Peer Review

Collaborative Learning through International Partnerships

The twenty-first century is witnessing a flourishing of international partnerships in higher education, with a boom in the range of colleges, universities, and disciplines pursuing such connections. There is also a florescence in how these affiliations are conceived and what they are being asked to do. Such partnerships are emerging as an important, perhaps central, element of global learning for all. These partnerships create a path toward a collaborative approach to global learning—an approach that engages new faculty, students, and institutions; reflects a commitment to globally constructed knowledge and practice; threads global learning through a student’s entire trajectory of development; unites theory, reflection, and application; and institutionally models the global competencies wanted for students.

However, taking this path requires revisiting how we think about international partnerships and exploring new modalities for what they might do. The key is building on what has gone before to unlock the full potential of these connections. Fortunately, there is a growing list of innovative ideas and strategies to guide us.


The Institute of International Education offers the framing definition for this discussion (IIE, n.d.). International partnerships (IPs) are formal connections among institutions representing different countries, with at least one being a higher education institution (HEI). Such affiliations most often link colleges and universities, but also sometimes connect HEIs to NGOs, businesses, governmental agencies, neighborhoods, or community organizations. They also often link entities located in different countries, but sometimes connect to immigrant and international advocacy organizations in the same country as the HEI.

In this usage, IPs are institutional affiliations rather than informal, one-on-one links among faculty (although these are also important, share characteristics with the partnerships discussed here, and can expand into larger international partnerships over time). While faculty or staff relationships are key to all partnerships, my concern in this article is with alliances that link multiple individuals and testify to institutional commitment through formal agreements. These broader affiliations carry a particular value for global learning for all.

Within this general frame, this discussion focuses on IPs tasked with student learning. Such partnerships connect HEIs to sources of international instruction, knowledge, perspectives, experience, and activity beyond themselves. The discussion further focuses on the partnership journeys of US institutions, fully acknowledging that those in other countries may be on different pathways and that the story of each is worth telling.


For US institutions, partnerships focused on learning go back at least to the University of Delaware’s 1923 alliance with the Sorbonne to create the first Junior Year Abroad program. In the aftermath of World War I, this development was aimed at refocusing the global engagement of US students from a Grand Tour approach to one of direct instruction and contact with HEIs overseas, a move some felt would build relationships that might prevent future conflicts (Contreras 2015).

This shift was quickly embraced and emulated, especially by selective universities and liberal arts colleges. After World War II, such education abroad connections underwent further expansion: spreading to more institutions, welcoming students beyond language majors, exploring destinations outside Europe, and sometimes evolving into two-way student exchanges (Hoffa 2007; Hoffa and DePaul 2010). The positive impact of these partnerships on the students who participated has been profound.

Still, the reach of such programs has been small. While growing, barely 10 percent of US undergraduates now study abroad, heavily concentrated among certain types of students in certain disciplines at certain institutions (IIE 2017). The issue has become how to provide the direct interaction and experience needed for robust global learning to a broader range of students at home as well as abroad. Here is where an expanded conception of IPs has come into play.

Recent Global\ Learning Trends

The general forces of globalization have been the catalyst for changes in how colleges and universities have approached both global learning and international partnerships. Increased international student mobility, rising global demand for tertiary education, the growth of excellent universities everywhere, global ranking systems, information technology that overpowers distance, postcolonial perspectives, the search for new student markets, and the internationalization of all disciplines and professions have created a confusing, swirling mix.

Institutions have responded to this mix in varying ways. Many have come to see the necessity of global learning for all students because they all will lead globalized lives, no matter what fields they pursue. More and more schools have also recognized that this new landscape may not be easy to traverse alone. They understand that knowledge production, learning, and dissemination now require many voices to be at the table.

It is in this light that international partnerships have taken on new importance. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, a minority of US institutions had any such connections. The 2012 internationalization survey from the American Council on Education (ACE), however, showed that 48 percent of schools were actively enhancing their partnership programs, and 21 percent (including 33 percent of community colleges) were starting IPs for the first time. According to the 2017 ACE survey, 77 percent reported having active partnerships overseas.

Similar statistics have emerged in other parts of the world. The European Association for International Education’s 2015 Barometer shows that 79 percent of European universities see partnerships as central to their international efforts (Engel et al. 2015). The 2014 survey from the International Association of Universities revealed international collaboration as either the first or second internationalization priority in nearly every region of the world (Egron-Polck and Hudson 2014).

In short, IPs have taken on new importance at many institutions. They are being repositioned from a minor tactic to a core principle of internationalization. They are being approached with greater planning and intentionality. File cabinets of dormant memoranda of understanding are being replaced with focused programs of partnership development. For many HEIs, institutions are adding a collaborative generation of new programs to the simple exchange of faculty and students done in the past. And the value of such affiliations is being felt across research, civic engagement, professional practice, institutional capacity building, societal impact, and—of greatest interest to this discussion—student learning.

What IPs Offer to Global Learning for All

As a source of new perspectives, methods, applications, and knowledge, IPs can enhance learning in all disciplines. Of equal importance, partnerships can also be used to place such disciplinary learning within the larger frame of global learning that runs through this issue of Peer Review.

Global learning unites knowledge, theories, and methodologies that traverse disciplinary boundaries. As articulated by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), global learning also asks students to appreciate difference, recognize that knowledge often reflects the position of the speaker, think about their own place and responsibilities in global systems, connect the local and global, and tackle global problems by working with others (AAC&U, 2014).

It is difficult to imagine that any of these goals could be accomplished without direct international conversation and collaboration. It is equally difficult to imagine that these goals could be accomplished without also intersecting with campus initiatives aimed at diversity, community engagement, and experiential and applicative learning.

IPs have the potential to create platforms where global learning connects multiple disciplines, involves faculty and staff working on various campus initiatives, and fosters dialogue across national and cultural boundaries. The partnerships also have the potential to draw in and support faculty, staff, students, and even other institutions new to international work. And if constructed in certain ways, they make global learning a fittingly collaborative endeavor for everyone. What follows are some exciting new ways they have been doing this.

Placing Students into Global Conversations

Effective global learning requires students be exposed to diverse voices and sources of knowledge and can engage these voices directly and repeatedly, allowing mutual learning to grow and develop over time. IPs provide a framework for creating such dialogue at home and abroad, in multiple ways that deepen faculty capacity to teach about the partner country over time and sometimes spread across a student’s learning.

The International Summer School in China, established by Nanyang Technological University (Singapore) in collaboration with Nankai University and Tianjin University (China), Bryn Mawr College (United States), the University of Toronto (Canada), Australian National University (Australia), and Stockholm University (Sweden), presents an example of global learning through partnership in education abroad. An international mix of students assembles each summer in Tianjin, taking courses cotaught by faculty from different institutions and exploring global issues from multiple disciplinary, personal, and national perspectives. Participants take the insights they gain back to their home campuses, an experience that is heightened by active student/faculty exchanges also in place.

Such dialogues can also occur at a distance thanks to the IT revolution. For two decades, East Carolina University’s (ECU) Global Understanding Program, for example, has supported courses that place ECU students and faculty into online dialogue with their counterparts at its international partners in thirty countries, using both synchronous and asynchronous platforms. On an even larger scale, the State University of New York’s Center for Collaborative Online International Learning, known as COIL, has elaborated and spread such courses across the SUNY system while also leading efforts to develop best practices in this emerging pedagogy.

Another possibility is for partners to create cohorts of students who interact—virtually, face-to-face, or in a hybrid model—over multiple years. The Global Leadership Program from Waseda University (Japan) does this with its partners at the University of Washington, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of California–Berkeley, as well as Georgetown University and Columbia University. Similar programs pair US and international students while they are together on a campus, such as the Global Ties program at the University of Pittsburgh.

Appalachian State University’s dual-degree program with the Universidad de las Américas Puebla (Mexico) takes a different tack that works for their particular students and defies the one-way nature of most dual-degree programs. Students from both institutions spend two years at each, receiving degrees from both. The partners developed programs that fit student interests (across schools of health, business, arts and sciences, and fine arts) and brought students together on each campus to heighten their confidence in pursuing the program.

Engaging New Faculty, Students, Disciplines, and Institutions

Global learning for all requires that more individuals, units, and even institutions have such opportunities. Here again, IPs have something to offer. Partners can guide each other into international work, make the journey less daunting, and expand each other’s understandings and capacity. Partnerships provide a platform that can educate, facilitate, and encourage new participants.

Partnerships, for example, can enable faculty and staff with little prior international experience to gain the knowledge and experience they need to integrate global learning into their courses by working with partner faculty with similar interests and building on growing institutional knowledge of the partners and their countries. Collaborative conferences, web chats, shadowing faculty already engaged with the partners, and visits to the partners are common mechanisms for getting started. Both Beloit College and Santa Monica College have used this last strategy to develop faculty and staff capacity for global learning.

Expanding global learning for all requires an awareness of disciplines with little current international engagement. Once again, connecting the relevant departments to international partners can be part of the process. The knowledge that partners develop about each other can lead to programs tailored to the interests and circumstances of their students and faculty. The partnership between the Indiana University (IU) system and Moi University (MU) in Kenya, for example, began with a few medical professors in 1989, but focused efforts in the 2000s led every school at IU’s urban campus, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, to become involved. Building on what was already in place, informatics students helped MU digitize textile patterns at a factory it wished to open; tourism students helped develop a long-distance running camp for tourists; and social work students worked together on outreach programs.

Spelman College has shown the power of partnerships not only for drawing in new disciplines, but also new students. Spelman was particularly interested in breaking down education abroad barriers for students of color and students in science and technology. Established in 2011 through the donations of two alumnae, the Gordon–Zeto Center is dedicated to broadening the global horizons of Spelman students. The center has made its partnerships in Africa, the West Indies, England, the Czech Republic, Japan, and Chile a key part of its strategy, including the development of the G-STEM program (Enhancing Global Research and Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) that enables students to work in partner laboratories.

Partnerships can also bring entire institutions into global learning. International connections are not limited to those with high global rankings or reputations. Matches exist for all institutional types, missions, strengths, and interests. Once identified, partners can assist each other’s global learning development in the many ways discussed here. The cost-sharing of consortia can be particularly useful for HEIs with limited resources in getting started. The Global Education Network, for example, connects Kirkwood Community College (Iowa) with Box Hill Institute (Australia), the Institute of Technical Education (Singapore), and Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (Canada). It provides a variety of education abroad, work, and collaborative programs for students at all institutions and holds regular virtual meetings for faculty. Each summer, students from all four institutions gather for a three-week intensive program at one of the partners.

Facilitating Integrated Learning

Global learning is inherently cumulative and multifaceted, academic and applied, and therefore difficult to cover through a single experience or discipline. IPs can assist in interweaving the multiple global learning experiences students might have. The same partner can be involved in classroom instruction, global dialogues, civic engagement projects, and cocurricular campus programming, thereby encasing all in a growing framework of knowledge that enables students to connect theory and application, knowledge acquisition and personal reflection, knowledge-building skills, and interaction skills. Robust IPs also bring faculty from different disciplines into conversation.

Kennesaw State University’s Annual Country Study illustrates the kind of integrated learning that can occur. Each academic year for thirty-four years, Kennesaw State has embarked on the campus-wide study of a particular country or region. Working with partners in that location as well as relevant immigrant groups and local organizations, Kennesaw State supports faculty in developing courses or units on that country and sponsors over thirty events in a series of lectures, performances, exhibits, seminars, and conferences.

Bard College’s international partner program goes in a different direction, focusing on collaborative programming and innovative pedagogy that connects liberal education and civic engagement across all of its deliberately small and carefully chosen set of partners: Al-Quds University (Palestine), American University of Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan), Smolny College (Russia), European Humanities University (Lithuania), and University of Witwatersrand (South Africa).

The global learning certificates that many US HEIs are developing can also make similar integrative connections, asking students to combine classroom and experiential learning and to reflectively assess what they have learned. Many institutions engage international partners in this work, creating still further integration. The Certificate in Global Competency at the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources at West Virginia University (WVU), for example, requires the following: language and culture courses at WVU, engineering courses at a WVU international partner, and a credit-bearing international service experience, such as WVU’s Engineers Without Borders program.

Since experiential learning is relatively new to many institutions, a number work with international partners to insert it into global learning. The University of North Texas (UNT), for example, has developed a program in narrative journalism with the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México (UAEM), in which UNT and UAEM students are paired each summer in rural Mexico to capture stories of local residents. Kalamazoo College’s “learning-by-doing” experiential education program works with partners in sixteen countries to develop its immersive education abroad programs that all require integrative research projects and reflective analyses. And Bridgewater State University triangulates its multiple partnerships in Cape Verde with local initiatives, such as running a summer camp, that are connected to the Cape Verdean immigrant community in eastern Massachusetts.

Final Thoughts

The possibilities are endless. The above are examples of how international partnerships contribute to global learning. Their ability to do this rests, however, on close attention to selecting, building, and sustaining connections. The programs discussed here are the result of thinking carefully about what their institutions want from partnerships, identifying partners that are a good match, and taking the time to develop shared understandings of what such connections might do. These IPs receive material and personnel support from the institutions and have expanded beyond the partnerships’ original founders. Those involved pay as much attention to sustaining the relationship as to any specific project and demonstrate a wonderful sense of flexibility, openness, and innovation.

These partnerships also operate through a philosophy of mutuality. They avoid the all-too-common partnership minefields of lopsidedness and dominance. They have developed trust through fairness, integrity, transparency, honoring commitments, sharing decision making, and paying attention to mutual benefit. And discussions of resources acknowledge, rather than perpetuate, resource differentials and recognize intangible as well as tangible assets.

When all is said and done, the partnerships discussed here represent a rethinking of some of the givens of higher education. Not all learning occurs in the classroom, although some important kinds do. No discipline, institution, or nation has a monopoly on global knowledge. And all students, everywhere, deserve the global learning once limited to a few. The institutions profiled here recognize they cannot accomplish global learning (and many other institutional goals) alone. They are moving away from the institutional individualism that has characterized higher education and are pointing the way toward an interconnected global system. We still have a long way to go, but it looks like a very interesting journey ahead.



American Council on Education. 2012. Mapping Internationalization on U.S. Campuses, 2012 Edition. Washington DC.

——. 2017. Mapping Internationalization on U.S. Campuses, 2017 Edition. Washington DC.

Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2014. "Global Learning VALUE Rubric."

Contreras, Eduardo Jr. 2015. “Beyond the Grand Tour: Re-thinking the Education Abroad Narrative for US Higher Education in the 1920s.” International Journal of Tourism Anthropology 4 (3): 238−51.

Egron-Polak, Eva, and Ross Hudson. 2014. Internationalization of Higher Education: Growing Expectations, Fundamental Values. Paris: International Association of Universities.

Engel, Leonard, Anna-Malin Sandström, Ruud van der Aa, and Anna Glass. 2015. The EAIE Barometer: Internationalisation in Europe. Amsterdam: European Association for International Education.

Hoffa, William W. 2007. A History of US Study Abroad: Beginnings to 1965. Carlisle, PA: Forum on Education Abroad.

Hoffa, William W., and Stephen C. DePaul, eds. 2010. A History of U.S. Study Abroad: 1965−present. Carlisle, PA: Forum on Education Abroad.

Institute of International Education. 2017. "Open Doors Infographics."

——. "n.d. Build International Partnerships."


Susan Buck Sutton, Fellow, Center for International Partnerships, Institute of International Education

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