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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Occupy Globally Connected Learning

As a kick-off to the badge competition at last week’s DML Conference, UC Irvine Professor Mimi Ito and her team launched the Connected Learning research initiative with a snazzy infographic, a video, and a provocative Ignite talk, where Professor Ito exclaimed that connected learners are “the 1%.”  With a nod to Occupy movement, the research network aims to address:

“… this historical moment where we see the rise of social media, the Internet, and a growing disjuncture between formal and informal learning. We suggest a new paradigm for considering the promise of sociality and media and learning, centering on hybrid learning networks which support interest-driven learning, cutting across school, home, after-school, and peer cultures.”

Like many of the thoughtful participants at conference, the MacArthur Foundation-supported Connected Learning team is asking important questions around peer and multi-generational learning, civic engagement and social justice, including:

How effective can the exploding sector of open learning and peer-to-peer learning be?

 In what ways can digital media boost learning for marginalized communities?

Can social media and digital technology improve the impact of after-school programs, especially for disadvantaged youth?

 Does learning that is connected to a learner’s interest help produce young people who are more civically engaged and more active 21st-century citizens?

For those of us who have occupied (small “o”) the “connected learning” space for a couple of decades, it is good to see a major foundation fund this research and give classroom civic engagement and social justice issues a higher profile. Conspicuous by its absence, however, is any reference to teachers and students connecting with their peers worldwide. In fact, global classroom collaboration researchers and practitioners in many countries for many years have asked and answered many of these same questions: Does global classroom collaboration boost learning for marginalized communities? Yes. Support peer-to-peer learning? Yes. After-school programs? Disadvantaged youth? Civic Engagement? Yes, yes, and yes.

We hope that the omission of globally connected learning in its launch is not an oversight, and will be an area the team will move into soon.  Other teams have found globally connected learning a rich subject to study. Under the guidance of Professor Margaret Riel, for example, graduate students at Pepperdine University, for example, have used Learning Circles each year since 2002 to support and organize action research as part of their online Masters of Arts degree program in Educational Technology. If Professor Ito’s team intends to look at the many superb global classroom programs run by the Connect All Schools partners, it will undoubtedly benefit the research. To launch this research network without any reference to the impact or increasing capabilities of classrooms to connect worldwide seems to miss a key aspect of connected learning.

Furthermore, to launch this research network about connect learning without connecting with research teams in Tunisia, Egypt, Uruguay, Australia, India, Iran, Korea, Russia, Kenya and other countries where social media and digital technology is having a significant impact on teaching and learning, seems a missed opportunity, especially since most mobile learning innovation is happening outside the United States. To study Occupy it makes sense to study it alongside Arab Spring. Why not research the impact of social media and youth civic engagement in collaboration with Tunisian and Egyptian education researchers? Or why not work with Korean researchers to examine if games can used to address social issues? When it comes to connected learning, it makes sense to research with the world, not just about it.

The goal of Connect All Schools is to give every US school the opportunity to connect with an international partner by 2016. We’ve made the case that globally connected learning is both a national security issue and good foreign policy strategy. Connecting classrooms globally is also an issue of social justice. We invite the Connected Learning team to learn more about how relevant, engaging, and empowering globally connected learning is for children around the world.