George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Global Learning: Connecting the World with ePals

July 21, 2008

When teachers talk about how much they and their students gain by connecting with learners in other parts of the world, their enthusiasm is downright contagious. Yet for all the promise of learning across distances, these wonderful flat-world projects still seem to be the exception rather than the norm. (See Chris O'Neal's Spiral Notebook blog entry "What Does 'The World Is Flat' Mean for Education?: A Closer Look at Our Educational Globe.") What will it take to make global, collaborative learning more accessible for all?

Ed Fish, CEO of ePals, is eager to remove barriers so that learners around the world will have a chance to connect and communicate in meaningful ways. Founded in 1996, ePals recently underwent a twenty-first-century business makeover and now offers its updated communications platform to schools free. The ePals Global Learning Community includes some thirteen million students and teachers in 200 countries, making it the largest online community in K-12 education.

But there's still plenty of room to grow, Fish believes. Expansion could be rapid, as ePals's applications are available for both One Laptop Per Child's XO computer and the Intel-powered Classmate PC.

I had a chance to talk with Fish recently during the National Educational Computing Conference. Here are the highlights of our conversation.

Why does global learning matter today?

The National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) for Students and the new NETS for Teachers emphasize a set of core principles that are quite important for building twenty-first-century skills. Now we need to move to a new conversation about implementation: If I'm a teacher, how do I make these standards real in my classroom? How do I wrap collaboration around my current curriculum?

What barriers do teachers face?

Time is such a precious commodity. If the goal is to be collaborative, then we need to decrease the amount of time and work involved in collaboration. We have designed ePals to help you find like-minded folks faster. We bring some automation to this process of creating global connections. That releases teachers to focus more of their time on things such as creativity and innovation, which the NETS talk about.

You came to ePals from industry. How does your previous work at AOL inform what you are doing now?

When I was at AOL, we thought about how to make products, such as instant messaging, scalable at thirty million or forty million users. To really transform education, ideas have to be practical for the average person in the average classroom. A lot of projects, as wonderful as they are, can't be easily adopted by others. We want to take these great projects, hold them up to the light, and pull out the ideas that many people will be able to implement.

Don't you risk oversimplifying good projects that way?

I don't mean making projects one-size-fits-all. It's not about catering to the lowest common denominator. What I mean is the ability for others to rapidly implement and adapt a good idea. There's room for both commonality and customization.

If teachers haven't visited ePals in a while, what will they find that's new?

Most people know us for our safe and protected communications tools, including email and blogs, and for a community where you can find collaborators. At the end of 2006, ePals merged with a program called In2Books, a curriculum-oriented program that pairs students with students or students with adult mentors. They read and study something in common, and then have a scaffolded dialogue. (See the Edutopia article "Real-Life Lit: Pen Pals Share Books -- and the Love of Books.")

We're expanding that program this fall with a special emphasis on Title I schools. We have also partnered strategically with National Geographic. That allows us to offer high-quality content for learning about issues of global significance, such as global warming, habitats, and natural disasters. And we have started to integrate professional development directly into the collaborative process. We all learn better when we do.

What does global learning look like when it works well?

We had one collaboration that involved schools in Kenya and New Jersey. Both schools were interested in water. They started with a project that used blogs. Students took pictures and analyzed questions about water: How far are you from a water source? Do you have to carry it? What about sanitation?

Then something really interesting happened. They kept the dialogue going after the water project ended. Students began discussing the upcoming elections. Kenyan students wanted to know about the possibility of what they saw as an African president in the United States.

Then the elections happened in Kenya, and the violence. That brought out a whole new set of issues. Students learned that there is a multiplicity of viewpoints, formed at least in part by where you live. So, here you began with a curriculum around global warming and water. Not only did you achieve those learning goals, but you also went on to see more communication about the issues and topics of the day. That's what twenty-first-century learning should be.

What do you think about Fish's observations? Please share your thoughts.

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