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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

It Takes Many Villages to Make a World: The International Education and Resource Network (iEARN)

The borders of students' curriculum -- and classroom -- extend internationally.
By Edwin H. Gragert

Delegates attend the third annual International Youth Summit, in Puerto Rico, in 1999.

Credit: I*EARN U.S.A.

Giving our students a global exposure and enhancing their communication skills . . . will make a world of difference to their academic life and interest in the subject.
[From an iEARN teacher in Pakistan]

For this teacher, as for everyone involved in iEARN (the International Education and Resource Network), the objective is to prepare students to be motivated and active participants in their world.

And the objective is increasingly being met. Students in Belarus post their folktales on the Internet and in turn are treated to student interpretations of local stories from their own countries, providing a unique window into new cultures, customs, traditions, and beliefs. Middle school students in Australia research existing conditions about their wetlands, post them on the Internet as part of iEARN's Wetlands Project, and then reap the benefits of similar research done by students in Romania, Uganda, and the United States.

Students involved in a project to clear land mines not only study about the deadly remains of war, they are able to talk -- via email -- with experts in Mozambique and Afghanistan who do the clearing. The students also hear the stories of their peers across the world who must live with the land mines. And many then take the next step to raise money or write to policy makers to help end the horrible threat.

Romani Gypsy participants from Hungary contribute to the iEARN Indigenous Global Art Project.

Credit: I*EARN U.S.A.

Support Across Continents

iEARN is a network of teachers and students who use the Internet and email to carry out collaborative projects that embody activist teaching and learning. iEARN educators seek to prepare the youth of today for living in a multicultural and interdependent world that is being redefined every few years as technology and economics change.

In just twelve years of operation, iEARN has linked schools from Tucson, Arizona, to Paramaribo, Suriname, to Novosibirsk, Russia. iEARN works with approximately 350,000 students at 4,000 schools in more than ninety countries; twenty-nine languages are represented. Global projects are based on interactive discussions, in which students and teachers debate, research, and share opinions.

The projects run the gamut: global arts and music, city art videos, environmental action, the power of math, hunger, local birds, flowers and symbols, faces of war, indigenous peoples, the Holocaust and genocide, child labor, world religions, ending violence, international foods and cultural patterns, local history, solstice holidays, democracy in schools, and youth volunteerism and service.

A youth delegate from Cleveland visits with students at a local suburban Beijing school at the iEARN International Youth Summit in summer 2000.

Credit: I*EARN U.S.A.

The Importance of Collaboration

Through international collaboration, problems get solved. But the individual student benefits as well. We see heightened motivation in class. We see improved reading and writing skills. We see excited students taking one aspect of a project and expanding it to another that they created on their own.

But to create these motivated, internationally aware and connected students requires teachers with the technical skills and support to guide them. iEARN does not dictate what people should do but is a partner working with teachers, both new and experienced, to offer training, curriculum resources, inspiration, and human interaction around areas of mutual interest.

One of the central ideas behind the iEARN network is that by working together we can maximize our potential to enhance the quality of life on the planet. Every activity of iEARN stems from this vision. iEARN projects are intended to improve the health and well-being of the world through collaboration. All aspects, from curriculum projects to professional-development workshops, build on collaborative approaches.

For example, iEARN educators developed three- and five-day sets of workshops for a World Bank program called WorLD (World Links for Development). The workshops, titled "It Takes Many Villages to Make the World: Honoring People and Learning," emphasize community building, respect for others, and a focus on methods by which teachers can empower students to use technology to make a difference in their lives and the lives of the 6 billion inhabitants on the planet.

In the first session of the program, typical of the kinds of approaches used throughout, each participant learns a different skill, such as bookmarking on the Web, and then teaches that skill to another participant, creating a community of learners. They go on to learn about integrating curriculum into their classrooms, but the methods of learning remain collaborative, and the focus is on learning the technology for what it can accomplish with students.

Students from Sunnyside Elementary School, in Pullman, Washington, take part in a water-monitoring project through iEARN.

Credit: I*EARN USA

Technology Not an End in Itself

There is an ocean of difference between a workshop whose purpose is to familiarize teachers with a particular piece of software or hardware and one with the purpose of teaching how educators can prepare students to address racism or school conflict using technology. As educators, it is our responsibility to demonstrate how education can prepare students to address the issues facing the society in which they will be living.

Changing the focus of professional development to teaching and learning with a community purpose is only the first step. The next and ongoing component is interactive support when teachers return to their schools and their own computers. As the research of University of California at Irvine education professor Hank Becker and others has shown, less than 10 percent of teachers with access to the technology actually engage in collaborative projects.

Significant support is imperative. Toward this end, newly trained iEARN teachers are able immediately and meaningfully to interact online with peers through online support communities. To be sustainable, responsibility for this support structure is primarily in the hands of the teachers themselves.

It Won't Be Easy

But much more must be done, as is evidenced by complaints from students who move from a school in which global interaction is an integral part of the academic program to one in which it is not. Young men and women write back to us from college and say, "We're so disappointed. We got to college, and they don't even interact with native speakers in my Spanish class. In high school in iEARN, that's all we did."

The goal of iEARN is to have people go to the source in dealing with the problems we face -- locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. If iEARN students learn when they are children that they can go directly to real people in China to learn about an issue, they will carry that knowledge with them to adulthood. They won't have to rely on a thirty-second sound bite when they hear about a crisis on the other side of the world. They will be encouraged to think collaboration, not confrontation.

People, languages, cultures, and social structures in this global environment are in constant interaction. It is our hope that an increase in collaboration will result in a lessening of ignorance about other cultures and realities and, therefore, result in a reduction in conflict. Our purpose as educators is to facilitate and nurture the powerful curiosity and natural enthusiasm for learning that all people have.

Edwin Gragert is director of iEARN-USA.

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