How a Decades-Old Flagship Program Got a Digital Makeover and Blew Up the Internet This Summer

In 2016, World Learning launched a virtual exchange program designed to connect students from the Middle East with their U.S. peers. Without leaving their living rooms, participants interacted through videos, discussion forums, webinars, online chats, and playing digital games together.

Known as DYLEP—Digital Young Leaders Exchange Program—it brought together more than 300 youth from different countries and cultures to learn about each other and develop friendships and a common language, advance leadership skills, discuss civic rights and responsibilities, and implement community projects with positive social impact.

At the time, the online format was created to expand access to intercultural leadership programs for students who were not able to travel due to politics, gender restrictions, visa issues, or limited financial resources. Only four years later, what started as a pioneering project of The Experiment in International Living—World Learning’s 88-year-old flagship program—has scaled up faster than anyone imagined.

“Expanding digital programming was always a long-term goal of ours but COVID-19 sped up our timetable,” says Christina Thomas, divisional vice president of Youth Exchange. The concept aligned well with the program’s tradition of providing access to diverse socio-economic backgrounds.

"In a matter of weeks, the majority of our team, who normally would be facilitating in person activities and exchanges in front of hundreds of students, became instructional designers almost overnight,” she says. Today, the digital program is a critical outlet for global intercultural exchange in a time of crisis.

Rebranded The Experiment Digital, this fully-funded virtual youth exchange provided students this summer with a completely safe, accessible, and dynamic experience in the midst of the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic.

In summer 2020, a total of 922 high schoolers from around the world completed The Experiment Digital, and 325 more students participated in other youth exchange programs, such as the Youth Ambassadors Program, Jóvenes en Acción, and IYLEP (Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program), facilitated by World Learning.

The Experiment Digital is based on many decades of Experiment programming that developed best practices in experiential learning. Activities center around bringing students together to navigate scenarios that test their abilities and reflect on lessons learned through collaborative dialogue.

One of the interactive activities students work on is the River of Life. The activity invites students to think about their own life as a river, a unique path that leads to who they are and where they are headed.

River of Life activity prompt

They reflect on the significant events, people, activities that have shaped the course of their life. Each student can view their peers' rivers and connect through comments to discuss their similarities and ask each other questions.

River of Life student submissions (Click to enlarge)

In another activity, the sinking boat exercise, participants work in small groups to decide which three items they should keep on their sinking boat in order to survive for two days. The icebreaker is not only fun but helps students understand the importance of working together. Maryam, a 2020 participant, says she learned from participating in the exercise that, “We should be a team for better results.” Lily, another participant this summer agrees and adds: “Compromise and listening to other people’s ideas is incredibly important.”

In addition to their assigned activities, participants choose to "Instashare," posting small slices of their lives on Instagram. The Experiment Digital provides prompts that allow students to compare and connect with peers about everything from their favorite local stores to hobbies and family traditions.

The Experiment Digital's Instasharing activity prompts

Although The Experiment Digital boasts a huge number of participants, it fosters an intimate feel for learning, which allows small group conversation and meaningful engagement. Participants attend live webinars featuring guest speakers, with small breakout sessions led by facilitators or peer mentors. There’s one facilitator for every five to eight students, with a safe space to share their hopes, fears, and discuss often taboo topics such as gender norms and stereotypes. Facilitators also initiate icebreakers, jumpstart conversation, ask debrief questions, and mediate conflict.

Another unique aspect of The Experiment Digital is that the program includes facilitators who are often Experiment program alumni and other young leaders with experience in cultural exchanges in addition to experienced educators. All facilitators undergo a three-week training program for online facilitation.

“This was an amazing opportunity for me,” says a 2020 Iraqi facilitator who also participated in IYLEP the previous summer. “Even though I was a facilitator, not a participant, I grew so much from the experience.” She says she expected to have to push students to be more open and was surprised that when she would ask them questions to draw them out early on in the program, they were eager to engage and help each other.

Caroline, a 2020 facilitator from the U.S., put it this way: “This whole summer has been an amazing opportunity to get to know teens from all over the world. I feel really inspired by their spirit and I feel like my mind has been opened by their perspectives and worldviews.” She adds, “I really can’t think of a better way to have spent this summer than meeting and working with these fantastic participants.”

Students are organized in neighborhoods; each with their own facilitator and digital peer mentor.

The digital peer mentors are former participants who volunteer with the program and support facilitators while they develop their own skills to apply for the facilitator role in the future.

Peer mentors also have the opportunity to lead country chats—spaces for participants from the same country to network and connect with each other about project ideas and country-specific issues. Both facilitators and the peer mentors send out weekly reminders to participants to make sure everyone is on track with their tasks. This year’s peer mentors were alumni of 2019 The Experiment Digital or 2017 DYLEP.

“I was really surprised by how youth are so creative,” says Ferial, a peer mentor from Algeria. “They are so ready to make a change and to be great, effective leaders and to make change in their communities and the world.”

Adem H., 2019 alumnus and 2020 peer mentor from Algeria, created "I Want to Breathe," a volunteer project to plant new trees, clean up the forest and raise awareness about environmental issues. ⁠
Sabah A., 2019 alumna and 2020 peer mentor from Yemen (far right), attended a UN workshop on gender for the MENA region in Jordan. Sabah was chosen for the opportunity through her involvement in The Experiment Digital and her demonstration of strong leadership skills.

Interactive technology is key to The Experiment Digital program. It primarily uses Canvas and Telegram for country group chats and neighborhood groups.

Canvas is a web-based software enabling digital management of the global exchange. Modules and discussions were integrated to foster collaborative learning, and group features ensured participants were able to interact with each other. Telegram, an app, was used for live chats among participants.

"We introduced Telegram as a tool to create more natural and instant connections. Over the course of the summer, that proved to be effective with 105,351 messages sent," says Katherine Hanson, digital program officer for World Learning.

An Experiment Digital Virtual Celebration, where alumni reconnect with each other after the program to reflect on their experiences and celebrate their achievements.

The app enabled country chats, which connected all participants from each country as a social space for project advice and collaboration across their local communities. It also allowed for cross neighborhood conversations to connect the 35 different program neighborhoods and expose them to ideas outside their group.

Hanson points to what’s called “popcorn chat activity,” in which one participant would ask a question and then get about five solutions from their peers in rapid brainstorming style in real time. Then they would call on the next participant to share until they all had their questions addressed by peers. This activity alone generated 14,081 ideas shared.

Through interactions with international peers, students practice intercultural communication, collaborative problem solving and digital skills—all of which are important in our increasingly globalized world.

The summer program is eight weeks and participants have about four hours of work a week, including asynchronous learning, which consists of independent online work and activities, and one hour of synchronous participation in online groups, discussions, and dialogue.

Students have the option of participating in a virtual homestay. This is an opportunity for them to be matched one-on-one with another participant from a different country to engage in culture-sharing activities together as “homestay siblings.”

Megan and Melissa's virtual homestay

Suggested activities include cooking a meal together, inviting a homestay sibling to have a meal with their virtual sibling’s family, giving a tour of the other participant’s neighborhood or watching a movie together.

This virtual experience was transformative for many participants. Says a 2020 participant from Iraq: “I didn’t think that it would be possible to get along with people from different countries and backgrounds, but here I am, a month later, thinking how easy this whole process was.” Safa, an alumna and facilitator from Yemen says “I didn’t feel the difference between us or the boundaries. I felt like we were from the same place.”

The Experiment Digital includes four modules, each of which is two-weeks long and includes a variety of activities, discussions, and tasks—some completed independently and others in a team, with family, or neighborhood groups.

The first module focuses on digital citizenship. Participants introduce themselves and facilitators introduce digital etiquette exercises using phrases and emoticons considered polite and impolite in their cultures to set norms and ensure a productive space for exchange.

Participants also identify an issue or problem in their communities that they care about and analyze their root causes. Issues include health, education, race and ethnicity, environment, poverty, and gender.

During the second module, participants focus on leadership and identity. Activities include a collaborative problem-solving game that requires them to reach an agreement in a defined period of time, enabling them to put leadership skills into practice. They also have a chance to formulate an issue they want to address in their community.

The next module focuses on community initiatives. Participants create collective brainstorming solutions to the problems they define in the second module. Students share how a problem is addressed in their community which might be helpful to someone in another part of the world.

For example, this summer participants watched a video on a project called The Street Store that offers people experiencing homelessness the chance to shop for free clothes donated by the community. Participants from cities across all countries including Baghdad, San Diego, Algiers, and Sana'a connected over how homelessness is an issue in their communities, and shared resources and inspiration from what local organizations are doing to help. These perspectives and new ideas are then applied to their own communities when designing projects.

Participants earn digital badges, along the way to underscore their achievement and competence in each module based on a number of criteria that align with learning objectives. Learning experts believe badges, which have gained momentum in online learning in the past couple of years, help engage students and document the skills they acquire.

More than 7,000 badges were awarded to The Experiment Digital participants in summer 2020. There are eight badges representing skills gained during each week of the program.

“For participants, it helps give them the language to talk about their skillset development and what they did during the program that improved those skills,” says Hanson. “It helps participants frame their program experience for resumes and university applications and it’s also a way for them to share their accomplishments and learning with their social networks,” she adds.

In the final module, students learn about public narratives and create action plans for their projects to address a community issue.

In summer 2020, student projects covered a wide range of topics and issues, from the environment to human rights to education. They included reducing the amount of waste in grocery stores, creating virtual spaces for mental health discussions, improving the conditions of local orphanages, empowering youth to engage in new learning opportunities while in quarantine, and raising awareness of gender inequality.

“This summer in particular, it has been inspiring to witness the design of virtual projects in response to COVID-19,” says Mackenzie Territo, program associate for The Experiment Digital.

After completing the program, alumni are encouraged to begin implementing their projects. For additional support, alumni have the opportunity to join Project Advisory Circles (PACs). PACs are a tool for alumni from the same region or country to check in with each other and staff about the progress of the projects and brainstorm solutions to project and leadership challenges.

In addition, the second cohort of the Stevens Initiative Alumni Small Grants launched in October. These small grants aim to empower Experiment Digital alumni to serve their communities by providing grants of up to $1,000 (USD) to projects focused on creating positive social change.

A 2019 alumna, Ashley Lin from the state of Washington, was a Stevens Initiative small grant awardee and developed her own text-based virtual exchange program to promote cross-cultural learning experiences for high school students. Lin has gone on to win additional grant funding from National Geographic to develop a thematic virtual exchange based on the sustainable development goals.

In the final module, the students also learn to create a narrative about themselves that includes why they participated in The Experiment Digital, what they got out of it, and how they view their responsibilities are as Experiment Digital alumni.

“By linking these stories into one, participants discover their own public narrative that is unique to them and their community,” says Territo. “It empowers them to express themselves, particularly while implementing their projects in their communities,” she adds. 

Digital Experimenters in Algeria and Yemen, 2019

Program alumni from 2019 and 2020 agree. “This is an experience that is beyond anything I could ever get within classroom walls, within my school,” says Elaine, a 2020 participant from the U.S.

Ferial, from Algeria, who participated in 2019 program says it was a one-of-a-kind experience. She adds: “It helped me improve my leadership skills, my critical thinking, my confidence, and my ability to express my thoughts.”

An early foray in digital global citizenship enabled World Learning to provide a first-rate virtual experience this summer to more than one thousand teens around the world when in-person exchanges were suspended due to the coronavirus. The value of digital exchange and youth leadership development was one of the biggest takeaways of this summer and will continue on long after the pandemic.

Source: The Experiment Digital 2020 End of Program Survey

“We’re going to see a lot more blended online learning programs that incorporate global affairs, cross cultural communications, and leadership to as many students as we can. Plus, we will be offering students more options and a richer, more customized learning experience,” says Thomas. “Virtual and hybrid programming are here to stay."

The Experiment Digital is supported by the Stevens Initiative, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, with funding provided by the U.S. Government, and is administered by the Aspen Institute. It is also supported by the Bezos Family Foundation and the governments of Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.