Case Study on Conversational International Exchange using Linkr

Long before the Covid pandemic swept across higher education, I focused on globalization on my campus and researched COIL/IE to help my students interact with a larger world. I teach history and government at a two year open enrollment college in Fort Worth, Texas and my classes are gateway courses for all students who enter the institution. Students range from 15 year-olds (early college high school students earning dual credit) to 70 year old retirees and as an open enrollment institution there are no minimum test scores or such for entering students, so some are in reading comprehension classes while enrolled in my reading intensive courses which creates many challenges. As we discovered during the pandemic, a number of our students did not have reliable internet access at home much less a computer or a smart phone; prior to the pandemic they had free and open access to these resources on campus. In addition, my student comfort level and skill level in terms of technology varies widely.  Most of our students work and many work full time or two jobs while attending school; and many are also parents. With experience in leading travel study programs, I realize how few of our students can afford in money or time to study abroad at this point.  Also, some of my students have never left the state of Texas or even the few counties around us in their lifetimes.

I believe that International Exchange (IE) offers my students a wonderfully equitable means to gain many of the benefits that accrue from study abroad by interacting with and learning from students in other parts of the world. As part of our annual campus Global Citizenship Awareness Week each fall of which I serve as co-chair, we have incorporated a live Zoom-like (prior to Zoom!) session with groups of students in other countries. These one-time short sessions in which students share what college encompasses in their nation are the most popular session for the week as students love talking with other students and are amazed at both the differences and similarities. By 2019 I wanted to incorporate this learning tool in at least one of my US Government classes.

My research, however, revealed some issues that were proving to be challenges. The first was finding a partner and the second was finding technology or a platform that would make the exchange as easy as possible. I wanted my students to focus on the exchange and content and not be burdened with trying to learn a new technology or having to deal with lack of access or privacy. I have taught since the pre-internet era, and while I have embraced and experimented with many new technologies and teaching systems as they arose, I have learned that at times the technology can overwhelm student learning of the subject I am teaching. While I was open to a project-based exchange, I hoped to find a partner who might be interested in a more conversational exchange. My goal is to introduce my students to IE and different voices – to spur their curiosity and interest – to plant the seed of interest in pursuing more globally focused courses and hopefully study abroad if/when they transfer to a four year institution. 

At the 2019 CCID (Community College International Development) Conference in San Diego, a colleague described a collaborative online platform that might work for my needs, and I spent that summer investigating linkr ( One of the founders of linkr, Gabriel Flacks, provided a wonderful interactive walk-through and training about the site and explained all its resources. Linkr could help with both of my biggest concerns in establishing IE in my classroom! First, I could register on the site for free and post in the Collaboration board my interest in finding a partner; I could express my goals and outcomes desired and the type of class that I teach. Second, I could easily create a class site in the platform and link my class to a partner for the exchange. My Linkr class site includes sections for Conversations, Publications, Comments, Class Materials and Members. All the student work and collaboration could be posted, accessed, and shared through the site and because students created their own free account with a sign-in, the class was secure and safe.  Linkr would be similar in navigation and use to the LMS my college already employed and by placing a link in my class site in the LMS, students would easily have access. [Unfortunately, because of a health crisis I was not able to pursue a collaboration for the fall of 2019.]

In the summer of 2020, I posted my collaboration interest in linkr and surprisingly Gabe responded! He teaches an introductory Ethics course at Champlain College in Montreal, Canada and has used the Publication area of linkr with his classes extensively. We shared our generic syllabi via email and explained how we normally teach and our focus in the classroom. The next steps moved quickly.

My US Government introductory courses have always focused on a comparative approach so that my students understand that other nation’s deal with government and policy issues in different ways and thus may offer ideas for solutions. In addition, my on campus classes have always begun with a discussion of current events (what is happening in the news that week) and/or a current event quiz. I believe that my students need to be informed about what is happening to be good participatory citizens and I have focused on this for 30+ years in the classroom. My student feedback indicates they find these discussions to be some of the most memorable parts of the course. By utilizing current event pop quizzes, they are required to keep abreast of what is happening and this allows for classroom discussion starters as well as my opportunity to answer their questions about aspects they do not understand.  I had often been reluctant to teach my Government classes online for fear of missing these unscripted or unplanned current event discussions (I have taught history online for more than 20 years). I wanted an IE experience to provide an alternative by possibly focusing on common social problems/policy areas that crossed national borders and allowed my students to learn and share with students from a different environment and system.  

Gabe found the idea of having students discuss or share their views on public policy areas a good compliment to studying ethical theories. Previously, his students employed contemporary issues they found in articles to relate to ethical theories they learned and posted these to linkr as Publications. His students could also apply the theories they were learning to why/how students made choices on policy areas and learn from my student’s views of policies.  Covid provided a wonderful common policy area with which to begin this process – students could share how they were coping.  I shared a possible list of social problem/policy topics that I had developed and that flowed from other assignments my students would be completing in my class; these were topics that I knew would have been discussed in a face-to-face classroom and that were of interest to students. Gabe believed these fit well with the theories he taught, and we worked to align the topics and theories in a chronology that would work for both of us.  We wanted the exchange to be seamless in both courses – to flow naturally within what we were teaching while encouraging students to interact and exchange ideas and thoughts. Rather than disrupting the key content our students needed to learn in each class or breaking up the semester with a separate project, our IE would be embedded within our existing individual course flow. 

After our initial exchange of ideas and thoughts, we met through Zoom and used a Google Doc to build our timeline of topics and establish student requirements.  Our collaborative work session led to our first draft and some key decisions on how our exchange would work. We decided for a back and forth every two weeks throughout the semester beginning with a simple icebreaker post. Our students would use the Publish feature to make posts, and we used a modified version of a format Gabe had used previously so that all Publications were similar. We could establish our own point value and rubric for our student posts as this gave us the greatest flexibility for grading within our own classes. After the icebreaker publication, Gabe’s students would post first using an article on a current issue to illustrate the ethical theory they had learned about in their class. My students then had to comment on their posts, and I gave them parameters about what was required while also encouraging them to share. My students then would be given a social problem topic prompt for which they had to find an article that illustrated/supported their thoughts and post their response as a Publication in linkr. Gabe’s students would comment on my student posts and apply an ethical theory to the choices/explanations/ reasoning used by my students as well as personal feedback.

For my students I created several key sets of instructions which would help ensure the best quality posts and interaction. I have learned that the clearer and more precise my directions are on the front end of assignments, the better quality of student responses will follow and the less uncertainty they feel about this new type of assignment and sharing.

 My instructions for my student response to Gabe’s students included the following:

·       provide an article link that provides additional/detailed/contrary information to what is in the original post - this shows that you have read and comprehended and are adding to the information.

·       provide a personal anecdote (experience/story) that provides context to what the author provided on their own; this can illustrate on a personal level what topic is being presented. For example, the original poster discusses the unseen effects of having Covid-19 and your parent was afflicted and you can provide unexpected consequences of their battle with the disease on your loved one, their work experience, your family, your finances, etc.

·       you need to add to the post/conversation so that you enhance the learning for everyone in both classes and learn from each other. You may also ask more questions that can seek additional thought or information.

·       simply saying things such as "Good job!", "I like what you posted”, “I agree”, "I disagree", etc. is not acceptable.

·       you are providing a Tarrant County, Texas, US college student perspective in part to students in another city and country whose experiences, government and education system are not the same as your own. (Many of them will speak French as well as English fluently.)

The social problem/policy issues crossed national boundaries and provide learning experiences by hearing different voices and experiences.  The social problems to which my students responded were:

1) misinformation and free speech and whether there should be limits on false or misleading information

2) should affordable and high speed broadband access be guaranteed to all?

3) Make an argument for how you would deal with the concept of "essential" worker in the economy and who should be expected to risk their lives and how much they should be paid

4) Choose to make an argument for or against the US system of health care provided through employers as is current (and information on the Canadian health care system was provided)

5) the last one was a result of the divisive election process in the US in 2020 and I wanted to help my students think about healing:   I want each of you to show the world and our Canadian friends, how we as a nation begin to heal our divides as a nation. You have learned about the impacts of disinformation, about how our personal bias can determine how we select information to believe, about gerrymandering, how to vet sources, how our divided government is a reflection of us the voters. You now as young citizens need to offer ways that we come back together to move forward and solve the very difficult problems that we face as a nation including a raging pandemic whose numbers are skyrocketing.  Do NOT post personal views of election results or partisan comments or spread more disinformation -- offer ways that the nation of which you will be an active citizen for years to come can begin to work together and overcome our divides to achieve results and learn to live with our differences of opinion on policies. This can be personal -- you can suggest ways you as an individual citizen can be part of the solution for healing a divided nation. Show the world (and Canada) the best of the United States -- the core of this democratic nation that has overcome previous divides, pandemics, and threats such as WWII.

The icebreaker was an outgrowth of a summer of covid: post a photo/image and describe something that reflects what part of summer you found to be uplifting or positive and then respond to at least 2 Canadian/US students: what have they dealt with that is similar or different from your own during this summer of Covid?  This icebreaker proved a great success as it allowed our students to understand that the fear and hardships, they had to overcome in Covid were shared with others around the world which made their struggles seem more relative. Many commented they felt relieved to know that others faced the same issues.

From the beginning with the icebreaker activity, the students posted great quality publications and informative and thoughtful comments on each other’s posts. Because they were able to hear different viewpoints and experiences beyond those who were local, they realized that other nation’s respond to problems and issues differently and for different reasons that may be part of their own culture. And they found commonalities. They were interested and inquisitive about other views and shared many personal insights that provided cultural diversity. The topic on healthcare proved especially eye-opening as well as myth busting about the Canadian medical system. By having both current issues and the application of ethical theories to decision-making, students in both classes learned not just real world events but the factors in how and why choices are made at the policy level.  This format also allowed us to adjust our interaction during the semester; I re-ordered a topic and assignment halfway through the semester, when Gabe needed to change his order of teaching. As some of my students had trouble keeping up with all the work in their online classes while also working many extended hours (85% of our students work and more than half world full time jobs) our format proved particularly adept at helping them stay on task. They had 2 weeks between making posts and comments and plenty of lead time notification. The exchange supplemented and enhanced each of our courses without adding an undue burden nor requiring a complete course remake. The Canadian student voices provided that comparative global viewpoint that is already a foundation of my courses but in this case with real people in a conversational format.  Our students learned ethical theory effect on decision-making, cultural diversity, shared fears and aspirations, while finding new voices with whom to discuss common issues from varying perspectives. 

Our international exchange ran throughout the semester and responded to real-world events thus providing a means to share ideas on what our students were experiencing. We did not need to learn a new technology or try to teach our students a new technology. We created our classes in linkr, then linked the courses and students simply created accounts in linkr that placed them directly into our paired courses. Our common format and style for publications provided familiarity and ease to student users while also allowing them to reveal personal views and style through the articles and images they published.  Our exchange enhanced our classes which are both basic core courses required of all students at our respective colleges, and we developed our exchange in a short period of time prior to the semester. We made a few changes during the semester but without causing disruption or creating more work for either instructor. For our courses, this format worked extremely well and helped us both to reach our course goals. Our format provides a wonderful means to introduce instructors to IE collaborations and reduces the hesitation or fear that an IE will be too difficult for the instructor to create. IE does not have to be a large project or a massive change to how you teach an existing course while learning about new technology or apps or programs. Our IE using a back-and-forth conversational format using an established system – linkr – resulted in a spectacular success. Our student responses at the end were overwhelmingly positive and they felt the exchange had greatly enhanced their learning experience and they urged us to continue the exchange.  They also commented on how easy the process had been to exchange with others by using linkr! Many of the students had never participated in an international student exchange and had not even thought it was possible. They viewed the IE as a supplement to the class and what they were learning.  The IE collaboration successfully achieved our learning objectives and provided our students with a unique opportunity to connect beyond the classroom; linkr proved the key component which made this collaboration work by connecting instructors and by its ease of use.

Some of our student responses from the student survey conversation at the end of the semester:

“I really enjoyed doing this collaboration with other students. It was interesting to see other peoples views and beliefs on the same situations. It provided some insight from students outside my hometown. I really cant think of anything to change. The course was very easy to navigate and I wasn't confused once. It would definitely be helpful to future students.”

“I enjoyed getting to collaborate with students in Quebec because I got to see different perspectives on the topics they posted and all the comments I received on my posts were informative and nice :) Instructions for the Link assignments were clear and the website is easy to navigate. Thank you for giving us an opportunity to communicate with students outside of the US!”

“This was very beneficial for me to see what other people thought about controversial issues inside and outside of this class. It definitely opened my eyes and allowed me to come up with my own ideas by reading someone else's. I was constantly talking about this class with my parents and giving them small glimpses of what I learned this year reading Canadian student's post.”

“I enjoyed this class a lot, What I found interesting is how our both countries responded to the same issues differently .I loved the choice of topics we discussed .I would not change anything everything was perfect .Thank you for adding this to our class.”

“I truly enjoyed being able to see someone else perspective. I think think being able to collaborate with other students who do not go or see what we do on a daily base has taught me a lot. It has made me a little more open minded to a lot of topics as well. Thanks for such an amazing composed class”

“I sincerely enjoyed the collaborative portion of our class, I've found it eye-opening that everyone has many different, perspective-changing point of views that can help one broaden their views of politics and personal growth”

“I honestly never thought a collaboration like this was possible. When we were first introduced to what we would be doing for this class this collaboration with Canadian students was the most exciting part. It allowed us to really view things differently especially on what was going during this pandemic. The way this collaboration is set up is perfect. Everything is easy to understand and to navigate through. Really enjoyed to be part of this class and the opportunity to communicate with students out of the US.”

Virtual Exchange, Technopedagogy, International education, Cross cultural learning, Teamwork

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