Faced with a need to prepare large numbers of people to operate in a globalized economy, the world of education is increasingly under pressure to deliver. Despite the challenges, education is ready for new models of experiential learning. Enter virtual exchange: a technology-enabled, sustained, people-to-people education program, as the Virtual Exchange Coalition defines it.

Virtual exchange sits at the convergence of several trends: readily available technology platforms (FaceTime, WhatsApp, Zoom, to name a few); a digitally fluent generation; and, student demand for experiential learning that prepares them for the workplace and lifelong learning.

Moreover, as we consider the future of learning, we recall the challenges that education continually faces (according to MIT’s Senior Learning Community Officer, Sara Monteabaro): “refugee education, preparing youth for the workforce of the future, female empowerment, and twenty-first century skills development."

Virtual exchange can address all of these, as illustrated by a program we ran recently. This program included refugees, introduced students to marketable skills such as design thinking, built agency and confidence in its graduates (over half of whom were female), and gave them ample opportunities to practice skills they’ll need for the 21st century workplace. That is, virtual collaboration, teamwork, taking action on social issues, and understanding diverse perspectives.

Dubbed M²GATE, this virtual exchange program connected college students from Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, and Michigan and challenged them to design a social enterprise via virtual collaboration on cross-cultural teams. Students learned how to identify a contextual issue, design a social enterprise to address it, and pitch their idea to an international panel of judges.

The program demonstrated some of the strong benefits of tech-enabled learning:

Access. Many of our students were hungry for international relationships and experiences but were unable to study abroad due to resources, work or family obligations. Virtual exchange gave these students a meaningful international experience without leaving their campus. As one student said, “As someone who did not have the opportunity to study abroad, the virtual experience...allowed me to learn about and connect with like-minded peers from other cultures.

Reach. A key feature of our program was that it was geographically dispersed, meaning it was open to students from schools all over, including rural areas. In the end, our students represented 103 institutions, which provided rich, diverse perspectives on culture and social challenges.

Flexibility. As a short-term program, a virtual exchange can be layered on top of other opportunities. It provides a form of stackable learning experience that students can commit to on top of regular courses and obligations.

Power. Compared to in-person exchanges, which have their advantages, virtual exchange provides a more bidirectional and reciprocal form of education: without a “guest” culture and a “host” culture, students are able to approach each other on level ground and form interactions that are more equitable from the outset. This sense of peer-to-peer equity, when paired with a learner-centered approach, empowers students and builds their sense of agency.

Skills-based. To work together successfully on teams across cultures, team members must listen to each other carefully and with respect. They also learn how to relate with courtesy across virtual media, known as digital citizenship. Through this experience, students gain the skills and sensitivities that will make them more effective in the increasingly globalized workplace. After completing the virtual exchange, students reported increased 21st century skills such as teamwork, perspective-taking, understanding of their peers' countries, entrepreneurship, and global citizenship.

Students also credited the virtual exchange with building their networks—with teammates and mentors—and their confidence. Virtual exchange, like any good experiential learning endeavor, provided (KSAs)—knowledge, skills, and agency (yes, attitudes too). Said one participant: “It was a great experience to learn how to navigate through cultural differences and come together as a team to create a product. This program also gave me the platform to practice the business acumen learned from the classroom and apply it to something tangible.”

In the past few years, many virtual exchanges have entered K-12 and university curricula. These pilot programs—including M²GATE—provide a proof of concept for programs on campuses around the world. As with any innovative educational model, student success speaks. As more research and data on virtual exchange become available—and more pioneers share their success stories—administrators and other stakeholders will increasingly view virtual exchange as a viable form of experiential, engaged learning.

The time is right. The desire and need for students to connect across cultures is growing. Collaboration and cross-cultural cooperation will be at the center of future work. Today’s tech platforms enable this, and the IT infrastructure is often already on campus. It takes instructor interest, institutional openness, and international partnership. We believe that with these elements, virtual exchange will take root in new educational contexts and do what it does so well: provide access to international perspectives to an array of students, build their skills and networks, and prepare them for the future of work.

About the authors: Nathan Rauh-Bieri and Amy Gillett develop training programs at the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan and its Global Virtual Learning Center.

The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.