Students connecting via video conference
Empatico Blog | October 3, 2018

How to make virtual exchange happen in your classroom

By Christina Bruno
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The world is increasingly interconnected

Imagine if students around the world could meet their peers in other countries without ever leaving their classroom. This is becoming increasingly possible as students today are growing up in a world in which digital citizenship is gaining momentum and the workforce is more diverse and international than ever. The ability to interact with and understand individuals from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds (and the ability to comfortably communicate verbally and in writing via technology) is increasingly important, yet the opportunities to meaningfully practice these skills in schools can be limited. While many teachers are intrigued by virtual exchange as a potential solution, they don’t always have the time or resources to make it happen in their classrooms.

According to the Virtual Exchange Coalition, “virtual exchanges are technology-enabled, sustained, people-to-people education programs.” Virtual exchanges have existed for decades and range from collaborative projects via email and online forums to higher tech video conferencing and virtual reality programs. No matter the format, the resulting possibilities are limitless. Virtual exchanges can bring students from different communities and countries into your classroom, they can introduce expert guests into your lesson plans, and they can facilitate field trips around the world at no cost to you and your students.

Technology can sometimes separate us, as we spend more time in front of screens and less time in conversation, but it has also created opportunities to connect us, and this is the heart of our work at Empatico.

 

Taking an international field trip, no passport needed

Virtual exchanges offer the opportunity for students to have deep, meaningful, and interactive conversations with their peers around the world, which can be especially important for those who would not otherwise have the opportunity to travel internationally. They teach us that even if geography separates us, people still share many similarities around the world.

At Empatico, we aspire to make global, virtual exchanges a regular part of all students’ educational journey; hoping that someday it will be a widely-adopted way for students to connect with one another and explore their similarities and differences. We think one of the key ways we can do this is by offering activities that help guide the conversation between two partner classrooms engaging in a virtual exchange. By keeping the content and format of an exchange relatively short and informal (just a few hours, including prep and reflection for a video interaction) and easy to integrate into curriculum, more classrooms around the world will be able to participate in virtual exchange at least once during the year. But just like a great trip visiting a new place, we have heard from students and their teachers that they cannot wait to go back for more after the first connection!

Our activities are designed to be student-led, so students are the drivers of conversation, knowledge sharing, understanding, and learning. This encourages a truly meaningful virtual exchange experience. Both sides share personal experiences and engage in dialogue using a combination of live interactions and video/photo sharing to create lasting relationships rather than a quick transaction. We also know students learn best when their curiosity has been piqued, even if the content might otherwise be considered boring or difficult to them. For example, if a student traditionally struggles with science, personalizing the topic or relating it to their interests (e.g. what’s the weather like in your community vs. another part of the world?) can help them learn and retain the subject matter.

We’ve also received some early feedback from Empatico users piloting different features that combining the excitement and personalization that comes with live video interactions with the ability to share media asynchronously has benefitted their students in multiple ways. Creating and sharing videos and presentations enables their students to build their confidence and technology skills, and taking time to process information between live video exchanges allows them to prepare thoughtful responses to share with their partner class.

Finally, we know finding a partner class to connect with can be a challenge between navigating time zones, student ages, and lesson plans. To help with this, Empatico automates the process by matching teachers based on availability, activity selections, and student ages. We also offer chat features for educators to discuss student demographics, class size, and more. At the same time, we facilitate the experience through intuitive video conferencing technology and resources for educators to set their class up for success and move smoothly through activities that integrate academic standards.

 

How does virtual exchange enrich learning?

Through virtual exchange, students develop global competencies and 21st century skills that will help them in all areas of life from forming personal relationships to career success. Virtual exchange can help improve communication skills, especially in multilingual and multicultural settings, and help students with their social and relationship-building skills. Students also gain a better awareness of their own values and culture while they are exposed to and learn about the experiences of peers from a different background. Through preparation exercises, students can also build more interpersonal skills that reinforce trust and respect within their own classrooms.

Some evaluations of virtual exchange programs have already demonstrated that “virtual exchange programs can increase participants’ empathy for other cultures and perspectives, develop their willingness to engage constructively with peers of diverse backgrounds and views, and provide participants with the experience of being heard and respected.”

We’ve also conducted a preliminary study of how students benefit from Empatico experiences. Among a cohort of 303 students, we found that after participating in at least two Empatico interactions, students scored higher on measures of empathy and perspective taking, including reporting more empathy toward children from their partner classroom’s location. This difference was especially pronounced among students from rural locations. Students also reported having more knowledge of their partner classroom’s location, greater curiosity and interest in meeting people from other states or countries, having more positive attitudes toward children from their partner classroom’s location, and feeling more similar to children from other countries, after using Empatico.

This was our first informal pilot study, so we cannot make any generalizations about Empatico’s impact based on this cohort. However, we view these preliminary results as a promising indicator of what can be achieved with virtual exchange, and we plan to conduct more formal, controlled evaluation studies to validate these early results.

 

Building your professional network

While virtual exchange offers priceless opportunities for students, it can also be a boon for educators. Virtual exchange connects educators from different communities and countries who can then share teaching styles, best practices, and ideas for engaging their students in global learning. It helps teachers expand their professional networks in new ways and feel part of a larger global community. For example, with Empatico, educators learn new teaching practices from one another, such as strategies for supporting in-class collaborative group work and encouraging student voice during a virtual exchange. Some teachers have even traveled abroad to meet their partner teacher in person!

Ready to try virtual exchange in your classroom? Sign up for a free Empatico account today!

“Empatico takes kids to places that some of them will never get to go. Now they’ve made friends in another country! That’s just so exciting for 2nd graders to know they’ve made friends in other parts of the world, besides just here in their class!”
– Janie L. Hachen, 2nd grade teacher