The Real Value of Connecting All Schools

This Is Water

“The real value of a real education,” American novelist David Foster Wallace asserts in his now-viral 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech about empathy, “has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness.” Most everyone who has studied abroad, especially those who have lived with host families, understands this concept acutely.

The positive, life-long impact of study abroad on young people is undeniable. Each year, however, less than 2,000 US high school students—roughly 1 in 10,000—travel abroad for a semester or year-long experience. Students younger than 15 years old, students with special needs, and students from geographically isolated and socio-economically challenged areas of the country have few opportunities to have the perception-altering experience that study abroad provides.

The efforts of the Connect All Schools consortium and like-minded programs, such as Flat Classroom, Edmodo, Twitter chats, Global Read Aloud Day, Skype in the Classroom, Microsoft’s Partners in Learning, Global Classroom Scrapbook Project, and the Intel Teach Program, have vastly increased the diversity and number of students gaining global awareness and empathy beyond what would be possible through study abroad alone. Still, only small fraction of U.S. K-12 students currently have access to some kind of international experience, whether physical or virtual.

“It is unimaginably hard to do this,” Wallace adds, “to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.” It is difficult for educators in the day in and day out of teaching, testing, and trying out new technologies to commit their students to a collaboration with their peers around the globe. We must give teachers the space to do so. We need more than just 1 in 10,000 youth to be aware of what exists and what it feels like—even virtually, even for a short-time—to be outside our country’s borders. We need an empathetic, globally aware citizenry capable of working with their counterparts in other countries to meet the economic and geopolitical challenges of this century.

This is a real value of a globally-connected education.

Only 1 in 10,000 US high school students study abroad

[Source: Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (CSIET)2012-2013 Report]

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The Diplomatic Core of US Education

This month, the International Affairs Office of the US Department of Education released its new strategy document, Succeeding Globally Through International Education and Engagement, which: 

… outlines the U.S. Department of Education’s International Strategy for 2012-16 and affirms the Department’s commitment to preparing today’s youth, and our country more broadly, for a globalized world, and to engaging with the international community to improve education. It is fully integrated with the Department’s domestic agenda and designed to simultaneously attain two strategic goals: strengthen U.S. education and advance our nation’s international priorities.

The strategy document lists four objectives:

Objective 1: Increase the global competencies of all U.S. students, including those from traditionally disadvantaged groups;

Objective 2: Enhance federal, state and local education policy and practice applying lessons learned from other countries to drive excellence and innovation in the U.S. and abroad;

Objective 3: Advance U.S. international priorities in strategically important countries through active education diplomacy; and

Objective 4: Develop, monitor and continuously improve ED’s international activities in an integrated and coordinated manner.

The concept of “education diplomacy” is one that the Connect All Schools consortium has championed at the classroom level. So, too, the idea that internationalizing US classrooms advances our national security, while strengthening our overall education system. The strategy document, however, does not mention the role that technology can play in attaining the Department’s two strategic goals. It’s a conspicuous oversight considering that US Department of Education’s 2010 National Educational Technology Plan highlighted that teaching and learning was becoming increasingly global, networked, personalized and mobile, and called for more investment in preparing administrators, teachers, students and parents for globally networked, personalized “anytime, anywhere” learning. The Department also highlighted the role of technology in internationalizing education in August during Connected Educators Month. In fact, the US Department of Education launched International Education Week in 2000 with the US Department of State specifically to promote “the wise use of technology internationally.”

It is difficult to conceive of how the US Department of Education will effectively support education diplomacy—which it calls a “core element” of its work—without using modern technologies or supporting educators to use modern technologies effectively in their classrooms. For example, the strategy document calls for increasing international exchanges, but it makes no mention of virtual exchanges, which are increasingly seen as a powerful new tool to scale diplomacy and cross-cultural understanding, especially for traditionally disadvantaged groups and children too young to travel abroad.

Still, the strategic document is another step forward from the US government in advancing the idea that ALL young people should experience international collaboration as part of their education. And, the commitment by the US Department of Education to “walk the talk” and collaborate closely with their peers globally is important. Why is both classroom and government-level education diplomacy critical? Simply,

… so that we have a nation, and a world, that is informed, engaged, and prepared to deal effectively with the global challenges that will face us.

Knitting the World Together a Million Relationships at a Time

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.


Still, Lucas explains, we need to do more:

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.

 

 

 

A Strong Second-Half Team

Clint Eastwood’s “Halftime in America” Super Bowl commercial was focused on Detroit and the auto industry, but it could just as well have been describing our country’s international exchange programs. In a new globally connected, mobile, social, “anytime, anywhere” DIY world of cross-border connections, does the exchange field have a team ready to play the second half?

A young Dwight D. Eisenhower (front row, second from right) during backyard football practice, Abilene, Kansas. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

The first half began in earnest on September 11, 1956, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the People-to-People Program to:

… enhance international understanding and friendship through educational, cultural and humanitarian activities involving the exchange of ideas and experiences directly among peoples of different countries and diverse cultures. President Eisenhower felt that creating understanding between people was essential to building the road to enduring peace and envisioned programs such as city affiliations, pen-pals, stamp exchanges, international sporting events, musical concerts, hospitality programs, theatrical tours and book drives as the means to achieving that goal – a critical goal in the existing Cold War climate.

Complemented by US government-sponsored programs such as Fulbright and Peace Corps, the “citizen diplomacy” that President Eisenhower championed increased cross-cultural understanding and bolstered America’s image abroad through the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the United States Information Agency, which had nurtured the people-to-people movement since its inception. The end of the first half for international exchange was not a result of a changing world or national politics, however. It was technological, as teacher-librarian Anne Lambert recounts:

 

I grew up fifteen minutes from the US-Mexico border in the ‘60’s, and I was always interested in people and cultures. As a teacher I arranged day trips to Tijuana, Mexico, worldwide pen pals, and student exchange programs in Ensenada, Mazatlan, and Europe. By the 90’s I saw the Internet as an opportunity for students to travel virtually and to learn languages…

I found iEARN to be welcoming and empowering, reaching across distance, language, ethnicity, wealth, and academic achievement. Student by student, the worldwide classroom of each iEARN project broke down stereotypes and invited our whole community to experience the power of communication.

Lumaphone link between Walworth School, London and Foster High School, Wa. USA, 1990

What Anne describes is what we now call “Exchange 2.0,” which is defined as “the use of new media and communications technologies to expand, extend, and deepen international cross-cultural exchanges.” Exchange 2.0 is not a new idea, as iEARN’s Ed Gragert outlined in his white paper for the US Department of Education in 2000 as a precursor to the inaugural International Education Week:

 Through the Internet, significant opportunity exists for human-to-human interactions, experiential learning and direct curriculum applications. Our students have the opportunity to both learn and teach through direct interaction. Further, students have the opportunity to observe, learn and address the serious global issues for which education is designed to prepare them as adults. Technology now gives students the means to directly interact on these issues. …

During the past 15 years, there has been a general progression in on-line international education, characterized by the following over-simplified steps:

1) In the late 1980s, foreign language teachers (and ESL teachers in other countries) were some of the first to recognize the potential for this technology to bring authentic interaction and materials into their classrooms.

2) In the 1990s, global studies and world affairs teachers learned that they could heighten interest in the issues being discussed if their classes were interacting with real students and teachers in the countries that were in the news or were part of the curriculum.

3) In 2000, international collaborative education is on the threshold of being integrated into all aspects of a teacher’s curriculum and we are fortunate to have educators who now have 5-10 years of experience to help with professional development

Twelve years later, international collaborative education has not been integrated into most teachers’ curricula, but the recent explosive growth of social media and mobile phones worldwide has created opportunities for students and teachers to connect at a scale unimaginable just a few years ago. The entire concept of “exchange” is being redefined, and as Tech Change’s TJ Thomander notes, virtual exchange will play more than simply a supporting role for traditional exchange:

Digital intercultural conversation is meant to be a complement, not a replacement to face-to-face interaction. But for most of the world that doesn’t have the means to travel, this will be the only option that they have. It won’t be a complement [or] a replacement; it will just be the only way that they develop relationships with others across borders.

It’s “game on” for virtual exchange; is it “game over” for traditional travel-based exchange programs?

The power of physical exchanges is undeniable. Yet, in 2010, only 1,979 US high school students traveled abroad for a semester or yearlong exchange experience, at an estimated cost of $15,000 to $20,000 each. At a fraction of the cost classroom-powered diplomacy already dwarfs all travel programs combined, while allowing the very young, boys, those with learning challenges and physical disabilities, and others not able or inclined to travel to engage with peers abroad. For the vast majority of students around the globe, short codes are more likely to offer future employment and English language learning opportunities than a one-in-a-thousand chance to be selected for an exchange program. Furthermore, virtual exchange is an option that empowers participants to facilitate, monitor, and assess their own cross-cultural interaction. Teachers need not apply for a J-1 visa to coordinate Skype calls between kindergarten classrooms or create their own Twitter hashtags to collaborate with their peers worldwide.


The knowledge and experience gained from the first fifty-five years of citizen diplomacy and international exchange is not irrelevant, however, in this new era of global connectivity. Quite the opposite: Face to face still trumps Facebook to Facebook, and a J-1 visa for the YES program is much more likely to transform a young person’s life than a hashtag. Just like the US education system is experimenting with “blended” models of classroom-based and online teaching and learning, the Connect All Schools consortium is experimenting with blended models of virtual and travel-based exchange programs. Partners such as American CouncilsAFS-USA, Mobility International, IREX, Teachers without Borders, TakingITGlobal, Plan International and Youth Service America are helping to create an entirely new field of social entrepreneurship and community service-infused programs, including professional development for supporting teachers to integrate international exchange into their curricula.

It’s important work, and a talented, passionate team of tech-savvy international exchange professionals is ready to take the field.

Classroom-Powered Diplomacy

The recent demise of the United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy was—and not without a little irony—barely noticed. Even though the commission reports and Matt Armstrong’s efforts to explain public diplomacy may seem like inside baseball to most US citizens, the loss of the commission is a lost opportunity to help more people better understand how public diplomacy impacts their lives. We need new approaches to engage the general public about the need for a robust public diplomacy that helps us collaborate effectively with peers worldwide to address pressing global challenges.

Now imagine both the short-term and long-term impact on public diplomacy if we set a goal in 2012 to internationalize education for all US students.

One definition of public diplomacy is that it “seeks to promote the national interest of the United States through understanding, informing and influencing foreign audiences.” Public diplomacy, which is part of “soft power,” “smart power,” and “civilian power,” comes in many flavors, such as “cultural diplomacy” (arts, educational and sports exchanges), and overlaps with and supports “citizen diplomacy.” Successes include Fulbright and International Visitor Leadership exchange programs, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and the Peace Corps. New efforts to engage the next generation of young people include multilingual Tweets, tech camps, the @america center in Jakarta,  and mobile learning programs. Despite its effectiveness from the Cold War through the Arab Spring, public diplomacy remains a less respected partner of a US foreign affairs approach dominated by development, defense and intelligence. How do we help raise the profile of public diplomacy?

What if we tap the enormous goodwill and peer-to-peer power of 7 million US teachers and their 80 million students? What if we engaged our 130,000 schools to help build a more valued public diplomacy, one that more Americans would more clearly understand, participate in, and respect?

Here is one example of the impact of global classroom connections. Last April, we were honored to host U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith A. McHale at the Peapod Academy in Redwood City, California with a virtual exchange between Adobe Youth Voices students in California and Pakistan. Diego Petterson, an Adobe Youth Voices educator who leads the journalism program at the Peapod Academy, observed that the virtual exchange had a profound effect on the students in California, who were immediately able to look past accents and appearances to find common ground with their peers in Pakistan:

“Many of the students in our program have come from difficult backgrounds, and they made the association between the ways they have been stereotyped and labeled ‘gangsters’ and the stereotype of being a ‘terrorist’ if you are from Pakistan. The students here expressed a great sense of connection with their peers, wanting more opportunities to connect virtually and to meet them in person, inviting them to the United States,” said Diego.

 

Efforts like this to debunk stereotypes and facilitate mutual understanding starting at an early age will pay foreign policy dividends for generations.

Connecting US classrooms to partners worldwide provides our students with valuable 21st century skills; it’s also good foreign policy. Teachers and students are an important resource to help us understand and inform foreign audiences. Let’s tap American “classroom power” to lift to prominence US public diplomacy, one our nation’s most important foreign policy efforts to ensure our long-term security and prosperity.

UPDATED: Check out these two recent articles on this topic. The first is from By Robin L. Flanigan Education Week, U.S. Schools Forge Foreign Connections Via Web

“It’s really easy to hate what you don’t know,” said Lisa Nielsen, an international speaker on innovative education and the co-author of Teaching Generation Text, published in 2011 by Jossey-Bass Teacher. “In the future, I think there are going to be big changes in the way countries are defined, because people around the world are going to be connecting and bonding with each other in a way that doesn’t involve places, but their ideas and passions.”

The second is from travel writer Rick Steves, who writes in USA Today:

Americans who want our next generation to be hands-on with the world — grappling constructively with international partners against daunting challenges that ignore political borders, working competitively in a globalized economy, and having enthusiasm rather than anxiety about other cultures and approaches to persistent problems — can get on board with the movement to help our students get a globalized education.