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October 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 2

Connecting Classrooms Through Telecommunications

A global network, I*EARN allows K–12 students to work on joint social and environmental projects concerning issues of international importance.

Maria lives in a village in Nicaragua, about 30 miles from the capital city of Managua. Although only 10, Maria has seen many children die from water-borne diseases contracted after drinking out of contaminated wells. If the village had about $300 to build a simple pump, its residents could have clean water. But money is scarce. So instead of going to school, Maria spends her days walking to another village 8 kilometers away to bring back clean drinking water for her family.
Thousands of miles away in Orondo, Washington, a 2nd grader named Ken learns of Maria's predicament via a message on the Internet sent by I*EARN. Soon he's paying 25 cents to crawl through a haunted house made of cardboard boxes, part of his school's efforts to help raise money for the much-needed water pump. Elementary, middle, and high school students in New Mexico, Texas, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Barcelona, Spain, take up the challenge as well and soon are sponsoring spaghetti dinners, selling coloring books, and holding plant sales to raise money.
Eventually, the students' entrepreneurial efforts generate $10,500—enough money to build pumps for 24 villages. They send their contributions to a not-for-profit agency in Nicaragua and, in return, receive a letter from Maria via the Internet access node in Managua. She thanks Ken and her other new friends, tells them about her country, and notes that she not only has clean water to drink but also has returned to school.
In the meantime, teachers at some of the schools have begun to incorporate information on Nicaragua into their geography and social studies lessons. Others are teaching Spanish or asking their classes to write essays on Central America and share them, via e-mail, with students at distant schools. Some classes even discuss what they've learned during video teleconferences that connect different countries and regions.

Current Events

Although it may seem like a futuristic scenario, this story is true. It happened during the 1993–94 school year through a project sponsored by I*EARN (the International Education and Resource Network), a global telecommunications network that currently links more than 1,000 schools in 25 countries ranging from China to Uruguay, from Kenya to Korea.
Students and teachers alike tap into I*EARN to participate in environmental, community development, and service projects linked to their curricular needs. For instance, students in science classes have taken measurements of ultraviolet radiation and compiled a global report; an annual teacher/student trip to Poland and Israel ties into an I*EARN project focusing on the Holocaust and genocide studies; and children in a Bosnian refugee camp have been able to communicate with students in four countries thanks to a network-sponsored relief project.
I*EARN grew out of The New York State/Moscow School Telecommunications Project, which the nonprofit Copen Family Fund launched in 1988. The project's goal: to help students living in a Cold War world work collaboratively on social and environmental problems. Together with the New York State Department of Education and the Soviet Academy of Sciences, the Copen Family Fund linked 12 schools in Moscow with 12 in New York via e-mail, teleconferences (using low-cost, video-speaker phones), and physical exchanges of students and teachers.
The three-year program resulted in newspapers jointly produced by Russian and American students; joint anthologies of writing, art, and poetry; a joint Treaty of Deforestation (which the students presented to the World Court in 1990); and a guide for Soviet-American joint ventures. Additionally, more than 500 Russian and American children traveled to one another's country for home stays.

Solutions through Shared Experiences

Although the Cold War has since ended, the need for students to improve their intercultural awareness and understanding of international events has grown stronger. With more than 35,000 children dying of hunger and related diseases each day, with more than 100 acres of rain forest disappearing every minute, and with the world's population predicted to double and surpass 10 billion by the middle of the 21st century, people everywhere are affected.
If today's students learn that they can make a meaningful difference in the health and welfare of people around the world—and work together in the process—they'll be better prepared to handle the challenges they'll encounter as adults. I*EARN supports that goal by providing youth the opportunity to collaborate on projects as part of the educational process.
“The 21st century is a century for people of the world to work together,” believes Zheng Zhou, a former I*EARN student from Beijing, China, who currently attends Dartmouth College. I*EARN helped me learn to present Chinese students to the world and come to understand better about what is happening worldwide and how people from other countries feel about it. This better perception of the world and its people will help me significantly in the future as I work with people from different backgrounds.
Kristin Lucas, a student at Cold Spring Harbor High School in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, notes that her foray into the world of telecommunications has spanned six continents and brought her into contact with students at many age levels. We have discussed topics that affect many teens, from gender bias and AIDS to child abuse and eating disorders. I*EARN has provided me, and thousands of students, with a forum through which we can discuss our views and concerns.
Clearly, student participants have learned more than just academic skills. The excitement of applying their classroom work to the real world and doing something relevant for others has enhanced their attitude toward learning itself. Thanks to telecommunications, the barriers between the developing world and the developed world have fallen down and opened the way to a global community.
And what of their teachers? They've discovered new ways for students to learn experientially and thus more effectively, have come to see themselves more as facilitators of learning and less as storehouses of information, and have rekindled their enthusiasm for teaching through a new outlook on education.

Getting Real

For learning to become real, I*EARN must become part of the ongoing educational process. That's why students working in collaboration with their teachers design and implement network projects, which fall into four subject areas: (1) science, the environment, and math; (2) social studies, economics, history, and political science; (3) arts and literature; and (4) interdisciplinary studies.
  • At Cold Spring Harbor High School, students can enroll in the Public Affairs Seminar, an independent study elective that focuses on I*EARN and telecommunications in general. They have the opportunity to create their own telecommunications projects or join existing ones, earning social studies credit in the process. In addition to meeting weekly with a faculty member who monitors their progress and provides problem-solving advice, students must keep detailed logs of their work, write an end-of-semester report of their accomplishments, and, during the seminar phase of the course, discuss their project with other seminar students.One of the I*EARN projects produced at Cold Spring Harbor High School is a publication called The Contemporary. “The articles, which are authored by students from around the world, serve as excellent classroom resources,” says David Egan, a social studies teacher. The articles “give students a chance to see how their peers in some of the more troubled locales in our world are affected by what is happening in those countries.” The Contemporary, for example, has run articles on the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, the demise of the USSR, and the peace process in the Middle East.Egan adds that the electronic network has also proven a valuable resource for students working on research papers: Students have learned a great deal about such issues as neo-Nazism, discrimination, youth violence, child abuse, poverty, and hunger through contact with teens who have personal experience with these problems. The firsthand, anecdotal input received through telecommunications is used to supplement and enliven the information gathered through traditional library research.
  • Although Broadford Secondary College in Broadford, Australia, has limited computer resources, teacher Andrew Hocking likes to think of its curriculum as unlimited because of participation in I*EARN. In his classrooms, Hocking notes, 15- and 16-year-olds argue about revisionist theories and hate crimes.... They exchange ideas with a national director of CARE Australia as easily and as confidently as they may with their friend in the next math class.Members of Broadford's student telecommunications team also gain management experience, adds Hocking. They are responsible for reporting to staff mentors and other students about the projects they coordinate. This generates a very different feel from the traditional empty `vessel' relationship between staff and students.
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  • Students who study Russian at Brighton High School in Rochester, New York, regularly correspond via e-mail with students in Moscow. This real-world application of textbook learning not only enhances language skills, says teacher Jane Shuffleton, but also serves as a history lesson for American and Russian students alike. The latter “still are in the process of redefining all their attitudes toward society, government, [and] culture,” she explains. Students in Moscow—and teachers—have been forced to analyze current events in order to discuss issues raised by their American correspondents. Being asked to think about current events and express opinions on political situations represents a distinctly new approach to education.At the same time, American students are used to expressing their thoughts and opinions with complete freedom. It brought them face to face with the demand to rethink American democracy in the context of the sobering trauma of a people experiencing economic collapse. In 1993, for example, Shuffleton's students found out how their Moscow correspondents felt about teetering on the edge of civil war, with tanks occupying city streets and the parliament building under siege. Some of her class subsequently sent e-mail to President Clinton, expressing their concerns about the future of democracy in Russia.

Helping Ideas Take Flight

Statistically speaking, the power of a youth-oriented global telecommunications network has been clearly demonstrated by UNICEF. Wishing to have the voices of children heard at the recent World Conference on Poverty and Hunger, UNICEF worked with I*EARN and other networks to collect messages from around the world. In just six weeks, more than 3,100 messages poured in from children in 81 countries.
It's more difficult to assess the effect on the individual children participating in this global network. Who can estimate how they may think differently about themselves and about their ability to make a meaningful difference in the world? Eran Lahav, a former I*EARN student at ORT Maalot High School in Israel, describes his experience this way: The I*EARN project for me was an amazing mixture of new ideas, international connections, advanced technology, but most important, the human side of computers. It helped me understand others better, and, at the same time, work on projects that made a real contribution to the world. Lahav, who vividly recalls typing e-mail messages in between missile attacks during the Gulf War, is now the technical director of OrtNet, the ORT Israel telecommunication network.
In a sense, I*EARN is a pointer to what is possible—for both children and for the global community they will one day have responsibility for. It's not unlike the first manned flight in 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina; that's when the Wright Brothers shifted the paradigm of flight from “we can't” to “we can.” Yet for all its significance, that first flight lifted only 10 feet off the ground, went a distance of only 120 feet, and lasted for only 12 seconds.
So, as small as they may seem now, attempts to apply technology to education have the potential to help students fly high. As more schools take up the challenge and link students through telecommunications networks, they'll inevitably transform the Kitty Hawk into a propeller-driven aircraft, a jet airplane, and, eventually, a space shuttle.

Peter Copen has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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