Online Bonding From Charleston to Chennai
An American nonprofit organization is linking schools internationally, teaching how to learn with the world, not just about it.
A regular lesson on space and gravity opened up a whole new frontier for a group of students in a southern Indian town. The instructor leading the session on aerodynamics and propulsion appeared only on a projection screen. But that did not seem to interrupt the learning experience of the eighth graders.
NASA aeronautical engineer Tom Benson was thousands of kilometers away from
the children at Veera Savarkar Netaji Matriculation School near Chennai, but as the Indian teacher coordinating the session, Muralidharan V., says, “Distance is no barrier to learning.”
The videoconferencing workshop was set up in April 2010 by NASA’s Digital Learning Network in collaboration with International Education and Resource Network (iEARN), an American nonprofit organization that helps students and teachers across the world use the Internet to work together on projects.
“iEARN works on the principle that students can improve their learning through interactive and project-based learning. It connects classroom learning with real issues and asks students to find solutions to them,” says Muralidharan. His students are among more than 2 million in 30,000 schools and youth organizations in 130 countries engaged in collaborative project work every day.
iEARN was started by the California-based Copen Family Foundation in 1988 with a pilot project linking 12 schools
in New York and a dozen in Moscow. iEARN has no international headquarters. Using technology to coordinate its programs makes it more efficient and cost effective.
iEARN’s India center was founded in 1998 and is registered as the Education and Resource Network-India trust. It works with teachers in 18 states, and cities such as Pune, Bangalore, Chennai, Mumbai, Goa, New Delhi and Kolkata.
It costs Rs. 500 per year for teachers to enroll in any iEARN project and their students can participate for free.
To ensure a safe Web environment, iEARN only accepts accounts created by teachers. Personal information is inaccessible to anyone except the teacher. Students need a password, and once logged in, everyone participating in a project can see what they are saying to each other. This transparency creates accountability.
Among the most memorable and popular projects by Muralidharan’s students was a recent assignment, “Debunking Stereotypes.”
“Most of the violence around the world is due to misunderstandings,” Muralidharan believes. “Hate grows and thrives in such an environment. Stereotypes are generally negative. If students debunk their stereotypes…love and affection begins. We realize, ‘Oh! They are also like us.’
“It wasn’t just my students’ thinking that changed,” he says. “I also thought of America as a global power that only seeks to dominate others; …that Americans don’t obey their parents. In turn, the stories we heard about ourselves were that we are a…poor country; that girls are not allowed to study; that we don’t obey traffic rules,” he says, laughing. “Now, after 10 years of communicating with each other, our views are totally different. We have a great rapport with our American friends.”
Sunita Bhagwat, iEARN’s India coordinator, concurs. “This is surely happening. The communications with foreign teachers and students have set straight certain stereotypes about other cultures…their ideas about school, of studies, even their way of living life,” she says.
Perhaps the most important challenge facing participants is the task of coordination across different education systems, time zones and school schedules.
“The summer vacations do not match with most of the countries. The timings for online…courses are invariably at the time when our schools get into exam mode…,” acknowledges Bhagwat.
Apart from exam time, when activity does slow down, iEARN projects motivate students to do more. This is evident in iEarn’s Four Rivers, One World project. Funded by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, the project trains teachers in America, India, Bangladesh and Nepal to measure and compare the quality of the water in rivers running through their towns.
Experts from the Natural History Museum in New York City and Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey visited India to train teachers on chemical testing of water samples. Data analysis and interpretations were shared on iEARN forums, with help from NGOs, says Bhagwat. “Several community initiatives were organized especially in Pune to create awareness about river water pollution and appealing to the community for not polluting water,” she says. “The participating school came out with a concrete measure of purifying drainage water before it is sent further.” Students then presented a paper on the project at the Youth Can conference in New York.
All iEARN projects have a final product or exhibition, and provide a sense of achievement to students. These have included art exhibits, workshops, performances, magazines, Web sites, charity fundraising and more.
Students from a school in Washim, Maharashtra recently got accolades from their village elders after displaying their “amazing work, expressed very well through writings, drawings and poems, about how they want their school to be,” says Bhagwat. “They exhibited the whole project for parents…and the grampanchayat. iEARN helped the school with that….”
“It has provided us an ocean of contacts,” says Muralidharan V., the teacher at Veera Savarkar Netaji Matriculation School, in a phone interview with SPAN.
To make the most of the students’ time, Muralidharan’s school introduced video conferencing in 2004, replacing e-mails. “This way it was easier for students…to talk directly. As they can’t type fast…monitoring their typing required more time,” he explains. He adds that he would like to see an increase in the two hours they are allotted by the school every week for iEARN projects.
iEARN’s Language Resource Page on its Web site http://www.iearn.org/ provides links to more than 30 language communities. Besides Hindi, iEARN also hosts Bengali and Tamil pages.
Trainers also encourage students to learn Web etiquette to avoid miscommunication.
“Ask your students to use simple English words. Consider how phrases are translated literally…. Do not assume that students will know if their peers are male or female by their first name. If you want them to know that they are male or female, tell them,” says a tip on its Web site by Diane Midness, a former program coordinator.
Another tip says: “Remember the reader cannot see your students’ faces in communication. Humor may often be interpreted literally and misunderstood. Ask your students to use emoticons (smiley faces and other symbols) and punctuation such as asterisks to emphasize. Be certain that your students state their emotions. Do not assume they are known.”
In June 2010, iEARN facilitated an educational exchange program with the U.S. Consulate General in Mumbai. As part of the National Security Language Initiative for Youth, 10 American students learned Hindi in Pune, Maharashtra, where they lived with Indian families.
“I thought learning Hindi would help me understand India better and as this program was fully funded by the U.S. government, I wanted to travel to India,” Tyler Richard from Tennessee said in an interview with the Pune Mirror.
The U.S. Department of Education has funded iEARN-India through the Foreign Language Assistance Program for the past two years. A Hindi language program was created at the Edison School District in New Jersey through this program. iEARN provided Hindi curriculum resources and online spaces for New Jersey students to interact in English and Hindi with peers in India. The state of New Jersey, and particularly the region around the town of Edison, has a large population of Indian American families.
iEARN-India also arranged for several interactions between these students—enabling them to have real, Hindi-speaking audiences as part of the language program.
“Students introduced themselves, talked about their schools, homes, families and about why they would like to learn Hindi—all this in Hindi,’’ says Bhagwat. ‘‘We even sang ‘Jana Gana Mana’ along with the students from New Jersey.” It is in these small victories where our success lies, says Bhagwat.