Soliya’s model contains the right elements for virtual exchange

December 04, 2019 | Story

 

A 2016 evaluation[1] of different virtual exchange models, conducted by RTI International for the Stevens Initiative, concluded that the following are effective practices in virtual exchange:
 

  1. Ensuring that participants discuss each other’s cultures, regardless of the dialogue topic
  2. Including synchronous communication
  3. Incorporating milestones or due dates into the curriculum
  4. Achieving regional balance among participants
  5. Allowing for flexibility with partner time and needs and with program design
  6. Offering post-program alumni engagement activities
  7. Revising the curriculum as needed in response to program evaluation
  8. Training participants on cross-cultural communication
  9. Offering multiple communication modes for participants
  10. Providing incentives for educators, facilitators, and participants
  11. Providing a thorough partner onboarding period to minimize absences and commitment issues
  12. Training facilitators in virtual exchange and organizing in-person facilitator meetings
  13. Ensuring program oversight
  14. Ensuring an equitable experience for all participants
     

The evaluation study focused on 10 Stevens Initiative awardees, including Soliya, that each had a different virtual exchange model. Along with the aforementioned practices, the report emphasized the value of small-group vs classroom-to-classroom models.

 

For 15 years, Soliya has implemented a model of virtual exchange that is characterized by the following elements: synchronous and face-to-face communication, and small-group and facilitated dialogue. This combination is critical: according to the RTI report as summarized by the Stevens Initiative, “synchronous exchange appears to be particularly popular with participants when they have an opportunity to interact with one another in small groups or one-on-one.”[2] Our program takes place in the Exchange Portal, a video-conferencing platform that we specifically built for virtual exchange. Allowing the video-based communication that is at the core of our model while also providing students with the option to communicate via messaging and confidential forums, the Exchange Portal ensures that all participants have a way to express their thoughts while maintaining the integral component of having faces visible. Meanwhile, our curriculum promotes dialogue around not only global and social topics but also participants’ lives and cultures: the weekly sessions always begin with icebreaker activities before seguing into discussions, allowing participants to get to know each other on a personal level and continuously develop those bonds while discussing timely issues. To complement the live dialogue sessions, students work on short assignments outside of session and engage each other around these assignments on their group forums, as well as complete a final reflection paper. This deepens the learning while perhaps legitimizing the program in the eyes of participants: in summarizing RTI’s evaluation of various virtual exchange programs, the Stevens Initiative wrote that “seeing their peers or international group partners completing tasks can motivate students to take their roles seriously.”[3]

 

Students meet with their groups at the same day and time each week, and this schedule is selected by the students themselves out of a list of options that we provide. Trained facilitators are present in each dialogue group to encourage students to share openly and honestly, which fosters human connection and trust, and to catch and resolve any imbalances. After the program, Soliya encourages qualified students to remain engaged by participating in the facilitation training or serving as campus liaisons, representing a critical post-program engagement opportunity. Students who successfully complete the program receive a certificate, while successful facilitators receive badges. Since first launching the program, we have developed a time-proven partner onboarding and support process that has led to both sustained relationships and successful first-time partnerships.

 

Soliya uses the evaluation data and feedback collected at the end of the program, as well as the learnings garnered through monitoring activities during the program, to optimize our curriculum if needed. Our model, refined over 15 years, represents the majority of effective virtual exchange practices as highlighted by RTI International.

 

“Soliya is at the forefront of its field – harnessing technology as a bridge across differences to connect and engage young people around the globe. It is a young success story, already increasing empathy and understanding among a wide range of participants, and helping a new generation of leaders set foot into the world with a direct personal experience of the values of pluralism, and a commitment and capacity to confront its biggest challenges.”

- Joe Clark, the former Prime Minister of Canada and Chair of the Global Pluralism Award jury

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