Educators are adapting to new realities as they grapple with the disruption caused by the spread of COVID-19. Despite closed classrooms and campuses around the world, educators must continue to ensure their students are prepared to succeed in today’s world. After establishing that their students are safe, healthy and food secure, educators may then pivot to delivering classroom material. To do so, education leaders face the daunting task of establishing a digital learning environment where the effect of this pandemic on their students’ learning is as minimal as possible.
Higher education institutions are quickly migrating to their distance learning platforms for their existing courses, and faculty members are discovering the challenges and opportunities of this learning style. As distance learning becomes the new norm for many faculty members and students, classroom instruction through screens will become engrained in the operation and infrastructure of primary, secondary and higher education systems and in the learning experiences of an entire generation of students.
For these reasons, it is even more vital to adopt virtual exchange as a learning tool used by educators around the world. While fears about traveling abroad or interacting with others, whether within a neighborhood or across the world, may continue for many months, global education experiences are still possible and still important.
For years, educators have been connecting their classrooms in myriad subjects to peer classrooms overseas through innovative virtual exchanges. That can be done on a larger scale using existing and easily accessible technological tools that countless higher education institutions are quickly implementing for digital learning. Marrying cross-cultural dialogue between students in the United States and students around the world is vital -- learning about one another while gaining a deeper and more well-rounded understanding of their discipline of choice is a valuable opportunity. As we’ve seen in the last few weeks, the ability to communicate and collaborate with peers abroad is a necessity for our nations to thrive.
Whether communication is through written or recorded messages, live through videoconferencing or facilitated in other ways, an entrepreneurship classroom in Michigan can connect with peer classrooms in Egypt to develop a plan to tackle an environmental challenge; the future biomedical engineer in Baltimore can collaborate with their peer in Beirut to solve for a health-care challenge amongst a vulnerable population; and the community college student in Iowa can work with a new friend in Amman to figure out how to make hotels more sustainable. These are all cross-disciplinary learning experiences enabled by technology, and coordinated by faculty members, that drive students to consider how connected we are -- and collectively think critically about how to find solutions.
No one yet knows how fundamentally COVID-19 will reshape our society, or for how long. However, it’s reasonable to assume that international travel and even personal interaction will not be possible for many months to come. Yet we’re also seeing a very real need for human connection as the world scrambles to understand a truly global crisis. In fact, just a few weeks ago, the Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design at Johns Hopkins University, a former Stevens Initiative grantee, organized a virtual exchange-powered global design challenge for over 200 teams consisting of more than 1,000 students in 25 countries. Participants harnessed technology and came together to deepen their understanding of this deadly and disruptive virus that has not left a corner of the globe untouched and designed solutions informed by dialogue with peers from around the world.
This isn’t a time to abandon global learning. It is an imperative to continue to prepare students to contribute personally and professionally to the world they’ll inherit and lead, and virtual exchange makes this possible. The Stevens Initiative has outlined five pathways for institutions to bring virtual exchange to their students.
Virtual exchange programs are versatile, and there are various models that meet the needs of implementers and participants. Educators can always join an existing virtual exchange program, such as Soliya’s Connect program, which uses a dialogue model to engage students deeply on global and societal issues, or IREX’s Global Solutions Sustainability Challenge, which uses a project-based learning model that is geared toward community colleges and charges participants to develop solutions for real-world challenges faced by businesses. Educators can also develop their own program based on such models or incorporate virtual exchange into their courses using a paired-course model.
In our experience at the Stevens Initiative, key elements of any virtual exchange model include strong partnerships, facilitation, curriculum development, buy-in, measurement and evaluation, and more. At the higher education level, particularly in paired courses, some of these elements especially stand out. Planning a virtual exchange requires coordination between partners on things like timing and format of the sessions, the language of instruction, and the backup plan when the technology platform doesn’t function as it should.
Furthermore, virtual exchange doesn’t necessarily require young people to be enrolled in the same course and can be used by educators to meet larger learning goals. For instance, a marketing class in the United States can work with a public health class in South Africa to co-design a model for a public health campaign.
Finally, for many higher education institutions, the successful implementation and sustainability of a virtual exchange program involves getting buy-in from campus stakeholders, including leadership, fellow faculty members and the technology support team. Now more than ever, it is important the institutions and educators explore all potential models and choose which one best fits their needs and the needs of the youth they are serving.
Many virtual exchanges can be set up with existing technology infrastructure, and there are plenty of platforms available for connection and collaboration at a minimal expense. The major investment comes in the form of people -- to design, coordinate and support the virtual exchanges -- either on your campus or through a third-party provider who may charge a per student, classroom or campus fee. A significant investment isn’t always necessary for a virtual exchange program to impact the personal and professional trajectory of its participants.
In the context of a crisis, digital learning is sometimes portrayed as a stopgap measure until normal life resumes, but I hope that many people will leave this experience more open to the distinct potential of virtual exchange. This is an inflection point for many educational leaders to continue to diversify the various ways in which their students gain global perspectives as well as skills for the 21st century. A quick scan of any news source confirms our need for a future citizenry ready to engage, collaborate, understand and act.