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As schools have transitioned to remote or mixed instruction, students, teachers, and administrations have experienced barriers, including distractions, increased anxiety, and a lack of motivation. Nevertheless, instructors have remained committed to providing the same engaging teaching strategies, diversity of activities, and overall outcomes as face-to-face learning.

Our Virtual CAS Conferences were designed to support these efforts by allowing students to connect with their peers in a meaningful way and introducing a breath of fresh air to the student-teacher relationship. 

Working with international organizations to address global issues and inspire collaboration, we have carefully formatted the conferences to allow plenty of time for connection, discussion, and, of course, problem-solving. Our ultimate goal is to inspire young people and contribute to a brighter and more sustainable future for all. 

To shed additional light on how our Virtual CAS Conferences are experienced from a teacher’s perspective, we spoke with Danielle Van Rooyen who joined the 2020 Virtual CAS Conferences. Ms. Van Rooyen worked as CAS and Service Learning Coordinator at the Verdala International School in Cyprus for four years, and is currently completing her Master of Education in South Africa. 

“The conference provided real community-led Service opportunities.”

After many months of being deprived of physical interaction, it can be hard to get excited about another virtual event. Ms. Van Rooyen explained that she was both skeptical and curious going into the weekend, unsure of how it world work to collaborate in an online space and whether or not it would only feel like “going through the motions.”

Fortunately, her skepticism was swiftly overturned. As Ms. Van Rooyen explained, “I do have to say, the conference blew all my expectations out of the water! I love it when my skepticism is completely shut down and replaced by hope and enthusiasm. I experienced the authentic and human interactions being afforded to our students and particularly loved the community-led service component.”

Danielle explained that being from the global south, she has, at times, been wary of service projects and was happy to see the Virtual CAS Conference providing a solution that worked. “I know that CAS Trips focuses on building meaningful community partnerships, and I loved that the conference was able to both model and provide this for our students.”

“The hackathon was truly community organization-led, and for me, that was the highlight. Amidst all the great components—being exposed to workers in the field, discussing climate change—it was this aspect of community-led service that stood out.”

“Pedagogically, the huge plus was the real-life learning that happened.”

Online interaction is a skill that we have all had to cultivate this year. As organizations and learning institutions of all shapes and sizes have gone digital, it is crucial for students to have the chance to learn how to navigate these virtual spaces too, and our virtual conferences were designed for this purpose.

As Ms. Van Rooyen remarked, “It was wonderful to see students learning and using this fundamental skill of online collaboration to solve real-world problems for the participating organizations.”

“The structure was also great; having the academic and theoretical foundation laid in a real-world context on day one and then following with practical work on that foundation was excellent. It was great practice for the students!”

“I think that these experiences are vital for students during the pandemic.”

There has been an increased focus on mental wellbeing in many schools during the pandemic, as teachers seek to support their students and navigate the changes to lifestyle and learning. 

Ms. Van Rooyen observed the positive impact the Virtual Conference had on student participants, “I think meeting and interacting, working and completing projects with their peers was absolutely vital for students during this time. They were given a chance to engage academically, socially, and emotionally as they were made more aware of real-world problems and worked to create solutions to those problems.”

Practically, our virtual conferences have also helped fill in the gaps created by disruptions to the traditional education calendar. Ms. Van Rooyen remarked, “many of the students were able to fulfill actual requirements for their diplomas, changing university entrance requirements, or scholarships. If they hadn’t had this opportunity, that would have been more difficult.”

“I think this platform and particularly the way the conference was structured ensured that there was real connection.”

Not all virtual environments are created equal and, at times, they can feel sterile or contrived. We have worked hard to overcome the challenges of online interaction and facilitate a space where people can genuinely connect. When asked about her key takeaways from the conference, Ms. Van Rooyen concluded, “I was reminded of the necessity of real human interaction, real emotion, and how valuable it is to meet each other as human beings during this crazy time. The conference provided time to get to know each other through discussion and tackling important issues together. I’m thrilled to have been a part of it!”

A big thank you to Ms. Van Rooyen and all those who have helped make our Virtual CAS Conferences such a success thus far; you can learn more about the upcoming 2021 Virtual CAS Conferences here.