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A Worldwide Pandemic and our Move to Virtual Exchange

The start of our Virtual Exchange Journey

Let’s go back to March 2020. It was our last day of an impactful 4-day Team gathering in Cape Town where past successes were celebrated and dreams for the future were shared. An emergency meeting was called, as we realized that COVID-19 was a force to be reckoned with and we were going to need a response plan – at this point, there were no cases of the virus on the continent. Fast forward a few weeks later – local cases were reported, borders were closed, and faculty-led programs started to cancel one by one as no one knew what the future would hold.

While team members set up their home offices and all our meetings and correspondence moved online, we had to navigate, like many others across the world, the unfamiliar waters of expanding our program offering into the virtual arena. Our only option for keeping students engaged with people on the continent and continuing to encourage transformative learning, was through virtual engagement.

We started an internal process of researching literature, models, and demand in the field and were pleasantly surprised – and humbled – to see how much innovative work has already been done in this space.

What we have learned so far

We’ve grown so much in our understanding of Virtual Exchange. What was initially just a response to travel restrictions — in essence, a placeholder until travel resumed — expanded into a meaningful and exciting program offering with huge potential to broaden our scope and purpose both locally and abroad.

While navigating the waters of uncertainty and various ‘technical difficulties’, our team has lived out our values of collaboration and innovation to keep pushing boundaries and improving as we go – developing, implementing, and learning, on repeat.

We have run prototypes and free interactive VE sessions to share our vision with the broader field of international education, while gaining experience and learning along the way. We are indebted to the constructive feedback we have received from various sectors of the study abroad community during this time, and are grateful to be a part of such a resilient and committed field. Our virtual exchange journey has opened doors to new opportunities for us – student-to-student collaboration, cross-regional programming, larger student group engagement, and a more dedicated curricular and outcomes-based focus, without needing to board a plane.

The value of Virtual Exchange

One will never be able to compare the exhilarating feeling of stepping onto the African continent for the first time, having informal discussions on a bus or around a dinner table, or watching a brilliant red and orange African sunset to a Virtual Program experience. But learning – authentic, meaningful, cross-cultural, transformative learning – is still possible. As with our in-country programming, our virtual programs encourage holistic growth in our 5 goal areas (intercultural competence, personal growth, global citizenship, intellectual growth, professional development).

We are intentional about building these programs with our transformation goals in mind – considering ways to create ‘disorientating dilemmas’ while being sensitive to the restrictions of connecting online, as well as the unique challenges and issues students are facing in the current climate.

Other benefits of virtual programs are that they are more financially and geographically accessible to students, they pose a lower health and safety risk, and they are more environmentally friendly. We are well aware, however, that increased access with virtual exchange still does not mean equitable access to all, and so we are continually seeking ways to make our virtual classrooms and engagement spaces more hospitable and conducive to all students, both locally and abroad.

Our Virtual Exchange program options

We value the opportunity to collaborate with clients and partners. Therefore, each program is customized according to specific learning outcomes, time allocations & available resources.

Our virtual programs can be grouped into these offerings:

Independent Virtual Exchange program: where we (in collaboration with faculty, or staff, or even the institution) design a program that achieves collaboratively-defined learning objectives and is delivered entirely remotely. This can be for a specific class or cohort of students, or institutional-wide to meet internationalization objectives.

Hybrid Virtual Exchange program: where we collaboratively design a program that combines remote delivery and a travel component in Africa (using VE to lengthen and complement traditional study abroad).

Embedded Virtual Exchange program: where we curate Virtual Exchange sessions that can be incorporated into traditional classroom delivery, serving to increase the internationalization of on-campus curricula.

Looking into the future

Going forward, as borders reopen and international travel resumes, we will not regret this journey that we’ve collectively been on. Exploring and developing Virtual Exchange programs have given us an exciting opportunity to expand our program offerings, but also a unique edge that will complement our in-country programs going forward.

We are looking forward to journeying with you, through 2021 and beyond.