At a time when there is an increased demand for connection, virtual exchange provides the opportunity for countless interactions across the world. Students, young professionals, and facilitators are faced with a major shift in how they go about their days due to safety measures in place in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Despite social distancing, such individuals have the ability to continue interacting with their peers via online platforms, ranging from teleconferences to virtual classes.
The value of virtual exchange is evident from the relationships built between participants of NextGen Coders Network (NGCN), a program supported by World Learning that tackles global issues in creative and innovative ways. Participants immerse themselves in the world of coding as they work on a website or application that addresses a global challenge. NGCN has completed two of its four virtual exchanges and 100 participants have successfully finished the program. Two of these participants are Kyle Maloney, a student at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and Aya Anwar, recruited by Partners for Sustainable Development in the Palestinian Territories.
Kyle and Aya‘s participation in NGCN was unique due to the pandemic. Although the pandemic emerged during the second iteration of the ten-week program, teams were still able to complete their projects. Several of them developed programs to guide the general public on how to address the coronavirus pandemic as a public health, mental health, and social issue. Kyle’s team created a website which detailed what COVID-19 is and highlighted recommendations for safety measures. According to Kyle, “online learning has been profound during the COVID-19 pandemic as it has provided students an opportunity to stay productive and [maintain] a sense of normalcy.” Aya’s team developed an application, Lily, designed to share art, sports, education, and other resources as coping mechanisms for children who experience bullying. The spring 2020 exchange demonstrated how impactful virtual exchange can be, even during such uncertain times.
Kyle, who was participating in a virtual exchange for the first time, learned more about cross cultural communication and enjoyed how easy it was to communicate with his teammates. He valued the fact that online learning became an accessible outlet to education, especially during the ongoing pandemic. He was able to expand his skillset from home. “NextGen Coders Network taught me various technical skills, such as basic HTML coding,” he said. “Beyond the technical skills, I had the opportunity to virtually collaborate with a team from vastly different places and cultures.” While working on their final project, Kyle and his teammates emphasized each person’s role and responsibility. A friendship developed among the teammates as they learned more about each other’s interests and how they wanted to implement their project.
Like Kyle, Aya values how socio-cultural learning allows for open communication among participants. Her experience also furthered her understanding of project management, design thinking, problem solving, and global issues. “I learned new technological techniques that I have not used before. In addition, I had an active role in being a team leader when building a prototype with team 26.” Aya had participated in a virtual exchange before her experience with NGCN. She enjoys virtual exchange because she finds that it positively impacts the world at large. “We can learn comfortably. Online learning saves time, expenses, and efforts. It makes learning easier, especially when the participants are from different countries. In general, technology and globalization make the world seem like a small town,” she said.
The sudden COVID-19 outbreak did not deter spring 2020 participants as they encouraged one another throughout the spring 2020 Exchange. Virtual exchange inspired participants to tap into their creativity and awareness as they finalized their team projects. The program also ensured participants’ safety as they were able to accomplish their work from their own homes. Beyond just coding, this cohort of NGCN alumni learned more about their own capabilities as they all had to adjust their way of life and work style in a short period of time.