Blog Post

Catalyzing Research in Virtual Exchange: 2021 Projects 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 are shared below. Each project includes 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. 


Like other forms of online education, virtual exchange is prone to suffer from Western hegemonies. This study critically assesses virtual exchange as a vehicle for action, public engagement, and socio-political change. Through questionnaires and interviews, this effort identifies the challenges and pitfalls in virtual exchange for educators and administrators from marginalized and/or underrepresented regions, along with virtual exchange practices and policies that can contribute to mitigating the impact of these challenges.

Authors/Team Information:

  • Nael H Alami, Associate Professor, Director, Virtual Exchange Program; Provost, Modern University for Business and Science, Lebanon. (LinkedIn)
  • Josmario Albuquerque, PhD candidate, Institute for Educational Technology, The Open University UK. (LinkedIn)
  • Loye Sekihata Ashton, Vice President of Partnerships and Chief Academic Officer, Class2Class, USA. (LinkedIn)
  • James Elwood, Professor, Faculty of Interdisciplinary Mathematical Sciences, Meiji University, Japan. (LinkedIn
  • Kwesi Ewoodzie, Founder and Director, Culture Beyond Borders (CBB). (LinkedIn)
  • Mirjam Hauck, Associate Head of School, Internationalisation, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion), The Open University UK. (Professional Page)
  • Joanne Karam, Assistant Professor, Chairperson, Department of Nutrition & Dietetics at the Modern University for Business and Science, Lebanon. (LinkedIn)
  • Liudmila Klimanova, Assistant Professor, School of International Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, College of humanities, University of Arizona, USA. (Professional Page
  • Ramona Nasr, Chairperson, Department of Public Health at the Modern University for Business and Science, Lebanon. (LinkedIn)
  • Muge Satar, Director of Internationalization, School of Education, Communication, and Language Sciences, Newcastle University, UK. (LinkedIn

Research Findings

The data suggest that different regions share a number of shared challenges and diverge on a number of region-specific hurdles to overcome marginalization and underrepresentation in virtual exchange initiatives. The leading five causes for marginalization and underrepresentation in global virtual exchange virtual exchange initiatives included:

  1. Lack of clear processes for curricular change
  2. National and local political regulations
  3. Lack of incentives for virtual exchange program design and implementation
  4. Incompatibility of partners’ digital tools and resources
  5. The extensive time and effort required for virtual exchange program development

Quantitative data from the study suggest that challenges to virtual exchange related to marginalization and underrepresentation fall into two main categories: incentives and access. These two challenges are rooted in quite different sources or contexts, the former being administrative and the latter being related to environmental and infrastructure concerns.  Challenges were sometimes found across multiple regions, and others were present in only one region. For example, the administrative challenge “virtual exchange takes too much time/effort to develop” is corroborated by this study in Latin America and in Central and East Asia. However, in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa “extreme weather impacts technology access” and “no incentives for virtual exchange implementation” occupy the leading challenge positions, respectively. The second top challenge on a global level, “partners incompatible preferences for software,” is shared only in the Middle East, whereas “poor Internet connection” was the second-rated challenge in Central Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. These challenges are explored in more depth in forthcoming publications. 

Insights from the qualitative data shed further light on the reasons for these region-specific challenges and on the ways these challenges could be addressed to mitigate underrepresentation and marginalization.

  • In South America, the main challenge was lack of or limited funding and incentives at the institutional and governmental levels for educational projects, especially compared to research projects. Second, it was perceived that some students were disadvantaged due to language barriers, gender, and ethnicity. 
  • In the Middle East, interviewees reported challenges related to internet connectivity, electricity cuts, access to technologies, time zone differences, and language. Some of the interviewees were not familiar with virtual exchange at all and did not have an insight into whether all instructors in their institutions had access or freedom to implement virtual exchange programs at their institutions.
  • In Central Asia, three themes stand out. First, virtual exchange is not perceived as a mainstream methodology. It is often equated with online teaching. Virtual exchange is viewed predominantly as an opportunity to invite speakers from other countries as an extracurricular activity. Training in virtual exchange pedagogies is practically non-existent. Second, there is a big disconnect between instructors who teach and administrators who approve and launch virtual exchange initiatives in the region. Finally, virtual exchange is perceived primarily as an opportunity to engage with English speaking students for students that are trained in languages. Existing initiatives are contained within individual departments; interdisciplinarity is discouraged at the institutional level. 
  • In East Asia, interviewees reported limited understanding of and exposure to virtual exchange pedagogy. Three main barriers were identified in relation to this. First, there is a lack of interest on the part of the faculty to engage in sustained initiatives involving virtual exchange. Second, similar to the Middle East region, although teachers have freedom to implement virtual exchange, interest, involvement, and encouragement from administration is limited. Teachers who are interested in doing virtual exchange feel isolated. Third, intercultural learning is also not perceived as a necessary component of education by some students.
  • In Africa, our participants revealed that technological challenges are still prevalent and deeply rooted in challenges around infrastructure, socio-economic inequalities, digital skills, and political and pedagogical attitudes resulting in issues of access and inclusivity.


Overall, there is a need to systematically increase awareness of virtual exchange in all regions, including the processes, best practices, and effective methods involved in virtual exchange as well as the benefits and potential impact. Similarly there is a need for training in virtual exchange pedagogy and administration with a focus on what VE looks like from an equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) lens (Kastler & Lewis, 2021).

Increasingly, virtual exchange is considered by many in the international education field as an impactful pedagogy – but this message has yet to reach educators and administrators globally. Funding for training in virtual exchange project design and incentives for virtual exchange implementation are needed in Africa, South America, the Middle East, and Central Asia, in particular. Awareness raising and training are crucial in breaking the stereotypes prevalent in most regions that virtual exchange is first and foremost an opportunity to practice language skills (English) and suitable for the humanities only. This will help promote virtual exchange for all students and also contribute to overcoming unhelpful language ideologies and linguistic hegemonies. 

It is clear that a systematic approach to virtual exchange implementation is needed in all geopolitical sectors investigated in this study. To this effect, we recommend the following steps:

  • Align virtual exchange efforts with institutional/regional goals in terms of providing students with an international education;
  • Create specialized virtual exchange assistance roles who will aid faculty in the curriculum internalization process;
  • Incentivize virtual exchange faculty appropriately (e.g. funding for virtual exchange research but also pedagogy, career progression);
  • Encourage the establishment of virtual exchange partnerships directly with faculty and departments rather than with administrative units at higher education institutions; 
  • Measure and evaluate virtual exchange impact on students.

Apart from these measures, virtual exchange needs to be popularized as a legitimate and valuable form of international learning alongside traditional student mobility programs and/or as a suitable complementary educational intervention.

Virtual exchange is typically conceptualized as a partnership with a Western university (preferably English speaking). All other types of virtual exchange are often not perceived as critical for comprehensive internalization. This can be addressed by explicitly training institutional internationalization officers and holding more conferences on virtual exchange pedagogies in a variety of disciplines (e.g, in Central Asian countries). 


The research from this project team has already been disseminated widely, and will continue to be shared with multiple audiences including:

  • 2021 International Virtual Exchange Conference (IVEC) (October 27-29, 2021). Oral presentation, titled: “The Causes and Remedies for Marginalization in Global Virtual Exchange Initiatives”
  • Inter-Cultural Communications Conference 2022, Decentering Mobility in Intercultural Education: Engagement, Equity, and Access. Symposium titled: “Marginalization and Underrepresentation in Global VE Initiatives.” Click for access to the recorded presentation.
  • Journal of International Students, special issue on Virtual Exchange. Paper title: “The Causes and Remedies for Marginalization and Underrepresentation in Global Virtual Exchange Initiatives: A Comprehensive Survey of Stakeholders in Five Geopolitical Sectors.” Accepted and forthcoming.
  • Journal of Virtual Exchange (JVE), special issue on Marginalization and Underrepresentation. Paper in Preparation.


This project provides insight into two aspects of international virtual exchange at two North Carolina community colleges. First, it explores which students access these international learning opportunities. Second, it examines what students learn from these experiences, focusing especially on global perspective-taking, self-efficacy, and cultural humility. The findings of this research speak to the extent to which international virtual exchange programs provide intercultural learning opportunities to students who have been historically excluded from international education and what, if anything, students learn as a result of their participation in these experiences.

Authors/Team Information:

  • Melissa Whatley, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of International and Global Education, School for International Training Graduate Institute (Twitter)
  • Suzanne LaVenture, Director of International Education, Davidson-Davie Community College
  • Nadine Russell, Director of Global Learning Office, Central Piedmont Community College

Research Findings

This study’s results suggested that virtual exchange offers access to international education to an increased number of students compared to study abroad, but that participation numbers are not as high as enrollment in internationalized courses. While virtual exchange exhibited greater participation among male students compared to study abroad, virtual exchange appeared to perpetuate inequities along racial/ethnic lines similar to other international learning opportunities. Virtual exchange was not found to relate to changes in students’ global perspective-taking, self-efficacy, or cultural humility.

  • The numbers reported in this study suggest that virtual exchange participation (N=1,039) is higher than participation in study abroad (N=74) but not nearly as high as enrollment in internationalized coursework (N=20,469).
  • The students who participated in virtual exchange were more likely to be male compared to those who studied abroad.
  • Students participating in virtual exchange were more likely to be white compared to other international education opportunities, including study abroad.
  • Virtual exchange did not significantly relate to changes in students’ global perspective-taking, self-efficacy, or cultural humility.


Like other forms of virtual learning, virtual international exchange is likely not easier to implement nor do these programs use fewer resources compared to more traditional forms of international learning like study abroad. As a result, programs may not reach the large numbers of students that we might expect them to reach. Additionally, Increased access via virtual exchange or other at-home international opportunities does not necessarily mean increased equity in participation for traditionally marginalized student groups.

While virtual exchange may make international education more accessible for male students, other student groups, especially historically marginalized racial/ethnic groups, may continue to receive the message that international education, including virtual exchange, is not intended for them. Virtual exchange programs may need to provide longer or more in-depth student engagement to promote outcomes such as global perspective-taking, self-efficacy, or cultural humility. It may also be that virtual exchange promotes different student outcomes than study abroad. 


The research from this project team will be shared with multiple audiences including:

  • A portion of this project was recently accepted for presentation at the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) annual conference (April 2022)
  • A portion of this project was recently accepted for presentation at the Association of Education Finance and Policy (AEFP)’s annual conference (March 2022)
  • A portion of this project was recently advanced for publication in a special issue of the Journal of International Students focused on virtual exchange (special issue to appear in 2022)
  • The full study can be found here.
  • Read a blog explaining more about the findings here.


This study utilizes institutional data tracking over 47,000 students for a 10-year period to evaluate the impact of taking a virtual exchange course on student success as measured by GPA, first-year retention, and graduation rate. Additionally, this study examines whether the impact of virtual exchange varies across key demographic characteristics such as race/ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic status as well as academic and geographic considerations.

Authors/Team Information:

  • Dr. Jonathan Lee, Associate Professor of Economics, East Carolina University. (LinkedIn)
  • Dr. Jami Leibowitz, Associate Director of Global Affairs and Director of Global Academic Initiatives, East Carolina University. (LinkedIn)
  • Dr. Jon Rezek, Assistant Vice Chancellor of Global Affairs, East Carolina University. (LinkedIn)

Research Findings

The results of this study indicate that taking a virtual exchange course has a modest but statistically significant impact on subsequent student success and reinforces the view that virtual exchange is both a high impact practice and a pedagogy that offers significant benefits to under resourced groups and groups historically underrepresented in global learning activities. Key findings include:

  • Participating in a single virtual exchange course increases average GPA in subsequent semesters by 0.03 points. Putting this number in perspective, about half the students taking international virtual exchange courses move up 1/3 of a letter grade (e.g. B to B+) for one course during subsequent semesters. For comparison, participating in study abroad (a widely recognized high impact practice) and taking foreign language were also examined. Study abroad had approximately double the impact (0.067) on subsequent GPA, while taking foreign language did not have a statistically significant impact on subsequent GPA.
  • Taking a virtual exchange course positively impacts the probability a student is retained in the subsequent year. 
  • Taking a virtual exchange course positively impacts the probability a student graduates within a five-year window.
  • In terms of student success, virtual exchange has a larger impact on: 
        • first-generation students compared to non-first-generation students
        • students who are financially disadvantaged;
        • women compared to men; 
        • Black and African American students compared to students who identify as white.


The results of this study demonstrate that virtual exchange is both a high impact practice that can help to promote student success and a pedagogy that is disproportionately beneficial to under-resourced groups and groups historically underrepresented in global learning activities.

The results of this study, while only showing a modest GPA gain, are statistically significant. When put in proper context – completing a single 3 credit hour course improves student outcomes – this is an impressive result. For comparison, we looked at both study abroad and foreign language courses to evaluate whether there were similar results for other types of global/cross-cultural pedagogies. The positive impact of study abroad on indicators of student success has been previously established (see McMahan, 2015; Holoviak, 2009; Ingraham and Peterson, 2004; Xu, 2004). In this study, study abroad had approximately double the impact of a virtual exchange course. On the other hand, foreign language instruction had no impact on GPA or other student success measures. 

Consistent with previous research conducted by this group (Lee, Leibowitz & Rezek, 2021), this study shows that the benefits of virtual exchange vary across demographic groups with virtual exchange being particularly impactful on African Americans, first-generation students, those that are financially disadvantaged, and women. Aside from women, these demographic groups typically do not have much prior global experience and are typically underrepresented in other international learning activities such as study abroad. Virtual exchange, therefore, represents an avenue for those who may perceive that they do not have the opportunity to participate in other types of international programming to have access to the benefits of a high impact international experience.


The project team has shared their findings with multiple audiences including:

The project team is currently working on a manuscript for publication. New publicly accessible information will be shared as it becomes available, check back soon for updates.

VIRTUAL EXCHANGE AND UNDERREPRESENTED STUDENT POPULATIONS: Challenges and barriers for Hispanic students in higher education

This study aims to understand how virtual exchange, specifically the Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) model, can help lessen the marginalization of underrepresented student populations in higher education. Specifically, the study examined perceptions, experiences, and behaviors of U.S.-based Hispanic students who collaboratively participated in COIL courses with Latin American institutions. Here, the term Hispanic refers to individuals who self-identify as having Latin American heritage and speak Spanish. Using qualitative research methods, in-depth interviews were conducted with 10 individuals. The resulting content analysis revealed that COIL, a specific pedagogy of virtual exchange, could help lessen the marginalization of U.S.-based Hispanic students, specifically students whose cultural background is one deriving from a Spanish-speaking country from Latin America, in higher education by providing them opportunities to perform their cultural identity, meaning to learn about and explore their relationship with their background and how they understand themselves, through the establishment of connections to culture and language. By engaging in virtual exchange opportunities that reinforce identity and belonging and that lessen marginalization and inequity, presence and representation are strengthened and social justice is advanced.

Authors/Team Information:

  • Maria Ines Marino, EdD, Associate Teaching Professor, Research Faculty Affiliate, Florida International University. (Professional Page)
  • Stephanie Delgado, PhD, Instructional Design Consultant, Instructor, Speaker, Florida International University. (LinkedIn)

Research Findings 

Marginalization amongst underrepresented groups could be lessened by taking proactive steps when creating COIL activities. Virtual exchange experiences that reinforce cultural identity performance, presence, and representation help advance digital equity and move towards establishing social justice by providing more benefits for Hispanic students while acknowledging and/or removing barriers when possible. The following are the main findings from the research study:

  • Cultural Identity Performance: Arising from the data was a common theme of a sense of connection to culture, language, and cultural empathy. Participants described these connections through statements that elaborated how this experience allowed them to explore their cultural identity in a new way, reinforcing their cultural performance and feeling represented in new communities. 
  • Benefits for Hispanic Students in Higher Education: Participants felt that they were able to have the multicultural global experience at a time when they otherwise would not be able to either because of financial reasons or familial responsibilities. This experience provided the benefits of studying abroad without the burden of financial hardship. Through this experience, participants were able to ‘get out of their comfort zone’ and helped them grow as human beings. COIL prepared as future professionals and global citizens.
  • Challenges for Hispanic students in Higher Education: One of the major issues participants were challenged by was the lack of choices and information on expectations for the exchange. Hispanic students in South Florida are immersed in a different reality than most college students; they work part and full time, live with their families, and often help their families financially. Many of them had to coordinate classroom meetings while balancing work and home life and associated responsibilities.


This project aimed to understand how virtual exchange programs such as COIL could help lessen the marginalization of underrepresented populations in higher education. The results of this study provided strong evidence on how virtual exchange programs could act as a vehicle for social justice. Some learning and implications for practice include: 

  • The sense of connection to culture and language is deeply rooted in perceived similarities and common cultural experiences participants embraced during COILing courses.  
  • The connection and sharing of their own cultural experiences seemed to positively impact students’ sense of belonging, which resulted in increased engagement to learning, meaningful communication with their peers, and collaboration.
  • When virtual exchange programs such as COIL are designed to include cultural practices and support a culturally sensitive environment for underrepresented students, Hispanic groups in this case, students are allowed to connect through language and cultural commonalities.
  • Using virtual exchange programs, such as COIL, offers the unique opportunity for higher education institutions to engage their students in constructive and productive learning activities cross-culturally.
  • The study demonstrated how students of underrepresented groups benefit from virtual exchange collaboration with peers and/or cultural groups that offer cultural commonalities. Specifically, the study was significant in helping inform professional practices allowing educators to explore and predict causes of marginalization and to create virtual exchange opportunities that inclusively support underrepresented populations. 
  • Institutions that support virtual exchange should note that students who participate in virtual exchange find real value in these programs. By exposing students to international peers that allow them to explore their underrepresented identities, gave them the opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue which has the potential to expose global issues, motivate and build a sense of belonging, and reinforcing presence and representation that our students may not be aware of or would have otherwise.


  • Read about this project and watch videos of this research and the associated virtual exchange programs can be viewed here.
  • This project team is working to share their findings with multiple audiences, including: 
      • Past Conferences:
        1. International Teaching Online Symposium, University of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, Virtual. June, 2021 
        2. International Conference on Diversity in Organizations, Communities & Nations, University of Curaçao, Willemstad, Curaçao, Virtual. June, 2021
        3. Semana Internacional/ International Week, Universidad Blas Pascal, Cordoba, Argentina, November 2-5, 2021
        4. Global Inclusion 2021 [Panel presentation]. Diversity Abroad, 26 October 2021, Virtual & Atlanta, Georgia.
      • Upcoming Conferences: 
        1. International Communication Conference, May 2022, Paris, France
      • Publications
        1. Journal of Intercultural Communication
        2. Marino, M.I.. & Tadal, S. (2022, forthcoming). Matching Students: Strategies for Maximizing Inclusion and Success In J. Rubin, S. Guth, S. Doscher, & C. Wojenski (Eds.), The Guide to COIL Virtual Exchange. Stylus.
  • New publicly accessible information for this project will be updated as it becomes available. Check back soon for updates.
THE IMPACTS OF VIRTUAL EXCHANGE FOR HIGH-SCHOOLERS: an analysis of AFS Intercultural Programs’ Global You Adventurer

The primary goal of this research is to identify and further develop the efficacy of virtual exchange, with the aim of strengthening programs that develop high school students’ global competence.  The AFS Global You Adventurer exchange runs on an online platform that includes video modules, discussion prompts in peer forums, interactive activities, and live dialogue sessions, implemented by qualified facilitators. This data was gathered and analyzed using a mixed methods approach to determine if the AFS Global You Adventurer develops stronger perspective-taking skills, reduces stereotypes, improves intercultural communication, leads to greater knowledge seeking, and builds empathy.  This research also explores if greater time spent in program activities impacts the development of global competence.

Authors/Team Information

  • Bettina Hansel, Ph.D. (LinkedIn
  • Corinna Howland, Ph.D. (LinkedIn)  
  • Linda Stuart (AFS Intercultural Programs) (LinkedIn)  
  • Anaïs Chauvet (AFS Intercultural Programs) (LinkedIn

Research Findings

AFS Global You Adventurer virtual exchange (GYA VE) participants were found to show increased awareness and appreciation of other cultures compared to peers with an interest in other cultures, but who did not participate in the GYA VE program. Participants in the program also indicated through their self-ratings that they had shifted their patterns of communication across cultures to become more open and engaged with individuals from other cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Specifically: 

  • GYA participants had a significantly larger shift than the control group in their global competence in seven of the ten Intercultural Effectiveness Scale (IES) indicators. The most significant differences were found in the Overall IES Score, Positive Regard, and Self-Awareness.
  • Also significant, but less so, was the growth in these items: Hardiness, World Orientation, Interpersonal Engagement and Continuous Learning.
  • However, pre-test scores were found to also be highly related to measures of growth on the IES scales because many teenagers in the GYA program and in the control group rated themselves very near the top limit of the scales provided. After controlling for the pre-test scores in the various scales, it was found that participation in the GYA program significantly increased the odds of growth for the Overall IES Score and Positive Regard, and almost as certainly increased the odds for growth in Interpersonal Engagement.
  • GYA participants and control group members also tended to rate themselves very close to the top limit in questions related to Intercultural Communication in the second survey. GYA participants were asked in the post-program questionnaire to rate themselves now and to reassess their pre-program levels for all these questions. The fact that these reassessments are generally lower than both the original pre-test scores and the post-test scores can be seen as an indication that the participants believe they have moved to more open and more engaged cross-cultural communication skills.
  • A comparison of GYA participants who had four synchronous sessions with a smaller number who participated in six synchronous sessions generally showed no difference between the two models. The small number of students who responded from the group with six sessions limits the statistical analysis. However, qualitative analysis suggests students desired more opportunities for engagement with their peers.


This study demonstrates that virtual exchanges can have a meaningful, immediate impact on the development of global competence among high-school aged youth around the world. Even short programs such as the five-week GYA course can provide immediate growth in aspects of youth global competence. It also suggests the AFS GYA program structure is well-set up to grow students’ global competence through targeted content and multilateral exposure to a highly diverse group of peers, and was well-received by participants who reported an enriching and transformative experience. GYA program participants grew particularly on measures of positive regard, relationship development, and cross-cultural communication. Accordingly, short-term virtual exchange programs may choose to focus on a particular dimension of global competence that they wish to develop among their cohort groups. Students in the 14-17 year old age group may especially benefit from repeated reinforcement of key ideas and time to embed these through practice and learning.

Program participation is primarily individual and asynchronous and yet relationships among participants developed intensely, with many students forming friendships and noting that they found their interactions with others particularly enriching. This shows that even within a short timeframe, virtual exchange participants can enhance their relationship development. However, some participants also desired more opportunities to interact. AFS GYA and other virtual exchange programs which have a similar asynchronous course-based structure should ensure as many opportunities for contact as possible are incorporated into course activities, including informal time to chat and form connections. This may be particularly important among the 14-17 year old age group, for whom peer connection is especially significant. 

Moreover, these findings provide some evidence that further opportunities for virtual, synchronous interaction (higher dosage) could enhance growth in interpersonal engagement. However, it must be cautioned that with only 24 participants in the cohorts that experienced the additional live session, and almost as few control group members, each individual has too large an impact on the average for the higher dose group and for the control group, so conclusions must be tentative. But there is reason to anticipate that, for interpersonal engagement, a longer exchange with more opportunity for live virtual interaction could potentially show greater impact, even though the difference in this study was not found to be significant between the longer and shorter program lengths. Further research is needed, with more participants in the longer-length program.


This project team is working to share their findings with multiple audiences:

  • A joint, co-hosted webinar presentation was held on November 15, 2021 to kick off International Education Week.  This webinar addressed the importance of virtual exchange and shared the preliminary research results. Watch the recording here.
  • This study will be published in Section 5 of Global Education Benchmark Group’s (GEBG) annual Magazine Interconnected. Print copies should be available in May 2022.
  • This research will be presented at the SEITAR Europa Congress in May 2022 in Malta.
  • This research will be presented at the 2022 Biennial IAIR Conference, in in July 2022 in Switzerland. The presentations will draw specifically from the participant self-rating findings in the research, titled “Over-confident self-ratings of intercultural competence among teenagers with an interest in other cultures.”
  • 2022 International Virtual Exchange Conference (IVEC) (October 26-28, 2022).

Virtual exchange teachers often assume that their students will be in some way naturally prepared to interact successfully, but this is often not the case. Based on data collected from various virtual exchanges, the aim of this study is twofold: (1) to develop a set of strategies to prepare students for synchronous and asynchronous online intercultural communication, and (2) to design mentoring guidelines for virtual exchange teachers to scaffold learners in effective use of these tools.

Authors/Team Information

  • Begoña F. Gutiérrez, Doctoral Candidate, predoctoral researcher, lecturer, University of León. (Twitter
  • Malin Reljanovic Glimäng, Doctoral Candidate, lecturer, Department of Language, Culture and Media, Malmö University, Sweden. (Twitter
  • Robert O’Dowd, Ph.D., Associate Professor (professor titular), English as a Foreign Language and Applied Linguistics, University of León, Spain. (Twitter
  • Shannon Sauro, Ph.D., Department of Education, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, USA (Twitter). 

Research Findings

Analysis of virtual exchange participants’ interactions and reflections led to the identification of patterns of both effective and ineffective strategies for intercultural online communication during class-to-class virtual exchanges, forming the foundation for a detailed mentoring handbook for virtual exchange teachers as well as teaching materials that can be used in class to provide guidelines for students. Some key findings that emerged from analysis of the study data are: 

  • Synchronous and asynchronous communicative contexts require different specific strategies for successful (i.e. effective and appropriate) communication. 
  • Even in cases in which the strategies can be grouped under the same category, the approach that each communicative context requires differs. 
  • The introduction of unproductive communicative strategies taken from real scenarios may prove to be an effective technique to initiate class discussions in which virtual exchange participants proactively engage in revealing for themselves which techniques to apply or avoid. 
  • Three key phases of action for mentoring in a virtual exchange can be identified that are common to both communicative modalities (i.e. synchronous and asynchronous):
    • Before the interaction starts, virtual exchange teachers can get their students ready for it by teaching them effective technology use, organizational skills, and awareness of common concerns.  
    • During the interaction, virtual exchange teachers can provide support to their students by showing them key appropriate and effective communicative strategies to successfully participate in (a)synchronous online intercultural interaction, as well as examples of unproductive strategies that they should avoid. 
    • Once the virtual exchange comes to an end and interactions cease, virtual exchange teachers can provide students with the opportunity to reflect on their experience to achieve their own conclusions.


The analysis of virtual exchange participants’ interactions and reflections in this study identified that students can benefit from their teachers’ mentoring to achieve successful online intercultural interaction in both synchronous and asynchronous communicative contexts.

It is often assumed that students will somehow be naturally prepared to navigate online interactions effectively and efficiently. This assumption is often held in the field of foreign language education by teachers who undertake virtual exchanges. However, there is considerable evidence in the literature to suggest that students who participate in virtual exchanges are usually not naturally aware of effective communication strategies in asynchronous or in synchronous communicative contexts. The findings of this study indicate that students can benefit from their teachers’ guidance in this regard, and consequently virtual exchange teachers are provided with two types of ready-to-use materials:

  • a teacher’s handbook with very detailed mentoring guidelines based on real scenarios so that they can guide their students on how to apply effective communicative strategies before, during, and after the exchange, and
  • three different sets of slides with best practices that they can use in class with their students at different stages of the exchange. 

After reading the handbook, teachers can decide which aspects of mentoring are or are not relevant to their specific group of learners. For implementation, the methodology proposed in the presentations is to use examples drawn from real communicative scenarios as prompts for discussion to engage students in the process of proactively uncovering effective and ineffective communication strategies.


This project team has shared their findings with multiple audiences, including at the EUROCALL 2021 Conference (August 26-28th) and the 2021 International Virtual Exchange Conference (IVEC) (October 27-29th). The handbook referenced above can be accessed and downloaded from our research page here. New publicly accessible information for this project will be shared below as it becomes available. Check back soon for updates.


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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