FULBRIGHT-HAYS GROUP PROJECT COLOMBIA

A Study In Travel And Virtual Exchange

Kelli Repphun
8th Grade Spanish Teacher, Jackson Local Schools

This past year, I participated in a Fulbright-Hays Group Project where myself, along with other area teachers and aspiring Spanish teachers, completed pre- and post-departure seminars surrounding a four-week trip abroad to Cali, Colombia. The purpose of this project was to foster our Spanish language proficiency, increase cultural awareness and knowledge of Colombian culture and intercultural competence, while examining social justice issues through virtual exchange sessions with Colombian teachers before traveling abroad. Once we returned, we continued to meet virtually with our coordinating Colombian teachers, completed follow-up assessments, and created a dissemination plan. In all, we embarked on this project to foster relationships to facilitate virtual exchange sessions for our Spanish students,which allows me to share this experience with you. 

As world language teachers know, traveling abroad can open a student’s eyes to a world they never knew existed while immersed in the language and culture. But what if traveling abroad is not a feasible option? Not only does travel abroad promote authentic language learning, but travel provides opportunities for educators to enhance teaching practices by providing first-hand accounts of what it is like to experience another’s culture as well as creating space to look inward and reflect on one’s own culture. Unfortunately, traveling is expensive and not always feasible for our students. Knowing this, my colleagues and I focused our time in Colombia combating these barriers by forming relationships with educators in both public and private institutions residing in the city of Cali, Colombia during our four-week experience. During each school visit, we met with administrators, educators, and students teaching and studying the English language at different skill levels and grades. It turns out, they, too, are interested in providing real-world opportunities for students to interact in the target language with native speakers. Thus virtual exchanges were born. 

So what do these virtual exchanges look like?

Throughout the pandemic, we as educators have grown very familiar with the idea of synchronous and asynchronous learning. Synchronous learning means students interact during scheduled, real-time interactions via an application or website such as Zoom or Google Classroom, and asynchronous learning means the students can interact in their own time by recording themselves or creating products to send to classrooms abroad to be reviewed or in which to interact. Both options have their benefits and can easily be modified to fit your teaching style and class makeup. Below are key steps and strategies to use when developing a virtual exchange experience for students. 

Preparation

Setting up virtual exchanges takes time and ample preparation to make the process as seamless and organized as possible. Being that students are interacting with classes in another country, it is important to remember such factors as different time zones, school/class schedules, age/level of students, and internet/device access. Keep in mind, not all schools utilize Zoom or other accessible screen sharing applications where students can sign in and talk to students across the world. This is when asynchronous exchanges are ideal, especially when schools do not have access to one-to-one devices. When access to a device is limited, asynchronous virtual exchanges are an excellent option that support project-based learning. This type of virtual exchange provides opportunities for students to work in the target language, and completed projects can be peer/teacher-reviewed prior to sharing with an audience. As students acquire additional vocabulary and language knowledge as the year progresses, students can revisit products and add additional information or make new products to share. For example, students can design a slideshow introducing themselves, stating their age, where they live, what they like. The collected information can work double time to aid in matching students to prospective exchange partners based on likes/dislikes. 

Through the process of designing virtual exchanges, my colleagues and I discovered that not all pairings of classes are identical in level and age, but this challenge can always be addressed so that students continuously reap the rewards of interacting with native speakers, even if a situation is not a perfect match. Keep in mind that students can complete synchronous and asynchronous activities interchangeably, although the task will need modification. 

Step 1: Determine the task

The first step in preparing for the virtual exchange is to determine the task. Think about what the students will gain from the experience and what students will do with the information they exchange with their conversation partner. For example, once the interaction is over, students can complete reflection journals to talk about what they learned/noticed in English (lower level) or in the target language (higher level). 

Once the task is determined, it is important to scaffold the activity to ensure student success. For example, prior to the virtual exchange, students can write questions they want to ask their conversation partner, review key phrases used to ask for clarification or used to talk about a topic with ease, and have students gather any materials that may be beneficial, such as notes or vocabulary lists to reference when interacting. Have students practice speaking to one another to simulate the interaction before interacting with their native-speaking conversation partners.

Step 2: Create Visual Aid/Product

The next step in preparing for a virtual exchange is for students to create visuals to aid in communicating their ideas. Creating a slideshow presentation with images is a fantastic and easy way for students to show and visually represent what they want to say. With applications such as Google Meet and Zoom, students can easily screen share, allowing for images to express an idea when a student may not be able to find the right words. Images can also prompt students to recall vocabulary and form additional questions.  

When interacting asynchronously, students can record themselves using websites such as Flip Grid or Screencastify, but be sure whatever program or site utilized is also supported in prospective countries. Other suggestions for asynchronous interaction include students sharing a culminating unit project via recording or interacting with students using sites that promote collaboration such as Jamboard. For example, after my Spanish I students learn to make introductions, they learn to talk about school supplies and their classes. Students then create a slideshow presentation of images depicting what school supplies they need for different classes. In the past, students presented the product to the class, but now students can present their slideshow to native Spanish-speaking students on the other side of the world. 

Step 3: Practice

The last step in preparing for the virtual exchange is to practice. For synchronous exchanges, I highly suggest practicing how to log in to the site, how to screen share, and what the students are going to say. This allows as much time as possible for students to interact in the target language when it comes time for the scheduled virtual exchange. 

For asynchronous virtual exchanges, practicing is also key. Depending on the student’s level, this could include writing out bullet points of what a student plans to say, practicing a presentation before recording it, and practicing skills to complete the desired task. 

Things to remember

Keep in mind class size may be different from class to class. One may have more students than the class abroad and vice versa. In this case, you may consider partnering students up to work in pairs. This also helps with student comfort. When two students work together, they can fill in the blanks if their partner forgets a word or phrase or even falls silent. Pairing students can relieve the pressure a student may feel when challenged to speak in the target language, especially in the beginning stages of learning a language. 

When setting up the exchange, make the intentions of the exchange crystal clear to your students and the teacher partner. Specify that students are to speak in the target language for half the time and speak their native language the second half to make this beneficial for both parties. For example, start by splitting the class period in half. If students have 50-minute periods, allow 5 minutes for students to log on, 20 minutes to speak in the target language, 20 minutes to speak in English, and allot the final 5 minutes to log off and debrief. This could also be something students work up to. Depending on a student’s level, if just starting, students can talk for 5 minutes in each language just to get a feel for the process before signing off. The entire process is fluid and can be customized. Keep in mind, the first time creating a virtual exchange may be rocky. Of course, one can plan for the worst, but as long as students receive necessary support, are having fun, and interacting with the language, the virtual exchange is a success. In all, the results are amazing. Students are energized and ready to do it again, even if it does not go as planned.