Exploring Problem-based Service-Learning + Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL)

Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) has emerged in recent years as an innovative approach to Global Learning, recognized by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) as a high-impact practice (HIP). Add to the mix another HIP, such as Problem-based Service Learning (PBSL), and you get a powerful pedagogical combo.

I usually run a PBSL + COIL project in our “BUS/ECON 2023 Course Intro to Social Business” in the spring semester. Rachel Jordan wrote a fantastic post about online service learning last week, so I will focus on the COIL dimension in this blog.

As explained in our article, Impactful Social Entrepreneurship Education: A US-Spanish Service-Learning Collaborative Online International Learning Project, COIL is a cost-effective pedagogy that allows students to immerse themselves in global learning opportunities at home. It involves faculty and students from two or more countries engaged throughout international/global virtual teams (GVT). This method leverages technology to break down geographical barriers, offering a wide range of benefits across all disciplines, but it also presents some significant challenges.

The skills and competencies reported relate to increased intercultural skills and attitudes/cultural intelligence, networked learning, active self-regulated learner skills and media and digital literacy, autonomy-driven learning, interactive and collaborative learning in an authentic international environment, and open-mindedness. COIL can also overcome concerns about safety and security in international travel and close the equity gap for underserved students who cannot afford the high price tag of study abroad experiences.

COIL should be understood as an umbrella term that underscores a continuum of engagement in which fearless instructors partner to design the experience, and students partner to complete the activities developed. What these “activities” mean could be something as simple as a one-time joint online session to discuss a topic, an article, or a movie to a co-taught complex course/module in which mixed teams collaborate over many weeks, for instance, in a problem-based learning (PBL) project working for local/international community partners. This graphic depicts a visual representation of that COIL continuum with different levels of complexity and engagement.  

The graphic depicts a visual representation of that COIL continuum with different levels of complexity and engagement.  The simplest is parallel assignments, joint assignments, shared syllabus, and lastly the most complex is a combination of the previous and service learning: CP from both countries.
Source: COIL Brownbag. Maria Ballesteros-Sola, International Week – November 2021

An example of the latter is the project I have been running with Dr. Magomedova, a professor at the Universidad International de Catalunya (UIC) in Spain, as part of the BUS/ECON 203 course. In the first half of the semester, we ran our classes independently but agreed on the readings and cases to be discussed in both universities. After the spring break, we started our COIL project and created  CI/UIC mixed teams. Each team is presented with a problem or challenge faced by either a Californian or a Spanish social enterprise, and over the next seven weeks, they develop a solution using Stanford’s Impact Model Business Canvas.

We held three synchronous sessions (kick-off, mid-point, and final presentations) via ZOOM. We encouraged the students to communicate regularly via Slack, a messaging application we set up for them. All course materials and team documents are archived in a shared Google Folder as the collaborative authoring platform that both classes can access. We have run this course for three years but continue to find challenges and fine-tune our approach. Our main challenges relate to

  • Design & Logistics: Preparing a COIL interaction is a lot of work for the instructors and requires some risk-taking.
  • Delivery & Implementation: COIL engagements are also demanding for the students and require a level of commitment and engagement that some students may not appreciate.
  • Technology: While COIL is not a technology, it relies heavily on a portfolio of tools (web conferencing, messaging, authoring collaboration, cloud storage, etc.) that require professors’ and students’ dexterity.
  • Cultural, language, and time zone

Fortunately, the benefits outpaced the challenges. Our findings point to increased personal, social, and cognitive competencies. If you want to learn more about our experiences (and mistakes), we invite you to read this article and watch UIC’s video.

Internationalism is the core of our university mission, and while there is no substitute for a live immersion abroad, as explained in our article, creating COIL opportunities for our students could help reduce that equity gap, allowing students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and legal statuses to engage and learn about different cultures without the restrictions imposed by a lack of funding for travel and lodging. Unleashing COIL’s full impact requires an institutional commitment and support; otherwise, the efforts fall to individual faculty members who are opportunistically willing to facilitate these types of engagement for the students. At CI, the Center for International Affairs has been encouraging the development of COIL projects by sponsoring professional development opportunities such as the SUNY online workshops and the COIL conference. Learn more about upcoming Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) workshops.  

Don’t forget also to check other campus partners on our internationalization efforts:

I am excited to keep building COIL capacity on campus. Please don’t hesitate to reach out for comments and questions. Stay tuned for maybe a COIL FIP in the near future!

Bon voyage, and don’t forget to enjoy our International Week. Great events are lined up starting today, 11/14, through Thursday, 11/16.


Ballesteros-Sola, M., & Magomedova, N. (2023). Impactful social entrepreneurship education: A US-Spanish service learning collaborative online international learning (COIL) project. The International Journal of Management Education, 21(3), 100866.

Rubin, J., & Guth, S. (Eds.). (2023). The guide to COIL virtual exchange: Implementing, growing, and sustaining collaborative online international learning. Taylor & Francis.

Stevens Initiative Virtual Exchanges



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