If we accept the definitions mentioned in this article, the benefits of VYEs can easily be inferred.
Firstly, it is evident that, when carefully planned and when meeting the criteria that differentiate a VE from other forms of online learning, it is possible to implement active experiential learning in a way that other approaches do not guarantee. However, it must be noted that in this case, we are mentioning approaches and not tools. It is very well possible that even using the same digital tools, results may variate greatly because of a difference in methodology. If we apply the usual active and experiential-based pedagogical approach to an online learning opportunity, the chances that we will be able to reproduce similar results as an in-presence exchange are quite high, no matter which set of digital tools we may choose.
A different discourse must be chosen when considering the possibility of implementing a strong peer-to-peer learning experience. In this case, the choice of tools becomes quite relevant, as well as some offer features that others lack. For instance, the possibility to replicate group work should be taken into account when deciding which video conferencing tool we will be using. But again, as for experiential learning, peer-to-peer interaction is very easily implemented online. Actually, to list another well-known benefit, for many the interaction mediated by a screen enhances the feeling of a safe environment making it more comfortable for them to participate actively in the exchange.
This safe environment is not the only variable improving inclusiveness in online exchanges. At least on a geographical scale, the possibility to attend a VYE reduces logistic obstacles such as expensive or overly complicated travel choices, making the possibility to attend a youth exchange available to more youngsters that would otherwise not be able to afford it.
This also gives us the possibility (which is also my recommendation) to plan a VYE to happen for a short time such as, for instance, 2h per day, which allows participants to attend even though they cannot to leave school or work for many days.
When it comes to building a safe environment, working online with a VYE makes it even easier for vulnerable participants to decide whether to continue in the experience or not, when they may feel not fully comfortable with the content of the VYE or the dynamics of the group anymore.
Moreover, it should be acknowledged that taking part in a VYE offers the possibility of strengthening not only the key competencies of the specific topic of the exchange or those connected to social and interpersonal interactions, but also all the digital competencies linked to the use of specific communication tools.
Finally, it is imeperative we do not underestimated the economic benefits for organizations, when trying to organize VYEs even without external grants (i.e. Erasmus+ grants), making it possible for a much wider audience of Associations, educational bodies, and youngsters to attend an exchange. Quoting a direct experience from the joint project in performer training and rehearsal conducted between the Coventry University (UK) and the Tampere University (Finland):
“Not only have we saved money on expensive hotels/hostels during field trips, but we have effectively doubled our staff teams during these projects, enabling true international collaboration at a fraction of the cost.”
It’s self-evident that the same benefit also applies to the young participants that, depending on the planned activities and the technical limitations, can participate only using their smartphones.
A special kind of benefit comes into play when the VYE is included in a broader, longer-term and blended experience. When we refer to a “blended experience” we normally mean an experience where some parts of it take place in real life and others take place online. This is an increasingly common situation in the international youth mobility area as the added value of one or two VYEs to any event otherwise based only on in-person activities is such that the overall results of the project are greatly improved. In these cases, it is becoming evident that holding a VYE before the youth groups meet in person enhances the feeling of belonging, the perception of a safer environment, and reduces the time needed for a group to blend and feel as one, facilitating the team building and getting to know processes.
A VYE can be a great follow-up tool to use some time after an in-presence experience, when the group spirit is still high enough to boost the motivation to attend the online part and when it is still useful to assess some results or developments.
In the case of activities that run for a longer time instead like, for example, long-term training courses, including VYEs before, after, and in between the two residential mobilities helps facilitate better continuity across the project phases and contribute to reducing the dropout rate between the in-person parts of the project.
This was the direct experience of our partner organization Associazione Intercultural NUR with their pioneering Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange project, Pathways to Youth Leadership, back in 2018-2019.
Author: Alexandro Jan Lai
Images: DALL-E from Open AI