The Internet Potential for an Education of Hope
By Edwin H. Gragert, Director, I*EARN-USA
The New York Times of August 30, 1998, reported on a new study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University that suggests that online activity leads to a "sad, lonely world." The study found that "relationships maintained over long distances without face-to-face contact" do not lead to a sense of psychological security and happiness. Our experience linking students andteachers around the world during the past 10 years demonstrates that a combination of meaningful online collaboration and physical meetings enhances learning, creates a positive attitude toward education, and raises levels of self-esteem.
Nowadays we read daily that the Internet is the most powerful
educational tool the world has ever seen, that it will transform
education. Yet the uses on which most people have focused are
its massive, yet passive storage capability and its role as a
research tool. Those uses will not transform education. They are
simply putting an old paradigm into a new technological environment.
If we are to take advantage of its power, the Internet must be
more than a larger library or a place to put Web pages - as valuable
as those uses are.
The power of the Internet is in its human connective potential.
By connecting us as global citizens and local community members,
we learn better. We open ourselves to new ideas and in turn shape
the thinking of others through diverse input. We and our students
become empowered to apply learning within our societies and in
the global community in ways that can impact powerfully and positively
on lives and environments.
In short, the Internet has the potential for creating an education
We learn more when interacting with real people.
For the first time in human history, we as educators have the
opportunity and responsibility to prepare students for adult life
through meaningful collaborative interaction with anyone on the
globe. Rather than studying about another society and its people,
our students have the potential for learning with the individuals
in those societies. Research and our I*EARN experience tell us
learning is enhanced and retained when it is gained through experiential
interaction with real people, learning together on a reciprocal
basis. Teachers both in the United States and around the world
tell us that students are more motivated to learn and that their
communications skills improve through online work with other real
students. Students voluntarily spend more time ensuring their
writing is clear, grammatically correct, and well researched when
they know it is to be read by peers who will value it and respond
to it with their own perspectives.
Dominick Camastro, a social studies teacher at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, New York, reports that students who used to skip classes or express little enthusiasm for studying are now reluctant to leave a computer until they feel their writing is the best it can be. He also points to his students' performances on New York State Regents examinations as proof that the interdisciplinary and online nature of the projects has improved his students' writing. In Regents exams, students have to discuss contemporary and historical issues, demonstrate polished writing skills, and explain points convincingly. "The greatest benefits of these online projects is that they teach students to think critically and explain themselves thoroughly," says Dominick.
Reciprocity of Knowledge Sharing
Not only do we learn more, but also we learn that two-way and
mutually respectful interaction of ideas and perspectives with
other people is valuable and in fact a prerequisite skill for
success in the 21st century. We often read about the benefit telecommunications
technology brings to countries around the world because it gives
them access to the great repositories of information that resides
in libraries and scholars' heads in the United States and Western
Europe. We are eager to share our favorite educational WWW sites,
which often are also loaded with the newest Java applets and striking
graphics. Corporations, with their vast multimedia and financial
resources, are jumping into the market of providing visually attractive
Students quickly absorb the lesson that knowledge comes from "out
there" and can be downloaded and pasted directly into research
papers rather than be the result of creative and critical thinking
on their own part. Students in non-Western societies too often
are taught that the most valuable knowledge is in the technologically
and materially advanced countries. They are not taught that they
can and should be active contributors to the world's knowledge
Further, students worldwide receive the message that English is
the key to learning. They seldom are encouraged to see the value
in diverse cultural traditions and perspectives that are both
shaped and expressed by differing linguistic backgrounds.
Learning into Action
When used interactively and toward a purpose larger than the individual
learner, the Internet has the potential for delivering and transforming
information and knowledge into a basis for action.
The learning gained within the classroom needs to be shared through
action with the broader society and world. I*EARN encourages students
to be involved in enhancing the quality of life on the planet.
It is that action/service component that gives purpose to I*EARN
and empowers students to know that they as individuals canwhen
they join with others either nearby or around the worldplay a
role in solutions to the issues that face humanity.
At the 1997 I*EARN International Conference in Budapest, Hungary,
Charly and Cathy Bullocktwo teachers from A:Shiwi Elementary
School, a Native American school in the United Statesmet Siriluk,
a teacher from Thailand, who told them about the indigenous Karen
people in her country. Six months later, Siriluk wrote passionately
to her new Native American friends that the Thai government was
pushing the Karen people farther north into the wilderness. In
their new environment, the Karens suffered from cold without sufficient
blankets. The A:Shiwi teachers took this need into their classrooms,
generating a geography project, an economics project, a mathematics
proj-ect, an indigenous students art project (that is posted on
the WWW), and an Asian contemporary affairs project. In the process
of learningstudents did not even realize they were learningstudents
raised $1,800 to buy blankets for their fellow indigenous student
friends. They completed the project knowing they had affected
the lives of real students. Just as important, the U.S. A:Shiwi
students who have suffered racism and economic injustice for many
years have been able to bond and work with others who also have
Combining Online Work and Face-to-Face Events
In 1994, after the first six pioneering years of online collaborative
work, I*EARN teachers asked for an opportunity to come together
so they could meet and talk about how this amazing technology
was reshaping their classrooms. With financial assistance from
the Argentine Ministry of Education, the first I*EARN International
Teachers Conference was held in Puerto Madryn, Argentina, and
involved 120 educators from nine countries. The event made us
realize that physical meetings are a necessity in the building
of an online community.
Subsequent international conferences in Australia, Hungary, Spain,
and the United States have confirmed that realization. In July
1998 more than 400 educators from 46 countries came together in
Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the now annual weeklong conference
and discussed the ways they are integrating online project work
in their classrooms. The teachers were joined by students from
23 countries at the second annual I*EARN International Youth Summit.
Most participants paid for all or part of their transportation
and conference expensesclear evidence that they value highly
such face-to-face interaction.
After such events, teachers and students return to their countries
and communities motivated to maintain and strengthen the bonds
formed in their global community and armed with new project ideas
to enhance teaching and learning in their classrooms.
In addition, online projects such as Faces of War enabled students
to interview members of their families and communities about wartime
experiences and feelings, which were then shared globally through
collaborative on-line discussions with students currently in conflict
situations. The positive experiences in those face-to-face conversations
demonstrate that carefully designed online project work can both
build meaningful global connections and "maintain social ties
with people in close physical proximity," which the Carnegie study
finds are psychologically healthy.
"We used to talk about young adults as Generation X," says Rebecca
Rimel, president and chief executive officer of the Pew Charitable
Trusts. "Now we've moved into Generation Why. "Why should I care?"
"Why should I bother to get involved?" Often our classrooms are
environments of alienation, and in such an environment, education
seemingly lacks purpose.
Alienated and cynical students lack consciousness of hope. It
is our responsibility as educators to enable our students to envision
and make real a world in which students are meaningfully engaged
in the pressing issues facing them. In our experience, the Internetwhen
combined with face-to-face interactioncan offer an environment
characterized by interactivity, mutual respect, and creative problem
solving around real issues.
This is a vision for an edu-cation of hope. In my opinion, there
is no better education/preparation for living and succeeding in
the 21st century.