Virtual travelling has its perks, but it’s not my bag

Holding university showcases online makes a lot of sense, but a stir-fry banquet with colleagues beats rushed laptop lunches, says Jacob Lotinga 

June 12, 2021
Chinese noodles
Source: iStock

Before the pandemic struck, I was an itinerant worker in higher education and cultural exchange.

That meant visiting top universities around the British Isles to build and maintain partnerships and put on careers events designed to raise awareness among final-year undergraduates and postgraduates of opportunities to work in China.

Covid-19 changed all that. It has been a time of virtual travel. My natural habitat has become the webinar (on an array of platforms I hadn’t previously known) and the Zoom meeting.

This has revolutionised my work in several ways – many of them for the better. First, we have begun hosting virtual fairs to showcase universities. This means that any Chinese student, parent, teacher or educationalist with access to a laptop or smartphone can tune in to hear from authoritative university representatives – including pro vice-chancellors and admissions tutors – and ask them questions. At a time of global climate breakdown, this is much better than inviting Western university representatives to go on flying visits to China to give talks at schools. It is much more efficient, too, since a single session may attract more than 10,000 attendees from innumerable schools.

A second way in which my work has been revolutionised has been in relation to recruitment from universities in the UK and Ireland. Pre-pandemic, I enjoyed visiting careers centres to talk about roles on our graduate scheme and at bilingual schools that Ambright operates in major central-east Chinese cities – the Thomas Schools of China. This February, I decided to set out instead on a virtual tour.

True, a virtual higher education odyssey doesn’t give the visitor to St Andrews an opportunity to wander into alluring bookshops or relish a bracing coastal walk after meetings, but being whisked to Fife at the click of a mouse is certainly a lot more convenient than a long train journey and overnight stay.

The virtual traveller to universities gains another huge advantage. With a webinar or Zoom meeting, it’s much easier to draw in a variety of co-presenters and attendees. For example, a recent retirement party that I attended at a top UK university gave me the chance to mingle with 57 other well-wishers from around the globe. By scheduling webinars and meetings at 9am in the UK and Ireland, it has been possible to include colleagues in Shanghai, representatives from several departments at the host university and even a guest speaker – a China guidebook author – who would never otherwise have been able to attend.

It is clear that such advantages should not be tossed away when the pandemic finally recedes. Now that we’ve grown accustomed to virtual travels in higher education and seen their merits, it seems likely we’ll continue to offer webinars, catch up with academic partners on virtual platforms, and pilot electronic pen pal schemes across cultures even as in-person travels resume.

Still, I would dispute the Oxford professor and author Marcus du Sautoy’s assertion during the final debate at this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival (digital edition) that the virtual world is more real than the physical. And I confess to longing for the day when physical, in-person travel resumes.

It will be refreshing to encounter academic partners as complete human beings, in three-dimensional rooms, rather than as fuzzy images constantly threatening to vanish behind their university’s virtual backdrop. Joining colleagues in China for a banquet of stir-fried dishes or Shandong cuisine will definitely be an improvement on making do with another rushed lunch beside my laptop. And the students I meet at careers events will no longer have the option of keeping their cameras switched off as I regale them with advice on working in East Asia.

Moreover, it will be a relief not to be so utterly dependent on technology to make even the best-prepared event a success – even if we’ll be placed back at the mercy of the PowerPoint projector’s mysterious moods and the seminar room’s unfathomable air-conditioning controls.

Jacob Lotinga is UK and Ireland co-ordinator at the Ambright Education Group.

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