The concept of the ‘Third Space’ in Virtual Exchange

Marina Orsini-Jones is Professor in Global Higher Education Practice in the field of Applied Linguistics.

She is currently working on a project entitled: Female Voices in the Third Space using virtual exchange pedagogy as a basis for researching Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in South-North Collaborative Online International Learning.

The project focuses on VE/COIL and aims to further understand notions of digital inclusion and equality in Higher Education. It will run till August 2025 and there is still time to get involved so read on to find out more.

What is the background on the “female voices” project?

“I’ve been researching how COIL (collaborative online international learning)/Virtual Exchange can support EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) in English language teacher education for a number of years and this forms the basis for the idea underpinning the project. The concept of COIL/VE as a ‘third space’ came from the realisation that women, particularly those from the Global South appeared to be more empowered in this space.

“The team includes Lynette Jacobs, (from South Africa), Kyria Finardi (from Brazil), Katherine Wimpenny (UK) and myself’, explains Marina. ‘Together, we have backgrounds in internationalisation at home and research, with an interest in the concept of decolonisation of the curriculum. This project is a mixture of these ideas and concepts.”

Why an emphasis on the Third Space?

“Because it opens up new ways of knowing, of relating, and of expressing yourself, while at the same time as ‘being.’ Kyria and I are dealing with female voices involved in teacher education, who are both in-service and pre-service. Some are new to learning how to teach whilst others are more experienced.

The concept of ‘third space’, coined by the Indian decolonial scholar Homi Kharshedji Bhabha. It decentres the conceptualisation of culture.  COIL/VE as a Third Space, is a space which is liminal, challenging, disruptive and where unexpected things can happen. It can be transformational and supports ‘other’ ways of knowing, being, and relating through a decolonising lens that builds on knowledge produced by women.

“We find that most have never experienced this ‘Third space’ before. And the majority of those who have not had this experience are from the Global South. From my perspective here in the UK, I teach on an MA in English Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics, and my students come mainly from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, China, Sri Lanka and Nigeria to name but a few. They come into the COIL/VE space with some apprehension as it takes them out of their comfort zone. But at the same time, they discover they can express themselves in a different learning space that is inclusive and diverse.”

What are the aims of this research project?

“We are questioning our assumptions on VE and COIL as set out in a conceptual Third Space COIL exchange framework we designed in 2022 (Wimpenny et al., 2022, p 289), that built on Leask and Bridge’s (2013) framework for curriculum internationalisation. 

We designed our COIL/VE projects around the relationship between disciplinary knowledge and the emerging paradigms linked to institutional/local/national and global contexts. We want to consider how internationalisation through COIL can support this in a holistic way.

“Our argument is that COIL/VE learners, women in particular, can develop values and capitals that they would not otherwise have an opportunity to develop in other learning spaces. For example, the values of equity, equality, mutuality, inclusivity and diversity. And in terms of capital, we are talking about trust, cultural, social, psychological, digital and structural.

“Actually, I’m a bit tense about the digital aspect due to a recent presentation I saw that argued that digital literacy could also be considered a western construct. So now, I’m questioning this too. Does COIL really do what we claim in terms of intersectionality with a focus on female participants? Can we really claim it’s an equality-oriented space? Or are we putting too many assumptions on COIL in terms of EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion)?

We also link all this to the conceptualisation of Critical Virtual Exchange that our colleagues Dr Mirjam Hauck and Dr Francesca Helm, have been working on (and pioneering). 

How can academics and students get involved?

“The project will go till August 2025. We have participants from different backgrounds, not just linguistics, and those brought in by the South African partner have also participated in a project called IKUDU. This project dealt with diversity on a grand scale with hundreds of participants involved.

“We are aiming for 80 participants between academic staff and students who have previously been involved in COIL/VE. So far, we have recruited the first batch and we’re analysing the data now. We’ll do a second round at the end of the year.

“Most of the participants so far have come from contacts and personal networks. But we want to widen the scope. People can still get involved see website here and you are welcome to apply. We mainly have staff from Brazil and the UK, so we would like to get more. With students, we have them from 4 continents and 15 countries so far, so a big variety.

Can you share any findings so far?

“On the whole what we have ascertained so far – that the ‘third space’ provides a space where women can thrive – seems to hold true.

“Another thing that is emerging is the sense of belonging to a community of practice of teachers to-be or teachers who are – and they are sharing local practices which can be very enriching. We are also exploring the notion of what is the ‘global south’?

“It’s also been empowering to find out how many are concerned about their proficiency in English, as teachers of English. Across the world, we have found this to be true. When participating in a project on decolonising the curriculum, many initially felt intimidated due to this fear. Subsequently, however, they became empowered when realising that not only I, as academic lead, was not L1 in English, but none of the other participants were either. It’s been eye opening to see the wide variety of English used and how people relaxed and stopped feeling intimidated when they understood this.

“A participant from the Indian subcontinent shared that she always thought her variety of English was inferior until she took part in our COIL/VE project. She then realised her feelings were shared by her peers.

“We see that female participants are more overt in this discussion. This means that many consider this a ‘safe third space’ with women feeling more empowered to speak out in this space. Others shared that in-person spaces tended to be dominated by male voices.

“We found it helpful to use neutral mediators in the breakout rooms in zoom as this contributed to creating a very safe and open space.

“We’re pleased to see our theories really resonate in practice with the students. But we are also mindful of the limitations. We know the ones who initially have volunteered to take part are the enthusiastic ones, so I am aware that this is not yet inclusive enough.  Those who feel they don’t have good enough digital tools haven’t yet come on board……that is a considerable limitation to our study. We have work to do.

More information

Save the date: first project conference/symposium in hybrid mode on 18th March 2024.

There are online tickets still available (free): registration here (please pre-register and a link will be sent to the email address you have used to register):


Female Voices in the Third Space: Researching Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion in South-North Collaborative Online International Learning – First Project Conference-Symposium