Ashanti Morgan

Virtual Exchanges: The Next Big Thing?

In these increasingly unique times, ubiquitous access to alternative facts via the media (both social and traditional) can influence the impressionable minds of our youth—especially those living in homogeneous communities. Now more than ever, it’s imperative that educational institutions expose students to authentic, real-world experiences with diverse people and perspectives around the world.

Study abroad programs have been and will continue to be an effective way for students to garner global perspective and experience cross-cultural collaborations with students overseas. Students are immersed in the culture, history, and heritage of their experience and ideally, take advantage of the opportunity to meet people from diverse backgrounds and viewpoints.

The International Education of Students (IES) Abroad suggests that studying abroad has an invaluable impact on students that equates to personal growth, intercultural development and myriad of other residual benefits that have a lasting impact on students. Unfortunately, only 1 in 10 U.S. undergraduates studies abroad before graduating (Open Doors, Institute of International Education).

So, what does that mean for the countless other students unable to travel or have the time to study abroad? Until recent years, it meant a critical part of the educational experience wasn’t an option afforded to this population of students.

infographic of U.S. Study Abroad Undergrad Participation


New way to connect

A new way to connect students unable to study abroad has been quietly gaining traction over the last decade or so. So many terms have been utilized to describe the concept of a virtual exchange. So what is it you ask? The Virtual Exchange Coalition defines it as “technology-enabled, sustained, people-to-people education.” The Youth for Understanding Intercultural Exchange Program describes it as “…students are provided opportunities to engage in cross-cultural discussions that may lead to increased appreciation of differences, embraced similarities, and greater awareness of self and one’s global counterparts.”

I recently attended and presented at the European Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) conference #EuroCOIL in December 2016. One of the conference’s keynote speakers, Dr. Robert O’Dowd (Uni Collaboration President), discussed virtual exchanges and the importance of using one term to describe the concept universally (see table below to view other synonymous terms & concepts).

One of the key takeaways from the conference discussed in a number of presentations, including the one I delivered, was the importance of creating meaningful virtual exchange collaborations with scaffolded, engaging activities that don’t just achieve contact, but provide students with gradual immersion into the online intercultural interaction. Learn more about the presentation that my colleague and I delivered describing DePaul’s version of a virtual exchange, the Global Learning Experience.

In order for the concept of virtual exchanges to achieve sustainability and scalability around the world, I agree with Dr. O’Dowd’s message, utilizing consistent terminology is paramount. Doing so helps ensure that a compilation of best practices, white papers, research, etc. will continue to grow in the field. Some examples of terminology being used to describe virtual exchanges is detailed in the table below. 

Term Definition Additional Information
Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) COIL has developed an approach to fostering cross-cultural student competence through development of multicultural learning environments that link university or college classes in different countries. Established over a decade ago out of the Suny COIL center.
Virtual Mobility Virtual mobility refers to students and teachers in higher education using another institution outside their own country to study or teach for a limited time, without physically leaving their home. The term virtual mobility is used extensively in Europe.
Telecollaboration Telecollaboration is an international partnership supported by electronic communication tools such as e-mail, synchronous chat, threaded discussion forums in which classes from different countries interact to exchange information, share ideas and work collaboratively on a common project. The term telecollaboration has been used via foreign language class virtual exchanges.

Global Learning Experience (GLE)

At DePaul University, we’ve created a virtual exchange program called the Global Learning Experience (GLE). Much like other virtual exchanges, GLE provides faculty and students with a cost-effective way to foster collaborations virtually with global counterparts using technology. This initiative’s strength is grounded in preparing faculty to design and implement a substantial, outcomes-driven, structured learning experience that engages DePaul students with students at institutions outside of the United States.

International Word Cloud

Similar to any educational programming, if the study abroad and/or virtual exchange experience is limited in scope and lacks structure, students walk away with missed opportunities to capitalize on involvement in such an endeavor. It’s up to faculty to design programming that strategically addresses cultural exposure and inquiry, scaffolds assignments to ensure learner engagement, and includes reflective activities that charge students with processing and articulating the impact of the experience.

In addition to hard skills typically integrated into the objectives and activities of these experiences, soft skills are often residually acquired and have a lasting impact on students. Global perspective is something that’s highly desired for personal and professional reasons—students who have these experiences are viable candidates, especially when engaging with global teams.  It’s no secret that companies, educational institutions, government agencies, etc. are eager to find talented graduates with diverse experiences. The University of Southern California Annenberg developed an infographic which suggests that “today’s global economy demands a more unique and effective working environment. Virtual teams consist of employees who are the best people for their jobs, but who are not geographically close to a company’s headquarters”. (USC Annenberg, School of Communication & Journalism). In GLE projects and virtual exchanges, students are exposed to a online team experience and are better equipped for the globalized workforce.

Virtual Exchange Resources

Check out these organizations, both in K12 and higher ed, that showcase examples and discuss what’s happening in the field.


University of Southern California Annenberg. Virtual teams in the global economy. Retrieved February 1, 2017, from:

Ashanti Morgan

About Ashanti Morgan

Ashanti Morgan is a Senior Instructional Technology Consultant and Program Manager for the Global Learning Experience (GLE) initiative at DePaul University. She also teaches computer productivity courses online as an adjunct professor in DePaul's School for New Learning. Ashanti has been working in the instructional design industry for over a decade in a variety of sectors including higher education, K-12, and non-profit. In her current role at DePaul, she manages faculty training, strategic planning, and global course development for the GLE program, an initiative that exposes students to intercultural exchanges while collaborating virtually with students abroad. She also provides instructional design expertise to faculty in a variety of disciplines across the university. Ashanti earned her master’s degree in Instructional Technology from Northern Illinois University. She also obtained her bachelor’s degree in Organizational & Corporate Communication from Northern Illinois University.

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