Few people would deny the benefits of exchange programs, especially programs that equip students with a more international outlook. In a future that will likely be characterized by global partnerships, skills and knowledge in cross-cultural competency are increasingly seen as valuable assets. Unfortunately, the ability to embark on a foreign exchange program is still enjoyed by a small segment of the student population because such programs are often very costly and time-consuming. A nonprofit organization, Connect, aims to change that with its 10-week program of facilitated online discussions between students from Western and Muslim countries, as reported in The Chronicle.
Creators of Connect believe that their program offers some of the crucial benefits of a traditional exchange program, such as intercultural discussions, but on a much more affordable and sustainable basis. The opportunity to interact with someone from a different country has greatly benefitted some participants of the Connect program. Many participants said that the program has taught them to be more thoughtful and deliberate in expressing their views on culturally sensitive topics as well as challenged participants' previously held stereotypes.
The multipolar discussion is one of the most compelling aspects of the program, allowing participants to openly discuss culturally sensitive topics such as terrorism, Islamophobia, religion, social customs, the veil and current affairs within a safe space. Through such discussions, participants witness the diverse opinions within the West and Muslim world instead of seeing them as simply divided or bipolar opposites.
Much like any other programs, this program is not without its problems. The biggest challenges to the program have been language and technology barriers. As English is the language of instruction, only English speakers can participate, which means that only a select group of students are able to reap the benefits of this program. Furthermore, in several non-Western countries, participants also face infrastructure problems. Faced with connection problems on campus, it is not uncommon for participants to adjourn to a nearby cybercafé to get better connection.
Despite these challenges, the creators of Connect remain hopeful that their model will catch on in other parts of the world because it can be easily replicated. Mr. Welch, co-founder of Soliya, the nonprofit organization behind Connect, hopes that larger institutions will be interested in hiring Soliya to develop more online exchange programs. As a fervent believer in the transformative power of cross-cultural experience, Welch believes that "some form of cross-culture exchange should be a fundamental part of higher education."
In another part of the world, Rachel Ellet, an assistant professor Political Science and Mouat Junior Professor of International Studies at Beloit College shares the similar interest in connecting students across national borders. Ellet, however, uses a vastly different approach. Born out of her interest in mobilizing students' study abroad experiences to enhance learning back on campus, Ellet piloted a program in which she linked students studying abroad with students back in her classroom in real time. As Ellet explains in the Sept/Oct 2010 issue of Educause Review, students studying abroad were asked to create and maintain a blog that linked their personal experiences to her course, keep up to date on class readings and to engage in classroom discussions with students on campus via videoconferencing.
This is a win-win situation for students studying abroad and her students back on campus. Having to accomplish tasks relevant to course materials, students living abroad were able to intellectually integrate their experiences abroad. Meanwhile, the students back on campus were able to receive up-to-date real world examples colored by personal experiences.
Similar to problems encountered by the Connect program, Ellet also experienced technical difficulties such as weak audio quality and unreliable Internet connection. Ellet advised instructors who are thinking of bringing the study abroad experience into the classroom in real time to also be aware of time zone differences, which will make scheduling videoconferences a challenge.
These challenges aside, one can expect many more organizations and individuals to come up with innovative ways for students to reap the benefits of a cultural exchange without ever having to cross national borders, especially during a time when more universities face the pressures of preparing truly global citizens with increasingly fewer resources.