Stevens Initiative analyses virtual exchange during Covid-19

Carried out by the Stevens Initiative, the survey found that the pandemic created a “significant window of opportunity” for online learning, and in particular for virtual exchange.

Of 173 organisations responding to the impact of Covid-19, 119 reported that they had increased virtual exchange programming, while 23 said the pandemic made no impact on programming.

“Virtual exchange was already on a growth trajectory, but when in-person exchange ground to a halt in 2020, many institutions and organisations recognised the value of technology in continuing connections between youth and adults and either launched new programs or strengthened existing ones,” the report noted.

Despite the “promising” numbers around virtual exchange, the impacts of the pandemic are “complex”, it continued.

A total of 16 respondents said they decreased programming, six of whom said was down to financial difficulties.

“Even if virtual exchange programs were not cancelled outright, some saw a drop in participation, which also explains why the total number of participants reported in the survey did not rise at the same rate as the number of programs surveyed,” the report explained.

Compared with last year’s survey that captured data on 349 programs serving 221,333 individuals, the 2021 report found that 224,168 participants joined the 3,073 programs that were reported.

A total of 233 institutions and organisations from around the world were surveyed in the new paper, 56% of which were higher education institutions, followed by non-governmental organisations, primary or secondary education institutions and for-profit companies or social enterprises.

“While technology opened doors during the pandemic, it also sharpened digital divides”

Around 92% (214 organisations) said they offered virtual exchange programs in 2020/21, with 177 able to provide data about the programs.

The research also found that the three most common content areas in virtual exchange included intercultural dialogue and peace building, STEM and global or international affairs.

Other topics covered in virtual exchange ranged from Sustainable Development Goals to environmental issues, ecology, and sustainability to media literacy and communication to race and social justice.

Photo: Stevens Initiative


The paper also found that more examinations of the quality of virtual exchange programs needs to be done, and those administering the programs should develop an understanding of how to measure their outcomes and impact.

“Many programs surveyed (46%) indicated they expect to offer more programs next year, while 39% plan to retain their current level of programming,” the report added.

“Even among those who had not implemented any virtual exchange programs this past year, there are plans to offer one or more programs in the coming year.

“While technology opened doors during the pandemic, it also sharpened digital divides and brought to light global inequities.

“Looking ahead to an altered landscape, it is possible that virtual exchange programs will have an even stronger role to play in addressing some of the [significant shifts in education and exchange globally], in diversifying teaching and learning, and in enabling students and educators from a range of backgrounds to develop global competencies and to do so in an equitable, accessible, and just way.”

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