The COVID-19 pandemic has left no area of education untouched. It has also highlighted two things – the necessity of educators and students to be able to utilize technology and the importance of global competence to make sense of a global pandemic and its impact on the world,” says Mohamed Abdel-Kader in his latest interview with AFS.

Mohamed Abdel-Kader is Executive Director of the Stevens Initiative at the Aspen Institute, and a renowned advocate promoting the value of virtual exchange. He has written and spoken extensively on this subject, especially in the current circumstances where Covid-19 continues to challenge in-person interactions of all sorts. 

Virtual exchange is a rapidly growing educational practice that enables meaningful encounters to create the deep impact of intercultural exchange combined with the broad reach of technology. As distance learning becomes the new norm in education, we discussed with Mohamed the role of virtual exchanges in global competence development, how the Covid-19 pandemic is shaping this field, and what new trends are emerging for education across the world.

Mohamed will join us at the virtual AFS Global Conference (22-23 October 2020) to discuss the impact of the first ever PISA Global Competence Assessment results on different education stakeholders, and help us define the path forward. Visit to find out more and request your spot at the event.

Mohamed Abdel-Kader
Mohamed Abdel-Kader, Executive Director of the Stevens Initiative

How does virtual exchange promote the development of global competence among young people?

Global competence is at the heart of every virtual exchange experience. Whenever young people connect through a virtual exchange, they can learn about one another’s lives, cultures, languages, faith, hopes and aspirations, and their interests and passions – that experience allows a young person to connect with someone in another part of the world and hopefully be more empathetic and understanding, but also have the knowledge of what local issues their peer faces.

Many virtual exchange programs build on cross-cultural dialogue and bring participants together to focus on a particular issue – perhaps tied to what they’re studying – and in these cases, these subjects are suddenly examined and analyzed from multiple perspectives. You can have engineering students in Phoenix and Amman understand how to build a more sustainable building for arid climates, while students in Virginia and Lebanon discuss hunger in their local and global contexts.

Finally, what has been most exciting – apart from the opening of minds and perspectives, is to see how some young people have taken what they’ve learned from a virtual exchange experience and acted upon that knowledge. We’ve seen some participants from virtual exchange programs engage in community service in their local communities while others have launched startup businesses to address a present need in the marketplace.

What new trends are you seeing in global competence education in the Middle East and North Africa (the MENA region)?

Across the MENA region, we’re seeing an acceleration towards the knowledge economy – governments and businesses are continuing to value graduates having strong analytical skills and the ability to collaborate with colleagues from around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated our reliance on technology – and with that comes a need to work remotely and navigate time zone differences, to communicate clearly despite differences in language, and to be able to understand and analyze global events and the interplay and interconnection that exists. With this reliance on technology, media literacy is also critical.

While there is a constant emphasis on English and French language skills, there has been a notable increase in Chinese language programs across the region. It should be noted that, while there are many success stories and advancements to celebrate, many young people in the region, whether due to displacement, poverty, the pandemic’s ongoing disruption, or conflict, still lack access to education.

What impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on the virtual exchange filed?

The COVID-19 pandemic has left no area of education untouched, virtual exchange included. Impact on the virtual exchange field has been mixed, there has certainly been an increase in interest amongst post-secondary institutions, but disruptions to instruction and operation of K-12 schools and post-secondary institutions has been a challenge to actual implementation and participation. The pandemic has also highlighted two things – the necessity of educators and students to be able to utilize technology to maintain instruction and separately, the importance of global competence to make sense of a global pandemic and its impact on the world.

Postsecondary institutions seem to have increased their participation in virtual exchanges for a number of reasons including generally adequate technology infrastructure and earlier investment in platforms and tools that allowed for a more smooth migration to a fully virtual learning experience. Many postsecondary institutions also often have on campus resources to train faculty and staff in virtual learning methods. Finally, many postsecondary institutions had articulated global learning goals and offices dedicated to global learning that were able to adjust various in-person global learning activities, if they weren’t already doing virtual exchange, and modify them for a virtual exchange format.

While many K-12 schools and districts in the US and parts of the Middle East and North Africa also experienced a major disruption of instruction, some of our partners did note an interest in human connection as a driver behind some of the participation during the pandemic. Several K-12 virtual exchange programs have modified their formats to allow for home based virtual exchange programming but unequal access to technology remains a barrier to participation by some.

The pandemic has accelerated our adoption of virtual learning tools and methods for basic instruction – our hope is that educators will continue to harness the power of technology to connect classrooms through virtual exchange beyond the pandemic.