Mapping a Nation of Global Connections

Is the U.S. ready for a global future?

Answers to that question may be found in a fascinating new free online resource that was introduced yesterday by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the U.S. Department of Education as part of International Education Week celebrations. “Mapping the Nation: Linking Local to Global,” is the new state-by-state, country-by-county visual resource from Asia Society, the Longview Foundation for Education in World Affairs and International Understanding, and analytics leader SAS. Created with “nearly 1 million data points,” that “tell a cautionary tale,” the mapping project has set out to “prove what parents, businesspeople, and policymakers already know: American students must be globally competent to succeed in the interconnected 21st century.”

A quick click on the “California” link resulted in an infographic that gives a quick snapshot of the state’s global connections, including a rather surprising (and dismal) fact about the number of California students who take part in study abroad programs:

The “Global Competency” section concludes with a clear and urgent message:

Learning about and with the world occurs within and outside of school, and it is the work of a lifetime. Globally competent students are life long learners. They are able to adapt and contribute knowledge and understanding to a world that is constantly, rapidly evolving.

Global competence is a crucial shift in our understanding of the purpose of education in a changing world. Students everywhere deserve the opportunity to succeed in the global economy and contribute as global citizens. We must fashion a more creative and visionary educational response to the interconnected world of the 21st century, starting now.

The entire site is worth exploring, especially for educators, parents, and students seeking information, tools, and visuals about why we should connect all US schools to schools worldwide, starting now.

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.

Optimizing for Professional Generosity

This August, the US Department of Education is sponsoring Connected Educators Month to highlight “online communities of practice in education.” The Connected Educators site now features more than 80 online education communities to peruse, a blog, a draft report to comment on, and a no-doubt-depressing-for-many K-12 Internet Broadband Speed Test to try. Kudos to the US Department of Education for walking the walk with this online community of online communities: building these communities is not easy. A good way to understand promising models and practices in the field is real-time, hands-on engagement.

Another person trying to understand promising models in ed-tech is Audrey Watters, who has a timely Hack Education post about GitHub. Setting aside for the moment the fact that the $100 million investment by Andreessen Horowitz model is, indeed, a fine model for ed-tech start-ups; there is an informative quote by investor Peter Levine in the press release: “GitHub organizes projects around people rather than code.”

Audrey explains further why GitHub worth a look and its “people-centric” structure is more than token ed-tech talk:

I heard GitHub co-founder and CEO Tom Preston-Werner speak at Y Combinator’s Startup School back in 2010, and the message he delivered was profoundly different than that of many of the speakers at the event who told tales of seed funding and “super angels.” While I refuse to believe that everyone in the tech industry “does it for the money,” it’s sometimes hard to see otherwise in the exuberance and the mythology that Silicon Valley perpetuates.

In lieu of what he identified as the pressures on startups to “optimize for money,” Preston-Werner’s talk — and his philosophy for running GitHub — focused on “optimizing for happiness.”

Audrey sees two cultures needing to come into better alignment:

I do wonder how VCs’ demand for that “quick success or quick failure” works (or doesn’t work) for education startups. It isn’t simply that educational institutions are slow to adopt new products and/or slow to change; it’s that the education of each and every one of us is a slow process too – a lifetime of learning.

And I fear if we choose to “optimize for money” – something that the latest flurry of interest in ed-tech startups is starting to look an awful lot like – we will neglect to optimize both for happiness and for learning.

There is a parallel lesson to be learned between those building tools and platforms to connect educators and students, and those in the international education and exchange community. Our shorthand for the place where new technologies can enhance, deepen and expand world history, geography, current events, world music and dance programs, study abroad and language programs, among others, is “Exchange 2.0.”

A model Exchange 2.0 community that may be a promising model for ed-tech start-ups is the Global Education Conference, which Lucy Gray and Steve Hargadon launched in November 2010. It’s now 11,000 strong and is featured on the Connected Educators site. Like GitHub, the Global Education Conference community is organized around people rather than tech or content. Although happiness is definitely part of the community, the better description might be that the community is focused on “optimizing for professional generosity.”

Lucy describes professional generosity in her TEDx talk, but mostly she and Steve just live it. Professional generosity drives Twitter chats, from #edchat to #kinderchat, as well as community like Steve’s Classroom 2.0, Edmodo, and most online educator communities. It acts as the antithesis of the outcompete-the-world, zero-sum message US educational system promotes at all levels. Also like GitHub, Steve and Lucy have a bootstrapped community built for an “infinite runway” for teaching and learning, rather than quick success or quick failure. Although it may not seem like a community that will garner much attention from super angels, Lucy and Steve’s 365/24/7 “anytime, anywhere” global teaching and learning community is the right model—scalable, sustainable, impactful, and with a killer ROI, if you want to wait a generation to measure it.

Audrey is correct to refuse to believe that everyone in the tech industry “does it for the money.” There is much professional generosity in the industry and many who would love to work more closely with NGOs, universities, foundations, and state and federal partners to build tools to support teachers and students connecting with their peers around the world. The professional generosity DNA that entrepreneurs and coders share with connected educators worldwide might be the hub though which to optimize education and technology collaboration going forward.

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.