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Cultural Exchange: LMS Bonds Texas Students with Denmark

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In an example of bridging vast cultural divides through technology, students from a conservative Catholic high school in Texas are learning from college students in Denmark, and vice versa, through a Blackboard-based exchange launched last year.

The program was implemented to strengthen cultural, communication, technology, and language skills among students at Denmark's Roskilde Handelsskole, a student from Texas' Brownwood Senior High, and students at The Oratory Academy in tiny Pharr, Texas. Students collaborated and learned from each other through relatively low-tech asynchronous, moderated discussion board exchanges.

The results were so impressive that both sides are expanding the project this year.

According to Linda Gillis, educational specialist, educational technology for Region 4 Educational Service Center in Houston, which serves a million students, the program was conceived during a chance meeting two years ago. Gillis was attending an educational conference and met two educators from Denmark who proposed a collaborative project. As discussions ensued, she and the Danish educators began to map out a technology link that would allow students in both countries to learn about another culture and the world at large, to communicate via a distance learning tool, and to learn to use technology to present information.

As they talked, Gillis discovered that the sort of project they were discussing would address precisely the sorts of skills today's students need, and in fact matched up perfectly with a list of desirable twenty-first century skills from the National Alliance of Business. Those skills include interactive communication, inventive thinking, and quality results. "We were just amazed [at the skills match-up] as we started getting into the project," Gillis said.

The project was coordinated and administered through the Texas Virtual School, a Web-based learning initiative designed to meet the needs of Texas public school students and educators.

The first step was to set up an account with Blackboard, already the learning management system for both the Danish college and Region 4 ESC. "We started discussing ... what we wanted this project to look like." Gillis said. As the relationship developed, she discovered that the students couldn't be farther apart culturally. Ages ranged from 15 on the Texas side to 24 or 25 on the Danish side. Equally striking were the cultural differences: The Oratory School is a private college-prep Catholic school, largely Hispanic, with many students who cross the border from Mexico or who have parents who have immigrated from Spanish-speaking countries in Central or South America.

On the Danish side, Roskilde is a two-year business college, "very liberal and non-religious," Gillis said. "We had these two groups ... and yet it was such a successful project, and so amazing."

Because of the age differences between the Texas and Danish students, Gillis said, the project had to include careful consideration of the fact that the Texas students were minors: "We had to really stress [to the Danish partners] our student privacy laws, and safety." For example, students weren't allowed to e-mail each other directly; they could only converse through the open discussion forums set up in Blackboard. In addition, an adult moderator was present during discussions. All exchanges were in English; one of the goals of Danish students was to improve their English skills.

Oratory initially offered the project as part of an advanced psychology course, intended as a voluntary after-school program. Fourteen students from the United States participated, 12 from Denmark, and a lone student from Brownwood Senior High.

According to Lars Jensen, who works as a pedagogical adviser and teacher at Roskilde, "All of the Danish students loved the project." Students there worked on the project for four lessons a week, spending most of that time corresponding with the Texas students through Blackboard's Discussion Board. They also often stayed after school to correspond some more. Many were surprised at the many similarities between cultures and living styles. "They found it was nice to hear from some real young people what life is like in the U.S.," Jensen said, "and get another picture than the one they have from films and news."

Cultural differences quickly surfaced when Texas students suggested beginning each session with a moment of prayer. The relatively secular Danes deferred, and Texas students quickly agreed to begin with a moment of silence instead. As a cross-cultural moment of understanding a different viewpoint, "they handled it beautifully," Gillis said.

In the group studying holidays, students first chatted about Thanksgiving versus a Danish holiday, then created a joint holiday the students dubbed "Denmas," to commemorate the coming together of two cultures. The music and theater groups compared popular musicians in Denmark with their counterparts in the United States, including a Danish Dolly Parton.

More schools and more students will be involved this year, with more robust themes, Gillis said; both she and Jensen said they hope that Danish students and teachers can visit the Texas students.

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About the author: Linda L. Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, CA.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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