Virtual Exchanges Strengthen Skills and Forge Friendships

Children look at a tablet together.

By Heather Clydesdale

Nothing advances ability and rewards effort like making friends in a new language. How can Chinese language teachers establish connections between their own students and English-learning peers in China? Dr. Hong Li, who teaches intermediate Chinese at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM), has launched ongoing virtual exchange with a school in Hangzhou. She believes her program’s success is due to careful preparation, appropriate technology, dedication on behalf of teachers, and the support of administrators. What about student enthusiasm and engagement? According to Li, with the other pieces in place, these come naturally.

Li launched her virtual exchange three years ago, modeling it on a similar program at East Carolina University that combined communication skills with language proficiency and cultural awareness. She leveraged grassroots connections to connect with teachers at the Hangzhou Foreign Languages School. Once a week, eleventh and twelfth graders from NCSSM convene with tenth and eleventh graders in Hangzhou to participate in real-time video exchanges.

Students prepare for sessions with audio and video materials and pre-exchange discussions. Li explains, “We start with personal interests, family values, and we move to school life, qualifications, and extend to culture, environmental issues, and political topics.”

The exchanges generally start with a presentation by an instructor or students, followed by student-to-student conversations. These give students the chance to ask one another detailed questions, such as how to play the guitar or the erhu, or how families observe traditions in the community. The class finishes with group discussion and sharing. After the exchange, American and Chinese students connect through written exchanges online.

As the content areas move to national and global topics, Li and her Chinese counterparts invite experts to organize a class. As part of this endeavor, Li asked NCSS Humanities Instructor, Dr. Kyle Hudson, who holds both a J.D. and a Ph.D. in politics, to lead a class on the Declaration of Independence and its influence on US political culture today.

The first year Hudson taught the course, he used a lecture and presentation format, followed by discussion. The second year, he experimented with a flipped classroom model, giving the students his presentation in advance, which freed more class time for discussion so students could explore questions such as “What do freedom, equality, and happiness mean to me?” and “How are these terms conceptualized differently in the United States and in China?”

Both the North Carolina and Hangzhou teachers approach the exchanges as they would a course, defining achievement criteria and administering assessments. The latter includes surveys and reflections, which sometimes yield surprising answers. For instance, the Hangzhou students described their North Carolina counterparts as more open, saying they were supportive of outlier opinions, but they also characterized the Americans as more traditional and disciplined.

Li and her partners in Hangzhou use the surveys and reflections to track successes as well as opportunities for improvements. There are obvious logistical problems. One is the disparity in language ability. The Hangzhou students’ English is more advanced than the NCSSM students’ Chinese. To bridge the proficiency gap, Li provides her students with vocabulary lists to use as a reference during their sessions.

Another challenge is technology, which is not always reliable in the face of fluctuating Internet capacity and firewalls. Li recommends experimenting with new platforms (NCSSM uses a combination of NiceNet, Skype, WeChat, Polycom, and other programs) and keeping back-ups handy. The school in Hangzhou has a technical professional to help them troubleshoot, but Li has taken this role on herself for NCSSM. Nevertheless, the popularity and success of her program has helped her secure funding for better equipment, including an upgraded camera and headsets for students.

The twelve-hour time difference poses difficulties, but the NCSSM students are willing to arrive at class early in the morning, while the Hangzhou students stay late into the evening.

Once everyone arrives and the connection is established, Li and Hudson claim that the students stay on-task and their job facilitating group discussions, monitoring one-on-one conversations, and follow discussion threads online, is relatively easy.

Because the online exchanges were so enriching, the two schools decided to try a two-way physical exchange beginning in 2014. Through the virtual and physical exchanges, students practice the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) “Five C’s of Foreign Language Education,” and this inspired Li and Hudson to coin what they call the “Five I’s,” that characterize their program: international, innovative, interdisciplinary, interactive, and immersive.

From students’ perspective, the exchanges deepen language skills and advance cultural understanding. They also enjoy making friends, and find that they become newly aware of their own culture and identity.
 

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