The Rise of Virtual Exchange Programs in International Education

The COVID-19 pandemic forever changed higher education. Since most universities had to close their campuses during the pandemic, many institutions began offering virtual exchange programs instead of traditional exchange programs. In virtual exchanges, students take online courses and short-term programs from other universities. A couple of years after the pandemic subsided; many of these virtual exchanges still exist and would likely remain a part of the higher education landscape. While virtual exchanges do not provide the immersive experience of traditional exchanges, they have several advantages such as low cost, more capacity, no visa restrictions, and more flexibility.

The onset of the global pandemic disrupted traditional modes of international education. With travel restrictions and health concerns, many universities created virtual programs and exchanges to maintain fruitful relationships with their international partners. For example, at Coastal Carolina University, where I teach, we switched from offering a three-week international summer program on our campus to a two-week virtual program using Zoom.

Students in the program met American students and students from other countries. They worked in virtual, global teams on a team online presentation. While we returned to offering the program on campus in 2023, I was happy that we could continue to offer a valuable experience to students from our partner universities during the pandemic. Additionally, the students appreciated that we offered our virtual program free.

Even as the world recovers from the pandemic, virtual exchange programs are poised to stay. Hochschule Bonn-Rhein-Sieg, another CIDD member, organized a codeshare program where students can take week-long courses with faculty from around the world. Virtual exchanges give students access to professors and classes in other countries. Students can take classes that are not offered in their countries and since these courses do not require a physical space, they can have a high capacity. Moreover, virtual exchanges allow faculty to collaborate across borders. For instance, I had guest speakers from Germany in my virtual classes and served as a guest speaker in their classes. The Internet allows professors from different countries to co-teach entire classes together on Zoom, Teams, or other platforms.

Virtual exchanges present a cost-effective and sustainable alternative to traditional study abroad programs, making them accessible to a broader demographic of students since some students do not have the resources or time to live abroad. As institutions increasingly prioritize inclusivity and diversity, virtual exchanges represent a democratization of international education. They offer a myriad of benefits, including cultural immersion, language acquisition, and the development of global competencies.

To optimize the benefits of virtual exchange programs, students must actively engage in cross-cultural dialogue and reflection. Leveraging technology to facilitate meaningful connections and collaboration can enhance the virtual exchange experience. For instance, students can work together using a platform like Microsoft Teams and communicate using WhatsApp or another application. Instructors should allow students to introduce themselves, either in class or by recording an introductory video, and can provide assignments that require students to learn about each other culture and background.

Universities play a crucial role in ensuring the effectiveness and meaningfulness of virtual exchange programs. Investing in faculty training and development is essential to equip educators with the skills and resources needed to facilitate virtual exchanges successfully. For instance, Arizona State University’s Global Launch program provides virtual English language and culture courses, connecting students from around the world in a virtual learning community.

The rise of virtual exchange programs represents a paradigm shift in international education, driven by the imperatives of the COVID-19 era and the evolving needs of a globalized society.

Yoav Wachsman
Professor at Coastal Carolina University, USA