Computer networks are one tangible form of interconnectedness. We are only just beginning to tap into the potentials presented by a technology that makes it easy for people to work together and share their thoughts and experiences even when they are a great distance apart. I*EARN is one network that is pushing the edges of this technology, not by adding new bells and whistles, but by linking up high school students and teachers in over 20 countries who want to work together to make the world a better place.
What if Israeli and Arab children went to school together, helped each other with homework, shared first-date horror stories – wouldn’t a peaceful Middle East be easier to shape?
And if American voters had shared assignments with Soviet classmates when they were in high school, would they have been as ready to agree with Ronald Reagan’s "Evil Empire" label?
Probably not, if Slava Vaynshteyn and Thandi Emdon are any guide. Both are students at Brighton High School in Rochester, NY, but they’re also pioneers of a new kind of school – one whose campus reaches around the globe and yet exists in no single place.
When Slava and Thandi entered Russian language class at Brighton High in 1988, they also became part of the New York State/Moscow School Telecom Project. For the next four years, they learned not just about the Russian language, but about Russians, discussing life with students at Moscow School #67 via electronic mail and video-telephone.
"It’s difficult to remember that every time we make a (video-phone) call or send a poetry translation across the e-mail we are communicating with a country that was considered our enemy only five years ago," Slava wrote after completing his Russian courses last year. "So most importantly, I am glad to be part of the new process of friendships."
The project, conceived, created, and funded by American textile magnate Peter Copen, was the first time anyone had joined US and Russian classrooms.
"It was when they were still the ‘Evil Empire’," says Ed Gragert, program manager for the newly expanded network. "A lot of nay-sayers said it couldn’t be done at that point."
They took a shot at it anyway – and fired off a revolution. Meeting via computer modem and electronic bulletin board, thousands of kids in 21 countries are now working together to measure ozone depletion, fight deforestation, and compare cultures. They’re learning about the world and working to better it at the same time.
A LEARNING NETWORK
The Copen Foundation expanded its New York/Moscow project in 1991, creating the International Education and Resource Network, or I*EARN. Nearly 300 schools in 21 countries are linked, from Argentina to Australia, Nicaragua to the Netherlands. Beyond trading languages and customs, the network is a powerful tool for teaching science, history, and other subjects. For instance, Thandi wrote that the New York/Moscow pilot project gave her a better grasp of world politics:
"Another aspect of the electronic mail that I found to be extremely interesting was that we have learned directly from you, our Soviet peers, how the Soviet people felt during the many changes that have been occurring in our world," she wrote. "Above all, your first-hand accounts of the coup and its aftermath gave us insight into the actions and feelings of those who participated in the defense of their new and precious democracy. The vivid descriptions you sent made the whole event real to us, more so than the 15 minutes on the news!"
"Maybe it’s overly optimistic on our part," Ed says, "but we really feel that projects like this, that started shortly before the change, had an impact on that change."
The I*EARN network is all about fomenting change.
"Looking at the global issues facing all of us," Ed says, "whether they be environmental, health, hunger, maldistribution of wealth, population issues, or recognizing that our generation is leaving one hell of a mess for the next generation to deal with, we were looking at ways to empower that generation to start working on these problems."
The goal of I*EARN is straightforward: "to enable students to make a meaningful contribution to the planet." Its tools are fairly simple; any type of personal computer can access the network with the addition of a $70 modem. For most K-12 schools in the United States, that means little or no expense for hardware. The network offers training for teachers on how to use the system and how to integrate it into the curriculum.
Once logged on, students and teachers can choose from a variety of electronic conferences: the various teachers’ conferences are used to share new curriculum ideas, while the "youth" teleconferences give students across the world a chance to tell each other about their lives.
The "ideas" teleconference lists suggestions for new cooperative projects between schools. Participants explore history, social studies, science, and more. A class in Finland compared wedding customs with a group in the US; a Seattle high school with many Asian immigrant students is collaborating with a school in Beijing, to find better English-teaching methods.
AN EMPOWERMENT NETWORK
Ed estimates that it only costs a school about $300 a year to use the network to the fullest. That includes telephone bills for on-line time and for use of the video-phones I*EARN makes available, and user fees for auxiliary networks like PeaceNet and EcoNet.
The investment buys real-world results:
- Schools in Moscow, Belgium, and New York State collaborated with the New York State Bar Association and the Soviet Academy of Sciences to produce an international treaty on global deforestation. Science lessons on the environment are common nowadays, but few students travel to the Hague, Netherlands, and present their class project to the World Court as these students did.
- A team of Russian and American students researched and published a guide for setting up joint business ventures in the former Soviet Union, the first document of its kind. A group of international businesspeople at New York’s World Trade Center saw the booklet and asked for copies to use in their work.
- Led by an Australian school, a group of students is collecting data on ultraviolet radiation levels, an indicator of the health of the ozone layer. The readings will be compiled into a monthly newsletter on ozone layer depletion.
- Through the network, students spread word of a secret Cold-War nuclear accident in the former USSR.
- Students on the I*EARN Network raised money to buy simple rope-and-wheel pumps for rural wells in Nicaragua, which make disease-spreading water buckets unnecessary. The Nicaraguan Clean Water Project now includes schools across the PLANET system [see sidebar].
"When a student works on a humanitarian, outcome-based project, the otherwise mundane textbook exercises spring to life," reads a network booklet. "Instead of memorizing the fact that litmus paper turns red in acidic fluid, and blue in a basic solution, a student can measure the acid content in her local rain water. When told that her data will become part of an international student study, her mastery of the techniques becomes more urgent."
And beyond making learning more exciting, the network transforms the education process itself.
"It empowers people to become active learners," Ed says. "So the teacher is no longer the fount of all wisdom, because the students can go directly to the source."
Because the network has grown faster than anticipated, I*EARN is not actively seeking new US members. However, I*EARN would like to hear from schools anywhere that have existing relationships with either schools or humanitarian projects in another country.
More information is available from The Copen Family Fund, 345 Kear St., Yorktown Heights NY 10598, 914/962-5864, or contact Ed via Internet [Ed1@igc.apc.org].