Virtual exchange is a type of education program that uses technology to allow geographically-separated people to interact and communicate. This type of activity is most often situated in educational programs (but is also found in some youth organizations) in order to increase mutual understanding, global citizenship, digital literacies, and language learning. Models of virtual exchange are also known as telecollaboration, online intercultural exchange, globally networked teaching and learning, collaborative online international learning (COIL). Non-profit organizations such as Soliya (founded by Lucas Welch) and the Sharing Perspectives Foundation have designed and implement virtual exchange programs in partnership with universities and youth organizations. In 2017 the European Commission published a feasibility study into virtual exchange and in 2018 the Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange project was launched in Europe and Southern Mediterranean countries. Educational institutions such as State University of New York's COIL Center and DePaul University use virtual exchange in higher education curricula to connect young people globally with a primary mission to help them grow in their understanding of each other's contexts (society, government, education, religion, environment, gender issues, etc.).
The origins of virtual exchange have been linked to the work of iEARN and the New York/Moscow Schools Telecommunications Project (NYS-MSTP) which was launched in 1988 by Peter Copen and the Copen Family Fund. This project stemmed from a perceived need to connect youth from the two countries during a time which was marked by tensions between the United States and the U.S.S.R. that had developed during the Cold War. With the institutional support of the Academy of Sciences in Moscow, and the New York State Board of Education, a pilot programme between 12 schools in each nation was established. Students worked in both English and Russian on projects based on their curricula, which had been designed by participating teachers. The program expanded in the early 1990s to include China, Israel, Australia, Spain, Canada, Argentina, and the Netherlands. The early 1990s saw the establishment of the organization iEARN which became officially established in 1994. One of the earliest projects, which is still running, was Margaret Riel's Learning Circles. The organization has since expanded and is currently active in over 100 countries and promotes many different projects, also in collaboration with other organizations such as The My Hero Project. This form of education which aims to integrate awareness of international communities as part of the curriculum is sometimes referred to as global education.
In foreign language education the practice of virtually connecting learners is often known as telecollaboration. It was first promoted as a form of network-based language learning in the 1990s through the work of educators such as Mark Warschauer and Rick Kern. Several different models of telecollaboration have since been developed, such as the Cultura model, developed in 1997 at MIT in the United States, and the eTandem model. The Cultura project was originally developed as a bilingual project for French and English, but has since been developed in several different languages.
In 2003 the organization Soliya was founded by Lucas Welch and Liza Chambers in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Soliya's Connect Program has become an important model of online facilitated dialogue and is based on principles of intergroup dialogue and peacebuilding. In this model of virtual exchange, students from universities across the globe are placed in diverse groups of 10-12 people, and they meet regularly for 2-hour sessions of dialogue through a over a period of 8 weeks. Each group is supported by one or two trained facilitators.
In 2005 the European Commission established the eTwinning programme for schools. This programme promotes projects between schools in Europe which entail collaborations between classes. eTwinning has established a strong community of teachers and organizes training for them. Pupils do not necessarily communicate directly with one another using technologies however, their contact may be mediated by the teachers.
In 2006 the SUNY Center for Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) was established at SUNY's Purchase College. COIL developed from the work of faculty members who used technology to bring international students into their classrooms using technology. COIL's Founding Director was Jon Rubin, a Film and New Media Professor at Purchase College. The COIL model is increasingly being recognized as a way for universities to internationalize their curricula. In 2010 COIL joined the new SUNY Global Center in New York City and continued to expand its global network.
In 2014 the UNICollaboration platform was launched in order to support university educators and mobility coordinators to find partner classes, and to organise and run online intercultural exchanges for their students. This platform was one of the outputs of an EU-funded project and has over 1000 registered educators.
In 2016 the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport Tibor Navracsics announced a future Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange initiative.
In March 2018 the Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange pilot project was officially launched by Commissioner Navracsics. It is hosted on the European Youth Portal and targets young people (aged 18–30) in EU and Southern Mediterranean countries. The pilot project reached 8000 young people in 2018, its first year of implementation. Different models of virtual exchange are promoted on the platform as well as training for educators to develop their own virtual exchange projects and training for young people to become Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange facilitators.
In 2018, several higher education institutions active in the field of virtual exchange and an international virtual exchange coalition was created that started organizing international virtual exchange conferences (IVEC). The first such conference was scheduled for October 2019 in Tacoma, WA, USA. This inaugural IVEC 2019 conference, entitled "Advancing the field of online international learning", was co-organized by the SUNY COIL Center, DePaul University, Drexel University, East Carolina University, University of Washington Bothell, University of Washington Tacoma, and UNIcollaboration.
Virtual exchange has evolved and become more diversified to reflect not only emerging pedagogies and technologies over time but it has also adapted to reflect the changing globalized world.
Since its inception, virtual exchange has gone by several terms. Among these are:
A considerable amount of research points to the benefits of virtual exchange or telecollaboration partnering. Not only do these partnerships improve linguistic competence, they also develop higher-order thinking skills and contribute to the development of cross-cultural attitudes, knowledge, skills, and awareness. Moreover, virtual exchange activities develop digital literacies as well various multiliteracies.
Recent years have also witnessed the emergence of partners using a foreign language such as English not only with native speakers, but also with other non-native speakers as a lingua franca in various virtual exchanges. Studies reveal that these virtual exchanges have equally produced positive results in terms of skills development.
While integration of and research into various virtual exchange partnerships have mainly occurred at universities, what is also emerging is an exploration of virtual exchange integration into secondary language education.
O'Dowd and Lewis report that up to now, the majority of online exchanges occurs between Western classrooms based in North America and Europe, while the number of partnerships involving other continents and other languages remains small.
A trend that can be observed is that two models have generally guided the approaches adopted in virtual exchange or telecollaborative practice in foreign language learning. The first model, known as e-tandem, focuses primarily on linguistic development which generally involves two native speakers of different languages communicating with each other to practise their target language. These partners perform the role of peer-tutors providing feedback to each other and correcting errors in a digital environment. This model also emphasizes learner autonomy where partners are encouraged to take responsibility for creating the structure to the language exchange with minimal intervention from the teacher
The second model, generally referred to as intercultural telecollaboration, emerged with the pedagogical trends of 1990s and 2000s which placed more emphasis on intercultural and sociocultural elements of foreign language learning. This model differs from e-tandem in 3 ways:
By the end of the 2010s, virtual exchange witnessed a move towards the integration of more informal immersive online environments and Web 2.0 technologies. These tools and environments enabled partners to conduct collaborative tasks reflecting hobbies and interests such as jointly developed music or film projects. Other joint tasks involve website design and development as well as online games and discussion forums. Four major types of technologies dominating virtual exchange practice have been identified by O'Dowd and Lewis:
The multitude and array of environments have thus provided greater freedom of choice for intercultural virtual exchange partners. Thorne argues that although these may be considered motivating environments, they involve 'intercultural communication in the wild' and are 'less controllable' as a result (p. 144).
The introduction of more structured approaches and frameworks have therefore been witnessed as a trend since the 2010s. The outcome of the INTENT project by the European Commission between 2011 and 2014 led to the creation of the UNICollaboration platform which provides necessary resources for educators to set up structured virtual exchange partnerships in universities. The European Telecollaboration for Intercultural Language Acquisition (TILA) is an example of a platform of resources for teachers dedicated to integrating structured virtual exchange programs into secondary education.
It is widely recognized that teacher facilitation plays a key role in ensuring the success of virtual exchange partnerships. Teacher-training to integrate successful virtual exchange practice into the classroom has therefore also emerged as a growing trend. Some scholars have advocated for an experiential model approach to training which involves trainee teachers in online exchanges themselves before integrating virtual exchange practice in the classroom. Reports have shown that this approach has impacted positively on successful integration of virtual exchange practice.
The types of tasks in virtual exchange partnerships have also become more structured over time. Research shows that the type of task chosen for the virtual exchange plays an important role in the success of learning outcomes. In earlier telecollaborative projects, the expectation was for partners to develop linguistic and cultural competence by simply connecting with partners of their target language. Exchanges were carried out with little reflection on a participant's own or the target culture. An approach that has therefore been suggested to engage and structure the partnership is a task-based language learning approach which focuses on meaning-oriented activities that reflect the real world.
Among other developments in virtual exchange practice, cross-disciplinary telecollaborative initiatives have seen a steady growth. These partnerships not only enable language skills development and enhance intercultural competence but they also enable different cultural perspectives on certain subject areas such as music, history, anthropology, geography education, business studies, community health nursing, and other subjects.
Collaborative Online International Learning Network (COIL) created by the State University of New York (SUNY) system is an example of a structured initiative that geographically connects distant partner classes for subject-specific collaboration through online and blended courses.
Online intercultural exchange is an academic field of study connected to virtual exchange. It "involves instructionally mediated processes...for social interaction between internationally distributed partner classes". This activity has its roots in computer-assisted language learning (CALL) and computer-mediated communication. OIE is not restricted to language learning but happens across many educational disciplines where there is a desire to increase the internationalization of teaching and learning.
Developments in communication technologies and the relative ease with which forms of human communication can be technically afforded internationally since the existence of the internet resulted in language teaching experimentation. Connecting individuals, classrooms or groups of students to work together on tasks online involves attempting to arrive at shared understanding through "negotiation of meaning" There is a body of research in the failures and successes of the endeavour which have informed a guide to language teacher practice. A consortium of researchers, the INTENT consortium supported by funding from the European Union promoted awareness of telecollaborative activities in Higher Education and the contribution made to internationalising the student experience, publishing a report and a position paper. The history of the evolution of this field was described by researcher Robert O'Dowd in his keynote to the European Computer-Assisted Language Learning Conference EUROCALL in 2015. Publications reveal learner perceptions of such activity.
Virtual exchange is just one way of using technology in education. However there is some confusion around the terminology used in this field. It is helpful to understand that virtual exchange is not distance learning, nor should it be confused with virtual mobility which is more concerned with university students accessing and obtaining credit for taking online courses at universities other than their own. Virtual exchanges are not MOOCs, because they are not massive. In virtual exchange participants interact in small groups, often using synchronous video conferencing tools.