Virtual Exchange Program: Coming to A School Computer Near You?

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In the spring of 2000 the "Virtual Exchange Program" was launched to connect American high school students of German with Americans of the same age who were in Germany on the one-year, U.S. Congress-Bundestag Exchange Program. The idea of having Americans in Germany teach Americans back home about German culture in the native (American) language may appear to be heresy to even progressive language teachers, but the sponsors of this project believe that much cultural information otherwise lost to German natives at home could be captured by the culture-shocked, visiting Americans. 

American exchange students in Germany correspond with high school students of German back home in America. The sponsors of the program intend to build a program for German students of English to connect with German students on an exchange program in America. Those sponsors are Kerstin Otto, who is associated with the Transatlantic Clasroom and the Koerber Foundation of Hamburg, Germany; Volker Kreutzer, associated with the U.S. Congress-Bundestag Exchange Program, and Chris Junghans, a German teacher at Bozeman High School in Bozeman, Montana.

Exchange students notice things in their host country that students who grew up and live in that country may not notice or may not recognize as worth sharing. This is the rationale for the Virtual Exchange Program, which seeks to multiple the positive intercultural learning that takes place when students are able to study and live abroad.

The Virtual Exchange Program will eventually become a comprehensive website that allows students in America and Germany to find "virtual connections" to students on exchange in the target culture. The website will offer both links to information about U.S. states and German Bundeslaender, as well electronic bulletin boards creating electronic access to the exchange students in those regions.

Notice: The medium of communication for the program is an electronic bulletin board with limited public access. Access is by permission only, and may be withdrawn if participants post inappropriate materials.

The URL link to the Virtual Exchange Pilot project is:


A colleague from Portland, Oregon, is currently on a Fulbright Teacher’s Exchange in Berlin. He and his wife, most often the latter, send long and informative email letters to a group of family members and friends back in the U.S. In addition to their rich enjoyment of the sights, foods and history of Berlin, these letters contain detailed, culturally instructive accounts of transportation, housing and communication difficulties familiar to anyone who has survived an exchange. As I relived memories of traveling and living abroad by reading them, it occurred to me that perhaps my students who have never had the thrill of traveling aboard could participate vicariously in the experience by reading letters from their own peers. If the letters came from someone they knew at school--as these letters had come to me from someone I knew--the students at home might be able to share in the experiences described for them by the actual exchange student.

One of the limitations, if not problems, with actual (as opposed to virtual) exchange programs is that relatively few students are financially able to take part in them. Consider the multiplying effect if the school district were to loan the traveling students a laptop computer with modem, and if these students were asked to share their experiences in letters emailed back home. In fact, with web page-based email accounts (such as Yahoo!, Hotmail, Geocities, etc.), students would only need to access any online computer to be able to send email back to their fellow classmates back. These kinds of email exchanges now routinely occur informally, probably as frequently as pre-Internet travelers would send off post cards from each of the cities of a whirlwind European tour. Internet Cafes for travelers are easy to find overseas and are often very cheap to use. A recent article in the New Yorker described young backpackers from all over the world traveling on shoestring budgets but using Internet Cafes in Bangkok to write home on a daily basis. Besides being able to get more words in than on the back of a postcard, email is attractive because it is so fast, arriving home almost instantly once the "Send Now" button is clicked. This is a big advantage, of course; I recall instances, for example, when I returned home from my travels before my postcards arrived, which dramatically deflates the interest level of the recipients of the cards.

Or, consider the effect of students in a virtual exchange program exploring  teacher-selected and student-discovered websites, electronic bulletin boards and email exchange programs. Students learning different languages could be organized in a single course by language they are learning. [This is unclear. Students learning different languages are already organized in a single course by language they are studying.] In a laboratory of high-speed, Internet-connected computers, students can read topical materials in the target language not readily available in the classroom (e.g., a daily newspaper). They are also able to share their compositions in the target language beyond their classroom (e.g., via email, interactive websites, electronic bulletin boards, and in international student "E-zines"). Their compositions would often reach native speakers, taking what might otherwise constitute a purely academic task and raising it to a level of real communication. Research and writing assignments from the regular language classroom (required concurrently) would be integrated with the work of the "Virtual Exchange Program". Similarly, assignments from the laboratory-based course (e.g., research reports and correspondence in the target language) would be presented in the language classroom, providing a benefit to students who may not be enrolled in both courses. 

[I have attempted  to reconcile paragraphs 2 and 3 by a transition sentence that makes it clear why both paragraphs are in the same paper. Do we need to do more?]

E-mail allows a dynamic sharing of our exchange students’ experiences with fellow students and family back home. It could be further enriched if the students traveling (?) abroad could be equipped with, say, a Sony Mavica digital camera (about $500). This particular camera, and others like it I’m sure, takes pictures in jpeg-format (the email-friendliest format) stored on regular computer disks that can be popped out of the camera and into the computer. Any Internet browser (e.g., Netscape or Explorer) can open and view these photos directly from the disk and the favorites can be attached to outgoing email with a few clicks of the mouse. Another enriching use of the technology is sending short sound files back and forth. These take a little bit of time to upload and download, but if used selectively can be worth the wait. Once while staying with a German friend over his birthday, my wife used the built-in microphone on our home computer to record the kids singing happy birthday to him. After celebrating the birthday with a traditional night on the town (Munich), it was a very moving "capstone event" to be able to play for him and his girlfriend the famous American birthday song sung by my children about 12 hours earlier. Of course, (actual) exchange students could just as easily record a folk song or part of a conversation with the host family and send that to their peers in the classroom back home. [Should this paragraph follow paragraph 2?]

The communications power of a virtual exchange program can expand educators’ ability to build upon existing exchange programs. There are many areas of an exchange program that could benefit from a course created to exploit the benefits of Internet communications technology. One example would be the creation of an online publication created by students at both ends of the exchange program to foster understanding and build upon what was learned on the year-to-year visits. This would help eliminate starting from scratch each year and allow an accessible body of knowledge to grow from students who have taken part in previous exchanges. Students departing their hometown for the target culture could use this knowledge base to prepare themselves to gain the most from the actual visit. The exchange of information online before, during and after real exchanges are made would serve to enrich and expand the cultural exchange. Students who were not able to participate in the exchanges may still be able to glean much current and active knowledge from their peers who do make the trip. Less significant but still important would be the use of online communications technologies to better match host families and visiting students. More frequent and detailed communications about planning the stays would increase the likelihood that the expectations of both visiting students and their hosts would be met.

We could wait until communications technology grows to the point of making global communications ubiquitous, even for young people. It seems to me, though, that much real cultural exchange will be lost, not least because a bland form of business English appears to be taking over all intercultural communication (online and live). Before English-language commerce and world-pop culture take over the Internet, however, I think there is time for educators to seize the current state of the technology for the promotion of enlightened (i.e., noncommercial) cultural exchanges and greater global understanding. Students can use Internet resources to make connections to people, art, history, daily life, food, government, weather, news and other facets of the target language’s culture or cultures. Ideally, one or more of their classmates would be abroad in an actual exchange program, and email exchanges with them would help students at home connect with the culture experienced by those abroad, just as I am able to virtually connect with my colleague’s exchange experiences in Berlin.

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