Young people advance their global competence when participating in virtual exchange, according to the latest AFS research study. This research and report is funded by the Stevens Initiative, which is housed at the Aspen Institute and is supported by the Bezos Family Foundation. The study titled, “Assessing the intercultural impact of virtual exchange for high school students” builds on previous research about virtual exchange that AFS completed in 2021, and is published within AFS’ strategic efforts in advancing active global citizenship worldwide.

Virtual exchanges provide opportunities to widen access, lower cost and deliver global competence at scale in a way that is difficult to achieve through in-person exchange experiences. According to the new AFS study, learning is strongest in the ‘world orientation’ and ‘interpersonal engagement’ dimensions of the Intercultural Effectiveness Scale (IES) (an assessment survey that evaluates competencies critical for effective interaction with people from different cultural backgrounds) with over 60% of the participants showing learning in these areas in classroom to classroom exchanges. This means most students showed increased  curiosity and interest in people from other backgrounds and became more equipped to develop and manage relationships with people different from themselves, a critical first step in expanding one’s disposition to encountering and bridging differences.

The new AFS study assessed the efficacy of virtual exchange in building the global competence of high school students who were engaged in AFS’ Global Up Teen delivered as part of the Globally Engaged Learners (GELs) program, which is funded by the Victorian Department of Education in Australia. The Global Up Teen program is a one-of-a-kind, virtual program, open to teens (aged 14-17) to develop key global skills for the emerging future and build bridges across cultures, all while becoming part of a truly global community. Global Up Teen features a close, minors-only platform for connecting and sharing with other learners worldwide. To date over 12,000 teens have participated in the Global Up Teen virtual exchange program.

The results of this study are highly relevant for those interested in delivering virtual exchanges at scale: delivered in a group-based environment in an institutional setting, such as a school or university. Our findings demonstrate that global competence development can be achieved through such programs and with participants who are representative of multiple school-aged populations within the school systems.

The study has also uncovered factors that impact the learning outcomes in virtual exchanges, including participant motivation, financial cost of participation, location of participation and age of participants. These results will help inform the work of practitioners, curriculum designers, and policymakers who are working to expand the number of young people with essential global skills.

We’re proud to support AFS Intercultural Programs’ latest report on the transformative power of virtual exchange in cultivating global competence among today’s youth,” said Christine Shiau, Executive Director of the Stevens Initiative. “This publication underscores the success of initiatives like Global Up Teen and the pivotal role of virtual exchange in empowering the next generation of global citizens. I wholeheartedly believe that, through collaborative efforts like these, we’re reimagining the future of global education and taking one step closer to a world where virtual exchange is part of growing up for every young person.

AFS is focused on developing active global citizens worldwide and virtual exchanges are a powerful tool to achieve that goal. We value our continued collaboration with the Stevens Initiative on researching the impact of these innovative programs,” said Linda Stuart, Director of Global Education Innovation at AFS Intercultural Programs. “We are eager to apply the outcomes of these studies in our programs, and support more universities and institutions in empowering people of all ages with global competence through our suite of Global Up offerings.

The research suggests a number of new lines of inquiry regarding the efficacy of virtual exchanges. For example, there is a need for new research which focuses on participant motivation and the role of group dynamics and pre-existing connections between participants, including peer pressure, on learning and engagement. Further research which focuses on younger teens, such as those aged 13 and 14 years, is also needed.

The study was conducted in follow-up to initial research through a research grant AFS received to participate in The Stevens Initiative’s “Strengthening the Field: Catalyzing Research in Virtual Exchange. This project will create a hub for research and knowledge sharing, as well as promoting promising practices and providing resources. Authors of the study are Bettina Hansel, PhD; Kirrilee Hughes, PhD; and Linda Stuart, AFS Intercultural Programs.

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