Over the past 33 years, more than 10 million students across Europe have participated in the Erasmus+ programme. However, according to the European Commission, today, only four per cent of young people have access to this opportunity.
Erasmus is largely seen as instrumental in enriching student’s intercultural education. But what about those who cannot afford to go on Erasmus? Or those who do not have the desire to spend a year wrestling with a new language? Especially now, in the height of a deadly pandemic? How can we offer them an education with a similar cross-cultural dimension?
Enter Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange, a pilot project of the European Commission, under the umbrella of the Erasmus+ programme. It’s designed to offer young people, aged 18 to 30, an online, intercultural learning experience. The project – freely available to any young person from the Erasmus+ and Southern Mediterranean regions – aims to promote intercultural dialogue and increase tolerance through sustained, online interactions between participants.
Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange complements the traditional Erasmus+ model, and clearly plays a key role in increasing the accessibility of multicultural experiences.
It “stems from the realisation that international cross-cultural experiences [are] not available to all young learners around the world … so virtual exchange is really this concept to sort of lower the entrance barrier to that experience”, says Casper van der Heijden, the managing director of Sharing Perspectives.
In higher education, students that are marginalised and that are prevented from mobility, very often, are the older students or mature students
Sharing Perspectives is one of the eight partners of the consortium tasked with implementing the project. (In this article, I am told, the opinions expressed are those of the Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange project consortium only, and do not represent the European Commission’s official position.)
The organisations – all experts in the field of virtual exchange – refuse to rely on just one virtual exchange model. Instead, the project utilises different models with varying durations, formats and scopes to offer participants access to activities, ranging from online debates and discussions concerning topics such as hate speech to training that enables youth organisations and educators to set up virtual exchanges of their own.
Curiously, despite the project falling under the Erasmus+ umbrella, it strays away from the traditional Erasmus+ model: “The core of the Erasmus+ pedagogical model is a vertical learning approach, teacher to student”, explains van der Heijden. “[It is a] top-down, academic learning experience.” By contrast, Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange has “a horizontal learning approach at its core”.
In other words, the project consists of activities that are learner-led but facilitated by trained facilitators. “[We] try to foster group ownership”, explains Ikram Ben Talha, a facilitator with Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange.
Although the project emphasises the value of learner-to-learner experiences, it does not aim to simply connect young people. Instead, says Ana Martin, communications officer with the Anna Lindh Foundation, another consortium member, it was started in order “to mitigate fake news – to support freedom, tolerance, non-discrimination and the Paris Declaration”.
Indeed, while the facilitators play a key role in encouraging discussions around these issues, Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange aims to take conversations beyond “hobbies, and things that are easy … to the more difficult topics”, according to Van der Heijden.
International cross-cultural experiences are not available to all young learners, so virtual exchange is this concept to lower the entrance barrier
The project’s horizontal approach to learning, although unconventional, has proven largely effective. “We’ve learned over the years that creating the possibility that the learning process is owned by the young people in the programme means that the commitment to it is much higher. The learning from it lasts a lot longer”, says Waidehi Gokhale, the CEO of Soliya, another partner in the consortium.
“Young people found it empowering, they found it more interesting, they found it more relevant.”
Moreover, this approach makes the learning process far less insular: “I think the focus on Erasmus and on mobility has been very much on the individual”, remarks Francesca Helm, a coordinator with UNICollaboration, a consortium partner. “It’s about relationality. If other people in your group don’t contribute, then the learning experience isn’t successful … it teaches people that we are co-dependent.”
For many students, the experience moves beyond codependency to deeper, more meaningful bonds. “I like to call them mini, cross-cultural families”, says Ben Talha. She has kept in contact with those who took part in the activities she facilitated and often wonders: “How many families did I build throughout all these years?”
The technology behind the project was designed with the aim of fostering such bonds. Its key features include a round-table format and the use of the talking stick methodology, which allows only one participant to speak at a time. Gokhale tells me the technology was also “built to optimise audio, which means that even when your bandwidth fluctuates, it pushes all your bandwidth to audio, so your voice is never lost.” This, she remarks, is particularly important when “bringing people together across lines of difference, with a view to allowing them to really tell their stories and be heard, respected and understood”.
In fact, over the past few weeks, there have been even more voices than usual at the virtual table thanks to the usual suspect: coronavirus. “The impact of corona on the project was rather small and mostly positive”, says van der Heijden, while Martin tells The University Times that the numbers that they are reaching now are “higher than before COVID-19”.
While Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange did allow participants in lockdown to cross virtual borders, it has yet to expand its scope beyond the physical borders of the Erasmus+ and Southern Mediterranean regions. Moreover, Brexit, which has caused uncertainty around the future of Erasmus+ for UK students, must also be considered.
Why create a black hole for young people at a time when what they need, more than anything, are these opportunities?
According to the European Commission, the possible participation of the UK in future programmes after 2020 will depend on the outcome of the overall negotiations and on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. The withdrawal agreement foresees that the UK will continue to participate in the current 2014–2020 EU programmes, including Erasmus+, as if the UK was an EU member state until the closure of the programmes.
Nevertheless, those who have had the opportunity to participate have had a largely positive experience: the latest statistics show that 84 per cent of young people are satisfied or very satisfied with their Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange experience and 71 per cent agreed that they built positive or meaningful relationships with people from different countries and regions through participating in the project.
Perhaps the positive reception is one of the reasons why the consortium is keen to expand the project, especially in such precarious times. “[One of the] key unique potentials of something like virtual exchange is the fact that it can be completely global”, says Gokhale.
Helm would like to go a step further and see the project expand, not just “geographically [but] also age-wise”. She says that “if the aim of the project is to make Erasmus more inclusive … in higher education, students that are marginalised and that are prevented from mobility very often, are the older students or mature students”.
Despite its success thus far, the future of the Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange project – which is due to conclude this year – is unknown. Nevertheless, the consortium remains hopeful that the project will continue. “The things that are to be gained from those possibilities [such as Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange] remain important”, Gokhale says, adding that there now exists a “a modality that has now proven that it can approximate” the experience that the Erasmus+ programme seeks to provide.
As Gokhale asks: “Why create a black hole for young people at a time when what they need, more than anything, are these opportunities?”