Virtual Exchange in Global Health: an innovative educational approach to foster socially responsible overseas collaboration

Int J Educ Technol High Educ. 2021;18(1):32. doi: 10.1186/s41239-021-00266-x. Epub 2021 Jun 10.


Educators who design and manage study abroad programs face a series of ethical responsibilities. Meeting these responsibilities is critical in the field of global health, where study abroad programs are often designed to provide healthcare services in under-resourced communities. Leaders in global health have thus formed working groups to study the ethical implications of overseas programming and have led the way in establishing socially responsible best practices for study abroad. Their recommendations include development of bidirectional programming that is designed for mutual and equitable benefits, focused on locally identified needs and priorities, attentive to local community costs, and structured to build local capacity to ensure sustainability. Implementation remains a key challenge, however. Sustainable, bidirectional programming is difficult and costly. In the present study, authors questioned how technology could be used to connect students of global health in distant countries to make socially responsible global health programming more accessible. Drawing on empirical research in the learning sciences and leveraging best practices in technology design, the authors developed a Virtual Exchange in Global Health to connect university students in the U.S. with counterparts in Lebanon, who worked in teams to address humanitarian problems in Syrian refugee camps. Early results demonstrate the value of this approach. At dramatically lower cost than traditional study abroad-and with essentially no carbon footprint-students recognized complementary strengths in each other through bidirectional programming, learned about local needs and priorities through Virtual Reality, and built sustaining relationships while addressing a difficult real-world problem. The authors learned that technology could effectively facilitate socially responsible global health programming and do so at low cost. The program has important implications for teaching and learning during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

Keywords: Collaborative Learning; Ethics; Global Health; Refugees; Sustainability; Virtual Exchange; Virtual Reality.