Building on previous efforts to globalize pre-service teacher education, faculty and staff from the College of Education recently collaborated with the University of Florida International Center (UFIC) Office of Global Learning (OGL) and the Center for Latin American Studies to enhance teaching methods through virtual exchange. By participating in the OGL’s 5-week virtual exchange training, Tara Mathien, clinical assistant professor of early childhood studies, worked with Claudia Tobar, senior director of innovation and outreach at the University de San Francisco de Quito (USFQ). Though teaching very different courses, the two colleagues found many similarities in their curricula, including stress factors, toxic adversity and mental health issues related to children and educators. The virtual exchange training guided them through the necessary steps to develop a course module providing a mutually beneficial learning environment. 

Over the course of the Spring 2022 semester, Mathien’s class held three synchronous Zoom sessions with the students from USFQ. Students from each school were placed into mixed groups of three to four people. They were then tasked with completing assignments in between each virtual class meeting. This encouraged intercultural collaboration outside of class, leading the students to use channels of communication like WhatsApp. Using this tool, students were able to socialize organically. This was arguably the most significant impact of the entire virtual exchange. It pushed students out of their comfort zones and taught them a lot about themselves — and others.

Additionally, the project allowed the college to show our future educators the importance of making global connections and having a more cultured view of students and their families when they would not be able to do so otherwise.

“While travel itself might not be feasible for all of our students,” Mathien said, “we can bring those experiences here to them with the use of technology and collaboration across programs and geographic locations.”

Mathien feels she has an obligation to provide our students with as many opportunities as possible to help them explore their own ideas about culture and creating partnerships with others. The collaboration didn’t end there; the following June, Mathien participated in a face-to-face visit to Ecuador to meet her virtual exchange partners.

Tara Mathien meeting with her virtual exchange partner, Claudia Tobar, in Ecuador.

Tara Mathien and Claudia Tobar

On this trip, she hosted a presentation on “Trauma-Informed Communities of Inquiry as a Foundation for Rethinking Higher Education Instruction” for the USFQ faculty, met with their department chair for education and collaborated with several of their international support partners. Through this meeting, they have developed a new faculty-led study abroad program to allow more opportunities for experiential learning in a global context. This study abroad will be offered in the Education Sciences degree program, but open to all UF undergraduate students in Summer A of 2023. This is one of the many opportunities that was generated as a result of the virtual exchange project.

Although Mathien faced some struggles throughout the virtual exchange project, including time zone and language differences, she knew the importance of asking questions and relying on her collaborators. She credits the support of UFIC’s OGL and the Center for Latin American Studies with helping bolster the opportunity to globalize college curriculum. Mary Risner, associate director of outreach at the Center for Latin American Studies, works with OGL to promote and offer professional development for faculty and staff on how to design and deliver virtual exchange modules. The virtual exchange trainings prepare instructors to collaborate and design tasks for a virtual environment connecting two different cultures.

According to Mathien, her work with USFQ and other international programs helps to globalize UF by “meeting with faculty and learning about their programs [to offer] an opportunity for them to highlight the work they are engaging in and find common threads that we might pursue to benefit students across institutions and international contexts.” Due to the positive impact of this collaboration, both Risner and Mathien hope that more faculty see the opportunities available for preparing globally competent future educators and will consider integrating virtual exchange in their courses.

Tara Mathien

Mary Risner