A year ago last June in an historic speech in Cairo, Egypt, President Obama expressed his desire to "create a new online network, so a young person in Kansas can communicate instantly with a young person in Cairo."
To make real the President's vision, an opportunity exists for his administration to set a visible and achievable goal that will resonate with the American public. Our country's security, competitiveness and need for global competency depend on a citizenry that understands and can interact effectively with the world. The Departments of Education and State have created significant programs that build cross-cultural interaction and awareness. These programs, like the Global Connections and Exchange Program, enhance citizen diplomacy through physical and virtual exchanges and build awareness of the importance of knowing about the world.
The President's speech sparked a great deal of enthusiasm among the K-12 education and citizen exchange communities. Administration officials undertook an assessment of existing programs and found significant programs in place. Our own educational online network, iEARN (International Education and Resource Network) alone daily engages about 750,000 students in 38 countries with significant Muslim populations in collaborative online project work. Because of our existing network, after 9/11 our network was asked by the US Department of Education to create a consortium of organizations (Friendship Through Education) to assist US educators, students and community members to expand such contacts. The Administration was encouraged to build on the existing online programs and thereby expand meaningful interaction between young people in the US and their peers in these countries.
Building on this momentum and national imperative, the President should commit to link every school in the US with at least one other school somewhere in the world -- through virtual exchanges by 2016.
Imagine the possibilities for language practice online with native speakers around the world, for our students to learn with the world, instead of just about it, creating a student citizenry that is aware of and comfortable with interaction with peers worldwide. The Partnership For 21st Century Skills, a collaboration between the education community and private sector companies, has identified global awareness, ability to work in teams and a familiarity with technology as some of the skills that our young people will need to have to effectively work in a global environment.
Research now has clearly demonstrated that authentic interaction with the world's students across the curriculum results in enhanced learning, improved reading/writing test scores by our students and a heightened motivation to learn. A recent doctoral dissertation by an official of the Delaware State Department of Education found that teachers who took an online professional development course on how to use online technologies to connect with classes internationally exuded an enthusiasm for meaningful global connections that translated directly into enhanced student motivation to learn their curriculum subjects.
The President and Secretaries of Education and State need to use their positions to advocate that schools reach out to the existing private and public-sector programs to interact and learn with peers around the world;
A public-private partnership "ENGAGE The World" Initiative can be created that brings together the 30+ organizations that are already linking US schools with peers internationally to create a one-stop place online through which schools, teachers and youth organization leaders can find examples and opportunities to establish cross-cultural connections and learning with the global youth community. Major non-profit and for-profit youth and citizen exchange organizations and umbrella trade organizations have signed on to the importance of such an initiative.
The Departments of Education and State can highlight exemplary monthly activities of international work by classes and after school youth programs around the US and provide an Ambassador School Certificate to each school if they connect meaningfully with peers internationally.
Most importantly, our nation's students will be better prepared to work with and understand their peers--both as students and as professionals in whatever their chosen career. Over the past 22 years, iEARN has seen that this impact is life-long. One Pakistani student recently wrote to me, saying:
We have never met but we certainly have exchanged emails when I was a student member (1996-2000). iEARN will always be very special for me. The sense of empowerment which I felt through participating in different iEARN projects has been a defining factor in my life and career. I work for an investment bank in London and besides the mundane of work, also write for newspapers and run a school in Pakistan.
I used to participate in iEARN student journalism projects (magazines of Cold Spring Harbor High School). The exposure and the encouragement that I got from seeing my work published was an amazing motivation. Other iEARN projects like the clean water project were extremely insightful and valuable academically. However I think the single most important aspect of iEARN was that it made me feel that my opinion was worth something and was being listened to by someone. In a country like Pakistan, where the majority of the people feel disconnected, a global connection was the key life changer.
An initiative to "Engage the World" and increase meaningful interaction between our students and those around the world will have an impact that is exponential in number, cost-effective and dramatic.