Do you remember the go-go days of the Dot COM boom? I do, very well. Living in the heart of the digital explosion in Northern California it was impossible to avoid. Getting bombarded from every avenue with talking heads claiming that “nothing would ever be the same,” that every idea, every product, every thought ever valued before was now history and the world had shrunk to a global village where everyone was but one click away from everyone else. At the time I found myself getting more and more irritated at a story that while exciting and glittering with new possibility was just as obviously at very best, just an utterly wild exaggeration.
My own interest was in the Global Village part so I decided to do a little research to find out exactly how connected we all were. The results of that research were depressing. Despite all the growth of the Internet and even all the efforts to build e-learning sites and communities what we found was that while the fact of the Internet created the potential for a true Global Village, the reality on the ground was something else entirely.
For all the hype and marketing, the “Internet Explosion” was essentially restricted to first world countries and the very wealthy segments of the population in other parts of the world. For most part the real villages of the world were not only bypassed but not even a consideration. At that point I started wondering just how digital technology could be employed to really create a Global Community. How, in other words could we use this supposedly revolutionary technology, to being to empower the most un-empowered individuals, the youth of the world.
That question sent us on a two-year exploration of what was being done and what could be done. The result was the founding of the Global Classroom Connection. What we discovered was that while a lot of people and organisations were sincerely trying to use the Internet to reach and empower youth, their efforts were almost always constructed on a “build it and they will come” structure that mirrors the Dot Com business models but that has proven to be utterly ineffective at achieving any meaningful results in the education venue.
We discovered that the GCC programme dovetailed neatly with some of the highest educational priorities of most school systems across Asia. Specifically, the promotion of ways to learn and practice English as a foreign language; implementation of positive ICT programs; and exposing their students to the global community
It turns out “they will come” only after they have already reached a level of technical sophistication (not to mention language proficiency) to comfortably surf and decipher the available options. For the majority of the youth in the world that level of technical and language proficiency is years, if not decades, away. The result is that the much-heralded Global Village turns out to be little more than a cruel joke that privileged people wanted to believe because it glossed over the much more disturbing reality of the digital divide. Yes, the Internet opened the possibility for leveling the playing field, but the reality was that without a wholly different approach, the same old divisions remained with the wealthy privileged few reaping all the benefits and the vast majority of the world’s population still struggling to play catch-up.
We started from there and asked the two fundamental questions: if the normal Internet model doesn’t work how can you reach the young people of the world and how can you get them into a robust cross-border dialogue? Everything we have done since then was built around trying to answer those questions and construct a model that could not only succeed but succeed on a truly massive scale.
The first thing we realised is that to get students really communicating we had to create small digital communities that would have the time and opportunity to actually get to know each other. Just connecting youth to the larger Internet community was not, by itself going to have such a significant impact.
That world is just too big, too diffuse and too dominated by the already tech savvy predecessors. Secondly, if you just give young people access to computers and the Internet without also giving them something compelling to do most will end up playing video games more than anything else. Finally, we realised is that if we really wanted to include as many young people as possible including and indeed with a particular emphasis on youth in the underdeveloped world, they would not come to us, we would have to go to where they are and where they are is in school.
Once we had figured that out the core of our strategy became clear: the digital communities had to be based on already existing youth communities, the millions of classrooms around the world. Connecting those classrooms through encrypted joint websites would give us a very flexible vehicle within which the students could communicate safely, freely, and robustly, and at the same time would give teachers a very powerful tool to direct students in cross border understanding and exploring of jointly determined curriculum.
We began piloting the GCC in Asia and in the United States in 2003 and quickly discovered both the benefits of the program and the obstacles that needed to be overcome. The greatest benefit was simply student enthusiasm. Students in virtually every classroom participated enthusiastically and reported back a very high level of interest and excitement at being able to communicate regularly and directly with peers in another country.
From an institutional point of view we discovered that the GCC programme dovetailed neatly with some of the highest educational priorities of most school systems across Asia. Specifically, the promotion of ways to learn and practice English as a foreign language; implementation of positive ICT programs; and exposing their students to the global community. In every classroom we piloted the programme we were met with real enthusiasm and very active participation.
It turned out that the biggest obstacle the GCC would face in the short run would be overcoming teacher fear of technology. Most teachers in Asia did not grow up with computers and are understandable less than comfortable with the technology. When we introduce them to the GCC they are initially very skeptical. To overcome this problem we made the web building software incredibly easy, so easy that someone with no computer experience at all can learn in less than five minutes. That has helped but the resistance is still there. Of course with the younger teachers who are more familiar with computers the reaction is exactly the opposite. Young teachers instantly understand the concept, get very excited and are immediately thrilled to join in.
Since initiating the program we have run a number of excellent pilots in Thailand, Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines and made some serious progress particularly in both the Philippines and Malaysia. In the Philippines the GCC is partnering with the Gilas Project which is connecting high schools to the Internet while the GCC is then giving those high schools the option of getting instantly connected to classrooms in other countries. In Malaysia, the GCC is one of the “international” options that will be offered throughout the school system beginning with this coming school year. We are also making the program available in both Thailand and Japan for inter-country connections in their own languages.
We are also in the formative stages of cooperation in Indonesia, Vietnam, Brunei and parts of China and working hard to get the funding to allow us to expand rapidly throughout Asia. The long-term plan is to establish a solid network of connected classrooms in Asia before branching out to the rest of the world.
In the long run, we hope to build a truly massive network of the worlds youth which will not only allow students to connect with their peers in other countries on a regular basis throughout their school career, but will also provide a platform for youth to share their hopes and dreams and perhaps even begin their own programmes and initiatives. In the history of our world youth has always been the most un-empowered segment of society.
The GCC model opens the possibility of changing that once and for all and giving our young people both a more sophisticated and deep understanding of the world in which they live and an opportunity to have their own input into the directions we will move.
The GCC is a nonprofit and like many nonprofits the single biggest obstacle we have faced so far is raising the funding necessary to allow us to grow to a level where the program will be self-sustaining. Every possible funders we approach gets very excited at the long term vision, loves the program itself and is very impressed with the rapid and solid progress we have made, but then apologizes and explains that our program is not within their “category” for funding. That is of course always true since what we are doing is quite unique and so far we have not found a funder with the vision to step outside their categories and assist us but we are working hard at it and have confidence the support will come soon.
We are also in the formative stages of cooperation in Indonesia, Vietnam, Brunei and parts of China and working hard to get the funding to allow us to expand rapidly throughout Asia. The long-term plan is to establish a solid network of connected classrooms in Asia before branching out to the rest of the world
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