When classrooms have no walls

Young Asian boy sitting in front of a laptop computer looking at the screen.jpg

The ease of digital transcontinental communication is old news in the 21st century. It’s been decades since the Internet eliminated the distance barrier for anyone with a connection. A user can log on and watch a live stream of a political rally in another country, share her screen with a coworker across the world, and even link up with a global community to simultaneously play the newest video game. We’re so accustomed to sharing information and experiences with people who live nowhere near us that the novelty is almost gone. We live in a global society, and today’s K-12 students are growing up with that knowledge.

When it comes to education, the challenge is for teachers and administrators to make the most of opportunities for cross-cultural discourse for their students. With planning and goal-setting, international virtual exchanges with their peers can supplement classroom learning and advance students’ understanding, adaptability, and respect for other cultures.

Connections Academy (a curriculum and program used by a network of public virtual schools in the U.S, and one international virtual school), for example, puts a premium on the development of the “global student.” Through programs like “Around The World in 60 Minutes,” young learners are exposed to and engage with students in other countries during guided sessions that maximize the myriad benefits of the conference. Virtual students on both ends of the exchange work to prepare presentations on aspects of their traditions and daily lives that they would like to share with their virtual classmates around the world. The multimedia presentations are immediately followed by question and answer sessions where students have the space to respond to each other and to request expansion or clarification on the topics of their choice. These “unbundled classrooms” breed engagement and curiosity. The friendly, low-pressure environment invites students to add their own unique voices. One of the project’s lead teachers proudly reported that members of her fifth grade class jumped to volunteer to present for the next “Around The World in 60 Minutes” event, eager to actively participate.

Connections Academy staff have found that the benefits of these regular exchanges are far-reaching and self-sustaining. Friendships develop between students, regardless of geographical location, because students feel heard. It’s encouraging and exhilarating to have peers show interest in them and the things that they love. The students also bond over points of connection, coming to realize that—although their worlds are dissimilar in many ways—they do have feelings and experiences in common.

In addition to developing empathy and an appreciation for differences, facilitating international share sessions positions students as open learners and confident communicators. The information they receive has obvious value, but it’s the act of exchanging—the give and take—that carries these students forward in school, the workplace, and beyond. It can also encourage students to take additional steps to become more worldly and accessible, like learning another language or researching foreign cultures in their spare time.

The benefits of school-age exposure to an international community of learners can contribute to students’ post-graduation success. Through a fun and exciting exchange, these learners are building a strong foundation for their ability to understand and be understood across physical, linguistic, and cultural barriers. These are competencies that are sought after in today’s job market. A 2015 study by Burning Glass Technologies breaks down the desired skills listed in thousands of job postings across many fields. Overall, the number one “soft” or non-technical skill employers looked for last year was excellent communication. Writing and problem-solving also ranked highly. Forbes reported on the National Association of Colleges and Employers survey in 2014, which questioned hiring managers about the qualities they find desirable in candidates. The “ability to work in a team structure” was the first priority on that list. The “ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization” came in at number three.

The chances that an employee will regularly collaborate with colleagues and clients from other countries are significant in this global economy. Students who have become accustomed to communicating and addressing problems across cultural lines will be the best candidates for these positions. With confidence and an inextinguishable desire to absorb information, graduates of “classrooms without walls” will be steps ahead of their competitors whose horizons are not as broad.