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The spring Virtual Exchanges became real


Youth work activities are mostly based on active participation, peer learning, group work, personal support, empathy and a lot of non-verbal communication. No wonder that the idea that an intercultural exchange could happen online has proven so difficult to win favour among colleagues. In 2 months, things have quite evolved.


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A long and uphill path (made short)

Back in October 2017 the youth work organisations Breakthrough (NL), Associazione Interculturale NUR (IT) and Think Forward (UK), joined by a partnership of 9 more organisations, submitted the second edition of “Pathways to Youth Leadership” aiming at an Erasmus+: Youth in Action grant. It would have been a long term training: a project lasting more than 12 months and including more than one residential event.

The first edition was built on three training courses of one week each but feedback from the funding National Agency forced us to redesign the project, shrinking it to only two weeks of residential training. How were we going to keep young people engaged for a long enough period, while delivering to them the same learning outcomes as in the first edition?

We hoped that an answer could come from the Erasmus+ Virtual Exchanges – in short EVE. The EVE pilot action was just starting in 2018 and two trainers of our team, me and Sandra Van de Kraak, enrolled in the specific training organised by UNICollaboration, the consortium that was testing EVE.

As a result, first to do so in the NFL sector, we added to the existing overall plan five virtual exchanges, to allow for a smoother and more engaging flow of the project.

We added to the existing overall plan five virtual exchanges

As youth workers, we needed to learn how to practice online facilitation almost from scratch.

Reaching out for support

Our experience was an encouraging success, and rapidly became a good practice to share. Still many pieces of the puzzle did not fit: as youth workers, we needed to learn how to practice online facilitation almost from scratch. We needed to develop specific competences and build a shared vision about how Virtual Exchanges can best apply in Youth Work. Not an easy feat and not one we could do alone. Also because for the greatest part Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange had been designed in the higher education environment, aiming at the academic world, thus not fitting all the requirements of a non-formal education world.

It was time to find support among colleagues to have a stronger voice in the process to define the EVE details in view of the next Erasmus+ program.


In May 2019 I was invited to present our experience at the first edition of the European Academy on Youth Work, in Slovenia. The perfect chance to share an innovative project and an innovative tool with other youth workers, institutions and organisations like ours. Most of all I was hoping to find ways to involve the non-formal education sector in future steps of the pilot phase for the ultimate goal of advocating for the EVE format to adjust also to the needs of the youth work field.

Workshop participants were youth workers, trainers and staff of NGOs, NAs and SALTO structures, and none of them had ever heard before of Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange.

Facing the “orthodoxy” wall

For most of them, it proved quite hard to clearly see potential opportunities in such an online activity. To many of them it just seemed that a Virtual Exchange would not be of any use in a field based on “human touch” and there has been a tendency in our non-formal education world to reject digital and virtual ways of interaction. The bulk of the feedback I received was a mix of disbelief in virtual exchanges, lack of interest or even suspicion that they would be used to “substitute real exchanges just to save on travel costs”.

A point of view that I find hard to understand if we take into account the amount of work and the recent progresses done on the area of “digital youth work”. Or the growing need to embrace communication tools and languages that have become so crucial in defining young people’s identity.


Being a stubborn Sardinian I went on trying to win the attention, if not the enthusiasm, of colleagues. I found a more curious interest at the end of February 2020, when in Vienna, at the “Exploring the digital Dimension of Youth workers’ competences” conference, I had a new chance to present Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange as a support to learning that could bring benefits also to the non-academic world.

But again, I felt like I was hitting an invisible wall of disbelief or skepticism. Surely enough Virtual Exchanges didn’t seem anybody’s priority. And again, the fear of something “dangerous” for the usual mobility habits surfaced among the main concerns. The statement by Antoaneta Angelova-Krasteva, Director for Innovation, International Cooperation and Sports,Directorate General Education and Culture (​DG EAC) saying that virtual exchanges will NOT substitute mobility project but rather further strengthen them, was just not really going through…

Find alternatives to physical mobility

The “force majeure” variable

The conference in Vienna ended on the 27th of February. Four days earlier COVID-19 registered cases in Italy were 79 and the town of Codogno in Lombardy had just became the first place in Europe to experience a total lockdown. Until the 8th of March, so they were told. But by the 9th of March cases had skyrocketed to 7.985 (an increase of 10.000%) and the Italian government issued the #iorestoacasa decree and the whole country was shut down. The rest, easy to say, it’s history.

The progressive extension of lockdown measures across Europe and the even earlier steps taken by several NAs that started to put mobility projects on hold, quickly forced us to find alternatives to physical mobility.

All of a sudden, the Youth field shifted towards a much more active and constructive engagement in understanding and discovering the potential of online tools in general and the Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange in particular.

Everyone has been dragged into some sort of crazy dystopian crash course on how to manage a group online and this is actually a great opportunity. The non-formal education wider community has started to explore more actively pros and cons of online learning and the positive outcomes of this closer attention will benefit our field AND the Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange pilot action alike. EVE can prove a useful new tool and creativity from the field will bring benefits to the program, in terms of innovative ways to involve and engage young people in intercultural learning through new virtual and digital ways.

Of course being a “good youth worker” online cannot be just a matter of “translating” online methods and activities that we normally apply in our youth centers or in our mobility events. I’ve recently been asked: “how do you replicate the circle setting online”? Well, there are tools also for that, but you just cannot learn new competences by plugging a cord “Matrix style”.

So, while using Virtual Exchange as a tool can potentially still be an exciting and fun way to learn and explore other cultures, there needs to be a serious commitment in our field to reach a specific professional growth through a planned learning path. As nobody would dare to improvise any activity in person without having planned it in advance, we should carefully focus on the safety of the learning environment in which we involve our youngsters, even online (or more so!).

There will come again a time to meet in person and hug, and if we are to find learning in this crisis, we may find that non-formal education should not be afraid of “virtual” tools, as the combination of both will become our new normal. So, better get ready!

by Jan Lai (2020)


Jan Lai is a Non Formal Education trainer/facilitator with a strong interest in digital tools and big fan of critical thinking and creativity.

Title © Fachy Marín on Unsplash
Conference Vienna © Domagoj Morić
all others © Jan Lai


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