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  • Nancy Ruther, EdD

The Benefits of Virtual Exchange: For Your Institution and Beyond!

Are you curious about Virtual Exchange? Wondering how it can help students achieve a multitude of goals? Contemplating the many ways it could benefit faculty members?

These are important questions, and topics we discuss a lot here at Gazelle International.

...But let’s think even bigger!

Research has shown that virtual exchange has incredible institutional benefits. It can:

  • Increase retention

  • Promote degree completion 

  • Increase diversity of educational offerings

  • Expand career options for students post-graduation

  • Foster institutional partnerships that help both parties grow

But what else can virtual exchange do for your institution and beyond?

Reimagining Higher Education with Virtual Exchange

Now is the time for colleges and universities to reimagine higher education. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed in stark detail many inefficiencies, inequities, and problems in higher education, but it has also created opportunities. Traditional education abroad programs are either halted or have had to adapt due to travel restrictions and health concerns. In-person classes at many campuses are limited or have moved totally online. In this new learning environment, where virtual is the norm, how does the implementation of international virtual exchange projects fit into the puzzle?

As your institution constructs its vision plan (Dennis, 2020) for moving through and beyond the pandemic, virtual exchange should be included as part of that plan. Here’s why:

  • Virtual exchange projects can make online learning better.

  • A curriculum that incorporates virtual exchange is more interdisciplinary and cultivates better thinking and problem-solving skills in students.

  • Virtual exchange fosters the development of intercultural competencies that can begin to make higher education, and especially education abroad, more inclusive and equitable spaces for all students.

Better Online Learning

Project-based learning, especially when incorporated into an international virtual exchange design, makes online learning better. This is especially enticing during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Many teachers have moved their classes online with limited preparation or training and are looking for creative and innovative solutions to make these online courses engaging and memorable despite lacking the embodied experience. Our Spring 2020 results as well as those from a recent EVOLVE webinar prove that cross-cultural, international teams in virtual exchange projects can provide students with meaningful relationships during a time of isolation and can make the class content even more exciting.

I am very glad to have met and worked with my teammates who were very kind and funny people. --U.S. student, Spring 2020

In response to the question, “What was the greatest reward from participating in this CLICKs learning module?” for the Spring 2020 semester, 19 students said meeting people and making friendships and connections, 18 mentioned learning about other cultures and broadening perspectives, 9 talked about the benefits of collaboration and working in their groups, and 7 took great pride and joy in the successful completion of the final project. 

“Making new friends and working together is awesome.” --U.S. student

“It was great to meet students from the IUT of Sceaux, France but I am very glad to have met and worked with my teammates who were very kind and funny people.” --U.S. student

“I have been able to communicate with students from other nations, and my view and respect for them has increased dramatically.” --U.S. student

The combination of project- or problem-based learning, in which students collaborate in teams to accomplish a final project and shared goal, and international and intercultural interaction makes CLICK modules and online learning components engaging, challenging, and rewarding.

A More Complete Curriculum

Incorporating virtual exchange into the overall curriculum makes higher education more interdisciplinary and experiential. It also improves traditional ed abroad programs, as virtual exchange engages students experientially at the home campus in the day-to-day curriculum and pedagogies and not just when they are physically abroad. Instead of lasting one semester or year, international education should expand to interact with more students and at multiple levels throughout their education and lives.

Students are better prepared for their future careers if they have had experience in multidisciplinary environments.

As Andrea Custodi et al. note, “Critical global challenges do not fall neatly into disciplinary categories, nor do they fall into existential categories.”

Institutions should strive to provide students with the opportunity to develop better thinking and problem-solving skills to solve these global challenges. 

Review our CLICK samples here to see how subjects as diverse as art and engineering can work and thrive together. 

Creating More Inclusive and Equitable Spaces for Learning

Inclusivity and equity in higher education is a top priority right now, one whose goals cannot be achieved without a reckoning of the systemic racism and exclusion embedded in the structures of higher education in general and especially in ed abroad programs. Virtual exchange aids institutions in becoming more inclusive and equitable by helping students and faculty members improve their intercultural competence. In virtual exchange programs like CLICK, learners move beyond memorizing factual information about other cultures to being able to interact with people from other cultures in an effective and collaborative way. Students learn to adapt and know how to respond before, during, and after these cross-cultural interactions occur. This creates a more open, accepting, and welcoming environment for students with diverse backgrounds, especially international students.

The current pandemic and its many consequences has created an opportunity not only to think outside the box but, as Thomas Friedman would say, to think without a box.

COVID-19 is challenging us to analyze how higher education and universities are and how they should be. It is time to get rid of the box, and without its imposing restrictions, we can reimagine the possibilities.

...And Beyond!

Virtual exchange has benefits that go even beyond the institution. Community colleges, technical institutes, universities, and their administrators, teachers, and students are not the only ones who should care about virtual exchange. These types of projects that allow students to collaborate on cross-cultural teams accomplish a number of big picture goals. 

Virtual Exchange for Justice

First, research has shown that intercultural competencies overlap heavily with social justice competencies (Flores et al., 2014). Greater intercultural competence allows learners to practice ongoing self-awareness, consciousness-raising, sharing power, giving voice, and sharing tools to encourage them to think of their own identities and the stereotypes they have held and to promote the voice of marginalized groups moving forward. 

Increased Participation of the Global South

Virtual exchange has also allowed for the increased inclusion of the Global South on the international education stage, so universities and other institutions may take a more active role in worldwide internationalization initiatives. It provides more opportunities to students in these countries to participate and causes a paradigm shift from a competition orientation, often heavy on physical mobility, to one of cooperation.

As Finardi & Guimaraes explain, “The orientation shift afforded by the pandemic, from a competition/academic mobility orientation to a cooperation/virtual mobility orientation may be inducive of a more balanced internationalization panorama in the world based on an ecology of knowledges” (2020, p. 11).

Internationalization Initiatives as Public Diplomacy Strategies

Finally, student mobility has been shown to be a method of long-term, strategic public diplomacy to promote good relationships between countries. With COVID-19 limiting that mobility and creating tension between Chinese international students and their host institutions, there are risks to public diplomacy (Lehmann, 2020). When Chinese students experience racism and discrimination in their host country,  this can increase their sense of extreme patriotism and push them ideologically further away from the host country, which can lead to disastrous implications for international relations. Unfortunately, racist incidents have increased with many countries associating the virus with and blaming it on these Chinese students.

As Lehmann notes, “Universities have a unique soft power role in this context. Students arrive ready to learn not only about course content, but about how other cultures think and why and to connect with a different perspective on the world. If these students experience exploitation, racism, isolation and exclusion, it would be likely that they would reject this new way of life.”

This is an avenue for virtual exchange to intervene in the current risky situation and any others with involving high levels of stereotypes and prejudice.

With lowered and restricted physical mobility, universities can use virtual exchange to continue to develop relationships between their student populations, teaching them to see and value cultural differences, encouraging curiosity and collaboration and challenging prejudices the students may hold. Virtual exchange can, in this way, continue and further develop the work of student mobility as a long-term public diplomacy strategy to improve international relations. 

Students and faculty members benefit greatly from virtual exchange. What we don’t always think about, however, is the bigger impact of virtual exchange programs. How does it help higher education institutions, and how does it help the world? By making online learning better, the curriculum more interdisciplinary and experiential, and ed abroad and higher education overall more inclusive, virtual exchange can have a huge impact on your school and campus environment. Students involved in virtual exchange who develop better intercultural competence improve their social justice competencies and encourage positive international relations between their home countries. 

If you’d like to see what virtual exchange can do for you and your institution, please contact us!

November 16, 2020


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