Exchange Matters / December 15, 2020

Virtual Exchange Academy

Editor’s Note: The Virtual Exchange Academy is a series of trainings designed to help Community-Based Members gain and grow virtual exchange capabilities.

By Brittany Rock, Program Manager, Training & Community Development, Global Ties U.S.

Global Ties U.S. launched the Virtual Exchange Academy (VEA) in November 2020, in partnership with the Office of International Visitors at the U.S. Department of State,  to help our Community-Based Members (CBMs) gain the skills and confidence needed to implement virtual IVLP projects successfully.

VEA 101-104 primers provided basic training on tech and workspace practices for running virtual meetings, as well as skills and tips for telling compelling stories through video and photography.

From December 2020 through March 2021, designated CBM representatives will work directly with Soliya, a leader in virtual exchange training, on foundational and advanced coursework to deepen understanding and knowledge of facilitating virtual IVLP exchanges, particularly the differences in goals, purpose, structure, and program design of virtual exchanges compared to in-person. Programmers will also learn the principles of effective virtual exchange programming for adult learners and how to manage group dynamics and promote a safe online space for engagement.

As a final component of the VEA, starting in April 2021, CBMs will have the opportunity to practice and showcase these skills with NPA and OIV partners through a collaborative activity. one-on-one training will be made available through June on an as-needed basis.

“The Office of International Visitors provided additional funding to Global Ties to plan and implement training for all CBMs through the Virtual Exchange Academy (VEA). This funding was approved by ECA specifically for the purpose of ensuring that all CBMs are equipped with new technologies and skills in order to conduct IVLP virtual projects. Showcasing diversity across the country is a key component of the IVLP exchange experience. We value the unique perspectives and resources that each CBM brings to the IVLP and want to ensure that every organization has the resources and support to move fully into the virtual space. Whether you have many years experience in virtual programming or have yet to participate in your first project – you will find the VEA beneficial. ”  

–Anne Grimes, Director, Office of International Visitors



VEA 101: Hardware Fundamentals offered advice on how to run a technology audit and assess hardware needs for virtual IVLP programming, including selecting headphones, microphones, webcams, and other tools for different IVLP project components like professional resource meetings or home hospitality visits.

  • Always start a technology revamp project with an audit of your existing technology, hardware, software and other resources
  • Crowdsource references new technology or equipment and use your local computer store for any specific questions.
  • Speakers should always use headsets for the clearest audio.
  • Discuss any planned live interpretation on video conferencing platforms with your interpreting services team. New application updates are being continuously rolled out.

–Bjorn Schwarzenbach, Global Ties U.S.

VEA 102: The Virtual Workspace Set-Up presenters broke down some of the misconceptions about making a virtual workspace work for you. By being more aware of yourself and your environment, others will perceive you and your organization as a pro, even if you’re not there yet! Keep in mind:

  • Lighting: soft and from the front. It sounds silly, but think of a selfie and how much effort is made for you to look good.
  • Background: Make sure it is pleasant, or neutral and not distracting
  • Distractions: Try to control your environment and background noise–dogs barking, people walking behind you, doorways, ceiling fan, and tvs, etc.

One final tip: be mindful that conversations in a virtual environment might not flow as easily. Stay engaged in meetings in case you need to break the silence and get the conversation going again.

–Anise Jasman-Sayers, World Affairs Council of New Hampshire

VEA 103: Storytelling and Storyboarding explained how to use storyboarding to develop content for virtual IVLP programming, specifically city tour videos to introduce virtual exchange participants to their host communities. When planning your and producing your videos:

  • Remember that anybody can do this! There are lots of free and easy-to-use resources for video production.
  • Think about what past in-person visitors found most compelling about your community
  • Don’t just show tourist attractions (and remind participants of what they can’t visit). Find ways to visually convey your community’s culture and history.
  • Get feedback throughout the creation process and show your video to an unrelated third-party to make sure your message comes across clearly.

–Jamie Bequette, Colorado Springs World Affairs Council, and Caleb Godsey, U.S. Department of State

VEA 104: Photography for Storytelling provided an overview of photography basics like composition and lighting, and explained the importance of taking dynamic photos to tell the stories of in-person and virtual exchanges.

  • Use the rule of thirds for more visually appealing images and the surrounding environment to help tell the story behind the photo.
  • Move your subjects or yourself to void backlit photos or spotlighting. Outside, take advantage of open shade or overcast days to avoid harsh sunlight and heavy shadows.
  • For more interesting photos, get creative with placement of subjects or capture them in action and interacting with their environment.
  • Prioritize taking photos at events or meetings–good photos accompanying text stories make a greater impact.
  • For virtual programs, ask presenters to use lots of visuals in their presentations and get comfortable taking screenshots of screen-shares next to the Zoom blocks. To create a more dynamic “group” photo, ask participants to hold up props or pose in their frames.

–Crystal Bock Thiessen, Lincoln Council for International Visitors



James Horsman, Program Officer, World Learning

  • Hold a dress rehearsal session with all participants and interpreters to test technology and Internet quality prior to program opening.
  • Share the run-of-show with all resources in the meeting before it begins so everyone knows the schedule and can jump right in if a connection drops.
  • Have all participants and interpreters join each meeting at least 10 minutes early so any technology issues can be addressed prior to the start of the meeting.
  • Avoid streaming video during meetings. Though it may look fine for the person streaming, others on the call may have a very poor quality, especially those outside the U.S. Instead, share video links to participants so they can view them asynchronously on their own time.
  • If trying something major for the first time, such as Zoom interpretation, host at least one internal demo to work out kinks prior to the tech practice session with the participants.