Five insights from five years of college virtual exchanges

Five insights from five years of college virtual exchanges

Global Solutions

Traditional in person study abroad programs have long been hailed as gateways to cross-cultural enrichment, allowing students to broaden their horizons through immersion in different cultures. However, such programs present logistical and financial barriers that hinder many aspiring learners from taking advantage of these life-altering experiences. This is where virtual exchange steps in as a game-changer.  

Virtual exchanges have the potential to revolutionize global education and foster a more interconnected world. These innovative initiatives have taken education, collaboration, and interpersonal relationships beyond physical boundaries, fostering a global community that transcends borders. One example of a transformational virtual exchange program is Global Solutions, which serves as a testament to the effects of this modern approach to learning and cultural exchange.  

Established in 2017, the Global Solutions program is supported by the J. Christopher Stevens Virtual Exchange Initiative (JCSVEI), a U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs program administered by the Aspen Institute. The virtual exchange pairs college students on binational teams to address challenges in their communities related to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and innovate sustainable solutions. From September 2018 through June 2023, IREX successfully implemented a pilot and eight cohorts, engaging 4,495 students and 252 faculty from 88 higher education institutions across Iraq, Jordan, and the United States.   

To ensure data-driven, evidence-based decision making, IREX conducted an analysis of the impact of the program, including findings in a report titled Impact, Learnings, and Recommendations for Virtual Exchange in Higher Education. The report’s findings will inform future programming, ensuring it remains sustainable, relevant, and effective in reaching outcomes. 

The report indicates virtual exchange is an effective tool for promoting inclusion and access to enriching cultural learning experiences for college students traditionally excluded from study abroad programs and equips youth with essential transferable workforce readiness skills for an ever-changing global job market. 

What approach did we take? 

IREX analyzed data from the pilot cohort in Fall 2018 through cohort eight in Spring 2023 that included surveys, focus groups, site visits, and ongoing reflections from program implementation. Of the 4,495 students, there was a 68% response rate, with a total of 4,764 pre- and post- program survey responses. Also included in the report are findings from independent evaluations conducted by RTI International.  

What did we learn?  

The findings show that virtual exchanges did the following: 

  1. Increased access to meaningful cultural experiences for youth at U.S. community colleges and Middle East and North Africa institutions, both of which are traditionally excluded from international education.  

  1. Increased youth’s global citizenship and understanding that one’s responsibility and humanity transcends borders. Youth reported significant and consistent gains in the areas of cross-cultural communication, cross-cultural virtual collaboration, and knowledge of others.  

  1. Modeled the modern workplace and increased youth workforce readiness skills.  

  1. Provided an effective, low-cost method to support faculty in globalizing higher education curricula.  

  1. Supported institutions in developing diverse meaningful long-term partnerships and increased engagement in global education and entrepreneurship.  

The Global Solutions program is a scalable, faculty-led model for virtual exchange. IREX took the program from a pilot cohort reaching 119 students, to reaching 809 students in cohort four. The program saw a nearly 50% increase in the number of students every two cohorts, with each consecutive cohort engaging 50% returning faculty.  

In April 2023, IREX was awarded additional funding from JCSVEI to implement two more years of Global Solutions. IREX anticipates reaching 3,400 students across Iraq, Jordan, and the United States by Spring 2025. Learn how to participate in Global Solutions here.