Although the pandemic demonstrates our global interconnectivity and why intercultural skills are essential, empowering students to develop these abilities has become increasingly challenging in times of COVID-19. Surveys show that the pandemic is affecting students’ decisions to study abroad this year, with many considering deferring their plans. In the place of “traditional” international education, however, there is growing demand for virtual exchange and new remote learning programs.

Research confirms that how effective a student is in building their intercultural competence depends not on the length of an experience abroad, but on the quality of the structured learning intervention supporting their global skills development program. The uncertainty brought about by the current crisis means intentional strategies, whether online or in-person, are even more crucial to ensure positive learning outcomes. 

With these insights in mind, the AFS Center for Intercultural Learning and Global Competence Education gathered nearly 500 educators in two webinars this month to discuss recommended tools and practices to facilitate high-quality online learning experiences that build students’ intercultural competencies post-COVID—whether they are able to study abroad or not.

Watch the webinar recording:

The three top strategies recommended by experts when organizing study abroad pre-departure or other (virtual) intercultural learning sessions for students in 2020 are:


The pandemic has created significant uncertainty for both international educators and the students they serve. However, there is ample opportunity for shaping learning as students transition from a context of “uncertainty at home” into the unpredictability inherent in going abroad. One way to ensure students are learning from all of this ambiguity is to offer virtual “pre-departure” learning sessions.

When designing these pre-departure sessions, start by defining learning objectives that acknowledge uncertainty: what knowledge, attitudes, and skills will students gain from the session that will equip them to navigate ambiguity and differences? Once learning objectives are defined, then design the virtual workshop backwards, sequencing activities and tools that target them and the desired intercultural competence development. 

Though it might be tempting to give a lecture in a virtual environment, AFS Center Director Lauren Moloney-Egnatios advises that, “If effective learning is your goal, then it is important that you allow students to construct or build their own learning from their prior experiences and knowledge, rather than just telling students what they learned.”


International educators have had to move to remote learning environments overnight to continue engaging and supporting their students. Pre-departure intercultural activities should be rethought for use in ways that leverage the interactivity and unique features of online tools and platforms like Zoom, Google Hangouts or Padlet. 

For example, if your objective is to help students understand what culture is and how it relates to their identity, use virtual breakout rooms to cluster them into small groups. Then provide different visual analogies of culture and ask students to construct their own concept of culture by drawing their own symbol for it on screen. How does their image relate to their experiences of difference? 

Another activity, the  Description, Interpretation, Verification, Evaluation (D.I.V.E.) model, which helps students practice suspending and examining the source of their judgments, can be adapted for online by using digital assets. With the full group, share a thought-provoking video clip. Then, once again, use  virtual breakout groups, have pairs or trios of students apply the D.I.V.E. model to what they’ve just seen. After they work through the critical incident together, have them come back into “plenary” to share with all. 


The future has arrived. Embracing virtual tools and solutions for advancing intercultural learning is how international education can continue to assert its value even if study abroad opportunities are temporarily deferred due to COVID-19. If staffing and/or expertise is an issue as you adjust your activities for an online environment, consider using online learning programs that already exist for global competence development. 

One example is the AFS Global Competence Certificate (GCC) at Home. This online blended learning program which runs both synchronously and asynchronously, gives learners the opportunity to understand and engage across differences through a virtual format that requires no travel. The GCC at Home brings into learners’ awareness that culture is all around us within our own communities. Faculty members who have implemented the GCC’s guided curriculum, discussion forums and interactive modules that promote deep self-reflection, have reported that the online program is effective in advancing students’ intercultural learning, whether or not they ever go abroad.