Globalization and the advancements in technology have lead to some changes in education around the world. The increased use of technology has made it possible to conduct virtual exchanges between people from different cultures without the need to travel. Virtual exchanges in this case consist of the use of video, audio, social media or other means to conduct programs that are grounded in existing theoretical methods. Virtual exchanges are special kinds of distance education and e-learning programs, which AFS has been using for our Intercultural Link Learning Program activities.
The motivation for people to participate in these is usually their desire to build intercultural knowledge, skills and attitudes. Research has shown that large numbers of people do believe that virtual exchanges should be conducted and that they have a positive impact on intercultural competency building. Most people in the USA who have participated in a virtual cultural exchange come from a very specific, highly skilled group of research and doctoral institute members.
On the other hand, there are some negative perceptions tied to this concept. Despite all benefits of virtual programs, many still believe that they cannot and should not replace the actual physical contact and the experience of living in another culture. AFS exchange programs will always be a unique experience and an irreplaceable learning opportunity, but it can be well complemented by the appropriate use of technology – from preparatory language learning to intercultural adjustment tracking. The drawback of virtual exchanges is also the lack of knowledge about them, who provides them and when, as well as the limited participation in them so far. The fear of or the lack of knowledge about technology also deters many from getting involved.
The motivation for institutions to get involved in virtual exchanges usually lies in the need for gaining specific competences, such as the intercultural ones, which would not be possible in another way. The need for internationalization and creating international partnerships also ranks high on the list of reasons to get involved in a virtual exchange. This type of learning opportunities increase student engagement and can generate interest in study abroad programs. Finally, relatively low costs associated with virtual exchanges make them accessible to wider audiences that could otherwise be left out of the opportunity to improve intercultural competences.
What lies in future for the virtual exchanges is the need to use the existing or create new tools for assessing their impact on improving intercultural competences. Spreading information about them would improve how people perceive them and generate more interest and participation.