Dr Mirjam Hauck wears many hats. She is Associate Head for Internationalisation, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in the Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies at the Open University UK.
She’s also a founder member and training officer for UNICollaboration, a VE scholar and researcher and it is within this capacity she became the lead VE trainer for the VAMOS project.
“On a most basic level, the role of VE within VAMOS is initially to raise awareness of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG)’, she explains. “These kinds of international exchanges take on more depth and meaning if students can directly draw on the material and information from the UN website and then go on and apply them to their own local context. Then they can begin to understand why these goals exist and begin to engage”.
Dr Hauck is a firm believer in ‘walking the talk’ whereby VE participants and practitioners begin linking their local context to the bigger picture. By focusing on one issue within the goals, which in the case of VAMOS is Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), we can begin understanding how a step-by-step approach can have long-term positive benefits on our communities and the world at large in the longer term.
Dr Hauck recently completed a 5-week VE training course for the Higher Education Institutions participating in VAMOS. Teachers from Honduras, Brazil and Sweden have been learning about VE and how to design pilot exchanges which will be embedded in existing courses at their institutions. It’s been a challenge at times.
‘There was initial confusion’, says Dr Hauck, ‘as the participants in the training thought they had to build brand new courses from scratch. Once we had ironed out the importance of designing a VE that will be integrated into existing courses, the ideas flowed”.
The training focused on developing three pilot projects which will be trialled in the spring of 2022. The participants were divided into groups to work on the pilots which will focus on Water and Forests, Sustainable Tourism and Sustainable Consumption and Living.
The goal of a VE is to establish cross-cultural collaboration and intercultural communication. By working across geographical divides and cultural otherness, students are encouraged to become curious about other countries and communities. In exchanges that will last between 4-8 weeks depending on the institutions involved, they are invited to collaborate and work on a bespoke project in international teams. They will compare and contrast a local wicked problem and explore what can be done to address and ultimately alleviate the issue moving from local to ‘glocal’. It isn’t easy and takes commitment and perseverance, but the stakes are high and the issues are pressing, so hopefully students will be motivated to work together to take steps to help address their wicked problems for the greater good of humanity.”
Dr Hauck explains that embedding the VE into existing academic courses ensures the exchange is relevant and meaningful to the local context. Adding a multicultural and geographical layer thereby expands the concept and the ideas behind the VE. Students will engage with people they would otherwise not have met and begin creating something new, but which still remains related to their studies. She gives the example of the Sustainable Tourism pilot where all the partners agreed they had something in common: they all had beautiful beaches and all decided that these beaches needed sustainable approaches to tourism to ensure they continue to thrive long-term. Beaches will be the focal point and the hook for the VE projects the students will engage in. The teachers who are designing the exchanges come from tourism, business and English languages disciplines, so this will be an interdisciplinary VE with students standing to gain expertise from each other.