The beauty of Virtual Exchange

Rodrigo Ballester, Member of Cabinet of Tibor Navracsics
European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport – at the Opening of the Evaluate conference 4th Sept 2019

Rodrigo Ballester’s message at the Opening of the Conference on Virtual Exchange in Education (Sept 4-6 in Leòn) was loud and clear.

Teachers are our cornerstone. Nothing in society can happen without teachers. And the more training they have in digital competencies, the more autonomy they gain. Training allows teachers the keys to their kingdom – the classroom.”

Since 2017, education has become a priority for the Commission, says Ballester, and this includes the much loved ‘Erasmus+’ programme that has been evolving and growing for the past 30 years.

Ballester stresses that Europe has much to deal with in terms of social cohesion, and Europeans have much to discover about themselves. “With 27 members, we don’t know each other very well and we must do more to get to know each other better.

“If we think our youth are digital natives and we can use technology to solve all these things, we are very wrong.

“Social media can be toxic and addictive, promoting bullying and non-critical thinking. It can be manipulative and can turn people within communities against each other.

“We need to be prudent. The truth is, most young people are not digitally competent. Most are lagging far behind. The EU aims to address this and promote language learning. We need more than just English.”

Ballester is confident that in the coming years, twice as much will be spent on education and therefore on the Erasmus+.

He’s a big fan of Virtual Exchange, VE, which he began to explore following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015 in Paris. He believes VE can help to address many of the issues attacks such as these bring to the fore.

There is a beauty, charm and efficiency to VE”, he explains. “By bringing people together using technology, VE can help promote critical thinking, self-awareness, empathy, a sense of belonging, tolerance of diversity and more.”

Ballester says the sooner young people can experience VE the better – 10-16 years of age is ideal as in theory, it prevents radicalisation. The results from the last decade of E-twinning have been very positive in this regard.

But, he warns, we have to reach out beyond like-minded people, beyond universities, and target those ‘hard-to-reach’ youth and those in rural areas and use a blended approach of physical mobility programmes and VE. “This blended approach can change lives”.

It is an ongoing struggle to ‘sell’ VE, he acknowledges. On the other hand, CEOs can’t find enough suitable people to fill positions. They are lacking language skills and soft skills. This is where VE can come in and help bridge the gaps.

But VE can’t happen alone. Trained moderators/facilitators are essential to channel the energy into empathy and curiosity. Ballester says consolidated VE programmes need to be adopted by universities. He’s optimistic about the future of VE but we must not be complacent, he stresses. “We must keep at it and work twice as hard if we want it to be a success.”

It’s not about decreasing mobilities, but more about using VE to complement them. “Mobilities are essential, but VE can help too.”