Getting the world talking

What’s the modern equivalent of pen pals? Social media is an easy way to internationalise, says Ted Underwood

There are a lot of things that seem a good idea at the time; things which sadly tend to lose their sheen the morning after. Chocolate mini rolls by the packet, opening a second bottle of red wine and going on camping holidays all fall into this category for me.

For many schools, setting their sights on foreign markets can have the same effect. When your board of governors are all nodding their heads and smiling enthusiastically as a consultant like myself paints a picture of a bustling multi-cultural campus and a globally recognised brand, it can be hard to see why a school shouldn’t jump in with both feet. However, massive commitments of financial and human resources mean it’s certainly not for everyone and I have recently advised a lovely girls’ day school that internationalisation can, in fact, wait.

This girls’ school in question has, in recent years, bounced back from near extinction and worked hard to develop a strong local following. They are doing really exciting things with their premises and curriculum and are now looking to the next five years to see what they can do with their reinvigorated brand. My advice was simple – do more of the same. Engage with your community, run summer programmes for the local kids, do whatever you can to make your school the go-to place for the daughters of that particular bustling Home Counties town. Make them love you. That way, when you finally do open your gates to international students they will arrive feeling they are part of something really special rather than a relief column of financial heavy cavalry.

With all this in mind, and the start of the academic year upon us, I thought I would focus on an easy way to internationalise this month. Previously I have hectored you all to read dense journals on strategy, or curate your agent network more carefully than an exhibition at The British Museum. Let me make a suggestion on how internationalisation can be done very well in your classrooms with very little effort but with maximum impact; it’s good old fashioned twinning projects.

I am from a generation where pen pals were a mandatory part of the Modern Languages curriculum and letters would be handed out by my French teacher every half term. As a result, I spent three years writing to Sebastien in Lyon where we haltingly asked each other the same tedious questions time after time, wearily enquiring as to whether or not we had any siblings and what our houses were like. Just so you know, Sebastien’s house had three bedrooms and an attic where apparently his grandmother lived. I never enquired further, mainly because at 12 I didn’t know the French for ‘dark family secret’.

Mercifully, things have moved on since then. Twinning projects between classes around the world can be facilitated quite easily, producing far more exciting results than four lines of resentfully scribbled nonsense twice a term. Your students are now highly adept at using sophisticated methods of communication and can transfer words and images at the click of a button to their peers in real time around the world. Yes, I’m talking about social media. Now, before you run screaming in horror to your nearest safeguarding officer, I completely sympathise with your reservations at allowing Social Media Platforms (SMPs) into the classroom. Social media is a tricky beast and, whilst it has great potential to benefit institutions and the young people we work with, it also has the potential for considerable harm. If we are to harness the benefits of social media then it must have clear parameters for your students, with clear benefits and contained within a structure.

About six years ago, I happened to end up teaching an EFL Class Humanities as part of their preparation for starting a GCSE course the following year. They were a lovely group but not terribly bright, and perfectly comfortable speaking that particular brand of pidgin English which can end up being mistaken for fluency by those who speak to them every day. The scheme of work I had carefully written just a year before wasn’t suitable for them, so in desperation I trawled the British Council website for ideas. It was there that I came across Connecting Classrooms, a dating agency for schools if you will. I quickly found a school in France looking to compare school-wide recycling and away we went. Several of my lessons were spent in the ICT suite with students talking on Skype to students in our partner school or pinging PowerPoint slides back and forth. The result was that my students actually had to communicate in proper English to make themselves understood but, more vitally, they had a reason to develop their skills. The lessons flew by and when the time came for the joint presentation it was a real buzz to see just how far my students had come in terms of their subject knowledge, confidence and language competence.

If you are looking for a way to begin internationalising your school, or enriching an already well developed global strategy, then this is certainly worth a shot. The canny amongst you will have already caught on to the fact that you can even target particular countries where you are keen to develop markets and use this, providing it is done sensitively, as a brand awareness-raising exercise. Teachers and students will naturally want to know more about your school and, so long as you execute the project in a professional and successful manner, will then be duly impressed with what they say. After all, what better marketing tool does any school have than their own students?

Tips for using social media in the classroom

Consent: If social media tools are to be used in a classroom setting, you need to obtain permission from parents. The teacher also needs to be very clear about how they will be monitoring students throughout the exercise. You also need to use age-appropriate social media platforms.

Opt-out option: If a student’s parents have reasons for not wanting their child to use off-site social media sites or tools, you should be prepared to offer those students an alternative. 

Etiquette: Before the social media tools are used, the teacher needs to have a frank and candid discussion with students and the partner school about its proper use in the classroom. Boundaries and expectations need to be explicit. 

The fine print: Students need to be aware of the ‘terms of use’ for different social media sites. Different social media sites have varying policies around data ownership and privacy and everyone using the sites in a classroom setting must be made aware of these policies. My advice is that setting up a blog site, which can be used exclusively by the students and their teachers, is the best option. 

Ted Underwood is a freelance consultant: @TSUnderwood


Find out more  – The original online schools partnering website run by The British Council – easy to use, thorough and well supported. – A not for profit organisation which links UK schools with those in developing countries to engage in joint curriculum projects. – An easy to use blog site which you can set up quickly and easily to host your joint project. It’s easy to keep it private but equally easy to share the finished article once you’re ready.    

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