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Why Virtual Exchange Brings Relevance to Language Learning

Guest post by Jennifer Geist

When I began teaching Spanish in 1998, I quickly discovered that most of my students had very little context for using other languages. In fact, they didn’t really understand why they were learning “a different word for everything.” Once, a student begged me to “say it in real” when I spoke to her in Spanish.

As their teacher, I needed to provide my students with context and relevance for language learning. I puzzled over how to create a situation in which using Spanish to communicate would be intriguing, authentic and useful. This is how I discovered virtual exchange.​

What is virtual exchange?

“Virtual exchanges are technology-enabled, sustained, people-to-people education programs,” as defined by the Virtual Exchange Coalition. The first virtual exchange I participated in was between my U.S. first graders and primaria students in Argentina. The theme was “A Sense of Caring.” The students learned several different ways of saying “I care about this” or “this is important to me.”

They made watercolor paintings with captions expressing what mattered to them. We took photos of the artwork, wrote a letter introducing ourselves in Spanish, and emailed everything to the teacher in Argentina. Three days later we received a similar bundle from our partner class. It was frustrating because of bandwidth issues and other technology challenges but we persevered.

When my students saw the drawings and words from their friends in Argentina they were absolutely delighted. They were highly motivated to decode the messages using clues from the drawings. They also used what they knew of cognates and what they learned through their own drawings. My students were reading well above their language level because they wanted to understand and make connections. “Look, Manuel cares about the forest too!” Now my students knew that their partners were “saying it in real” and they could understand.

This was a game changer in my class, and I brought virtual exchange projects to every other grade that I taught that year. Virtual exchange transformed the entire language program of our school. I’ve been hooked ever since.

Get started with virtual exchange

That’s why I am excited to invite you to the new Qatar Foundation International (QFI) Community on! QFI is dedicated to building meaningful connections and global leadership.

We released our first course, How to Create a Virtual Exchange to share the Virtual Exchange Toolkit and encourage teachers to bring this exciting instructional practice to their students. The toolkit contains wisdom and best practices collected from teachers across the world. In the course, teachers set goals to build global competencies, learning strategies for engagement, collaboration and assessment.

Our world has changed considerably in the last 25 years. We now understand the urgency to foster empathy and teach collaboration skills to our students. With this, they can build a global community that is healthy for the environment and allows all people to thrive. Virtual exchange allows teachers and students to address the UN Sustainable Development Goals. They also learn to communicate, problem solve and create across cultures, languages and kilometers!

QFI is thrilled to announce the release of our second course How to Teach the Aber Virtual Exchange. Aber means express in Arabic. The curriculum is designed to foster a meaningful exchange between students in North America and the Arab world.

The course explores the challenging topics of culture, stereotyping and diversity. It will help you foster open expression and collaboration to take action against prejudice and discrimination through multimedia and art. This course is open to all educators and it is our hope you will meet a partner teacher to develop a trusting, collaborative relationship.

Our courses are completely free and self-paced; begin anytime! All of our curricula is open source. Our next course explores global service learning through virtual exchange and will be released in early 2019. ​

Join the QFI Community, hosted by our sister company, and learn more about virtual exchange.

Jennifer Geist is a global education consultant with a strong background in using film and digital media in the classroom. She helps teachers, schools, foundations and students bring global perspectives into their education work. You can connect with her on Twitter @jenngeist.​

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