International students have long been a hallmark of higher education in the United States, traveling from around the world to pursue their academic goals at U.S. university and college campuses. However, the landscape of international student mobility in the U.S. has changed significantly in the last five years. This change is due to a combination of factors, including pandemic-related travel restrictions, global economic uncertainty, and visa policy shifts.
In 2021/22, the number of international students in the U.S. was still 12 percent lower than it was prior to the pandemic.
In the wake of all these changes, virtual student mobility, or VSM, has emerged as a popular alternative for international students facing difficulties reaching physical U.S. academic institutions. According to UNESCO’s definition, virtual student mobility is “a form of mobility that uses information and communication technologies to facilitate cross-border and/or inter-institutional academic, cultural, and experiential exchanges and collaboration which may be credit-bearing or not for credit.”
This shift towards virtual mobility has had a profound impact on international education, creating new opportunities and challenges for both students and institutions.
Unleashing the Hidden Potential
VSM has already gained traction, due to its accessibility, flexibility, and ability to overcome physical barriers.
“Online education eliminates geographical barriers and allows students from all corners of the world to participate in international learning opportunities,” said Chet Haskell, vice chancellor for academic affairs and university provost at Antioch University in California. “It also offers students the flexibility to learn at their own pace and at times that suit their schedules. This convenience enables students to balance their academic pursuits with work, personal responsibilities, and other commitments.”
Haskell, whose university offers fully online programs to students inside and outside of California, believes that this kind of education promotes inclusivity and diversity within higher education institutions. “Virtual platforms facilitate global networking and collaboration among students and faculty … Online education encourages cross-cultural exchange, broadens perspectives, and nurtures international connections,” he said.
It could also boost university revenues. During the 2021/22 academic year, the nearly one million international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities generated $33.8 billion in economic activity, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators. While this marked a 19 percent increase compared to the previous academic year, it is still well below the $40.5 billion generated in 2018/19.
This decline reflects more than pandemic-related disruptions. Last year, student visas were denied at a record rate. More than 220,000 visa applications to study in the U.S. were rejected, leading to a loss of about $6.6 billion annually in tuition fees and living expenses from student hopefuls.
There is a lack of comparable data regarding the economic returns of VSM. While the physical absence eliminates returns from students’ housing and living expenses, top-notch virtual programs can still be a source of revenue for universities.
“This is a very critical point. Still, online programs can be financially lucrative, especially when they attract a global audience by offering suitable high-quality courses,” Haskell said.
Communication technology makes virtual student mobility possible. “It equips students with digital literacy skills and technological competency, which are increasingly essential in today’s digital age,” said Allison Church, a veteran international education professional who has worked to build capacity for virtual programs across the Middle East.
“Technology-enabled communication lies at the heart of virtual learning, empowering students to transcend geographic boundaries and connect through videoconferencing, online forums, shared documents, and virtual classrooms. These digital tools facilitate real-time interactions, fostering engagement and collaboration among students from diverse backgrounds, ultimately cultivating a global community of learners,” she added.
Virtual student mobility is not limited to international students wishing to study in the U.S. but also includes students at universities within the U.S.
“It’s important to facilitate students’ virtual mobility from and into the U.S. at the same time. Our students need to be connected to students from around the world for inclusive and accessible international education experiences, contributing to a more interconnected and empathetic global society,” said Samia Rab Kirchner, interim chair of the Department of Undergraduate Design at Morgan State University in Baltimore.
Developing Virtual Exchange Programs
The number of U.S. students studying abroad for credit represents less than 1 percent of all students enrolled in higher education institutions within the U.S., according to NAFSA.
Still, there are many virtual exchange programs that have successfully provided students with valuable international learning experiences. The widely recognized Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL), for example, enables students from different institutions to collaborate on projects or joint courses. COIL has been implemented by numerous universities worldwide, including the State University of New York (SUNY) system, which has a strong COIL program and has facilitated collaborations between students in various disciplines. There is also an initiative by Soliya that focuses on intercultural dialogue and understanding through virtual exchange. Soliya is a non-profit organization that has been at the forefront of promoting virtual exchange experiences since its inception in 2003.
Kimberly Warren, an associate professor in the Psychology Department at Morgan State University, started incorporating study abroad into her classes in 2018 as she “recognized that much of the course content was highly relevant to the U.S. but less applicable to the global context.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Warren initiated virtual exchanges, yielding unexpectedly positive results that motivated further investment. She has conducted virtual exchange programs with universities in Brazil, El Salvador, Mexico, and Morocco. “In these programs, students actively participate in various projects, such as designing health-related interventions. Additionally, they engage in unique activities, including a culinary medicine class where they collaborate in cooking a meal using [health-promoting] ingredients,” she said.
The benefits are not limited to students but also extend to faculty and staff. “It enables educators to share expertise, teaching methodologies, and research findings with their international counterparts. These virtual exchanges foster professional development and enrich the educational landscape,” said Kirchner.
“Virtual exchange programs have emerged as transformative platforms, providing an immersive and intercultural learning experience. Moreover, the virtual exchange of knowledge, research, and best practices between institutions fosters global cooperation and innovation in education,” she said.
Morgan State University is among three historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that have initiated the HBCU Africa Education Coalition program. “This program aims to enhance study abroad opportunities in Africa and provide African students with the opportunity to study at historically Black institutions in the U.S.,” said Cirron Greenidge, director of the Office of Global Cross-Cultural Programming at the university. He explained that Morgan States’s internationalization efforts “have expanded beyond courses offered in the College of Liberal Arts to encompass disciplines in the schools of architecture, engineering, and business.”
A Long Way to Go
Despite the numerous benefits of virtual mobility and the growing prevalence of virtual exchange programs in the U.S., there remains a need for further efforts to overcome certain obstacles and establish virtual mobility as a crucial component of international education.
One of the most significant obstacles is the reality that not all students have equal access to the necessary communications technology or reliable internet connections.
“This disparity in access creates a unique disadvantage for students from low-income families,” said Church, who confronted these challenges as regional director at Kiron Open Higher Education for Refugees, a non-profit organization that offers free online learning opportunities to refugees and displaced people. “Efforts must be made to bridge this gap and ensure that virtual mobility is inclusive and accessible to all, regardless of their socioeconomic status,” she said.
In turn, Haskell, from Antioch University, believes that establishing virtual mobility as a recognized and valued form of international education requires institutional support. “Universities and educational institutions need to invest in resources, training, and faculty support to integrate virtual mobility into their curricula and provide guidance and mentorship for students,” he said.
“Moving minds: Opportunities and challenges for virtual student mobility in a post-pandemic world,” a report published by the UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC) last year, came to similar conclusions. The report highlights the equity, environmental, and sustainability benefits of VSM in the post-pandemic international education landscape, urging institutional leaders to integrate VSM as an essential component of their student mobility plans.
It also advises leaders to channel institutional resources towards VSM initiatives. It suggests that leaders incentivize the adoption of VSM at their institutions by, for example, offering grants to stakeholders interested in establishing VSM programs or rewarding those introducing innovative VSM practices. It also underscores the importance of building on previous inter-institutional relationships, advising leaders to prioritize the introduction of VSM in their institution’s pre-existing partnerships.
The report also stresses the role of governmental bodies in supporting VSM. It recommends that governments offer funding to institutions to help them establish VSM partnerships and cover related training and administrative expenses.
Given the dramatic changes impacting the international education landscape in recent years, higher education institutions need to start thinking seriously about how to integrate VSM to ensure that they reach their internationalization goals.