What is Virtual Exchange?
Virtual Exchange (VE) is a practice, supported by research, that consists of sustained, technology-enabled, people-to-people education programmes or activities in which constructive communication and interaction takes place between individuals or groups who are geographically separated and/or from different cultural backgrounds, with the support of educators or facilitators. Virtual Exchange combines the deep impact of intercultural dialogue and exchange with the broad reach of digital technology.
VE aims to allow an increasing number of people to have a meaningful intercultural experience as part of their formal and/or non-formal education. This type of activity may be situated in educational programmes across the curriculum in order to increase mutual understanding, and global citizenship, as well as in informal education projects. Virtual Exchange also fosters the development of what have been recognized as employability skills such as digital competence (the ability to communicate and collaborate effectively online), foreign language competence, communication skills, media literacy and the ability to work in a diverse cultural context.
Virtual Exchange is:
- Sustained: unfolding over time with regular, intensive interaction;
- Technology-enabled: using new media, digital, and/or mobile technologies;
- Preferably based on regular synchronous or near-synchronous meetings using high social presence media;
- People-to-people: involving inclusive, intercultural collaboration and dialogue, that bridges differences and distances and inspires action with a long term positive impact on relationships;
- Learner-led: following the philosophy of dialogue where participants are the main recipients and the main drivers of knowledge; learning through dialogue means that participants will be seeking mutual understanding and co-creating knowledge, based on their own experiences.
- Facilitated: with the support of trained facilitators and/or educators;
- Educational: Integrated into formal and/or non-formal educational programmes and activities to develop measurable increases in the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that foster pro-social behaviours;
- Structured to foster mutual understanding: covering topics related to identity, empathy, perspective taking, critical reflection, intercultural understanding, and helping participants to engage in constructive conversations in the face of ontological and epistemological differences; a key tenet of VE is that intercultural understanding and awareness are not automatic outcomes of contact between different groups/cultures.
The following terms are sometimes taken as synonyms to VE and can overlap with it:
- Telecollaboration in the field of language learning;
- Globally networked learning;
- Collaborative online international learning;
- Online Intercultural Exchange.
The following types of programs do not fall under VE:
- Simple MOOCS with no sustained interactions between small groups of students;
- Distance learning courses;
- Creating social media groups;
- Unmoderated, unsustained, unstructured programs;
- Virtual mobility which is closer to distance online education: that is ‘studying abroad’ at another institution without having to go there and making claims to intercultural learning purely through being ‘cross-border’;
- Programs that lack a sustained pedagogy for interaction, such as programs with only one moment for interaction, like a one-off meeting.