Faced with a need to prepare large numbers of people to operate in a globalized economy, the world of education is increasingly under pressure to deliver. Despite the challenges, education is ready for new models of experiential learning. Enter virtual exchange: a technology-enabled, sustained, people-to-people education program, as the Virtual Exchange Coalition defines it.

Virtual exchange sits at the convergence of several trends: readily available technology platforms (FaceTime, WhatsApp, Zoom, to name a few); a digitally fluent generation; and, student demand for experiential learning that prepares them for the workplace and lifelong learning.

Moreover, as we consider the future of learning, we recall the challenges that education continually faces (according to MIT’s Senior Learning Community Officer, Sara Monteabaro): “refugee education, preparing youth for the workforce of the future, female empowerment, and twenty-first century skills development."

Virtual exchange can address all of these, as illustrated by a program we ran recently. This program included refugees, introduced students to marketable skills such as design thinking, built agency and confidence in its graduates (over half of whom were female), and gave them ample opportunities to practice skills they’ll need for the 21st century workplace. That is, virtual collaboration, teamwork, taking action on social issues, and understanding diverse perspectives.

Dubbed M²GATE, this virtual exchange program connected college students from Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, and Michigan and challenged them to design a social enterprise via virtual collaboration on cross-cultural teams. Students learned how to identify a contextual issue, design a social enterprise to address it, and pitch their idea to an international panel of judges.

The program demonstrated some of the strong benefits of tech-enabled learning:

Access. Many of our students were hungry for international relationships and experiences but were unable to study abroad due to resources, work or family obligations. Virtual exchange gave these students a meaningful international experience without leaving their campus. As one student said, “As someone who did not have the opportunity to study abroad, the virtual experience...allowed me to learn about and connect with like-minded peers from other cultures.

Reach. A key feature of our program was that it was geographically dispersed, meaning it was open to students from schools all over, including rural areas. In the end, our students represented 103 institutions, which provided rich, diverse perspectives on culture and social challenges.

Flexibility. As a short-term program, a virtual exchange can be layered on top of other opportunities. It provides a form of stackable learning experience that students can commit to on top of regular courses and obligations.

Power. Compared to in-person exchanges, which have their advantages, virtual exchange provides a more bidirectional and reciprocal form of education: without a “guest” culture and a “host” culture, students are able to approach each other on level ground and form interactions that are more equitable from the outset. This sense of peer-to-peer equity, when paired with a learner-centered approach, empowers students and builds their sense of agency.

Skills-based. To work together successfully on teams across cultures, team members must listen to each other carefully and with respect. They also learn how to relate with courtesy across virtual media, known as digital citizenship. Through this experience, students gain the skills and sensitivities that will make them more effective in the increasingly globalized workplace. After completing the virtual exchange, students reported increased 21st century skills such as teamwork, perspective-taking, understanding of their peers' countries, entrepreneurship, and global citizenship.

Students also credited the virtual exchange with building their networks—with teammates and mentors—and their confidence. Virtual exchange, like any good experiential learning endeavor, provided (KSAs)—knowledge, skills, and agency (yes, attitudes too). Said one participant: “It was a great experience to learn how to navigate through cultural differences and come together as a team to create a product. This program also gave me the platform to practice the business acumen learned from the classroom and apply it to something tangible.”

In the past few years, many virtual exchanges have entered K-12 and university curricula. These pilot programs—including M²GATE—provide a proof of concept for programs on campuses around the world. As with any innovative educational model, student success speaks. As more research and data on virtual exchange become available—and more pioneers share their success stories—administrators and other stakeholders will increasingly view virtual exchange as a viable form of experiential, engaged learning.

The time is right. The desire and need for students to connect across cultures is growing. Collaboration and cross-cultural cooperation will be at the center of future work. Today’s tech platforms enable this, and the IT infrastructure is often already on campus. It takes instructor interest, institutional openness, and international partnership. We believe that with these elements, virtual exchange will take root in new educational contexts and do what it does so well: provide access to international perspectives to an array of students, build their skills and networks, and prepare them for the future of work.

About the authors: Nathan Rauh-Bieri and Amy Gillett develop training programs at the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan and its Global Virtual Learning Center.

But it’s difficult to think about value when we have no buoy for understanding it outside our traditional lenses: for example, our time, our job, and what others tell us they are worth in cash. This, largely, is the world’s paradigm for value so far. But understanding what value really means changes everything—and will be at the center of the decentralized revolution in global coordination that will unfold over the next decade. So, where do we begin?

Let’s start with gold.

Gold is an inherent value. When backing a market, gold allows us to grow a balanced economy well into the trillions. But why does it allow for massive stable markets to form around it? It is gold's permanence that creates stability. We understand that gold will always have value, because it is inherent in all of us, not just in one part of the world, but everywhere, not just today, but tomorrow and for the long haul.

In the 1930s when the gold standard was removed, we learned that the U.S. dollar didn’t need gold to back its economy to flourish. We learned that it was just a symbol for U.S. citizens to decentralize their coordination around the United States economy.

It turns out, common agreement is a philosophy for building shared economy.

And so it seems inherent value is a marker for us to begin exploring what the future could look like—a future beyond gold and the existing realm of credit. And so what else has inherent value? Is education as valuable as gold? What about healthcare? What about a vote that can’t be tampered with? What about an ID that can’t be stolen or erased? What about access to nutrition or clean water? You will find value everywhere you look.

It turns out, we’ve already done the legwork necessary to uncover the most elemental inherent values: The Sustainable Development Goals are commitments grown out of the drive to bring to life basic tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the closest possible social contract we have to a global, common agreement.

We’ve already agreed, as a global community, to ensure inclusive and equitable access to quality education. We’ve already agreed to empower all women and girls, to ensure pure and clean water access for all, to promote health at all stages of life, and to end hunger.

We’ve already agreed.

Our agreements are grounded in deep value centers that are globally shared, but undervalued and unfulfilled. The reason for this is our inability to quantify intangible value. All of these rich, inherent values are still nebulous and fragmented in implementation—largely existing as ideals and blueprints for deep, globally shared common agreement. That is, we all agree education, health, and equality have value, but we lack common units for understanding who and who is not contributing value—leaving us to fumble in our own, uncoordinated siloes as we chase the phantoms of impact. In essence, we lack common currencies for our common agreements.

Now we find ourselves at the nexus of the real paradigm of Blockchain, allowing us to fuse economics with inherent value by proving the participation of some great human effort, then quantifying the impact of that effort in unforgeable and decentralized ledgers. It allows us to build economic models for tomorrow, that create wholly new markets and economies for and around each of the richest of human endeavors.

In late 2017 at the height of the Bitcoin bubble, without individual coordination, planning, or the help of institutions, almost $1 trillion was infused into blockchain markets. This is remarkable, and the revolution has only just begun. When you realize that Blockchain is in a similar stage of development as the internet pre-AOL, you will see a glimpse of the global transformation to come.

Only twice in the information age have we had such a paradigm shift in global infrastructure reform—the computer and the internet. While the computer taught us how to store and process data, the Internet built off that ability and furthered the conversation by teaching us how to transfer that information. Blockchain takes another massive step forward—it builds off the internet, adding to the story of information storage and transfer—but, it teaches us a new, priceless and not yet understood skill: how to transfer value.

This third wave kicked off with a rough start—as happens with the birth of new technologies and their corresponding liberties. Blockchain has, thus far, been totally unregulated. Many, doubtless, have taken advantage. A young child, stretching their arms for the first couple times might knock over a cookie jar or two. Eventually, however, they learn to use their faculties—for evil or for good. As such, while it’s wise to be skeptical at this phase in blockchain’s evolution, it’s important not to be blind to its remarkable implications in a post-regulated world, so that we may wield its faculties like a surgeon’s scalpel—not for evil or snake-oil sales, but for the creation of more good, for the flourishing of commonwealth.

But what of the volatility in blockchain markets? People agree Bitcoin has value, but they don’t understand why they are in agreement, and so cryptomarkets fluctuate violently.  Stable blockchain economies will require new symbolic gold standards that clearly articulate why someone would agree to support each market, to anchor common agreement with stability. The more globally shared these new value standards, the better.

Is education more valuable than gold? What about healthcare or nutrition or clean water?

We set out in 2018 to prove a hypothesis—we believe that if you back a cryptocurrency economy with a globally agreed upon inherent value like education, you can solve for volatility and stabilize a mature long lasting cryptomarket that awards everyone who adds value to that market in a decentralized way without the friction of individual partnerships.

What if education was a new gold standard?

And what if this new Learning Economy had protocols to award everyone who is helping to steward the growth of global education?

Education is a mountain. Everyone takes a different path to the top. Blockchain allows us to measure all of those unique learning pathways, online and in classrooms, into immutable blockchain Learning Ledgers.

By quantifying the true value of education, a whole economy can be built around it to pay students to learn, educators to create substantive courses, and stewards to help the Learning Economy grow. It was designed to provide a decentralized way for everyone adding value to global education to coordinate around the commonwealth without the friction of individual partnerships. Imagine the same for healthcare, nutrition, and our environment?

Imagine a world where we can pay refugees to learn languages as they find themselves in foreign lands, a world where we can pay those laid off by the tide of automation to retrain themselves for the new economy, a world where we can pay the next generation to prepare themselves for the unsolved problems of tomorrow.

Imagine new commonwealth economies that alleviate the global burdens of poverty, disease, hunger, inequality, ignorance, toxic water, and joblessness. Commonwealths that orbit inherent values, upheld by immutable blockchain protocols that reward anyone in the ecosystem stewarding the economy—whether that means feeding the hungry, providing aid for the global poor, delivering mosquito nets in malaria-ridden areas, or developing transformative technologies that can provide a Harvard-class education to anyone in the world willing to learn.

These worlds are not out of reach—we are only now opening our eyes to the horizons of blockchain, decentralized coordination, and new gold standards. Even though coordination is the last of the seventeen sustainable development goals, when solved, its tide will lift for the rest—a much-needed rocket fuel for global prosperity.

“Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair.”  —George Washington
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.