The Viability of Virtual Exchange

Even after the pandemic, it will remain an important part of internationalizing a classroom experience for college students around the world, says Mohamed Abdel-Kader.

July 29, 2021
 
 
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As COVID vaccine distribution increases globally and we begin to imagine a world post-pandemic, many educators are starting to consider what their classrooms may look like in the coming year. In particular, practitioners of virtual exchange and other technology-enabled forms of learning may naturally ask the question of whether or not we’ll still need the practice after the pandemic.

Virtual exchanges, which provide educational pathways for young people to connect with their global peers online, was around and well established long before the pandemic as a way to bring a global perspective into a classroom experience. But paradoxically, in some respects, global learning became more accessible for some during the coronavirus pandemic. With costly travel removed from the equation, the barrier to entry became an internet connection rather than a plane ticket and a passport. For instance, a postsecondary institution in the United States was able to pair nursing students with peers enrolled in an engineering class in South Africa to exchange ideas about building a better hospital.

Going forward, I hope that some of the trends that the pandemic accelerated remain present in our practice of virtual exchanges now and for years to come. Those trends include:

  • The growth of a distinctive intervention that’s here to stay. Virtual exchange is not “study abroad light” -- it’s another type of intervention. While both an in-person and virtual exchange prepare young people with the skills and mind-sets encapsulated in a global competence framework, they are ultimately different tools to bring an international dimension to the educational experience. During the pandemic, as postsecondary institutions went into lockdown and in-person study abroad came to a standstill, we saw a marked interest and increase in virtual exchange programs to keep global learning and connections going. Yet even after the pandemic, virtual exchange will still remain an important part of internationalizing a classroom experience for hundreds of thousands of college and university students around the world.
  • A continued focus on broadening access to an international experience. In the United States, we are in the midst of a profound awareness of and reckoning with the historic and systemic inequities that have existed in our society -- and specifically in various education contexts. For years, there has been a recognition that international experiences have generally been for students with means. Despite strong efforts by higher education institutions, foundations, government funders and nongovernmental organizations, disparities have remained when it comes to who has been able to afford such experiences. But given its broad access for students from all racial and socioeconomic groups, virtual exchange has changed that. Indeed, at its very core, virtual exchange is about using technology to support two things: dialogue and access. On any postsecondary campus in the United States, it’s commonplace to find students who face financial barriers or curricular barriers in that they may not have room in their schedules to leave their home institution for an extended period of time -- and all are able to engage with peers abroad through a technology-enabled experience.
  • A recognition of the importance of empathy and global competence. The need for young people of all backgrounds to have access to an international experience and gain global competence will not recede post-pandemic. In fact, the last year and a half have underscored that, to make meaning of what’s happening, young people need to connect the dots between events on one side of the planet and local implications. They must also be able to have empathy and understanding for those who hail from a different background, both in other countries and in their immediate communities. If we walk away from this pandemic without a realization that our fates and livelihoods are inextricably linked, then we will have missed a profound lesson. Accordingly, many educators will most likely continue to employ virtual exchanges as a way for students to understand what’s happening in another part of the world and help bridge divides.
  • The ongoing need for connection and dialogue. One of the things that our collective-yet-separate isolation during the pandemic has exposed is the importance of connection. We’ve come to appreciate the need to understand and have empathy for others in our neighborhood, our country and our world. As COVID-19 has forced billions around the world to seek shelter behind the walls of their homes, dialogue through virtual exchange has been a way for many young people to connect. Even after we come back to more frequent human contact, people of different backgrounds will still need to communicate in various ways -- often virtual ones -- to understand the differences and similarities that exist between them. That won’t change once we’re all vaccinated. We’ll still need the mind-set and skills to navigate our diversity, to build more inclusive communities and to collaborate to tackle our shared challenges.
  • The United States’ re-engagement with the world. The last few years have brought a sharp rise in xenophobic and nationalist rhetoric, as well as frequent mass shootings on American streets, alienating many international students. Coupled with the United States’ challenges in getting the pandemic under control, many students have opted to go to other countries, like Canada and Australia. According to the fall 2020 Institute of International Education “Open Doors” report, which surveyed 700 American higher education institutions, new international student enrollments fell that year by 43 percent. That has had a direct impact on not only many campuses’ business models but also the local economies of college towns across the country. We’ve seen some signs of a pent-up demand among international students to return to American campuses, based largely on favorable postelection perceptions of the United States. But college and university administrators will still have to work doubly hard to reach prospective students overseas.

Post-pandemic, institutions can increase the use virtual exchange programs to build relationships with students from abroad in an effort to attract more of those students back to American institutions in the years to come. Virtual exchange remains a powerful tool to create connections between young people and engage them in life-changing experiences.

While we have no crystal ball to forecast what life will look like 12 months from now, the signs are promising that we may return to some semblance of more regular human contact. The pandemic has underscored the need for young people to be both interpersonally connected and have the skills to navigate diverse perspectives. But going forward, they must also have the ability to connect broader global dynamics such as a public health crisis, climate change and the dimensions of a remote work existence. Virtual exchange provides -- and will continue to provide -- all that and more.

Bio

Mohamed Abdel-Kader is a senior adviser at the Aspen Institute and previously served as the executive director of the Stevens Initiative. He is a former deputy assistant secretary for international and foreign language education at the U.S. Department of Education.

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