Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Global Education On a Dime: A Low-Cost Way to Connect

Resources to help teachers create international collaboration projects on a small budget.

November 12, 2007

Educators don't need huge budgets to develop a global-education program. One of the best examples of this is a partnership called the Flat Classroom Project that started by connecting an international school in Dhaka, Bangladesh, with an American school in Camilla, Georgia, and has since expanded into many collaborative projects that bring together over 5,000 students in more than 30 countries around the world.

The project, based on Thomas L. Friedman's international best seller, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, calls on American students to partner with students across the globe and conduct a series of activities that deal with globalization.

Conceived by teachers Vicki Davis and Julie Lindsay (who had never met face-to-face until a year after they began working together), today’s Flat Classroom Projects charge a small fee – $50 for fifteen students per year, with $3.50 for each additional student – but this fee can be waived if a participating teacher volunteers for the project ("we call this ‘sweat equity,’" says Vicki Davis). Flat Classroom sister projects have sprung up over the past few years, too, including the NetGenEd project and Digiteen project.

Here are some ideas to consider based on the experiences of schools that have participated in these sorts of projects:

Use On-Hand, Real-World Resources

Finding readily available real-world resources in or near a school should be a priority for educators who want to create strong global-education programs, especially if they don't have cutting-edge technology or deep pockets.

These existing resources can include teachers, students, or community members from other countries (or who have family in other nations), businesses that work with overseas partners, or cultural organizations (such as churches or nonprofit organizations) that have an international component.

Shari Albright, former chief operating officer of the Asia Society's International Studies Schools Network, now the Norine R. Murchison Professor of Practice and Chair of the Department of Education at Trinity University, says finding community assets is often surprisingly productive. Albright describes how a new international-studies school in the rural farming community of Mathis, Texas, discovered that a local company was selling cattle guards to India. The business owner helped explain to the class how the relationship with an overseas buyer works, along with the logistical and cultural issues. Other schools have found immigrant seniors with whom students can practice their language skills or conduct interviews for reports.

"Mine your existing assets for what's there," says Albright. "Forget the technology for a while."

Focus on Content, Not Technology

Almost everyone who's developed a successful global-education program says the key is to focus on the skills and knowledge you hope students will gain, not the technology itself or even the "global-ness" of the activity.

These experts say a product or action should almost always be a part of the experience, whether the project is a service activity, a report, or a video. The idea is to provide a meaningful, skill-developing experience, not just a virtual field trip that is pleasant but not particularly deep or rigorous.

Cool (and Cheap) New Tools

Classroom wikis, student podcasts, and Google Earth's many functions are all fairly established ways for students and teachers to share information and work together across many time zones.

Initially, a class wiki was the main communication tool for the Flat Classroom Project. But newer tools, many of them cheap or free, are increasingly popular among those in the know.

For example, the Flat Classroom Project now includes a Ning -- a social-networking page with audio and text and video-uploading abilities -- that allows students to introduce themselves and exchange information. The Ning provides a channel for interactions among students that were once done via email, allowing teachers and other students to better experience what everyone else is doing. It even allows students in some countries to post content from their cell phones. As of July 2010, Ning is no longer free, so Flat Classroom Project participants’ small fees help share the costs. Participants also use Blackboard Collaborate to hold virtual meetings between teachers and students and record those meetings for those who can’t attend. Like Ning, Blackboard Collaborate also charges some fees, but meetings of three people or fewer are free.

"The connecting piece is the most difficult part," says Davis about getting the students to work together on different clocks. At first, she says, "We were doing it over email. We couldn't supervise. Here, all the group dynamics are out in the open for the teachers to observe."

To schedule planning and presentation time, they use a free version of a Web program called Timebridge, a time zone coordination service that integrates with participants’ Google calendars.

For live video conferencing, Flat Classroom frequently uses Skype, and for live video sharing, they use free tools Ustream and Livestream, which offer live video streaming anyone can watch online and chat about simultaneously. Some teachers and students also like FlashMeeting, a free service that has been described as a videoconferencing version of YouTube and that low-bandwidth schools can use to communicate online. For a complete list of Flat Classroom’s favorite tools, visit the website that Flat Classroom premiered in conjunction with their book on the project, published by Pearson in Feburary 2012.

ePals, a free, online global learning community for K–12 teachers and students that enables educators to find one another and protect children from unfiltered content, is already in use in many school districts around the country.

The U.S.-based branch of another well-known organization, iEARN (International Education and Resource Network), has 300 online collaborative projects to choose from. Users, who pay $100 per teacher or $400 per school, have access to a global community of tens of thousands of educators and an archive of collaborative projects going back twenty-four years.

For schools with little or no Internet connectivity, Journeys in Film offers strong lesson plans for viewing and discussing international cinema. Teaching guides cost $39.99 per movie with some elements, including a section called “Notes to the Teacher,” available for free.

Logistical Concerns

Getting over the expectation that programs need to feature frequent opportunities for live international videoconferencing may be one of the most important and difficult lessons for teachers and students to learn. "The thing about synchronous learning is that you have to be awake at the same time," says the Flat Classroom Project's Vicki Davis. With international programs, she notes, "that doesn't happen a lot."

The Flat Classroom Project uses live videoconferencing strategically, for early planning and final group presentations. But Davis isn't worried about insufficient face-to-face interaction for her students. "I'm trying to get my students to understand that the world is becoming asynchronous," she explains. "The workday flows around the world, and I want my students to understand that while they're sleeping, others are moving things forward."

Alexander Russo is a former teacher, education researcher, and legislative aide on education issues who blogs at's This Week in Education.

Go Global: Online Destinations for International Collaboration

Here are more Internet resources for educators seeking a worldwide forum for far-flung partnerships and for exchanging ideas and information:

Teacher's Guide to International Collaboration on the Internet: A resource guide developed to help teachers use the Internet to "reach out" globally. These materials were prepared as part of the U.S. Department of Education's International Education Initiative.

Global Education Collaborative: A social-networking site for educators interested in promoting global awareness.

Global SchoolNet: A site that engages teachers and students in project learning exchanges with people around the world to develop literacy and communication skills, foster teamwork and collaboration, encourage workforce preparedness, and create multicultural understanding.

Last updated: 01/17/2012 by Sara Bernard

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