Computers, smartphones, all these wired machines—what do they have to do with English teaching? This section of TLT has offered many ideas over the years about how such technology can be used in language learning, but one aspect that hasn’t been touched on much is how it can be used to link your students with students in other countries. This concept is being called “Virtual Exchange” (VE) in recent literature. The Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) has been promoting VE over the last few years, as they try to develop students with more global awareness and intercultural competency. One project they are sponsoring via Kaken grants is the International Virtual Exchange Project (IVEProject).
What Is the IVEProject?
This project is free of charge for your classes’ students to participate in. It involves students from Japan using English to interact online with students that are living and studying in other countries, using English. This article is an open invitation to you and your students to join. The caveat is that your class must be involved, not individual students. VE “involves bringing together groups of learners from different cultural contexts for extended periods of online intercultural collaboration and interaction. This is done as an integrated part of the students’ educational programs and under the guidance of educators or expert facilitators with the aim of developing learners’ foreign language skills, digital literacies, and intercultural competence ” (O’Dowd & O’Rourke, 2019). It is for this reason that we only accept classes that are under the care of expert educators, such as those that are reading this article.
The IVEProject has been ongoing since 2005, but it became a large-scale project from the fall of 2015. Since 2015, some 20,000 students and 300 teachers from 15 countries have participated. To date, students from more than 35 universities throughout Japan have also been involved, with some incorporating it across their curriculum. It is easy to see why they would. Such VE have been shown to develop students’ intercultural understanding and interactional confidence, and increase their motivation to learn English. Students also come to appreciate their own culture more through their participation in the IVEProject. More information can be seen here https://iveproject.org/mod/url/view.php?id=192
How to Join?
So what happens? You, the teacher, contact the coordinator, Eric Hagley (me - firstname.lastname@example.org) expressing your interest in participating. I then send you a file into which you add your students’ information so that your students can have an account created on the Moodle platform (you don’t need any understanding of Moodle to participate). At the same time, my team and I put your students in groups with students from different countries. Once this has been done, your students then log into the site (https://iveproject.org) and begin to exchange information. Participation in the forums takes place in the form of sharing text, audio and/or video files. Students can also add links and other multimedia to their posts. Most students in the past have been non-English majors with a low-intermediate level of English, though some classes are more advanced. As your students will be interacting with students in such places as South America, the Middle East and Asia, and the time zones are many and varied, the interaction is asynchronous.
What Happens in the Exchanges?
Each exchange runs for eight weeks. One begins in mid-April and runs through to June. Another begins in October and runs through to December. We have a “Starters’ exchange” and a “Continuers’ exchange.” In the Starters’ exchange, there are four simple set topics that students exchange information on in their class to class(es) groups. Students spend two to three weeks on each topic. However, there is also an open forum where students can create their own posts and choose their own topics. The open forum is available for all students in the exchange, whereas the class to class(es) forum is for more concentrated exchange between individual students. For the Continuers’ exchange, aspects of the Cultura Project, in addition to topics from the World Values Survey, are incorporated to deepen the students’ understanding of each country’s culture. Discussions of these topics are more in-depth.
Teachers need to be a part of the exchange for it to be effective. Teachers are encouraged to monitor the forums and give feedback to students. They are also asked to keep in contact with their partner teacher and find out about their teaching and learning environments. Teachers are offered resources to help their students reflect on their participation. There is no obligation to assign grades to students for their participation, but teachers are strongly encouraged to do so. All teachers are included in a separate “teachers’ forum” where they can exchange ideas and information.
Over the past three years, student satisfaction with the IVEProject has consistently been above 80%, with some years being above 90%. Students who have participated have given us wonderful feedback, as too have the teachers that have participated. With this, we are continuing to improve the site and the experience students and teachers have. This was one of the most telling comments received from a student: “Other students in my university didn’t have to do this so, at first, I thought it was unfair that we had to do more work than them. However, after finishing the exchange, I thought it was unfair that the other classes couldn’t participate in it too.” Another area of benefit is in the building of intercultural understanding. Recent surveys carried out by Keidanren (the Japan business federation) show that companies are wanting to employ students who have had experience interacting with students from a variety of different cultures, meaning they appreciate the importance of intercultural understanding. Indeed, intercultural understanding is in the top 15 most desirable traits for students from both science and arts backgrounds and is ranked as being even more desirable than foreign language ability in that survey (Keidanren, 2018).
There’s Plenty of Help Available—Please Consider Joining
The IVEProject is an excellent way of ensuring that your students are using the language they are studying to participate in real-world communicative events. At the JALT international conference, I will be doing online workshops on how you can participate in the IVEProject regularly before the exchange begins, and I hope to meet many of you there. However, even if you can’t make that workshop, you are welcome to contact me and join the project, as we have a number of online tutorials that assist both students and teachers so they can participate fully. I’m looking forward to seeing more students from Japan becoming involved in this exciting international project.
Keidanren. (2018). Kōtō kyōiku ni kansuru ankēto’ shuyō kekka [Questionnaire on high school education: Main results]. Keidanren Policy & Action. https://www.keidanren.or.jp/policy/2018/029_kekka.pdf
O’Dowd, R., & O’Rourke, B. (2019). New developments in virtual exchange for foreign language education. Language Learning & Technology, 23(3), 1–7. http://hdl.handle.net/10125/44690