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January/February 1999
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The Internet Potential for an Education of Hope
By Edwin H. Gragert, Director, I*EARN-USA
iearn@iearn.org

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 of hope.

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 educational sites.

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 pool.

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.
Collaborative project work via the Internet has the potential for demonstrating that knowledge exists everywhere and that valuable perspectives also exist in countries outside the United States and Europe. For the first time, the content of what a person writes is conveyed without the visual packaging of gender, race, age, or national origin, which can and do influence how people receive the information.

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 can—when they join with others either nearby or around the world—play a role in solutions to the issues that face humanity.

At the 1997 I*EARN International Conference in Budapest, Hungary, Charly and Cathy Bullock—two teachers from A:Shiwi Elementary School, a Native American school in the United States—met 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 learning—students did not even realize they were learning—students 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 suffered.

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 expenses—clear 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 Internet—when combined with face-to-face interaction—can 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.

For more information about I*EARN-USA, send e-mail to iearn@iearn.org or visit the I*EARN-USA site at http://www.iearn.org.


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