Editor’s Intro: Mohamed Abdel-Kader, Executive Director of the Stevens Initiative at the Aspen Institute, shares the power of virtual exchange for learning skills valuable in the world of work.
One of the most common misperceptions about virtual exchange—educational programs that use technology to connect young people around the world—is that it is just a tool for cross-cultural dialogue. Communication between young people from different backgrounds is certainly needed these days, but virtual exchange can achieve more than this worthy goal. Educators are increasingly utilizing online, collaborative, international learning to help young people build a wide array of skills that will prepare them for their careers and prepare them to contribute to society.
An Interdisciplinary Approach
By using interactive tools and addressing real-world issues, virtual exchange can engage students in material that might otherwise leave them disinterested or discouraged. Students can collaborate with peers overseas on a technology project and simultaneously learn about cultural nuances or regional challenges that may affect how technology is adopted around the world. They can learn together about how an issue like hunger differs in global and local contexts and think about solutions that can be implemented in their communities through service learning projects. In the workplace, managers often supervise teams across borders, nurses and doctors often deliver care to patients who speak different languages, and corporate leaders have to understand growth opportunities in other regions. Success in all of these fields requires a combination of several skills, and familiarity with complex subjects, rather than expertise on one place or topic in isolation. Addressing an academic discipline through a global, applied, and collaborative lens can make a significant difference in engaging learners and preparing them for the world outside the classroom.
A Global Flavor to Project-Based Learning
I get most excited about virtual exchange projects and programs that integrate project-based learning experiences into collaborative learning activities focused on addressing real world issues. It takes planning by educators, but seeing high school students participate in these activities can be great. For instance, I’m inspired by a project in Chicago where high school students and their peers in Casablanca working together—virtually—are building an exhibit of a dinosaur fossil for an online STEAM museum. Not only are the students learning about a dinosaur and its extinction and fossilization, but they’re also building digital literacy and research skills, as well as having the experience of collaborating across borders, and managing a project. As a hiring manager looking for talent, I regularly find myself looking for candidates who have managed and completed complex projects, have solid research and analysis experience, and can communicate and thrive in dynamic environments while understanding diverse perspectives. Virtual exchange, when coupled with project-based learning can open a student’s eyes to real world tasks, global complexity, and context—and give them an opportunity to try to solve the problem.
Language, Cultural Competence, and Empathy
One of the most obvious benefits of international virtual exchange is its ability to instantly connect classrooms thousands of miles apart. This gives students the opportunity to practice their world language skills with one another while also gaining a greater understanding of their similarities and differences. Students who have participated in virtual exchange activities supported by the Stevens Initiative have immersed themselves in discussions on topics such as faith, gender, and race. They have shared personal narratives about hunger and violence in their communities. Sometimes, the similarities can be striking despite the long distance—and the differences insightful. A student who grew up in Kentucky felt that a school trip to Washington, DC was too far a distance to travel from her family, but happily engaged with a new friend in Pakistan through virtual exchange because they could talk about their mutual interest in agriculture. For so many of the students participating in virtual exchange, they may never meet a [fill in the blank with: American, city-person, Muslim, tuba player, Jew, farmer, African American, Arab, pole-vaulter, or hijabi]. Technology gives them the chance to have that incredibly valuable experience, and gives them the chance to realize that they may have more in common than they expected. In today’s workplace, language skills are certainly needed, but so is the modern worker’s ability to understand and empathize with colleagues, counterparts, and customers who have different backgrounds and beliefs. Particularly, when we have limited interaction in our immediate communities, a virtual exchange experience can be transformational in broadening a young person’s perspectives.
Many Americans fear their jobs or their children’s jobs will disappear because of automation. While machines will continue to accomplish many of the tasks that humans currently do, they don’t have the ability to be creative. Creativity is the heartbeat of innovation and plays a critical role in how ideas evolve into solutions to address community challenges or products and services for the marketplace. As students interact with peers from other countries and backgrounds, they share their lived experiences in a way that can help them see their surroundings and the challenges they face in creative, new ways.
Every student should have an opportunity to study abroad and immerse themselves in a rich cultural experience. The reality is that the vast majority of students face barriers that stand in the way of traveling or studying overseas—financial, curricular, familial, cultural—or just fear of going abroad. For significantly less than the cost of studying abroad, a virtual exchange experience can give a student a meaningful, sustained, interaction with peers around the world. An initial international experience through virtual exchange can be a great way to mitigate those first time jitters and spark interest in travel, or actually give a student the confidence to make an investment to go abroad. For many young people who engage in virtual exchange, it could be their only way to get a first-hand international experience, and I would certainly rather have students have the exposure than not. For students who have fewer opportunities to spend time abroad, a virtual exchange experience is about leveling the playing field to give—and get—that global experience.
With all of the world’s challenges, no one country’s people can or will advance the human condition on their own. Be it the devastation caused by environmental degradation, navigating the peaks and valleys of the global economy, or calming the scourge of war and violence, the young people in our classrooms and programs—not just in the United States, but in every classroom around the world—will have to tackle these challenges head on and together as peers. Our highest responsibility is to train and prepare them for the road ahead—be it in business, healthcare, science fields, or in civic life.
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The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.