George Lucas Educational Foundation

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

Resources to help teachers create international collaboration projects on a small budget.
By Alexander Russo
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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.
Last updated: 01/17/2012 by Sara Bernard

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

Erica Stianchi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Why not reach across town? I for one think that is a great idea. My district, for example, has 4 elementary schools. Although we all have the same curriculum, we go about teaching it in very different ways. I think it would be great to use this service (or a similar one) to connect to teachers and students from another district school and discuss how they are teaching/learning the same content. We'd get new ideas, be able to communicate, all without having to get in our cars and pollute the ozone!

Ezra Hill, Jr.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Which applications will allow us to reach across town and around the world, in whole classrooms with web based applications and two-way synchronous audio-video capability?

Let's talk.

Jenny 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Flat classrooms are great ideas. After reading through a number of comments, I have to agree with observations that support both global and local student interactions. I agree that, while going global certainly is important, it is just as important to link to local communities. I especially like the idea of linking a city school with a rural school; I think students from each would be surprised to learn their similarities as well as their differences. However, I do believe it is equally important to connect globally; it is definitely a flat world with which younger generations will be working and communicating.

Jen Blanco's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found this article really interesting. I can imagine that when schools hear the word technology, they automatically think "how much is this going to cost?" The two teachers that created the "Flat-classroom Project" have found a way for educators to integrate technology and globilization for a relatively low cost. The world is becoming so international that it is virtually impossible for students not to be connected with students from other countries. It is really important that they learn how to communicate. I like when the article talked about how you need to focus on content, not technology. That was really interesting and demonstrated to me how the technology is almost invisible at that point. The students are using it to communicate but that should not be the focus. The communication should be the focus. The article also gave lots of useful and low-cost websites for teachers to use to start a successful Flat Classroom. Overall, this was very interesting.

Callie Harlan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In a technology crazy world, its nice to see how learning can happen without the most popular or expensive tools and softwares. It's hard to think about new and exciting ways of learning and not be worried with the cost factor. Also, I think it helps the students view the world both internationally and locally. I found this part very interesting: "The workday flows around the world, and I want my students to understand that while they're sleeping, others are moving things forward." I don't think this is something that most students think about and being able to connect this way might be good.

Callie Harlan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In a technology crazy world, its nice to see how learning can happen without the most popular or expensive tools and softwares. It's hard to think about new and exciting ways of learning and not be worried with the cost factor. Also, I think it helps the students view the world both internationally and locally. I found this part very interesting: "The workday flows around the world, and I want my students to understand that while they're sleeping, others are moving things forward." I don't think this is something that most students think about and being able to connect this way might be good.

James McQuade's picture

I love that the technology to open doors to the world is becoming so easily accessible to most students. I think the idea behind communicating with a school in Italy rather than in the "little Italy" community in the nearest city comes down to providing students with an honest, unbiased and authentic cultural experience. The nearest city version of Italy will naturally be a modified american or canadian version of the real Italy, which provides students with a slightly skewed picture. I think if you have the opportunity get the milk directly from the cow, then you should. It doesn't get any more real than that. I also think it's important for students to have a sense of community and to get involved with the nearby "little Italy" communities. Having a new found understanding of the genuine culture will better prepare the students to help those communities and help form stronger connections.

Erin's picture

I didn't realize how many free programs and services were out there to use in a classroom setting. I agree with the point that is made in the article about technology not being the main focus, but rather a means to an end. I think sometimes teachers (including myself) get caught up in the technology aspect too much when we should be more worried about teaching our content.

Patricia Green's picture

The importance here rather than the focus on technology is building a relationship through various technological devices with a common interest and that is to share education. Globalization has proven itself has a medium that's vast in comparison to none other. Developing a global connection in school serves as a lifelong experience for students because this is the direction that society is going in. Such an experience is priceless and should be appreciated in its entirety.

Michael's picture

This was an interesting article. I have heard of a few of these collaborative international programs before, but am still a bit confused how they work. The article makes mention of the fact that the students need to obviously be awake in order to interact with one and other, however I don't see how this is possible with students on opposite sides of the world. I totally agree with students meeting and interacting with people from different cultures and traditions. In order to prepare students for the "real world" they should get accustomed to working and interacting with people of different sex, race, religion, or political views. I would like to see a few of these programs in action to better understand their potential.

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