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Cultural Exchange Tool Connects Classrooms Around the World

The online cultural exchange platform Empatico connects classrooms in 160 countries for interactive lessons focused on social-emotional learning and building cooperation, cultural inclusion and empathy.

The KIND Foundation Empatico
Empatico, an online tool for hosting joint lessons with classrooms in different countries, features dozens of interactive cultural exchange activities.
(PRNewswire/The KIND Foundation)
KIND Snacks founder Daniel Lubetzky, a philanthropist and son of a Holocaust survivor, founded The KIND Foundation five years ago to encourage dialogue and build empathy between different cultures and viewpoints. As part of those goals, the nonprofit launched the online learning platform Empatico in 2017 to connect elementary-level students across the globe for interactive cultural exchange activities.

Empatico’s Director of Programs and Partnerships Travis Hardy said the tool’s user base has grown steadily since its launch in 2017, and has so far reached about 60,000 students and 42,000 educators from 160 countries, although half of them are based in U.S. school districts. He said the Empatico platform brings students together through video conferencing and collaborative lessons intended to build teamwork and problem-solving skills.

In addition to game-based lessons, students have used the tool in recent months to share their holiday traditions and customs, favorite foods and tours of their schools, and to discuss shared hardships associated with COVID-19.

The ultimate goal, Hardy said, is to “build a more empathetic future generation prepared to thrive in a more interconnected world” by emphasizing social-emotional learning (SEL), as well as by boosting students’ communication skills and ability to understand and appreciate cultural differences.

Hardy said Empatico expanded its suite of games and lessons over the fall for K-8 students to teach and learn about each others’ regional histories, and to engage in language-learning exercises and cultural arts projects, among other activities.

According to Hardy, the company recently developed The Great Empatico Expedition, a suite of online games ranging from building a cookbook to learning the basics of programming among other skill sets and activities designed to be flexible for remote students during the pandemic.

“We [originally] had maybe 10 to 15 or so activities on our platform that were just about virtual connections between classrooms, but we doubled down on our content library and activities for teachers, so we now have 80-something activities on our platform,” he said of Empatico’s game-based lessons, created through partnerships with ed-tech developers like Kahoot! and Flipgrid. “Part of the new content we’ve built out was new content for middle school classrooms.”

Hardy noted the program connects classrooms through a matching algorithm, which uses information given by teachers about their classes, such as age range, grade level, location, course topics and lessons desired.

“Once teachers are matched, they get access to a shared dashboard with lesson plans they can use together to structure these connections between their classrooms, messaging features to communicate and lesson-plan together, and the built-in live video tools to use the video platform of their choice,” Hardy explained. “We currently have it built so that the matches are at least 300 miles away, which can still be in the same country ... but the algorithm prioritizes international matches and forges those international connections for cultural exchanges.”

Michael Dunlea, a second-grade teacher in New Jersey quoted on Empatico’s website, said tools like Empatico can teach children how to communicate respectfully and approach cultural differences with curiosity and open-mindedness.

“I think if students become engaged in some form of relationship with teachers and students from [different places around the world], this can help plant the seeds of being more open to people from different backgrounds, especially the more frequently they do it,” he said. “This is why it’s a great opportunity to develop a deeper, long-term relationship with other classrooms.”

Hardy said teaching children the importance of inclusion during their formative years is crucial to prepare them for a multicultural workforce later in life.

Though there are several other digital programs and tools for cultural exchange between K-12 classrooms, Hardy thinks Empatico is unique in the age range it serves, as well as its free registration for teachers worldwide.

“We think those skills are important to be a good person in the world, but also to succeed professionally,” he said of the program’s focus on SEL. “When kids enter the real world, they won’t be judged just by how well they did on tests, but on the quality of their character and their work. That’s why we think it’s so important to build out empathy as key skills.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.