A virtual meeting between two teachers on opposite sides of the world led to a collaboration they hope will change the way children learn.
Vicki Davis, a teacher in Georgia in the US, and Julie Lindsay, an Australian then working at an international school in Bangladesh, found they had a great deal in common. Both believed that traditional classrooms were alien to today's youth, who were living a more stimulating life outside them through the use of mobile technology and social media. They wanted to bring 21st-century communications technology into schools to link children across the world.
Keen bloggers, they met at an online conference hosted by K12, an American education company that sells online schooling and curriculum plans, and decided to link the pupils in their two schools. Adapting the "flat world" concept from Thomas L. Friedman's book about globalisation, The World Is Flat, they founded the Flat Classroom project in 2006.
Their vision of flattening the classroom walls so that pupils from different countries, backgrounds and cultures could learn together through virtual learning environments has now been enshrined in a book, Flattening Classrooms, Engaging Minds. Sometimes tricky to read (it is laid out as a series of web pages), it mixes a didactic theory of learning for the 21st century - an electronic version of project-based learning - with technical information and case study projects.
For a fee of around #163;30, their not-for-profit organisation links pupils around the world on ready-made projects, marked by volunteer judges.
Here in the UK, a range of "e-twinning" organisations and groups have also been springing up. Some schools, such as Heathfield primary in Bolton (see panel, page 7) have made imaginative use of blogging to form global links.
But these approaches have yet to become a standard part of teaching. Although schools here have some of the most advanced computer equipment of any developed nation, pupils are, by and large, expected to leave the social media, messaging, apps, games and video-sharing that define the rest of their lives at the school gate.
Nick Hine, a lecturer at the University of Dundee's school of computing, has explored why technology is rarely used in schools in more imaginative ways, such as setting up global links. He is one of the founders of OurDigitalCulture, an international group of teachers and lecturers that explores the way technology can be used to support social interaction and learning through the writing of multimedia "stories". The best teachers help students to remember facts by embedding them in stories, he says.
The fact that communications technology has not been embraced by schools is a barrier in itself because parents and wider society tend to equate social media with pleasure, not work. Then there is the prescriptive, curriculum-driven way teachers are expected to work, an obstacle to collaboration that lends itself to project-based learning, says Hine.
"It is not always easy for teachers to do it, but they should recognise that technology is not an optional extra. In most cases, schools really need to get to grips with technology as it is being used by kids," he says.
Hine tells the story of one of his project's first collaborations between 11- and 12-year-olds in Canada and children of the same age in Bogota, Colombia. The teachers suggested that they start their internet session by describing their schools. The Canadians said that their school had 250 pupils and the Colombians thought that they had misheard. They had 4,000 pupils in their school, attending on a shift basis throughout the day. "It made both sets of children really start to think about their own local situation in relation to a completely different culture," Hine says.
Indeed, Lindsay and Davis talk a lot about the importance of promoting global awareness and a deeper knowledge of culture than can be provided by a textbook. Lindsay, who has moved from Bangladesh to an international school in Beijing, says that children should be confronted with different religious and cultural beliefs and learn to acknowledge and respect differences, creating bonds of understanding with their new friends without losing their own identity.
So far, however, the schools outside of the US taking part are overwhelmingly private, fee-charging international schools, perhaps not giving a full picture of life for ordinary people in Bangladesh, Korea, India or Beijing.
Teachers can train online to become Flat Classroom certified, but will have to sign up to - or at least pay lip service to - the wider aims of the project. "We can change society for the better from the bottom up, while improving education and students' engagement," Lindsay and Davis write.
The book is not just about technology but about learning as well, they explain: "We are forging new pedagogies. We question current education systems that place value on content above process." They tell teachers: "Learn to redefine education to be holistic, cross-cultural and technology-rich in order to scaffold new learning paradigms for enhanced engagement and real-world problem solving."
Only a handful of schools in the UK have signed up, one of which is the Royal Masonic School for Girls, an independent day and boarding school in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire. Drew Buddie, the school's head of ICT, says that it is possible to separate the jargon and theory in the book from the wealth of information and technical advice it also provides. "The book is their Utopia. Vicki and Julie are totally committed - the effort and attention to detail that has gone into the Flat Classroom project is really quite extraordinary. They really believe in and love the process of getting young people learning from each other and if there is a fault, it is that they love it too much," he says.
So how does it work? Buddie decided to use a Flat Classroom project as coursework for his GCSE ICT class last year. Since then, the syllabus has been changed and the open-ended choice of projects for coursework has been removed. He plans to find another way to use the Flat Classroom project, but says that it is important to embed it in the existing curriculum, not treat it as an optional extra.
Flat Classroom matches up schools and provides a grid for teachers to enter individual pupils in up to six aspects of a project. Buddie chose the "connecting the world project" and signed up his pupils to work on aspects such as innovation, invention and prediction or a play about "how we live". The pupils then work collaboratively through an enclosed, password-protected content management system on the social networking site Ning.
Students work together to develop personal learning environments and networks including a wiki web page and a multimedia blog. The projects are graded by volunteer judges on a marking scheme drawn up by Flat Classroom that can be adapted for different topics.
"Collaboration rules the roost. Here is a student from the UK, one from Qatar, one from South Korea, one from America. You four are now a team and have to work together to divvy up the tasks. Perhaps the script will be written in Britain, it will be filmed in America and edited in China," Buddie says. "There's online contact, instant messaging and, if the teachers agree, (the pupils) can Skype. All the slides, including lesson plans, are provided and you build around them.
"We gave it two double lessons of 80 minutes a week and the girls worked a lot in their own time. It would be more difficult to do a project in a school that wasn't independent, where you would be working strictly to a curriculum and exam syllabus."
Time differences between the schools in the project - seven in the US, one in Korea, one in Canada, one in Australia and the Royal Masonic in the UK - were not a problem, says Buddie, because the pupils passed the baton on to someone else, just as they would in the world of work. More problematic were the holiday clashes, which made it hard to find times when all the schools were in session.
The Flat Classroom project is a more formal - and ideological - version of what is already happening to some extent between schools in different parts of the world that have twinned for decades. One of the most extensive such programmes, Dissolving Boundaries, has been running across the border between the north and south of Ireland for 12 years, led in Northern Ireland by Dr Roger Austin, a professor of education at the University of Ulster, and by his counterpart, Angela Rickard from the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, near Dublin.
In this project, Protestant, integrated and Catholic schools in Northern Ireland are linked with schools in the south. Since its inception, around 300 schools on each side of the border have formed links, involving 36,000 children (see panel, page 7). A recent evaluation by the National Foundation for Educational Research said that it was beginning to alter children's perceptions of each other and helping to embed ICT in the curriculum. According to a report by the joint schools inspectorate in 2012, 99 per cent of the Northern Ireland schools believed that it was playing an important part in changing their pupils' attitude to the divisions.
The joint curriculum projects have included topics on the Irish famine, healthy eating, poetry, fairy tales, monsters, recording the weather, collaborative storytelling, recycling, French and, more recently, joint enterprises designing, making and selling greetings cards.
"We want them to cover other parts of the curriculum so it doesn't get pigeonholed as just about citizenship," says Austin. "International research shows that links with near neighbours bring the greatest level of anxiety, but some Protestant schools have used the experience of linking with distant schools across the border to get the confidence to reach out to their Catholic school down the road."
In his forthcoming book Online Learning and Community Cohesion, co-authored with Professor Bill Hunter from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Austin advises making the collaboration part of the curriculum so that it will be sustainable in the long term, rather than the educational equivalent of a meteor that lasts three weeks.
There is nothing to stop an individual teacher using social networking to find others wanting to collaborate, but being part of an organisation that promotes links can make it easier to find the right partners, he says. "Schools need to think about whether they want access to a virtual learning environment and, if so, which one. We use Moodle (an open-source e-learning platform) because it has good tools such as the forum.
"It is also better to have groups of four or five children talking to each other, because if you have one-to-one it becomes more like an electronic pen pal," Austin adds. "Problems occur when a child is sick or absent, or they may not like each other. In a group, you get sufficient diversity to make it difficult to say: 'All those Northern Irish are x' or 'those Southern Irish are y'."
It is also more likely to work well if the groups have equal status in terms of age and ability. Institutional support is key. "You need this work to be endorsed by the headteacher or principal, not just one teacher working alone," Austin says.
"We say this is not an extracurricular activity. This is not something you do at lunchtime or after school. You have to find something in your curriculum that matches that of the other schools so you can reasonably say: 'We are looking at this subject together.' Citizenship is not just a subject, it is a process - and through this linking you are developing respect for other accents and other ways of looking at the world that is much more real for the pupils than sitting down to study the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child."
So, are classrooms a springboard for this new "flat" world or are they places that give children boundaries and a respite from the bewildering barrage of information, interaction and images that bombard them daily? For once, there is no government edict on what schools should be doing. The answer is in the hands of the teacher.
For more information about the Flat Classroom project visit www.flatclassroomproject.org
Lindsay, J. and Davis, V.A. Flattening Classrooms, Engaging Minds: move to global collaboration one step at a time (2012). Pearson
E-twinning from the British Council
Free online partner-finding and collaboration tools, designed to motivate your students, improve key skills and cultural awareness, bring ICT into all curriculum areas and help you to achieve the International School Award.
This forum is a space where schools can "explore the nature of multimedia stories, hyperfiction and collaborative writing in the education of young people and of adults". The project is designed to find ways to explore how technology can support social interaction and learning. www.ourdigitalculture.org
The Schools Linking Network
A national charity that supports schools and other organisations across England to explore identity, diversity, equality and community. Its work is focused on four key questions: Who am I? Who are we? Where do we live? How do we all live together? www.schoolslinkingnetwork.org.uk
Binyameen is 11 and says that blogging has changed his life. The boy from a small primary school in Bolton stood before a conference of teachers last summer to tell them his story. "Nearly a year ago, I had no idea what blogging was. However, ever since we started it in Year 6, I haven't been able to stop. This new digital way of learning has had a huge impact on me and on my literacy skills," he said. "Writing in books is boring when only the teacher sees your work. On the computer, the whole world gets to see it."
Blogging has put Heathfield Primary School on the map through its deputy head, David Mitchell, who has gone on to form the highly popular "quad blogging" initiative, now used by schools around the world. Aware that blogs need an audience and feedback, Mitchell joined four schools together, with each taking it in turn to write a blog that is read by the others.
Mitchell introduced blogging to his Year 6 class in 2009 and they were soon hooked, writing stories, wiki project pages and even full novels in class and at home. "It has had a massive impact both on the engagement of pupils and their levels of writing. Year 6 is making an average of two years of progress in writing per child," he says. "Blogging gives them an audience and a purpose. They are canny at using key words to guide people to their blogs and we have had comments on their work from all over the world, from authors and experts. The German Ambassador left a 400-word comment about how he became an ambassador."
Mitchell tells how a reluctant writer, who was at level 3b at the end of Year 5, produced level 5 writing when his project on howler monkeys caught the attention of a volunteer at an animal sanctuary in Guatemala. She sent 15 pictures of the howler monkeys she had raised by hand and a wealth of information about them.
"She said she would be coming back to look at his work. He knew an expert scientist would be reading his report, so he was not going to produce something half-hearted. He was getting as much help as he could to make sure the spelling and the vocabulary was right," says Mitchell.
Ballytrea Primary School is a small, rural school near Stewartstown in Ulster that has been paired with St Mary's National School, a primary in Castlefin in County Donegal, southern Ireland.
Pupils use microphones and webcams to set up videoconferencing through the Elluminate system, and correspond by email.
"They are a primary in a small town - we are in the middle of nowhere," says Glenda Colvin, the headteacher of Ballytrea. "The children are from very similar backgrounds yet culturally there are differences. Although there is no actual border, many things are different in the south - the education system, the money, the television channels.
"They are not going to meet these children as they go about their daily lives, but through the internet - followed by face-to-face meetings twice a year - they experience another culture. There are differences, but they are also finding that, in many ways, they are the same: they have the same hobbies and interests, they play the same musical instruments and follow the same football teams."
The project, part of Dissolving Boundaries, is run in two classes, one for seven- to nine-year-olds and the other for 10- to 11-year-olds. "Each child has their own identity and password, but the teacher is allowed to see everything that is posted on the website," says Colvin. "The children know this and we have never had any issues about what is or is not acceptable for them to write."