Pals Around the Planet


From Azerbaijan to Washington Classrooms Connect to Global Networks

Middle school students at St. John’s Episcopal School in Olney, Md., have for years been lucky enough to make cross-continental excursions courtesy of the school’s international travel program. They’ve seen Spain, marveled at Holland, and explored cities in other European locales.

“These were wonderful, transformational trips that gave them amazing experiences,” school technology coordinator and teacher Alecia Berman-Dry told The Washington Diplomat.

Still, something was missing.

“It felt too ephemeral. In the moment students didn’t really process what these places meant in the context of their daily lives,” Berman-Dry said.

School administrators hoped for more lasting connections than mere vacations could supply. “We really wanted to have our children spend more time preferably solving problems of some significance while discovering these other countries,” Berman-Dry, a nine-year St. John’s instructor, explained.

This wish led to brainstorming by Berman-Dry and the school’s equally enthusiastic headmaster. Eventually what they came up with was the World Village Experience program, which debuted three years ago. The premise was to create global classrooms for the approximately 320 St. John’s students in kindergarten through the eighth grade that allowed them to use social networking and other computer-enabled tools to build relationships with peers thousands of miles from the United States.

At the sixth-grade level, one class paired up with their counterpart in Nepal to take their world religions curriculum to the next level. Via Skype technology, the Nepalese teacher would lead the St. John’s class through a virtual tour of Buddhism, showing the Maryland sixth-graders the physical birthplace of Buddha in his remote homeland.

For the eighth-grade cross-cultural learners, St. John’s teachers requested that classes in other parts of the globe post detailed information online about where their breakfasts came from and how much they cost to produce as a lesson in global food supplies.

“Once we had a good amount of data together, all participating schools examined it for implications about how the cultures lived,” Berman-Dry said. “It’s hard to get an eighth-grader in Maryland to think about being poor and the origins of their food … but this was a concrete way to do it.”

When World Village started, the notion was revolutionary, pioneering even. Now the concept of globalized education has exploded into the mainstream, according to Berman-Dry and other leaders in the field — to the point where emerging private companies and established institutions like National Geographic are trying to transform every school into a St. John’s World Village.

“A few years back everyone was saying about global classrooms, that’s interesting. But it’s the buzzword now. Every technology director and superintendent all talk about making their students citizens of the world,” said Laurence Roth, executive vice president of marketing and business development for ePals, the largest community of connected worldwide classrooms. “It went from ‘nice to do’ to a ‘must-do.’”

In Roth’s assessment, the increasingly interconnected political and economic environment of the last 10 years made everyone aware of “just how small the world is.” And just as important, advancements in online capabilities have added the crucial element of technical feasibility. With Facebook, Twitter and other online forums, not to mention “old-fashioned” e-mail and teleconferencing, students no longer need to travel abroad to learn about the world.

Even President Barack Obama in his June address to the Muslim world in Egypt expressed the need to invest in online learning so that “a teenager in Kansas can communicate instantly with a teenager in Cairo.”

“We can literally make that happen,” said Roth, whose company is one of a variety of networks tapping into this high-tech education phenomenon.

Founded in 1996, ePals ( already reaches more than 130,000 classrooms in 200-plus countries. The company began so that classrooms could have secure e-mail accounts with which to communicate with their peers in far-off lands, providing a safe social networking site for the education community.

That original concept has expanded exponentially, connecting teachers, students and parents not only to each other but to resources such as language translation and project collaboration. Nowadays for instance, educators can go to the company’s site and use focused curriculum developed by experts so that their students can learn about critical subject matter affecting the world such as global warming. Other features allow teachers to post details of projects in which they’d like to reach out to classes in other countries and then become educational partners. As such, the site is filled with requests from classes hoping to build Skype relationships and showcase their cultures and languages with foreign counterparts.

Like its worldwide reach, ePals topics know no bounds. From an endangered species blog, to a human rights poetry contest, to e-mail exchanges on water scarcity, the site offers an abundance of ideas to contextualize real-world lessons beyond the traditional textbook. Roth cites as examples a unique partnership between students in Israel and South Korea to learn about each others’ daily existences through video conferencing, blogs and photo slideshows, as well as a similar pairing between a Brooklyn and a Brazilian school.

“The range and variety is great,” he said. “Whether it’s classes wanting to practice language skills or demonstrate what their communities look like and see others in exchange.”

Though there are no official statistics, throughout the United States, individual states are beginning to embrace the notion that their students must be connected with the outside world. The lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, for one, expressed the desire for every student to have the means of reaching out internationally. EPals responded to this call by supplying secure e-mail addresses that all Wisconsin schoolchildren can use for global relationship building. The hope is for other states to follow suit.

The company’s other new endeavor is a formal partnership with the International Baccalaureate program, which awards specialized diplomas and according to Roth “wrote the book on global schooling.”

Meanwhile at St. John’s, Berman-Dry is especially proud of a program that unites middle school-age students at her school with middle schoolers in Belize to study how global change is affecting local ecosystems. To make the exchange particularly meaningful, the U.S. students visit the Chesapeake Bay and scientifically record the conditions of organisms living there. Belize students do the same thing in their backyard. At the end of the year, the St. John’s class is able to travel to Belize and perform community service there, an exciting adventure that Berman-Dry hopes to duplicate with other partnerships. “It gets them to think not only outside of their neighborhood but out of their country,” she said. “And you can pair the classroom learning with a trip that has context and meaning.”

The St. John’s students also became inspired to complete a service project in which they raised 0 each through chores and fundraisers to donate five laptops to a small school in Belize so that it could qualify for free Internet service.

Berman-Dry herself became hooked on international travel from an early age, when she went to live with her grandparents in England for a short stint. In the process her horizons became larger and visiting even more remote nations became an exciting — rather than scary — proposition.

Some of the older teachers at St. John’s didn’t have the same upbringing, so when they traveled with the World Village program it was a new experience for them as well, she said. “One had never been out of the country and another had never been to a developing nation. So you can see it opens doors not only for our students but also for our teachers.”

For more on the subject, also see “Thinking Technology: Area Schools E-volve With Digital Makeover in the Classrooms” in the September 2008 issue of The Washington Diplomat.


About the Author

Dena Levitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.