Laying the world at their feet

20th April 2012 at 01:00
The Flat Classroom project is just one of many that use the internet to connect pupils across the globe. Liz Lightfoot reports on the benefits it can bring

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 pound;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, and some schools 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 writing multimedia "stories".

Mr 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 think about their own local situation in relation to a completely different culture," he says.

Ms Lindsay and Ms Davis talk a lot about the importance of promoting global awareness and a deeper knowledge of culture than can be provided by a textbook. Ms Lindsay, who has moved from Bangladesh to an international school in Beijing, says 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.

In practice

So far, however, the schools taking part outside the US 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 have to sign up to the wider aims of the project. "We can change society for the better from the bottom up, while improving education and students' engagement," Ms Lindsay and Ms 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. Drew Buddie, head of ICT at the Royal Masonic School for Girls, in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, used a Flat Classroom project as coursework for his GCSE class last year. He says 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. Mr 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 the 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 the US. You four are now a team and have to divvy up the tasks. Perhaps the script will be written in Britain, it will be filmed in the US and edited in China," Mr 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."

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 Mr Buddie, because the pupils passed the baton on to someone else. More problematic were the holiday clashes, which made it hard to find times when all the schools were in session.

Alternative schemes

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. Dissolving Boundaries has been running across the border between the north and south of Ireland for 12 years, led in Northern Ireland by 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. Around 300 schools on each side of the border have formed links, involving 36,000 children. A recent evaluation by the National Foundation for Educational Research said 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 Dr Austin.

In his forthcoming book Online Learning and Community Cohesion, co- authored with Professor Bill Hunter from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Dr Austin advises making the collaboration part of the curriculum so that it will be sustainable in the long term.

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 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," Dr Austin adds. "Problems occur when a child is sick or absent, or they may not like each other."

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," Dr Austin says.

"We say this is not an extra-curricular activity. 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 are much more real for the pupils than sitting down to study the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child."

`Flattening Classrooms, Engaging Minds: move to global collaboration one step at a time' by J Lindsay and VA Davis, Pearson (2012)


E-twinning from the British Council

Free online partner-finding and collaboration tools, designed to motivate your pupils, 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.


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?

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