Many students are drawn to culturally immersive experiences that support their personal growth and academic performance. Offering students the chance to study abroad is an integral part of how many post-secondary programs have developed globally responsive curriculum.
Studying abroad, when well-planned, can expand students’ perspectives of the world and provide a platform to explore their academic and professional desires.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic introduced travel restrictions and disrupted campus life, some students and faculty members have been searching for alternative ways to experience international learning without having to travel.
Models of virtual exchange
Virtual exchanges are technology-based, classroom-to-classroom programs that connect students located in different geographical locations to develop intercultural and project-based learning. Many of these exchanges are designed and facilitated by course instructors for students to establish dialogue and collaborate on various tasks or projects. Virtual exchanges vary in length as some last for a few weeks and others for a semester or longer.
In some models of virtual exchange, students communicate and work autonomously in pairs or small groups, while in others they are expected to do so in bigger groups. Many instructors, however, mix between different models when designing their virtual exchange.
While virtual exchanges have been implemented for at least three decades now, the COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged many practitioners and administrators in different academic disciplines to build online global partnerships.
Since the pandemic started, education practitioners and education administrators have acknowledged virtual exchange as a valuable way of allowing students to make international connections and enhance soft skills in both kindergarten to Grade 12 and higher education contexts.
Addressing critical issues
When instructors effectively plan tasks, and when students successfully negotiate them, partnerships enable students to connect to learn about each other’s cultures, engage in rich intercultural discussions and collaborate to address critical issues such as human rights, social justice, socio-political and environmental issues.
More recently, organizations such as the European Commission and other international government-sponsored organzations have been funding virtual exchange initiatives at different educational institutions.
They have connected students from regions of North America, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa to encourage intercultural dialogue and international collaboration across cultures. Many participating students have shared the value of virtual exchange, as a unique educational setting to help them learn.
Gaining communication skills
Participants in virtual exchanges find opportunities to learn not only how to use technological tools, but also to explore ways to engage and collaborate effectively with peers from different socio-cultural contexts.
With remote employment and digital economies emerging as strategies for economic development, intercultural competence and digital literacy continue to stand as core soft skills in future careers. Participating in virtual exchanges can support the development of these skills, in addition to students’ ability to problem-solve in remote professional environments.
Gaining intercultural competence
In my research about virtual exchange, one of the benefits students report is developing the ability to recognize diversities in the partners’ cultural groups. Participants often start to realize the variety of thinking processes and sets of beliefs and values of individuals and subgroups, their different perspectives on everyday practices, sociocultural issues and more.
Virtual exchange discussions can deepen intercultural awareness and, in some cases, the exploration of one’s self and capabilities. In an interview for one of my programs I co-ordinated, a student from Jordan shared:
“I never imagined talking about this issue [forced migration] with real refugees in my country and others in the United States. What I never imagined also was how challenging yet effective it was to talk using technology. It makes you think a lot. You start with one idea to share but you end up sharing a different one sometimes.”
Overcoming communication challenges
As much as virtual exchange has potential for enhancing students’ learning development, it is not flawless. Using technologies and connecting interculturally are all experiences not exempt from challenges due to technical issues, intercultural misunderstanding and stereotyping, as well as language-related challenges.
Mediating intercultural miscommunication is one of the most stressful issues observed in virtual exchange discussions.
The first step to working with intercultural conflict is acknowledging that it exists. Avoiding conflict accumulates frustration and disappointment and is likely to lead to communication breakdown. Reflecting on questions like, “How do I feel about my partner’s post? Why do I feel this way?” marks a good start for examining both the content and language used that might have led to this miscommunication.
Identifying factors that might have created the misunderstanding is crucial to determining what to do next. For instance, students can have different learning expectations from participating in virtual exchange or use different communication styles when expressing themselves online. Different levels of language proficiency can also lead to anxiety and communication stress.
Investigating such factors can help all parties develop an attitude of openness towards difference and conflict resolution and perceive miscommunications as rich departure points for intercultural learning rather than simply barriers.
When technical or communicative aspects of virtual exchange seem challenging or overwhelming, or students aren’t motivated or positively engaged, creating an interpersonal space to share reflections with the group strengthens a sense of community, trustworthiness and reliability.
Online collaborative tools shouldn’t be used only for completing tasks, but also for sustaining peer emotional support and guiding intergroup work.
Growth and professional development
Today, virtual exchange has caught more attention as a strategy to sustain access to quality education, inclusion and achievement of intercultural goals in the curriculum.
Further research about this form of learning will be needed to explore its potential in providing students with the critical skills and intercultural experiences they need for personal growth and professional development.