice was small. The good thing was that there were gradually becoming practitioners in different countries who understood the dynamics of these classrooms, which are quite unusual, although they overlap with online learning, in terms of both the software used and their, let’s say, dynamics, they were quite different because they were co-taught classrooms, and the process of the teachers engaging each other, and developing a module that they could comfortably share with both groups of students, that was quite radical. And so this was a kind of gestation period, I guess, where during this time, although the growth was slow, it was steady, and the knowledge was spreading. And more researchers began to get involved. Because people always said things such as: “Really, do students get anything out of that? or more typically, and more problematically, “Is this as good as study abroad?” which was a false question, in a sense, because nobody ever said it was as good as or better than as or anything as. It was really its own experience, it was really a separate matter. But of course, those people managing study abroad programs, felt a tad threatened by it. And in some cases, I guess I would say, looked down their nose at it, because in those days, anything online was looked down upon by many people, not all, but many. It was seen as an inferior kind of education. And so it did have these growing pains and had to prove itself, and it gradually did.

John: So people in international offices were worried about this being a substitute for their programs, but from what I’ve seen, it’s expanded the number of students who participate in international activities, particularly those students who might not be able to afford international travel, either in terms of the time or the financial costs.

Jon: Yeah, I mean, for sure it does. I don’t see any negative at all of that kind. But the problem is to do COIL requires not just the two teachers, but it requires some level of management or facilitation. Particularly, if you get past the first couple of early adopter faculty who just jump in and do it ‘cause they love it. If you want to grow it, you need somebody, usually now call a COIL coordinator, as a minimum, who actually has a job, it might not be full time, but part of their commitment is actually bringing together teachers from different schools, finding new partners, helping train teachers, so they’re comfortable working in this new modality. And that piece, which was central, had a price tag. And so as soon as you’re saying, “Well, we need a new hire,” all of a sudden, then all of the concerns of the institution come up and people say “How the heck are we going to do that? We’re going to let go of somebody else?” And you get the zero-sum game being played. And that was often really a hard piece at the outset. And in fact, I think one of the things that my position created was actually the reality on the ground that here was one person, at least, this guy Jon Rubin, who was kind of getting paid to do this. And as there were so few who are being paid to do this, that was important, then it was something that I began to focus on. In other words, the center of COIL, of course, are the teachers developing the collaboration and the students engaging each other. That’s what it’s about. But if the management piece isn’t there, then it won’t grow, and then it really will not be successful. So as the Director of the SUNY COIL center, I think I was one of the first people to focus on that piece and say, “Okay, what does an institution need to do to create a COIL program?” Not just how do you successfully do a COIL course but how do you develop a program? And I would say that this was successfully growing, but slowly. I would also say, without getting into the details, that after doing this at SUNY for 10, 11 years, I was beginning to see that things are happening in other schools, other countries. And maybe it would be interesting to help promote COIL at other institutions to find another way to help carry this work forward. So, in 2017, I retired from SUNY and began, what I wasn’t very confident, would be a consulting career. That is, I wasn’t really confident that anybody would call me up and ask for my services. Fortunately, I had one client very early on, Florida International University, who was already very enthusiastic about this, and hadn’t quite taken the big leap. And so I was fortunate, because they’re such an interesting University. So they hired me on as a consultant, right at this juncture where I really wasn’t sure it was going to happen. And then various things happened over the next years. I’m not sure which sub story to jump into next.

Rebecca: I’m sure there’s plenty of options, but we’re hoping you can talk a little bit about how the Guide to COIL Virtual Exchange got started, how did your book come to be?

Jon: This is interesting, and it was indirectly also connected to Florida International University. My colleague there, Stephanie Doscher, had developed a global learning program at FIU. And around this time, she published a book on global learning, which was an academic book, but quite successful. And she was in a conversation with her publisher, Stylus Publishing, who had recently heard about COIL and said to her, “Well, Stephanie, I think maybe it’s time for there to be a COIL book, who might be the right person to write it?” And she suggested me. And the irony was that, at this moment, and I don’t want to get into a dour story, but I was actually in a hospital bed. I had gone through a period where I had become quite sick, and it was somewhat mysterious. In fact, the illness I had, it wasn’t really clear what was going on. And I literally read this email from Stylus in my hospital bed. And I thought, “Damn, do I want to commit to writing a book while I’m lying on my back, and I don’t know whether I’m gonna get out of here?” So long story short, I wrote back and I said, “Give me three or four months, see if I’ve got my strength back, and if I feel good about it, then sure I’ll take it on.” And so indeed, I had a wonderful recovery, I was in fine shape. And by encouraging my friend Sarah Guth, who I had written a couple of chapters with, I convinced her to work on the book with me, which made me feel okay, because I’d never written a book. I’d written a few chapters, I can write, but a whole book was like, “Oh my God.” It was not something that my career had prepared me for. So we agreed. And what’s really interesting about that story is that we started to do this in late 2018. And as soon as we started to think about the book, we realized that some of the subjects that we’d like to write about, which indeed were: “How are institutions adopting this, integrating it, supporting their faculty?” …the infrastructure piece that had always been my interest, we realized there was not much research on that. There had begun to be research on student learning in COIL classes and related areas, but in terms of its integration and development, no. So we said, well, we’ve got to do research. So we spent really the first year of the project doing as large a survey as we could manage. And it wasn’t that easy, because it wasn’t commonly known who were the practitioners. That is, we knew a lot of people, but beyond that, there was absolutely no organization that listed who does COIL or virtual exchange. So, it took research to even find the people to talk to. So we did this, I’d say, rather extensive survey, it was a bit new to me, I’m not a trained researcher. So that was even a learning process for me. And we started to develop some really interesting data. We found there were only six institutions around the world, as best as we could find, that were offering 30 or more COIL courses in a year. And so our initial jumping off point was, how did it happen? Why did these six institutions, why are they more successful than others in terms of at least scope and scale? And we then started to flush out the book, and guess what, then the pandemic occurred. And so all of a sudden, we’re about, I don’t know, a quarter of the way, an eighth of the way, into writing this book, and everything changes. So we got kind of set back on our heels at first, as the whole world did. We didn’t really know what to make of it. No one did. We were all at a loss, but two things occurred. One is that a lot of people who frowned on online learning were all of a sudden forced to do online learning, because that’s all that was available. So there was a huge transition, and a great number of people, some against their will almost, others happily turning this corner finally, that became at least aware of the tools and processes for teaching online. And that had been a blocking point to COIL development, because it was a small minority of teachers who had those skills and that experience. And over the period of a couple of years, it became most teachers had that experience. The second piece being that mobility was frozen. So all the students who were able to be mobile, mind you, that’s only 5 or 6% of American university students, but nevertheless, they were either locked in place somewhere they didn’t want to be for two years, they had trouble getting back, and mobility kind of stopped. So a lot of the same international offices, who before were sort of pretending they weren’t there when I knocked on their door, were all of a sudden calling me up and calling others up and saying, “You know what, we really better learn this thing, because it’s something we can do during the pandemic. And it’s a way to keep international exchange going,” …which was actually strange for me, because did I really want to be responsive to people who are doing this only because they were forced to, in a sense, or in some cases, were actually describing it as a temporary pivot, when in fact, to me, I knew that to really do COIL well, would take a couple year commitment to really develop a program and develop training and professional development and find your partners and all the pieces of the puzzle. But nevertheless, I mostly went along with it. And so what happened was, I became a full-time consultant, I was sometimes working with six or seven schools at once, and I stopped writing the book, because I couldn’t do everything at once. Everybody’s hiding, everybody’s masked, nobody dares go out and see each other. And here I am working more than full time after I retired. It was just completely unexpected. And so just to sort of finish telling this part of the story, because it is a story, I put the book aside, mostly for a year during this time, because I couldn’t do it all. And then I said, I better get back to this book, because everybody’s asking for it. Now I have all these potential buyers of this book, all these people who need a guide, and there’s not a single guidebook out there. No one had ever written it. So I got back to work on the guide, I started telling people “No,” when they asked me to do a consulting job, and then I realized, “Oh, my God, the field has changed.” The people I was writing about two years earlier, well, they’re mostly still doing it, thank God. But there are a whole lot of newbies who are coming in the door doing this, and with a different attitude and mind than the people who had started this kind of movement. And that was mostly a good thing. But it meant that some of the research we had done, maybe wasn’t completely accurate anymore. And so still another challenge was how to really complete the writing of this book, once the pandemic experience had sort of transformed the landscape.

Rebecca: It’s interesting how the pandemic has forced many virtual or digital initiatives to mature at a very quick pace. [LAUGHTER]

Jon: Yes, definitely, not just COIL, but I think COIL was particularly well placed in a sense because it had been developed as a format far enough. So it didn’t have to be like created then, it was really a matter of being developed and extended then. But it was an issue for me through that period, and I would say up to this day, if people are doing this because it’s a pivot and because it’s a way to do something they couldn’t do anymore. What will they do when mobility returns and the pandemic recedes? Is this something that they will continue? Is this something that will change? How will this evolve over time? So at any rate, we managed to finish the book with that question totally, of course unanswered. The writing of the book was finished about a year ago, in 2022. It then took three or four months to go through the editorial process of turning it into an actual book, which came out in September of last year. And really that was, you could say the beginning of the first academic year that one might consider, although I don’t know if this is accurate, post pandemic, since that’s very arguable. Are we even post pandemic today? I don’t think so. But anyway, where people are at least trying to get their footing back on the ground, people were willing to get on an airplane, etc. And we’re beginning to move on. And so there’s some hypothesizing in the book [LAUGHTER] about the future. But I think the future that I was just talking about is only just arriving right now. And we’re just starting to see that future, which is soon to become our present. And it’s quite interesting.

Rebecca: I think it will be interesting to see how many people adopted the practice, maybe because they saw it as a pivot or a necessity, who may have been converted, [LAUGHTER] and want to continue that work moving forward. I think it’s an interesting space to be in. And we’ve seen it in some other digital spaces as well, that the adoption that was done out of necessity, has just really changed people’s perspectives on what it means to teach you what it means to collaborate and what it means to have certain kinds of experiences for students.

Jon: It’s actually been incredibly interesting, because what was also trying to happen at the same time, I don’t think it had quite the momentum earlier, was the idea of curricular internationalization, or internationalization at home. There are a number of terms, which are all speaking to a related problem, which is: very few students can study abroad. And should we only have that experience be what we call internationalization? And many people, and it wasn’t just people doing COIL or virtual exchange, were questioning that and saying, “No, no, we have to develop other practices and policies at our universities that will support that.” So what happened was a broader context than understanding, far from universal, but nevertheless, was growing. And so it provides context for COIL. COIL was often, when people started to think this way, it was sometimes a little difficult to say, “Okay, we want to internationalize our campus and the curriculum. But how do we do that? What does that mean? What’s a practice that will allow us to do it,” and COIL was so specific, that people could say, “Well, we can do COIL.” And so it kind of became the tip of the spear, a slightly aggressive [LAUGHTER] expression. But nevertheless, it was something people could grasp, they could see, they could act upon. And it could be part of, in some cases, a larger global learning program, let’s say. And that’s certainly the path that my colleague Stephanie Doscher took, she was doing global learning and then was doing COIL. And now she’s director of a COIL Center at FIU, very much like the COIL Center at SUNY, because these things are so linked. And what was really interesting is how it also expanded, and transmogrified, culturally. So let me give one example that’s really amazing to me. So in the earlier days of the SUNYi COIL center, for a number of reasons, we did a number of projects in Mexico and Latin America. And the projects we did partly came because we were able to get funding. At one point, the US Embassy in Mexico City had some funds to do something International and wasn’t sure what to do. So we kind of talked them into doing COIL, and some other opportunities came our way at a time when there was no actual funding for this, there was nobody providing funds under this name. So we did a number of projects, particularly in Mexico and Brazil, and to some extent in Colombia. But in those early days, even though we said this doesn’t all have to be in English, in fact, to do it with a US university in general, did need to at least be largely in English. So we had this, I would say asymmetrical relationship with partners in Latin America, where the students and, in many cases, the teachers were primarily Spanish speakers, working with us, some of whom spoke Spanish, but the majority didn’t. And so it was a really an unequal relationship. And it was something we talked about, we struggled with, we spoke of that it doesn’t have to be in English. And guess what happened during the pandemic, a lot of Latin American universities found each other and began doing Spanish and Portuguese language COIL, and it’s exploded in Latin America. In Latin America, I would say, best estimate, there is more COIL than anywhere else in the world. And it’s because they’ve owned it. And they do it in their own terms. The number of students in Latin America who are physically mobile, able to study abroad, is even less than in the US. And they have very much adopted ideas like internationalization at home. And by working between Chile and Mexico, or Bolivia and Uruguay or Spain, they’re doing really interesting work. And it’s become a real center for this work. Indeed, the IVEC conference that I mentioned a while ago, this year, is going to take place in Sao Paulo, Brazil. And one of the reasons is because there’s so much activity in Latin America. So I don’t know that anybody predicted this one, thinking about the future, but definitely, the movement has shifted, it has its own life. And so Latin America has become one of the centers of this work.

John: We do live in a global economy. I sat in on a class quite a few years ago with Susan Coultrap-McQuin, our former provost here, when she was teaching a COIL course. And the students were discussing their response to it and what they took away from it. And one of the things they mentioned is that they expected that, in the future, they’d be working with international partners in whatever sort of job or career they were going to have. And they saw it just as a natural part of their future lives. And one of the things that’s happened is the technology has changed to make these types of exchanges and collaborative projects so much easier than it was when you first started.

Jon: Yes, this is interesting… technology. Because I think it’s mostly, of course, to the present time, been all for the best. And you’re right. I mean, when we were first doing that video exchange with Belarus, the Belarusian students, the only way they could send their videos to us was when their university shut down in the evening at 8pm. The students would traipse into their IT office, give them, on some kind of disk, probably a CD at that point, their video. They would put it on send, and leave for the night. And by the morning, their videos would reach the US because it would take hours for each video to get sent bit by bit. So that’s an extreme case. Now we’re used to YouTube and streaming video. So it’s mostly for the best on almost every level. But I think there are a couple things that are issues. So one is, and I’m not the first to bring this one up, Zoom fatigue. That there is the issue of people having spent a lot of time in this modality and to some extent wishing to be where they could hug the person they’re talking to, having their physical closeness be available to them. So I think this is an issue. I don’t think it’s in any way in the way of virtual exchange and COIL. By the way, you asked me at the very beginning, what is COIL, let me just do a slight definition here, rather late in this podcast, because these are the two terms that people are primarily using now: virtual exchange and COIL. And so I’ll just say for myself, and I think many are taking this up, virtual exchange is the broader term, it means kind of any educational sharing primarily between youth, that takes place using this kind of online format. Whereas COIL is a more specific model that has particularly to do usually with universities, and with these conjoined classrooms where the students’ work is actually been done for credit, and where this central collaborative project is part of the deal. That’s why in the book, I call it COIL virtual exchange, because it’s to me, like basketball is a sport, so virtual exchange is like the word sport, COIL is like the word basketball. That’s the relationship they kind of have. And you can train and study for basketball, you can become better fit, maybe, for sports, but you can’t quite train for sports. So I think that’s a difference that holds. So at any rate, one of the issues going forward, one of the many questions, is this issue of spending too much time online going to negatively affect the future of this work? I don’t think it will, by itself. I think there’s enough dynamics to working in these collaborative groups, it’s exciting. That’s not going to go away, it’s different than talking to your sister on Zoom, because you haven’t seen her for a year, because of the COVID thing. It’s a different project than a lot of our use of it. But, in fact, real mobility is returning. And so I think there is a bit of tension, the tension that I described, that existed prior to the pandemic. And there’s some of that back. But many are also seeing, as you mentioned, John, earlier, that COIL also can be very motivating. So people do COIL, and then they say, “Damn, I’d like to study abroad.” Whereas before, it never even occurred to them that this was an option, either for one reason or another. So I think for a lot of people, they’re now connecting the dots. And they’re seeing these as two things that support each other. But in terms of technology, I just want to bring up a point, this has really been on my mind lately. So this is sort of getting to my current thoughts.These are kind of concerns, I would sa,y about the future, which otherwise I think is bright for this work. One of the issues with doing COIL or any intensive online engagement is the risk of what I call disembodiment, that is that we’re functioning intellectually and visually, but our physical bodies are sort of left out. And that’s okay. I mean, a lot of things we do are like that. But I think there is a risk, a general risk, that we don’t sense each other’s presence the same way online. And that’s why it’s so important in COIL courses for students to explore where they live, how they live, to look at things in their lived environment, food, etc. They really need to bring the lived life into the course even if the course is not about cooking. It’s very important to get this physical presence and sense of each other. It’s something to work for, but what’s happening now, and this is an audio only exchange. So there’s no way we can verify this on this podcast, but that very many people use digital backgrounds. And the reason is that where they’re sitting in their Zoom is a mess. And they’d rather not display their mess. So they create a digital background. Well, that’s fairly innocuous, but it does mean that that person is talking to you from something that isn’t a room any longer. It’s a creation, which could be anywhere. There’s nothing terrible about this, but I feel this begins to add to the disembodiment. You’re then seeing a kind of head or head and shoulders that isn’t in a real room, but is in a virtual space that doesn’t really have much character. And now I want to make the leap into the future, the paranoid future, maybe. And it’s a topic that we’re all talking about too much, but I just going to try to connect it to COIL. So it’s AI, this is the topic of the month, whatever, everybody’s talking about AI and they’re talking about from many different angles. But what is beginning to happen through AI, and it’s not, I think, the main venue of our conversation, generally, is that AI added to other tools, graphic tools, visual tools, can actually change the way we look. And I have a concern, I was in a Tik Tok exchange with somebody and they demonstrated to me something called teenage look, which is not available on Zoom, it’s still being played within Tik Tok land, and it’s very scary. Teenage look literally scans you and makes you look approximately 20 years old. And it does it so well that it’s stuck to you. So you talk, you stand up, you turn around, you’re 20 years old at all moments. It’s not like an avatar, where there’s some kind of goofy little figure that represents you in some bad 3D world. This looks like you, except young. And I don’t know what it does if you’re already very young, I haven’t explored it that far. So my concern is, and I realized this is going down a very small rabbit hole, but I think it’s not irrelevant. What if we’re in a world in a couple years, where the people we talk to in Zoom are in a completely illusionary background, and the face we’re looking at is not them either. And yet, we cannot tell. We cannot tell that this is a facsimile. If we reach that kind of point, I do have concerns that this model of COIL virtual exchange could be undermined, just as a lot of our reality and truth is being undermined by lies and fictions that are being proposed as reality. And I think it’s an interesting moment at any rate.

John: But instructors could still address some of those concerns by bringing in aspects of culture that would not be faked into the assignments or the interactions that students are doing. So in a world in which we do have that fake reality for any synchronous interactions, I think there still could be a lot of benefits from the cultural exchange, as long as that remains a substantial focus of the courses.

Jon: Yes, there are a lot of creative ways that this could be utilized. So I’m not trying to blanket speak from the negative. There have been tools before, what was that tool? Second Life? …where people were existing, in a much cruder, three dimensional space. And some people took great advantage of it and did some really interesting things. So I think if you have enough of a grasp, and you’re doing it very consciously, it could be very interesting. Sometimes I’m beginning to feel that unless I can go up and touch somebody, I don’t know if they’re real. And I’m just saying, in the future, that I think some of the great advances we’re making with technology may be setting traps for us at the same time. And so we’ll have to be that much more ingenious, to keep the real and the unreal. And I think there are other issues around virtual exchange, some of which are more promising. One I’ll just throw out, which is beginning to be taken up in a small way. When I first started doing COIL, I actually had a conversation with the same man up at SUNY, who helped get this thing going. And I said, it’s interesting, because I think what we’re doing is partially about diversity, and being with and meeting with people who are different than us. Shouldn’t we talk to people who are beginning to start diversity programs, back then this was a, let’s say, much less advanced element of the university than it has become. And my colleague said, “Oh, no, we can’t do that, because then we’ll be competing with them and maybe horning in on their territory.” And so it was like international and diversity were, because of funding, partially, seen as competitors for cash to run their offices, which is, again, the problematics of university life. But that always stayed with me. And I think I’ve seen a few examples, and I’ve tried to promote when I do a consultation, that you don’t have to do a COIL with somebody in another country. You can do a COIL with somebody in another state. You can do a COIL with somebody in another town. You can do COIL with somebody three miles away, that’s living a really different life than you are because rural and urban are so different in our country. The idea of bringing difference together through this channel, I think, has a lot of potential beyond the international. And I hope that gets developed, it’s a little bit of a question of international has defined itself as an element of higher education. And to some extent, I don’t know if it will want to back up and say, “Well, what we’re doing applies locally too.” I think some see that and some don’t. So, I don’t know, this is to me the sort of new world of COIL, which is edging into some plus some minus, but it’s generally growing. And just one other thing I have to put a plug in for, because it’s important, I think, to the field, and certainly where my energy has been lately. As I was doing this consulting work I was speaking about earlier, the first thing that would come up if I was, let’s say, engaged by an institution that was very new to this was “Well, with whom can we do this?” Now, of course, there we are just talking international again, so I’m backpedaling a little bit. And I realized that there was no place really where you could find who else was doing this. Now, certainly, the SUNY COIL Center had a global, and has still, a global partner network. And so there was a way through, if you’re at SUNY, where you could reach out to partners. There was a structure in place, but there wasn’t anything like this for a small community college in British Columbia to know where to go. They had no place. So I got this idea and worked with some colleagues and a programmer. And we started to build this website, which at the initial stages, it’s called COIL Connect for virtual exchange, it’s just coilconnect.org, if you want to find it. The purpose was to just create a directory of COILing institutions, so that you could go to this website and look around and say, “Oh, here’s somebody in Turkey that’s doing this. Here’s somebody in New York that’s doing this.” It was just to be a directory, but the website has grown, and we’ve added partnering tools to the website, and a number of other features. So it’s become a pretty interesting hub. There are now 260 universities that are members from something like 40 countries. There are something like 1500 individual members, I think it’s grown so fast, partly because it’s free. So it makes it easy, which also might make the longevity of the site a little questionable. We’re trying to figure that one out right now. We grew so quickly, with so little funding that we need to find some way to bring in some funding to keep it growing. But anyway, at the moment, I think it’s an interesting place to visit. If you happen to be hearing this podcast, and curious who the heck is doing this stuff this guy’s talking about, you can go there, and you’ll see a lot of data. The site is primarily user created. That is, the site opens the doors to individuals to indicate what they’re doing and to share it with the world. And so there’s a lot of data, a lot of courses, a lot of institutions, a lot of individuals sharing what they’re doing in this field. So I invite you all to come visit the site when you have a chance.

John: And we’ll include a link to that in the show notes for this episode, so that people can just click on the link and go there. Would you recommend that institutions that are thinking of building a COIL program or creating a COIL program should perhaps pick up a copy of your book? And maybe take a look at the site?

Jon: Yes, of course. Yeah, it is still the only real guide. There are now some other books coming out, I think. But I think both of those would be helpful to doing this, and engage with other people who are doing this, especially who are doing it successfully. There’s a lot to learn about how to develop and manage a COIL initiative or project. And it takes a little learning, a little training, and there are now a lot of people out there doing that. Indeed, on the COIL Connect site, there’s a small area that we’re growing called organizations that support COIL. And if you go to that particular menu item, you can find about a dozen organizations that will provide professional development and other support for new initiatives, which is, I think, a key piece when you’re trying to get something rolling. And yeah, buy the book, for sure.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking what’s next?

Jon: Well, I think I kind of jumped ahead of you here, because I was sort of doing a bit of “what next” already. I think. So I am not sure beyond the things that I’ve said. For me, what’s next is actually trying to be a little more retired. I mean, I supposedly retired almost six years ago now. And yet, I’ve been probably just about as busy as I was when I was at SUNY, and trying to find that balance is not easy. I’m a slightly compulsive person. I’m still involved, obviously, with this COIL thing. I’m trying to step back very, very slowly, but it’s hard. And I love kayaking and bicycling, and so I’m trying to do more kayaking and bicycling, but right now in March in Brooklyn, neither of those [LAUGHTER] are ideal endeavors. So sometimes I try to escape to places that are warmer, so where I can do that. So I don’t know. That’s not really what you’re asking, but that’s gonna have to be my answer for now.

Rebecca: I think it’s a good answer. I hope that you’re able to really embrace the authentic retired experience soon. [LAUGHTER]

Jon: Whatever that is… it’s definitely trying to find a balance and people talk about this. I’m finally enmeshed in this point in life where I don’t want to give up the work I’m doing entirely. I’m not going to. But yeah, once I put my toe in pretty soon I’m swimming and that’s the problem.

John: You’re benefiting a lot of people and as long as you enjoy doing it, we’re awfully grateful that you are.

Rebecca: Yeah, we’re glad that that’s part of your retirement plan.

Jon: And thank you for inviting me to this podcast.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.