Philomena Meechan of the LSA Language Resource Center and Todd Austin from LSA Instructional Support Services, recently presented with Professor Alexander Knysh, U-M Near Eastern Studies, and Anna Matochkina and Daria Ulanova of St. Petersburg State University, Russia (SPBU), both at the SUNY COIL conference in New York and at the UNICollaboration Conference in Kraków, Poland.

SUNY COIL and UNICollaboration are international organizations that support university faculty and staff in creating virtual exchanges with international partners in their classrooms.

“In these exchanges, students from universities in different countries collaborate together using online communication tools to carry out collaborative projects and to learn about each other's language and culture. By taking part in such projects, students can develop foreign language skills, intercultural awareness, electronic literacies as well as learning more about their particular subject area.”

Photo Credit: Anna Matochkina

Philomena and Todd are LSA consultants who have provided instructional and technical support for more than 30 U-M courses across multiple U-M units and campuses where videoconferencing technology is used to connect U-M courses with international partner students and faculty.

These two conference presentations showcased Near East 424 “Islamic Intellectual History” (Winter 2017) and Near East 421 “Sufism in Time and Space” (Fall 2017) and the international partnership between Michigan and St. Petersburg. In these two classes, students and faculty joined together once a week during class over a live link, where discussions of the readings were based on questions generated by student teams and were facilitated by the faculty. U-M and SPBU students also collaborated on group projects and presentations in cross-institutional teams of two or three students. While SPBU students were all Islamic Studies majors, (some of whom were studying to be imams), U-M students represented a variety of disciplines. Given this wide range of topical knowledge, students were paired both by interest and by level of study (BA, MA, or PhD). An online collaborative space was created to facilitate distant group work and included shared Google Folders and BlueJeans IDs as a starting point. Some teams also used email for communication and the most successful teams reported using WhatsApp for rapid text and voice messages.

Classes were conducted mostly in English, though Professor Knysh and his SPBU colleagues occasionally provided translation between Russian, Arabic, and English.

Indicative of the value of the international partnerships, Michigan students reported forming a very close working relationship with their international partners, in some cases, stronger than those formed with their local UM classmates. Russian students appreciated the opportunity to polish their communication skills in English and enjoyed experiencing a different approach to learning and teaching. They commented that Americans were not afraid to think out loud or propose their own ideas or form opinions that were not rooted in years of narrow study on the topic, be that academic or religious. They realized, for example, that a U-M biology major could offer interesting insights in a class on Islamic studies. Advanced students from both institutions developed new research ideas and collegial relationships as a result of the partnership. Students at U-M and SPBU alike were enthusiastic about the project, with several attending both classes and having plans to join the upcoming Fall 2018 course, as well. Mideast 418 “Islam in Russia” will include a third partner, Professor Leila Almazova and her students from Kazan Federal University (KFU) in Russia. Professor Almazova spent 2017 at U-M as a Fulbright fellow.

A big takeaway from the SUNY COIL conference is that students in virtual exchanges don’t necessarily have to be studying the same subject. For example, a SUNY MCC course in Greenhouse Management and a Biology course at the Instituto Tecnológico de la Laguna in México, made a dynamic and effective pairing. The project originated from a commercial client who wanted to commercialize an extract from a native plant. Biology students in Mexico designed a scalable process by which to extract the commercially-useful compound from the plant. Students in Rochester, New York worked to determine the best conditions for growing the plant under controlled conditions in a greenhouse, also in a scalable way. Together, they coordinated with each other and the commercial client to create an entire process that could enable the production of a salable product.

In Kraków, we learned about the depth of support for this approach to teaching, with multiple European Commission grant projects underway and concerted efforts to collect data that can demonstrate the impact such courses have on students. Several US universities, in addition to the SUNY system, have also formed groups to share this approach to teaching with their faculty and staff and support the development and implementation of courses using international virtual exchange.

With many years of experience in designing and supporting such classes, Todd and Philomena are enthusiastic about opportunities to assist with more such international virtual exchange courses and are very interested in connecting with faculty and staff from all campuses and units across the U-M system. All U-M instructors and staff who have an interest in sharing some aspect of courses that they teach or support are encouraged to reach out. It is not necessary to have a partner already identified. Todd and Philomena can work with you to identify potential partners.

If you would like to know more about international virtual exchanges, you may fill out the form linked below or contact Todd and Philomena at



Todd Austin, Instructional Technologist, Videoconferencing Lead, ISS

Philomena Meechan, Instructional Learning Lead, LRC

Conference organizer name and URL: UNICollaboration, State University of New York Collaborative Online International Learning

Name of Presentation and co-presenters: U-M Prof. Alexander Kynsh and Anna Matochkina and Daria Ulanova at St. Petersburg State University, Philomena and Todd.