Bridging boundaries through virtual well-being exchange

Marleen Dekker is the Director of the African Studies Centre Leiden. Trained as a human geographer with a PhD in Development Economics, she is working on a new initiative that facilitates interdisciplinary collaboration between social and natural scientists to develop African air quality and climate change models.


Madi Ditmars is an Education Development Officer at the African Studies Centre Leiden. As an educational anthropologist she is expanding her knowledge and skills in international virtual collaborative learning programmes, with a specific interest in intercultural exchange, as well as assessment and quality management practices.


As part of its teaching innovation agenda, the ASCL took the lead in exploring how students from different geographical and cultural backgrounds perceive well-being in their respective societies. This project was funded by EUniWell – The European University for Well-Being in fulfilment of their mission ‘…to understand, improve, measure, and rebalance the well-being of individuals, our own community, our environment and society as a whole on a regional, European and global level’.

Based on former global online classroom experiences, we teamed up with Francis Pope (University of Birmingham, UoB), Martin Zillinger (University of Cologne, UoC), Badiha Nahhass (Université Mohammed V de Rabat, MVR), Anne Kamau (University of Nairobi, UoN), and William Ellis (University of the Western Cape, UWC) to conceptualise and pilot a Small Private Online Course (SPOC).

Unbiased exchanges 
During an intensive 2-day hackathon in October 2022, the six partners devised a strategy to Decentre Epistemologies for Global Well-being in a format later dubbed VOICE, an acronym for Virtual Online International Collaborative Exchange, coined by Emanuele de Simone during the EUniWell project. It is a framework that facilitates unbiased exchange of understanding and exploration of a contentious issue across disciplines and geographies. Our mission was to create a virtual space for students across disciplines and geographies to explore and exchange specific aspects of well-being. The expectation was that exposure to diverse disciplinary and cultural interpretations would provoke a paradigm shift, foster deeper insight and deepen appreciation of different perceptions of well-being amongst participants from different social-cultural backgrounds. With Carlo Luiu (UoB), Emanuele De Simone (UoC), Intissar Louah (MVR), Raphael Indimuli (UoN), and Tihana Nathen (UWC) as teaching fellows, each university recruited and selected 10 post-graduate students across faculties, amounting to 60 multidisciplinary participants.

Decolonisation and parachute science
Hosted on a Moodle platform supported by a Leiden University ICT team, the course was offered over a period of eight weeks through synchronous (online) Zoom sessions and asynchronous (offline) sessions that required a time commitment from students of at least 8 hours per week. Kicking off with personal introductions and innovative icebreakers in the first week, participants were familiarised with the notion of well-being and the two interwoven overarching themes of decolonisation and parachute sience:

Decolonisation calls for deconstructing relics of colonial systems and the power they continue to exercise in a world of perpetuating inequalities. To prevent the notion of decolonisation simply being seen as a metaphor, the trauma of oppression and its enduring detrimental effects on personal well-being was collectively interrogated. This required opening up of euro-centric perspectives, promoting intercontinental knowledge transfer and creating space to accommodate different epistemic practices. By exploring aspects of well-being, structural inequalities and persistent and systematic discrimination - often inherited from colonial times - came to the fore.

Parachute science refers to a situation in which research teams - typically from the Global North - conduct research about issues without engaging their scientific counterparts or stakeholders. Participants were confronted with the key question: who created and who owns the data? This awareness highlighted disparities between academic hierarchies and power dynamics. Whilst collecting data, participants realised how drivers and metrics of academic success differ between countries and institutions. Conditions that enable parachute science were identified, and pathways to promote equitable science highlighted.

They further delved into well-being through one of three lenses 1) intersectionality, 2) knowledge, or 3) environment:

  • Participants in the intersectionality theme explored how individuals are represented and function in education and employment systems that generate and maintain divisions that marginalise some and benefit others.
  • Knowledge acquisition that takes place in fragmented and exclusive spaces results in experiences of alienation or belonging. By identifying and comparing social inclusion and exclusion in and around museums and colonial collections, participants in this theme zoomed in on the impact of heritage on local epistemes and well-being.
  • The environment group investigated how natural environments affect people’s well-being and the interaction between systems that contribute to its degradation. Identifying and measuring environmental and human vulnerability from global and local perspectives, participants viewed perceptions through the lenses of exposure, susceptibility and adaptive capacity.

Listen to the audio recordings, click on the image:

Within these themes, students chose a sub-theme, thus creating smaller groups of 4 to 6 participants from different institutions and disciplines. Guided to employ flash ethnography - a two-week ethnographic fieldwork - to interact with their environment and engage with people, they were encouraged to co-create new knowledge that could contribute to the advancement of societal and possibly global well-being. Consolidating the condensed stories they had collected in a limited time span, the sub-theme groups were tasked to produce a creative but academically sound blog through applying skills they learnt in a Creative Writing workshop led by Bongani Kona - a UWC lecturer and renowned writer-editor.

Roundtable at the ECAS conference
Learning the most from interacting with and being validated by peers, the sub-theme groups shared and discussed their findings in synchronous theme-group sessions. In the last two weeks they pitched their narratives for the full group and gave each other critical feedback. The collaboration between these students from the six European and African universities gave rise to a rich assortment of perspectives on well-being epistemologies that resulted in eighteen blogs published in Birmingham Blogs. In closure, the full project team and six selected students - one per institution - presented the VOICE approach and shared their experiences during the How to make Academic Cooperation Work roundtable held during the ECAS African Futures conference in Cologne.

Administrative procedures
Reflecting on our international virtual exchange experience, two restrictions stand out that demand a fundamental turnaround in higher education administrative procedures:

1. Acknowledgment of achievements: There is no official recognition that advances inter-university and inter-continental virtual collaboration (the European Education Area (EEA) is experimenting with micro-credentials, but this is still in its initial phase). Participating in VOICE did not contribute to students’ traditional qualifications, instead they were required to invest time on top of their own study programmes. Although this expectedly led to some dropouts, it was significantly less than usually found in open-access online courses. Students who fully participated in VOICE were issued with a certificate of participation. On a positive note, a few participants noted that this was not even necessary, as the experience vastly improved their own confidence, skills, CVs and future educational and employment possibilities.

2. Money transfers: The three European institutions respectively received EUniWell subsidies to cover their overheads and reimburse one African partner’s expenses. Transferring pre-agreed amounts from European to African institutions transpired to be a complex mission for reasons ranging from unfamiliarity with different contracting options, to incompatible procurement systems and the non-existence of MoUs formalising agreements. This required unacceptably high time investments and created uncertainty for the African partners.

New ways of learning
The intercultural and interdisciplinarity aspects enriched interactions and offered opportunities to learn other thematic and disciplinary perspectives, techniques and research methods. It introduced participants to new ways of learning and co-production on academic well-being - from knowledge users to knowledge producers. The pre-and post-course competencies surveys, anonymous evaluations, and facilitator logs confirm that the pilot contributed to the academic growth of all but were not without challenges. Aspects such operating in different time zones, clashing academic calendars, national holidays and religious prayer times across geographies stand out. Other points for improvement relate to better communication and understandings amongst different disciplinary and socio-cultural groups.

Sadly, all good things come to an end, but the network and friendships that were formed across cultures and borders will continue, and the know-how that has been accumulated will be used to develop even better VOICE projects in future.

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education development
collaborative online learning
parachute science

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