What we learned from conducting a virtual exchange

“Virtual exchange is a valuable tool for preparing young people for the workforce of tomorrow”

Virtual exchange has been gaining traction as a mode of international education. By connecting students online across borders, virtual exchange is a “third space” of international education, blurring the lines between traditional incoming and outgoing student mobility programming.

Even so, virtual exchange complements rather than replaces traditional programs. As Mohamed Abdel-Kader, the Executive Director of the Stevens Initiative at the Aspen Institute recently noted, there is a large unmet need for U.S. college students to have international experiences.

Moreover, many of today’s students need the flexibility to layer meaningful cross-cultural experiences on top of their academics, work, and other commitments. Finally, under-resourced students, who are often excluded from study abroad due to cost, can partake in a virtual exchange without additional costs.

We set out to provide students with these benefits through our organisation’s recent virtual exchange, M²GATE. It connected undergraduate students in Michigan with their peers in four North African countries—Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia—to tackle pressing global issues through a social enterprise design challenge. M²GATE was a program of the Stevens Initiative,  which is sponsored by the US Department of State and administered by the Aspen Institute. (The Stevens Initiative is also supported by the Bezos Family Foundation and the governments of Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.)

Virtual exchange has a lot to offer. The question for many educators is how to conduct one of their own. From our experience, here are a few of the main lessons:

  1. Students need strong support structures. As the virtual world can feel less concrete, and virtual collaboration is often a new experience for instructors and students alike, it is critical to provide students with strong support throughout the program. In our program, we provided this through small learning groups on WDI’s proprietary learning management system, ExtendEd, through regular communication via email newsletters to guide students on what they should be working on each week, a group Facebook page, mentors, and regular team check-ins via email. The type of support you should offer will differ depending on your program. For example, if your program is a classroom to classroom model of virtual exchange, you may not need team mentors as in-class guidance from the instructor may be sufficient. You will have to consider what support will be most helpful for your students.
  1. Provide students explicit guidance on how to collaborate virtually. Let students know the common challenges that teams have faced previously and ways to mitigate these to have a better experience. For example, teams may face connectivity issues. One way to address that is by encouraging the use of asynchronous team communication to maintain connections and further collaboration when synchronous connectivity is difficult. Even for “digital natives,” virtual collaboration actually is a learned set of skills and takes practice. Sharing best practices in virtual collaboration with your students will help them succeed in your program—and in the workplace beyond.
  1. Build teammates’ personal connections with one another. The quality of students’ teamwork depends on the interpersonal connections they forge. This has implications for program design: you can’t just focus on the curriculum and building theoretical knowledge. There is the social learning component that can happen through forums like a program Facebook page. This type of informal learning and sharing is an essential part of a strong virtual exchange program.
  1. Project-based learning enhances connections. Virtual exchange lends itself very well to project-based learning, as teams can work on issues together in real time. We also found that as students were able to discuss social issues that were currently affecting themselves and their communities, and learn about these from one another, they came to understand each other on a new level. This led to strong bonds and friendships.
  1. Technological know-how can be learned. There are many platforms out there that are free or low-cost to operate—so don’t let this be a barrier to starting a virtual exchange. The main thing is to test, test, and test again, expect the unexpected and have backup plans for if and when you encounter technical difficulties. Also, involve people on your campus who may have run a virtual exchange before. Your campus IT staff can help you think about what technological capabilities are in place already at your university, and how to best utilize what you have available in the classroom. They can also provide general IT support and troubleshooting during synchronous classroom connections.

Virtual exchange is a valuable tool for preparing young people for the workforce of tomorrow, giving them 21st-century skills, and creating cross-cultural relationships—all critical to a peaceful and prosperous world.  We hope these lessons help you implement your own virtual exchange and promote the growth of this exciting mode of international education.

About the authors: Meghan Neuhaus and Nathan Rauh-Bieri design and implement virtual learning programs at the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan’s Global Virtual Learning Center.