The potential of Virtual Exchange (VE) for promoting intercultural competence, language skills and critical digital literacy skills through online collaboration has been acknowledged by experts as a tool for internationalising the curriculum. Still, large-scale uptake by Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) is slow. Policy makers and decision takers are often insufficiently aware of the benefits of VE or do not have the know-how required for a systematic integration of VE at the institutional level and across the curriculum.The Erasmus+ KA3 project EVOLVE, running from January 2017 until June 2020 is trying to bridge that gap by promoting the awareness and implementation of VE, by setting up training and accreditation for educators and other stakeholders, by doing research to measure the impact at student, educator and institution level and by presenting the research results to policy and decision makers at institutional, national and European level.
VE is one of the present-day formats for online international collaboration. Other terms that are sometimes taken as synonyms are COIL (Collaborative Online International Learning), Telecollaboration, Online Intercultural Exchange and Globally Networked Learning. The EVOLVE partners therefore decided to be as specific as possible when defining the term Virtual Exchange. The brief version of the definition defines VE 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 (for a full definition, see https://evolve-erasmus.eu/about-evolve/what-is-virtual-exchange). Key elements in the definition are: intercultural awareness, direct interaction with peers in geographically distant locations and the use of digital technologies.
Virtual Exchange is not Virtual Mobility: the latter term is more related to distance learning, studying (or teaching) at another university abroad via online communication for a limited time. VE is aimed at students who, within the context of their own curriculum and location, collaborate online on intercultural and possibly interdisciplinary tasks. The learning can be either in the form of class-to-class exchanges supported by university teachers or in the form of group exchanges facilitated by external exchange providers and is promoted by the EU as a tool for inclusion and to offer more young people an international experience.
At the time of writing, the project has published a Baseline Study in March 2019 and is finalizing a second research report which is going to be published in Autumn 2019.
The Baseline Study was directed at four different types of stakeholders: Educator, Educational supporter, Internationalisation officer and Policy maker / manager. The survey was responded by 139 people from 44 different institutions and 19 countries, largely from the two European university networks that are partner in the project: the Coimbra and SGroup networks. All but one of these institutions were European.
Our study found that VE is not yet widely known within the target groups. Policy officers and managers show a slightly higher degree of awareness, but this may partly be due to the fact that they associate VE with virtual mobility or online learning more generally. Likewise, VE is not yet used on a large scale by respondents in our sample. The main disciplines where it is implemented and understood are in Education; Arts and Humanities (especially languages); and Social Sciences, Journalism and Information. Implementation, however, is not restricted to these areas and covers most other disciplines distinguished by our study. Support, when it is provided, is normally in the form of technical and pedagogical assistance; institutional recognition and incentives appear to be generally lacking; and data about inclusion at course or curriculum level by allocation of credits, incorporation in course descriptions and reservation of class time are inconclusive due to the small number of participants reporting on this. Finally, VE is not yet widely referenced in strategies and policies for eLearning, professional development and internationalisation, but a group of 10 to 15 universities appear to be moving towards further integration at strategic and policy levels.
Conversely, the potential of VE for educational innovation, skills development and internationalisation are widely acknowledged. More specifically, educators and educational supporters rate VE highly as a tool for teaching and learning innovation, development of intercultural competence, language and digital skills, as well as subscribing to its role in teacher professional development. Overall stakeholders also highly rank its potential for internationalisation, linking it to educational as well as economic benefits.
The second study focuses on the educators who took part in the online training offered by EVOLVE and the actual exchanges that took place in the Spring of 2019. The research was undertaken in order to measure the impact of the implemented VEs, in terms of competence development at learner and teacher level. The data was collected via student and teacher surveys, interviews and reflective portfolios. At the student level, the competencies were partly established on the basis of commonly acknowledged competencies fostered through VEs: personality traits, intercultural competencies, critical digital literacy, disciplinary skills and language skills. A “core part” of the survey and introductory questions in the interviews seek, in parallel, to gain a more general picture, but also to collect general information that would allow, for instance, to better understand potential flaws in achieving the expected learning outcomes.
During this first pilot round, data were collected during the Spring 2019 term from students of 6 VEs, and 12 classes in 12 Higher Educational institutions in 10 different countries in Europe and beyond: Czech Republic, Finland, France, Israel, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Turkey and the United Kingdom. Although VEs may be carried out between more than two institutions, all of these VEs took place between two partner classes. As the report on this pilot round was not finished at the time of writing, rather than provide preliminary results the reader is invited to download the report from the EVOLVE project site, https://evolve-erasmus.eu.
By the end of the project, the research described above will have been supplemented with case studies and a second iteration of both the baseline study and the student and teacher surveys, allowing us to measure the impact of the current initiatives.