Virtual Exchanges: We Need Everyone

Posted by Evan Ryan
March 13, 2014
Afghan Students Gather Footage for Their Project

It’s the smallest and most obvious thing, and yet my life was at stake: I had to learn to look to the right when crossing the street.  That’s my first memory when I think back on the exchange program I attended in the United Kingdom as a junior in college.  Like everyone who takes the big jump into studying abroad, I was immersed in a different culture full of new people, foods, and sounds.  There were so many more accents, for example, than I’d heard on Masterpiece Theater in our family’s living room on Sunday nights.  I am so glad I studied abroad, since much of my life’s work has been shaped by that experience.  

My exchange experience is similar to one that 350,000 participants of State Department educational and cultural exchange programs have each year. These international students, scholars and emerging leaders leave their hometowns in an effort to better understand and contribute to the world around them.  And when they go back home, they do amazing things.  There are more than one million alumni of State Department exchange programs across the globe who are working in their communities to build and sustain a more democratic, secure, and prosperous world.  Three hundred sixty-five alumni of U.S. government exchange programs have been leaders of their countries, 63 have won Nobel Prizes, and many more have reached  positions of leadership in their fields.

These in-person international exchanges initiate and facilitate the people-to-people relationships that are the backbone of our diplomatic work abroad.  The State Department is committed to take advantage of every venue -- both face-to-face and through new, virtual connective technologies -- in order to extend and sustain the personal relationships created during exchange programs. 

To complement our face-to-face exchanges, expand outreach in remote areas, and introduce technology as a tool to enhance education, in 1998, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) established the Global Connections and Exchange (GCE) Program for high school students and teachers.  GCE participants worked together online on community-based projects to help solve global challenges.  For example, in 2010, GCE students from Sadat City Languages School in Egypt worked with peers in Brookline, Massachusetts, through a series of video conferences, Skype calls, and a Facebook page, on an environmental project to tackle waste removal.  Together, their bi-national project team, the “Wastebusters,” researched the harmful effects of plastic bags on the environment and began working on promoting alternative solutions.  Now, we’re trying to expand the GCE and our in-person programs into a new form of virtual exchanges -- one that is not purely classroom-based.

Since virtual exchanges are still evolving, we’re working on a crucial question: to what degree do we try to emulate an in-person exchange through technology?  People who are connected virtually won’t smell that tantalizing fish and chips that peeks out from newspaper in the U.K.  Nor will they learn from their new British friend that the customary next step is to douse it all with vinegar.  Yet at the heart of all exchange programs -- whether virtual, in-person, or a blend of both -- is a person-to-person connection. 

How can new, connective technologies keep that person-to-person connection alive?

To explore the answer to that question, we have established a new initiative, The Collaboratory.  The Collaboratory is part think tank, part virtual exchange lab.

In ECA, we think a virtual exchange must be personal, immersive, and intensive to make an impact.  A one-off webinar has many excellent uses, but just as you cannot go on an exchange program for an hour, you also cannot do a virtual exchange for an hour.  Most of the Collaboratory’s programs are blended, combining in-person experiences with virtual ones that deepen and extend the engagement.  They must have at least three interactions, such as before, during, and after an exchange, but the more time participants spend together,the better!

The Collaboratory is working to engage new communities in the United States and around the world, especially when participants cannot physically travel because of circumstances such as political unrest, disability, cost considerations, or travel restrictions. Everyone should have the opportunity to explore the world. So we are putting together programs like a cloud-based filmmaking project in countries where filmmakers cannot work together on the ground; or a month-long virtual exchange focused on STEM education in which students from many continents will take a virtual field trip together to the Mars Rover. 

By embracing new technologies, we can bring people-to-people exchanges to a broader audience than we ever previously imagined.  In this new space, we are learning to cross many roads together -- because we need more than just a few people helping to solve our world’s most pressing issues, we need everyone.

About the Author: Evan M. Ryan serves as Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs.



Derek C.
Texas, USA
March 17, 2014
I'm a fan of technology but a even bigger fan of people getting along and the world improving to the point where everyone has a chance at happiness. This article sheds light on the importance for everyone to be a part of solving worldly issues. I remember in high school our exchange students always amazed me. I was always so respectful and in awe of their bravery to do something like that at such a young age. It's no wonder those same types of people end up becoming leaders. The company I work for, Air Ambulance 1 in Houston, provides services and often travels worldwide. You really get to understand the true meaning of compassion and helping strangers out in times of need. We actually have a employee (paramedic) who did the exchange service growing up and he said it was awesome and something that he builds upon each day. I think by having technologies like "The Collaboratory" more people can experience that kind of lesson even without the ability to "be there". I remember working in Houston a few years ago in 2010 for a company who had offices in the same building as the Egyptian Consulate. I happened to be there the day all of the political unrest in Egypt and all of the people outside protesting "peacefully" made me feel a part of something big that I had really, prior to that, no cared about. Then to take it up a notch I went to Twitter. Wow! I followed the events as they unfolded and it was truly amazing. It sounds like "The Collaboratory" might be able to provide a similar experience though on different topics. Congrats and I'll stay in touch for sure. Who knows maybe I can get my kids to be a part of it. Thanks for this article.


Latest Stories

December 7, 2016

In Stormy Seas, Stay the Course

Foreign Ministers of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation gather this week in Hamburg, Germany,… more