How virtual student exchange programs can benefit universities

By Benjamin Boivin

shutterstock_1696703530Long before COVID-19 forced colleges and universities to go exclusively online with their educational models, virtual exchanges became popular worldwide. Between the growing global population, intercultural use of social media, and increased power of technology, virtual exchanges allow educators to change the way people envision a traditional classroom. Prior to the Spring 2020 semester, these innovative, outside-the-box programs were offered to students as yet another option in their course selection. But after the global pandemic, it’s clear virtual learning and collaborating may be the new normal permanently.

There are many benefits to a virtual exchange, not only for the various campuses involved, but also for the students and professors. Through cross-cultural collaboration, they empower students from very different backgrounds to befriend each other and break international biases. In many cases, these types of exchanges can serve as a new way to discover the world without leaving home. They can level the playing field so all college students, regardless of income, can learn in an extremely diverse setting.

Virtual exchange programs can also work hand-in-hand with career services. The COVID-19 pandemic has moved many industries online from marketing and advertising to fitness and mental health. Virtual platforms like Zoom or GoToMeeting have experienced spikes in users and premium memberships, and some insiders predict a shift to work-from-home life even after COVID-19 is gone for good. Today’s college students need to prepare for tomorrow’s career, and for many, that means learning how to interact virtually.

As technological advancements continue to change the way we conduct business online, the virtual learning platforms will only improve. By 2024, it’s estimated there will be around 2 billion 5G subscribers worldwide. The fifth (5) generation (G) wireless network will allow for stronger, faster, better Internet connection, leading to data sharing and innovation never experienced before in human history. Another implication of the shift to work-from-home is the 9-5 workday will cease to exist. With real-time class scheduling, time zones have an impact on class participation, but with virtual exchanges, students can work together at all times of the day, training them to become adaptable professionals in the future.

With all these benefits, you should know how virtual exchanges work and how your universities can establish one.

The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs headed by the U.S. Department of State developed the ECA Virtual Exchange Toolkit to spread new approaches to educational and cultural diplomacy.

At its core, a virtual exchange program must be collaborative and engaging while tailoring the exchange to the participants, not the participants to the technology. YouTube offers millions of instructional and informational videos that can be accessed by billions of people around the world, but a one-sided use of technology does not classify as a virtual exchange as ideas are not being shared and discussed.

While some virtual exchange programs are more elaborate than others, they change based on the institutional goals, audience, technical capacity, and subject matter. Another key factor is the connection and communication between two (or more) international partners. The Stevens Initiative is “an international effort to build global competence and career readiness skills for young people in the United States and the Middle East and North Africa by growing and enhancing the field of virtual exchange.”

The Initiative is just one of many organizations that understand global partnerships are key to virtual exchange program success. These collaborations at the initial phase must be mutually beneficial for faculty and students at all participating institutions. To discover ways to design and plan a virtual exchange that works for your institution, the ECA Virtual Exchange Toolkit included a Program Model Canvas and Guide (page 5) including best practices and key takeaways.

Examples of virtual exchange programs worldwide.

EVOLVE (Evidence-Validated Online Learning through Virtual Exchange) is one of several virtual exchange organizations aiming to increase collaborative international learning in Europe and beyond. Partner institutions include the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, Jan Dlugosz University in Poland, the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom and Malmö University in Sweden.

“Virtual Exchange is an interesting means for teaching and learning since it brings students from different countries and different horizons together. And, it is an innovative type of pedagogy, where learning is mainly based on interaction.”

Elke Nissen, Université Grenoble Alpes, France

One example of a virtual exchange program based on social entrepreneurship takes place at William Davidson Institute in the United States. Funded by the Stevens Initiative, the MENA-Michigan Initiative for Global Action Through Entrepreneurship (M²GATE) program brings together more than 400 students from five Michigan university campuses and their peers in Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. Read the latest WDI Impact Report, “Building Bridges Through Virtual Collaboration” to discover how WDI designed the program to combine synchronous virtual connection with custom-developed online learning modules.

“As someone who did not have the opportunity to study abroad, the virtual experience M²GATE provides allowed me to learn about and connect with like-minded peers from other cultures. I developed numerous communication and leadership skills that I know will benefit me throughout my future endeavors.”

Zoe Finer, U-M student

Rest assured, there will never be replacements for in-class learning and study abroad programs. Still, virtual exchanges can increase your university’s reach, enrollment yield, and domestic student interest while offering alternatives to global learning and networking. To learn more about how Keystone Academic Solutions can help your university’s virtual exchange program, get in touch today!

Topics: International Education coronavirus & higher education

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