Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange as a new form of education

About a  year ago, I came across the Virtual Exchange format of the Sharing Perspectives Foundation in the context of my PhD research. The interest of the research was in European open online education initiatives, including Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), but also other initiatives that try to make education more accessible through online means. I noticed that, in the media, open online education initiatives have generally been advertised as disruptive forces that will either solve problems for the educational system, or that will threaten the public intellectual value of it. These are big claims that are not always connected to actual practices in the field of open online education. One of the goals of my research is, therefore, to address open online education initiatives in Europe, to describe in detail what they look like and how they work, and to try to understand their implications without presuming good or bad outcomes.

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.

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