This article also appears on LEARN NC.

BY AARON FOWLES

The classroom walls have tumbled down. While students in traditional classrooms have been limited by the four walls of their room and the two covers of their textbook, 21st-century students have the opportunity to reach across oceans to learn from their peers on the opposite side of the world. Rather than reading about life in China from a dated social studies textbook, students can now discover firsthand the realities that face their global peers using information communication technology. This is a major shift.

When students broadcast their digital voice and place their digital footprint on foreign lands, they gain real-world experiences that have been previously inaccessible to them. All students, not just children from privileged families, now have the power to reach out through technology and create real, meaningful relationships with fellow global citizens.

Classrooms that aim to raise students to global consciousness can’t afford to miss out on international educational collaboration. Students interact with people their own age in a place they’ve never seen, and may have never even conceived of before. This can be especially meaningful for high-poverty areas, where students may never leave their own city — or their own neighborhood. International educational collaboration, powered by the internet, allows those students to get a view of the world in a fresh and inviting way.

Getting started

The first step in taking on such a project is to find a classroom to partner with. There are formal and informal ways to do this. On the formal side, one option is to visit ePALS Classroom Exchange and conduct a search, then contact people you find. ePals is a great website for finding classroom partners because its members include classrooms in 200 countries. ePals also provides access to global projects and message boards.

The US Department of Education has also published a guide to international collaboration on the internet, with links to a wide variety of resources for making connections with global classrooms.

Twitter users can opt for the informal route of shouting on Twitter. Something like “Hey! I want to collaborate with your classroom! DM me. #collaboration #education” ought to do the trick. Hopefully, after a few lucky re-tweets and some marketing on your part, you’ll find a few interested parties.

Another option is to join an already-established classroom collaboration project. Many such projects exist, but one example is the Flat Classroom Project, which actually consists of four different component projects: The Flat Classroom Project itself, The Digiteen Project, NetGenEd, and Eracism. The Flat Classroom Project is a pioneering project that’s been running since 2006, born from ideas in Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. Participants are grouped with students in a partner classroom and assigned a topic from the book. According to the project’s website, “One of the main goals of the project is to ‘flatten’ or lower the classroom walls so that instead of each class working isolated and alone, two or more classes are joined virtually to become one large classroom. This is done through the Internet using Web 2.0 tools such as Wikispaces and Ning.”

Setting a purpose

Starting an international project can be something like buying a pet. You gather all the necessary supplies, you go shopping, you choose one, but then you have to take it home. What are you going to do with it? Now that you’ve started on this international project, what do you hope to accomplish? The following are some ideas from different subject areas.

Language arts

  • Book club. Students in each classroom read the same book and participate in teacher-moderated discussions. International collaboration would bring in a host of perspectives that would likely differ from those of your students. This is a great way to teach students how to respect other people’s opinions. The reading level would depend heavily on the language abilities of the two classes involved.
  • Global writers workshop. Students from each classroom share their writing. If both classrooms were to respond to the same prompt, for example, each classroom would get a great perspective on the similarities and differences that exist between the two classrooms. A broad prompt (e.g. What is the most important thing for teenagers to avoid?) might elicit very different answers from children in Europe than from children in Asia or Africa. These similarities and differences, once identified, could branch out into another sub-project.
  • Peer teaching. Students in the United States learning about comma usage, for example, could craft a mini-lesson to deliver to the partner classroom. (We’ll address language differences later). This can take a topic that is typically arduous and vivify it for students by forcing them to think deeply about it.

Math

  • Ethnomathematics. How do different cultures approach math differently? One example is the study of basic numeracy, including the names of numbers. For example, while English names “twenty-four” by first naming the number of tens and then the single units, German names the single units first, followed by the tens.
  • Conversion project. There are a few ways to approach this; the first is physical measurement. In a collaboration where one country uses miles and another kilometers, groups in each classroom could measure various aspects of their school, then report them to the other classroom in both sets of units. This is a simple activity, but it can be expanded and made more interesting by including a discussion of money. In one of my projects, I had my students use various sources to calculate the labor cost of basic goods in both countries. That is, a teacher in country A has to work X minutes to buy bread, but a teacher in country B has to work Y minutes.

Social studies

  • People’s histories. Students interview each other and write about the other country, revising each other’s work for accuracy. This would have to be a very structured activity, as K-12 students tend to have very little experience with primary sources.
  • Debates. This could easily become contentious and shut the project down, depending on the topic you choose to debate. Rather than starting with a heavy topic like religion, I recommend keeping it simple by starting with something like food. Resolved: That the pizza margherita be made the first internationally recognized Food of the Year.
  • Geography. Students take pictures of the landforms in their area and share. This is a little more personal than looking at pictures from Google Earth. Students could also take pictures of the places they visit daily and share those.

Science

  • Collaborative virtual experiments. Students can compare measurements of local water health and conduct experiments to account for differences in water quality.
  • Environmental impact comparison. Students can compare the environmental footprints of each class, using any of a number of online ecological footprint calculators. If the students have collaborated before and are friendly with each other, you could make it a competition.
  • The impact of altitude. If your class is working with a classroom at a different altitude, try conducting altitude-sensitive experiments and compare results.

These are just a few ideas; the possibilities are limitless! While this list is by no means comprehensive, it displays some of the basic functions of an international project: communication, collaboration, exploration, and connection.

Facilitation

Once you’ve got a partner and something to do, the next challenge is to figure out how to do it. There should be opportunities for synchronous and asynchronous communication in a variety of media, which means you may want to include the following things:

  • text chat
  • video chat
  • message boards
  • email
  • static web pages

The trick is to bring all of these different communication tools into one place. In my experience, the best way to do this is with a wiki. The flexibility in site architecture combined with the ease of creating new content pushes this medium to the top of the list. The wiki provider you choose is up to you. I personally prefer Wikispaces for its ease of use and flexibility, but PBworks and Wetpaint are also good options.

While it is advisable to have a virtual work space for your project, it is also important to create a social space for the students to get to know each other on an informal level. If both districts allow students to use it, Facebook may be a natural choice for networking, because students are already familiar with it. Creating a Facebook page for your project could be a great way to bring everyone together in an agreed-upon social space.

On the other hand, teachers have less control over what happens in Facebook than in some other social media platforms. A social-networking alternative to Facebook is provided by sites like Grou.ps and Ning. These sites offer spaces for setting up a closed, private social network. Providing a controlled social space can increase student safety by helping to prevent students from disclosing sensitive information, and by preserving the option of deleting such information if it does get posted. A phone number or address that is posted on a teacher-created medium can be deleted, while the same information put on Facebook may be public forever.

Setting up your own network, however, may simply complicate things. In a project like this, it is important to remember that the focus should be on the content study as much as — if not more than — the collaboration itself. You might decide that if students want to connect with each other socially, they’ll just have to send emails back and forth to each other… the old-fashioned way. You can also allow your students to create Facebook-like profiles on the wiki, which would allow students to leave messages for each other as well as to contact each other directly.

Even more simply, think about reverting to real old-school collaboration — the post office. While virtual artifacts can zip across the web instantaneously, a tangible object sent over ground can impart an incomparable value. Students can share artwork, handwritten letters, local food products (if legal), or any local trinkets that a tourist might purchase. How fun it would be to sit in class, sipping green tea and perusing a Chinese newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana.

Poznan calling: My collaboration experience

Last year I was contacted by a teacher I knew in Poland, where I had lived for three years some time back. The teacher wanted to know if our students could communicate with each other and share some work. It seemed like a great idea, but I knew I would need to keep the project very curricular in order to satisfy my administration. Since American schools are drowned in narrow performance standards, it was important to select an activity that would match a good number of standards, rather than just one or two. I suggested a joint book reading. My Polish friend agreed. The result was Pozmem — that’s a conflation of Poznan, the city in Poland, and Memphis.

As the website reveals, the central element of the project, the shared reading, failed. (You can see on the books page where it fizzled out.) An international book share demands a certain level of shared access and commitment, and unfortunately our project ran into the following pitfalls:

  • The book was too long and we didn’t set deadlines. Keeping two classrooms synchronized while reading a novel requires a great deal of planning. We tried to set limits on when chapters would be completed, but abrupt changes in each school’s schedules made keeping to this timeline difficult.
  • The Polish school didn’t get the books on time. I was also busy preparing my students for the state’s writing exam, so I had a strict schedule on my side for starting the project. My counterpart didn’t share that schedule. This could have been avoided by a more focused effort on the part of the teachers to synchronize the two classes.
  • The book was too difficult for both groups of students. The book, Hoot by Carl Hiaasen, was readable by both groups of students, but not in the compressed time frame they were given.

If I were to launch the project again, I’d know better how to avoid these pitfalls. Still, in spite of the missteps, I consider the project a success.

For one thing, the students had a rare opportunity to get to know their peers in another country. The profiles page allowed students to connect socially, an aspect of the project that was well received by the students. I’d advise teachers beginning such a project to establish a structure around the social element of collaboration: Students will be more interested in looking at each other’s profiles than in working, so proceeding without limits can prove to be a time sink. Still, there are worse ways to sink your time than communicating with someone in a different country.

Most importantly, we developed in our students a sense of empathy. Partway through the project, the airplane carrying Lech Kaczynski, the President of Poland, crashed in Russia. This crash wiped out a large portion of Poland’s government. My students, upon hearing about the crash, were genuinely concerned about the fate of Poland, a country they had never seen. They wanted to express their feelings about what had happened in a real and tangible way. The students made banners and sent them around the school for signatures. When they were finished we sent the banners to Poland. (The results can be seen on the messages page.) This activity allowed my students to share their enthusiasm for Poland with the rest of the school.

Wrapping it up

We concluded the project with a Skype chat. When I was rounding up my students for the early morning conversation (remember the time difference), I was struck that many students got last-minute jitters. They didn’t want to go on camera to meet the students from Poland — they were too afraid! I wanted the Polish students to have the opportunity, though, so I rounded up some other students at my school to work with the one student of mine who wasn’t reluctant to talk face-to-face. The result, and my messy classroom, can be seen in this photograph.

Advantages of international collaboration

Launching an international classroom collaboration project has a number of advantages. First, your students will get a sense of the world that they may never get anywhere else. Many U.S. students may never leave the borders of their own country. Since you can’t easily take your students out into the world, a technologically facilitated international project can bring the world to your students. As cliched as that may sound, it is a very valuable experience.

In my own experience, I heard my students talk about Poland for the rest of the school year, and talk about it as if they had been there. They became interested not only in Poland’s culture, but also its history — which meant that they displayed a new-found curiosity about the events of World War II. I also found that my students’ interest in one country led to an increased curiosity about other parts of the world.

Beyond the international point of view, a project of this nature can help your students develop 21st-century skills. As defined by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a project like this develops contextual thinking skills, or skills that help students realize the contexts in which they exist. An international project helps students understand their roles in the world and in their own country.

The technological work required for a project like this also requires technological literacy from students, from creating and editing wiki pages to live conferencing. Students will learn how to use computers, cameras, and maybe sound recording equipment. They will need to master internet use as well as offline tools including video-editing software and word processing.

Challenges and how to overcome them

An international project takes a lot of work on the front end. Teachers need to establish contacts, create virtual spaces, train students in their use, and prep students for working with people who may not share a first language with them. I advise teachers who are interested in a project to speak with each other about the project before beginning any work. Teachers need to have a sense of what the other side hopes to get out of the project. Students need to know how to communicate sensitively, including using correct language and limiting the use of slang.

Speaking of language, materials in an international project may need to be modified to suit students for whom English is a second or third language. While it is appropriate that the project should help them develop their language skills, it is important to not overwhelm students with language to the extent that they shut it out. If possible, the language used should be just above the students’ levels, landing squarely in the place known to educators as the zone of proximal development. Students should be able to comprehend the language without relying too heavily on outside support.

Quick tips

A few parting thoughts for teachers who are considering an international project:

Start simple.
Try having students introduce each other and ask each other questions. This will get them familiar with the concept of working with someone else online. Then, move on to tasks of slowly increasing complexity.
Keep it curricular.
You are in this project for a reason, so make sure you stick to it. It’s tempting to spend lots of time chatting about local dishes, but getting distracted makes the project less valuable.
Be brave.
Chances are, you may be the only one in your school who’s willing to embark on a project like this — at least for now. Don’t expect too much support, be self-sufficient, and you and your students will reap huge rewards. They will break down the walls that surround them and take the world firmly in their grasp.