Learning Through International Encounter: US/UK Virtual Anthropology Exchange

Dr Sarah Winkler-Reid

School of Geography, Politics and Sociology

Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

What did you do?

We set up a virtual exchange with 1st year undergraduates studying the Introduction to Social Anthropology module at Newcastle University and students from IUPUI University in Indianapolis.

Who is involved?

  • Dr Sarah Winkler-Reid, Lecturer in Social Anthropology
  • Professor Cathrine Degnen, Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology
  • Dr Audrey Ricke, Senior Lecturer in Anthropology, IUPUI
  • 1st Year students studying Comparing Cultures: Introduction to Social Anthropology Module in the Sociology Degree Programme at Newcastle University.
  • Anthropology students from IUPUI university, Indianapolis

Why did you do it?

A virtual exchange is a fantastic opportunity for students to meet with other students living in completely different places and learn more about their experiences and their lives. It is particularly relevant for Anthropology students as Anthropology focusses on cross cultural comparison and ethnography from all around the world.

I was introduced to the idea of virtual exchange during the pandemic so it was at a time we were particularly interested in exploring new ways we could offer experiences to our students given that they had lost a lot of the normal opportunities for exchange and interaction.

I also recognised that while there are lots of chances to work with international colleagues on research, it doesn’t happen as often in teaching, so to have that chance to build those relationships and work internationally on teaching projects is a really enriching opportunity.

How did you do it?

We were put in touch with Audrey Ricke from IUPUI University in Indianapolis. Audrey is a senior lecturer in Anthropology so we already had a disciplinary connection which was a good starting place. Our planning started in summer 2020 when we met to talk through what we wanted to do.

Working together we came up with the following approach to virtual exchange:

  • Students were put into groups of 12/13
  • They’d meet 4 times over a 4 week period for 1 hour Zoom meetings
  • We supplied topics, prompts and activities to prepare in advance for students to help them structure the meetings. This started with questions based on their own experiences and observations and progressed into more analytical questions about nationality and comparisons between countries. Topics included food, holidays, flags and because the exchange was happening at the same time as the American elections, politics provided a topical point of discussion.
  • Each group would have an assigned leader, a graduate student from IUPUI. These students set up the Zoom meetings and led the group discussions, encouraging the flow of conversation.
  • The virtual exchange was an optional 10% of the assessment so students were not obliged to take part, but could choose to do so. We used a higher education networking platform,  where they could communicate with each other. To achieve the 10% students needed to evidence they had interacted with other students through a screen shot of this platform. For students who did not want to take part we provided an alternative task that was worth 10%.
  • About 50% of students on the module chose to take up this opportunity which equated to around 60 students in Stage 1.

Challenges and Improvements


There was a an imbalance in the numbers of students from each institution so a lot of administrative work focussed on figuring out how to make the groups work and dealing with timetable challenges.

The exchange took place in the first semester and there were practicalities to consider, so for example the semesters of our two institutions run at different times and there was quite a short turnaround to get things set up. There’s also the time difference to consider; this was 5 hours for this exchange which took some thinking about.

Reducing group size

We weren’t as familiar with Zoom when we started last year but definitely are now and have noticed once you get past a certain size of group it becomes hard for people to contribute. Groups of 12 or 13 students were too large, and this year we will ensure the groups are smaller to provide more options for meaningful exchange.

Setting the scene and encouraging discussion

We are going to run the exchange again this year and one thing we have decided is that we need to have even more structure to the questions and the prompts. As with lots of group work some of the feedback highlighted that some students would actively contribute while others didn’t so we are looking at ways to try and encourage everyone in the group to get involved. For example, we have suggested a relay method to help keep the conversation going: when a student is done asking or responding to a question, they “tag” someone else to go next.

We’ve decided this year to hold an introduction session which we will use this to establish the parameters of the exchange, exchange etiquette etc. I think you do need to structure the exchange which does take time and care, but it was worth it as it is such an enriching part of the module.

Does it work?

We did ask students what they thought of virtual exchange in their module feedback resulting in some qualitative feedback.

‘ I think the virtual exchange was a really useful opportunity to get to know the culture of another country that wasn’t your own. It was really interesting hearing the American students’ experiences’.

‘I found it really enlightening, and also it was fun to get to know the people on the virtual exchange. It felt like we were doing some proper anthropology’.

Out of 39 students who took part, 38 thought we should run it again.

The collaboration with staff also worked well. I think one of the keys to success is having a good counterpart. In the first year especially, it is an investment to set this up and it does take time and commitment. But having good colleagues to work with and who are equally committed to the project really helps with this. I think the other thing that was helpful is that we shared a disciplinary understanding when setting up the questions and thinking about the rationale. In Social Anthropology we carry out ethnographic research in everyday life and having that shared understanding of the methodology was helpful for running the exchange

There are so many possibilities with this. You could work with different countries, in different universities, across different subjects. Anthropology is a discipline where it is easy to see how this could work but I definitely think there are opportunities in all disciplines, even those you might not traditionally think of.

Useful Resources

Virtual Exchanges are often called COILs (Collaborative Online International Learning) and there are lots of resources online for this. For example, http://onlineinternationallearning.org/about/

There is lots of support for setting up a virtual exchange within the university. Katie Lavender, International Exchange Officer at Newcastle, helped us set up ours and you can find out more about the Global Opportunities Team here.

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