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Catalyzing Research in Virtual Exchange: Project Updates

Drawing on the Initiative’s commitment to lead the virtual exchange field in research and knowledge sharing, Strengthening the Field: Catalyzing Research in Virtual Exchange is an effort to support scholars and researchers to investigate issues in practice and design. The seven sponsored research projects announced in spring 2021 explore important issues and will result in a better understanding of the impact and value of virtual exchange. Each project strengthens the case for more virtual exchange adoption by institutions and organizations working to provide rich international and cross-cultural experiences for young people. 

Outcomes from each project will be shared below, with additional project outcomes planned to be released in the coming months. Each project will include an updated project description, research findings, learnings and implications for practitioners, and links to where more information about each project can be found. Follow the links below to read more about each project and where this research is being disseminated. 


This research, focused on Empatico’s Empathy Across the USA: Race & Identity program, explores: (1) opportunities and obstacles to implementing virtual exchange programming in different districts and for different groups, with particular attention to underrepresented students; and (2) how teachers participating in virtual exchange programs understand and communicate about racial issues in the classroom.

Authors/Team Information

  • Laura Engel, Ph.D., Associate Professor of International Education and International Affairs, The George Washington University (Twitter
  • Stephanie Gonzalez, Doctoral Student, The George Washington University (Twitter
  • Julia Brunner, Master’s Candidate, The George Washington University (LinkedIn)
  • Nikki Hinshaw, Master’s Candidate, The George Washington University

Research Findings

This study found that the adoption of the EAU program in classrooms was largely dependent on teachers’ willingness to participate, which also affected access to the program for underrepresented students in addition to the availability of technology. Conversations about race in the classroom tended to be more surface-level, but deepened depending on teachers’ level of comfort with the topic. The three main findings from this research include:

  • Opportunities and Barriers to Facilitating virtual exchange in K-12 Education in the US: Teachers became “gatekeepers” for virtual exchange programming in their respective schools. Teacher participation was often encouraged by the existence of a “champion” of virtual exchange, such as a field coordinator, a teacher, or school/district leadership. Consistent with existing literature on barriers to virtual exchange, teachers and staff involved in the EAU program experienced several contextual challenges, including managing communication across varying time zones and calendars, and balancing other responsibilities such as testing (Baroni et al., 2019; O’Dowd, 2018).
  • Issues of Access of Underrepresented K-12 Students: Findings about access to virtual exchange, especially for underrepresented K-12 students, centered largely around technology access. Schools and districts that provided technology resources enabled access to virtual exchange programming for students of various backgrounds. Access was also facilitated depending on whether teachers had the time, resources, and general capacity to support a program such as EAU, in addition to existing demands.
  • Teacher Engagement in Conversations about Race: Both Empatico staff and several teachers approached the EAU race-related curriculum from a neutral lens. Classroom discussions often steered towards acknowledgment of similarities and differences in general topics, such as hobbies and the weather. Teachers who did describe more in depth and race-related conversations also indicated an existing level of comfort with such topics, facilitated through previous personal experiences or professional development on race.


Several implications for research and practice result from this analysis, including tangible actions that districts, schools, teachers, and virtual exchange programs can take in order to increase access to virtual exchange, as well as insights in better engaging K-12 classrooms in productive conversations about race and racial difference. In order to increase access to virtual exchange for underrepresented students, outreach should intentionally extend to districts with high percentages of students and teachers of color. In addition, teachers serve as the “gatekeepers” for student participation in K-12 virtual exchange, so virtual exchange programs interested in increasing access to more diverse populations should concentrate their efforts on finding “champions” at the school or district-level to recruit teachers. Because teachers often weighed participation in virtual exchange against existing responsibilities such as testing schedules, recruitment should also emphasize the resources and support available from virtual exchange programs to ensure programming is not presented as a potential burden to the teacher participants.

Moving forward, virtual exchange programs and districts should consider additional resources that enable access and participation. In addition, virtual exchange programs can consider how their program is being accessed and by whom. The EAU platform only offered connectivity for twelve devices so classrooms studying remotely adapted to other technology platforms for their exchanges. While school districts plan to return to in-person learning in the 2021-2022 academic year, many teachers commented on the benefits of having students join the exchange with their individual devices for more active participation. Virtual exchange programs should evaluate platform capabilities for different classroom contexts: individual devices, group log-ins, and a hybrid of both.   

District support and guidance on race-related language and content can provide teachers with a feeling of security necessary to move from conversations about surface-level difference to more in-depth discussions on race. However, as the level of public advocacy for these conversations varied, districts should work to craft a culture of continuous learning on topics such as race for not only teachers and staff, but for parents, students, and the wider community as well. 

Existing research on virtual exchange centers higher education experiences, with undergraduate students as the primary participants in virtual exchange (Stevens Initiative, 2020). This study contributed to the limited research on virtual exchange in K-12 settings. Further, the study considered a domestic exchange program within the U.S. as opposed to a cross-national program. Additional research should explore K-12 virtual exchange programs and within-country virtual exchange adoption.   

While the extant literature addresses teachers’ challenges and competencies in facilitating conversations about race (Milner, 2017; Vass, 2013; Watson, 2012), this research centers traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms, not conversations about race within the virtual exchange landscape. This study sought to address the gaps in understanding teachers’ competencies and challenges in discussing race through virtual exchange, but additional research should explore race in virtual exchange from student perspectives in both K-12 and higher education, and in domestic and cross-national virtual exchange contexts.  


This project team has shared their findings with multiple audiences, including international educators, graduate students, and stakeholders involved in the EAU program. The team intends on sharing this research at academic and professional conferences and in research publications. New publicly accessible information will be shared below as it becomes available. Check back soon for updates.

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