Don't commodify Virtual Exchange. Please.
Let me state it clearly: Virtual Exchange is something that I love doing as a teacher. Perhaps it's the adrenaline that each new collaboration generates: the unique, unrepeatable moments of learning that we all (teachers and students alike) experience in each project. Good and bad moments, too, because not everything is fun all the time. I tell my students at the start that I cannot promise "rainbows and unicorns" but instead a journey through which they can get to know others and also themselves better. Virtual Exchange is about dialoguing with peers from abroad, exchanging views and ideas, and working together. Many students report having made friends with their colleagues through online meetings, while some of them complain of getting frustrated by their peers' lack of interest or contribution. Well, it's about group work, which is not always a bed of roses.
There is now a worrying trend that I keep bumping into in my Twitter newsfeed or when just googling for Virtual Exchange: (mostly profit-oriented) organizations selling Virtual Exchange as a package of "skills" or a toolkit that increases one's "global competence". Some programs even require that the participants pay a fee, so they have to invest money into this package of promises that "prepares them for working life" in "today's globalized world", for the sake of becoming a "global citizen" equipped with "21st-century skills". The commercial discourse drawing on these empty buzzwords just goes on and on, with nicely edited testimonials from some participants. Virtual Exchange is described as a good investment to "gain" important career skills such as collaboration, communication, foreign language proficiency, awareness of diverse perspectives, and civic and global engagement, etc., etc.
What is going on, for God's sake? A 5-10 week "intercultural exchange" is framed more like an exploitative, gain-seeking colonial enterprise than an opportunity to meet and dialogue with others. Is that the main point of Virtual Exchange? A pragmatic give-and-take (or rather just take) for the sake of one's own career success? To me, this sounds horrifying and reminds me of colonial times. Virtual Exchange should be about human encounters, discussions, and reflections, something that lets one enjoy the moment. Instead, it is positioned as a tool that cures "deficiencies" in one's communication, foreign language, and whatever skills. The terms like "global competence", "intercultural awareness", or "global citizen" are commercialized, ill-defined, and empty words in themselves, which sound ridiculous in the context of a few weeks of online meetings.
There is something about Virtual Exchange that is invaluable. Young people get the chance to talk to their peers whom they would not meet otherwise due to the physical distance. They overcome their fears about meeting the Other and engaging in joint discussion and collaboration. Good projects (even though I don't like the term "project" due to its pragmatic and business-like connotation), so good projects are those where the participants move beyond the "let's get it done" attitude and develop a genuine curiosity in each other. Good projects are those in which the group members discuss non-task-related things in their online meetings and discover their similarities and shared interests. Good projects are about the present and not the future. Good projects are not even projects with pre-defined "learning outcomes" (what a term, again) but messy and co-created learning journeys. We should keep Virtual Exchange on this track. Don't commodify Virtual Exchange. Please.
Photos by Cookie the Pom on Unsplash