Students in a business class at Porterville College in California recently joined a video call with Iraqi students for an instructor-led discussion on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Afterwards, the groups dispersed to solicit feedback on the nature of local sustainability challenges from members of their respective communities. In the weeks that followed, via Zoom, Slack and WhatsApp, students connected for synchronous and asynchronous chats to discuss their findings. Then they selected one problem – an overloaded Iraqi power grid due to an influx of refugees fleeing the Syrian war – to help mitigate.
The students researched solar power solutions but determined they were too expensive. Next, they identified a design for a micro-hydroelectric turbine. They found the specs for the turbine, identified what they needed to build it, and then built a working prototype from parts made by a 3D printer. When they struggled to communicate or understand each other’s cultures and backgrounds, trained instructors offered real-time support.
As the 10-week term drew to a close, the students also identified non-governmental organizations that could pick up the slack and step up the effort. Upon completion of the course, American students reported a deeper understanding of Iraqi infrastructure and Kurdish culture, and Iraqi students reported an appreciation for the collaboration that provided first exposure to non-military Americans and helped their community.
“[My students] have very little money. They have very few connections,” said Elisa Queenan, a business and economics professor who co-taught the class with her Porterville colleagues and peers from a partner school in Iraq. At Porterville, a community college roughly equidistant from Fresno and Bakersfield in central California, 73% of students receive Pell grants. “[Now]they all talk about how incredibly empowered and confident they are to move forward with different ethnicities, different religions, different cultures, how bold they feel to be able to tackle issues they previously thought would be completely outside their domain.
Students who study abroad often gain significant cultural, communication, and professional skills that help them thrive in an increasingly global world. But traditional study abroad programs are often inaccessible to low-income students with significant work or family responsibilities. Additionally, more than half of American students who study abroad do so in Europe, which reinforces Eurocentric culture and values. An emerging trend in virtual international exchange aims to expand collaborations with non-European countries while leveling the playing field for students who need flexible and cost-effective alternatives. Proponents argue that these programs should not be dismissed as “second best” to opportunities for field study abroad. On the contrary, these programs have an intrinsic value that expands the global learning ecosystem in important ways.
“We don’t want to oppose study abroad,” said Christine Shiau, director of the Stevens Initiative, the organization that supported the Global Solutions Sustainability Challenge that Porterville students participated in. “There is a place for this different type of cultural exchange and learning. It is another type of exchange.
Virtual international exchanges offer participants from at least two different geographic locations sustained engagement and mutual transformation over time, according to the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. These exchanges set specific goals, use skilled facilitators, and go beyond “food, flags, and festivals” to connect students. The most common virtual exchange programs focus on intercultural dialogue and peacebuilding; science, technology, engineering and mathematics; and global or international affairs, according to a Stevens Institute survey released last year. Many study abroad programs also offer studies in these fields, but the experiences have fundamental differences.
“When students pay to go abroad, their relationship with service providers and the host culture is never reciprocal,” said Paloma Rodriguez, director of the Office of Global Learning at the University of Florida International. Center. “Students can expect some service, comfort or excitement from the experience offered to them abroad. The host culture is presented to them as a source from which they can derive benefits, such as learning, enjoyment and personal growth. »
Virtual exchanges, by contrast, typically seek to promote interdependence and mutuality in ways otherwise difficult to achieve, Rodriguez says. That said, Rodriguez was quick to note that all global learning modalities have shortcomings. For example, most virtual exchanges take place in English, even when it is not the first language of all the participants.
Students in virtual exchanges have shorter periods of cross-cultural contact and fewer opportunities for casual encounters than those in traditional programs. According to Robert O’Dowd, Associate Professor of English as a Foreign Language and Applied Linguistics at the University of León, Spain.
“A student abroad can have a rich cross-cultural encounter in the classroom or at the bakery or the post office,” O’Dowd said. “But they can also very easily avoid cross-cultural contact by constantly using their mobile phones and staying within their national group’s networks.”
The Stevens Institute is a U.S. government-funded initiative administered by the Aspen Institute that aims to expand virtual exchange options to areas of the world where U.S. students have not studied abroad in large numbers, including in the Middle East and North Africa. It awards grants, shares best practices and raises awareness for virtual exchanges. Stevens’ programs can scale up faster than their on-the-ground counterparts and have an estimated cost per student of $250 to $650, according to Shiau. The organization is on track to have engaged 75,000 young people in the United States, the Middle East and North Africa by 2023.
Virtual international exchanges “are certainly less stigmatized now,” said Lindsay Calvert, who leads the Institute for International Education’s IIE Network. She noted that today’s students are used to meeting online and traditional study abroad programs sometimes present insurmountable barriers such as cost and time. “Students these days are looking for different types of opportunities, so we just have to keep our programming open and flexible as much as possible.”
Virtual experiences also help prepare students for Zoom-enabled workplaces that “demand cross-cultural negotiation, remote collaboration, and digital literacy,” according to Rodriguez.
Less than 1% of all U.S. college students studied abroad in the 2019-2020 academic year, down more than 50% from pre-pandemic levels. While virtual options have the potential to reach more and more students, in-person experiences don’t quickly, easily, or successfully pivot online without planning, resources, capacity, and thought.
A 2021 Stevens Institute survey identified virtual exchange programs as a growing trend with data gaps on the quality and outcomes of these programs. Two follow-up outcome surveys conducted this year have produced what may appear to be divergent results. One found that virtual exchanges have a positive impact on “students’ knowledge of each other, perspective-taking, cross-cultural collaboration, mutual overlap, and warm feelings.” The other survey found no significant impact on “student self-efficacy, global perspective-taking, or cultural humility.” The apparent discrepancy, the institute noted, may be that the two studies investigated different outcomes or that individual program goals vary, and not all programs seek to achieve all outcomes.
“While universities continue to try to diversify study abroad programs, the reality is that international offerings are often not available in certain disciplines and certain groups of students are grossly underrepresented,” Rodriguez said before noting that in the 2018-19 academic year, for example, nearly 70% of American students who participated in study abroad programs were white women. In contrast, participants in virtual exchanges better represent a college’s student population when they are “offered as a required project integrated with courses in a wide variety of disciplines.”