Web 2.0 technologies are showing flashes of potential for allowing K-12 students to collaborate globally about important issues.
I glimpsed some of that potential recently in a Web conference on global warming that involved some middle and high school students on the east and west coasts of the United States and in Africa.
Taking part were students at the Ni River Middle School, in Spotsylvania County, Va.; the Insight School of Washington, an online school based in Spokane, Wash.; and Le Petit Séminaire de Pabré, near Ougadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, in central Africa.
The schools are in the Fire and Ice Program, sponsored by Elluminate Inc., a Calgary, Alberta, Canada-based company that makes a system used to conduct Web-based learning and collaboration. “Our objective is to drive projects that involve global warming, and are specifically focused on schools in need, in Africa and South America, to facilitate cultural change,” said Stace Wills, who works on contract for Elluminate.
Participating schools are asked to develop curriculum-related projects addressing global warming in their local communities. Periodically, students from two or three schools meet online to exchange ideas and status reports, which are also posted on Web sites and wikis.
I watched the 90-minute session on December 16, from my office computer, in Bethesda, Md.
I could see on the screen the Ni River and Pabré classes taking part via live video. The Insight School, which has students spread across Washington State and beyond, was present through audio links, not video. But participants at all of the schools could post PowerPoint slides, send text messages, and write on an on-screen whiteboard.
Wills, as moderator, doled out control of the screen tools and provided some interpreting, when necessary, between French and English. He did so from his home in Calgary.
The Pabré students were crowded on benches facing the Web camera, as Hermann Yaogo, their teacher, interpreted a poster they presented using PowerPoint: The old man standing in a desolate field was a witness to environmental degradation. “In time past, there were green pastures and plenty of water, but in less than 50 years, there was no life. He was so disappointed about what was happening,” Yaogo said.
The Pabré school is combating this degradation by planting trees in the community, Yaogo said. The students also showed a logo they had designed to convey the message that preserving nature is a task for everyone.
Later, Wills explained to me that, a year ago, before the Pabré school had an Internet connection, its students were trucked off campus to a makeshift center to participate in the Fire and Ice Program sessions using a digital white board. Then, by winning a contest that Elluminate sponsored, the school received a digital projector, Webcam, speaker, and whiteboard; and the school now has dial-up access to the Internet, which is adequate for sending and receiving grainy video. The company also arranged for lessons in “accent-free English,” to help the French-speaking students and teachers more fully participate in sessions, Wills said.
The Insight School’s teacher, Mishelle Smith, and several students, described their new Web site on global climate change and their research on the declining water quality in Spokane’s Hood Canal, a locally important crab and salmon fishery.
Low oxygen levels have caused massive deaths of fish in the canal, they said, showing slides with their water quality measurements.
But students have discovered that the alder trees that have sprung up on the banks of the canal are contributing to the problem by allowing more nitrogen into the water than the mature forest that preceded them allowed. The students plan to replace the alders with cinder trees, which are effective absorbers of nitrogen.
Another of their findings--that contamination from leaking sewage tanks was entering the canal--led to an interesting cross-cultural exchange with the Pabré students.
Yaogo, the Pabré teacher, asked via audio: “Talking about the septic tanks, is it possible to use the content of those septic tanks to make manure for agriculture?”
Smith, who is based in the United Kingdom, replied by text message: “It is human waste and cannot be used.”
Yaogo: “But human waste is used in Burkina in fields. And it’s very efficient.”
Smith: “Interesting ... on food crops?”
Yaogo: “Yes, but it is sterilized first.”
Perhaps the schools will build on this exchange this month, when the Insight and Pabré students plan to exchange letters about their projects, according to Wills.
Some images from various Fire and Ice events are posted here.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.