Virtual Exchange during COVID-19

Everything started with an e-mail from Poland. My dear colleague, Katarzyna Radke contacted me from Adam Mickiewicz University (Poznań, Poland) to ask if I would be interested in launching an online collaboration project with her and her colleague, Ivonne Dekker from the Netherlands. The idea was that our students from different disciplines (language majors from Finland, tourism and ICT experts from Poland and business students from the Netherlands) would work in international groups on a tourism-related theme. We called it the "City-break in Europe" project, and it ran for 7 weeks in the spring term of 2020.

The main task in the project was to design an attractive city-break in the three cities (Jyväskylä, Utrecht and Poznań) for tourists. The groups (about 5-6 students in each) could choose the format for presenting the city-break offer. Some of the groups decided to do videos, while others opted for other genres such as blogs, Instagram posts, or online magazines. The official platforms of the project, where the teachers shared information about the schedule and the tasks, were Canvas and Trello. Each group could select the tools that they used for their internal communication. The project integrated facilitated intercultural dialogue sessions, which were held by colleagues from UNICollaboration. These meetings meant a good opportunity for the students to reflect on their experiences and also discuss topics that were not strongly related to the main theme of the project.

What made this virtual exchange special and memorable was the COVID-19 pandemic. The students, especially in Poland, were afraid to go to public spaces to collect materials (e.g. photos, recordings) for their final task. Many of them could not concentrate on their studies because they had to leave campus and travel to their home cities to help their families. The stress and the uncertainty resulting from the pandemic situation caused communication problems in some of the groups. We asked the students to be flexible and understanding and also sent them supportive messages. It was lovely to see how much the students supported one another in their small groups! The project provided them an opportunity to share their fears about the pandemic. Luckily, all the groups could finish their projects and most of the students could participate in the project-closing video conference.

The students submitted their reflections and feedback on the project in the form of e-portfolios. Most of them believed that this virtual exchange was very useful from the point of view of their future working life because it developed several skills and competencies (digital literacy, team working skills, intercultural competence, time management, communication skills etc.). Let me share some extracts from the student feedback:

"First of all, I've learned to cooperate in an international team. [...] Moreover, it was a good opportunity to improve my English language because I had many opportunities to speak. Actually I didn’t speak English very often, only once a week in my english classes. [..] It is a beautiful feeling when you know that you can get along with almost anyone. I also learned about new online tools that are extremely useful and I will certainly use them in the future. I also learned new information about my partners' cities. The most interesting in these cities was the contrast between them. [...] I'm really happy with the benefits I have derived from participating in this project." (Polish student)

"During our first video conference, I wasn't really able to talk with the other students so it was good that I had the chance to do it in the end. I think I felt some sort of unity with everyone. It’s very hard to explain it but in the end it really felt like a virtual exchange. 
It was funny how I felt a bit emotional after every last meeting.[...]   I think that’s something I learned that you can create real connections even if you’ve never met the person face-to-face."  (Finnish student)

"The last week is over! How sad. I had the last team meeting with the „Big Hero 6“ family. We had quite a nice chat and I felt how our relationships to each other had changed over the last six weeks. We were able to have normal conversations about daily life, laugh together, but also be critical and work together. We all decided to keep in touch and maybe even meet each other one day! We definitely want to hold another meeting and drink some beers together, according to our video guide we created." (Dutch student)

We  (= the three teachers) are very proud of our students' work! Here are the outcomes of the project. Check them out!

Bike & Beer: a great video made by the "Big Heroes" team

An Instagram account by "The other team"

Virtual Ramble video by the "Virtual Potatoes"

A lovely online magazine by "Virtual Friends"

An interesting blog by "The laggers"

... and a collection of local dishes made by the "Without borders" team

We presented the project in a webinar (5th June, 2020) organized by UNICollaboration. It was lovely that some of our student participants contributed to the event by sharing their views on the learning experience. The webinar was recorded. You can watch it here:

Many thanks to my two dear colleagues, Katarzyna and Ivonne for the great project!