Students in a business class at Porterville College in California recently joined a video call with students from Iraq for an instructor-facilitated discussion on the United Nations’ sustainability goals. Afterward, the groups dispersed to seek input about the nature of local sustainability challenges from members of their respective communities. In the weeks that followed, over Zoom, Slack and WhatsApp, the students connected for synchronous and asynchronous chats to discuss their findings. Then they selected one problem—a strained 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 specs for the turbine, identified what they needed to build it and subsequently built a working prototype from parts made by a 3-D printer. When they had trouble communicating or making sense of each other’s cultures and contexts, trained instructors offered real-time support.
As the 10-week term drew to a close, the students also identified nongovernmental organizations that might take over and scale the effort. Once the course ended, the American students reported a deeper understanding of Iraqi infrastructure and Kurdish culture, and the Iraqi students reported an appreciation for the collaboration that offered a first exposure to nonmilitary Americans and helped their community.
“[My students] have very little money. They have very few connections,” said Elisa Queenan, a professor of business and economics who co-taught the class with her colleagues at Porterville and peers at a partner school in Iraq. At Porterville, a community college roughly equidistant from Fresno and Bakersfield in central California, 73 percent of the 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 about being able to tackle problems that before they would have thought were completely outside of their realm.”
Students who study abroad often gain meaningful cultural, communication and career 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. Also, more than half of U.S. students who study abroad do so in Europe, which reinforces Eurocentric culture and values. An emerging trend of virtual international exchanges seeks to broaden collaborations with non-European countries while leveling the playing field for students in need of flexible, economical alternatives. Proponents argue that these programs should not be dismissed as “second best” to on-the-ground study abroad opportunities. Rather, such programs have intrinsic value that expands the global learning ecosystem in important ways.
“We don’t want to pit ourselves against study abroad,” said Christine Shiau, director of the Stevens Initiative, the organization that provided support for the Global Solutions Sustainability Challenge in which the Porterville students participated. “There’s a place for that different type of cultural exchange and learning. This is a different type of exchange.”
Virtual international exchanges offer participants in at least two different geographic locations sustained engagement and mutual transformation over time, according to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. State Department. These exchanges set specific goals, use skilled facilitators and go deeper than “foods, flags and festivals” to connect students. The most common virtual exchange programs focus on intercultural dialogue and peace building; science, technology, engineering and mathematics; and global or international affairs, according to a Stevens Institute survey published last year. Many study abroad programs offer study in these areas, too, but the experiences have fundamental differences.
“When students pay to go abroad, their relationship with the providers of services 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 might expect certain services, comfort or excitement from the experience that is catered to them abroad. The host culture is presented to them as a source from which to extract benefits, such as learning, enjoyment and personal growth.”
Virtual exchanges, on the other hand, typically seek to promote interdependency and mutuality in ways that are otherwise hard to achieve, according to Rodriguez. That said, Rodriguez was quick to note that all global learning modalities have shortcomings. For example, most virtual exchanges are conducted in English, even when that is not the first language of all participants.
Students in virtual exchanges have shorter periods of intercultural contact and fewer opportunities for casual encounters than those in traditional programs. But those focused bursts of collaboration on instructor-designed and instructor-facilitated tasks oblige students to negotiate meaning on specific curricular objectives, according to Robert O’Dowd, associate professor for English as a foreign language and applied linguistics at the University of León, in Spain.
“A student abroad may have a rich intercultural encounter in class or at the bakery or at the post office,” O’Dowd said. “But they can also very easily avoid intercultural contact through the constant use of their mobile phones and staying within their national group networks.”
The Stevens Institute is a U.S. government–funded initiative administered by the Aspen Institute that works to expand virtual exchange options to regions of the world where U.S. students have not studied abroad in large numbers, including in the Middle East and North Africa. It makes grants, shares best practices and raises awareness about virtual exchanges. Stevens’ programs can achieve a larger scale more quickly than on-the-ground counterparts and have an estimated per-student cost 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 students today are accustomed to meeting online and that traditional study abroad programs sometimes present insurmountable barriers such as cost and length of time. “Students these days are looking for various types of opportunities, so we just have to keep our programming open and flexible where possible.”
Virtual experiences also help prepare students for Zoom-enabled workplaces that “demand cross-cultural negotiation, remote collaboration and digital literacy,” according to Rodriguez.
Fewer than 1 percent of all U.S. college students studied abroad during the 2019–20 academic year, which represented a more-than-50-percent decline from pre-pandemic levels. While virtual options hold potential to reach a greater number and wider demographic of students, in-person experiences do not 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 gaps in data about the quality and outcomes of these programs. Two follow-up surveys on outcomes conducted this year produced what may appear to be divergent results. One found that virtual exchanges positively impact “students’ knowledge of the other, perspective taking, cross-cultural collaboration, self-other overlap, and warm feelings.” The other survey found no significant impact on “students’ 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 objectives vary, and not all programs seek to achieve all outcomes.
“Although universities continue to try to diversify study abroad programs, the reality is that international offerings are often not available in certain disciplines and that some groups of students are vastly underrepresented,” Rodriguez said before noting that in the 2018–19 academic year, for example, nearly 70 percent of U.S. students who participated in study abroad programs were white women. In contrast, virtual exchange participants better represent a college’s student population when “offered as a mandatory project embedded in courses in a wide variety of disciplines.”