Bring Intercultural Encounters into Classrooms: IECC Electronic Mailing Lists

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The traditional U.S. classroom has four very strong, very permanent walls. While there may be occasional opportunities for field trips or other out-of-class activities, most formal learning takes place within these confines.

However, it is now becoming possible to expand these walls to encompass not just other classes at your school, other schools in your city, your state, or even your country, but to classrooms in, for example, Israel, Finland, Thailand and the Czech Republic.

Though international and intercultural e-mail encounters are no substitute for study-abroad and person-to-person cross-cultural experiences, they can play a powerful role in bringing such encounters into the classroom. The rapid growth of electronic mail now allows us to connect with others in a community of over 35 million people in 170 countries.

Introduction

In the summer of 1992, St. Olaf College psychology professor Bruce Roberts began thinking about ways to increase intercultural contact in his Cross-Cultural Psychology class. We talked with colleagues at universities abroad and sent requests to several electronic mailing lists in search of teachers interested in linking their students with ours via electronic mail.

Finally, shortly before the school year began, we found two partner classrooms in Japan. Students exchanged e-mail with their partners twice a week, sharing experiences, stories and opinions on social and cultural issues.

For example, members of one partner school, Waseda University, related to our students their impressions of President Clinton's speech to them at their university; others discussed gun control, a special concern after the then-recent shooting of a Japanese exchange student in Louisiana. Although some students were initially apprehensive about using e-mail, by the end of the term, most felt the process had been helpful and fun.

Since then, e-mail use on the St. Olaf campus has exploded; in recent years, e-mail has become a part of over 130 of our classes. Some faculty use it for out-of-class discussions or to distribute and collect assignments; others use international penpal-style partnerships to incorporate perspectives from Japan, Thailand, Mexico, Australia and Hong Kong. Spanish and Japanese language courses shared letters and practiced language skills with native speakers. We are now working with a university professor in Thailand on a writing project, linking her English students with Expository Writing students at St. Olaf.

Developing the IECC Mailing Lists

While we were pleased with the success of our initial e-mail partnership efforts with the two Japanese schools, we were eager to expand our partnerships to include classrooms in other countries.

Realizing that our difficulty in finding partner classes abroad for e-mail exchanges must not be unique, in October, 1993, Roberts, fellow psychology professor Howard Thorsheim, and I created an electronic mailing list specifically aimed at helping teachers "connect" with their colleagues in other countries for classroom e-mail exchanges. Although our primary intent was to assist college and university faculty in building classroom e-mail partnerships, we were pleasantly surprised to also see a great deal of interest by K-12.

In its first week, the International E-Mail Classroom Connections (IECC) mailing list received over 200 subscription requests from the U.S., Canada, Saudi Arabia, Finland, the Netherlands, Mexico, Italy and Australia. In the same one-week period, we distributed over 50 postings from people in search of partner classrooms.

Initially, we named the mailing list International E-Mail Classroom Connections but soon realized the word "international" did not accurately represent the intercultural nature of the links people were making within the U.S.: rural schools linking up with city schools, Chicago suburban schools connecting with schools in the southwestern U.S., for example.

As the list matured, we renamed it Intercultural E-Mail Classroom Connections and split it into three components: IECC, IECC-PROJECTS and IECC-DISCUSSION. In 1995 we added a branch focused on higher education (IECC-HE) and one devoted to student-generated surveys (IECC-SURVEYS).

What Each List Targets

IECC is for teachers at primary and secondary levels seeking partner classrooms for international and cross-cultural electronic mail exchanges.

IECC-HE is for teachers in higher education seeking partner classrooms for such e-mail exchanges.

IECC-PROJECTS is for teachers at all levels to announce and request help with specific, e-mail based classroom projects. Projects already announced on the list include: developing a book of international p'etry, an ethnic recipe collection and a shared school newspaper; sharing thoughts on what friendship means in different cultures; discussing dating and marriage customs of different countries; compiling a collection of A Day in the Life of classrooms worldwide; holding a global track-and-field competition; and more.

IECC-SURVEYS is for students and teachers seeking assistance on short-term projects, "requests for greetings," surveys and questionnaires.

IECC-DISCUSSION is for general discussion about questions, issues and observations related to using e-mail in cross-cultural classroom partnerships.

Subscribing to IECC Mailing Lists As of July 1, 1995, more than 3,800 teachers from 42 countries were represented on at least one of the IECC mailing lists. Subscribe to any of the IECC mailing lists by sending an e-mail message containing the word subscribe to the appropriate address below. You will then receive instructions on making your own requests for partner classrooms. IECC
iecc-request@stolaf.edu
IECC-HE
iecc-he-request@stolaf.edu
IECC-PROJECTS
iecc-projects-request@stolaf.edu
IECC-SURVEYS
iecc-surveys-request@stolaf.edu
IECC-DISCUSSION
iecc-discussion-request@stolaf.edu

Archive of Past Postings

Archives of all postings to the IECC mailing lists are available through Gopher and on the World Wide Web. You may either view the messages in the archives sequentially or search the archive for keywords. The URL for IECC is: http://www.stolaf.edu/network/iecc.html

IECC information on St. Olaf's Gopher Server is reachable by following your local "Other Gophers and Information Servers" menu to (in descending order):

North America
USA
Minnesota
St. Olaf College
Internet Resources
St. Olaf Sponsored Mailing Lists
Intercultural-Email-Classroom-Connections

Academic Outcomes of IECC

We look at electronic mail from many perspectives; some may think of e-mail as a technology, concentrating on the machines, wires and software that make it work. What is more helpful to us as educators, however, is to look at e-mail simply as a way to communicate with other people. Just as the telephone must have been unfamiliar and complicated when it was first introduced, today we make phone calls without a second thought. Soon, people will think of and use electronic mail in the same manner.

While we had very specific thoughts on how e-mail could be used in the cross-cultural psychology classroom, we wondered what other general academic functions e-mail classroom connections could serve.

We used the IECC-DISCUSSION mailing list to help us find answers to the question: "What do you feel are appropriate academic goals, aims, or functions of intercultural e-mail classroom connections?" Most of the responses, summarized below, probably would result from any type of intercultural experience, not just one using electronic mail. This reinforces to us the power of e-mail to bring people together in a personal, immediate and meaningful way.

Understand "Different" Cultures
When we interact with people from another culture, we learn what "other" people tend to do and think about. We learn what they have created, what they are proud of, and what they are concerned about. We put names, faces, feelings and personal characteristics on people from distant locations and begin to understand culturally different people as people, not as "foreigners." We find that we have common ground with and grow to trust and appreciate our culturally different friends.

Understand Our Own Culture
A better understanding of other cultures increases understanding and an ability to think critically about our own culture. By reflecting on ordinary events in our lives in relation to that of our partner, we begin to incorporate a cross-cultural perspective on personally meaningful values, issues and ideas. We begin to understand ourselves as products of forces that could have been very different in a different culture.

Think Critically
Being exposed to and analyzing the differences between the personal report of your e-mail partner's behavior, thoughts and values versus from those reported by books, teachers and the media we can reflect on and think critically about why the differences exist.

Improve Communication
E-mail classroom partnerships can also be used to improve writing skills. Students become each other's teachers, suggesting ways to improve clarity, spelling and grammar in their partners' writing. E-mail also provides opportunities to practice a foreign language.

Challenges of IECC

While electronic mail d'es allow quick, inexpensive and convenient communication with people in other countries and cultures, it is also important to recognize some of its limitations.

Limits of Immediacy
E-mail limits our ability to communicate in an interactive way. Unlike talking face-to-face or on the phone, e-mail d'es not lend itself to immediate feedback or other active listening techniques that show you are listening to and understanding your partner.

Restricted Channels of Communication
In its current form, e-mail restricts our communication to the letters, numbers and symbols on a screen or print-out. While emotion and non-verbal communication can be relayed in a face-to-face or telephone conversation, most aspects of non-verbal communication in e-mail are lost unless you make special efforts to present them explicitly to your e-mail partner.

Foreign Language Communication
At its current stage of development, international e-mail is not especially conducive to non-English communication. People in Japan, for example, can exchange e-mail containing Kanji and other Japanese characters, but it is unlikely that a computer in another country would be able to properly interpret or display those characters. This is less of a problem between speakers of languages such as German, French, Spanish and Norwegian, but some incompatibilities between computers displaying even these more similar languages exist as well.

Distancing From Our Partners
E-mail has a tendency to decrease the sense of social or status differences between participants. For example, it is not always clear from a person's e-mail address if he or she is a high-school student or a university professor. Keep in mind how this might affect e-mail encounters, especially between cultures that emphasize social distance to different degrees.

Cooperative Work
The process by which people from different cultures develop relationships varies. In some cases, it might be better to begin an e-mail partnership with some introductory, relationship-building exchanges before tackling specific questions and requests for help with a project. Perspectives on how quickly to share "private" information (and what constitutes private or personal information) also differs, requiring sensitivity of all partners.

Pragmatic Concerns
Some very pragmatic concerns about using e-mail with other classes at home and abroad include working with an imbalanced number of class participants and coordinating different academic schedules.

Related Organizations

St. Olaf College's suite of IECC mailing lists is provided free to the community. There are a variety of other organizations that, usually for a fee, provide similar, but usually more structured and comprehensive services. Just several examples follow:

Academy One
Academy One aims to create a "national online information cooperative for K-12 telecomputing activities." Schools worldwide access the resources of Academy One's community computer systems and participate in a variety of online projects and events. Contact the NPTN Director of Education at (216) 368-2733, or e-mail AA002@NPTN.ORG or Web www.nptn.org/cyber.serv/AOneP/.

Global SchoolNet Foundation
Since 1985 GSN has been a leader in the instructional applications of telecommunications, having a major impact on networking in the K-12 community. Formerly called FrEdMail (Free Educational Mail) and started by a group of teachers, GSN offers a unique service called Global SCHLNet Newsgroup, the only professionally managed K-12 newsfeed. Contact their Web site gsn.org/gsn/gsn.home.html.

I*EARN
I*EARN (International Education And Resource Network) promotes joint projects in 20 countries, empowering teachers and young people (ages 6-19) to work together on projects designed to make a meaningful difference in the health and welfare of the planet and its people. Contact The Copen Family Fund at (914) 962-5864 or e-mail info@copenfund.igc.apc.org or Web www.igc.apc.org/iearn/.

WorldClassroom
The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) has joined with Global Learning Corp.'s WorldClassroom to provide students the opportunity to experience international learning. Schools subscribing to WorldClassroom access a variety of educational projects, information databases, guest speakers from around the world, and become a resource to other schools. Contact Global Learning Corp. at (800) 866-4452 or e-mail nassp@glc.dallas.tx.us.

Related Projects
Other groups are also working on independent classroom partnerships and projects. URLs (accessible via the Web, all prefixed by http://) with more information that might be of interest include: www.hut.fi/~rvilmi/email-project.html
k12.cnidr.org/
quercas.santarosa.edu/mainmenu/Japan/
Japan.html

Related Network Resources

In June, 1994, Ruth Vilmi at The Language Centre of the Helsinki University of Technology created a USENET electronic newsgroup called alt.education.email-projects. This newsgroup is intended for discussion of university-level international e-mail projects.

In addition, the following electronic mailing lists may also be useful:

  • EDNET@NIC.UMASS.EDU is a mailing list for discussing electronic networking and its relationship to education.
  • GLBL-HS@ONONDAGA.BITNET is a list for students and teachers of global studies or world cultures.
  • INTER-L@VTVM1.CC.UT.EDU is a service of the NAFSA: Association of International Educators MicroSIG and is of general interest to the international educator.
  • KIDLINK@NDSUVM1.BITNET is a discussion list established as a central information service for all persons interested in a grass-roots project aimed at getting as many 10-15 year-old children as possible involved in a global dialog. Web site: www.kidlink.org/
  • LLTI@DARTCMS1.BITNET serves as a distribution point for information on language learning and technology with an international perspective.
  • PENPAL-L@UNCCVM.UNC.EDU can be used to find individual penpals.
  • TESL-L@CUNYVM.BITNET provides educators with a fast, convenient and relevant electronic discussion forum that focuses on issues related to Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language.

Requests to subscribe to any of these lists should be sent to LISTSERV@host, where host is the portion of the e-mail address after the @ sign in the above list.

Other Resources

Finally, we are working on a series of three books: a student guide, a teacher guide, and a projects guide for using e-mail internationally and interculturally. These books discuss in more detail the issues, skills and strategies for implementing cross-cultural e-mail partnerships in the classroom. n Craig Rice is the UNIX Systems Specialist for the Academic Computing Center at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. He and two colleagues formed the IECC list so that other teachers need not encounter the difficulties they did when starting out student e-mail projects with schools in other countries. E-mail: cdr@stolaf.edu

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.

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