Oct 11 2007

Around the World with Technology

Collaboration has taken on new depths in education these days -- children have the capability to visit and work on homework together despite an ocean or two between them.

We’ve come a long way from e-mail, baby.

Today, that’s just a starting point for the students at Memorial Middle School in Laconia, N.H. Students in Larry Frates’ integrated arts class first create a theme-based postcard to upload to an online gallery at iEarn’s Collaboration Center, and then choose someone from another country who has posted a similar project on a theme the U.S. student likes.

That’s the pen pal level of a project that has become known as Eye to Eye.

But Frates then contacts the head master of a particular school in the predominantly chosen country to propose a joint project. Possibilities range from an exchange of hard art exhibits to video cards and full-blown video conferences. A few years ago, his students electronically shared breakfast with their colleagues in India who were eating dinner — a few months later, the New Hampshire kids ate dinner with their Indian pals chowing down on breakfast.

Of course, the lessons aren’t all about cultural awareness and technology. It takes a bit of math skill to set these conferences up with the time zones, too, Frates says with a laugh.

The Making of a Trend

The international partnership concept has worked so well in his classroom, Frates has paired with Partners of the Americas, the Monarch Butterfly Foundation and the Rain Forest Alliance on similar activities. That doesn’t surprise the officials at the Global SchoolNet Foundation in San Diego. International collaboration has been its focus for 23 years, so it’s not the idea but the technology that has caught on, assures Yvonne Andres, executive director and co-founder of the organization.

One of her longest-running projects involves students establishing a cyber fair about their communities, then evaluating each other’s submissions in the contest. “A lot of students create digital content,” she points out, “but they don’t get feedback on what they did right and wrong or whether it was effective. Teachers tell us often the evaluation piece is more valuable as far as achievement and learning than the actual creation.”

Collaborations at Global SchoolNet range from electronic appearances with special guests, mentoring, basic information exchanges, a joint database creation, live exhibitions, parallel problem solving, social action, electronic publishing — the choice is up to the classroom teacher’s discretion. According to Ed Gragert, executive director of iEARN-USA, his organization has at least 2 million students with 150 to 200 projects in progress at any given time. Some involved five countries, others weigh in with 100 countries.

“Obviously teachers are facilitating and monitoring the projects, but the idea is that students will learn best if they learn with other kids. We go beyond the ‘Let’s learn about China.’ Instead, we have students work with Chinese students on an environmental or literary project. It’s learning with the world instead of about the world,” says Gragert.

The results are the same no matter the technology route. “Mass collaboration will change the way we learn, the way we do business, the way we live our lives,” Andres says. “No longer is it possible for an individual to learn everything they need to. Nor can they rely on a group as teachers used to lean on their staff or their department or professional society. Today you need to be part of a network and the information coming to you needs to be organized in a way to glean the most important data.”

Success Markers

Tackling language barriers remains sticky. iEARN offers an online platform that can accept any written language in the world, but it’s up to the team of educators leading a project to find a translation source. In some cases, the foreign language department at a high school will chip in to translate. Others use software programs to translate, which are reliable to convey the gist of the message if not the complete context.

Yet despite the hurdles, the results are visible. “Webcasts, videoconferencing, streaming — it’s all an enabler,” says Joanne Tawfilis, founding executive director of Art Miles Mural Project headquartered in Oceanside, Calif. “Today’s youth loves to communicate with each other.”

Gragert’s research reveals that the pioneer participants in iEARN show a higher degree of interest in reading newspapers, and more of these students pick up books by international authors. Enrollment in language classes shot up, too. And a large number of students they tracked down now work in a career that is depending on international connections.

“We are finding that our kids go on to high school knowing how to conference, how to use cameras and make video,” says Frates. Consequently, underclassmen have the prerequisites to take courses previously reserved for juniors and seniors. “What we’re really teaching is visual literacy. When it comes to 21st-century skills, that’s an area that is being overlooked. But images will play a bigger role in our future world than we realize,” he adds. “My students will be prepared.”