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October 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 2

If Kids Ruled the World: ICONS

Through this computerized simulation, hundreds of high school “diplomats” from nearly 20 countries are negotiating international policy, gaining a grasp of global issues and a world of academic skills.

Even before the Information Superhighway became a household word, teachers and students from the regional sites of the University of Maryland's Project ICONS pioneered a curriculum that meets the challenges of a changing technological and world order.
Since it began in 1981, the project has grown to include 1,500 students a year at more than 55 colleges, universities, and secondary school programs. The schools are located in the United States as well as Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Venezuela.
What is Project ICONS? As the full name—International Communication and Negotiation Simulation—suggests, it is a computer-assisted simulation that casts students in the roles of diplomats and policymakers. Thrust into a laboratory of high-powered negotiations, they grapple with solutions to real and urgent international issues—world health, human rights, and the spread of nuclear weapons technology, for example.
A team from each participating school represents a particular country. Each exercise supports 20–30 country teams, with full control over the simulated events and developments. During the simulation, students are unaware of the true identities of their ICONS counterparts across the wires; even so, they form alliances and friendships in the name of national policy.

Nothing Fancy

The necessary technology at each site is quite simple. A participating team needs access to basic equipment: a computer, a modem, a printer, an ordinary telephone line, and communications and word processing software. Just as the Internet has e-mail and discussion groups, Project ICONS cleverly infuses these features into daily electronic activities. There are even electronic faculty rooms for the teachers involved, so that they may join teacher discussion groups to share ideas and concerns.
Although ICONS requires access to computer technology, it is not a curriculum about technology. Its skeletal, yet robust, simulation curriculum is based on the notion that students need to develop a greater awareness of the world order and alternative policy options. Students deepen their understanding of a wide range of topics in the social sciences.

Phase I: Country Research

During the first four to six weeks of class, students conduct research in preparation for formulating their national policies and defining their roles as statespersons. To launch the research, the University of Maryland distributes a simulation scenario that outlines the issues that will be the focus of the negotiations. Members of each school team then familiarize themselves with the country they represent and its pressing concerns, as well as the concerns of other country teams.
Students quickly become adept at using computers for research, and as they proceed, they tend to become more engaged. I recall with amazement the telephone call I received from a group of my second-semester seniors on their spring break. They were actually preparing for the simulation by doing research at the Library of Congress, having driven about 30 miles from Brandywine, Maryland. Often, students this age are the very ones who are difficult to motivate, and I feared they would be more so because our simulation exercise was to begin the first day after the break. Their heightened sense of meaningful enterprise was evident, however, and it increased as the simulation went on. With fingertip access to online card catalogs and reference materials, the students explained to one another how to use the library/media center in a different way to conduct online research. When using the Internet, they shopped at several information depots along the Superhighway, including the CIA database, the World Wide Web, gopher, and Archie (a program that locates files that are freely available on anonymous File Transfer Protocal—or FTP—sites across the Internet).

Phase 2: Negotiation

The second phase of the exercise, which lasts four weeks, involves the exchange of messages among country teams as they identify their country positions. Participants, as diplomats, communicate through teleconferencing. As negotiations proceed and students find their proposals accepted or rejected, they must continually reassess their national position, using new information introduced as the simulated world unfolds.
In a recent simulation involving 20 high school teams, students faced challenging questions, such as, Should the economic rights to food, shelter, and employment be protected? Do states have a right to determine who may settle in their borders? and How can nations that have not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty be encouraged to sign?
The students used specially designed software, called POLNET II, which acts as a message-handling system for approximately 2,000–3,000 message exchanges during a simulation. Because of the combined power and speed of the computer and communication, it seemed as though the messages were being exchanged locally in Prince George's County, Maryland, rather than globally. (Students in the U.S. may find that their counterparts in other high schools are actually 10,000 miles away.)
New messages—as many as 59—arrived each day of the simulation. The daily crush at the e-mail stack in our class was exceeded only by the line of eager fingers waiting at the computer terminal to respond to and influence world events. I discovered that students were voluntarily foregoing lunch to retrieve daily messages before class sessions. They quickly learned how to maximize the exchange of dialogue during the allotted time period.
Students' zeal and sense of awe increased as they learned that the students with whom they were negotiating actually were in Canada, Israel, or Japan. The broad scope of participation expanded students' perspectives. They gained an understanding of various cultural differences and national approaches to problem solving.

Phase 3: Reflection and Debriefing

Once the simulation ended in mid-May, a new challenge awaited us. In this portion of ICONS, students engage in reflection about their activities in the simulation. Then, in a final project, they apply this new learning to a different problem or to an extension activity. During the debriefing, we touched upon questions about the negotiating process, the interdependence of issues, and strategies used in decision making and negotiating. Students were asked to think about and write about their frustrations, their accomplishments, leadership, power struggles, and learning. Many had definite ideas about what they could have done differently to enhance the negotiations. As a teacher, I found it exciting to see them develop the ability to step back from the experience and look at the learning process.
Reluctant to abdicate their positions as “world leaders,” the students remained interested in using the computer for the daily exchange of ideas. On the off chance that there would be messages, they continued to log on through the last days of school. Many students remarked that it was one class they felt they could not miss, and the one class they wanted to stay in all day.

What Zealous Learners Learn

By testing students before and after the simulation, teachers were able to measure their knowledge of pertinent vocabulary and issues involved in the scenario. The students were asked to identify nuclear nonproliferation, declaration of human rights, deforestation, and other concepts. They learned these terms not through textbook or homework assignments, but because they needed to understand them to participate effectively in the exercise.
At the outset, no one could define nuclear nonproliferation or deforestation; by the end of the simulation, everyone was able to expound on the significance of these issues. Not coincidentally, at the start of the semester, students reported reading newspapers infrequently, with little or no interest in foreign affairs. When the simulation ended eight weeks later, they reported reading the newspaper five to seven times a week, exhibiting particular interest in foreign affairs. They also reported becoming regular readers of weekly news magazines. In class, their discussions of current events supported these self-reports.
Students also had an opportunity to analyze their own progress in conferences that were held 6–10 times during the simulation. During these one-hour periods, all participants had an opportunity to talk about the specific questions they had researched. From the immediate feedback they got, they derived a sense of meaning and accomplishment from their work that no teacher can provide. This is just one more way in which the exercises are based on student-centered, active learning. Teachers are facilitators.
Project ICONS is a program that enables every student to succeed: there is room for everyone's skill levels and interests. Not all students are good at computer protocols, but many are proficient in research. Some are unskilled keyboarders, but good writers. Some find their niche, then combine talents with other students whose abilities and interests complement their own.
ICONS encourages the use of communication and language skills, while combining authentic learning and technology. Today's fastest-growing occupations require employees to possess high-level language and reasoning capabilities, and one way to prepare students for this challenge is through this kind of nontraditional approach. Such an approach also enhances students' motivation and learning by giving them a sense of being a part of something that they perceive as important.

Kathleen L. Rottier has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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