For all our talk of globalization and the flat world, it's worth remembering that to most eleventh graders, places like Oman and the United Arab Emirates are still about as exotic as the moon. That's why Jamie Buchanan-Dunlop, founder of the British Offscreen Education Programme, says he likes to start with the basics when bringing together kids from different parts of the world.
"It's very important to learn what your average Moroccan farmer eats for breakfast, or what music your average Omani teenager listens to," he says.
The Offscreen Education Programme takes small groups of British schoolkids from working-class backgrounds on international expeditions most social studies teachers only dream about. Earlier this year, Buchanan-Dunlop led a group of nine students from four East London schools to the United Arab Emirates and Oman. They toured the skyscrapers of Dubai with local students and rode camels through the Bedouin camps of the Wahiba Sands. And along the way, the students kept diaries.
Downtown Dubai inspired a student named Reagan to write that "Dubai is a much more diverse and modernly developed country far greater than what England will ever be." And Radhika was speechless after a hot-air balloon ride over the Omani desert at sunrise, saying in a text message, "It is really hard to describe my feelings at this very moment because there is so much 2 say and I don’t know where 2 start and because of all the excitement."
A Truly Shared Experience
Technically, only nine students took this trip, but Buchanan-Dunlop describes it as an adventure shared by 20,000 students across the United Kingdom. In addition to their diary entries, the student travelers shot and edited digital video and slide shows of many of their adventures, which were then uploaded to a blog. Back in London, teenagers at participating high schools followed their progress, submitting questions each day for the traveling students to respond to with a blog entry or a video.
"The goal was to communicate a more balanced image of the Middle East to the U.K. classroom," Buchanan-Dunlop says. "The pupils were working in mosques and talking to people, relaying a much more balanced view back to their peers."
But "relaying" their travels presented a challenge. There may be little novelty these days in uploading a video or a blog entry to share with people thousands of miles away. But what about doing it from the middle of the Wahiba Sands?
The solution: a satellite modem.
The Offscreen Education team relied on a satellite Internet-connectivity system called a broadband global area network (BGAN) that uses a portable terminal -- about the size of a telephone answering machine -- to go online from places where even telephone poles may not exist.
"You can go online anywhere,” says Buchanan-Dunlop. "You may have to get out of a forest or out from between buildings, but you can upload video from anywhere in the world."
Armed with expensive laptops, digital still and video cameras, the satellite terminal, and global-positioning-system units, the team members completed the equivalent of a college course in new media. "We gathered short videos, images, and GPS data, edited it on laptops, used Google Earth to geo-tag the blog entries and videos, and uploaded that to a WordPress-based Web site using the satellite connection to provide upload capability," Buchanan-Dunlop says. However, upload speeds aren't fast enough to participate live with students back home, so the team settled on a one-day delay between the experience itself and sharing it with others back home.
Needless to say, it was not an inexpensive trip. Satellite Internet systems can run up to $8,000, not to mention the cost of digital cameras, laptops, lodging, and air fare for nine students and a handful of team leaders. But most of that, says Buchanan-Dunlop, came from either cash or in-kind donations, including the satellite modem -- a loan from Applied Satellite Technology, a U.K. firm.
And Buchanan-Dunlop is now courting sponsors for a series of new student trips to Kenya and Russia, emphasizing that the world has never needed this type of direct educational experience more. Offscreen Education groups, he points out, work essentially the same way an international news team might, using much of the same equipment for sending reports back home, but instead of focusing on news and conflict, the student teams aim for the mundane. Buchanan-Dunlop chose the Middle East for the first large-scale trip because he believes that nowhere else has cultural misunderstanding become so treacherous and the need for simple communication among ordinary people so great.
For example, Reagan writes, "On the way to the desert, I was having a conversation with our driver about Oman and Dubai. He told me some interesting things that I didn't know, like when Emiratis get married, the government pays money to them to help with the preparations. And if they have children, the government pays weekly or monthly, depending on the circumstances."
Buchanan-Dunlop says the most important discovery students make about people in far-flung reaches of the planet is that they aren't always all that different. "Students are finding out that they have far more in common than they have differences," he says. “They listen to the same music; they have the same concerns.”
Just as important, says Buchanan-Dunlop, is making sure these discoveries go both ways. And, in this case, it looks like it will: The 2008 trip will bring students from Oman to the United Kingdom.
Amy Standen is a former contributing editor to Edutopia. She reports on science and the environment for KQED-FM, in San Francisco.