7 reasons ‘going virtual’ could be your plan A

“Sure you can build relationships online, but they can’t have the depth that a real, physical meeting would allow.”

“Meeting online is great, but you miss so many nonverbal and physical cues.”

“We planned to have this gathering in person, but due to visa restrictions we had to adapt to an online format.”

Does any of this sound familiar?

This year, as schools, conferences, gatherings, and exchange programs,  are having to adapt quickly to COVID restrictions, we certainly have heard these sentiments a lot. We empathize deeply with the load placed on educators and program designers to change course quickly and often with limited resources or experience in online organizing or facilitating. However, while a global pandemic provided the unwelcome push into the deep end of the digital era, a sentiment of disbelief and distrust in online learning formats or online communities isn’t new. 

Across a range of fields and disciplines, virtual learning and interaction are commonly seen as a ‘plan B,’ i.e. “if we can’t get everyone together, then we’ll begrudgingly adapt accordingly”. And often, especially with programs around sensitive issues or specific participants, this is even a ‘plan Z’ as people are convinced “we just can’t do what we do online.”  In many cases, this is likely true, and we fully see the benefits that in-person interaction provides. We are not tech evangelists. However, what this negative sentiment prevents is the ability to ask the more generative question: What is enabled by ‘going virtual’? 

This may not be surprising coming from us (after all, we primarily do Virtual Exchange), but there are some exciting answers to that question that make ‘going virtual’ a consideration for any program to be a ‘plan A’ and not a forced afterthought. Let’s look at a few. 

  1. Technology widens the net. Being virtual, we can access people that have issues with mobility, resources, or even interest. 
  2. Technology can provide an intercultural experience without the travel. There are benefits here for the climate, clearly, but it also ensures more young people are given the opportunities to interact without geographical or political restrictions. 
  3. In a virtual setting, you can meet people where they are. For a young person to have decided to do an exchange or study abroad, they have already crossed several gates in terms of personal interests or cross-cultural skills in order to self-select into that process. With virtual programming, you have met them in their living room from their laptop screen. Many are not yet convinced of the process, and even more so, their new diverse peers also taking part in that process. 
  4. Technology enables participants to experience change while embedded in their own context. Conventional exchange and dialogue programs often face re-entry challenges, wherein participants experience change within a container that no longer exists once they return home. A virtual program enables the new relationships and personal change to co-exist with everyday experiences.
  5. In many ways, it can be easier to foster a safe space in a virtual world. When participants are barefoot and in pyjama pants while in their own bedrooms or living spaces, personal sharing can come easier. A screen can also act as a transparent shield that participants can initially take comfort in, and pull down with agency as they gain comfort and trust. 
  6. Creating a virtual space can enable intention and purpose in relationship building. Or, in other words, I can go on an exchange opportunity in another country yet somehow miss true exchange opportunities because I’ve found a group of like-minded expats I end up spending the most time with. 
  7. Finally, a digital program can create a more consonant learning environment with the digital world learners and participants are living within. If doing a training program on countering hate speech, for example, learning online allows for active practice and discussion in the space where hate speech is most often encountered and responded to. 

These are just seven of the reasons we think buts can be turned to ands when designing an online program. Let’s reframe ‘going virtual’ and get comfortable in seeing the opportunities it enables. 

“You can build relationships online, and they can be with a more diverse group of people who are there to share authentically without the distraction of social cues and categorization.”

“Meeting online is great, and you can get a fuller picture of where a person is coming from through the sights and sounds of their unique setting.”

“We planned to have this gathering in person, and then we realized we could deepen their engagement through a hybrid approach that allowed them to form relationships with each other virtually beforehand.”

Julie Hawke, Senior Facilitation officer

learn more about how we support professionals with virtual exchange and trainings here > 


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