Boundless Opportunity

National borders are no match for the reach of online technologies, as demonstrated by a host of collaborative projects that use web-based platforms to link US students with their peers abroad.

Boundless OpportunityTHE CONTRAST BETWEEN the videos couldn't be more different. In one, a group of uniformly dressed eighth-graders lines up in the Bar-Lev Junior High School gymnasium in Kfar-Saba, Israel, doing Israeli dances. In the other, a high school girl in a Washington, DC, classroom smiles into the camera and calls out, "Hey, wassup? This is Ballou Senior High School....We got to show you how we dance!" Then, to the syncopated rhythms of go-go music, a handful of kids get onto the floor and move around in a boogie called "Beat Your Feet."

But that contrast was the point. Two teachers-- English teacher Hagit Goldstein in Israel and Spanish teacher Allison Baugher in the US-- were connecting students through an online classroom network called ePals so their two classes could express their unique cultures and learn about music and dance specific to other parts of the world. The service, which is free to users, provides secure e-mail that enables students to communicate one-on-one with each other, blogging capabilities, and a function called Classroom Match that allows teachers to post or participate in activities with other classes.

The possibilities for international classroom collaboration in projects such as this one have never been more promising. Internet access is nearly ubiquitous in US schools, and online collaborative tools-- Skype, Google Docs, Ning, Facebook, TeacherTube, blogs, e-mail, chat rooms-- are more abundant than ever, rendering borders and barriers inconsequential.

"You don't need to be talking about anything important, just learning about the fact that children in other schools go to class at night or go home at lunch or that they eat something different, or that everyone has a different way of doing things."

Baugher says she signed up for ePals during the last couple of weeks of the 2008-2009 year, just before the beginning of summer break. In the midst of doing a unit on Latin music, teaching her class dances, instruments, and music styles, she sent out a message to other teachers on the site, hoping to find ways for her kids to practice Spanish.

"Then it occurred to me that this would be a good opportunity for them to express their dance culture," Baugher says. They made a couple of videos, which she posted to the ePals projects forum with a note: "This is how we dance in DC." That post elicited a response from Goldstein with a link to the video of her eighth-grade students doing their national dance.

Baugher shared the video from Israel with her class. "They were in uniform; it was all very choreographed," she says. "[My students] asked me, 'Are these their cheerleaders?' I said, 'Maybe we should ask them.'"

Meanwhile, Goldstein's students on the other side of the globe were excited to watch their peers in action, Baugher adds. "They were familiar with that type of dance, however, by another name: hip hop."

Go Global: Resources That Can Help

Boundless OpportunityAsia Society's Partnership for Global Learning: A network for educators that provides professional development, policymaking, and other materials.

CARE's Virtual Field Trips: An online avenue for students to take multiday tours of multiple countries.

ePals: Multilingual e-mail, blogging, and projects to connect classes around the world.

Global Stock Market Simulation Challenge: Students can hone skills as trading managers for global investments.

iEARN: A multilingual site for schools and youth organizations interested in participating in collaborative projects.

TakingITGlobal: An online community that addresses international issues for students from ages 13 to 30.

The exchange of videos led to a brief online conversation in the discussion forum between students in the two classes. The posts to ePals are moderated and there's a seven-hour difference in time zones between the two locations, so the correspondence didn't happen in real time. Students gave their comments to their teachers, who posted them to the site, then awaited a response.

In spite of the stilted mode of operation in her first ePals project, Baugher values the service for the connections it can help her make and the new vistas it brings to her students. "Many of my students haven't traveled far out of DC," she says. "Working in the type of school I work in, I don't have the opportunity to bring them out into the world. But the technology resources allow me to bring the world into the classroom, even if it's just looking at e-mails or pictures from other students.

"It doesn't need to be face-to-face communication. You don't need to be talking about anything important, just learning about the fact that children in other schools go to class at night or go home at lunch or that they eat something different, or that everyone has a different way of doing things."


The Creative Voices of Islam student projects can be viewed on the Asia Society website at

This year Baugher hopes to set up e-mail on ePals to allow her students personal contact with kids in other countries, as well as have them create their own blogs on the site.

Goldstein, who has done multiple projects through ePals since 2005, is already at that stage. Once a week her students head to the computer lab to communicate with their "ePals." Her kids have had exchanges with students in North Carolina about global warming; swapped reflections on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet with students in San Diego; and discussed cultural differences simultaneously with students in Hong Kong, South Korea, and Portugal. Even though much of the contact takes place through such mediums as Skype and wikis, the initial contact was made via ePals.

"Sharing ideas among pupils from different countries enhances their English proficiencies, but most of all contributes to their motivation to study English," says Goldstein. "They receive authentic information, which they can never find anywhere else."

'A-ha!' Moments

That exchange of authentic information is also what prompted Nicolle Boujaber-Diederichs, a social studies teacher at Cypress Creek High School in Orlando, to join the International Education and Resource Network (iEARN). The nonprofit site gives teachers and students in 125 countries a way to connect online with each other and collaborate on projects that they design themselves. The current database contains 150 different projects.

Two years ago, Boujaber-Diederichs joined with iEARN member Said Belgra on a new project the Moroccan teacher had developed called My Identity, Your Identity to encourage students to explore and research the elements that form their identities. "He saw the need in Morocco and around the world for people to go back to their roots and appreciate their traditions and culture and learn about traditional ways of living in their own country," she says. The two teachers and their students created a schedule of themes to pursue every month, such as dance, music, festivals and holidays, and fashion.

Each day, the US students would log in to the iEARN project page to get Boujaber-Diederichs' instructions, perhaps to research and compile materials or to answer a series of questions, all meant to get them to explore their own cultural experiences. Their responses would be converted into PowerPoint presentations and posted to the iEARN platform for sharing with Belgra's classes in Morocco. That would lead to exchanges on the site's discussion forums between the two groups of students.

"Often my students would say, 'Wow! We're not so different from each other,'" Boujaber-Diederichs says. "'They wear jeans and T-shirts too.' There would be little 'A-ha!' moments where they'd learn something."

During a 2008 trip to Azerbaijan, the Florida teacher met an Azerbaijani counterpart, Irada Samadova, who has been doing projects through iEARN since 2000. As a result of their acquaintance, Samadova, an English teacher at Zarifa Aliyeva School, a secondary school in the Azerbaijan capital of Baku, joined the My Identity, Your Identity project last year. "From my experience, if you don't have a real partner, the students don't feel like they're writing for a real audience," Samadova says. "The forums are loaded with posts that sometimes are not relevant to the project or have lots of discussions where few people participate."

The posts by Boujaber-Diederichs' students, Samadova says, provided a firsthand account of American life, versus the impersonal descriptions her students find in the books they read. She lists several other outcomes from her class's participation in iEarn projects: "I introduced my students to project work, pushed them to plan the time, encouraged them to work together to process the information from the forum, share the work done, prepare PowerPoint files, make the presentation in class, and practice English."

Just this past July, Boujaber-Diederichs and Samadova, while in Morocco for the annual iEARN international conference, presented together on My Identity, Your Identity at a Global Connections and Exchange (GCE) workshop that helped train teachers to train their colleagues in the use of iEARN. The GCE is the outgrowth of an initiative called BRIDGE (Building Respect Through Internet Dialogue and Global Education), created by iEARN in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to foster online collaboration between US schools and countries with heavily Muslim populations. The work of the two educators made a big impression on the other workshop participants, bringing a wave of new recruits to the project. Schools in Bahrain, Oman, the Palestinian territories, Kenya, and Yemen are among the nations that have committed to join My Identity, Your Identity for 2009-2010.

While Boujaber-Diederichs is expanding her network outside of her own country, she sees the need to continue promoting services such as iEARN to the teachers in her own district. "A lot of people say, 'It seems so interesting, but I don't have time,'" she says. Her job is to show them how cross-country projects can open a wider world to their students and still meet state academic mandates. "Instead of writing a report for the class to meet some standard, they're writing a report and then sharing it with other students in other countries who read it and respond."

Swapping Stories

While acquainting her students with the Muslim world was a natural result of Boujaber- Diederichs' work with a Moroccan teacher, it was the main motivation behind Liz Carriker's effort to involve her 10th-grade English students at the Academy of International Studies in Charlotte, NC, in an online collaborative exercise with schools in Indonesia.

"We have a lot of students who are from Indonesia," Carriker says of the academy, a 375-student "school within a school" attached to the comprehensive, 3,000-student Independence High School. "We have a large Muslim population. About two years ago, our Muslim students started opening up and sharing a lot of their culture and a lot of their religion with the other students without fear of being ridiculed. And there was interest with the students in learning more about that culture."

That opportunity came via a larger cultural exchange project called Creative Voices of Islam launched in 2008 by the Asia Society, a New York City-based organization aimed at strengthening relationships between Americans and Asians. A part of that effort includes advancing international education by using online platforms to connect schools that, like the academy, are members of the Asia Society's International Studies Schools Network (ISSN) with high schools in Muslim communities throughout Asia. Students at the academy, along with those at an ISSN school in Mathis, TX, and at three schools in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta, created and exchanged webbased multimedia projects that portray the stories of their lives, revealing themes that are relevant to all.

Carriker observes that the US tends to only relate Islam to Middle Eastern nations, and the Creative Voices initiative was a means of undoing that stereotype. "We thought this would be a great opportunity to actually have primary contact with another group of students who were Muslim in an area that students didn't think of being Muslim."

In October 2008, the Asia Society sent Alexis Menten, its assistant director for after-school and youth leadership, to Charlotte to work for a week with Carriker and her students, "helping them identify the stories they wanted to tell," Menten says. "A lot of it was about looking at their identity and how they wanted to project themselves to students in Indonesia."

The students were broken up into three groups. "In one project, they decided to show the diversity of the student population at Independence-- that people are different and yet the same-- through pictures and interviews," Carriker says. A second group compared the high school as it was in the 1970s to as it is today through interviews with students and faculty, including about a half-dozen current staff who once attended the school. The third group focused on extracurricular activities to show that the high school is about more than just its renowned football program.

To tell their digital stories, Carriker's students took photos and recorded interviews, and then brought the pieces together using the open source sound-editing program Audacity in tandem with Windows Movie Maker to create a movie. Menten, who provided on-site training at each of the schools in the program, including those in Indonesia, helped tutor Carriker's students in the use of the technologies.

Once completed, the projects were posted to the Asia Society website and viewed by the students at the participating schools, who then commented on them. "It's insightful to see the reaction and the understanding that's created among the kids," says Tony Jackson, the Asia Society's vice president of education. "The level of storytelling and perception and insight into their communities that this technology enables is quite amazing."

This year Carriker will have the academy's new videoconferencing lab to use, which will allow real-time contact between her students and those abroad, though she doesn't know if the other Creative Voices schools share that capability. But she expects to be able to hook up with schools in Japan and China with which the academy participates in student exchange programs. "We have a teacher who is originally from Turkey and is going back," she says. "So we're hoping to open up a dialogue with a school there as well." Menten notes that in addition to retaining the participants from last year, Creative Voices intends to expand to schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan next year as well as to additional schools in the ISSN.

Carriker hopes her students are learning to look beyond their community, state, and nation to see that they're not alone. "If I can get a group of students to see that other people are going through what they are and opening their eyes to the bigger picture, when they grow up and become citizens they're not going to perpetuate [stereotypes]," she says. "That's the ultimate goal. The world has to work together. It's not us and them."

How to Sell Your Students on Global Collaboration

Boundless OpportunityALAN NOVEMBER, THE FOUNDER of November Learning, which provides planning, workshops, and professional development consulting to educators, offers these tips for exciting students about connecting with their peers across the world.

Make them care. If you're a history teacher, use Skype to put your students in touch with UK students and have a debate on the American Revolution. "If you tell them, 'I'm going to record it, then I'm going to put it into iTunes, and the whole world will be able to hear your debate,'" November says, "you can get your kids excited about studying American history."

Help them help themselves. November recalls a teacher who said she has stopped spending 45 minutes per student to help identify an appropriate science fair project to undertake. Instead, she tells her students to Google "high school science fair winners." November says she told him, "They've found these amazing winning projects all over the United States. I saved myself the 45 minutes, times all those kids, and the work was much better quality. And they didn't cheat, because they still had to develop their science projects. They were motivated." Students can take their Googling global by using the appropriate two-letter country code to limit search results to a specific country.

Turn them into global curriculum researchers. Write down the 10 most difficult areas in your curriculum and hand that list to your students at the beginning of the school year. Tell them to find out how teachers are teaching these topics and to bring those ideas back to you. "Kids will go out and find resources around the world," November says. "They'll do this at home. They'll come back and say, 'Look at this tutorial from Singapore.'"

For more information on global collaboration, visit our website at Enter the keyword collaboration.

This article originally appeared in the October 1, 2009 issue of THE Journal.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.