Two buzzwords in higher education contexts over the past 5-10 years have been ‘digitalisation’ and ‘internationalisation’. Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and funders such as the European Commission have been investing in a wide range of projects and activities to promote these two concepts. However, until the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic over a year ago, rarely were the two brought together to promote one another. One exception to this is Virtual Exchange (VE), which can be defined as: “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” (EVOLVE Project). The field of VE has been growing since the turn of the century, but because the pandemic forced much teaching to move online and brought physical student mobility nearly to a halt, interest in VE has increased significantly over the past several months.
The aim of this talk is two-fold. First, I will give a brief history of Virtual Exchange and discuss how it brings together digitalisation and internationalisation aims. If we put aside purely technological issues such as infrastructure and equipment, both strategies aim to promote inclusion and the development of soft and transversal skills, often referred to as ‘21st Century Skills’. By connecting young people with their peers in geographically diverse locations using technology, VE gives them the opportunity to engage in authentic intercultural communication in an online environment. Furthermore, it is clear now more than ever, that the ability to work effectively online will be a requirement in many job markets in the future. Second, I will examine where we go from here. VE existed long before the pandemic because its goals, e.g. to offer intercultural and international experiences to the majority of students who do not engage in physical mobility for any number of reasons, will continue to be relevant post-pandemic. More importantly, however, if we step back, learn from our experiences in the past year as well as those from nearly two decades of VE practice and research, perhaps we can offer more meaningful and engaging online learning experiences not only now during the pandemic but post-pandemic as well.