George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Global Learning: Connecting the World with ePals

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

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.

Was this useful?

Comments (15) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Angie B.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think the ePals program seems like a very rewarding option for all levels of education. In the school system where I work, the county has implemented 1 hour of "Technology Education" for the students per week. This past school was the pilot year for this program across the county. I know it was just the beginning of the program, but I think having something like ePals integrated into that curriculum (and even the curriculum within the general ed classroom) would be very beneficial. I teach Kindergarten, and I've noticed over the years that these little guys are really interested in people in other places - even when they don't fully understand the difference between a state and a country. They're interested in how others are different or the same as them. I think something like ePals could even be incorporated into the primary grades, and I really like the idea of this opening up new doors for the future generation to get to know one another and about what's happening all around the world.

Jessica's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been looking for a way to expose my very rural students to life outside of their town. I think it is important to connect with other kids of different backgrounds (not only international but also kids in different areas of the US). I think epals sounds like a good way to get my students learning about different cultures.

Trey Wilcox of Conyers GA's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I find this fascinating. I grew up having a snail mail Pen Pal from school that became my Pen Pal from the 3rd grade until college age. Kottler, Zehm, and Kottler (2005) label teachers as the communicators of society. They go on to explain how to increase the level of communication among our students. I think Pen Pals is a great way to accomplish this goal. It also provides an authentic application of the skills they are learning. I have started searching the internet for Pen Pals for my class this year. I would like to explore more than just writing. I would like to exchange Math problem-solving challenges and examine Science/Social Studies topics. With the availability of email, this exchange could be more timely and make the discussions more relevant. I would like to still have a snail mail exchange so the students can develop their interpersonal communication skills. I think this is a wonderful way to expose students to the wide world and encourage them to think outside the box while developing communication skills.

Kottler, J. A., Zehm, S. J., & Kottler, E. (2005). On being a teacher: The human dimension (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Miranda Faulds's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you. I think all children are curious as to how people are alike and different from them. This could be a great gateway into relevant learning about geography, cultures, and forms of Social Studies. Not to mention, the students will be working with technology.

Ed Fish's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is heartening to read the comments from all of you about the benefits of authentically collaborating with other classrooms, teachers and students. This is the reason for ePals. We think that we're one important piece of bringing 21st century skills to students around the globe, in a manner that is accessible to all. We worked with Ferdi Serim to create a white paper about implementing the new NETs standards that you might find helpful.

One pragmatic way to involve your entire community in authentic skill building (reading, writing, critical thinking) for students is through In2Books (free to Title I classrooms through the sponsorship of generous corporations).

Ed Fish, CEO ePals

Suzie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Jessica,
The beauty of these online spaces is how they allow you to connect with the wider world--no matter how rural your own community. At this year's National Educational Computing Conference, I heard a wonderful presentation by Scott Parker from a district in Hill City, Kansas. His hometown may be tiny, but his students collaborate in fantastic ways with fellow learners from around the globe using ePals(, iEARN (, Journey North (, and other online resources that help to flatten the world.
Good luck!

Lorraine's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I've found epals to be a great place to find and connect with teachers and students for short and long term projects. My first experience with epals was setting up an epal exchange with a school in Adelaide, South Australia. The epals database made finding a teacher working with the same age students in the same type of school very easy. We were continents apart and yet as the students corresponded, they found that they had many things in common.
This past year I was looking for a teacher in Japan who would be interested in a project that my students and I were working on. Through epals I was able to find and communicate with a Japanese teacher using the epals built in translator option. This correspondance would never have been possible without the epals network of educators.

Jamie Lewis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This program sounds terrific. My third grade class in in North Carolina was able to communicate with a second grade class in China for a year. This worked because my cousin was in the second grade class and my aunt helped us connect. The children loved it. We sent emails, regular letters and a video. I did not know that doing something similar would be so easy.

Carol Johnson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been involved with a program called Trucker Buddy. Truck drivers send postcards from around the US to the class. Then I use them to help teach the SS curriculum. That is a very general description, but it is fabulous. It helps with Language standards, but also gives kids a different view of truck drivers. I use that to talk about prejudice, preconceived notions, etc. My buddy even comes to visit the class.

Check it out:

Chris's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

How would this work for a teacher with 150 students? Would the school system have to allow access of the ePals program, and are computer viruses and other hidden dangers screened?

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.