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October 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 2

Four Days That Changed the World (and other amazing Internet stories)

A remarkable electronic mail network links Utah's students with pen pals in Russia and around the world.

It is Monday, August 19, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Sixth graders Corey, Shannon, and Jennifer are in tears. Their key pals in Russia haven't communicated with them in days. The 1991 counterrevolution attempt in Moscow has stopped all information leaving the country.
Excitement and wonder had filled the previous months as almost daily electronic mail messages had communicated stories of daily life in the students' homelands. For example, Jennifer's amazement that Tatyana liked pizza, Nintendo, and cute boys, too, opened her eyes to the fact that a child on the other side of the globe shared similar feelings. And then there was Jennifer's and Corey's eagerness to plan with Sergei their goal to be the first astronaut/cosmonaut team to Mars—something their parents would have never thought possible.
But not all of the letters are lighthearted. Sometimes sharing a deep concern has made it easier to bear. For example, Shannon shared her fears with her friend Natasha about her dad's safety as a F-16 pilot in the Persian Gulf. Natasha, in turn, confided in Shannon her worries that her uncle might be wounded in Afghanistan.
Now the dialogue has been cut short. The dark days of the Soviet Union's crisis are their crisis, too. Suddenly the following e-mail message comes across their computer screen: Due to the militia revolution all the independent radio and TV stations are not working. I am not sure if this channel of information is disabled also.... We will send the details of the situation here as soon as we realize what happens. I am afraid that the time that comes will not be the best time in the history of our country.—Andrew Portnov, [the Soviet children's teacher] The children are elated! The message gives them hope. But what can they do to help? Jennifer suggests daily downloading of KSL TeleText 5 electronic mail news services and uploading to Moscow all the international events that pertain to the Soviet Union. This way, at least Andrew Portnov and his students can find out how the world is reacting—and maybe even communicate about what is happening inside Russia. Tuesday, August 20Moscow, Russia, U.S.S.R.Dear Children, Thank you. Thank you. We received your message with the news accounts. Please keep sending. We have translated the news into Russian, made copies, and passed them out to those in the streets supporting [Russian President Boris] Yeltsin against the KGB and the Army generals. The situation is quite fuzzy. The Army generals took power but the resistance of the people is high. And Yeltsin asks people not to obey the “new order.” I really hope the action of the KGB and Army will fail.... We have only one TV channel, and that is controlled by KGB.... It is a miracle that they forgot to cut our e-mail wires.—AndrewWednesday, August 21Moscow, Russia, U.S.S.R.We are so grateful to your words of help and daily news reports. We are listening to the independent Echo of Moscow radio, and we learn the news.... This night about 10 people were killed. People that went to Russia Government [to defend Yeltsin] have stopped troops attack. Several tanks were burned....Thursday, August 22Moscow, Russia, U.S.S.R.Thanks to God the junta's time is over! Thank you so much for your caring, daily news and prayers! We are very grateful to you. Now we are proud to be Russian. We are proud to have America as our friends!
The events of these four days may have taken place four years ago, but the former 6th graders who participated in them believe to this day that they helped change the course of Russia's history.

The World at the School Door

Utah has long been a leader in use of the Internet. In 1969, the University of Utah was one of the first four sites on the Internet. Our state is now a national focal point for high-tech companies, such as WordPerfect and Novell. Micron Technologies based its decision to locate a plant near Salt Lake City in part on the reputation of two highly advanced engineering schools, the Brigham Young University and the University of Utah.
Continued use of the Internet in our schools will accelerate the information flow and give Utah's schools the same opportunity to enjoy many of the resources available to our universities. This access is especially important for our children as they find themselves involved in international events, such as Salt Lake City's hosting of the 2002 Winter Olympics!
As principal of three elementary schools in Utah over the past eight years, I have seen the incredible learning that is possible through the Internet. One amazing tool accessible through this network is WorldClassroom, a global electronic information service that has helped us bring the world to our schools. In addition to the Russian example, our students have communicated with children in countries that include Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Iceland, Indonesia, Kenya, Lithuania, Mexico, Singapore, Taiwan, the Netherlands, and Zimbabwe.
When the war in the Persian Gulf began, students at Hillview Elementary in Salt Lake City were very frightened. Our school was near several military installations, where many of our students' parents, relatives, and close friends worked. As the children shared their concerns with their key pals around the globe, they received many questions about the war.
To help answer them, we received permission from the public affairs officer at Hill Air Force Base for our students to send questions from children around the world over the Air Force's telecommunication lines to Air Force Command headquarters in Saudi Arabia. Front line pilots and officers, in turn, transmitted answers through WorldClassroom. Although these transmission lines were closed to major news services, our school was fortunate to have direct access. All the news services had to wait for briefings from General Colin Powell!
When our 4th graders in the Granite School District began communicating via e-mail with the 4th graders of Warmbrook Elementary in Chapel-en-le-Frith, Derbyshire, England, they learned to think beyond their own experience. For example, the English students asked our children how old Salt Lake City is. Our 4th graders answered proudly, “Salt Lake City is very old. It was settled in 1847! How old is your town?” Back via satellite e-mail came the reply: “Chapel-en-le-Frith was settled by the Normans. The name means `chapel in the forest.' The chapel our town was built around was constructed in 1225.”
Our students were practically speechless. Elementary children, being egocentric and ethnocentric at this stage of their cognitive development, think the world revolves around them. As one child exclaimed in disbelief, “How can that be? The whole world didn't even begin until 1492!”
Then, when freighter ship Captain Gary Schmidt left port in San Francisco for Japan and Hong Kong, students at Hillview Elementary read his daily log uploaded to the electronic Information Superhighway. As they plotted the daily latitude and longitude of his journey, he communicated to them his thrilling accounts of whale migrations, the eerie glow of bioluminescence on the sea at night, and why true seamen never eat fish! (Seafarers, unlike people who fish the seas for profit, have a reverence for their finned friends.)
And in a project called “It's Not My Fault!” students around the world plotted the frequency of earthquakes globally. Imagine their amazement when our students and their peers in sister schools in the Bay area predicted the San Francisco earthquake within two weeks of its occurrence!

It Is a Small World After All

Of course, all of this does have a cost. Cost varies with the services provided and the speed of the connection. The simplest connection might provide service for one computer to a school for approximately the price of a phone line and $10 to $30 per month. The high end of access to the Internet might provide service to 50–100 users at a time for thousands of dollars in installation costs and up to $2,000 per month in operating fees.
The costs, however, need to be weighed against the benefits. Having access to the Internet dramatically changes teaching and learning. Here's an example of what students can accomplish in a day.
At Hillsdale Elementary, 10-year-olds Sara and Tamara and 12-year-old Jennifer were surfin' the Net. Tamara swept the mouse at dazzling speeds, as she and her friends clicked into pictures of the American History exhibit at the Smithsonian. Next, they communicated with astronauts on board the Space Shuttle on NASA's SpaceLink. Then they printed off copies of maps of Boston, Massachusetts, from the Internet's “Virtual Tourist” for Sara's social studies report. They finished the day by talking to their e-mail key pals in London and Phoenix live on the Internet phone. They did all this without leaving their desks and for the insignificant price of a local phone call. The only required equipment was a 386 (or above) computer, a modem, Windows software, and phone access to the Internet.


Did the four days in 1991 during which our 6th graders communicated with a Russian class change the course of history? Are they in some small way responsible for keeping Boris Yeltsin in power? Incidentally, we later found out that Andrew Portnov, the Russian students' teacher, had published information transmitted by our students in an underground newspaper that supported Yeltsin. Who knows?
We do know that the episode dramatically changed the students' views of the world in which they live. And, every day in classrooms around the world, thanks to the wonderful world of technology, other students are participating in experiences that may not change the world but will, at the least, transform their own lives.
End Notes

1 The local CBS affiliate has an Internet address that updates current news around the world every few hours.

2 A major concern of public and private educators is the issue of cybersex and unacceptable information on the Internet. Educators and Internet providers need to work together to screen unwanted material from children while maintaining adequate content.

3 A major concern of public and private educators is the issue of cybersex and unacceptable information on the Internet. Educators and Internet providers need to work together to screen unwanted material from children while maintaining adequate content.

Paul J. McCarty has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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