Educational Technology & Society 2(3) 1999
ISSN 1436-4522

From International Reciprocal Education to Multinational Reciprocal Education

Guillermo Vasquez de Velasco
Coordinator, Las Americas Digital Research Network
Texas A&M University, College of Architecture
College Station, Texas 77843-3137 USA
Tel: (1) 409 845 5134
Fax: (1) 409 862 1571


This contribution presents an instructional model that aims to offer a convenient alternative to study abroad programs in college education.  The instructional model, known as the International Reciprocal Distance Education Model (Vásquez de Velasco & Holland, 1998a), is implemented by means of tactical models that address all possible instructional scenarios of a design curriculum. All the tactical models presented make use of digital network technology as means of delivery.  Beyond the development of a conceptual framework that describes the general strategic model and its tactics, the article concentrates on the description of a Virtual Design Studio as the most complex instructional scenario of the array. The article describes how the "Tex-Mex Virtual Design Studio", initially implemented in 1996 for interaction between students and faculty of Texas A&M University and La Salle University in Mexico, has evolved into the "Las Americas Virtual Design Studio" with the incorporation of students in Guatemala, Peru and Brazil. The International Reciprocal Distance Education Model can be applied to a wide variety of disciplines.

Keywords: Computer Mediated Education, Distance Education, International Education, and Design Education

The International Reciprocal Distance Education Model (The IRDE Model)

There are many reasons why it is desirable to expose our college students to an international dimension in their curricula.  In design related disciplines, we recognize that international exposure can have a beneficial impact on the academic as well as extra academic performance of our students.  Some of the most notorious benefits we have identified and learned to promote are as follows:

  1. International exposure promotes the questioning of the status quo and cultural pre-assumptions. Many of our students come into our colleges assuming that the only way of doing things is the way they are used to seeing them done. This is an attitude problem that is difficult to overcome in design related disciplines where we need to push students to be critical and search for new ways of addressing old issues. By looking into a culturally diverse framework of solutions they understand that there are many good ways of solving the same problem and that design decisions require more than problem solving skills, they require creative decision making skills as well.
  2. International exposure tends to reinforce the individual identity of the student and their level of cultural tolerance.  We have observed how students tend to concentrate on cultural differences as a means of self-awareness and cultural validation.  At the same time, by understanding such differences our students are able to respect them and tolerate them as legitimate cultural practices.
  3. International exposure promotes a global perspective of the profession. Students understand that their potential market is larger than the one offered by their domestic framework and have access to learning opportunities that stimulate the acquisition of needed skills.  A good example is the acquisition of a second or third language.  International contact puts on evidence how important language skills are, and at the same time offers opportunities for practising a foreign language in a domain-specific context.

In pursuit of international exposure for our students, we have developed a number of instructional models that promote and make possible that exposure.   Probably the best known are our Study Abroad Programs where a faculty member travels with a group of students to a foreign location where they follow courses that take advantage of such a location.  As an alternative to Study Abroad Programs, we also participate in Student Exchange Programs in which individual students travel to a foreign university and take courses in exchange with a foreign student who takes their place at their home institution. The main limitations of these models are:

  1. Study Abroad Programs and Student Exchange Programs tend to be expensive.  Traveling costs and the costs associated with establishing residence abroad can be quite substantial.  In addition, it must be noted that faculty may need to travel back and forth constantly.
  2. Study Abroad Programs do not guaranty cultural immersion.  Quite often students will remain together for the duration of the program, they will continue to speak only English and have little exposure to lifestyles of the country they are visiting.  Student Exchange Programs are substantially more immersive, but the command of the foreign language that is usually required can limit students' participation in this kind of program.
  3. Study Abroad Programs tend to disrupt the degree plans of participating students.  Not every course of the curriculum can be offered every semester on a Teach Abroad Program and students tend to find that their planned courses need to be replaced by other courses on an opportunistic basis.  As a result,  we frequently find students try to take courses out of sequence, need to catch-up with their degree plans during summers, or have to delay their graduation.  Student Exchange Programs are less disruptive but it is not always easy to find relevant substitutions for all the courses a student may need to take.
  4. Study Abroad Programs and Student Exchange Programs tend to engage the complete syllabus of the course and make it difficult to address topics normally included in a course.  Along the same lines, as computer technology plays a larger role in much subject matter, it is frequently difficult to access high performance computing facilities in other countries.

With the objective of addressing the limitations of our conventional Study Abroad and Student Exchange Programs, we have implemented an alternative instructional model based on the concept of bartering with instructional services mediated by compressed videoconferencing technology.  The International Reciprocal Distance Education Model (The IRDE Model) can accomplish the following objectives:

  1. The IRDE Model can be cost-effective.  At present most of our applications run on a T1 network able of delivering real-time video at a rate of 1.54Mbps.  Used intensively, the cost associated with this T1 line is under 50 cents per hour per student.  While this is beyond the average capability of most university networks at this time,  in the near future that same performance will be delivered by Internet II at a fraction of the price and on a widely distributed network.  It is fair to say that we are currently experimenting with the kind of network bandwidth that should be soon available to most instructional institutions.
  2. The IRDE Model can be very flexible.  Based on the tactics described below, it is possible to introduce an international dimension in any course of the curriculum and do so with complete control on the level of immersion that is induced, the duration/cost of the learning opportunity that is offered, and its position in the schedule of the syllabus and degree plan.

Tactics Associated with the IRDE Model

A number of previous publications (Vásquez de Velasco et al., 1998a, b, c, d, 1997a, b, c) make detailed descriptions of the multiple tactics of the IRDE Model. In a brief description we should mention the following:

  1. Virtual Reciprocal Design Studios (Synchronized) - In this tactical scenario we build an international telecommunications bridge between two groups of design students.  Both groups of students are committed to the same design subject and collaborate in the process.  Each group of students has its own instructor and will perform local peer reviews of the projects.  In addition, they also have the input of a virtual instructor and peer group that constantly review their projects posted on the World Wide Web.  This tactical scenario is further elaborated below.
  2. Figure 1. Concept (left) and implementation (right) of a Synchronous Virtual Design Studio. The Professors and students in Mexico and Texas can exchange review in real-time

  3. Virtual Reciprocal Design / Construction Studio (Asynchronous) - This is a tactical scenario similar to the one previously described but, in this case, the students of the two studios are not directly linked. This is a tactic used for achieving a reciprocal exchange of design reviews in a situation where the studios: 1) do not work in the same subject;  2) are at different levels of the curricula; or 3) are from different design/planning disciplines.  Under such circumstances the instructor of a construction studio in Mexico can serve as reviewer for a design studio in Texas, and a design instructor in Texas can serve as reviewer for a construction studio in Mexico. This is a tactic that works well in adding an international dimension in a wide variety of studio settings.
  4. Figure 2. Concept (left) and implementation (right) of an Asynchronous Virtual Design Studio. The Professor is in Mexico and the students are in Texas

  5. Direct Reciprocal Exchange of Lectures - This tactical scenario permits on-demand input from a foreign expert into a local syllabus.  Coordinators in each institution trade the lectures that their faculty can deliver.  For instance, a professor of Architectural History in Mexico may need a lecture on Frank Lloyd Wright and a professor of Soil Mechanics in the United States may need a lecture on the rescue of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico.  Under such circumstances the lecture coordinators may trade lectures from an American professor specialized on twentieth century American Architecture and a Mexican researcher on below-grade structures. This is a tactic that works well in adding an international dimension in conventional lecture courses.
  6. Figure 3. Concept (left) and implementation (right) of Reciprocal Exchange of Virtual Lectures. The Lecturer is in Texas and the students are in Mexico

  7. Joint Debates - This tactical scenario aims to bring an international dimension into seminar style classes. Very much as in the case of virtual design studios, two groups of students in different countries will come together in a videoconference where a controversial issue is discussed.  In some cases the joint debates are premeditated (seminars), in other cases a joint debate may be the unpredicted result of a design review or a lecture.  In 1998 a conference keynote speech that was bandcast to 12 videoconferencing sites (5 of which where in Mexico) was followed by 45 minutes of active debate.

Figure 4. Concept (left) and implementation (right) of a Virtual Debate. The students in Mexico and Texas are free to interact in real-time

Using these 4 tactical scenarios,  we have been able to add an international dimension to a wide variety of courses at undergraduate, graduate and continuing professional development levels. The implementation of reciprocal exchanges of lectures and joint debates has been quite demanding in terms of coordination, but the technical aspects of the dynamic have been very simple to manage.  In both scenarios the instructors perform very much like in a conventional lecture or debate situation and, once the videoconferencing link is established, the technology becomes largely transparent.  On the other hand, the virtual design studios have been very demanding in terms of both coordination and technology.  Due to their complexity and uniqueness, we  further concentrate on the description of our virtual design studios in the following sections.

Virtual Design Studios

In design related disciplines such as architecture, distance education has been a slow moving trend.  The main reason for the lack of enthusiasm displayed by many schools of architecture and design is to be found in the belief that design studios can not be delivered in a distance education mode.  Design studios are the backbone of all design curricula and they tend to be present in every semester of the program.  If we can not deliver design studios via digital networks, the potential for a strong distance education curriculum is substantially undermined.  The main problems in remote delivery of a design studio are as follows:

  1. The informal nature of student-to-instructor and student-to-student interaction.  In a design studio the instructor tends to make constant switches between general lecture-style statements and very private one-on-one comments.  In addition to this, constant and sustainable peer review of projects is promoted.  At any given time, a group of students may be discussing a project while other students may be working on their own projects and the instructor may be making a general statement to everyone in the studio.
  2. Design studios make use of a wide variety of communication media that need to be supported. Instructors and students make use of voice, body language, graphics, physical models, and VRML models.  Sometimes the delivery of media is quite formal as in the case of a group presentation, and other times the media is used in design sessions as workbench for the interaction of students and instructors.

In response to this challenge we have been implementing virtual design studios since the fall of 1996, and have been quite successful addressing these limitations. In this paper, we describe two consecutive virtual design studios that illustrate how we are currently moving from an international context to a multinational context with this kind of implementation.

The Tex-Mex Virtual Design Studio

The Tex-Mex Virtual Design Studio ( was initially implemented during the fall of 1996 and offered without interruption until the fall of 1998.  Every fall semester, a group of American students in Texas and a group of Mexican students in Mexico City have worked together in the design of a project in Mexico.   The American students were challenged by having to learn about the Mexican design & construction industry. The Mexican students were challenged by having to present and defend their projects in English.  As an alternative, during the spring semester when our class schedules did not match, the group of American students was offered the opportunity to design a building in Mexico under the supervision of 4 design instructors in Mexico.

In every case, the students were required to establish a Web site in which an updated version of their project had to be displayed at all times. The students and instructors were able to review any project at any time and make comments through e-mail messages.  In addition, at least 4 times during the semester all the students and instructors of the virtual studio would come together for virtual reviews of the projects.  The virtual reviews were mediated by room-to-room compressed videoconferencing technology.

Figure 5. Map of the Web Site of the Tex-Mex Virtual Design Studio. Note the hyperlinks to the studios in Texas and Mexico

Every semester was initiated with a 2 hours videoconference aimed to get all participants acquainted with each other and with the use of the videoconferencing equipment.  Following that first videoconference, the students and instructors met 2 or 3 times in informal reviews lasting 4 hours each.  The final formal review of projects usually lasted between 4 and 6 hours.  During the formal and informal reviews the students were called to present their projects and received a critique from students and/or instructors in Mexico.  In this context the students made use of a wide variety of communication interfaces.

Figure 6. In Electronic White-Boarding the expressiveness of body language and hand motion is replaced by a cursor in the image that is transmitted

We can divide these interfaces into three main categories:

  1. Cursor-Driven Interfaces.  In this category we can place the use of Electronic White-Boarding and Electronic Project Presentations.  In the case of Electronic White-Boarding,  the image transmitted is a blank drafting space supported by very basic bit-map editing functions (fig.6).  The students and/or instructors can interact in real-time over the same drawing field making use of the bit-map editor.  Each user is identified by cursors of different color.  In the case of Electronic Project Presentations the image transmitted is a computer window in which the students can display project images and interact with them making use of CAD programs (i.e. AutoCAD or 3-D Studio), presentation programs (i.e. Power Point or MM Director), or web browsers (i.e. Netscape or MS Explorer).  In some cases (i.e. AutoCAD) it is possible to generate interaction between presenter and reviewer in similar way as in the case of White-Boarding.  In both cases, the users (the student and/or reviewer) are represented by cursors on the screen.
  2. Hand-Driven Interfaces  In this category is the document camera.  The document camera is a high-resolution video camera mounted on top of a small format document display table (fig.7).  In this case, the students print their CAD files in small format documents and place them under the lens of the document camera.  As a result they can transmit the image of their document (i.e. a floor plan) and talk at the same time that their hands move over the surface of the graphic.  In some cases the student will hold a pencil as he/she explains the project and will continue to draw on top of the image adding still more information to the design. Interaction between student and reviewer does not happen on top of the same drawing field.  In some cases the instructor follows the presentation with a hard copy of the same document (downloaded from the web page of the student's project), and can produce a critique by drawing on top of his/her own hard copy.

  3. Figure 7. The use of document cameras permits the transmission of hand expressiveness at the time of explaining a project

  4. Body-Driven Interfaces.  In this category are Smart-Boarding and Video Feedback.  In the case of Smart-Boarding, the image transmitted is a room view in which the student stands in front of a large-format touch-sensitive Electronic White-Board and interacts with a bit-map editor or presentation programs.  The most common case has been to display project web sites,  but it is also possible to display an AutoCAD file and even interact with a remote user represented by a cursor.  In the case of Video Feedback, the image of a student presenting a project with a Smart-Board is projected in one-to-one scale at the remote location where the instructor can approach the projection screen and interact with the image that is projected (fig.8). The projection screen can actually be an Electronic White-Board.

Figure 8. Video Feedback as experienced in the Virtual Design Studio

The Las Americas Virtual Design Studio

Following the success of the Tex-Mex Virtual Design Studio, a large number of Latin American schools of architecture expressed their interest in participating in a similar dynamic.  Motivated by such interest, in the spring of 1999 the Tex-Mex Virtual Design Studio was transformed into The Las Americas Virtual Design Studio (, this time with the participation of schools of architecture in Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, and Brazil.  Due to limitations on the bandwidth of the network, it was only possible to maintain videoconferences with the school of architecture in Mexico.  IWith all other schools we were limited to the use of Internet technologies. Considerable effort was placed by the school in Guatemala to maintain a high level of interaction but despite the effort, and the very high quality of projects that they displayed, the level of interaction between American and Mexican students was superior.

Figure 9. Map of the Web Site of the Tex-Mex Virtual Design Studio. Note the hyperlinks to the studios in Texas and Mexico

The Las Americas Virtual Design Studio will be implemented once more during the fall of 1999.  In this new opportunity we are planning to add more resources such as the use of audio-in-video over the Internet.


Through use of the IRDE Model, students can experience an international dimension without: a) paying additional costs for travel, and b) disrupting their degree plans in order to attend classes at a foreign location.

Faculty can introduce an international dimension without: a) bearing the responsibility of leading international field trips or study abroad programs; b) travelling constantly leaving family and office unattended; and c) addressing issues of national relevancy while in a foreign country.

Students are provided with an expanded opportunity for mastering the communications technology required for exchange of information across distances.  As students become more proficient in the use of the communications media, their ability to grasp professional knowledge from the exchanges is increased.  Recent generations of students are more adept at embracing new computer aided design and computer mediated communications technology.

Faculty can benefit from abundant opportunities for establishing relationships with other scholars around the world.  Some relationships may lead to long lasting teaching arrangements in which dividing the syllabus of a course among several instructors allows for individual specialization.  Thus, instructors are able to concentrate on smaller sections of the course syllabus, improve their teaching techniques, and continuously update course content.  Furthermore, teaching partnerships can lead to research partnerships, professional consortia, and international consulting activities.

Faculty leading Study Abroad Programs can use Reciprocal Distance Education activities in the promotion of their Programs.  In fact, there is evidence that reciprocal distance education initiatives are a powerful resource for the recruitment of students for Study Abroad Programs.

Faculty are provided with an expanded opportunity for mastering the communications technology required for the exchange of information across distances and presentation of teaching / learning materials.  The potential for using such expertise for delivering lectures, keynote addresses, and reviews, without the loss of time and expense required for travel can permit substantial additions to a faculty member's resume.  This may be of particular importance for tenure track faculty with limited time to establish an international reputation.


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