5 Fundamental Tenets Of Virtual Exchange

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.

Your different virtual personas

People who spend a significant portion of their day web conferencing in professional contexts can often develop a way of being in the online meeting while not being fully present in the online meeting. We create something like an online persona that is drifting in and out of the virtual meeting (or group) space, video turned off, checking some emails, or making to-do lists for other tasks ahead. We turn off the webcam and the screen becomes somewhat of a protective barrier.

This is completely understandable, as people often find that being able to turn off their cameras and be ‘out of the spotlight’ – and therefore being able to stretch, eat, or take a break from keeping their professional attentive listening face on at all times – is vital to their ability to sustain their productivity and sanity during long hours of uninterrupted screen time. 

Participating in, or facilitating online dialogue or seminars, however, requires a different online persona and use of the screen. In these contexts, the screen must not be used as a shield but rather as a bridge between you and the people you are engaging with. 

One of the reasons online interaction is often viewed as not being capable of creating the kind of relationship or trust-building that in-person contact does is that humans (like other social animals) use in-person interactions to take in a lot of data that we use to build and navigate relationships. Being in front of someone ‘in real life’ obviously assists in clear communication, as it allows us to pick up on small social cues, to establish eye contact, and to have a clearer sense of prosody, tone, and body language. The truth is that we can still pick up on most or all of these in online dialogue, but the participants must make an effort (when possible*) to have their cameras on and their faces visible. 

In a virtual setting that can sometimes feel like a void, being present and showing active engagement goes much farther than merely speaking up; it can have the same effect as walking into the room and taking a seat at the table. Showing active listening and non-verbal participation through your camera when others are speaking helps them build confidence, communicates to them that their contribution matters, and helps them understand that they are not at the table alone. 

In a meeting that mainly requires your presence and ability to take in what is said, the first kind of persona can be perfectly suitable, and a valuable means to avoid virtual fatigue. In dialogue and experience-sharing, we must bring out a different part of ourselves, and use the digital tools at our disposal to the fullest. 

*Note: The reality is that not everyone has the bandwidth to support video, and that’s ok! Speaking up regularly, showing active listening by reacting to your colleague’s statements using the chat and making visible contributions to online activities can allow you to make just as much impact as those with their cameras on.

Collaboratively confronting challenges in virtual learning

The norms we can take for granted in a classroom setting often get lost in cyberspace, and a virtual setting brings with it the opportunity (and challenge) to rethink them. While it can feel like needing to learn how to swim again, we don’t have to drift in unknowns. We still know a couple of things: 

  1. Collaborative and participatory decision making for adult learners generates more inclusive decisions, ownership of the process, and accountability to outcomes. 
  2. Developing new norms requires being plain and direct, making the implicit explicit when assumptions and interests differ.  

Remembering these two things, we can anticipate and respond to emergent challenges in virtual learning and engage students in the process. We’re including discussion guides for 3 key challenges below. 



By now, no student is a stranger to online learning, and they’ve likely experienced a gambit of different expectations for audio and video participation. Some professors require video on, some don’t. Others require muting until talking, and still others require staying unmuted unless there is a disruptive noise. Open this conversation with the following questions: 

  • What are reasons for having our videos on? (relationships, group work, attention, etc)
  • What are the reasons we would want videos off? (bandwidth, privacy, family members, etc)
  • What do you want this learning environment to look like, or feel like? What are creative solutions that could meet all of these interests? 

💡 If videos are off, how can individual students, and the rest of the group, compensate for lack of visual presence (for example by profile photos, greater activity in the chat stream, turning on in small group activities)?

I ask my students to create an avatar using an avatar maker and set it as their profile picture. They are allowed to change it over the course of the semester as they wish to represent how they developed their skills and knowledge during the programme. It is really interesting to see how they are more comfortable and confident as time passes and they start changing their avatars.”R. Tahboub, Lecturer at Hebron University


Retention or passive participation

We’ve all had the experience of biting off more than we can chew, possibly including the specific experience of signing up for an online class and not being able to follow through with it. Discussing expectations, needs and motivation with your students set the scene for a deliberate and positive learning experience. You can use these prompts as starters:

  • Knowing that there are many other things competing for your time and attention, what is your ‘WHY’ for signing up for this class? 
  • Knowing that online classes can slip through the cracks for anyone, what would be a supportive way to nudge you if we notice this starts to happen? (An email after 2 absences? Required office hours appearance?)
  • As the professor, I believe this course is worth your time for xyz reasons, and I’m doing xyz things to support you staying engaged. How else can you as students support each other to succeed in this course? 


Tech issues

There are fewer more frustrating things than trying to accomplish something and facing a tech-related problem that is preventing you. Set your learners up for success by discussing the tech requirements needed for the course and crowdsourcing solutions for common technical issues:

  • These (xyz) are the times that technology will be used to participate or submit assignments. Can we take a few minutes now to make sure we personally have all the required downloads, updates, etc. that will enable this? Where will you have wifi access? Are there any other issues you foresee that you can inform me of (privately)?
  • XYZ are the tech support resources we have as an institution. What are other ways to get support you know of? How could you support each other as a student group if questions or issues arise? 

💡 Compile the tech tips and support resources the students bring to the table into a ‘tech first-aid kit’. Valuable for present and future cohorts! 


Are you facing additional challenges in virtual teaching? And do you see ways to address them collaboratively? 

3 tips for effective online teaching

“When taking stock of the key principles behind our online course designs we realised we were exploring a shift of focus from content to people,” says curriculum expert Dr Sophie Millner;

“There is a tradition of placing learning materials at the centre of teaching. This results in quite a burden on the shoulders of the educator to produce lots of content. Shifting this focus to learning outcomes allows for greater creativity in the classroom and for more student engagement.” 

Not to say that content isn’t a crucial component, but it is one element in a set of other equally important elements. In fact, in the virtual classroom or learning space, these other elements actually grow in importance.

Here are three tips for successful and effective online learning experiences: 

1. ‘Less is more’

As for many other things in life, ‘less is more’ goes a long way. Curate your materials so that what you deliver is short but really valuable and stimulating. 

2. Activate your learners 

It’s not all about content, so why not give more time for learners to interact and engage with the material by designing interactive assignments. These will help learners feel engaged and increase their sense of ownership.

3. Invest in relationship building

Especially, but not solely, in these detached times. Establishing relationships between instructor-students as well as amongst students is not only good for wellbeing but also enhances student learning and skill development.


Learn more about these and more elements like how to set students up for success, creating engaging content in the training ‘Going Virtual’  (9, 16, 23 February) 


Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange as a new form of education

As one of my case studies, I focused on the Virtual Exchange format of the Sharing Perspectives Foundation as I noticed they were aiming to do something different with their online courses. I talked to staff members about the design of the format and studied the daily operation of the courses. I tried to understand what is specific to the SPF format and consider the educational implications of these specificities. In the end, the purpose of my study was to give a more detailed view on the way open online education initiatives could work, and formulate some more grounded claims about their role in the educational field. 

What I found is that, in many respects, the Virtual Exchange format of the Sharing Perspectives Foundation does something totally different than traditional education. Digital technologies are implemented in such a way that young people from all over the globe share resources about complex issues that play at a global level, like the videos and reading materials. Next to that, the Virtual Exchange format integrates discussions about local effects of these global issues, by encouraging participants to describe their personal experiences, to give local examples, and to share interviews with their friends or family members about the discussed topics. These activities in the Virtual Exchange give a stage to differences between participants who are from various geographical regions and have different backgrounds. But they may also cast light on surprising similarities: participants from different parts of the world may share passions, aspirations, experiences, or even linguistic expressions. What the Virtual Exchange format introduces, in this way, is a continuous connection between the local and the global, online and offline, personal and common, or differences and similarities. 

The image visualizes how differences and similarities unfold during the dialogue sessions

The image visualizes how differences and similarities unfold during the dialogue sessions, like a ‘color wheel’ or a fan. That is, on the one hand, this unfolding shows dissimilarities (in the image, the different lines making up the circles. On the other hand, these differences are held together through commonalities (in the image, the ‘joint’ or hinge keeping the different circles together). Image retrieved from: van de Oudeweetering, K., & Decuypere, M. (2020). In between hyperboles: forms and formations in Open Education. Learning, Media and Technology, 1-18 (Advance online publication). doi: 10.1080/17439884.2020.1809451

As much as digital technologies establish these new connections, they are not without glitches. Poor internet connections, hardware issues, or overburdened servers frequently interrupt the dialogue sessions, and sometimes prevent participants from entering the dialogue sessions. I experienced this myself one time when there was a power cut in my street and my apartment. Luckily, there is a technical team offering support in these cases and facilitators try to integrate these technical problems in the dialogue session: they encourage participants to think about the fragility of digital connections, and how the ability to connect online often heavily depends on local contexts.  

Besides these specific characteristics of the Virtual Exchange format of SPF, I also noticed that the online design bears similarities with ‘traditional’ school settings. For example, the small dialogue groups give the same safety as a class, the online meeting rooms are designed to create a similar feeling of commonality as in a classroom,  and there is a course outline that structures the learning materials like a regular curriculum. In this sense, the Virtual Exchange format of SPF integrates various characteristics of education that we are familiar to. Moreover, it is this continuity that makes the format work: we need closedness to build bonds, we need some sort of place and time to come together, and we need a timeline to commit to a learning trajectory. Therefore, this study helped to see that the format does not introduce a radical disruption from or for traditional forms of education, but establishes new dimensions and connections to existing, formal education settings. 

The study is accessible via https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17439884.2020.1809451, but subscriptions or university networks are required.

About the author

Karmijn van de Oudeweetering is a 29-year old PhD student at the KU Leuven in Belgium. Her research is focused on open online education initiatives, how they are embedded in European education policy, and how they are consequently realized. Furthermore, the research focuses on describing and visualizing forms of space and time that come into being through these online educational developments.

7 reasons ‘going virtual’ could be your plan A

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 > 


From MOOC to iOOC

What we call Interactive Open Online Courses can reach a great number of learners and create a wide variety of learning environments. A range of interactive courses offered through the Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange project combines the deep impact of intercultural exchange, with the broad reach of massive open online learning. This allows young people to have meaningful intercultural learning experiences as a part of their formal or non-formal education. Interactive Open Online Courses benefit from the diversity in the backgrounds and nationalities of its participants and use it as primary source for learning; creating dynamic and interactive educational experiences.

Today’s students, employees, and citizens need to be able to strive in diverse contexts, regardless of their disciplines. Participants in virtual exchange develop the transversal skills required for economic and civil participation in the 21st century, namely cross-cultural competencies, digital literacies, and curiosity about experiences and understandings distinct from their own. 

Virtual Exchange or Virtual training?

Methodological principles

Virtual exchange
Virtual training
Designed around
process content
Learning is
implicit explicit
Learner is
leading in process central in design
Method of instruction
facilitated instructed
Interaction between learners
is the core of the learning is supportive to the learning
Emphasis on
Contemporary themes Timeless themes and skills
Interaction is
mostly synchronous synchronous & asynchronous
Connection is made to
people content
deepen the learning process check the learning process
Learning outcomes are
flexible to each participant identical for each participant


A virtual exchange

A designed interactive process in which the learner is leading. Learners interact synchronously under the guidance of facilitators to engage on contemporary themes. Through the interactive process learners implicitly develop various skills. However, to which extent they develop those skills is flexible and dependent on their own needs and previous experiences. Participant’s curiosity might be triggered and stimulated, their self-esteem can be enhanced, their previously held beliefs and viewpoints may be challenged and their listening skills might improve. The assignments learners engage in are solely designed to deepen the learning process. Submitting assignments is sufficient to pass the course as meta-analysis on learning outcomes for all participants together show us that the overall learning outcomes are being met at a certain level of participation and assignments submission.


A virtual training

Is designed around specific content or skills. Learning outcomes are explicit and equal to all participants. Learners are instructed, and engage in the training through readings and video-materials and interact with peers or instructors both synchronous and asynchronous to support their comprehension of the content. Assignments are used to control for this comprehension and can be failed after submission. Trained skills and taught content are timeless and do not necessarily have a link to contemporary issues. 


Learning objectives

Typically, through virtual exchanges learners develop what is referred to in literature as soft skills, transversal skills or 21st Century skills. Such skills include curiosity, self-esteem, tolerance to ambiguity, serenity, resilience, critical thinking, listening skills, or cross-cultural competences. Through virtual trainings, participants typically develop more concrete or ‘hard’ skills, like digital competences, foreign language skills or media-literacy. This also clarifies the difference in learning outcome measurement. It is at least unethical but arguably impossible, to fail a participant on a low level of self-esteem or by not being curious enough. It is possible to measure someone’s ability to use online tools, such as Google sheets or to measure a certain language proficiency or the ability to distinguish between real and fake news. The above is not exclusive, but illustrative to a typical learning outcome for each model. 

Codifying Values and Enabling Scale

Our code of conduct lays out what we believe the path to success is, how to know if we’ve arrived, and the rules of the road along the way. It is an essential map that has had both process value, i.e. benefits that come from the act of developing it, and output value, where the code itself can be used in training, quality control, harmonization, and community building. 

In short, we want to share it because we believe that a collaboratively developed facilitators code of conduct has value both as an internal guideline, for us and as a template for others, and an external statement of professional values and commitments as Virtual Exchange practitioners.  

We invite you to view our code of conduct here > 

This code of conduct represents our commitment to the professional standards and ethics that guide our involvement in the implementation of virtual exchanges. In recognition of the importance of our commitment to constructive exchange, and in accepting a personal obligation to our profession, its members and the communities we serve, we use it to commit ourselves to the highest ethical and professional conduct.

Finally, as Virtual Exchange networks continue to increase in number and scale, we think this is relevant for everyone doing Virtual Exchange programming. Whether you are designing an exchange for 20 participants or 2000, codifying and institutionalizing standards will enable integrity, alignment, and trust. 

 How could you use one in your organization? What would you include in your code of conduct?