Virtual Exchange Creates New Study Experience

Innovation  Study 

This week St Stephen’s College transitioned a study tour with Showa High School in Japan into an online experience as the result of Australia’s current international border closure. Traditionally the Japanese students would visit the Gold Coast for a week to gain what Sam Holmes, the school’s Executive Director of International Education, calls ‘a taste of St Stephen’s’.

The partnership between the two schools began four years ago and has expanded over that time to now include similar relationships between Showa and several other South East Queensland schools. All up 100 students were due to visit Queensland this year through the arrangement, with double that number scheduled by 2023.

 A new program is born

As the number of students participating in the study tours has grown exponentially, so too have the long-term enrolments from Japanese students - and then COVID-19 changed everything. Working with Australian International Student Tours CEO Tanya Ferguson, the team at St Stephen’s College devised an online version of the program by condensing the experience into two days.

 “We had to find a way to deliver a virtual model that would still allow the students to engage in real life interaction as part of the cultural exchange as if the students had been here,” says Tanya.

St Stephen's Year 6 students introduce Sophie the College dog to their Japanese friends

 In the case of the English language program there was no difference in the content, only the way it was delivered. The students were set a lot of pre-tasks, including questions they had to answer before the integration with all of their workbooks sent over in advance, giving the students the advantage of knowing everything that was going to happen beforehand. According to Sam Holmes, giving the students prior knowledge allowed St Stephen’s College to facilitate a more interactive experience in real time.

 With the creative arts elements the program had to be revised to strike a balance between the digital and live elements. In music, for instance, the students learnt to sing Australian songs while watching You Tube clips with the music teacher accompanying them live on piano to avoid the time lag in transmission between digital platforms. In this way the Showa students were able to learn songs like John Farnham’s “You’re the Voice and Kylie Minogue’s “Spinning Around” while singing along with their Australian counterparts.   

Authentic experience 

Sam Holmes says that when Japanese students come here they want an authentic Australian experience. “They want Australian animals and Australian people – they want to try Australian food and stay with Australian families. Interestingly because we have such a diverse multicultural society with people coming from many different backgrounds they love that their homestay families represent those differences. It’s a true reflection of who we are as Australians, which is vastly different to Japan’s predominant monocultural society.

“That’s one thing the online participants are missing out on this year – the homestay experience. We could try and ship some Aussie food to them in Japan, but I’m not sure how easy it would be to get a Yatala pie to them!”

St Stephen's College students chat with students from Showa High School

The pandemic has also highlighted some stark differences between the education systems of the two countries, as Sam points out.

“When Japanese students come here they get a real taste of how we use technology in the classroom. They don’t have anywhere near the same level of engagement with technology in Japan. They aren’t allowed to use devices for education – it’s a common misconception about Japanese education. The same goes for Chinese kids as well - our edutech is totally foreign to them. When COVID shut down schools across the world Japanese kids went home with wads of paper, whereas we were able to transition our classes online relatively quickly and easily.”   

 The elephant in the room

And while technology creates new opportunities in international education, the elephant in the room remains the reopening of our international borders, the sector simply cannot survive much longer exclusively online. It’s an issue that continues to perplex Sam Holmes.

“While the borders remain closed the numbers will continue to dwindle as more students graduate and return home. We’ve proposed some excellent quarantine options to bring students safely back to Australia. I can’t understand what the holdup is. Everyone tells us that school-age kids are much less risk and we’ve ticked all of the boxes, so why can’t they come?”