The Research Files Episode 83: Digital partnerships with international schools

Thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher magazine. I’m Dominique Russell.

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Now, in this episode of The Research Files, I’m joined by Jen Star and Emeline Gillingham from the Asia Education Foundation. The Foundation’s recently released report, School Partnerships in a Digital Age, outlines what works in digital school partnerships by delving into how schools involved in their Australia-China BRIDGE program were supported to adapt from a more traditional face-to-face partnership – which relied heavily on international travel to and from each school – to a virtual partnership during the pandemic, known as the Digital BRIDGE Program.

As you’ll hear in the episode, the BRIDGE program, (where BRIDGE stands for Building Relationships through Intercultural Dialogue and Growing Engagement) has been in place for many years and in many countries. The report also looks at case studies from Digital BRIDGE Program partnerships, and the overall benefits of these partnerships for students, teachers and school communities, which we’ll unpack in greater detail during our conversation. Let’s dive into the episode.

Dominique Russell: Emeline and Jen, thank you so much for joining us on this episode of The Research Files. Jen, for listeners unaware, can you give us a brief introduction to the Asia Education Foundation and also your role there?

Jen Star: Asia Education Foundation is a little organisation embedded at the University of Melbourne. We were established in 1992, so we celebrated our 30th birthday last year. And our purpose is really to work with school educators, young people and communities in Asia and the Pacific to build global competence and Asia Pacific capabilities, to create connections, learn together and create a shared future, and to deepen knowledge, build relationships and embrace diversity across our region.

Now there are really 2 ways that we do this. The first is kind of inward looking in that we build capacity in Australian schools and teachers and students through the lens of the Australian Curriculum. And then also outward looking in that we make connections with and build capacity in education systems and schools and teachers and students across Asia and the Pacific. So both these strategies ultimately work towards our vision of a shared prosperous future for Australia and the Asia Pacific region.

And we have lots of programs available to Australian schools and teachers to do this, and we're going to be talking about one of these particular programs, our Digital BRIDGE Program today. But within that I quite possibly have the best job in the world in that I'm the Director, International at the Asia Education Foundation and that means I oversee all of our international projects at AEF. And that means that I get to work with teachers, students, school leaders and schools across 23 different nations in Asia Pacific, which is a great job. Lots of diversity and it also means that I get to work with an amazing team at Asia Education Foundation.

DR: And so, as Jen just mentioned there, we're going to be talking about the project and the new report from the Asia Education Foundation, titled School Partnerships in a Digital Age. Emeline, you're the Partnerships Coordinator for International Education Programs at the Foundation, can you tell us briefly about this role and also why this report was published?

Emeline Gillingham: Sure. Well, as the title suggests, my role is all about establishing partnerships between schools in Australia and schools across Asia and the Pacific. And we mainly do that through professional learning programs for teachers. So we bring teachers together to establish those partnerships, collaborate on projects and then they engage their students to learn from and with each other.

These programs are usually funded through the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, but also through some state departments of education. Now one of these programs is the Australia-China Digital BRIDGE Program, which was funded by the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations and through this program AEF was commissioned to publish this report looking at what works in digital school partnerships, using the partnerships we established through the program as examples of best practice. Now that was the first program that AEF was able to run with China since 2015 and also the first to be fully online without any physical resources or face-to-face activities.

DR: Jen, in the first section of this report, you discuss the advantages of digital school partnerships. So I'm interested in then what does the research say about the positive impact of these partnerships?

JS: Well, digital school partnerships are actually very, very new. So there's not much research on this yet, which is why our report is very timely. But in saying that, international school partnerships – or they’re sometimes called sister schools or global school partnerships – have been around for a really, really long time. They're very much part of their education landscape in Australia.

And I remember, like back in the dark ages of the late 80s and early 90s, when I was at school, my little school in country NSW had a sister school partnership with a school in Siem Reap in Vietnam and every so often a group of students or teachers would travel to Vietnam for a visit or we'd have some students come and stay in our community for an exchange. And I'm sure many of the listeners of this podcast have similar stories of engaging with sister school partnerships or international education.

But as Emeline said, the Asia Education Foundation have been coordinating sister school partnerships since 2008 through our BRIDGE School partnership program, and that connects schools in Australia with 23 different nations across Asia and the Pacific. And since 2008, we've established more than 500 partnerships and have a network of 1,000 schools and 2,500 teachers across the region.

But these school partnerships, much like my school's exchange with Siem Reap, however, tended to be built on this international travel. So we go there, they come here, the usual thing. But then, of course, the pandemic came. Schools were closed. Travel was restricted and most of these international school partnerships ground to a halt. But this kind of pause also allowed us to learn a lot about teaching online and creating authentic connections and learning experiences in this virtual space. And this report is basically the sum of our learning and demonstrates that deep and meaningful cross-cultural connections can be developed online.

So, much like their face-to-face predecessors, digital school partnerships have been proven to provide a range of benefits that can support schools, teachers, and students to enhance their intercultural understanding. They can develop 21st Century skills and form authentic global networks between teachers and students.

What really makes them exciting is that digital school partnerships are more equitable. Rather than just the few teachers or students with the means to travel, to go to Vietnam or come back, being engaged in the partnership, it means that all students in the school can have the potential to participate and it actively promotes whole student learning.

So by engaging with their peers online and creating authentic relationships, students can really gain a better understanding of other cultures. They can develop global citizenship. They appreciate different perspectives. And then they can hone those 21st Century skills like critical thinking, digital literacy, cross-cultural collaboration, language learning. So education is not no longer limited to the physical place that they live in, and I think that's really exciting, and a huge benefit of digital partnerships.

Of course, on the flip side, it also really enhances teacher capability, and we all know that teachers work best when they work collaboratively. So a digital school partnership really extends that collaboration across borders. Teachers can learn from their peers in other countries, learn from other school systems, and gain better intercultural understanding and sensitivity and bring different perspectives and ways of doing and being into their own professional practice and their own classroom.

And then I guess the final level is the whole school level and the benefit of a digital school partnership is that it helps schools develop global networks and a global outlook, which is so very important in the in the global world that we live in.

EG: …From my experience, obviously coordinating these programs and the work we did very much at the onset of the pandemic when we realised we had to shift all of our programs to online delivery. Following consultation, obviously with our funders and other stakeholders, what we came to the conclusion was that an important aspect of this shift was to ensure that the cultural exchanges and the insights were still central to the learning experience of the participants and at the heart of partnership establishment and partnership communication. So we organised online cultural workshops and experiences for participants to take part in and learn about each other's cultures.

So for example, through the Indonesia BRIDGE program I think it was, we did a damper making activity with an Indigenous organisation. In the context of the Digital BRIDGE Program, we had a women’s Indigenous dance group come and join us to talk about their culture and their traditions. And then we also had the Chinese museum involved. So I guess, yeah, those kinds of activities were very important to help bridge the cultural differences and provide opportunities for participants to learn about each other's cultures.

DR: In the report as well you also do mention that there are a number of challenges and limitations associated with virtual partnerships like these. So can you outline a few of these for me, Jen, and how these might be mitigated?

JS: Yeah, so of course, while there are benefits, there are also challenges. And probably, I think one of the biggest that we experienced was time difference. I'm pretty sure everyone has that friend on the other side of the world, and they have to wake up in the middle of the night to call. But when you kind of multiply that across multiple time zones and states in Australia and provinces in China, things become pretty messy pretty quickly.

So one of the ways that we got around this was we used both synchronous and asynchronous communication platforms so that partnerships could choose a platform that best suited them and then connect at a time that suited them as well. So, for example, we used Zoom for our synchronous workshops where we all got together at the same time. But we also had WhatsApp and WeChat platforms providing the same information so that participants could access it in their own time. We also used a platform called Milanote, which allowed participants to access the information and upload projects or collaborations in their own time.

Of course, when you're working with different cultures, language and communication can be quite challenging. And so we used AI translation tools such as Zoom captions, visual aids and diagrams, bilingual learning resources, as well as having a human translator participate in every session. It drew things out a little bit, but it made sure that everybody felt as comfortable as possible accessing and responding to the program we have.

And then, of course, there are the technical challenges. Like, who hasn't planned that perfect lesson online, only to have the power go out or the internet go down? And these kinds of technical challenges happened to us quite a bit, so staying flexible was the main thing that we needed to do.

We also, what we did to kind of overcome this, was we identified and addressed technology disparities and digital literacy skills. So, some teachers are better at online skills than others, and we conducted technology training sessions at the very start so that everybody knew what, I guess platform we were working on and how to use that platform so they could access the resources.

And then, of course, established contingency plans; plan A-Z, and lots of different communication channels across the program so that everybody could access and understand.

DR: And the report also mentions that ‘the research indicates that international school partnerships are most effective when they're integrated into the curriculum, rather than being seen as an extra-curricular offering.’ Emeline, in what ways does this program link to the Australian Curriculum?

EG: So there's 2 clear explicit links to the Australian Curriculum. The first one is to the cross-curriculum priority of Asia and Australia's Engagement with Asia, which emphasises the importance of developing Asia knowledge, skills and understanding to be better engage with Asian countries. So school partnerships such as those established through the Digital BRIDGE Program provide an excellent opportunity for teachers to cultivate Asia capabilities for themselves and their own intercultural understanding, but then also engage their students and enable them to develop those capabilities in an authentic way.

And the other one, of course, is Intercultural Understanding, which is another vital aspect of the Australian Curriculum as a General Capability. And that's really about students learning about themselves, their own culture, their own language, their own beliefs, as well as those of others, and engaging with diverse cultures. That's obviously very relevant in Australia with such an ethnically and culturally diverse population, but also you know, in any workplace of course these skills are going to be so valuable anywhere in the world.

DR: One of the sections in the report shares some case studies. It was so interesting to read through all of them. I'm interested in whether you'd like to share one or 2 with our listeners, Emeline, for people who haven't read the report yet, what are some interesting aspects from one or 2 of the case studies?

EG: I have to admit it's quite hard to pick one. They're all such great examples of what's possible and so inspiring. And of course, in the report, we were only limited to about 5 examples. But yeah, there's so many more from the program we could have picked.

But one I particularly liked was the collaborative project between Corinda State High School in Queensland and Shanghai Zhiyuan Middle School. So those schools collaborated on a geography project that focused on exploring the liveability and biological environments of their respective campuses and surrounding areas. So they engaged their year 7 students to showcase the unique aspects of their living environment. Things like fauna and flora on their campuses, the use of solar and wind power, the food served in their canteen. So they looked at that in their own school context and then shared, through Teams – the teachers’ organised sessions through Teams for the students to share. And then they're actually now looking at planting trees on their campuses as a symbol of their partnership, which I think is beautiful.

And it was great to be able to support the teachers to connect via Teams. As Jen mentioned, there's always technical difficulties in in programs like this, and one of them was that the teachers from Corinda weren't able to access some of the resources we were sharing because we're part of the University of Melbourne Team network and they're part of the Queensland Education. And so we managed to, yeah, work out how to make that happen. And then of course adding in the Chinese teachers into it as well.

The other one I would like to mention is the one between Hangzhou Tonglu Ye Qianyu Jianlan School – and I apologise about my pronunciation, I have been learning Chinese, but still not that great – and St Joseph's Catholic College in NSW. And they focused on promoting resilience amongst their year 7 to 12 students and they thought they could do that through showcasing particularly resilient people on social media through the school social media platforms. And so I guess that's the way for students to see, you know, this is how you do it. This is what's possible and build their own confidence.

And it was really a project that they came to because they realised that, you know, after COVID students, whether they've been in China or in Australia, they're actually facing similar challenges around stress and anxiety. And yes, [teachers] really needed to be more attentive and provide support to help students navigate all those hardships. So that's, I guess you how they came to that project. It's still very much in its infancy, but it's been really wonderful again to be able to bring the teachers together and support them to start that project.

That’s all for this episode. Thanks for listening. If you’re interested in finding out more about the Digital BRIDGE Program you can visit Asia Education Foundation’s website at or search for them on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. We’ll also have a link to their YouTube channel and the full report we discussed today at the bottom of the full transcript for this episode, available over at our website,

Remember to give a rating of our podcast if you’re listening to this audio on Apple podcasts or Spotify. Thanks again for taking the time to support the work we’re doing. We’ll be back with a new episode soon.

Related links

School Partnerships in a Digital Age report

Asia Education Foundation YouTube channel

In this episode, Jen Star says a benefit of digital school partnerships are that they can be more equitable.

If you have an international school partnership in place at your school, reflect on how equitable it is for students and teachers. Is there opportunity for students to engage with their peers online to develop global citizenship, and 21st Century skills such as digital literacy and cross-cultural collaboration?