Collaboration & Social Networking | Feature

Global Collaboration Projects that Go Way Beyond Skype

Here's how one program is engaging Web 2.0 skills to bridge cultures and classrooms — one project at a time.

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The world is flat, author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman once declared in a bestselling book about the rise of global communications. If Julie Lindsay had anything to say about it, the classroom would also be flat.

Lindsay, an online teacher and former IT director for international schools from Queensland, Australia, is the co-founder — and now sole proprietor — of the K-12-focused global outreach organization Flat Connections (formerly known as the Flat Classroom). She helped launch the group in 2006, with the goal of harnessing the power of online learning to increase cultural understanding and global collaboration among today's students.

The concept of "flattening" the classroom walls is loosely based on the philosophy espoused in Friedman's book The World Is Flat, which posits that the development of global collaboration, new technologies and social advancements are knocking down the boundaries that once kept cultures isolated and self-contained, thereby forcing everyone to come to grips with the changing, interconnected world around them. But where Friedman's work is largely theoretical, Lindsay aimed to build something more concrete — indeed, project-based — for the students and educators who will inherit the flat world.

Lindsay explained that the aim of the flat classroom is to "bring the outside world in and you put your classroom out there. It's about the teacher taking charge of the learning, and the student taking charge of the learning — and being able to use technology to bring those rich opportunities into the classroom."

Flat Connections is not a curriculum per se, but a series of independent collaborative projects. Each project focuses on different skills and grade levels by connecting classrooms from around the world using a variety of social and collaborative platforms. The partner classrooms then co-produce projects such as videos or co-authored wiki pages. A sliding subscription fee offers access to projects based on the number of students registering. "It's based on connected learning, but you have to go beyond that," Lindsay said. "You have to develop authentic networks and authentic connections and real-world experts and other classrooms to connect with."

Connected Students, Connected Teachers
One project, called Digiteen, is designed for students in grades 8-12. Teams consisting of students in two or more classrooms around the world introduce themselves via Edmodo and Skype and then, together, explore different aspects of digital citizenship, eventually co-creating a Wikispaces page on a given theme. Individual schools then work on an action project that students can share with their peers at school, across the street or around the world. Other Flat Connections projects focus on bringing students together for debates or to foster cultural awareness among young learners through the creation and use of multimedia.

"The goal is that schools offer a global collaborative opportunity at every grade level," Lindsay said, adding that teachers often interpret that advice to mean they have to be doing global collaboration projects all the time. "No, you don't," she clarified. "It's hard work. You cannot do it all the time, but it's important that every student at every grade level needs at least one experience."

Teachers, too, can benefit from global outreach tailored to their needs. Lindsay said, "A lot of teachers who start stepping into global collaboration, they're not always successful because they're not always sure what to do. They don't always set it up correctly, and then they feel disappointed when people don't join them or when the project doesn't meet the needs that they want it to meet."

To help teachers get started, Lindsay's organization offers a professional development course for educators that focuses on providing extra support and skills for teachers or administrators managing Flat Connections projects at their schools. Conducted entirely online over the course of 10 weeks, the course focuses on building communication and Web 2.0 skills, as well as taking a deeper dive into digital citizenship and collaboration considerations. At the end of the course, teachers become Flat Connections Global Educators. Those with less time can opt for a one-week crash course.
The Flat Classroom in Action
Theresa Allen, a computer teacher at Cathedral of St. Raymond, a K-8 school outside Chicago, was no stranger to global collaboration projects when she first got involved with Flat Connections in 2009. Her students had already connected with peers in China through the iCollaboratory out of Northwestern University, but she still felt reserved when it came to sharing her and her students' blog posts with a broader audience. The Flat Connections professional development course, she said, helped overcome her doubts.

"I was really nervous about blogging at first, and so when i started blogging with my students I would monitor everything and i would look over their comments and posts before they even went out," she said. "That's good to a point, but now I can look over them later, and I fix them if needed. But for the most part they're good, and I'm a lot more relaxed."

Allen now leads her students in Flat Connections projects in third and seventh grade. In between these, her classes engage in other collaborations such as the Global Monster Project out of Western Illinois University. Allen serves as a general liaison between Flat Connections and the school, and she has worked to infuse the projects into other areas of the curriculum by giving other teachers control over the course of a project, which might take up to three months to complete. "I'm the springboard for them," she explained. "I get them started and guide them. It starts in my room and then it branches out into their classrooms."

Digiteen, for example, aligns well with Common Core State Standards and language arts, she said. "I know the language arts teachers says it fits so well into his curriculum along with others, so he'll do that two days a week, and then the other two or three days a week he'll do something else."

The overall result is that students build on collaboration skills and enjoy challenging themselves, she said. By the time they get to seventh grade, "they want to do something else besides presentation. They want to actually make their own videos: downloading them, cutting them and making a presentation, so it's really neat to see."

At Faith Lutheran, a secondary school in South Australia, students enjoyed learning new Web 2.0 and collaboration tools, but the global link was the real hook. Connecting with schools in Vermont, Singapore and other parts of Australia was exciting for students and fostered some of the best discussions because the experience was so radically different for them.

Teacher Avylon Magarey explained, "A lot of the kids don't leave the area often, so they don't interact with kids from other countries." Since Magarey's students were part of an early Flat Connections pilot, they were not going to be traditionally assessed. To ensure that work was completed on time, Magarey made a point of explaining that students "in other countries are relying on you to do your bit," an approach that she said resonated with students. In the future, however, Magarey may use the Flat Connections rubric for assessing students, which takes student reflection and other factors into account to measure how much students collaborated throughout the project and how effective their research was.

Peer-to-Peer Mentoring
Teachers have also found that global collaboration makes students more effective communicators and more eager to share their experiences with others — even outside the confines of individual projects. One year, Allen asked if any students who had recently completed a project would be interested in mentoring students, both at Cathedral of St. Raymond and elsewhere, who were going through it for the first time.

She said, "I thought, 'Oh, nobody's going to want to do this because they're going to have to give up their lunch period; they have to eat lunch and then be mentors during that time, because I didn't have any extra time." To her surprise, 15 students volunteered. "So they mentored, they looked at other students' Edmodo posts and they gave them suggestions and they were there for questions. We Skyped so that if anyone had any questions they could answer as well. I thought that was a really good follow-up extension."

As part of their action project for Digiteen, Magarey's students created a short movie about what type of content was appropriate to post on Facebook and what wasn't. Later, they presented their findings and their completed movie, to incoming eighth graders. In addition to the collaboration and Web 2.0 skills covered, Magarey said, "That kind of peer mentoring was another great part of the project."

How to Start Flattening
While Lindsay encourages interested educators to take a Flat Connections PD course either before or concurrently with their first project, Lindsay said they're not necessary for successful outcomes. "Actually, it does work jumping right in to our projects, because we support the teachers," she said. "We have project managers, we have weekly meetings with the teachers, we set up a whole communication network for the teachers for the project and hold their hand all the way through. And to an extent, joining one of our projects is professional development, because you're joining this network of teachers who are very keen to make global collaboration work in the classroom."

According to Allen, interested schools really just need "a couple gung ho teachers that are really willing to try it. You need to get those teachers to get started on it, and then I think it just expands."

In her experience, teachers will then often run with the projects, turning them into something that meets their needs and those of their students. "I'm always pleading and I'm always recommending this to my other teachers," Allen said. "I think it encompasses so much, including Common Core, but you're also showing [students] how to present themselves online. This is the future, so you're helping them — not only now, but when they're adults or in college — relate to someone even from a different country, with different customs. That's important."