How Virtual Exchange exceeded all expectations

Dr Claire O’Reilly teaches German at the University of Cork in Ireland. She’s been in the German Department since 2005 and teaches a range of subjects.

They include: intercultural communication, German/Irish history and relations and of course, virtual exchange. She’s also involved in a bachelor of International Business and German programme.

Heading towards pandemic panic

Back in 2019, Claire and a colleague based in Germany wanted to bring in an element of internationalisation into their respective curricula by doing something collaboratively with their students. They had brainstormed together that summer, without realising how important the collaboration would turn out to be within the year! 

“In March 2020, when our students couldn’t travel. I reached out to Maik in Germany,’ explains Claire, ‘ and asked him how we could transfer what we had on paper to an online version. We decided to use the construct of biography and narrative and we discussed how to get students to talk to each other meaningfully, by means of virtual exchange.”

Biography and virtual exchange

Biography proved to be an insightful tool to get students to meaningfully work and engage with each other and learn with and from each other.

“We found this biography construct to be the looking glass’, says Claire. ‘The students were able to reflect upon what they were finding out about the other students. But they could also reflect on how their respective partners saw and received them.

From this moment on, the passion grew and Claire says the benefits were ‘literally jumping off the page’. Her classroom became ‘a hive of enterprise and reflection’.

Over time, this VE has evolved, from a situation out of her control caused by the pandemic, to a collaboration with enormous benefits for the students.

Digging deep

“We’ve had 4 iterations, with some tweaks and changes along the way. Students begin to think about their lives and how they have lived them. During the VE, they had to meet at least three times asynchronously and they had to discuss early childhood, their teenage years and their lives since starting university.” 

There was initial trepidation and fear of the unknown as the students worried about not having enough language to discuss these topics. The digital realm was also a new reality the students had to contend with and with that, a huge amount of uncertainty. 

“From the first encounter, says Claire, ‘it was evident that their confidence in dealing with all these factors was growing”.

The importance of mentoring in a virtual exchange collaboration

In between each interview or encounter with their partners, the students had a reflection and mentoring session to help ensure the virtual exchange could continue meaningfully. Claire says this was an important space for the students and an important phase in the process.

“It gave them a chance to talk about anything unsettling or challenging about the exchange. 

“Interestingly enough, they weren’t worried about their language,’ she explains. ‘Mostly they felt uncomfortable talking about early childhood experiences. Some weren’t expecting that level of self-disclosure.”

Collaborating like this was a real eye opener for both students and teachers on how open some were in disclosing personal information. The process forced everyone to reflect deeply on what was happening in the online space. Many of Claire’s Irish students wondered whether they would have disclosed so much so soon had they not been challenged within the virtual space.

Claire and Maik’s VE runs over 12 weeks, with a maximum group size of 12 and the smallest comprising four. Initially, students were put into groups according to things they had in common. But Claire noticed that even when they weren’t divided into groups with common ground, it worked just as well!

Friendships following a virtual exchange

Another interesting development is that students returning from their year abroad in Germany reported that, although they had conversations in German whilst living there, the deeper more meaningful conversations happened during the virtual exchange.

“Some students have also gone on to build long-lasting relationships with their partners and have met in the flesh, demonstrating the far reaching realms of doing VE. They’re helping each other with language exams which is very exciting to see.

Future plans for virtual exchange at Cork

Claire’s work on virtual exchange has been pioneering work within her School. She’s not stopping and really hopes VE will take off in a big way in the future. She has talks and workshops planned where she’ll share what she’s done and experienced by setting up her international collaborations.

Her and Maik’s next iteration will focus on notions of ‘the self’. Using the lens of biography has really demonstrated how students can meaningfully engage with one another in an online space. Claire is passionate about how using VE in a sustained way can trigger self-reflective learning and help improve feelings of isolation in students. She acknowledges all the work in the background that is needed to set up a VE, but the benefits far exceed the challenges in her view.