After three years of program testing, research and development, in collaboration with a select pool of US and Chinese high schools, we have identified six common challenges with existing educational travel programs between China and the US that undermine learning outcomes for students and add unnecessary administrative work for schools and districts.
Learning from these challenges, and incorporating layers of feedback from our partner schools, we have developed a new model for exchange based on a proprietary Alpha exChange Information Management System (ALPEX-IMS). This system provides a practical new solution to these challenges and allows schools to design customised and integrated two-way exchange programs tailored to the individual needs of a broader pool of students.
We are extremely grateful to be testing this model with Boston Latin School and the Experimental High School Attached to Beijing Normal University and excited to share our preliminary results below.
Challenge #1: Communication & Expectations
A lack of clear and consistent communication between schools in the planning process often leads to confusion over expectations, particularly with regards to inbound programs at US high schools. Chinese schools and/or third party facilitators often bring more students than anticipated, and of varying age and English competency levels. This makes it extremely difficult for US high schools to arrange their schedules without disrupting regular classes and aggravating school teachers and staff.
By integrating inbound and outbound programs under central management via our proprietary ALPEX-IMS, schools have a reliable facilitator familiar with both education systems and cultural contexts to coordinate and manage expectations for both inbound and outbound components with complete transparency. All student and program-related information is made readily available via our ALPEX-IMS well in advance of each program.
Case in Point:
Our team started working with administrators from Boston Latin School and the Experimental High School Attached to Beijing Normal University to plan their two-way exchange in September 2014. In February 2015, a group from Beijing spent 3 weeks at Boston Latin School, where they were hosted by the same students due to come to Beijing on a return exchange during Spring Break in April 2015. Alpha Partners worked with both schools to customize both components of the exchange based on their respective needs and priorities.
Challenge #2: Administrative Cost
US schools often don’t have the administrative bandwidth to organize programs long enough to achieve maximum educational output for students from both sides of the exchange, particularly with regards to class design. For inbound programs, this is often amplified by a lack of information on Chinese student competency level and subject preferences necessary to assign them to classes they can actively participate in. For outbound programs, schools often aren’t aware of the type of classes and educational activities that can be arranged and tailored for their students in China.
By integrating inbound and outbound programs under central management via our proprietary ALPEX-IMS, we aggregate all potential program content from both sides into our system. This includes all relevant teacher schedules as well as other content we are able to provide via different vendors in the US and China. It also allows students to construct their own individualized timetable within fixed parameters. The overall objective is to maximize educational output for every student. At the same time, it also reduces administrative burden and increases transparency for host schools by producing individual timetables and schedules for all school teachers and stakeholders effected by the exchange.
Case in Point:
For the inbound exchange, we created customized timetables for each Beijing student based on three course types:
- For all of the first week and a portion of the second two weeks, the Beijing students followed their partners’ schedule. This is to give students a full immersive experience of life at a US high school.
- Based on preferences the Beijing students submitted via our IMS, we assigned them to 2-3 AP/Honors-level classes in the final two weeks to follow their individual subject interests in preparation for their Grade 11 AP courses in Beijing.
- To ensure that there was a deliverable component of their exchange and reduce the administrative burden of having them shadow local students for the full 3 weeks, the Beijing students were split into 3 research groups: Art & Music in Boston, Boston and the American Revolution and Immigration & Diversity in Boston. A BLS ‘supervisor’ was assigned to teach mini-courses on each topic, and students also completed field research in preparation for their final presentations.
Based on these customized timetables, we also created individual schedules for each teacher that would have Chinese students in their class using our IMS.
Challenge #3: Legal Liability
In many cases we have studied, one of the biggest concerns for US school and district administrators in organising an inbound exchange program is liability for the health and safety of their Chinese visitors during their time in the US. This is also a major issue in identifying and vetting homestay families for longer exchange programs.
By integrating inbound and outbound programs under central management via our proprietary ALPEX-IMS, all logistics and legal aspects of both programs are managed centrally by our team. This is done via our strategic partnership with one of China’s largest and most reputable travel agencies. Students on our programs are fully insured and all the relevant vendors are vetted and contracted by our team directly.
Case in Point:
Alpha Partners is legally responsible for organizing both components of this exchange, and has contracted China International Travel Services to provide all travel services in the US and China. Around their time at BLS, the Beijing group also traveled to New York City, sat in on classes at several top universities, and attended lectures at the College Board and Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO).
Challenge #4: Reciprocity
The biggest weakness we have seen with conventional China-related educational travel is the complete lack of reciprocity between inbound and outbound programs. While many inbound programs at US schools are led by Chinese schools directly, return trips to China are almost always run by international travel agencies or education companies like EF with scant involvement of the same Chinese school – let alone students – resulting in huge wasted potential for reciprocal exchange on a student level.
By integrating inbound and outbound programs under central management via our proprietary ALPEX-IMS, our technology allows us to match students based on a complex matrix of variables from age, gender, subjects, clubs, activities to personality indicators. This offers students a controlled element of self-selection to ensure the best possible fit. Students then remain in the same pairs across both programs, extending the exchange cycle and increasing the probability of building lasting relationships on a student level.
Case in Point:
We paired up student partners for our pilot exchange using our IMS in December 2014, and these pairings remain the same for both components, with the same group coming to Beijing during Spring Break in April 2015 that hosted in Boston during Chinese New Year in February. The result of this is a much longer exchange cycle than most conventional exchange programs, with students building relationships over the course of almost 5 months.
Challenge #5: Financial Cost
A major factor contributing to the lack of reciprocity between programs is that the US students willing to host are often not the same students that can afford to travel to China, at least not on the same scale. The result of this is that students from both sides only ever experience one of the two components of educational exchange – either being hosted or hosting but rarely both.
By integrating inbound and outbound programs under central management, we are able to implement a mechanism whereby students receive financial subsidies on the inbound component that can be directly discounted from their outbound component. This mechanism significantly lowers the financial barriers to participating and extends the opportunity to a larger pool of students, particularly when schools and/or districts provide additional financial support.
Challenge #6: Evaluation
Because the inbound and outbound components of exchange are often run by separate organisations, it is difficult to evaluate and assess the learning outcomes of the exchange as a whole. Both components are as important as each other to realising the maximum possible benefit to students, so having them planned and evaluated separately is ineffective.
By integrating inbound and outbound programs under central management, we are able to develop a cohesive evaluation system with input from both schools. This allows all exchange-related coursework and assessment to be recorded and managed in a centralised system, making it much easier to evaluate the success of each component and implement improvements to future program design in response to these evaluation outcomes.