At ISTE, Highlighting How Tech Enables Global Connections

By Benjamin Herold — June 25, 2018 5 min read
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Amelia Archer teaches 9- to 11-year-olds in the 100-pupil Purley Church of England Primary School, about an hour south of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

But this week, Archer and three of her students are in Chicago for the annual conference of the International Society for Technology in Education, meeting their American counterparts with whom they’ve been collaboratively learning for almost three years.

“We’re just a tiny little rural school, but I want [my students] to have a wider understanding of the world,” Archer said during a pre-conference interview. “Talking and working with other children, they find out we’re not so alien from each other.”

At ISTE, Archer and her colleagues will be presenting on their work with the JDO Foundation, which matches teachers and students in about 70 U.S. schools across 15 states with classrooms in more than a dozen countries worldwide, including Croatia, England, Iceland, Poland, and Uganda.

It’s just one of numerous examples of globe-spanning partnerships, all enabled by technologies for communicating, collaborative problem-solving, and video-conferencing.

“I’m thrilled,” said ISTE CEO Richard Culatta, who pointed to his group’s standards (which include being a “global collaborator”) for digital learners, as well as vastly improved school connectivity, as factors in the trend.

“In order for students to be successful in the world they’re graduating into, they need to be able to work with other people across the globe.”

Enriching Math Instruction

That spirit isn’t exactly in the air right now, with President Donald Trump moving aggressively to clamp down on immigration and questioning the United States’ involvement in a variety of multinational agreements and treaties. Nativist and nationalist far-right movements are also ascendant in parts of Europe.

But Chris Collins, a veteran math and physics teacher at Monticello High School in Wisconsin who presented his work at ISTE on Sunday, said such shifts in the political wind haven’t impacted his commitment to arranging opportunities for his students to work together with teens in Italy, Spain, and the Czech Republic.

“We haven’t really gone into anything besides cultural stuff and math,” Collins said in a pre-conference interview.

Here’s what that looks like in his classroom:

Thanks to a grant, Collins has a fancy Cisco “telepresence” system, which basically amounts to a big flatscreen TV with a powerful microphone system. (The set-up was originally obtained so Collins could teach statistics and physics to students in other schools that have similar rigs, but don’t have teachers for those subjects.)

In addition, Collins has access to technology that allows him to connect his SMART interactive whiteboard to similar devices in other classrooms. When the systems are synced, whatever Collins writes on his SMART board will show up on the smartboard in a classroom miles away.

Collins isn’t paid by Cisco or SMART, he said. But he does get early access to test out equipment, as well as some unique hands-on supports. The latter, for example, challenged him “to push limits and try to connect with other teachers around the world” who were using similar systems.

That led to a collaboration with an Italian high school teacher Collins still works with.

At first, Collins said, he and his new colleague thought the technology would mostly be an engagement tool—a way to get their students interested in learning math.

But the teachers quickly discovered something more powerful. Math may be a universal language, Collins said, but “there are so many different dialects.”

The students on both sides of the Atlantic have benefitted greatly from learning—and teaching—different approaches to solving the same problems, he said. When figuring a system of linear equations, for example, European students are more likely to use a substitution method, instead of the elimination technique that American students typically use.

“It actually enriches their understanding of mathematics,” Collins said.

Becoming ‘Global Collaborators’

What does it actually mean for a student to be a “global collaborator?”

Among the skills that ISTE says are paramount:

  • Use digital tools to connect with learners from diverse backgrounds and engage in ways “that broaden mutual understanding and learning.”
  • Use “collaborative technologies” to work with peers and experts in other parts of the world to examine issues and problems from multiple viewpoints.
  • Use such technologies to “explore local and global issues” and to investigate solutions to those issues.

That pretty much describes the philosophy of the Littleton, Colo.-based JDO Foundation, which was founded in 2011 to provide schools with technology—and a host of human supports—they need to make global partnerships.

“If we can have common classrooms working together on common learning goals, kids can see that they have far more in common than they think, and it can be an amazing experience for everyone involved,” said Heather Rooney, the CEO of project development for the group.

Teachers and schools must apply to participate. They’re asked to make a three-year commitment. JDO gives them classroom technology, such as iPads, and pairs them with a teacher and classroom of similar-aged students from another country. The teachers go through a structured process to identify common learning goals and to understand each other’s curricula and schedule. Then they’re asked to identify four to six lessons their classes can work on together during the school year.

For Archer and her students at the Purley Church of England Primary School, those lessons have included:

  • Turning bottle-flipping challenges into a cross-continental lesson on data collection and analysis that occurred over Google Hangout;
  • A cross-continental design challenge, in which teams made up of students from both countries created and marketed their own fidget spinners;
  • An audio-book-making exercise, that gave the English students a chance to share stories read by American children with the younger pupils in their school, and vice versa.

“They love it,” Archer said.

Last week, Archer said, her counterpart teacher from Wisconsin visited her classroom in the U.K.

This week, the pair—and a handful of their students—will be together at ISTE in Chicago.

Rooney said it’s an example of what’s possible when technology is used in the service of bringing people together across geography and culture.

“This is our attempt to make the world a smaller place,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the location of the JDO Foundation. It is based in Littleton, Colo.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.