US Education Policy

In Our Return to the Classroom, We Can’t Forget the Value of Virtual Learning

October 1, 2021  • Christine Shiau

This fall, teachers return to their classrooms with understandable trepidation for what lies ahead with the Delta variant and evolving guidance from the CDC. At the same time, many educators are excited at the prospect of face-to-face learning. Students are also enthusiastic about in-person instruction and the ability to reunite with friends. There seem to be a corresponding number of students and teachers eager to leave online learning in the past. While there are undeniable limits to what can be accomplished on a screen, we should take note of the benefits of good, structured online engagement and the hard lessons learned over the last two years.

For a moment, imagine a classroom where students spend part of the semester learning to code with peers in Egypt. As they collaborate on different projects that expand their computer science skills, they also build empathy and other key social-emotional skills gained from connecting with students from different cultures. They will make new friends and deepen their understanding of the world around them while participating in a unique learning opportunity.

This experience is possible through a form of online learning called “virtual exchange,” which connects young people from diverse places using everyday technology for collaborative learning and interaction through sustained, facilitated engagement. A missing piece in the ongoing conversation about the merits of online learning is how virtual exchange can be added to in-person classroom experiences as a way to foster wellbeing, build connections, and meet existing curricular priorities. Virtual exchange goes beyond merely logging into a Zoom call and expands a young person’s worldview in an engaging way that would otherwise only be accessible to those with the resources to travel across the world.

As educators work to close the learning gap caused by the pandemic, virtual exchange can be used to engage students in unique activities that support existing curricular priorities. Educators aren’t expected to abandon their state or district’s learning standards, or the lesson plans created to achieve them, but can instead use virtual exchange to enhance existing classroom activities. For example, high schoolers in the Onslow School District in North Carolina connect with peers in Morocco through virtual exchange to learn more about the UN Sustainable Development Goals, expanding existing lessons on social studies/world affairs and arts education.

In addition to presenting unique learning opportunities, virtual exchange programs, which often have a huge social-emotional learning component, can directly impact student performance. In fact, students engaged in social-emotional learning initiatives saw improved attendance rates and an 11% increase in their overall grades. 

Virtual exchange goes beyond merely logging into a Zoom call and expands a young person’s worldview.

Another great benefit of virtual exchange is its role in promoting the wellbeing of students, a goal of many educators as they return to the classroom after this difficult period of isolation. One program brings together high school girls from Jordan, Morocco, and the United States for conversations and activities centered on building mental resilience. Students who participate in these dynamic learning environments often build lifelong friendships, all while learning with and from one another. In another program, young people connect through storytelling to learn about unfamiliar places and cultures from peers. Along with new friends, students develop empathy and new perspectives, all from their classroom. These are just a couple of examples of the wide variety of virtual exchange programs, all of which help young people to develop competence in areas of social-emotional learning, including intercultural perspectives and problem-solving. By cultivating greater self-awareness and positive behaviors in the classroom, students are better prepared to become the future global leaders of tomorrow.

With all the responsibilities educators have, virtual exchange is set up to easily be incorporated into their classroom. By joining an existing program, educators have access to the lesson plans, activities, and international partners that make up the virtual exchange. Even if an interested educator’s curriculum is already full, but they want their students to have opportunities to participate in virtual exchange, these educators can share information about open-enrollment programs that students can do as an extracurricular or extra credit activity through an afterschool club or from home.

We can count on our educators to navigate the uncertainty of the new school year with the same flexibility and bravery as they demonstrated each day over the last 18 months. At the height of the pandemic, many developed online learning competencies beyond anyone’s expectations before schools closed last year. It would be a shame to throw away these newfound skills entirely. As we return back to in-person activities, let’s consider the flexibility of a hybrid model that infuses digital and global elements into the learning experience. The excitement that comes with the return of in-person classes will fade, but students engaging with peers in classrooms abroad through virtual exchange will be part of an experience that can be carried forward with them and built upon for years to come.

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