The national conversation about online learning has focused on what and how, but has given with whom short shrift.
In his remarks this week to the Foreign Service Institute Overseas Security Seminar, US Secretary of State John Kerry underscored the importance of “with whom,” highlighting virtual exchange as a key US government strategy to provide educators and youth with a meaningful cross-cultural experience:
… today we also have digital bridges to connect different cultures – and I don’t just mean Facebook and Twitter. The State Department’s Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau runs a virtual exchange program that connects teachers and students in the United States with their counterparts in the Middle East and North Africa. These students are working together online, learning from each other about their cultures and history, and they’re forging lasting relationships.
iEARN has worked closely with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs since 1998 to develop immersive online professional development courses and project-based virtual exchanges worldwide. iEARN is pleased to be helping launch the Chris Stevens Youth Network, which Secretary Kerry believes:
can lead to the largest ever increase in people-to-people exchanges between the United States and the Middle East and North Africa. And we believe it will also dramatically increase the number and diversity of young people who have a meaningful cross-cultural experience – the same experience that Chris, and I think all of you understand is so important.
On education, we will expand exchange programs, and increase scholarships, like the one that brought my father to America. At the same time, we will encourage more Americans to study in Muslim communities. And we will match promising Muslim students with internships in America; invest in online learning for teachers and children around the world; and create a new online network, so a young person in Kansas can communicate instantly with a young person in Cairo.
This vision is also shared by US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, whom iEARN hosted for teleconference with his counterpart in Jordan. The International Affairs Office of the US Department of Education new strategy document, Succeeding Globally Through International Education and Engagement affirms:
The Department’s commitment to preparing today’s youth, and our country more broadly, for a globalized world, and to engaging with the international community to improve education.
This vision of international engagement is increasingly shared by hundreds of organizations and millions of educators, students, and parents in the United States. A World Savvy survey found that American students are keenly aware that it is their best interests that they understand global issues, engage with their peers worldwide, and gain the skills needed to find employment in today’s global economy.
Yet, while opportunities for international exchange are expanding rapidly in many countries around the world, only a small fraction of American K-12 students currently have access to some kind of international experience, whether physical or virtual. A survey released today by American University graduate student Corey Smith, “Study Abroad in Cyberspace,” showed that American teachers say they are interested in virtual exchange, but are deterred to do so in their classrooms by “lack of formal assessment, work overload, technology issues, and lack of information about virtual exchange.”
These deterrents, however, can be overcome if Americans expand the national conversation about online learning to include “with whom,” and then commit to providing our teachers the support they are asking for. The outcomes of a national commitment to increasing cross-cultural experiences will be a critical mass of American youth with empathy, trust, and respect for their peers abroad, who are committed to social justice and human rights, who have college and career-ready skills, and who have the passion to work together towards a healthier and safer planet.