In the education-abroad field, the COVID-19 pandemic made crystal clear the opportunities that technology and new partnership connections bring to the table, especially when speaking about virtual exchanges (VE). Whereas conventional online learning focuses on the information transfer through video lectures, VE promotes student-centered teaching and learning that “engages learners in sustained online international collaboration and communication with online peers under the guidance of trained facilitators or educators.” Since students participate in VE from their home countries, this program contributes to “internationalization at home” initiatives at Canadian higher education institutions by attracting diverse student groups, developing intercultural skills and, by extension, benefitting a variety of communities.
VE also increases accessibility to international education. It allows students who see value in having an international component to their degree – but who, for multiple reasons, prefer not to travel — gain international experience. VE presents an alternative platform to develop deeper understanding and broader opportunities to provide Canadian students with an equitable access to international education. It also promotes diversity and inclusion by allowing students to work alongside faculty and peers from a different cultural background who not only propose new ways of teaching and learning but also offer different views of the world.
The ability to empathize and develop an understanding of other cultures becomes more relevant when we think about the impact that VE has on students and instructors in universities and colleges located in the Global South. Promoting and fostering equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) is a responsibility our institutions have not only with our own students, faculty and administrative staff, but with students and staff in other countries, especially those that are underrepresented in the traditional international exchange model. In order to promote and instil EDI values, institutions should extend these opportunities to staff and faculty members in the way of training, mentorship, and research.
Finally, there is one last idea that interweaves with the contributions VE experiences and EDI entail: the societal gain that comes with the understanding that VE not only impacts the individual but also how this individual interacts with and enriches the community they belong to. There is a personal gain for our students in terms of employability and individual growth, but undoubtedly, there are also benefits to the communities that surround them. According to Elspeth Jones, a researcher who specializes in international students, globalization and the interconnectedness of multicultural and multinational work environments demand graduates with international work and learning experience.
Internationalization at home
Internationalization at home is the purposeful integration of international and intercultural dimensions into the formal and informal curriculum for all students within domestic learning environments. Internationalization at home can also serve as a means to promote common values and closer understandings between different peoples and cultures, enhance cooperation between postsecondary institutions in their internationalization efforts, while also improving the educational quality of the sector and human resources through mutual learning, comparison and exchange of good practice.
Virtual exchange (VE)
Virtual exchange is an educational practice that involves the engagement of groups of learners in extended periods of online intercultural interaction and collaboration with international peers as an integrated part of their education.
As our communities continue to become more diverse, workplaces are a reflection of this, with teams composed of individuals with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. Graduates who join the workforce with a good set of intercultural competencies and skills, typically gained through international education (such as adaptability, resiliency, analytical capabilities and independence), are able to perform well in multicultural environments, which can move team efforts forward. Graduates who contribute to the success of their workplace generate wealth and opportunities for themselves and their companies, directly impacting the communities that host them in terms of financial growth and the creation of knowledge. They also promote intercultural awareness and, through their example, create a warm and inviting environment for individuals with diverse backgrounds.
Published in 2018, the Stevens Initiative Impact Report suggested there was significant overall gain in post-exchange students when it came to intercultural communicative competence, curiosity and self-esteem, as well as having a warmth for people with different ethnic and religious backgrounds. The exposure to different world views and beliefs heightens young people’s critical thinking and appreciation of diversity. Participants in the survey perceived an increased knowledge of the relationship between societies, increased awareness of stereotypes, and built positive/meaningful relationships with peers from different countries. The majority of participants felt they built skills and competences directly related to employability, such as confidence in working in culturally diverse settings, teamwork and problem-solving, and also digital competences.