Blog Post

Catalyzing Research in Virtual Exchange: Project 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 will be shared below, with additional project outcomes planned to be released in the coming months. Each project will include 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. 

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. Other anticipated book chapters, TBA.
  • 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 research has been submitted to the 2022 Biennial IAIR Conference, specifically focused on self rating, titled Over-confident self-ratings of intercultural competence among teenagers with an interest in other cultures. 

Other abstracts have been submitted to various other peer reviewed academic journals. New publicly accessible information for this project will be shared below as it becomes available. Check back soon for updates.


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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