Virtual Exchanges (VEs), in general, and especially Virtual Youth Exchanges (VYEs), are a pedagogic practice in facilitating access to learning opportunities. From our perspective, we will focus on VYEs and on the benefits they can offer to young people. Relying strongly on reciprocity and peer learning, the way VYEs work makes it greatly compatible with non-formal education and supports the implementation of educational activities and opportunities to a large extent. Making it technically possible for its participants to exchange different points of view and opinions on issues highly relevant to youth, it is a great and economic replacement for in-person interaction and collaboration, when working with distant peers becomes a necessity or an opportunity to overcome other obstacles that would make any other alternative unrealistic.
Of course, this has been the case for years, as anyone can easily imagine.
VYEs are nothing new and have grown to become a tool for internationalize learning as early as the beginning of the 2000s. Intercultural initiatives following the cultural clashes of the early years of the new millennium, such as the not-for-profit organization Soliya, have successfully proven to be a great tool for promoting reciprocal intercultural understanding and a safe environment and platform for the exchange of different opinions and beliefs. And even if the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly increased the international youth work field interest in Virtual Youth Exchanges, the Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange initiative dates back to 2018, much before what was then seen as an opportunity became a necessity.
Before analyzing in detail the benefits of VYEs and the practical steps it takes to organize one, it is worth understanding what the most widely accepted definitions of VEs are. This is very much needed to clear the table of any ideas and shortcuts leading to mistaking a group video conferencing experience for a full-scale and duly organized VYE.
The Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange initiative defines a VEs as:
“[…] Technology-enabled, facilitated, people-to-people education programs sustained over some time. […] By employing a wide variety of technologies and educational pedagogy, Virtual Exchange makes it possible for every young person to have meaningful, transnational, and intercultural experiences.”
It is of paramount importance to highlight the focus of the peer-to-peer pedagogical approach, the need for specific facilitation, and the duration of a VE. All these details make a huge difference with whatever group video call or webinar. These are the main variables to take into account when trying to understand the benefits of a VYE and how to implement one.
Soliya, probably the organization with the longest experience with this tool in the world, places great importance on considering VEs as: “High impact inter-and cross-cultural education facilitated through digital technology,” adding the relevance of using VEs as a tool to promote inter and cross-cultural understanding and experiences.
The Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange concept description further explains how a Virtual Exchange differs from other online learning formats by stressing the importance of four more variables that make it a unique form of learning:
- Experiential learning
- People-to-people interaction
- Soft skills
- Learner-led learning
These very same variables are the basis of all the more traditional in-presence residential learning opportunities, such as youth exchanges, which are very typical of our field. It becomes clear that a valid quality-driven VYE must also be based on the same values and general pedagogical approaches to differentiate itself from other online learning methods.
If, for instance, we take a moment to think about a self-paced learning online course we can easily see the lack of interpersonal interaction which makes non-formal education in the field of youth so unique and effective. If we lack a true peer learning approach, even experiential learning becomes extremely difficult to implement online.
A MOOC course will, even with its hundreds of learners (or maybe, because of its hundreds of learners), definitely not create the safe environment needed for a fruitful person-to-person learning collaboration.
An online webinar may be addressed to a smaller group of participants but it is normally based on the transfer of knowledge from a speaker (expert/teacher/keynote speaker…) to the audience and it lacks the learner-led approach, at least to the extent that it can characterize a VYE. The soft skills resulting from experiential and peer learning cannot be gained in the same way in any of these kinds of online learning settings as they can in a VYE. It’s just a different story!
Author: Alexandro Jan Lai
Images: DALL-E from Open AI