More comments on using the Internet to connect students and teachers around the world for 'virtual exchanges'

This page in:
A few years ago I was visiting a high school in central Russia and stopped by a chemistry class near the end of the day. It looked, more or less, like a chemistry class that one might see in many places around the world: kids in white lab coats pouring stuff into beakers, taking measurements and scribbling results on their notepads (and then doing the same thing again, and again).

The students were hurrying to collect their data so that they could compare them with other groups in the class -- and, it turned out, with the results 'from Toronto'. 'Toronto?' I asked, a little confused. 'What do you mean?'

I was told that the class was linked via Skype to a chemistry class in a high school outside Canada's largest city, which was doing the exact same experiment. 'Go have a look', one of the Russian kids said, nodding his head toward a computer monitor on a nearby table that showed a row of beakers much like those on the tables near me. The Russian student turned on the nearby microphone, called out a name ... and two heads popped up on the screen, attached to bodies halfway around the world. The students greeted each other, made a quick joke about the Maple Leafs and Ak Bars (the respective local hockey teams), and then started discussing the experiment.

The teacher later told me that she had been communicating with teachers in other countries whom she had found on the Internet and had been using Skype for about a year to connect to some of their classrooms, in order to demonstrate to her kids how science is really a global language, and how important it is to share your findings with the whole world. The local education officials who were with me on the school tour got very excited about all of this -- they had never seen such a thing. Yes, when I think about it, it is pretty neat, the teacher responded. Despite the occasional communication problem or technical glitch, however, her students really didn't really think this was a very big deal. Many of them were used to playing videogames with kids in other countries over the Internet already, she said, and to them this was in some ways just more of the same.

A post on the EduTech blog last week offered ten comments, questions and perspectives on connecting students and teachers around the world to each other to facilitate such 'virtual exchanges'. Here are ten more:

[As I noted when presenting the earlier list: 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. As with the earlier list, I make no claims to comprehensiveness; some important things are no doubt discussed incompletely, and others perhaps not at all. That said, hopefully there is something here that some of you might find useful -- or which provokes you in useful ways.]
Ten (more) comments, questions and perspectives
on connecting students and teachers around the world to each other
to facilitate 'virtual exchanges'

1. The best predictor for 'success' is prior experience (even if it was a 'failure')
It may be obvious, but it may be worth stating nonetheless: The best predictor of a successful online exchange is often the fact that at least one of the groups involved has successfully done something similar in the past. With this in mind, pairing 'experienced' and 'inexperienced' schools or teachers with each other where possible can increase the odds for a successful online exchange. Even where a previous attempt 'failed', having attempted something previously can provide invaluable and highly practical lessons which might make a subsequent more likely to 'succeed'.
2. Some common categories of virtual exchanges
There are, generally speaking, three general categories into which online student/teacher exchanges can be placed:
- Project-based exchanges ("let's do this together") typically focused on a specific, pre-defined activity or interaction.
- Thematically-based exchanges ("we are both studying something similar, let's team up / share as appropriate along the way) often times are extensions of activities already occurring in classrooms.
- School-based exchanges ("we're sister schools, so we should do something together") often result from administrative or cultural connections between schools which are geographically far apart but which wish to collaborate on something together.
While there are many common features of exchanges of these sorts, there are important practical differences as well, with often very specific practical consequences.
3. Policies, and firewalls, can present real challenges
Connecting with other schools across the Internet can often push up against existing school policies which didn't envision such sorts of interactions when they were initially put into place. Where, for example, teachers are prohibited from interacting with their students on social media, what happens when the easiest tool for interaction with a distant partner is ... Facebook? And: What if one school wishes to collaborate via Facebook, but that social networking site is blocked in the other school? One perhaps surprising reality observed in some efforts to connect teachers and students with each other online is that those in schools in more 'advanced' countries may have more difficulties in making such connections because there more rules and technical barriers (e.g. school firewalls) in place than there are in education systems where Internet use in schools is comparatively new.
4. When it comes time to communicate, always have a back-up plan
The opportunities to connect students and teachers with each other across borders have never been better than they are today -- but the technologies can still sometimes let you down. In addition, human factors (somebody on one end of an exchange forgets to do something, or gets sick, or gets upset) can disrupt even the best plans. Having a back-up plan (a mobile phone number or Twitter account, a pre-established secondary time/method to connect, a lesson plan that will work with students when connections are not possible) can be important to keep things going when something 'goes wrong'. And something will almost always 'go wrong' at some point.
5. Go where people are -- don't make them come to you
One trap that some groups seeking to support online exchanges between teachers and students across borders is to first build a specialized web site or online tool to facilitate such exchanges. This may work ... but it can be a rather expensive and speculative endeavor. It might be more useful to utilize existing tools already in use in schools (e.g. email) or by teachers and students (e.g. Facebook, WhatsApp) or existing messageboards/chatrooms set up by others to find and initially connect with other groups than to expect them to find you and use some new tool you have developed for that purpose. (Some NGOs, e.g. iEARN, help animate networks of teachers looking to connect with others online; there are also companies that can broker and support such connections for groups willing to pay for such services.) It is often easier to dance with someone if you go to where dancing is already taking place than to build your own dance floor in your basement. The precious time and energies and funds you spend developing and maintaining new technology tools might be better spent in supporting students and teachers as they attempt to utilize the tools they already have, and know how to use, when interacting with each other.
6. Consider running everything through teachers
Given logistical and technical challenges, and a desire to make sure virtual exchanges have 'educational value', you may wish to structure your online virtual exchanges in a way that channels all or most communication through teachers on both sides. Some people will object to this, maintaining that direct communication and interactions between students should be a central feature of any virtual exchange. I understand and sympathize with such objections. I am just being practical here – especially for groups doing this sort of thing for the first time. School administrators and parents may object to, or at least be very hesitant about, connecting students to other students whom they don't know over the Internet. Having teachers fully 'in charge' can help alleviate related concerns. Running communications through teachers can also make scheduling and communication much easier (especially communication across languages), and can provide useful structure to online interactions. It can also lessen (but not fully remove) the likelihood that students may do something 'inappropriate' which may offend other parties -- or embarrass themselves. Your end goal may be to have students interacting actively, and directly, with each other as part of an online virtual exchange across borders. But it might be nevertheless worth asking: Do we start with those sorts of interactions right away, or build towards them over time?
Even if you do this, however ...
7. Kids will find ways to connect with each other
Kids are already connecting with each other across borders in lots of ways (via games, YouTube, Instagram, etc.) over the Internet. When you set up an exchange between classrooms, expect that students may well Google each other, look each other up on social networks, meet on message boards or via mobile gaming apps etc. and make connections outside the scope of the official, planned methods of interaction. The fact that some or all of these things may be 'blocked' in schools may not keep students from finding ways around such blocks (kids can be rather inventive in that way). With this in mind, it can be useful to anticipate, and lay out some guidelines related to such (potential) interactions.
8. Stuff will go wrong
Like adults (including their teachers), kids occasionally say and do stupid things online -- sometimes with the best of intentions, sometimes with malice. The technology to facilitate virtual exchanges may not always work -- or work as planned. Recognizing where, how and why things aren't working, and making adjustments as a result, can be an important part of any learning process. This is the nature of communication and collaboration and working together, of course. Assume that something will go wrong during the course of a virtual exchange -- even if you don't know what that something may turn out to be.
9. How you end is more important than how you begin
While the excitement around virtual exchanges usually peaks in the early stages, how the exchange ends may be what is most important. While a lot of effort is often expended planning for how a virtual exchange will kick off, oftentimes insufficient attention is paid to how to end it successfully. Making an exchange explicitly time-bound from the very beginning can help ensure that sufficient attention is given to the end stage of a virtual exchange. Planning your 'exit strategy' (whether that exit happens at the time originally scheduled, or sooner as a result of some challenge or issue that reveals itself along the way) is always a good idea.
10. Measuring impact
What is known about the 'impact' of online virtual exchanges between students, teachers and classrooms? As more and more schools around the world are connected to the Internet, as more and more teachers and students are connected to the Internet in their daily lives, and as technological advances help expand our horizon of what is possible, we should see more rigorous research that can inform answers to such a question. Unfortunately, this remains an under-examined topic for researchers. For those promoting and supporting such exchanges and connections, knowing and articulating in advance what you want to achieve as a result of engaging in some sort of 'virtual exchange' with students and teachers in other parts of the world can help you assess the 'impact' of what you have done. How can you measure the impact of making online connections between classrooms in different parts of the world? The answer will depend, of course, on many factors, including your goals for pursuing this sort of thing in the first place, the nature of the connection and interaction, and your time horizon. But your first step should be to start asking a lot of other related questions.
Lastly: Prepare to be surprised!
One common feature of pretty much every attempt to connect teachers and students to each other across national borders using the Internet in which I have been involved in some way has been the element of *surprise*. Something inevitably happens that no one expects. Surprise and serendipity can help spark student creativity -- and indeed can help enable some of the most transformational learning activities. Virtual exchanges may be difficult to do well, but for groups that are successful at them, literally a whole world of new teaching and learning opportunities can become available.
You may also be interested in the following posts from the EduTech blog:  
Please note: The image used at the top of this blog post of two hands clasped together ("connecting") comes via Wikimedia Commons. It is a work of the National Institutes of Health, part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain. Rhoda Baer (Photographer) grants anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000