Lives Without Limits

11191674463_78ef62dac1Today, December 3, 2013, in recognition of International Day of Persons with Disabilities, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) is launching the “Lives Without Limits” campaign to promote the importance of including persons with disabilities in international exchange programs. The includes stories and features video testimonials from alumni and current students.

President Obama has made disability rights a core part of U.S. foreign policy. The partners of the Connect All Schools Consortium are committed to making all of their virtual and physical exchange programs inclusive and accessible. Join us this month and share stories #WithoutLimits!

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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]

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.

Debunking the Global Education Canard

Connect All Schools consortium partner World Savvy released its 2012 Global Competency Survey yesterday, and the results are both timely (there is a Libya question) and contradictory to the assumption that young people in the United States are not interested in learning about the world. Rather, young Americans are keenly aware that it is both in their best interest and in the national interest that they understand global issues, engage with their peers worldwide, and gain the skills needed to find employment in today’s global economy. For decades, the lack of global competence of US youth has been an easy mark for ridicule. A bevy of books, reports, academic studies, and surveys from National Geographicand others have assumed (and alleged) that US students are not only globally unaware, but also are not interested in learning about the world. Yesterday’s survey results, for example, show that after nearly eleven years of the United States at war, only 28% of US high school graduates can identify in which region Afghanistan is located. Disinterest seems a reasonable assumption. The World Savvy survey results, however, contradict this assumption:

The young adults polled in this survey overwhelmingly report an interest in, and professional need for, global literacy in their lives today. In fact:

  • 86% of those surveyed say they agree that a solid foundation in world history and events is crucial to coming up with solutions to the problems in the world today.
  • Nearly 9 in 10 believe that developments abroad can have significant implications on the US economy.
  • 79% say that it is important in today’s world to be comfortable interacting with people of different cultural backgrounds (on par with the perceived importance of writing skills (78%), technical skills (76%), and math skills (77%)).
  • 80% believe that jobs are becoming increasingly international in nature.

Yet, the gap between what youth seek for their education and what they receive remains wide:

  • While the vast majority of young adults see the importance of global literacy, only 12% of respondents say that they “agree completely” that in their 6th-12th grade education they received instruction that helps them to understand the roots of global issues that affect their lives today.
  • … [T]he majority of the young adults surveyed (63%) indicated that they did not discuss world events in their high school classes.

So why don’t American adults prioritize global competence as a valued outcome of an education as much as American youth do? If the national security argument is so strong for youth gaining global competencies, why do policy-makers demur encouraging classrooms to connect globally? If the economic casefor youth gaining modern job skills is that compelling, why don’t philanthropists, entrepreneurs, community leaders, and the media increase coverage and support for international issues, cross-cultural exchanges, and new global education tools and resources? The next American generation, perceiving what is in our national interest, are asking us to help them engage with their peers worldwide. It is time to listen to what youth want to learn, rather than to criticize them for what they haven’t learned. It is time for all sectors of our society to help our schools to enable all of our youth to experience international collaboration as part of their education.

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.