Laughter and lively chatter: How virtual classrooms are linking students in Australia and South-East Asia


Christine Holgate, board chair of the Australian-ASEANCouncil

By Christine Holgate, Board Chair of the Australia-ASEAN Council

The Australia-ASEAN Council was formed by the Hon Julie Bishop, Minister for Foreign Affairs in September 2015 to foster closer cultural and trade links between Australia and the 10 countries in ASEAN. Supported by DFAT, the council  oversees the distribution of a grant program to support its objectives.

Recently, during a visit to Thailand, I had a unique opportunity to visit a school in Bangkok which is engaged in a learning partnership with an Australian school.

It was truly insightful to learn firsthand what a significant contribution the program was making to the development of the school.  One teacher told me the program had taught him to think differently, he now respected the process of debate and democracy and that he now saw his job as a teacher as so important in the coaching and development of so many young people – it was very inspiring.  Later I had the chance to witness the enthusiasm of the students as they participated in a professionally-run online classroom, engaging with laughter and lively chatter with their school counterparts in Australia.  It was evident that these teachers and students were not just sharing knowledge, they were building friendships and relationships which will reap benefits in many more years to come.

Australian school students talking online with students in Thailand
Canberra school teacher Sheikh Faisal (left) with Hawker College students chat live with students in Thailand through the Australia-ASEAN BRIDGE program. Photo credit: DFAT/Linda Roche.

This school partnership is just one of a network of 36 similar projects, known as BRIDGE, which are being established between Australia and the member countries of ASEAN under the auspices of the Australia-ASEAN Council (AAC) with the cooperation of the Asia Education Foundation, a wonderful group of people enhancing Australia’s education linkages with Asia.

I cannot emphasise how important it is to encourage Australian children from an early age to have an awareness of the world they live in, especially in the Indo-Pacific region.  It enhances their understanding and acceptance of the ethnic and cultural diversity of the countries neighbouring Australia, and how we have a common humanity and shared experience.  This will not only aid their personal development and contribution to society, it will also help equip them with important skills needed to build stronger trading relationships for Australia.

And, of course, it has an equal impact on communities overseas, opening their eyes to Australian culture, values and our way of life.

Last November, I met with the Secretary of Education of the Republic of the Philippines, the inspiring septuagenarian Ms Leonor Briones, discussing the importance of these programs in expanding the horizons of our young people. Just as ASEAN in its 50 years since founding in 1967 has promoted peace and harmony for its member countries – with associated strong economic and social impacts – so will programs like ASEAN BRIDGE help to build our relations with the countries of South-East Asia.

It is a truism to say that education is a great enabler.  But the experience of our Council, and the other bilateral councils, institutes and foundations established under the Minister for Foreign Affairs the Hon Julie Bishop MP, is that these programs are effective.  Consider the New Colombo Plan, which is enhancing the awareness of young Australians of Asia, and the recently created Australia Global Alumni community bringing thousands of young people together through shared educational interests.

The AAC this year is adding to this productive mix with an Australia-ASEAN Emerging Leaders Program (A2ELP) in association with Asialink at the University of Melbourne.  A2ELP will focus on developing talented leaders in the field of social entrepreneurship, people who are tackling issues such as poverty, disability and environmental degradation in bold, creative ways.

Through a series of workshops implemented by the Melbourne Accelerator Program at Carlton Connect, and continued online and face-to-face mentoring to create sustainable linkages, A2ELP aims to build a regional network of social entrepreneurs for the future.

I feel immensely privileged to lead a board of talented and distinguished Australians who bring a wealth of experience, creativity and dedication to promoting Australia’s interests in South East Asia.  Together we aim to make a difference, to strengthen those linkages across many fields of endeavour, and to forge understanding between Australia and the countries of South East Asia.

The 2017-18 grant rounds are now open for the AAC and other DFAT Foundations, Councils and Institutes.  These small grants are designed to open doors for Australians engaging overseas in business, innovation and science, women in leadership, education, the arts, media and sport. 

If you have a promising idea for a joint project with a partner in Asia, the Arab World or Latin America, have a look at the DFAT website for more information.


Christine Holgate has over 29 years of international sales and marketing experience and has held numerous board and senior management positions, working in Europe, Asia, the Americas and Australia. She is a Non-Executive Director for Ten Network. Ms Holgate was awarded the 2011 International Executive Study Scholarship by Chief Executive Women and the Women’s Leadership Institute Australia, and was honoured with the Rotary Paul Harris Award in 2013.

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