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Physically distant, socially close: Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange in times of COVID-19

Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange has provided much-valued opportunities to young people, educators and youth workers who are looking to learn, teach, and socialise online with their global peers. In a context of confinement and cancellation of youth and student exchanges, the initiative is providing a positive and tangible response to the crisis.

The initiative offers alternative avenues for intercultural exchanges, mitigating the risks associated with social distancing. Virtual Exchange activities and training have continued to run smoothly over the past months, attracting an ever-growing number of participants and new institutional partners.

Participants in the ongoing initiatives highlight the value of the project’s activities in these exceptional circumstances. Young people use Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange safe dialogue spaces to maintain meaningful global relations when international travel isn’t possible, share experiences about the current crisis, learn how to engage critically with media and fake news, and feel a sense of agency.

Hana from Tunisia reflects: “The most powerful moment in the dialogue sessions was reflecting on conflict management and conflict transformation amidst the current COVID-19 crisis that the world is facing. The groups are designed to be diverse and this fostered genuine exchange which pathed the way for brainstorming potential initiatives that everyone can take within their communities”.

Participants express a growing need to build bridges across communities and countries in this context when many youths are “turning inwards” as many connections and socially diverse places are closed, leading to boredom, loneliness, social stress or withdrawal:

“Tackling the Coronavirus crisis together in our discussions relieved the fear and uncertainty we are facing. Together we learned more about how to deal with this unprecedented situation” Hend, Egypt.

EVE also offers concrete capacity building opportunities to educators and youth workers who need support in various aspects of online teaching. This includes specific training on online dialogue facilitation and Virtual Exchange curriculum design, flexible and customised mentoring of educators during the implementation of their virtual activities, platform and technical support for the young people’s online engagement, as well as participation in a dynamic community of facilitators and educators.

Teachers that have been asked to move their teaching online or youth workers looking for alternative ways to engage their members, lack experience in online pedagogy and facilitation. A youth worker from Austria, highlights: I would like to learn more about the opportunities that Virtual Exchange projects offer to international youth work. The current crisis is an opportunity for development; as organisations, we should find more resourceful ways of carrying out projects. After the crisis we will still be facing global large scale challenges, such as climate change, and both as organisations and as individuals we have to address these issues.”

Meanwhile, a Professor from the University of Padova, Italy, underlined: “It is difficult to understand what students are going through. In Italy we have students who are with their families and others who are living on their own and feel lonely. The safe environment Virtual Exchange provides, allows them to say what they want. This is very good for them. They wish the exchange could go on for longer.” Professor, University of Padova, Italy.