Making a World of Difference Through Online Global Education

11/20/2009  |  DINA GUIRGUIS
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In his May 2009 address to the Arab world, President Obama promised to invest in online learning and called for the creation of a “new online network, so a young person in Kansas can communicate instantly with a person in Cairo.”

To all of us at the International Education and Resource Network, (iEARN) this sounded a little familiar. That’s because for the past 21 years, iEARN-USA has been doing just that: Connecting teachers and students online from the United States to classrooms all over the world.

President Obama’s comment brought attention to what many in the education community have been advocating for years:An emphasis on technology combined with global awareness to provide our young people with the tools to contribute to society and become active participants in the world. More importantly, his promise was a commitment to foster 21st Century skills in America’s youth and to internationalizing U.S. education.

iEARN’s network of 35,000 teachers and two million students in 130 countries focuses on meaningful collaborative project work. Each project has a designated online forum, and each day thousands of students are thinking critically and working in teams to solve problems, while at the same time they are using technology to collaborate and gain global awareness. All of these are skills outlined in the Framework for 21st Century Learning.

How Does iEARN Work?

Once an educator registers to become a member of the iEARN network, he/she gains access to 200 online thematic-based projects that are designed and facilitated by teach

ers and students. Students work on the project’s components and meet regularly in the safe and secure online forums with classes across the globe to discuss their various project activities. Students can post in any written language in the world and so many of the projects are part of foreign language classes. In each project space students can share media files, including art, sound, videos, and photographs — enabling them to share their culture and personal stories and perspectives.

All projects — which span major curriculum subjects — require students to think critically, creatively and innovatively; practice cross-cultural communication; and become literate in one or more of the 21st Century interdisciplinary themes such as global awareness and civic engagement. Throughout the entire online interaction, students are constantly collaborating with their peers, both near and across borders in iEARN’s virtual global community.

Forexample,in iEARN’s “One Day in the Life”project students use a digital camera to document a typical day in their lives and write a description for each image. Their images are posted and shared in the project’s media gallery. Through this creative project students can experience what it’s like to live in another country — such as what mealtime is like or what mode of transportation is used to get to school — without ever having to leave their classrooms. In this project this year, iEARN is collaborating with USAID to commemorate “World Habitat Day”throughout 2009-2010. Students will use photography to share images of their homes as a way of building cross-cultural respect and awareness. By interacting WITH their peers internationally, students learn with the world and not just ABOUT it.

Nicolle Boujaber-Diederichs, a teacher at Orlando’s Cypress Creek High School, credits the personal interaction on the iEARN forums with crushing some of the stereotypes or misconceptions her students had about others. Utilizing the “My Identity, Your Identity” project,her studentsare exploring and researching the elements that form their identities, as well as the identity of others. Participation in the project also sharpens their writing and communication skills and teaches them how to collaborate with others.

“We joined iEARN because we wanted to connect and learn about the similarities and differences between cultures straight from students’ point of view in other countries; my students not only learned that certain countries exist in the world, like Azerbaijan or Oman, but that the students in other countries are more alike then they expected,” Boujaber-Diederichs said. “Plus, this was a great way to get away from textbook teaching and have students use technology which they love and keeps them engaged.”

In addition to project work, educators in the iEARN network have access to a multitude of professional development tools. Online courses and training help teachers explore how to integrate technology into their curriculum and how to use online collaborative projects that meet their local, state and national educational standards. Webinars and face-to-face workshops on internationalizing education to both members and non-members are offered frequently by iEARN.

Each year teachers and students gather at iEARN’s annual International Conference and Youth Summit — one of the largest and the most diverse gatherings of educators worldwide — to share their work. The week-long conference also features workshops and presentations designed to introduce educators to new tools in online and international collaboration. The conference rotates to a different international location each year. In 2009 it was held in Morocco, and in 2010 it will be held in Toronto, Canada.

21 Years of 21st Century Skills

iEARN began as a modest collaborative project in 1988, linking 12 schools in Moscow (in then USSR) to 12 schools in New York State. Founder and visionary Peter Copen, a former businessman from New York, recognized that critical issues facing the planet were not being addressed in schools, and that young people could and should be taught how to deal with the issues that face humanity as part of their education. In 1990 iEARN expanded to nine countries. Since that time, iEARN has grown to become the world’s largest, most experienced online K-12 non-profit network.

The network’s sustainability is due in large part to the successful community-building among teachers and students over the past 21 years. We have seen over these years, and research has demonstrated, that teachers will stay connected online if the activities meet their classroom needs, and if they see demonstrable improvements in learning. With classroom needs increasingly focused on the attainment of essential 21st Century skills, we strongly support President Obama’s call to expand international online learning and look forward to working with other organizations making a world of difference by connecting students worldwide.

For more information on iEARN projects and programs, visit www.us.iearn.org.
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