Virtual Exchanges

Complementing in-person exchanges with online discussion forums in a movement to bridge cultures. 

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT YALLAHThe idea for Youth Allied to Learn, Lead and Help (YALLAH) was sparked from two 18-year-old participants in Qatar Foundation International (QFI) exchanges: Fahad Al-Nahdi, a Qatari from Doha, and Damon Mallory, an American from Boston. After two exchanges, they and their peers wanted to learn more about each other’s respective cultures. In August 2010, Fahad and Damon approached QFI with a proposal, Youth Allied to Learn, Lead and Help, a student-focused online forum for the alumni of QFI’s programs. “YALLAH” was to serve as a private, safe space that would allow the students to continue their

The forum has provided our students with the ability to continually open their minds to other cultures and help make the world a better place.

interactions, help them to understand similarities between their cultures and make a positive impact in their communities. Now in its fourth year of operation, YALLAH has proven to be a good example of Virtual Exchange, a movement meant to complement in-person exchanges, but reaches a greater and more diverse number of participants. Fewer than 1 percent of young people participate – or are able to participate – in international exchange programs. By employing a wide variety of technologies and educational pedagogy, virtual exchanges makes it possible for every young person to access high-quality international and cross-cultural education. Studies have shown that education exchanges and study abroad programs are among the best means to prepare young people for a world faced with increasing global challenges. They increase young people’s inclination and capacity to deal effectively with difference and to communicate and collaborate across cultures. In this interview, Jennifer Geist, the moderator of YALLAH and Francesca Carpenter, QFI EdTech Officer, answer questions about the program, its highlights and the true value of virtual cultural exchanges.

Victor: How does it work?

Jennifer: YALLAH has three main components:

1) Bridging cultures: The YALLAH Forum is a facilitated bilingual space where every piece of content produced by the students is translated in three languages: Arabic, English and Portuguese. This enables peers in QFI’s Cultural Engagement programs in Qatar, the U.S. and Brazil, to share ideas, solve problems, and get to know each other better across geographical and language divides – in addition to exploring news, music, art and games. With expert-facilitated discussions, the students are challenged to share their own perspectives and experiences on important topics.

2) Taking Action: We know our students are committed to making life better for others and YALLAH helps them to do just that. Students use the forum as a tool to design, conceive and implement their community service initiatives, while experts in social entrepreneurship and community service provide the expertise and guidance to help.

3) Collaborative Learning: QFI, in partnership with Meedan, launched YALLAH 2.0 in September 2011. The updated version of YALLAH facilitates collaborative projects, such as movie production.

Victor: Because YALLAH is a multi-lingual space, how do the participants bridge the language barrier? 

Francesca: To help facilitate interactions and bridge language barriers across YALLAH, QFI partnered with Meedan.net, a leader in online social networks that facilitate collaborations across languages. Meedan helped us to develop custom hybrid translations on YALLAH, allowing the students to easily communicate with each other regardless of spoken language and increasing the students’ familiarity with English, Arabic and Portuguese. We feel proud of being able to provide a way for these peers from all over the world to be able to connect, where they otherwise probably wouldn’t have had the ability to do so.

Victor: What can you say specifically about the value and benefits of YALLAH? 

Jennifer: YALLAH has been a proven way for QFI students to not only continue to learn about each other and their respective cultures, but also to share insights on important global topics and collaborate on projects that benefit others. Our students believe in making a difference and YALLAH gives them the tools and opportunities to do just that. The forum has provided our students with the ability to continually open their minds to other cultures and help make the world a better place. A valuable platform indeed!

Victor: Can you provide me with a specific example about how students have participated with the online forum? 

Francesca: One great example from this past year is the YALLAH Cookbook, which is a fantastic collaboration that brings together 22 recipes reflecting the culinary heritage of students from Brazil, Qatar, and the United States, along with the unique family stories behind them. In line with the larger QFI mission of helping to the make the world a better and more well-connected place, all proceeds from the cookbook benefit global anti-hunger organizations – Heifer International and Kids Can Make a Difference.

Victor: How does the program encourage collaboration among students? 

Jennifer: YALLAH encourages students to identify and research areas of interest, as well as provides them with the tools necessary to work together and address them. Students collaborate among themselves using the forum as a vehicle to design, conceive and implement their initiatives. Additionally, QFI provides students with access to experts in social entrepreneurship and community service to give them the information and tools needed to take action in their local communities and elsewhere.

A great example of how YALLAH encourages collaboration among students is the soccer film project. In spring 2013, participants on the YALLAH platform, along with QFI staff, created and implemented a landmark collaborative filmmaking project involving students from Qatar, Brazil, and the United States.  Over six weeks, 15 students honed the technical skills of filmmaking. Additionally, they learned the art of storytelling and the cross-cultural collaboration skills necessary for working across three continents and four languages; Arabic, English, Portuguese, and Brazilian Sign Language.  The short film used football as a lens to look at students’ cultural experiences in three countries. The project was presented at the 2013 International Education and Resource Network conference in Doha where student presenters and adult facilitators showcased the film and explained the creation process and outcomes from this pilot project.

Victor: How does YALLAH contribute to QFI’s mission as a whole? 

Francesca: QFI is dedicated to providing students with the skills that will enable them to be engaged global citizens and YALLAH greatly helps to support this mission through its focus on collaborative learning and taking action. 

Victor: Are there any challenges you’ve faced with the forum?

Jennifer: I attribute the current success of the forum to three main improvements which have emerged over time. Firstly, YALLAH was formed in 2011 and is now in its second iteration. The latest design (Aug 2012) addressed usability issues and is partly responsible for the improved quality of participation. Secondly, developing a core group of student leaders who understand the value of the forum has been critical in creating a student-centered culture, which has taken time and patience.  And finally, access to dynamic material that reflects a strong organizational mission has made YALLAH an inspiring place to be.

However, success is often met with challenges along the way. Devising ways to engage more of the outliers and “lurkers,” as well as new QFI students, has been challenging.  This often takes some kind of adult or face-to-face influence to create the spark or initial incentive. The home page is essential in providing more clarity about the possibilities the forum offers, so that lurkers might explore more widely, and new students become interested in participating. Also, YALLAH is primarily a forum for dialogue, but we provide many important resources for our population and it can be a challenge to communicate where and how to access these resources regularly.

Overall, the biggest challenge is garnering the patience to gently and constantly prod students to engage, as we compete with a plethora of options in a high school student’s life. That being said, it’s important to anticipate the needs and interests of the students because the best incentive for them to stay engaged is sheer interest and the sense of belonging.

Victor: What are your thoughts on education in general these days? What makes you say that?

Jennifer: I believe we are in a major transition period when it comes to education, and technology is largely responsible. Not only does technology provide us with enormous possibilities for teaching and learning, but it has also changed the needs and goals of education.

Quality content is still a critical component of education, but how we find it, analyze and synthesize it, and use it to generate knowledge is even more important now. In addition to meta-cognition, I believe that media literacy is the most critical thing we can teach right now. As constant consumers of media, the vetting of information has become increasingly difficult and is now an essential life skill. Understanding media and information is a dichotomous process, and I believe students must produce their own media in order to fully understand the complexities of what they are consuming.

And finally, educators must focus on standards of ethics. Technology is challenging so many of our assumed human rights: privacy, ownership and autonomy. It is exposing youth to a variety of belief systems and challenging their cultural norms. It is still the responsibility of adults to propose guideposts and boundaries to ensure an ethical use of technology that students can feel good about following, while still questioning everything that they are exposed to. I think this is a very exciting time to be working in education for these reasons.

Any words of wisdom to leaders working in and around education and technology?

Jennifer: Components of good programming include:

1. Opportunities for collaboration with strong scaffolding for how to organize a team and work together.

2. Small measures of success along the way, especially in a generative learning project.

3. Focus on skills, interpersonal, interpretive and presentational, rather than content. Students will find the content.

4. Recognize many different faces of “leadership”.

5. Build in opportunities to generate, analyze (question) and review the code of conduct for engagement.

6. Find out what students know already, and build on it. Teach them to notice how they are learning so they can apply it again and again.

Victor: And what do you think, Francesca?

Francesca: This century’s students were born into a technological age and their comfort level with technology puts them at an advantage. They are open-minded and unafraid of the possibilities’ that technology can afford them.

So, it is our job as educators and leaders to tap into that excitement and enthusiasm. We are afforded students’ automatic buy-in and acceptance whenever the incorporation of technology is mentioned. Therefore, we should think strategically about how to best use the tools and equipment available to meet the needs of the students. Consider using technology as a vehicle to connect different cultures so that the students’ interactions drive the learning process. Think of alternative ways to present content that will capture student’s attention and keep them engaged in learning. This can be accomplished through problem based learning and collaborative team projects.

Technology must be used in an authentic and practical manner. It is important to keep in mind that technology can function as a tool that is student-centered, relevant and promotes higher-level thinking and rigorous instruction. IT can also be used for teachers and education leaders as a data-gathering tool. This helps inform the educational and instruction decision making that must take place to customize learning to individual student needs. Lastly, it can allow students to make connections with their community that help shape their view of the world, politics, social and cultural similarities and differences.

Victor: Any final thoughts?  

Jennifer: Educators and leaders should not be afraid of technology. Learning is a lifelong process that includes everyone. Educators should take risks and think strategically about meeting the needs of all learners.

Victor: Thank you Jennifer, and thank you Francesca! Best to both of you and to the program. 

Jennifer: Thank you, Victor!

Francesca: Thanks, Victor!

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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