COIL is becoming increasingly popular within Higher Education Institutes as way to internationalise the curriculum. COIL is also listed as one of THUAS’ ambitions in the Institutional Strategic Plan 2023- 2028. However there is very little empirical evidence to support that it is actually effective and helps students develop intercultural competence. Therefore, as part of her PhD research at Utrecht University, Senior Lecturer and Researcher at the Faculty of Health, Nutrition and Sports and Global Learning Lectorate, Simone Hackett, has put the COIL method to the test. Her findings were published on 24th January in the renowned International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education.

What is Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL)?  
COIL involves two or more lecturers from different Higher Education Institutions  located in different countries, connecting and co-developing collaborative online group assignments for their students. Students from both universities work together in online teams on several tasks that promote collaborative and intercultural learning. It is assumed through this experience students develop intercultural competence.  

Surge of Interest  
According to Hackett, there are multiple explanations for the surge in interest in COIL: the rapid transition to online teaching and learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns over the carbon footprint of studying abroad as well as more emphasis on inclusive international education strategies. In addition, national funding initiatives such as the Virtuele internationale samenwerkingsprojecten set up by the Dutch Ministry of Education have added to the increased implementation of COIL-like courses within Dutch Higher Education Institutions.  

The Hague and New York  
Simone and colleagues from Utrecht and State University New York designed a study to empirically test the effect of COIL on intercultural competence development. This study is one of its kind and is the first study that the tests the effectiveness of COIL using control groups. According to Hackett et al., the presence of control groups helps confirm that the results of the study are due to COIL rather than any extraneous variables and such research provides the most reliable evidence of the effectiveness of COIL on students’ intercultural competence development. The study consisted of students from two universities, one located in at The Hague University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands (NL) and one located at State University New York Brockport in the United States (US). The students were split up into four groups, i.e. one US experimental group, one NL experimental group, one US control group and one NL control group.  All students were given the same assignments to complete within their course, whereby the experimental groups had the COIL component implemented within their course, while the control groups did not.   

Increase in the U.S.  
The results of the study showed that the US experimental group increased in intercultural competence while the US control group did not. However, this difference was not observed for the NL students. Both the NL experimental group and NL control group increased in intercultural competence. This could have been due to the NL control group being exposed to other international input during the course, as the they worked with together with international at their home institutions and followed an internationally orientated minor. This was not the case for the US students who had no other international elements within their study programme.  If there had been no control group, we would have assumed that the increase in intercultural competence in the Dutch experimental group was  due to COIL alone and we would have interpreted this as evidence that COIL works. However, the presence of a control group shows that there are other elements at play that may have contributed to the increase in the intercultural competence of the NL students. 

Physical classroom environment 
According to Hackett et al. , these results give more insight into which students might benefit the most from COIL but also prompt for more research to be carried out on the impact of COIL, and its interaction with other internationalisation practices (e.g. collaboration with international students within the physical classroom setting) to further understand its potential and its effectiveness. Hackett et al. further explain that this study lays the groundwork for future empirical studies using control groups in order to provide reliable evidence that COIL’s is effective in helping students develop intercultural competencies.   

Hackett, S., Janssen, J., Beach, P.  et al. The Effectiveness of Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) on intercultural competence development in higher education. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education. 20, 5 (2023).