Head's Blog

Panda Diplomacy - UWC Style

This term I have had three occasions to practise “Panda Diplomacy”, though not the one China engaged in for decades. As you can see in the photo below, I have been carrying bags of a very particular type of candy around the world as I travelled to three different UWC schools and colleges (UWC Atlantic in March, then UWC South East Asia and UWC Thailand in April). Pre-COVID I also took some to UWC Pearson College in Canada.

This is one of our little UWC traditions, with heads travelling to other schools taking messages and gifts from our own students to their friends and peers at other schools. On more than one occasion I have found myself wondering whether I would be taken to a separate room while going through customs at one airport or another to explain why I was travelling with several kilos of such candy.

Our students are today interconnected in a way that is very different from that of our students two decades ago. Many of us had to wait for (traditional) mail to arrive with a letter or a package for days or weeks when we were studying or working away from home then. Today, ubiquitous 24/7 connectivity in much of the world means that we receive multimedia content immediately after an event many time zones away, or even in real time if it is being streamed live. I remember being an Erasmus student at a British university in the early 90s and going to check my pigeon hole expecting letters to be delivered and walking back sulking to my room when empty-handed. I did spend many hours at the university library learning how to use Netscape Navigator and marvelling at the ability to virtually visit museums. As you can imagine, the quality of the websites at the time had nothing to do with those of today.

How does this affect the quality of our relationships today? It is clear that there is a demand for immediacy and that this is affecting not only our students but all of us. I conducted an informal survey while travelling back to Armenia from the UWC Heads Retreat I attended in Phuket by counting how many people I met across Phuket and Dubai airports that were not holding a mobile phone in their hands (or carrying it with a lanyard or similar). I stopped counting when I realised that it was clearly a small minority when one of my flights was slightly delayed and peeking above my seat, I looked around and found every single passenger in the rows I could see was engrossed in their own mobile device (admittedly, as I was myself).

I will come back to this topic in a different post, but having deviated from the panda candy let me go back to it. While I am a confessed geek and love the ability to communicate with my family, friends and colleagues all over the world via text, audio and video, there is a different quality to receiving something IRL (“in real life”, an expression commonly used by our students that I object to as it implies that what happens online is not real). While the paper messages I delivered could have been delivered faster virtually, there is something about the physicality of having an object, plus the understanding that it takes planning and much more effort to send it.

During the UWC Heads Retreat in Thailand we deliberated on how education is changing and what the impact of technology is and will be. While profit-driven metaverses may not be all that some companies would like them to be, I do believe that there is a role for augmented and virtual reality in education. One of the questions that was posed during the meeting was whether we could/should have a fully online UWC, with the million dollar question being: how could we ensure that the interpersonal relations and the soft skills that are so important would not suffer. Sending virtual candy would be much easier than carrying kilos of candy around the world, though!