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Why We Do What We Do: A Brief History of the First Virtual Exchanges

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    Summer: a time for educators to recharge, travel, and replenish their gumption for another trip around the scholastic calendar. For some, it’s just a time to catch one’s breath and enjoy some peace and quiet. It’s also a chance to reflect on what we did and why. Not long ago, I found myself in an internet rabbit hole reading about the history of virtual exchanges; it got me thinking about the original point of it all and reinvigorated me on the subject of why we do what we do.

    The Early Days

    The first Virtual Exchanges had an admirable goal that really sums up the power of intrapersonal connections. As far as the internet tells us, virtual exchanges hearken back to the days of the late 80s, when an educational organization called iEARN, founded by Peter Copen and the Copen Family Fund, embarked on an ambitious journey. In response to the obvious and lasting Cold War tensions between The United States and the U.S.S.R., Copen and iEARN sought to pilot a program where youths from schools in both nations could connect using—what at the time the educators called—cutting edge technologies in order to build rapport and overcome prejudices and biases.

    The success of iEARN derives from the hard work of the academics involved. The teachers from these schools designed projects on which the students could collaborate in both English and Russian. The popularity and success of the program burgeoned its geographical scope in the 90s, pulling in schools from China, Israel, Australia, Spain, Canada, Argentina, and the Netherlands. iEARN made the fundamental goal of these telecollaborations students’ awareness and appreciation of international communities—effectively the rudimentary progenitor of a little concept we call Global Education.

    A comparative analysis of these first forays into virtual exchange yields some pretty inspirational insights. For the teachers who participated in the program, they reported a deep satisfaction with the experience, remarking that the challenge allowed them to think deeply and creatively on the methods they used to engage their students. For the kids, the study reports even better results: “the telecommunications exchanges encouraged students to take an active, participatory role in social issues and the program brought to students’ consciousness a global awareness of issues, fostering an understanding that there was more to life than their own lives at home.” And of course, the prized line we all want to hear, as educators: “through the development of empathy for the other, students developed a sense of purpose and understanding, thus contributing to a more human society.” I mean, that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it?

    The My Hero Project

    The next noteworthy innovation enters our Virtual Exchange story in the mid-nineties; we know it as the My Hero Project, co-founded by philanthropist Karen Pritzker, television producer Jeanne Meyers, and Rita Stern Milch. My Hero sought to connect kids around the world to share stories of, or actually introduce one another, to the people in their local communities who inspired them. As a vehicle for students to learn the tools of filmmaking, video communications, and digital storytelling, the project spread quickly, boasting participants in 194 countries by 2013. Moreover, the MY HERO International Film Festival showcases the very best of these stories annually, and some of the best products have even been developed into award winning documentaries.

    The My Hero Project accomplishes on a much grander scale what lies at the heart of every Virtual Exchange—the desire to share and inspire through storytelling. At its heart, My Hero just offers one avenue for young people to combine vulnerability, reflection, and creativity to immortalize local stories and micronarratives. Such a brilliant product could come out of a relatively simple question, and no doubt the process through which these students must work as storytellers, journalists, and cultural ambassadors teaches them a great deal. Again, while its final iterations certainly strike one as impressive and lofty, the genesis of the My Hero Project takes its humble origins right from the most basic Virtual Exchange playbook: We want our students to connect!

    Measuring Success

    As we move into the next phase of Virtual Exchange, there’s been enough lead time to permit a healthy and growing body of research on the effectiveness of virtual exchanges. The Virtual Exchange Coalition and MIT SaxeLab have currently joined forces to measure the educational impact of virtual exchanges, and, as you would guess, their findings largely reinforce predictably great outcomes. “Research indicates that increased self-other overlap correlates with compassion and predicts pro-social behavior, i.e., increased willingness to forgo personal rewards to alleviate suffering of the other (Batson, Turk, Shaw & Klein, ‘95), and is associated with greater trust and cooperative exchange (Zak & Knack, ‘01).”  This remarkably targets what we educators want to instill!

    The additional qualities SaxeLab and the Virtual Exchange Coalition introduce as measures of student growth expand upon our notions of success in telecollaboration. Among these skills, they have identified cross-cultural collaboration, inter-group affect, and the ability to challenge norms. The first, obviously, we can see as an enviable quality to instill in our students. Inter-group affect is something that develops when, rather than a one-to-one exchange, you can really see when classes are paired as groups, like in Level Up Village’s many course offerings. And finally, the ability to challenge norms qualitatively sums up students’ tendencies to chart their own courses in creativity, overcome biases, and think critically as an individual. Looking at these designations, one cannot help but see our own goals in these measures of success. Do we not also want to inspire in our students empathy, global citizenship, and a sense of camaraderie across space and time zones?


    Sometimes it’s good to reflect on the road behind us—even if the road is metaphorical and the us is collective. There’s been a lot of build-up to where we are in virtual exchange best practices, but it’s good to know that the direction has largely stayed the same. Even in the early days of virtual exchanges, the motivation to connect students with their peers abroad has always been having them get to know each other, and at the same time themselves. Taking difficult moments in history, like in the iEARN collaboration, or inspiring stories like the My Hero project, and sharing and reflecting on them sums up the heart of what a virtual exchange grants students. Creating opportunities to traverse physical spaces and really encounter one another…. well, that’s why we do what we do.