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Internationalizing Teacher Education through Virtual Connections and Blended Learning

By Mary E. Risner, Swapna Kumar / July 2020

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There is a need for globally competent citizens in our increasingly complex and connected world. One way to meet this need is to integrate global perspectives into U.S. K-12 education. However, teachers often feel unprepared to tie global topics to the existing curriculum and have not been trained on how to integrate global issues in their classrooms. There is thus a need to integrate innovative teaching strategies in teacher education, to ensure pre-service teachers enter future classrooms with a high level of intercultural competence, an understanding of global issues from diverse viewpoints, and the ability to use technologies to develop critical thinking and digital literacy in their students. This article describes one approach to integrating global perspectives and inquiry-based learning in teacher education curricula—the use of digital resources and virtual connections. The Global Classroom Initiative (GCI), funded by the Longview Foundation, integrated blended modules in elementary pre-service teacher education curriculum to meet these global education needs.

Internationalization of Teacher Education

The importance of internationalizing teacher education, preparing globally competent educators, and ensuring that teachers are able to integrate 21st-century skills, technologies, and global content in their teaching has been acknowledged for over a decade [1]. Several institutions of higher education have attempted to integrate global citizenship in curriculum goals and internationalize their programs [2]. The ubiquity of the internet and easy access to free technologies has made it possible to access and share resources about global topics (e.g., websites, YouTube), and to communicate with people all over the world (e.g., Skype, FaceTime, Zoom). While such technologies provide access to resources and people around the world, it is crucial to integrate them in a purposeful way in teaching curricula and learning processes to provide valuable learning experiences. The Global Classroom Initiative (GCI), described in this paper, purposefully integrated digital resources on global education as well as virtual connections with experts to increase pre-service teacher awareness of global themes.

Virtual connections have also been termed as teletandem, telecollaboration, globally networked learning, or virtual exchange [3]. Virtual exchange has been defined as “the engagement of groups of learners in extended periods of online intercultural interaction and collaboration with partners from other cultural contexts or geographical locations as an integrated part of their educational programs and under the guidance of educators and/or expert facilitators” [4]. Such engagement can occur in various ways—students can interact with virtual guests on specific topics, two classes can interact virtually on selected topics in real-time or in a discussion forum, a course can be team-taught by instructors at two or more institutions. O’Dowd [4] also differentiates between subject-specific approaches to virtual exchange (e.g., language learning), shared syllabus approaches, and service-provider approaches to virtual exchange. The goal of such virtual connections or exchanges is participant interaction, intercultural communication, discussion, and learning [5]. However, the achievement of these goals often depends on how virtual connections or exchanges are structured, integrated into formal activities, and planned within the larger learning process [6]. In the following sections we describe the ways in which activities and virtual connections were structured in a pre-service teacher education course and the perceptions of students and instructors about what they learned during the process.

The Global Classroom Initiative (GCI) Project Design

This project was a collaboration between a college of education and a Latin American area studies center to develop a blended module in a required pre-service undergraduate course integrating technology in the elementary classroom. Overarching elements guiding this course were ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) Standards, TPACK (technological, pedagogical and content knowledge), and practitioner inquiry. The GCI module introduced the need for developing global competence and encouraged a teaching approach focused on improving critical thinking and problem solving from a global perspective. It was implemented in four sections of the course taught by two educational technology doctoral teaching assistants.

The module included in-class discussions centered around assigned readings of how global education is defined [7] and how global education can be presented using the Asia Society Global Competence Matrix [8], which proposes investigating the world, recognizing perspectives, communicating ideas, and taking action. Students conducted web searches exploring diverse global themes such as those listed in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals [9] and discussed which ones might be age-appropriate and adapted for the elementary classroom. They then conducted web searches to review global educational resources and chose to share one that interested them personally, describing “why” and “how” the resource would be useful to educators and students. The resources they shared in an online forum needed to be either a) informational for educators to integrate global education in the curriculum or b) an activity ready to use in the classroom.

Other readings provided examples of how technology can facilitate global learning opportunities, primarily through virtual connections broadly speaking [10] and a project-based learning example from a classroom in Texas [11]. All readings aimed to provide an introductory background on what global education is and share ways that technology can support global learning opportunities by connecting students and instructors across borders.

Students then prepared for the virtual connections—online videoconferencing sessions. Skype was the tool of choice even though other tools, such as Zoom and Adobe Connect, are also excellent options. They researched the virtual guest educator and school before posting questions to an online forum in preparation for the synchronous discussions with teachers from two countries. Students were provided with ground rules for the virtual guest chat. In addition to a monitor where the guests were projected, each student was at a computer or laptop during the session, so they were able to type in a back-channel message that could be addressed or discussed. One virtual guest was teaching in a public school in Japan. She shared photos and information on the duties and roles of students at Japanese schools and other visuals on the school physical environment. The other guest was a teacher in Bolivia who worked at a private American school and shared her experiences with examples. The presentations and discussions mainly revolved around cultural differences and distinctions between private and public institutions. Sessions closed with questions from students for the virtual guests.

The last module activity involved the design and submission of a global lesson plan that was evaluated as part of a competition. The interdisciplinary lesson plan template required the following items: subject area focus, grade level, lesson objective(s), standard(s), level of technology integration, materials, time allotted for lesson, instructional procedures, assessment of student learning, and suggested resources. Some sample lesson themes submitted were: hunger, poverty, environment, internet access and filters, geography, and human rights. Four students with the best lessons received stipends to attend a major state event, the Future of Education Technology Conference (FETC), a professional learning opportunity rarely available to undergraduates. All students were encouraged to participate in other professional events in the region as well. Several attended the state global education conference, Florida Connected, and others presented in the annual Online Global Education Conference sharing their impressions of the GCI module. Other students presented with one of the instructors at the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education (SITE) conference and shared their perspectives on virtual connections for promoting global competence.

Research Design

Following the implementation of the module, two research questions drove the data that were collected:

  • What are pre-service teachers’ perceptions of the blended global education module?
  • In what ways do pre-service teachers intend to use their learning in future classrooms?

An anonymous survey consisting of 10 items was sent to all students (n=78) at the end of the course to gather data about student perceptions of the blended module, especially virtual connections for learning about global education. The survey was analyzed using descriptive statistics. Interviews were also conducted with both doctoral student instructors about their perceptions of the module and student learning. A thematic analysis of the data from open-ended questions in the survey and instructor interviews was conducted.

Pre-service Teacher Perceptions of the Global Education Module

Pre-service teachers perceived the global education component of the course to be extremely valuable. Of the 66 pre-service teachers who responded, 80 percent had not previously used Skype or other technologies with international partners for learning. Ninety-four percent stated they found the virtual connections to be a useful learning experience, and 97 percent agreed the content and activities in the course had influenced their perceptions of how global content could be taught. Pre-service teachers’ open-ended responses (n=66) to how their perceptions had been influenced fell in four areas: increased awareness of global education and its importance, how to integrate global content, how technologies can facilitate virtual connections, and a broadening of their perspectives or views.

Pre-service teachers stated they had previously been unaware of such possibilities to connect their classrooms. One responded, “I never thought about integrating my activities or lessons globally, or even teaching globally,” while another wrote, “Before this class, I did not think about how technology could be used in the classroom to integrate global issues into the curriculum or how to use technology on a global scale (exploring other cultures).” Many of them shared they now had a basic understanding of global education and realized its importance, with comments such as “Before taking this course, I didn't have a full understanding of what global content was,” “showing students how to connect to the world around them is important for entering a world that is becoming more globalized and technologically dependent,” and “it has a great importance in raising culturally responsive and aware youth.” The largest number of comments were about how they were motivated and now knew how to integrate global content into their future classroom. Pre-service teachers wrote, “[this] has led me to want to integrate this type of global awareness in my classroom,” “[I] feel more confident about my ability to integrate it into the classroom,” “learned how to connect global issues to my classroom,” and “various ways in which to incorporate global content at all grade levels.”

Several of the pre-service teachers that they had not considered using Skype in these ways before, while others stated: “I was not aware of how much we can do with technology in the class with global content,” and “[t]echnology is a useful tool for incorporating global themes into a classroom because the internet offers connections that you can't really find elsewhere.” Some respondents responded that they now knew how to “plan,” “set up,” or “implement” Skype for global connections. Finally, some pre-service teachers discussed how their own perspectives and views had been broadened by the experience, while others talked about the value of virtual connections to expose students to other points of view. They made comments such as, “allowed me to expand my mind and creativity to create a lesson plan that includes other countries around the globe and creates a sense of global awareness in students,” “my students will see the big picture and have more understanding of the global community,” and “make students aware of the world outside their school.”

Ninety-seven percent of pre-service teachers agreed they would integrate global content into courses once they had their own classrooms. When asked in what ways they think global content can be integrated into the U.S. elementary curriculum, they responded with various activities and technologies. The largest number of comments were about using virtual connections using Skype, which is not surprising since that was modeled in this project. This was followed by the use of virtual field trips to connect students with real environments and provide them with authentic experiences. All the comments involved the use of some technology or digital resources, such as Powtoon, podcasts, videos, and blogs. Community-building, collaborations with other classrooms or people in other places, reading international books and resources, and pen-pal activities were also mentioned by the pre-service teachers. Exposure to other cultures, countries, and ways of thinking were mentioned by many, while some included examples of global topics or content they would teach, such as sustainability and global warming.

Instructor Perceptions of the Global Education Module

The two instructors of the four sections were doctoral students in education who did not have experience teaching about global concepts. They had expertise in technology integration and blended teaching but had not previously included virtual connections. Both instructors stated they had benefitted from the project and would include such topics and virtual connections in their future teaching. One of the instructors had already proposed integrating a similar module in another course and worked with two students to integrate an asynchronous virtual exchange of recorded videos with a local third-grade class connecting to London. Both instructors believed the module had been beneficial to their students, based on their observations of students’ engagement and feedback, and the lesson plans that students had created. One instructor reflected the module had helped pre-service teachers learn how to bring in experts, how “to make contacts to create outside opportunities” and connect content in the curriculum to the real world. The other instructor stated “it definitely exposed them [pre-service teachers] to a different way of thinking about lessons and reaching out beyond the classroom.” The conference opportunities provided by the project were praised by the instructors, one of whom said, “the pre-service teachers that attended felt very valued…they see themselves as a future teacher participating in this community of learners, which is really important. And they were part of conversations with professors and teachers and all kinds of people.” Both instructors highlighted the ways in which students had integrated global content in an interdisciplinary manner in their lesson plans.

Challenges with Integrating Global Education

Notwithstanding the positive experiences in this project and other projects aiming to teach pre-service teachers to integrate global content in their teaching, existing curriculum and contexts can pose a challenge. The requirements for teacher certification and teacher preparation at the national and state levels leave little flexibility in teacher preparation programs for the integration of global education. When such content can be integrated, faculty expertise in teaching such content is limited, and resources that model the integration of global education take time to gather and plan intentionally. Free online technologies facilitate virtual interactions with those in other countries in real-time, but designing such learning experiences, as well as planning and implementing such interactions across time zones can be challenging. Possible internet stability and sound or video issues may arise, but as one of the doctoral instructors in this project stated, “a bad Skype is better than a worksheet any day.” With careful preparation and purposeful instructional design, blended modules that include prior readings, formulation of critical questions, and synchronous online interactions followed by asynchronous discussion and reflection can be a powerful means of teaching global content. Another crucial component is the promotion of professional development beyond the classroom at the undergraduate level and finding funds to support student participation in affordable local and virtual conferences to motivate them to be innovative and engaged future teachers.

Implications/ Recommendations for Implementation

The growing importance of internationalizing the pre-service curriculum is evident in a growing body of literature and research [11, 12, 13]. For example, the two-year European Union-funded research project, Evaluating and Upscaling Tellecollaborative Teacher Education (EVALUATE), found that engaging student teachers in structured and guided online collaboration in formal coursework can contribute to the growth of their digital literacy and intercultural competence [14]. Ullom’s [15] research implementing pre-service virtual exchange that consisted of virtual sessions and lesson plan design found that students benefitted in terms of “knowledge acquisition,” “intercultural sensitivity development,” and “personal growth/self-improvement.” Students found the synchronous sessions to be the most meaningful aspect of the course and similar to the project results described in this paper, almost half of the pre-service participants planned to incorporate global education in their future courses. These publications support the need for and importance of globalizing the curriculum, be it in K-12 classrooms or higher education curriculum. 

Short and focused modules with global themes that can be easily integrated in pre-service courses are invaluable. Globalizing pre-service curriculum through virtual connections enhances teacher education by improving student digital literacy and global competence as a regular part of instruction, while also aligning with university campus internationalization goals, now so relevant in higher education. Introducing concepts of global competence early in teacher education helps students reflect upon their own cultural assumptions, explore ways to learn about other cultures and connect with culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms through technology. These are all skills that will be of great benefit as students enter increasingly diverse U.S. schools. Additionally, interdisciplinary modules with virtual connections have the potential to strengthen collaborations between colleges of education, area studies centers, and other departments where there is a need for exchange of pedagogy and content between colleges. Teaching and learning through blended and virtual exchange modules, such as the one described here, can serve as a model for other colleges of education to collaborate across disciplines to globalize the post-secondary curriculum, ultimately infusing global perspectives into schools.

This article described an approach to broadening perspectives and promoting the value of global education for pre-service teachers that was based on authentic experiences using synchronous and asynchronous technologies. This blended design is applicable to other content and contexts where teachers would like to include modules for students to interact with international experts or project-based learning with classrooms abroad or in other U.S. regions of different subject areas. 

About the Authors

Dr. Mary Risner is a faculty member and associate director of outreach and business programs at the University of Florida Center for Latin American Studies. She develops and manages initiatives that integrate the study of world languages and area studies across the curriculum through innovative uses of technology for teaching and learning. Her current research areas of interest are in languages for specific purposes (LSP) and the internationalization of pre-service education through virtual exchange. More information on her publications and other teaching activities can be found here:

Dr. Swapna Kumar is a clinical associate professor of educational technology at the School of Teaching and Learning, University of Florida. She directs the online doctorate in Educational Technology at the College of Education, and studies online and blended learning in higher education. Kumar’s current research is focused on online mentoring in graduate education and quality assurance in online programs. Kumar has published several articles, book chapters, and proceedings, details of which can be found at


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