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Virtual foreign exchange program will give students global skills

A Michigan district’s virtual exchange program allows Chinese students to take American classes online, and vice versa.

Today’s students need to prepare for a globalized world, business leaders often say—but sending students abroad is usually too expensive for cash-strapped schools or parents. One Michigan school district is taking a unique approach to this challenge by establishing a virtual foreign exchange program so that students can take classes from teachers in other countries.

This fall, Oxford Community Schools will launch a virtual exchange program that allows American and Chinese students to take online classes taught by teachers on the other side of the globe.

The classes will be hosted by Oxford Virtual Academy, a school without walls within the district that already supports more than 500 full-time students and more than 250 part-time students.

Oxford’s launch of the program will begin with three virtual English classes for the students in China: TOEFL preparation, ACT preparation, and English composition.

Official enrollment for the China virtual exchange class will not begin until August, but the district expects class sizes of about 20 students during the pilot year for each of the three courses to be offered.

Many of the students will come from the Northeast Yucai Oxford International High School in Fushan, China. Students at the boarding school, established by Oxford Community Schools in April 2011, fulfill both national Chinese and American curriculum standards and graduate with a dual diploma. Two of Oxford’s sister schools in Beijing will participate in the virtual exchange as well.

Oxford students in Michigan, in turn, will be able to take virtual Mandarin language and Chinese culture classes taught by Chinese teachers, most likely beginning in the spring semester.

As the program grows, the district anticipates establishing similar virtual partnerships with other sister schools in countries such as Mexico and Spain, said William Skilling, superintendent of Oxford Community Schools and a winner of the 2012 Tech-Savvy Superintendent Awards from eSchool Media.

Students will have 24-7 access to course content. The classes will be synchronous despite the 12-hour time difference: American students most likely will attend their classes early in the morning, and Chinese students will log on late at night.

“Prepare our students to write at the college level—that was [the Chinese schools’] request to us,” said Andrew Hulbert, director of the Oxford Virtual Academy.

These initial courses for the Chinese students will focus on composition, because historically, Chinese students learning English have struggled most with expressing themselves in writing.

Test-preparation courses taught in China tend to focus on rote memorization, which can help students achieve high test scores. But once those students arrive at American universities, they struggle to handle the Western style of academic writing, Skilling said.

The American tradition of “linear” writing—“introduction, development, and then coming back and having a conclusion”—might seem formulaic to Chinese students, said Michelle Green, a Virtual Academy teacher working on the English writing course.

Up to this point, it is likely that the Chinese students’ English education heavily focused on grammar and syntax—some Chinese teachers even require students to memorize and then regurgitate full essays. But that approach does not address key points of the American writing style, such as the importance of a thesis, Green said.

To move away from that focus on correctness and instead develop depth of thought in English, the Oxford writing course emphasizes metacognition.

The Chinese students will need to “think about why they think the way they do,” so they can move toward thinking the way an American student would be expected to think at a U.S. college, Green said.

She said the lessons encourage students to ask themselves, “Why did you write this? What is it about your traditions, culture, and environment that creates this paradigm for thought?”

This emphasis on originality in the first semester will help students understand voice, personality, and tone—nebulous aspects of English writing that can be difficult to grasp for non-native students and will prepare them for more skills-based learning in the second semester, Green said.

“We definitely don’t want to go in with an ethnocentric attitude. … We truly want to go in with an understanding of how Chinese writing differs from American writing,” said Krista Price, another Virtual Academy teacher who is developing videos for the writing course.

Price said she has found some similar virtual foreign exchange programs at the college level but has not yet heard of any other K-12 districts adopting this kind of global approach.

“There’s not a lot to model after,” she said.

But, Price noted, she also felt this way when she first began developing courses for the Virtual Academy, and virtual learning has since exploded.

Aside from the upcoming exchange program, Oxford Virtual Academy offers more than 200 classes, spanning from kindergarten to associate’s degree.

Unlike most other virtual schools, which build all their classes on the same platform, Oxford Virtual Academy works with individual students to find vendor-offered curricula that fit the student’s learning style.

“We’re using up to seven vendors and our own curriculum. … It’s a logistical and management nightmare, but it’s the best way” to serve students’ needs, Hulbert said.

To support the district’s unorthodox ventures, Oxford has embraced the importance of “edupreneurship,” Skilling said.

In times of economic stress, the answer is not to cut programs but to invest in more programs, he said, because improving the quality of educational opportunities can open up new potential streams of revenue—in this case, the Chinese students will pay tuition to take Oxford’s classes.

“Revenue should never drive vision. Vision comes first, and that’s what drives your revenue stream,” Skilling said.

When the vision is to prepare students for the global market, it makes sense to leverage existing school resources to establish a virtual exchange program, he said. These connections with sister schools allow Oxford students to interact with Chinese students in the authentic way necessary for fluency.

“The primary driving factor is to provide a better education for our own students and faculty,” said Skilling. And by establishing virtual programs, schools can do that “globally, on a daily basis, at minimal cost.”

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