In addition to all of the other excitement this semester, I’ve also been participating in a virtual exchange program with our fourth semester Arabic class, through the Stevens Initiative Connected Classrooms program. While I’ve done virtual exchange before, it’s generally been pairing my students with individual language partners, rather than a classroom. So, I thought I’d use this post to share my experience with this project.
The project centers around “COILed Classrooms” where COIL stands for “Cooperative Online International Learning”. Students in two classes are combined into global teams, and work on projects that answer a driving question. In my case, our fourth and sixth semester Arabic classes at UNM are paired with a Business English class at Ibn Zohr University in Morocco, and our global teams are working to answer the driving question “How do you get a job in Industry X in Location Y?
Successful virtual exchange programs require A LOT of preparation, as I know from past experience. The Stevens Initiative is definitely aware of this, and had us meet five times prior to starting our project in 2.5 hour Zoom sessions, with homework and team meetings in between each session. They even had a color-coded worksheet for us to fill out! While this was at times a little overwhelming over the Summer, it definitely helped us develop a better project.
The Project Itself
As noted above, the COILed classrooms initiative focuses on placing students in global teams to answer a driving question. Beyond that, we were free to develop our project in any way we wished. Because we were both teaching language classes, we wanted to incorporate language, and we settled on the job finding process as one that would be highly relevant to all students. Although we initially discussed having students do mock interviews and applications in their target language, that seemed challenging for the level of our students, and complicated to manage. So, we settled on creating a video that gives advice to answer the driving questions, focused on the job application, interview, and negotiation process.
To heighten the relevancy of this project, we also identified experts for our teams to interview for information on the job application process in specific industries, and they will submit their final videos to these industry experts for feedback as well.
To help our students develop their team video making process, we had them make mini videos each week leading up to the final video. These mini videos focused on a specific part of the job application process (application package, interview, negotiation), with the goal of spreading out the research as well as ironing out any issues in the video making process.
As with any virtual exchange project, there are plenty of challenges! Time zones have been an expected, but still confusing challenge, especially with the time change in the middle of our project. Perhaps the biggest challenge as a teacher was unexpectedly having to push the project start date back five weeks, when the Moroccan semester started late due to COVID. For our students, communication has been the biggest challenge, as they navigate the time zones, working in global teams, assigning and completing their responsibilities, working with people (in both countries!) who have different expectations of what they will contribute to the project, and realizing when there are locally specific events, such as exams or Thanksgiving, that will impact responsiveness. While this has been extremely frustrating and stressful for some students, in my experience this is such a real life reality in the workplace, that I actually think this may be the most beneficial aspect of the project in the long term. I’ve tried to explain this to the students, and while they definitely don’t agree now, I’ve still got hopes for the long term :-).
Perhaps the biggest success so far has been increased class engagement, and assignments turned in (mostly) on time and with improvements each time! The latter was actually unexpected to me, as having all students regularly complete assignments on time has been a real challenge during the pandemic. The videos themselves have been steadily improving in terms of content, language, and production, so I’m hopeful for the final projects as well.
Virtual exchange is something I place a pretty high value on, and for this reason, I usually jump at all opportunities for it, as I admittedly did with this one, signing up as soon as I heard about the opportunity. Nevertheless, I was pretty apprehensive about doing this project this semester, while also directing the LLC and dealing with the ongoing pandemic stress and uncertainty. And yet, as usual, I’m glad I did!
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