A new survey on the state of virtual international exchanges has found growth in virtual exchange programs driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it also identifies gaps in data on these programs, their quality and results.
“What the report shows very clearly is that there are a wide variety of types of programs in the realm of virtual exchanges,” said Henry Shepherd, deputy director of the Stevens Initiative, a US government-funded initiative. and administered by the Aspen Institute, which provides grants to virtual exchange programs that connect young people across countries. The Stevens Initiative conducted the survey, the second such evaluation of the field of virtual exchanges
“There are many ways to engage young people online in collaborative projects and in dialogue,” Shepherd said.
Virtual exchange programs can take many forms, ranging from linked courses, in which professors or teachers team up with colleagues from another country to connect two classrooms for collaborative learning, to extra-curricular programs. which bring together young people from different countries to work. on collaborative projects or engage in dialogues. Although the Stevens Initiative survey was not limited to the sphere of higher education, the majority of respondents offering virtual exchange programs were higher education institutions (56%), followed by non-governmental organizations ( 27%).
A total of 233 organizations responded to the survey, of which 214 reported offering virtual exchange programs in the 2020-2021 academic year. Of these 214 organizations, 177 were able to provide data on their programs and collectively reported that they offered a total of 3,073 programs serving 224,168 participants.
The majority of participants represented in the survey were undergraduates (66%), followed by high school students (35%) and graduate students (29%). The most common topics for virtual exchange programs were intercultural dialogue and peacebuilding; science, technology, engineering or mathematics; and global or international affairs.
The programs typically use a mix of real-time synchronous and asynchronous elements, with the survey finding no clear preference for one delivery method over another.
Most of the survey respondents (75%) were either based in the United States or originally had their programs in the United States. conducted exclusively in a language other than English (language data was not available for another 13 percent of programs).
The report identified mixed impacts of the pandemic on the virtual exchange.
“Virtual exchanges were already on a growth trajectory, but when face-to-face exchanges ended in 2020, many institutions and organizations recognized the value of technology in pursuing connections between youth and adults and launched new programs or strengthened existing ones, ”says the report. “Sixty-nine percent of survey respondents indicated that their programming had increased due to the pandemic, while only 13 percent (or 23 organizations / institutions) indicated that this had no impact on their programs. “
“Despite these promising figures, the impacts of the pandemic are complex and the challenges facing some virtual exchange practitioners should not be ignored. About 9% said they reduced their programming for financial or other reasons, which likely stemmed from the negative impacts of the pandemic. Although virtual exchange programs have not been canceled altogether, some have seen their participation drop. “
The pandemic has forced many traditional study abroad and international internship programs to change their online offerings. Whether or not these exchanges “count” as virtual exchanges is a matter of definition: Shepherd said that in making decisions to fund programs, the Stevens Initiative pays attention to certain elements, including the focus on links between young people that are mutually beneficial to young people from all countries involved.
“If there isn’t this mutual benefit for young people on both sides of the exchange, it wouldn’t necessarily fall under the virtual exchange because we fund and promote it,” Shepherd said. “But we also try to take a broad view and we want to be as inclusive as possible. Put simply, if you run an exchange program and the exchange program is put online, it is clearly an online or virtual exchange. So many people have shown interest and even had to dive into these virtual exchange programs over the past couple of years, and I hope that interest does not wane.
The report identifies a need to assess the quality of virtual exchange programs and to collect data not only on the scope and context of the programs, but also on the results.
“The reason we have pulled this and emphasized this is that it is really important that the programs and initiatives themselves start to think about the quality of what they are offering,” said Rajika Bhandari, an expert in international education who participated in the survey and is the founder. of the consulting firm Rajika Bhandari Advisors. “One of the fundamental challenges we have encountered is even coming to a common understanding of what a virtual exchange program can be complicated. There is such a range of programs, and very often the data is not collected at a single point or by a single entity.