Global, Experiential—and Virtual

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Tuesday, July 2, 2019
By Amy Gillett
Illustration by Coen Pohl
Online student exchange programs create cross-cultural learning opportunities without requiring students to travel overseas.

Can business schools create cross-cultural, experiential learning opportunities for students without requiring them to travel overseas? Yes—when students participate in virtual exchanges, they can tackle global challenges and work with counterparts around the world. They don’t even need to board a plane.

At the University of Michigan’s William Davidson Institute (WDI) in Ann Arbor, we recently piloted a virtual exchange program. It was supported by a grant from the Stevens Initiative, a program within the Aspen Institute that seeks to build global competence and career readiness skills for young people in the United States and across the Middle East and North Africa (the MENA region). The Stevens Initiative is funded by the U.S. State Department, the Bezos Family Foundation, and other donors.

Because WDI’s aim is to develop economies by applying new principles in management education, we decided to focus our virtual exchange on social entrepreneurship. We designed an eight-week program in which Michigan students would work with peers from Egypt, Libya, Morocco, or Tunisia to identify a social issue in one of those four MENA countries and pitch an entrepreneurial solution. Students would not earn credit for the extracurricular program, but they would receive digital badges and electronic certificates of completion. E-learning modules would equip them with the tools they needed to complete their tasks. We named our program the MENA-Michigan Initiative for Global Action Through Entrepreneurship (M2GATE) and scheduled three offerings from January to July 2018.

Recruitment and Selection

To recruit participants in the MENA countries, we contacted universities we had worked with on previous projects. These included Al-Akhawayn University in Morocco, Tunis Business School, and Benghazi Youth for Technology & Entrepreneurship. We also opened the program to undergrads in the MENA region beyond our partner institutions, and we asked U.S. embassies in the MENA countries to spread the word.

In the U.S., we offered the program to students from the University of Michigan’s campuses at Ann Arbor, Dearborn, and Flint, as well as to students at Wayne State University in Detroit and Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. We expanded the program to students beyond the University of Michigan system because we wanted to diversify the profile of participants. Professors proved to be our best ambassadors for M2GATE, as they described it to their students and encouraged them to apply. Entrepreneurship hubs on several of the Michigan campuses also disseminated information about the program.

We directed interested students to an application on our website, available in English and Arabic, which informed them that the program would require a time commitment of about 32 hours over 8 weeks. The application asked about their interest in social entrepreneurship, their social issues of interest, areas of study, and the value they placed on working cross-culturally.

Students on both sides of the Atlantic expressed their excitement about working on a global social entrepreneurship project. U-M student Avirath Kumar wrote, “I’ve lived in Michigan all of my life, and I’ve never had the chance to interact with others in a truly crosscultural setting. With the increasingly interconnected nature of business in the 21st century, being able to collaborate with others from diverse backgrounds is necessary to solve problems that are more global than ever.”

Mohamed Chahbi of Tunisia captured the sentiment of many applicants from the MENA region: “Developing a partnership with students in the U.S. may help establish cutting-edge startups that make a difference to humanity, based on mixing and using different skills, talents, and knowledge that comes from people from different backgrounds.”

Many students from the MENA region also were attracted to M2GATE because of the chance to win a trip to the U.S. The team judged to have the best pitch video from each of the three program offerings would be invited to Ann Arbor to make a live pitch and visit area entrepreneurial ventures.

To select participants from the pool of more than 1,300 applicants, we created a point system, heavily weighing the applicant’s motivation level, enthusiasm for working collaboratively across cultures, and curiosity about entrepreneurship. We ultimately assembled a diverse group of participants from 103 higher education institutions—98 of them from outside the U.S.

The accepted students were assigned to one of three cohorts, the first one with 169 students, the second one with 167, and the third with 209. The three iterations of the program took place from January 26 to April 6, from April 6 to June 8, and from May 25 to July 20. On their applications, students indicated which eight-week cohort would work best for them, and we took these preferences into account as much as possible.

We divided the selected students into teams of six: two Michigan students plus four students from one of the MENA countries. We grouped them by their areas of interest, including healthcare, education, environment, and labor/ employment. We created teams that were diverse by gender and area of study, and we made sure that each team had at least one MENA student who was fluent in English.

To help guide the teams through their projects, we recruited mentors from the four MENA countries—most of them young professionals with experience in entrepreneurship. Many had previously been on exchanges sponsored by the U.S. State Department, and they were eager to give back on a volunteer basis by supporting the budding entrepreneurs.

'Hello, Benghazi!'

We kicked off our first cohort with a live synchronous session conducted at U-M’s Ross School of Business. It was streamed via BlueJeans, a videoconferencing service, to partner site locations in the four MENA countries, where participants could join remotely or in person. The giant video screens of the U-M classroom were filled with images of excited students from Benghazi, Cairo, Casablanca, Marrakesh, and Tunis. For administrators who had spent a year designing the program, it was thrilling to finally be able to say, “Hello, Benghazi!” and get an enthusiastic response from students 5,386 miles away.

The first session was dedicated to orientation, and we created virtual breakout rooms so the team members could get to know each other. In an icebreaker exercise called “uncommon commonalities,” students identified things they had in common that might be a bit unusual. One team was delighted to discover that all six members shared a love of fried chicken!

Once the preliminaries were over, we described the three assignments student teams would need to complete during the next eight weeks: a video that showed a social problem in the MENA region; an entrepreneurial concept for a solution; and a video that pitched their proposed product or service. To ensure consistency across the presentations, we asked teams to put together their concepts using the Business Model Canvas approach created by Alexander Osterwalder.

Students also were told how to access our e-learning modules on cross-cultural collaboration, communications, leadership, design thinking, and entrepreneurship. The modules were asynchronous, so students could watch them on their own schedules. The modules and chatroom were housed on WDI’s custom-developed learning management system, ExtendEd, which was also where students would upload their assignments to receive feedback from peers, mentors, and instructors. In addition, we created a Facebook group page where participants could share photos, experiences, and encouragement. Teams collaborated via WhatsApp, Skype, and Google Hangouts.

To get students thinking about what problems they wanted to tackle, we offered two prompts: What are some everyday frustrations people face in your society? and What are the social problems, issues, or challenges you want to address? We followed this same format, and used the same prompts, when it came time to run the second and third cohorts of M2GATE.

Project Development

Across the three cohorts, we found that teams were interested in taking on many thorny problems, particularly in the areas of education, healthcare, and the environment. Students in the MENA region researched the issues by interviewing local people, then they shared videos of their interviews with their Michigan teammates, offering them a window into the challenges in the region. For many Michigan students, these videos were eye-opening experiences. For instance, U-M student Ryan Berg noted that he “didn’t know that child labor was such a huge problem in Egypt.”

Once the Michigan students were familiar with the issues, they added their own perspectives, often building on solutions already in place in the U.S. For example, a Tunisia-Michigan team chose to address high unemployment rates among recent college graduates in Tunisia. The Michigan students pointed out that websites like Handshake and LinkedIn help students land internships and jobs while still in college. This insight led the team to design a job-placement site customized for the Tunisian workforce.

In the first cohort, a Morocco-Michigan team that called itself The Alters developed a solution to a similar problem: the high rate of youth unemployment in Morocco. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that employers want workers with soft skills, but few schools provide adequate training in these areas. The Alters designed a low-cost after-school program to help young people cultivate soft skills. (Watch the video.) The group garnered first place among the 30 teams in its cohort.

Members of Kaizen, another Tunisia-Michigan team, chose as their issue the lack of recycling in Tunisia. They conceptualized SmartBin, which strategically places easy-to-find recycling bins throughout the country. Users can download an app that tells them where the nearest bin is; once they dispose of their materials, the app calculates how much they have recycled and offers them a selection of rewards. The app also alerts factories when the bins are full so the contents can be reclaimed and processed. SmartBin makes money by reselling the recyclable materials and displaying ads on the bins. Kaizen won the top pitch award in the second cohort, and some team members are currently seeking additional funding so they can move the idea forward. (Watch their videopitch.) 

Trash was also the focus of a project by EcoMENA, a team of students from Egypt and Michigan who focused on the Zabaleen. This community of garbage collectors in Cairo has historically made money by collecting and sorting waste, then selling recyclable materials, but their way of life has been threatened by changing governmental policies. EcoMENA students proposed an online platform where local manufacturers can purchase raw recycled products and consumers can buy jewelry crafted from recycled trash—for instance, a necklace made from discarded coffee pods. This platform is designed to provide community members with extra income while keeping additional waste out of landfills. EcoMENA not only took the top spot in the pitch competition for the third cohort, the team also won first place in the live pitch event in Ann Arbor. Several members of the EcoMENA team are working to develop the concept further. (See the team video.) 

At the end of each eight-week session, students had to submit the pitch videos they had made to showcase their proposed social enterprises. These videos were posted on the ExtendEd portal and viewed by a panel of judges based in the U.S. and the MENA region. The judges had about a week to evaluate the submissions. Using a rubric provided by WDI, judges considered the strength of the idea, the solidity of the business model, market need, social impact, startup costs, and the ability of the team to deliver. They then chose a winner from each cohort.

Members of the three winning teams were invited to Ann Arbor in October for a weeklong, all-expenses-paid visit. During the first few days of their visits, team members worked with their U.S. counterparts to finalize their pitches for a live competition between the three teams. They also attended social events, including a trip to the Henry Ford Museum, where visitors could learn about the history of American innovation.

The live pitch event took place on a Wednesday at the midpoint of their visit. One winning team was selected by a panel of four judges and announced at the conclusion of the live event.

Challenges and Rewards

Because M2GATE was a pilot program, we wanted to learn what was working and what could be improved. At the end of each iteration, we held a live synchronous session that allowed students to join with their entire cohorts to share their impressions and describe the challenges they had overcome. For instance, many said they had had to work hard to coordinate six busy schedules across time zones. Other participants wrestled with the free-rider problem common in any team collaboration. We addressed this during each offering by having mentors and WDI faculty “nudge” students who were not fully engaged.

For some teams, the biggest challenge was that members dropped out partway through, often due to scheduling conflicts or personal issues. In these instances, mentors encouraged remaining participants to move forward with their leaner teams. Overall, however, we observed that the most effective ingredients for building strong teams were students’ own efforts to step up and become leaders.

While they encountered difficulties, we believe students also reaped significant benefits. First, they developed the mindsets that will enable them to identify problems and become drivers of change; in fact, in a post-program survey, more than half of the respondents indicated they would use what they learned to start social enterprises in the future. This includes Abdulhamid Hosni Ali of Egypt, who viewed the experience as a launch point, saying, “I have learned things that I can use to make a positive change in my community.”

Second, students developed new skills, ranging from leadership to entrepreneurial abilities. They also gained self-confidence, improved their motivation, made lifelong friends, and learned the value of teamwork.

Finally, they mastered the ability to work across cultural divides. As Khouloud Baghouri of Tunisia put it, “The program taught me that it’s okay to be different and that difference is what creates magic!”

The Possibilities of Virtual Exchange

While M2GATE has been exciting for students, it has been just as invigorating for those who put the program together. According to Meghan Neuhaus, senior project manager at WDI, “It’s been life-changing to see what virtual exchange can do to bridge cultures and to connect young people across the globe.”

At WDI, we are so pleased by the success of M2GATE that we have launched the Global Virtual Learning Center, from which we plan to run more virtual exchange programs—both in the MENA region and in other parts of the world. My team and I believe that virtual exchange is an ideal way to nurture 21st century skills. This collaborative work prepares students to thrive as entrepreneurs and employees in an increasingly globalized, tech-centric world.

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Amy Gillett
Vice President of Education, William Davidson Institute
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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