Donna Lubrano

How many students worldwide will ever have an opportunity to be involved in a cultural exchange program? How many will ever have the chance to travel abroad or even host a guest from abroad in their home? These are the driving questions behind the longevity of virtual exchange. COVID-19 has certainly accelerated the evolution of this medium of virtual, global connection! But does it “have legs?” For those of us feverishly pivoting to this new reality, writing grants, and developing programs, is this stop-gap or an investment in the future?

Filling the Gap with Virtual Exchange

As I reflect on my own experiences, my first opportunity to travel was a going-away present from my internship employer: a round trip ticket, a youth hostel pass, a Eurail pass, and a 3-month backpacking trip abroad. What a gift! It inspired a life-long desire to understand myself and others in new ways and through new lenses. As author John Irving reflected, “My year [studying abroad] was the single-most-important year of my education, or perhaps more broadly, my growing up.” From life-long friendships to career opportunities, studies show intercultural exchanges shape the trajectory of an individual’s life. 

In its original form, the face-to-face exchange model is transformative yet costly in both time and money. Many youth and adults may therefore be excluded from these life-altering opportunities. Enter virtual exchange! In 2017, United Planet debuted its classroom to classroom Virtual Chapters Program. Using place-based and project-based learning, the team constructed a program that would allow classrooms from the US, Mali, and Jordan to connect over 8 weeks around the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

A live session during the winter session of the Virtual Chapters Program where students from Iraq, Tanzania, the Hopi tribe in Arizona, and Jordan had a live session discussing the effects of COVID-19 in their home countries.

This month, the program will host 12 schools and 15 classrooms from 5 countries. They meet bi-weekly using Zoom and connect on alternate weeks using Moodle. The program culminates with innovative projects that inspire civic engagement and global citizenship.

Summer 2020 marked a milestone in the first Summer Virtual Exchange Program. With a grant from the Steven’s Initiative and in collaboration with Boston University and the University of Salahaddin, American-Iraqi high school students formed teams to address the issues caused by COVID-19. Websites and videos were some of the deliverables of the program. The US Embassy Erbil representative attended the presentations. That same summer, United Planet had its inaugural “Teacher Professional Development Training” around virtual exchange. Teachers from Jordan, Iraq, and the United States gathered together to discuss and share best practices on how to include virtual exchange in the classroom. This led to great discussions emphasizing "Educating for Global Citizenship" as a classroom staple.

Challenges of Virtual Exchange

The virtual world offers a wide range of possibilities! With virtual internships, virtual capstones, and virtual volunteering, its inclusivity is only limited by connectivity. Is the digital divide a greater obstacle for the success of virtual exchange, or is it the cost of the face-to-face exchange model? As we seek to reach underserved populations, we “hit the wall” again.  

A final presentation where students shared their website & video projects surrounding mental health and discussed the ‘new normal’ after COVID-19.

More organizations are looking for solutions and innovative work to connect to low-bandwidth regions. For example, technology such as is pioneering the way with tools that can be used to overcome those hurdles with pre-recorded audios and videos for students to playback at any time. Reverse innovation may be the key! Rather than superimposing the behemoth LMS systems that are successful in well-infrastructure communities, let’s think “horses, not zebras.” Taking a page from the medical device industry, let’s create systems for the populations we attempt to serve! 

Virtual exchange is in its infancy on many fronts. From curriculum development and application to associated technologies, we at United Planet are committed to making international learning opportunities more accessible and equitable.

About the Author

Donna Lubrano is the Virtual Exchange Officer for United Planet in Boston MA. She has 10 years of higher education teaching experience and a passion for international exchange that began with her own experiences as an intern!