by Dominique Darmon

Why do you use COIL

I discovered COIL a few years ago, and since then I’ve tried to implement it in my courses as much as I can. It’s well-documented that soft skills are very important in the current job market, and soft skills such as intercultural competency are especially vital. The first thing that often comes to mind, to gain intercultural skills, is going on exchange – and of course that is a great experience, but a lot of students can’t or won’t do it. Sometimes it’s too expensive, sometimes they don’t have the language skills they need to go abroad, and sometimes it’s simply too intimidating for them – and of course these days, in a pandemic, that sort of international mobility is often not possible at all. However, through things like Internationalisation at Home and COIL, students can acquire these intercultural skills without having to go abroad – that is why I am so interested in COIL. To me it is extremely important that my students gain the skills and tools they need to succeed.

Perhaps for some students, COIL also gives them a taste of what an exchange could be like, and it pushes them to try even though they were reluctant at first. They make friends with students at partner universities, and their perceptions are changed. It starts to open them up to the possibility of going on an exchange.

Memorable COIL projects 

I’ve been involved with several COIL projects, including with Lancaster University in Ohio, and with the University of Derby in the UK. A recent project was with Queen’s College, City University of New York in the United States. It was a little strange because partway through the project the pandemic hit, and suddenly all we could speak about anymore was COVID-19.

The most striking project, to me, was the one with Ohio. In this journalism course, the students came from different backgrounds and study programmes – some of them studied completely different topics such as economics or statistics. One assignment I always give my journalism students is to come up with an issue they feel strongly about: for example, environmental problems or the economic crisis. (Obviously, during the project with Queen’s College, the topic was the pandemic.)

The grass is always greener at the partner university. Credit: Dominique Darmon.

However, in the project with Ohio the students spoke about topics such as gun laws, student debt, and the opioid crisis that was a real issue in Ohio. Then they had to really think outside of the box and find angles to approach the topic. They had to take into account cultural differences, as well as the different study programmes of the students. For example, the journalism students had to consider statistical data and quantitative research that the statistics students preferred, and how to use that in their article. The statistics students had to think about asking not just for data, but also for students’ attitudes and opinions, and incorporate that into their research. They really had to find a way to collaborate together, while considering their different backgrounds and approaches.

The project I’m doing now is also very interesting, because I’m working towards a new COIL with a marine biologist in South Africa and her students are obviously very scientifically minded. She mentioned that they sometimes have a lot of difficulty explaining to laymen what they’re doing. I thought this would be a fantastic fit with my journalism class – my students don’t know anything about marine biology and all the jargon, but they’re journalists, so it is great practice for them to have to interview experts in fields they know nothing about, and explain complicated ideas in simple terms, to a general audience.  My contact in South Africa thought that was very original, and we agreed the students would be a good match. Both these projects share what I consider the most important aspects of COIL: learning, through collaboration with people from different backgrounds, to think outside of your box and to look at things from a different angle.

How to find COIL partners 

Sometimes I’ve met them at a conference, and sometimes they are visiting lecturers who are introduced to me. I met my contact Pam, from Ohio, because she visited THUAS – we met for a coffee and the idea to do a COIL together was born. It was the same with my contact at Queen’s College.


One thing I learned during a training with Jon Rubin, one of the founders of COIL, is to first focus on a single assignment. Don’t try to merge your course completely with that of a partner university, because that is a lot of work and also means you are less flexible, as you’d only be able to work with courses similar to your own. Instead, have one assignment where the students get to work on a specific project – in the journalism minor I teach, for example, only one of the five assignments my students get is a COIL assignment.

It is also helpful to give students some warming up activities before the COIL project really starts, where they can get to know each other. These exercises are nearly as valuable as the actual project because they break through stereotypes students may hold about each other, and you can see that misconceptions start to vanish.

Another tip – and this can also be a potential pitfall – is that you really have to align your classes and plan ahead with your partner. For example, what do you do if the group at your partner university consists of 50 students, but yours only has 20? How do you match them, and what do you do if a student drops out or stops responding? At THUAS, students have the right to a resit if they fail, but you can’t resit a COIL project, so you need to think of an alternative assignment as well in case a student fails. All this can create a lot of extra work and requires a hands-on and proactive approach from both you and your partner. Therefore, I would recommend keeping the project simple, at least at first, and just focus on one assignment!

Lastly, a tip for those who are completely new to COIL: start with finding a partner you like. Next, spend a lot of time talking to people, so you also know that they are reliable in their communication. Sometimes you’ll meet someone at a conference who is really nice, but then they don’t respond to your emails; if that happens, they’re probably not the right person to start a COIL project with. I also always spend time video calling with someone before deciding to COIL with them, to make the relationship more personal. If you’ve built a good personal and professional relationship with someone like that, it will be a lot easier to work with them down the road, and to discuss potentially awkward issues such as, ‘Hey, your students aren’t responding to mine’.

This does mean you have to invest quite a lot of time before you even begin creating a COIL project, but as a teacher you also get a lot back, both from building that relationship and from doing the project. You learn how educational systems work in other places, and what their teaching methods are. You learn about the kinds of students they have, and the issues they deal with. It’s always a cultural learning experience for the teacher as much as it is for the students. And then, of course, it’s wonderful to see and hear your students’ experiences, to witness their misconceptions collapse as they are building these intercultural collaborative skills. It’s a lot of effort, but it is very rewarding.

Dominique Darmon is a senior lecturer at ICM (International Communication Management) and a member of the research group Change Management. She also works as Programme Coordinator Internationalisation for ICM/COM, and country tutor for France. For several years now, she has been using COIL in her journalism and media minor and she is very passionate about it.

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