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Solutions to Common Virtual Exchange Problems

Virtual exchanges have been lauded as the futuristic bridge connecting classrooms across the globe, promising rich, diverse educational experiences without the hassle of travel. But what happens when this bridge starts showing cracks? In researching the topic of common problems with Virtual Exchanges, I came across a recent study by Núria Hernández-Nanclares, Francisco Javier Mato Díaz, and Rita Kóris called “Expanding higher education classrooms beyond their walls: Virtual exchange and challenges for professors” that uncovers the not-so-pretty underbelly of virtual exchanges, highlighting several weaknesses that can turn this innovative teaching method into a professor’s nightmare. 

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Virtual Exchanges

Before diving into the nitty-gritty, let’s acknowledge the digital elephant in the virtual room: virtual exchanges can be incredibly beneficial. You already know that they expose students to new cultures, ideas, and ways of thinking. However, like any pioneering venture, they come with their own set of challenges—and like me, for the love of the game, you’ve suffered through many of them already. From language barriers and IT platform mismatches to syllabi discrepancies and teamwork tensions, the potential pitfalls are many. But fear not! With a sprinkle of creativity and a dash of planning, we can navigate these obstacles. The following are challenges identified in the aforementioned research, and some quick tips and considerations I’ve gathered from all the exchanges I’ve run, oversaw, or heard about over the years at Level Up Village.

Lost in Translation

Problem: Everyone’s speaking in tongues! When all participants use a non-native language, and some lack proficiency, communication can quickly become a game of broken telephone.

Solution: In a foreign-language focused exchange, this hurdle shouldn’t faze the stalwart instructor, who knows a little challenge can be a good thing, but when it’s a LUV class about the environment or books like The Giver or I am Malala, communication and mutual understanding surge in importance. Therefore, I suggest in those cases implementing language support sessions and buddy systems. Encourage students to use language learning apps to boost their skills. Clear, simple communication should be the norm, with key terms and phrases shared before the exchange begins. Or consider collaborating with a colleague, a student and their family, an alum, or another figure in the school’s community who might lend a hand in navigating the language barrier.

Tech Tangle

Problem: Different IT platforms can turn a simple project into a logistical nightmare, especially without IT support.

Solution: I think this particular problem is why more and more educators try and avoid their own “homebrew” DIY exchanges and eagerly outsource the drama of tech-ing to the pros. Level Up Village offers a unified platform, ensuring all participants are on the same digital page. They can help you provide training sessions and cheat sheets to navigate the platform like a boss, and those of you who have already run a LUV course in your class know, it’s rinse and repeat once you’ve gotten the hang of it!

Curriculum Conundrums

Problem: Diverging syllabi, course credits, and learning objectives between institutions can lead to misalignment.

Solution: Prioritize upfront alignment. I’ve found time and again that other schools will grade their students’ participation differently than how I’m doing it, and that’s all well and good. But, definitely engage in detailed planning sessions with your partner instructors to synchronize course objectives, credits, and student expectations. Adopt flexible, project-based assignments that can be tailored to fit multiple curricula, and maybe take notes on how your partners approach the video exchange: you might learn something about their methods that you could adapt. 

Inexperienced Innovators

 Problem: A significant chunk of students may lack the knowledge, experience, or maturity to deliver a quality final project.

Solution: This happens more than you’d think—just because they were born with the Internet already in existence doesn’t mean they’re experts at that stuff! Structure the project to include milestone check-ins and provide access to resources and mentorship. Encourage peer-to-peer learning and assign roles based on students’ strengths to foster a sense of responsibility and ownership. And same goes for your colleagues, who may be learning this on the fly!

Grade Grumbles

Problem: Grading disparities can demotivate students, especially when paired with international peers.

Solution: If you can, use a common grading rubric agreed upon by all participating educators. Emphasize formative feedback over summative grades to focus on learning growth and development. But, on the other hand, also respect if there are differences between the schools, and just make sure your students understand your expectations, and that you’re prioritizing a positive experience of interactive learning for them!

Time Troubles

Problem: Managing time across different time zones can stress students and necessitate deadline adjustments. 

Solution: Yeah, we’ve talked about this one innumerable times, and while the asynchronous video over real-time chat should simplify a lot of these headaches already, I advocate for implementing a flexible timeline with buffer periods for unforeseen delays. Encourage students to set internal milestones to manage their time effectively, and employ some grace with your professional counterparts, who may be navigating a busier part of their year, or harried by any number of other challenges to which you may not be privy.

Achievement Ambiguity

 Problem: Lack of clear, useful indicators to assess student achievements can leave educators and students guessing.

Solution: Define specific, measurable outcomes and share these with students at the outset. Some teachers use their online class platforms, like Moodle or Schoology, and use digital badges or certificates to recognize achievements, providing tangible incentives for engagement. Heck, if the student is up for it, show clips of their awesome video to their classmates for inspiration.

Turning “Sucks” into Success

The path to revolutionizing education through virtual exchanges is fraught with challenges, but, to me, each obstacle presents an opportunity for creative problem-solving! By addressing these weaknesses head-on, we educators can transform virtual exchanges from a potentially “sucky” experience–at least in our students’ minds—into the superbly enriching journey we know them to be. Let’s not shy away from the difficulties; instead, let’s tackle them with the innovative spirit that brought us virtual exchanges in the first place. Here’s to making virtual exchanges not just suck less, but rock more!