5 Fundamental Tenets Of Virtual Exchange

Virtual Exchange (VE) is a great way to allow for genuine interaction, learning and relationship development between people in geographically distant locations. Through VE, spaces for effective collaboration are created and cultivated. Using sustained dialogue as a pedagogical tool during the virtual exchanges, helps to foster healthy group formation processes, even between physically remote people. Virtual Exchanges may vary depending on the goals, length and structure of the exchange, but typically aim to bring together people from different cultures and backgrounds in order to enhance their intercultural competences. These intercultural competences include intercultural communication, intercultural understanding, and empathy, which positively contribute to group formation and relationship development. However, in order to sustainably enhance these intercultural competences, there are 5 fundamental tenets of Virtual Exchange that support this process. 

1. Exchanges should be sustained over an extended period of time, ideally nothing less than four iterations. This is because genuine, lasting shifts in attitudes and building skills take time, and cannot be accomplished from one-off engagements. Sustained interaction also allows for greater reflection and learning over time. 

2. Exchanges should be designed using a process-oriented approach. This means that a group is not thought of as a static cluster of individuals that come into existence once per week for the purpose of checking off programme agenda items. Instead, a group is perceived as a communal and collaborative entity that undergoes a process of continuing development and growth. The programme design strategically engenders ongoing synchronous and asynchronous moments of interaction throughout the entire exchange period, which are formulated to build group relationships, trust, skills and capacity. Synchronous meetings are not purely agenda focused, and are designed to be responsive to the needs and development stage of each group. The process and development oriented approach is made explicit to participants: each of them knows they will be embarking on a journey that moves towards certain goals and milestones, and what these will look like. Each successive meeting prompts the group to take more ownership of the discussions, to recognize and manage the dynamics affecting their interactions, and reflect on their growth.

3. This process does not happen on its own. Virtual exchanges should be guided by trained facilitators whose role is to serve as process leaders, as they are critical to ensure and enable the group to work cooperatively and effectively. This process leader keeps things focused, allows everyone a chance to participate, and helps the group to achieve more from the engagement than they would on their own. They provide expertise in managing online groups and their dynamics, and mitigating any challenges posed by technology or physical distance

The role of a facilitator in the learning process necessitates that they do not also play the role of an educator or instructor. In dialogue-based virtual exchanges, there is a focus on group discussions that connect across differences at the personal level, and treat each participant as experts in their own experience. In contrast, classes and trainings usually involve one-way knowledge transmission in which it is the educator who is the expert, and whose facts and opinions matter most. A facilitator who simultaneously plays the role of an educator makes themselves a figure of authority whose contributions carry more weight, which creates a power dynamic that is inimical to the dialogue process. Those with educator backgrounds who are accustomed to specific learning and engagement modalities may therefore need to spend extra time getting clear on the unique responsibilities of the facilitator role in order to provide the space for dialogue-based interaction. 

Two essential components of the facilitator role are imortant to mention here: neutrality and multipartiality.

  • A neutral facilitator ensures space for participants to express themselves authentically by not expressing their own views. A Neutral Facilitator do not act as participants and contribute to the content of the discussions by expressing their own opinions or emotions. They don’t favour any viewpoints expressed by participants or express their preferences.
  • A multipartial facilitator, supports the participants to understand that there are multiple ways to view a topic, and that those multiple views are important to understand the topic at a deeper level. They are curious about, and encourage the expression of all viewpoints present in the virtual exchange activity, and tries to draw attention also to those that are not represented.

4. A constructive Virtual Exchange programme combines both structured elements (activities, assignments, etc.) and unstructured free-flowing discussion. These are discussions that participants sustain themselves (with the occasional support of facilitators), and provide the opportunity for them to practise and develop competences in communication and collaboration with a cross-cultural group. With each free-flowing discussion, participants advance in confidence, skill, and connections with each other.

5. Opportunities for reflection should be embedded in each stage of the exchange. Reflecting on and therefore becoming explicitly aware of the experience, the process, and what has been learned or achieved should happen with regularity, both within the group and through individual assignments. Reflection also creates awareness of what has benefited the process, and what things the group could improve going forward to ensure more constructive collaboration. In addition, people are best able to engage with difference when they have a sense of their own identity. This approach to exchange encourages participants to explore their identities and practice self-reflection, and see how different aspects of their identities affect their views and communication with others.

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