Beyond Borders

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A program linking American and Japanese schools reveals the ability of international collaborative projects to knock down traditional barriers to learning.

CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS GOT IT wrong. The world is flat—in fact, flatter now than it's ever been.

In this case, the term flat means 'connected,' and describes the state of the world and its inhabitants, rather than the shape. Indeed, the lowering of trade and political barriers, coupled with the ongoing digital revolution, has made it possible to collaborate instantaneously with billions of Internet-connected people at all points on the planet.

At first glance, the 'flattened' world most greatly benefits global businesses that have deep experience in multiple geographies. But a closer look reveals that individuals, including educators and students, can all gain from this digital globalization. 'The physical distance between two or more collaborators is becoming less and less relevant,' says W. Ken Woo, director of Information Technology and CIO at Northwestern University's (IL) School of Law. 'Increasingly, any piece of information you could ever need is just a mouse click away.'

International Chat

Global technology standards, such as Internet Protocol (IP), Ethernet, Linux, and Windows, have enabled US educators to build international bonds with their foreign counterparts.

Such is the case at Callisburg Independent School District, located 70 miles north of Dallas, near the border of Texas and Oklahoma. Callisburg students are no longer limited by geographical borders thanks to the school's participation in the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund Master Teacher Program (JFMFMTP; www.fulbrightmemorialfund.jp), which began in August 2005.

Designed to foster international collaboration and education, the program spans 25 schools in the United States, which are paired with 25 schools in Japan. Unlike 'pen pal' programs of yesteryear, the JFMFMTP goes far beyond simple information exchanges. The program seeks to accomplish several large goals via online and in-person contact:

  • Expand and enhance the scope of global exploration and communication among primary and secondary school students in Japan and the United States.
  • Encourage increased interaction with and understanding of the natural environment among students in the United States and Japan.
  • Create opportunities to utilize technology in education, so as to encourage online information exchanges between Japanese and American schools.
  • Increase the understanding of different educational methods by having US and Japanese teachers meet and work together in each other's schools.

Several Callisburg ISD representatives—teachers, campus administrators, and the district technology director—were paired with their counterparts from an elementary, middle, and high school in Kesennuma, Japan. To qualify, the American teachers had to first participate in a teacher preparatory program. They also used videoconferencing to take six weeks of Japanese language lessons from a Japanese teacher in Tokyo before visiting Japan last summer in anticipation of the launch of the international student program in August.

Once the educator teams were in place, US and Japanese students began working together on the subject at hand: shared environmental issues impacting the Elm Fork of the Trinity River in Texas and the Omose River in Japan. Not by coincidence, both rivers are affected by agricultural runoff, industry, automobiles, processing plants, and other human activity. Students in each of the communities conduct age-appropriate studies to determine the quality of water upstream, contamination sources, and so on, then discuss their findings during monthly videoconferences. The results of their research are posted as blogs on a Web site specifically created for their collaboration, and are enriched with interactive information courtesy of digital cameras, electronic microscopes, e-mail, and wireless laptops.

Cost Considerations

Of course, technology projects of this kind require careful budgeting. But there's no need for districts with tight wallets to panic. Much like the traditional PC sector—where prices fall as sales volumes increase—prices for digital cameras, wireless laptops, and collaborative software continue to decline steadily.

The average price for a notebook computer fell below $1,100 in October 2005, down from $1,422 in October 2004, according to NPD Group (www.npd.com), a market research firm in Port Washington, NY. But even as prices drop, notebooks—including those used by students—continue to gain more and more capabilities.

In early 2006, most PC vendors will begin selling notebooks with dual-core processors from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD; www.amd.com) or Intel Corp. (www.intel.com). The dual-core design calls for two processor 'brains' on a single chip, and typically improves system performance by 60 percent to 70 percent, according to preliminary test results from AMD and Intel. Students and teachers should expect dual-core systems to vastly improve the performance of data-intensive applications, such as videoconferencing and voice-over-IP (VoIP) telephone calls.

Open to Alternatives

Many schools are embracing open-source applications to minimize software costs on collaboration projects. The Apache Software Foundation's Web server, for instance, is the world's most popular platform for hosting Internet applications. Available for free at www.apache.org, the software runs on most popular operating systems, including Linux and Windows. Moreover, the Apache software development team leverages 'international collaboration' with students and programmers across the globe, says Brian Behlendorf, one of the group's founders.

At Callisburg ISD, videoconferences are conducted with a Webcam, microphone, and Yahoo! Messenger (messenger.yahoo.com) over a T1 line. Yahoo! Messenger is an instant-messaging (IM) service that now supports PC-to-PC calls across the globe. Many other school districts are testing Skype (www.skype.com), a free, voice-driven IM service from Skype Technologies SA of Luxembourg. Acquired by eBay Inc. (www.ebay.com) in September 2005, Skype has more than 60 million users worldwide.

6 Technologies Worth Watching
•Apache: (www.apache.org) A free Web server ideal for hosting collaborative applications, blogs, and Internet-based e-mail systems.
• Dual Core microprocessors: From AMD (www.amd.com) and Intel (www.intel.com). Think of dual-core technology as two PC processors placed on a single chip. Widely available in 2006, dual-core technology should boost PC and notebook performance by 60 percent to 70 percent, and is ideal for videoconferencing applications.
• MySQL: (www.mysql.com) An open-source database that schools are using to store and retrieve collaborative information.
• Skype: (www.skype.com) A voice-driven instant-messaging system for the Internet that's evolving to support video communications. The company was recently acquired by eBay Inc. (www.ebay.com).
• StarOffice: Sun Microsystems Inc.'s (www.sun.com) alternative to the Microsoft Office suite. Through a partnership with Google (www.google.com), Sun's suite could go mainstream in 2006, gaining Internet-driven collaborative features.
• Web 2.0: Not a product you purchase or install, Web 2.0 is more of a concept that describes where the Internet is heading next.

Instant Headaches

Still, not all schools want completely open international communications. Many schools, for instance, block popular consumer IM systems from America Online (www.aol.com), Microsoft (www.microsoft.com), and Yahoo! (www.yahoo.com). However, the IM systems, although wildly popular with students, can introduce security and privacy risks to school networks. Hackers increasingly target IM systems to spread worms and viruses. The number of IM attacks increased 226 percent between October and November of 2005, according to Akonix Security Center (www.imsecuritycenter.com), a company that tracks monthly threats to peer-to-peer software systems.

Most schools block sites that allow instant messaging. 'The schools in Kesennuma and Callisburg have unblocked the necessary sites,' says Karla Burkholder, Callisburg ISD's director of technology. 'Other schools in the program have had to move their videoconferencing off site to private homes or to Starbucks.'

In addition, most Starbucks (www.starbucks.com) retail locations now offer basic Wi-Fi Internet access through such service providers as T-Mobile HotSpots (hotspot.t-mobile.com) in the US and Bell Hotspots (www.bce.ca) in Canada. Starbucks partnered with Hewlett-Packard (www.hp.com) to roll out the wireless Internet access across all its stores.

Distant Challenges

Although technology shrinks the world, it doesn't eliminate international time-zone differences. Since Japan is 14 hours ahead of Texas during daylight-saving time, the Callisburg students and the Japanese students needed to carefully plan videoconferencing times that were amicable to both groups. The Texans agreed to convene after school at 5:30 pm to link up with the Japanese students, for whom it was 7:30 am.

Some students are learning to be flexible at an even earlier age. In November, a United Nations educational conference held in Sendai, Japan, featured a videoconference between Kesennuma Omose Elementary School and Callisburg Elementary School. Callisburg students, parents, and teachers agreed to sacrifice their Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 24) in order to communicate with their counterparts in Japan, where—due to time-zone differences—the conference kicked off on November 25.

Such compromising will serve students well as they head to college and then the business world. 'Many junior executives find it difficult to adjust their schedules to international time zones and foreign cultures,' says Ed Golod, president of Revenue Accelerators (revenue-accelerators.com), an executive consulting firm in New York. 'International collaboration, in essence, trains students to adapt to these issues before they enter the workforce. In many ways, these children are learning the lessons of international business before they even make it to high school.'

Global Success in 10 Easy Steps
How your school can collaborate on an international scale.
1. People first. Ensure the project has backing from the appropriate administrators, teachers, and technology leaders.
2. Set goals. Develop curricula, experiments, and projects that inspire students to engage at least weekly with their international counterparts.
3. Seek external funding and assistance. Many technology vendors launch special K-12 funding programs from time to time. In particular, Cisco Systems Inc. (www.cisco.com) and other companies are donating equipment to Gulf Coast schools that need to replace network infrastructures decimated during the hurricane season.
4. Hit the road. Generally speaking, successful international collaborative projects require participants to visit each other at least once. The face-to-face interactions help teachers and administrators to understand cultural differences that might otherwise be overlooked during videoconferences, e-mail, and other electronic interactions.
5. Go broad. Stick with the most widely deployed software and hardware standards, such as the Apache (www.apache.org) Web server and Ethernet infrastructure.
6. Unlock some windows. Reset your firewalls to allow students to share information with the appropriate foreign schools.
7. Check your clocks. Be sure to recognize and account for international time-zone differences, local holidays, and other geopolitical traits.
8. Report results. BEnsure that teachers and students alike share program outcomes, so that future projects can benefit from past mistakes and experiences.
9. Regroup. Any international collaboration program will suffer occasional setbacks. Regroup regularly with your international counterparts to measure progress and discuss areas of weakness that need strengthening.
10. Unplug frequently. Kids often lose track of time when using instant messaging and other collaborative software. To compensate, set firm start and stop times for online interactions, and encourage students to interact with their classmates using tried-and-true face-to-face communications.

Joseph C. Panettieri has covered Silicon Valley, business, and K-12 technology issues since 1992. Callisburg ISD educators Tim Jones, Karla Burkholder, and Danita Ortowski, who each participated in the JFMFMTP, also contributed to this article.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.

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