Oct 12 2006

Technology Networks Connect Students Around the World

Networks and the Web link students from opposite sides of the globe, enabling them to discover that they have a lot in common.

For many of us, our cars are our home away from home. They provide shelter and climate control. They provide music and, in some cases, movies. The models, accessories and colors we choose are often an expression of our values and style. But the real power of a car comes from its connection with the road. A car can take us places we would never reach by foot.

The same holds true for technology and education. For instance, word processing applications help students efficiently convey their ideas in writing. Graphics software lets them express their visions. Databases help students store and organize their information.

But one of the unsung benefits of educational technology comes from its connection with other computers. The Internet is the highway of educational technology that can transport students to places they never knew existed.

The usefulness of a network equals the square of the number of users, according to Metcalfe’s Law, which was developed by 3Com founder Robert Metcalfe. It’s like the telephone. If only a few people had one, it would simply be a novelty. But because most people have them, telephones have become invaluable tools in society. The same is true for technology networks: the more people who access them, the more useful they become.

Bridging Vast Divides

By bringing together students from around the world, the network can, in effect, bring to life lessons about distant places, people and cultures.

Take Dorothy. The 10-year-old from the Evergreen School in Shoreline, Wash., says that if she could visit any place in the world, it would be Kenya. Who better to teach Dorothy about the land of her dreams than Mariam, a 13-year-old student who lives in Kenya and longs to visit the United States?

Without networked technology, chances are very good that Mariam and Dorothy would never know the other existed. However, thanks to Web projects that connect students worldwide through interactive digital storytelling, they’re just a click away from each other.

Web-based geography projects, tools and sites can help students solve problems together across political, economic, geographic and cultural boundaries. For instance, children in schools from California to Tibet can understand community challenges that cross geographic boundaries.

One such challenge involves the importance of clean water. With the help of global connections among students, this issue comes to life. So, when students learn about water’s effect on ancient civilizations, they aren’t just reading about long-dead people in a textbook. By crafting their own stories and listening to those of other students, they can see the dangers of polluting the same rivers that have nourished communities for thousands of years. Such projects help personalize school curricula, says BiHoa Caldwell, principal at Aki Kurose Middle School in Seattle.

Creating multimedia presentations that must translate across cultural barriers teaches students research and critical thinking skills. They learn how to develop complex ideas and make coherent arguments to defend those hypotheses, says Caldwell.

“The Web opens up all kinds of possibilities for sharing information,” she adds. “It makes students’ work more pertinent to them. It gets them out of their immediate situation so they can see things from another perspective.”

“Using the Internet transports students from a 10-year-old textbook to the real world,” adds Scott Price, the education technology administrator at Glendale Unified School District in California. “Interacting with students from around the globe helps students connect classwork to issues that really mean something to them.”

Making Local Connections

Even local area networks (LANs) can transform learning. Before the Le Roy Central School District in Le Roy, N. Y., got its LAN, there wasn’t much sharing between classrooms or even between students in the same classroom. But now that students and teachers can access common folders on the network, collaboration has become a central part of the curriculum, says Debby Baker, Le Roy’s technology director.

For instance, when Le Roy’s second-graders were working on research reports about animals, students could see each other’s works in progress in the shared project folder and make connections. That helped them understand how their animals fit into the animal kingdom, instead of just focusing on the animals as entities unto themselves.

The possibilities increase with the Internet, Baker adds. A class studying cathedrals can go online and see the Vatican. Students in the rural upstate town of Le Roy, many of whom have never ventured past Rochester, can take a virtual tour of Times Square in New York City. “They can even walk through an Egyptian tomb,” Baker says. “We’re shrinking the world.”

Learning for Life

Education networks also can provide students with easy access to learning resources. These resources are valuable under normal circumstances, but they become crucial during an emergency. Just ask educators in Hong Kong.

Between March and June 2003, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic forced local schools to close their doors. But thanks to Hong Kong Education City, an e-learning portal, 1 million students from 1,300 schools in Hong Kong were able to continue their learning.

Classes continued via the program’s videoconferencing Internet classrooms and its Web portal. The portal contains information, resources, forums and services, such as Web hosting and online publishing tools.

During the quarantine, Web cameras allowed students to see teachers as they discussed their assignments. And online chat tools let them carry on real-time conversations. The portal also served as a virtual blackboard, enabling teachers to outline lessons as students followed along at home.

The benefits of networks aren’t limited to students. By connecting online, teachers from around the world can share classroom strategies, free of the time and financial constraints of physical classes and conferences.

The cost of networking, an important factor for budget-crunched schools, is miniscule compared to the number of students who can connect online.

Across the globe, the network effect continues to grow exponentially. Teachers everywhere should be guiding their students through the limitless educational possibilities of the World Wide Web. It’s the ultimate road trip.

Marina Leight is the director of the Center for Digital Education in Folsom, Calif. The center works to support the deployment of digital solutions in schools and colleges and to improve the educational experience for students of all ages.

Children Online: A Growth Spurt

Children and teenagers (from age 2 to 17) are the fastest growing group of Internet users, according to several recent surveys.

1. The number of individuals in this age group who use an Internet-connected computer at home increased 68 percent from 2000 to 2002, according to research by Grunwald Associates for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).
Connected in 2000: 46%
Connected in 2002: 78%

2. The under-18 age group accounted for nearly 20 percent of the online population in 2002, Neilsen-Netratings reported.

3. Schoolwork is the most common online activity among Internet users age 5 to 17, according to an October 2003 report from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Completing school assignments: 72%
E-mail or instant messaging: 65%
Playing games: 62%
News/weather/sports: 37%
Finding information on products: 34%

4. One in five children log onto the Internet at home every day for school-related activities, says the CPB report, “Connected to the Future.” Perhaps most remarkably, in the 13 to 17 age group, use of digital media, such as offline computers and video games, exceeded television viewing by an average of about 24 minutes a day.