Virtual Exchange is a term used to describe "technology-enabled, sustained, people-to-people education programs" in which sustained communication and interaction takes place between individuals or groups who are geographically separated, with the support of educators and/or facilitators. 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. This activity is also known as telecollaboration, online intercultural exchange, globally networked teaching and learning, collaborative online international learning (COIL). In European school contexts, virtual exchange is part of eTwinning, a European Commission initiative. In 2017 the European Commission published a feasibility study into virtual exchange  and in 2018 the Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange project was launched.
Groups such as Soliya (Founder Lucas Welch) and the State University of New York's COIL Center 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.). Education which aims to integrate awareness and understanding of distant peoples, environmental issues that impact all planetary species, and geopolitical systems as part of the curriculum is sometimes referred to as Global Education.
A history of Virtual Exchange
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 Warschauerand Rick Kern. Several different models of telecollaboration have since been developed. 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 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 aims to reach 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.
Online intercultural exchange
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.
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