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Virtual Global Exchange during COVID-19: A Co-Curricular Model

Staying globally engaged during a time of social distancing

June 11, 2020

By: Adam Zahn, Director, Global Engagement, Drexel University,

A student from Newcastle, United Kingdom asks about race and class relations in her peers’ countries during the first co-curricular virtual exchange event hosted by Drexel University’s Office of Global Engagement (OGE).

“How do you empower the vulnerable through entrepreneurship when there are so many economic barriers?” A telling pause permeated the Zoom chatroom. A student from Chile responds with her own experiences living near the recent protests in Santiago. “People are making their voices count. Entrepreneurship is just one method to amplify them.”

There is no disputing that the COVID-19 pandemic has seriously curtailed international educators’ ability to promote cross-cultural dialogue and global competence through its traditional means. Arguably, there is no genuine substitute for a Drexel student spending a semester at Sciences Po, learning side-by-side with Parisian students, indulging on authentic macarons, and experiencing urban life in  La Ville Lumière. But what if there’s a next-best thing? This is what Drexel’s Office of Global Engagement (OGE) considered in developing its co-curricular Virtual Global Exchange Series as a response to the shutdown of borders.

Drexel University prides itself on its commitment to experiential learning and civic engagement having offered more than 80 virtual exchange courses to students since 2013.

But when the University, like its peers, cancelled spring and summer international programs, OGE  brainstormed a unique opportunity to create a more flexible virtual exchange design to match students’ interest in high-impact global programs until travel was safe. OGE created a series of online seminars using Zoom technology that would provide students with cross-cultural exchange around global challenges, without the barriers of academic credit, course availability, and curricular requirements.

Using some of the same technology as the Global Classroom program, OGE recruited Drexel students and faculty, its exchange partners, and other institutions to join the Virtual Global Exchange Series. The response was encouraging. Clearly, students were still fully committed to global experiences – even a pandemic couldn’t stop their enthusiasm. Within four weeks the number of registrations grew from 20 to 150 students from around the world. OGE soon received inquiries from students at institutions with no prior affiliation with Drexel who had heard about the program through a friend.

To facilitate a sense of community and connectivity, OGE developed a virtual community classroom with the help of its Instructional Technology Group, using Blackboard Learn, where all of the students could introduce themselves, post newsworthy articles, and review pre-workshop readings. Students from outside Drexel also received logins to Learn. Another student from Chile even helped setup a WhatsApp group for the participants to chat more informally. It wasn’t exactly a meet-up at a restaurant in Madrid, but it did leverage students’ technological savviness and real-time responsiveness. 

OGE also surveyed the students about their favorite television, music,  podcast, and food during this time of physical distancing, posting some of the most popular responses in the Discussion Board. It turns out the Harry Potter series, Scrabble, and FRIENDS transcended borders during lockdown, while Spanish-language podcasts “Escuela de Nada” and “Relationcional” represented new suggestions for our English-speaking students. Students also shared their favorite ways to flatten the curve: spreading positivity through social media, staying indoors, donating to food banks, grocery shopping for vulnerable family members, and buying coffee for nurses and doctors. 

The first workshop, moderated by faculty from the United States, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, challenged students to think about the role of entrepreneurship for social change.  The moderators provided pre-reading for the 40 students from Drexel, the United Kingdom, Italy, South Africa, South Korea, France, Peru, Chile, among others, modeling a pre-conference workshop. During the webinar, students met in breakout groups to compare the status of entrepreneurship in different countries. They discussed topics like gentrification and sustainability in relationship to entrepreneurship. Faculty provided students with opportunities to give feedback through a brief survey following the event.

Another topic, “Cities and Responsive Strategies to Climate Change,” prompted students to debate responsible design to combat climate change. They looked at architectural structures in Italy noting the use of biodiversity in design.  Other topics included #cancelled culture, the Year of the Nurse, sports during COVID-19, and equity in the music industry.

Chloe Richardson, a Global Studies major, was glad to have this option.

The virtual sessions have been a great way to keep me engaged with relevant real-world issues and the possible solutions from my peers from around the world… The connections I made with my peers in England and Chile are ones that I hope to continue to cultivate throughout the semester”.

COVID-19 has justifiably created a sense of unease within higher education. But it also builds tolerance for uncertainty, which is what international educators often ask of faculty and students when they travel abroad. The field has the opportunity to embark on new frontiers in developing the skills and empathy needed in a global society – co-curricular virtual exchange is just one pathway forward.