Virtual Exchange for Preservice Teachers: A Boundary Space Where DEI Can Flourish


This article explores the potential of virtual exchange (VE) in undergraduate teacher education to develop global competencies and foster diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). It presents the IGlobal model, an extracurricular club focusing on the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, where preservice teachers collaborate virtually with international students to lead cross-cultural STEAM activities for middle school students. The IGlobal model reimagines VE as a boundary space for encountering and engaging with difference, emphasizing cultural humility and multidirectional knowledge creation. Participants learn to navigate cross-cultural collaboration while gaining global awareness and competencies. Despite the benefits, challenges to DEI persist, such as the digital divide limiting access for participants from less affluent areas. Nevertheless, VE in teacher education offers hope for addressing these challenges and preparing culturally competent teachers for diverse classrooms.


  • Allison Witt | Director, Teaching Associate Professor, University of Illinois

A growing body of literature demonstrates the potential for virtual exchange (VE) to develop global competencies in participants (O’Dowd, 2017; Machwate et al., 2021). Such research is particularly encouraging for undergraduate teacher education, where training culturally competent preservice teachers is widely acknowledged to be paramount as a foundation for DEI in future classrooms across the spectrum of education. Currently, teacher education is developing unique models for advancing DEI in and through VE that may have possibilities for broader application in other disciplines as well.

Teacher education places a high priority on developing global competence in preservice teachers in order to prepare them for the cultural diversity of their future classrooms. In fact, teacher education programs have long developed education abroad programs with the specific goals of training preservice teachers in global competencies. Yet, ongoing challenges persist in providing accessible global engagement opportunities. Education abroad programs have shown great promise, but the costs and lockstep course schedules of most education programs keep many students from participating. Moreover, lack of diversity in teacher training programs overall is compounded and more pronounced when considering the lack of diverse participation rate in programs of education abroad. By providing accessible global learning opportunities for preservice teachers, VE holds potential to overcome these barriers and develop many of the intercultural skills that teacher education demands (Jaramillo Cherrez & Gleason, 2022; Sapkota et al., 2023)

One example of a VE model developed for teacher education is IGlobal, an extracurricular club focused on the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals, led by education undergraduate students and international students, attended by middle school students from around the world. DEI is not only a characteristic of each group of participants, but also informs the content and focus of the program. Supported by the University of Illinois College of Education, the Illinois Global Institute, and grants from the U.S. Department of Education Title VI program, preservice teachers are partnered with international students and work in tandem with practicing teachers locally and from around the world. Modeling cross-cultural collaboration, they virtually lead groups of middle school students in extracurricular STEAM activities and projects that require cross-cultural collaboration, which we call STEAM-C. It is the multilayered, cross-cultural collaboration that distinguishes the IGlobal model from collaborative online international learning (COIL). Designed specifically for preservice and in-service teachers, IGlobal reimagines virtual exchange as an online international teaching and learning laboratory where participants gain global awareness and global competencies, as well as practice in globally collaborative online teaching and learning. In COIL, by contrast, participants are typically partnered virtually with peers from a different cultural context to study topics of mutual interest or shared language. In IGlobal, participants are partnered with both peers and mentors from multiple cultural contexts while also engaging in teaching activities with multinational, multilingual middle school students. Seeming barriers of language, culture, and technology instead all become the sites and source of collaboration, as teachers, preservice teachers, and international students all work together to educate globally based middle school participants about the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

In the IGlobal project model, we conceptualize the online environment as a boundary space, where difference can be encountered and engaged. Drawing from boundary crossing theory, diversity is recognized as a vital force for change and development (Akkerman & Baker, 2011). Differences are recognized as potential learning resources that depend on multiple perspectives from multiple parties. Rather than giving simplistic calls for agreement, boundary crossing theory acknowledges the potential difficulty of action and interaction across cultural and belief systems, while at the same time emphasizing the value of communication and collaboration. Boundary crossing does not mean imposing ideas from one side of the boundary to the other. Instead, using this framing encourages participants to accept that differences will remain. All participants learn to engage with difference in a stance of cultural humility amidst multidirectional flows of knowledge creation. IGlobal works from the assumption that encountering cultural difference is challenging and disrupting. Encountering cultural difference will not automatically result in greater understanding but must be treated as a learning opportunity.

Following this model in practice means recognizing that all participants have contributions to make as well as potential knowledge to gain from each other within the boundary spaces of VE. This theory undergirds practice in IGlobal, in which the virtual space shared by multiple cultures functions as a boundary ground where cultures of teaching and learning encounter each other and learn to respectfully engage to solve challenges through the medium of technology. The differences encountered here in this virtual boundary space serve as the catalysts for learning. DEI flourishes in this multinational, multicultural, multilingual VE. Serving as club chapter leaders, preservice teachers participate in cross-cultural collaboration while at the same time learning how to teach these skills in complex virtual environments. Preservice teachers practice facilitating cross-cultural respect and creating spaces where multiple perspectives can be heard and addressed in proposed solutions.

In addition to synchronous virtual club meetings with students, all preservice teachers and international student leaders meet together weekly to discuss what they learned as co-leaders in their session. They take turns sharing video clips that illustrate successful or challenging moments. Talking through these examples as a group allows preservice teachers and international students to both teach and learn from each other. In what is commonly referred to as the multiplier effect, as future teachers, the education students will potentially continue to transmit what they have learned from their international peers, mentors, and students into their school communities for decades to come.

While the benefits of providing greater access to global learning for all preservice teachers cannot be overstated, even within these new models of VE, significant challenges to DEI remain. Access to the VE is limited by the digital divide, with schools around the world lacking the technological capabilities to join. Teacher training, equipment, and internet connection all serve as major barriers to participants from the Global South, or even from less affluent areas of the Global North. VE provides an important step in providing global learning for more students who could not afford traditional mobility, or don’t have opportunity to travel, but it will not solve all the inequities that remain. VE focused on DEI for educators and young students provides hope that these challenges will continue to be addressed by the generations to come.


Jaramillo Cherrez, N., & Gleason, B. (2022). A virtual exchange experience: Preparing pre-service teachers for cultural diversity. Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education, 38(3), 126–138.

Machwate, S., Bendaoud, R., Henze, J., Berrada, K., & Burgos, D. (2021). Virtual exchange to develop cultural, language, and digital competencies. Sustainability, 13(11), 5926.

O’Dowd, R. (2017). Virtual exchange and internationalising the classroom. Training Language and Culture, 1(4), 8–24.

Sapkota, B. K., Zhou, L., Mbewe, R., Newton, J., & Phillion, J. (2023). Fostering preservice teachers’ social justice awareness and intercultural competence through a virtual global community of practice. At School in the World: Developing Globally Engaged Teachers, 212.

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