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The rise of the globally connected student


Today's students are the first globally connected citizens, able to contribute easily to a global discussion of issues.
Today's students are the first globally connected citizens, able to contribute easily to a global discussion of issues.

Next month we will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, which fell Nov. 9, 1989, and many no doubt will sing the praises of Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev for this important historical marker signaling the end of the Cold War.

But there are, of course, many others who deserve credit. Who, for example, remembers that just a year before the wall’s collapse, the Soviet Union and the United States engaged in a unique educational experiment?

The architect of this partnership was a former New York teacher, Peter Copen, who used “computerized electronic mail” (the precursor of eMail) and the first satellite phones (the internet was still a plaything of the military) to connect a dozen schools in New York with a dozen in Moscow. The project’s goal was to improve understanding and break down Cold War tensions.

The project’s symbolic value was clearly as important as what it led to: the network’s expansion to include nine other countries and, after 9/11, the creation of a now 2 million user strong network across 120 countries–the International Education and Resource Network (iEARN).

Like many people in the U.S., President Obama seems not to have heard of iEARN or other international educational networks that now span the globe and are used proportionally in greater numbers by non-U.S. students.

In his famous Cairo speech, our 44th president called for the creation of “a new online network, so a young person in Kansas can communicate instantly with a young person in Cairo.”

The vision the president set forth was an exciting one–he said he looked forward to a world where we would begin to break down centuries of misunderstanding between the Muslim and the non-Muslim worlds through the same kind of youth-to-youth exchanges that Peter Copen advocated almost two decades ago.

This vision already is taking place in several forward-thinking schools. The fact that networks like iEARN (and others such as ePals and Global SchoolNet) already exist means we no longer have an excuse to continue to use technology in schools as a glorified electronic textbook, useful mainly as a labor-saving device.

We can start using technology to let young people communicate and collaborate with their peers around the world. These networks have solved some of the key barriers to internet use in schools, chief among them security issues that worry teachers and parents alike.

Global networks such as iEARN and ePals insulate student communication from the rest of the internet and let teachers monitor eMail accounts, as well as provide for the creation of secure blogs that can only be seen by the recipients. Assisted by standards-based curriculum materials, these networks link participants from a diverse range of countries in a discussion of globally relevant issues.

One project led by a facilitator in Iran compares women’s social and political statuses in different countries. Another focuses on the role the United Nations plays in the world.

John Dewey famously said, “Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.”

A globe full of torment and confusion and danger is made all the more visible by the 24-7 news cycle that today’s students are relentlessly exposed to.

We can pretend in our classrooms that this electronic reality does not exist and that the old rules apply–adults know best, and students need to wait their turn to learn and speak about the issues that so concern them–for everything from global warming to terrorism and flu pandemics. Or, we can let our students engage with the world in ways and on levels they can understand and relate to–ones that are more comprehensible when they understand the perspectives of their peers from other countries.

In survey after survey, the key thing students seem to crave in schools is relevance. If they can find it in their lessons, then they can engage.

Students are looking for personal meaning that can reach out to them amid the forest of facts they need to memorize for a test. How much better would it be, for example, if–rather than plotting the principal rivers and mountains of a country on a worksheet–students understand the perils of water shortages on a continent like Africa and understand firsthand how key fresh drinking water is to their health and economic futures?

We are all inheritors of the new globally interdependent world created after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today’s students are marked by being the first globally connected citizens, able use their computers and cell phones to connect to all regions of the Earth and contribute to a global discussion through Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and unlimited web sites.

This is a generation that understands the importance of personal connections–even with those they might never meet. Instead of ignoring these facts, we should welcome the opportunity to promote a deeper kind of global awareness using the dynamic ways that new technologies allow.

Laurence Peters is the author of Global Education: Using Technology to Bring the World to Your Students (International Society for Technology in Education, 2009). More information can be found at www.laurencepeters.com.

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