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Request for Proposals: Research in Virtual Exchange

RFP Issue Date: September 22, 2021

Proposal Timeline:

    • Proposal Submission Deadline: November 19, 2021
    • Invitation to Preliminary Interviews OR Notification of Rejection: December 3, 2021
    • Notification of Conditional Approval: expected December 17, 2021

Application Portal: https://StevensInitiative.smapply.io/prog/request_for_proposals_research_in_virtual_exchange

Stevens Initiative Background

The Stevens Initiative is an international leader in virtual exchange, which brings young people from diverse places together to collaborate and connect through everyday technology. Created in 2015 as a lasting tribute to Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, the Initiative invests in virtual exchange programs between the U.S. and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region; shares research, resources, and promising practices to improve impact; and advocates for broader adoption. Through its 86 grants, the Stevens Initiative will expand its reach by summer 2023 to nearly 75,000 young people in 17 MENA countries and the Palestinian Territories, and in 47 U.S. states, Puerto Rico, one tribal community, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Washington, D.C.

The Initiative helps lead the virtual exchange field in research and knowledge sharing, serving as a central place for collecting and sharing promising practices and other resources. With this call for proposals, the Initiative continues to support additional research and scholarship to fill other gaps in knowledge in the field of virtual exchange.

The Stevens Initiative is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, with funding provided by the U.S. Government, and is administered by the Aspen Institute. It is also supported by the Bezos Family Foundation and the governments of Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.

More information about the Stevens Initiative can be found here: www.stevensinitiative.org

Project Description

Project Goals and Overview

We invite individual researchers, research teams, and research institutions to submit proposals to develop and implement a research project that will address one of the Initiative’s research priorities. These priorities, listed below, focus on areas in the field of virtual exchange that are current challenges or have not been sufficiently examined. Building on the successes of our previous sponsored research projects, the Initiative plans to work with a limited number of researchers/research teams to support research projects through the design, data collection, analysis, writing, and publication phases. Researchers can propose to work with existing data sets or propose projects that include new data collections. Projects that can plausibly identify the effects of virtual exchange programs along the priorities listed below will be preferred over descriptive or correlational studies. Also, the Initiative is interested in projects that produce resources for virtual exchange practitioners based on the findings in their investigations. These might include toolkits, handbooks, guides, etc. and should be detailed and planned for in the proposal.

Stevens Initiative Research Priorities

The following are descriptions of the Initiative’s research priorities along with some sample questions. Proposals should limit their investigation to these topics, though the sample questions are only intended to give context and are not required to be included as written in the proposed projects.

    • Virtual exchange at the K-12 level: This priority indicates the importance of learning more about the effects of virtual exchange participation for young people at this age/education level.
      • Sample questions: What are barriers to virtual exchange program adoption at the K-12 level? What are promising virtual exchange models at the K-12 level, specifically in demonstrating outcomes? How do virtual exchange programs meet district priorities like social and emotional learning and other content areas?
    • Effect of virtual exchange on student outcomes and success: This priority will explore the effect of virtual exchange on student outcomes and success.
      • Sample Questions: What is the effect of virtual exchange on student attendance, graduation rate, GPA or other measure, higher education enrollment, and/or employment? What are the similarities or differences in students who participate in High Impact Practices and those that participate in virtual exchange programs? What long-term impact of virtual exchange can be identified, including the effect of virtual exchange on professional preparation or workforce skills?
    • Effective scaling of programs: This priority will explore the conditions or actions that are necessary for institutions to scale existing virtual exchanges as a part of their international learning offerings, particularly at the K-12 level.
      • Sample questions: What conditions – including policies, funding, information, etc.– are conducive to helping virtual exchange programs scale significantly? For virtual exchange programs that have scaled, what were specific actions that helped scale adoption within the institution?
    • Reaching new audiences: This priority will explore the value proposition and utility of virtual exchange for young people who traditionally don’t have access to international education or global learning opportunities.
      • Sample questions: What competencies or skills are improved for young people at rural or under-resourced institutions through a virtual exchange program and how do those outcomes compare with outcomes for more urban, suburban, or well-resourced students?
    • Coronavirus pandemic’s effect on virtual exchange: This priority will explore the continued effect of the coronavirus pandemic on how virtual exchange programs are perceived and experienced by young people or implemented by institutions and organizations.
      • Sample questions: What were the specific challenges, responses, and lessons learned by virtual exchange implementers since the advent of widespread impact of the pandemic?. How have programs adapted to pandemic restrictions and conditions? Have students’ perceptions of virtual exchange changed?


The Initiative will draw on the final product provided by the researcher or team to inform the Initiative’s stakeholders, including funders, grantees, partners in the public and private sectors, teachers, students and their communities, as well as practitioners in the fields of education, technology, and international relations about the project and outcomes. Specifically, the final product (the report and the data it draws from) should provide an empirical basis, implications for practice, and critical insights about the researched questions concerning virtual exchange programs and/or the virtual exchange field. The results of these projects are also expected to be shared with the broader international education, exchange, and related fields through submissions to professional publications and conferences to promote the research findings.


Selected proposals will receive up to $30,000 in funding for each project (see Eligibility for more details). Care should be taken to formulate reasonable budgets that include all costs for project implementation and any other potential outputs outside of the Initiative. Selected proposals will enter into a fixed award contract with the Stevens Initiative and the Aspen Institute, and will receive 50% of the award upon a signed agreement and the remainder upon approval of the final deliverables, listed below, unless otherwise specified in the final contract. Applicants will need to specify if they will enter into the contract as individuals or through their institutions and plan on supporting the contracting phase if it is the latter.

Suggested Project Timeline

In the proposal, applicants should provide a detailed timeline that describes all major project activities and milestones. The Initiative is open to considering varied proposed timelines, but hopes for projects to be completed by end of year 2022. A brief timeline overview example could be:

    • Winter/spring 2022: project development, data gathering
    • Spring/early summer 2022: data gathering, begin analysis
    • Late summer 2022: complete data analysis, begin report drafting
    • November 2022: final deliverables completed and final report submitted

Applicants should propose appropriate timelines for their specific projects and justify any irregularities in their proposals.


The selected researcher/team will commit to providing the following deliverables:

    • Regular Check-ins with Stevens Initiative staff: the researcher or team will submit brief written bimonthly project updates and participate in quarterly planning and monitoring calls with Initiative staff to discuss the project, development, data and report development, and to provide regular updates and receive feedback.
    • Final report, including:
      • A paper of no more than 10 pages describing the research process, methodology, data, analysis, and implications for future virtual exchange research and practice. The paper should also include an abstract and/or introductory and concluding remarks that contextualize the research effort, limited to one additional page.
      • An executive summary that highlights notable findings from the data, limited to one additional page.
      • A brief memo that summarized the project for the Initiative’s communication and publication needs, written for a public audience, limited to one additional page.
      • Additional communications/publication information written for a public audience that will help the Stevens Initiative to promote the research.
      • All data formatted into tables designed for readability and inclusion into future reports or Initiative communication deliverables.
      • The researcher/team will submit at least two drafts and will receive feedback from the Initiative according to a schedule determined jointly.
    • Other Output Deliverables: The researcher/team should propose to deliver other outputs, publications, or next steps for the research data and final report that will reach beyond the Initiative’s efforts and networks. This could include publications in academic journals, conference presentations, or publications or presentations in other mediums. Progress on these other outputs will be monitored by initiative staff.


Organizations, institutions, individuals

    • Applicants (or the lead member of a research team) should be:
      • Advanced doctoral students, post-docs, or fellows at an accredited institution with their advisor or PIs support or;
      • faculty members or independent researchers with a Ph.D.
    • For teams, there should be one lead member who will be the PI for their project, who will work with the Initiative on project management, monitoring, and finance.
    • Applicants must have demonstrated experience with virtual exchange or a very closely related field (in person exchange/study abroad, education, international education, teacher preparation, etc.).
    • Geographic location: Research projects based in any location are welcome. No restriction is placed on the geographic location of researchers/teams or their projects for a proposal to be eligible for review.
    • We are particularly interested in promoting racial, ethnic, gender, disability, sexuality, and other diverse identities and strongly encourage applications from scholars who are traditionally underrepresented in the social sciences and from young or emerging scholars.

Research topic, subjects, and data

    • Types of virtual exchange programs: The Stevens Initiative defines virtual exchange as:
      • A method that uses technology to connect people for education and exchange. Virtual exchange programs typically serve young people. Many virtual exchange programs are international, connecting participants in different countries in order to help them gain global competencies, among other knowledge, skills, and abilities. Many practitioners feel facilitation by prepared, responsible adults – often but not always educators – is an important component of successful virtual exchange.
      • Virtual exchanges that can be included as objects of these research projects should align with this definition. For any clarification about eligible programs to be included in research please reach out to the Initiative with questions. For more clarity or context to our approach to virtual exchange, please see our Resources Page, particularly our Typology of Virtual Exchange, or our Projects Page.
    • Geographic location of subject groups: Research projects based in any location are welcome. No restriction is placed on the geographic location of projects, subjects, or data collection for a proposal to be eligible for review.
    • Eligible data: It is the researcher/research team’s responsibility to make sure all data collection methods and research procedures conform to ethical standards for research, including obtaining IRB approval from their affiliated institutions if applicable. In addition, it is the responsibility of the researcher or team to obtain any permissions or releases from research participants that will enable the research team to share data and findings with the Initiative and in any eventual publication.

Proposal Process and Selection Criteria

Application Portal

All proposals must be submitted through our application portal found here: https://StevensInitiative.smapply.io/prog/request_for_proposals_research_in_virtual_exchange


    • Due date: Proposals will be accepted until November 19, 2021. Questions can be directed to Kyle Kastler at stevensinitiative@aspeninstitute.org.
    • Invitation to Preliminary Interviews OR Notification of Rejection: All applicants will be notified about the status of their application by December 3, 2021.
    • Notification of Conditional Approval: For selected research grantees, conditional approval will be sent on or near December 17, 2021.

Proposal Submission Requirements

Interested applicants can only submit a proposal through the Initiative’s Survey Monkey Apply platform (accessed at the top of this page). The proposal is comprised of the requirements enumerated in the application form. Individual researchers or teams are limited to one submission. Most of the requested information in the application is required with some inputs indicated as optional. Major components of the application include:

    • A brief narrative, no longer than 750 words, describing the proposed research project (written for non-specialists) including:
      • Potential research questions
      • A summary of the proposed methodology
      • A description of the project’s alignment with one or more research priorities indicated above.
    • A detailed timeline, listing the amount of time to be spent on each project component, including:
      • Project development
      • Planning and check-in calls with Stevens Initiative team (at reasonable intervals for your project, probably quarterly)
      • Securing IRB or other necessary research approvals
      • Data gathering and analysis
      • Report writing, editing, and any other components
      • Potential outputs or next steps beyond final deliverable submissions
    • A description or examples of potential outputs or other next steps with data and final report beyond the Initiative’s efforts and networks (i.e. submission to academic journals or other publications, conference presentations, etc.) and/or descriptions of resources for virtual exchange practitioners (handbooks, toolkits, etc.) that will be developed based on the findings/results of the research. This should also be included in the timeline as appropriate.
    • A budget detailing all project costs including the hourly rate of the researcher or research team that correspond to project deliverables/activities and any additional anticipated costs. The total amount requested should be a sum up to $30,000 that is appropriate to the scope of work and outputs. Notes:
      • Do not request support for work that will be conducted prior to January 1, 2022.
      • Awards will be disbursed as fixed-amount contracts with the individual researcher or research team that apply for the awards and follow a schedule that will be determined during the contracting phase.
      • If, due to an institutional affiliation, a contract would need to be made between the Initiative and another institution (for example a university) rather than with an individual or team, you should detail this in your application. Faculty are often required by their institution to apply through a sponsored research office, so please check with your institution before submitting an application about the appropriate process.
      • As stated above, some researchers might propose timelines that fall outside of what is suggested in this call for proposals. Similarly, some proposals can include budget requests above the amounts listed above, but these requests should be reasonable, associated with additional effort or costs, and justified in the proposal.
    • Key research personnel and their qualifications, including CVs or resumes as attachments.
    • Diversity and Inclusion Statement: Applicants may include a statement that describes their individual/team background and how their inclusion in this effort would further the inclusion and representation of traditionally marginalized communities in academic research or publications.
    • Examples/samples of prior work on similar projects.

Selection Criteria

Proposals will be evaluated using the following criteria:

    • Alignment with the Initiative’s research agenda: The Initiative is committed to expanding our understanding of the impact of virtual exchange beyond the research that currently exists in the field. The priorities listed in this call for proposals represent areas that are currently under-researched that are of high interest to the Initiative. Research projects that demonstrate a clear alignment with one (or more) of these priorities will be preferred over other proposals. As is evident above, the Initiative is particularly interested in research on virtual exchanges at the K-12 level.
    • Cost effectiveness: the Initiative seeks to support research projects that demonstrate an appropriate cost and use of funds and are likely to deliver insight to the research priorities listed above.
    • Feasibility: Proposals should be well planned, logical, and should attempt to accomplish realistic goals. Applicants should indicate how their proposal is feasible and realistic within the parameters of this call for proposals.
    • Plan for outputs and next steps: The Initiative is interested in funding research with outputs that can have significant reach and impact on other scholars, practitioners, and other stakeholders. The other outputs, publications, or next steps listed in the proposal should be well planned, reasonable, and feasible.
    • Applicant’s experience: Through this effort, the Initiative will balance our priority of supporting new and traditionally underrepresented researchers or teams with our need to support applicants with a proven track record in accomplishing research. Recognizing that experience can be varied or diverse, the Initiative will take into consideration an applicant’s experience with research, particularly with virtual exchange or in related fields.
    • Applicant Diversity and Inclusion: Following our commitment to principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion, we invite proposals from individuals, research teams, and firms that are led or include significant contributions from individuals who represent communities traditionally underrepresented in academic research or publications, including women, racial minorities, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and individuals with disabilities, among other traditionally marginalized communities.

Applying and More Information

For more information about the Stevens Initiative or this call for proposals, please see stevensinitiative.org or email stevensinitiative@aspeninstitute.org. The Stevens Initiative will not be able to provide feedback on proposals that are not selected.



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