Identify, Interrogate and Interrupt – how to begin addressing the issue of Coloniality in Virtual Exchange

Professor Kyria Finardi

Is senior lecturer, associate professor and researcher in the Department of Languages, Culture and Education (DLCE) at the Federal University of Espirito Santo (UFES) Brazil. She has been involved in Internationalisation and is a member of the Internationalisation Board at UFES.

Kyria is very engaged in the decolonisation of knowledge and the role of languages and technologies in education. More recently she has been questioning specifically how it is transferring into Virtual Exchange. Kyria is involved in the Project “Female Voices in the Third Space” and other VE projects involving South-North collaborations. For some examples see

She is also the vice-president of the International Association of Applied Linguistics (AILA) and the co-creator and co-coordinator of an AILA Research network which deals with decolonial efforts, the role of languages and VE .

Professor Ana Cristina Salomao

Is professor at the Department of Modern Languages at São Paula State University (UNESP). As an accredited lecturer in the Postgraduate Programme in Linguistics, Ana Cristina supervises research at Masters and PhD levels.

She is interested in telecollaboration, virtual exchange and intercultural communication. She currently coordinates the Brazilian Virtual Exchange Programme, BRaVE, which she has been doing since 2018. This involves supporting faculty across UNESP’s 24 campuses who are engaging in VE.

Ana Cristina is currently Assistant Provost for International Affairs at UNESP where she has been involved in Virtual Exchange in higher education since 2006. She has published numerous journal articles and book chapters on VE, including several in collaboration with researchers in the United States, Frances, Spain and Taiwan.

How should we define coloniality within the context of VE?

Kyria says, “I’ve been thinking about this for quite a while now. For me, it’s about power relations and asymmetries in terms of knowledge, countries, universities and voices, some of which are more valued than others. Both me and Ana Cristina are concerned about coloniality footprints and traces in the process of internationalisation in the global south in general, and in particular Brazil, as this is where we are.

“We see many countries in the global south looking to the global north in order to mimic how things are done there. This, in turn, means we are not looking and valuing our own knowledge and contributions.

“We brought this idea of interrogating coloniality in VE and we are looking at the 3 I’s of coloniality: by that I mean: ‘identify’ the legacy of coloniality, ‘interrogate’ these legacies, and if possible, ‘interrupt’ them.

“Despite the ‘decolonial turn’, the extent to which the idea of ‘decolonising’ has been brought to VE is still limited. This is why we think it is a great contribution on the part of UNICollaboration to offer these webinars and create a space for discussing the issue of coloniality and think of it in terms of what is happening in VE.”

Decolonising the curriculum has been on the agenda for a while so how does it manifest itself in VE?

Ana Cristina explains, “We have had some south to south alliances where there is a tendency to conduct these collaborations in English. The professors are doing it in this way. Therefore this demonstrates how hard decolonising the curriculum is. For example, a professor working with engineers in Chile engineering carried out his partnership in English as he said he felt more ‘comfortable’. But the focus groups showed the students used other languages, like ‘portuñol’. So, although they submitted their final project in English, they had used other languages throughout the collaboration.  Sometimes interactions take a different multi-lingual path even if that was not the intention of the professors.”

Kyria concurs and explains she has also encountered similar difficulties.

“Since 2019, I have done about 10 different virtual exchanges with different countries. Very often, my stakeholders are only interested in certain English-speaking countries. The direction is always projected towards the global north. India, for example, although it has a huge English-speaking population is not favoured since it’s global south and thus considered the ‘wrong’ sort of English. This attitude results in the rules and regulations for such international collaborations being dictated by countries that are more ‘powerful’ in terms of resources and finances. If we want to receive funding for VE projects, we have to follow the rules and only find partners within a certain list considered acceptable for international collaborations. So, there are strings attached.

“We can partner with other LATAM countries or African countries if we want. But we will not get financial support for them! This is what is happening and this shows how coloniality is seeping into VE.

The importance of University Rankings

Kyria and Ana Cristina explain how the rankings for their universities improve if you partner with certain universities in the global north, thereby forcing incentives in a particular direction. The legacy of partnering with the global north is being handed down to telecollaboration too.

Kyria’s first collaboration was with Chile, like Ana Cristina. She thought if she put teachers together from Brazil and Chile who had English as a Foreign Language, this would be a way of making them feel empowered.

“No one was a native speaker of English and that helped to make everyone’s voice equal, and this worked well,’ she explains.

Global North versus Global South

“But in 2020, I had my first collaboration with a university in England, and my students who were all pre-service English teachers just panicked. They believed their English language skills weren’t going to be good enough when paired with students from England.

“Then, they saw that most of the students from England were mostly international students, they became less shy, which is very unusual for Brazilians who are mostly quite gregarious! They were fearful they wouldn’t have the right accent or pronunciation. This was very revealing,” she explains.

Questioning the norms

Subsequently, she says, her university has paired up with all sorts of different universities, with students from different backgrounds and language abilities.

“This has been a way to begin questioning these power dynamics. And we have seen when we partner with universities in the global north: they usually dictate the content, the type of software we will use, the calendar. This is another typical example of how this aspect of coloniality and power dynamics remains present.”

 “We have to ask why this happens,’ chimes in Ana Cristina, ‘in terms of internationalisation. And we can say that it is usually driven by economic imperatives and how we generate economic income from students. Internationalisation is an economic generating activity for most universities. In our case in Brazil it is not, because students don’t pay for a university education here as they are public universities. So, if we receive students here, they don’t pay, but if they go abroad, they will have to pay unless there is a reciprocity agreement.

“In spite of our best efforts, we cannot lose sight of the fact that it is an income-generating activity. We have to think about this international student recruitment as a source of income generation for western universities, that emulates colonial structures. We have our good intentions with internationalisation but we can’t forget the context behind it.

Democratising Education

“We tend to say that VE is a way of democratising the curriculum and give more international access to students who could not otherwise benefit from an intercultural exchange like this. But, as Kyria says, we have to take the power relations into account. We also need to think about how VE will survive if it doesn’t make money. I don’t have answers but we need to think about this,” says Ana Cristina.

Kyria says it remains a struggle to redress the balance. Especially when the aims and objectives of the partnering universities are not aligned. And especially when our motivations are different also in terms of physical mobilities.

“We don’t depend on external revenues here in Brazil,’ she explains, ‘Usually in this power relationship, those who hold the power dictate the norms, the curricula, the platforms we use. This can be challenging.

In a recent VE with Spain, she explains how the Spanish university used a platform her students did not have access to, thereby limiting their participation and involvement of Brazilians in the project.

How to forward to make progress in redressing the balance

“These initiatives like webinars and interviews is a step forward,’ says Kyria.

“We are talking about this and identifying it, so this is advancement. Now we are putting these things on the table as we plan our future VE projects.”

Ana Cristina reiterates, “We have to speak about this, and be open. We need to question and to understand why this phenomenon exists. Current data suggests that Europe is more interested in internationalising with Europe, the US with the global north, therefore, we need to analyse this data and understand the forces that are making us act in this way. We need to consider what we get from our south to south collaborations so we can influence our internal stakeholders on the advantages of these projects.”

A final and very positive reflection is that the government in Brazil has just put a callout for collaborations within LATAM, and both Kyria and Ana Cristina believe this a step to bring students from LATAM towards Brazil!