What are virtual school exchanges?

Almost twenty years ago, the World Bank president was scheduled to visit some schools in Uganda. Around that time, the Bank was exploring the possibility of investing in videoconferencing to connect its offices, and those of its counterparts in government ministries, to each other as a way to promote more regular dialogue (and, it is probably worth noting, to save some travel costs as a result).

Wouldn’t it be excellent, Jim Wolfensohn asked, if we could somehow connect these kids in Uganda to schools back in the United States in some way using the Internet so that they could talk to each other and exchange ideas — can this be done?

A World Bank colleague (who was soon to become my boss) said, ‘yes sir, absolutely, we can do this.’ At the time, it turned out that he actually had no idea how to get this done … but he and a few other bright people eventually figured it out, the schools were connected, and Ugandan and American kids talked with each other via video in real time, more or less successfully. (Videochatting over the Internet back in 1996/1997 was an often frustrating endeavor, but, given enough energy and more than a little luck, it did — kind of, sort of, sometimes — work.) Out of this small ‘success’ was born the ‘school-to-school initiative’, which soon was renamed the ‘World Links for Development’ program and which over the next decade worked with ministries of education in 20+ middle and low countries around the world to help connect schools, teachers and students to the Internet — and to each other.

Obviously, much has changed from 1996 to 2015. Information and communication technology itself has, of course, changed dramatically: There is more of it; it is more powerful; it is faster; it is cheaper; it is available to many more people; and many more people know how to, and do, use it as part of their daily lives. Just because the tools to make connections between teachers and learners across national borders have improved a lot, however, doesn’t mean that it is easy to actually make and sustain such connections over time in ways that are useful — and sometimes even exciting.

Because of my experience with World Links (and a number of other similar efforts), I am often approached by groups looking (to quote from one related representative email inquiry) to ‘connect teachers and students around the world in order to engage in enriching collaborative learning projects together to promote global peace and understanding and develop 21st century skills and competencies’. To the extent it might be of interest to anyone (and just possibly to save myself and others the time it takes to meet to discuss such things in person or over email), I thought I’d share some hard-won lessons and perspectives about what seems to work (and what doesn’t) when it comes to connecting teachers and students around the world to each other so that they can achieve whatever it is they hope to achieve as a result of such connections.

I don’t pretend to be an ‘expert’ on this stuff (although I have learned from many folks whom I think probably deserve such a label), and no doubt there is at least one potential exception to every rule of thumb or guideline or piece of advice I present below. The list of things discussed here  makes no claims to comprehensiveness. That said, hopefully there is something here that some of you might find useful — or which provokes you in useful ways.—

Ten comments, questions and perspectives on connecting students and teachers around the world to each other to facilitate ‘virtual exchanges’  

1. Many groups have lots of experience in facilitating student and teacher exchanges over the Internet
If you are looking to help facilitate conversations and learning activities between students and teachers using the Internet — this sounds great! One thing to consider: Lots of other groups have done, and do, this too. Some do this well (like iEARN, which despite the crazy capitalization in its name has been a leading organization in this area for over two decades), and some admittedly not so well, but there is a wealth of experience you can tap into. You might wish to invest a little time and effort into learning about what works, and what doesn’t, from such groups, who are often very open in sharing information. You may even want to partner with a few of them as you get started.

2. Why are you connecting?
This may sound like an (overly) simple question, but I often find that many groups seeking to support things like ‘connecting students to each other over the Internet’ wade into such waters not only without a clear idea of what exactly they want to do, but also of why exactly they want to do it. Connecting just for the sake of connecting, as might occur in a short ‘pen pal’ sort of interaction, can be a valuable experience, but such connections might, by their very nature, be too ephemeral (or even superficial) to have sustained, long-lasting value over time. This is not to contend that such quick connections and interactions don’t have any value, of course — absolutely not! Rather, it is just to point out that exchanges of that sort are only one potential type of interaction possible to catalyze and support between students (or teachers) online. If you hope to utilize such connections to help promote the development of some of what are often referred to as ’21st century competencies’ (such as those identified as ‘goal ‘4.7’ in the UN’s proposed new ‘sustainable development goals’), you might need to consider more than a very short, time-bound exchange of information. Whether your virtual exchange is meant to serve as a ‘side dish’ (complementing some other ongoing or planned educational activity) or the ‘main course’ (where the exchange itself is the focus of what you are doing), having clarity about your reasons for connecting will help provide useful direction as you plan for whatever it is you end up doing.

Indeed:

3. Your reasons for connecting will influence the nature of the connection
Many groups actively look to utilize the Internet to connect teachers and students to each other from different countries as part of an effort to ‘promote great peace and global understanding’. A question: If, by helping to catalyze and support a virtual exchange between students and teachers in different parts of the world, your goal is to promote ‘peace and understanding’, do you want to make the exchange about that … or about something else in order to develop and nurture the sorts of connections that could, as a by-product, lead to greater ‘peace and understanding’ (whatever that may mean to you)? If you are explicit about promoting ‘global understanding’, you may tend to attract certain types of folks and promote certain types of interactions. There is nothing wrong with this, of course. But it might be worth considering whether such goals might be met by focusing on something *else* (join scientific exchanges, for example, or collaboratively writing a report about a health or environmental issue common to both sides), targeting teachers and students with other interests, where the promotion of ‘peace and understanding’ across borders might be a potential by-product of such exchanges or collaborations.

4. Scheduling is non-trivial!
Especially as you seek to establish and maintain connections across borders, complications related to differing school calendars and curricula, if not anticipated and managed, can present significant challenges. When a school in one country is in session, another may be on holiday. What students in country X learn when they are 12 years old may be first introduced in another country’s curriculum for 15 year olds. Even if a topic is taught in the last year of primary school in two countries, the sequencing may be quite different. Time zones are also one (obvious) potential issue: It is hard to Skype with people in another hemisphere if they are asleep. Even where curricula are roughly similar, school calendars are generally aligned and time differences are manageable, holidays, exam periods and basic differences in instruction periods each week (in one school a topic may be taught twice a week where in another it is taught daily) can make coordinating schedules quite difficult in practice. In my experience, nitty-gritty scheduling issues are often a *much* bigger challenge in practice than they may first appear.

One way to get around such scheduling challenges is to …

5. Make it all extra-curricular
Given all of the challenges with scheduling, and age cohorts, and alignment with curricula — and perhaps with student interest and access to technology as well — it might be most prudent to consider anchoring such exchanges within extra-curricular activities outside of normal school hours. Doing this has obvious drawbacks, of course, but it might be the most practical approach in many circumstances. Classroom teachers and students may (unfortunately) be judged largely (or even in some places solely) on various high stakes exam results, and where cross-border online connections are not seen to directly support preparation for such exams, they may be hard to maintain, or even justify, within a formal classroom environment and school structure. If you make participation something *extra*, and pursue it outside of normal class hours (after school, during break or free periods, even, as possible/appropriate, in the evening or on weekends when students are at their homes), the exchange might be possible.

6. Connecting classrooms to classrooms versus one individual classroom to another single classroom
Connecting to classrooms, students and teachers in other parts of the world can be exciting — and very difficult to do successfully. This is especially true when groups on both (or all) sides do not know each other and have no shared history of working together — especially when they have never met in person. One important approach that can help support and sustain connections at a distance is to simultaneously pursue more ‘local’ connections as well. For example: A few teachers and classrooms in a school or local community can join together in reaching out to counterparts in some other place. This provides teachers on each end with a local peer network upon which they can rely for guidance and support. If for some reason a connection with a distant group falls through, a project can still proceed ‘locally’.

Related to this …

7. Global vs. national (or local) connections (and how they might be related)
Connecting students and teachers in different schools together in some way using the internet can be a very rewarding experience. It can also be quite difficult to make happen, even between schools within the same education system, studying the same thing, and where students/teachers of similar backgrounds and experiences are linked with each other. One of the reasons to attempt connections, of course, is precisely to help bridge (real and/or perceived) differences of various sorts (geographic, linguistic, national, socio-economic, ethnic, gender, religious, etc.). That said, such differences can complicate such connections in all sorts of (understandable) ways. With this in mind, it might be useful to consider connecting locally to support cross-border connections.

In my experience with the World Links program, we often found that (for example), as interested as kids in Accra might be in connecting with students in Chicago, they were often actually *more* interested in connecting over the Internet  with their counterparts in schools in Cape Coast or Kumasi with whom they might otherwise have little opportunity to  interact. (For those who don’t recognize the names of some of these cities: Three of them are in Ghana.) Connecting students and teachers across Ghana together, and then collectively pursuing online exchanges with similar groups in the United States, was in some ways easier to pull off than just trying to connect two schools across international borders. And: The national connections persisted long after the international ones weakened.

8. Language will be a challenge
Part of what makes cross-border connections between students and/or teachers novel, fun and adventurous is the language barrier. (There can sometimes be language barriers even where both groups nominally speak the same language. ‘Two countries divided by the same language’ is how George Bernard Shaw once rather wittily characterized the United States and England. The same might be said for South Africa and Singapore, or even, as a joking co-worker from Milan once told me, for different parts of the same country, including her native Italy!) Online language translation tools have come a long way in recent years, and can be invaluable aids in bridging language barriers. As anyone who has used them, however, the results generated through the use of such tools can be far from perfect in many cases. Where real-time communication is required (in chat rooms, for example, or using videoconferencing), time delays due to translation need to be factored in.

One common approach utilized in many online or virtual exchanges is for most communication to be routed through teachers, who may be more likely to share a common language than might all of the students in both classrooms who might be connected. (There are other reasons to consider routing communication through teachers; more on that later.)

One piece of advice: If you are looking to connect to a classroom in another country so that students in your classroom can practice using their foreign language with native speakers, you might want to consider what your ‘partners’ may get out of such exchanges. As interesting as it might be for your third year French-as-a-foreign-language students to practice their rudimentary linguistic abilities with native speakers in Lyon or Dakar, the native French speakers on the other end may quickly loose interest in such communication. This is not to say that exchanges for the purpose of practicing foreign languages are inappropriate, or likely to fail — not at all (or at least, not necessarily). It is just to consider reciprocity, and what incentives there might be for groups on both sides of exchanges to sustain them successfully.

9. Consider supporting virtual connections through face-to-face interactions
Many schools in Europe have enjoyed productive, and sometimes quite long-term, online connections with each other across national borders. The work of the European Schoolnet, and notable efforts like the eTwinning initiative of the Erasmus program, have been pivotal in this regard in many instances. So too have been a number of other programs which have supported (at admittedly quite high costs in many cases) bringing students and teachers together in personal to visit each other’s schools. As comfortable as people are getting with making and sustaining online connections, such connections are often made much stronger where groups have first met face-to-face. This is not financially feasible, of course, but it can sometimes be facilitated if you …

10. Build off existing relationships and interests, initiatives and events
When connecting globally, one approach to consider is to include a diasporan community on one side. Examples of this could include connecting a school in Sydney with large numbers of first generation immigrants from China with a school in Shanghai, for example, or a community in Sao Paulo with many students whose families originally hailed from Japan with a school outside Tokyo. There may be existing linkages between such groups facilitated by groups outside the education system that can help with this. Another is to link with existing Sister Cities relationships, which sometimes have existing mechanisms in place to help facilitate connections, but which are in need of people to connect, and reasons to connect them. Yet another approach can be to link in some way with a large international large event (a sporting event like the Olympics or the World Cup, for example) which brings together or interests people from different countries at the same time. Entering various online competitions can be a way for a school to meet potential collaborators and partners, and provide a rational for such a collaboration. Sometimes schools can leverage the fact that an international business has operations in both of their local communities for support in making and sustaining their connections and virtual exchanges.

This article was first published by the World Bank’s EduTech blog. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Michael Trucano is the World Bank’s Senior Education & Technology Policy Specialist and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, serving as the organization’s focal point on issues at the intersection of technology use and education in middle- and low-income countries and emerging markets around the world.

Image: Students at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School work on their laptops during a class in Dorchester, Massachusetts June 20, 2008. REUTERS/Adam Hunger.

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