The first thing that I should mention is that PenPalSchools is made for teachers, by teachers. It hopes to make itself accessible to classrooms without financial support and so use of it is free; donations, however, are appreciated.
PenPalSchools is a Learning Management System (LMS) style tool. It allows participating teachers to manage the exchange from a central homepage. This is nice because there may be some concern about student participation, and even the maturity students may have when communicating with strangers from other parts of the world. Teachers can monitor exchanges and even delete messages if need be.
In addition, all of the work associated with developing a platform for intercultural exchange (such as coming up with topics for conversation, creating question prompts, and providing a forum for discussion) is done by PenPalSchools.
For English language learners, using the PenPalSchools curriculum is like having an interactive intensive reading curriculum which comes with a learning partner from another country. Even reading levels can be selected (Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced).
Last Fall, I tried PenPalSchools with two groups of students. My students were paired with a group of American high school students. Not all of the American students were active participants, unfortunately, but those who did participate seemed genuinely interested. I think my Japanese students who had an active pen pal enjoyed the interactions they had with those students.
I was hoping to conduct a little empirical research, and so I gave my students a questionnaire before and after the exchange in order to measure any changes in intercultural sensitivity they experienced as a result of the exchange. It turned out that after only a six-week exchange, many of my students experienced measurable increases in intercultural sensitivity. Specifically they lost a bit of ethnocentrism, and gained a bit of confidence with their ability to communicate with those from another culture.
While the program is not yet flawless, it continues to undergo updates and changes which seems to improve it at each iteration. The latest update added: an interactive map which lets you see where other classrooms are located; the ability to create multiple classes for exchange; and, improved monitoring features.
The benefits this program provided my students in terms of intercultural development and opportunity to use written English for authentic communication outweighed any of the challenges associated with using a program still in development. I plan on using PenPalSchools again, and am excited to see how the program will grow and develop.