Two global education champions, Asia Society’s Tony Jackson and Soliya’s Lucas Welch, have published blog posts this week that go to heart of the mission of our Connect All Schools consortium. Both posts are stark reminders of how little US and Muslim relations have changed since September 11, 2001. Both posts, however, are also optimistic in how much more capable we are—with new tools, resources, and knowledge—to positively affect these relations.
Both Tony and Lucas zoom in on the recent Libya tragedy and importance of young Americans understanding their peers worldwide. In his Education Week blog, Tony focuses on empowerment and taking action in our communities:
The most promising approach to changing this is to make the need known. Students, parents, businesses, communities, national security, and every other stakeholder should identify education as a primary means to greater global competency, security, and stability. Specific focus is needed on integrating into the curriculum, knowledge and skills that further understanding of the world and how it works. Find models that work for your communities. Demand that decisions and investments are aligned toward goals that include global competence.
Let’s take what we know about the world today and create opportunities for the next generation to make it better.
On Huffington Post Religion, Lucas begins his eloquent post on the death of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens with a focus on building respectful long-term relationships using new technologies. He asks:
Chris has shown us the power of relationships, but we need to translate that power into the age of social media. We need to determine how we can leverage the power of these new technologies to emulate the way he interacted but at a vastly larger scale, so the hateful bile of fringe Americans is not what defines us, and so our actions as a society are more informed by a respect and understanding for the people they affect.
What if all of the Arab youth who have taken to the streets in recent years had an American in their life who listened to them, showed respect for their values and cared about their rights? And what if our next generation of policy-makers, journalists, and religious leaders had Arab friends and worked to ensure our policies and pronouncements genuinely lived up to the ideals we espouse for them?
The Connect All Schools consortium was formed to assist schools build the relationships and global competencies Tony and Lucas write about in their posts. Since 9/11, consortium members have led the development of hundreds of new programs and projects to foster strong relations between the West and the Islamic world, efforts that focused on building trust, mutual understanding, and a commitment to shared goals.
In the weeks following 9/11, organizations and relief programs with strong global communities—People-to-People International, NetAid, Sister Cities International—joined with programs using new technologies to connect classrooms worldwide—UN CyberSchoolbus, ePals, Global Schoolnet Foundation, Worldwise Schools, iEARN, Schools Online, World Links, Global Nomads—stepped up their support of virtual and physical exchanges with countries with Muslim populations. A priority was helping primary school-aged youth to share their stories and to take action at a traumatic time of national shock and mourning.
These school-to-school programs were widely publicized and generally praised at time when post-9/11 anxieties and the hangover from the dot.com bust led to a number of polls that showed Americans engaging in more online communities, but feeling both ambivalent by online interaction and disliked by their peers in the Muslim world. George Packer writing in the April 2002 New York Times Magazine captured the mood:
The globalization of the media was supposed to knit the world together. The more information we receive about one another, the thinking went, the more international understanding will prevail. An injustice in Thailand will be instantly known and ultimately remedied by people in London or San Francisco. The father of worldwide television, Ted Turner, once said, “My main concern is to be a benefit to the world, to build up a global communications system that helps humanity come together.” These days we are living with the results – a young man in Somalia watches the attack on the south tower live, while Americans can hear more, and sooner, about Kandahar or Ramallah than the county next to theirs.
But this technological togetherness has not created the human bonds that were promised. In some ways, global satellite TV and Internet access have actually made the world a less understanding, less tolerant place. What the media provide is superficial familiarity – images without context, indignation without remedy. The problem isn’t just the content of the media, but the fact that while images become international, people’s lives remain parochial – in the Arab world and everywhere else, including here.
… But at this halfway point between mutual ignorance and true understanding, the ”global village” actually resembles a real one – in my experience, not the utopian community promised by the boosters of globalization but a parochial place of manifold suspicions, rumors, resentments and half-truths. If the world seems to be growing more, rather than less, nasty these days, it might have something to do with the images all of us now carry around in our heads.
Contrary to Packer’s assertion, however, the images of that young globally-connected children were now carrying around in their heads were images of hope and caring, in the forms of drawings, quilts, and photographs that were shared by tens of thousands of their peers. Furthermore, new curriculum materials were developed and professional development workshops and courses were provided for thousands in the US and countries with significant Muslim populations on how to integrate international collaboration in their classrooms. Online interaction and collaborative publications flourished, and US educators and students began to visit Muslim countries for the first time. Schools in the US began to teach Arabic.
At a time before social media fundraising platforms, US students used new technologies to mobilize their communities to provide humanitarian relief to Afghan schools and Iran earthquake victims. The World Wide Web was an important tool to both share information and enable teachers and students in the US and countries with significant Muslim populations to identify programs fitting their interests and needs. The 9/11 attacks were the most intensive online event in history, and organizations like iEARN became key “exchange 2.0” resources to which teachers turned for information on how to link with and learn about countries with Muslim populations. The growth of connected classrooms hasn’t slowed since.
The success of this burst of post-9/11 classroom connections was amplified a year later when Congress introduced legislation to support programs focused on traditional high-school and university-level exchanges and language programs. In early 2002, Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) introduced The Cultural Bridges Act to fund new exchange programs with countries with significant Muslim populations. The bill died, but informed subsequent legislation that funded the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program, the Global Connections and Exchange Program, the National Security Language Initiative (NSLI) and the Foreign Language Assistance Program (FLAP), which focused on “critical languages” such as Arabic, but also Urdu, Farsi, Hindi, Pashto, Russian, Chinese, and Korean.
Today, the influence of all these post-9/11 programs continues to be felt at the White House and the Departments of Education and State. In April 2011, at the first Exchange 2.0 Summit, former Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale remarked:
We need to explore more ways to strategically and consistently incorporate connective technologies into our exchange efforts. As President Obama has said, we need to “create a new online network, so a young person in Kansas can communicate instantly with a young person in Cairo.” With the help of many of you in this room, we have already started down this path at the State Department. Our Global Connections and Exchange Program has been in operation for ten years. This landmark public diplomacy initiative connects students who may never share a lunch table or walk home together. But with online classrooms, there are no limits on sharing their ideas. Together, they learn to be positive forces for change in their local communities.
Last week, eleven years after 9/11, Newsweek (and Twitter) reminded us that we live in a world of Muslim Rage. In that eleven years, though, much has changed. The number of organizations connecting classrooms worldwide has increased ten-fold, as has international funding for educational technology. Mobile learning, open data, cloud computing, social media, MOOCs, and other tools and resources are evolving and changing teaching and learning at a remarkable pace in both developed and developing countries. More than 6,000 YES program scholars from 40 predominately Muslim countries have returned from a year of high school in the United States, and they are inspired to serve their communities. Thousands more US teachers and high-school and university students have traveled, studied, and lived abroad in these same 40 countries, and they too are inspired to make a positive difference in their communities.
Exchange programs are the primary way we have traditionally sought to foster these relationships. But in our hyper-connected world, vastly more people can directly influence relations between our societies, and the costs and logistics of study abroad make it inaccessible or unappealing to all but a select few. (Approximately 2 percent of American students in higher education study abroad, for example, and less than 2 percent of those go to the Middle East and North Africa.) Even if we were to vastly increase the number of students studying abroad, which we should, it would still only be a drop in the bucket of public opinion.
Over the last year, a coalition of organizations has formed to advance exchange 2.0 – a next-step in international education that leverages the power of new technologies to vastly increase the number of youth who have a profound cross-cultural experience as part of their education. Each of these organizations … has developed “virtual exchange” programs, which are integrated into curriculum and have demonstrated significant impact cultivating relationships and developing cross-cultural respect and understanding. Based on the cost-efficiency of these programs, it is conceivable that such programs could become a fundamental part of education in the coming decade and literally millions of new relationships could be fostered across the divides where they are most needed.
It may seem from the protests and violence of the past two weeks that there has been little progress in increasing trust and respect among people in the US and in predominately Muslim countries. But we have made progress, and we will continue to do so, led by young people using new tools and resources to connect us closely and help us build enduring relationships, as the examples above show.