A pioneer heading up one of the longest-running edtech entities shares his secret formula.
GUEST COLUMN | by Ed Gragert
Online educational programs, projects and networks often pride themselves for longevity if they are five or (gasp!) 10 years old. If the former, they might have been created after the most recent downturn in the economy. If the latter, they may have been launched after the dot com bust of 2000. But imagine an international online education network still going strong after a launch in 1988! From a pilot project linking 12 schools in Moscow in the (then) Soviet Union with 12 schools in New York State, iEARN (International Education and Resource Network) has grown to become a global network with iEARN organizations in over 140 countries involving over 40,000 member schools and two million students each day — using technology to engage in online collaborative project-based learning. I am often asked how it’s been possible that iEARN has extended its reach and participant base so widely — when all but one or two other networks from the 1990s have failed. I will explore what I think are the four reasons for its success.
1. Mission Driven
From the outset, iEARN has not been purely a technology nor an academic network, in which students solve problems and teachers perhaps compete for prizes and awards for their projects.
“Making a difference” has been a key component of the network from the outset and is built into every collaborative project. When teachers propose new projects — in addition to information on the ages of the students to be involved, curriculum applications, specific activities and culminating action or outcome from the project — a key question asks how the world will be a better place as a result of the project being done — resulting in reflection from the very outset on the “why” and mission, and in designing project activities that address the larger issue of quality of life on the planet.
(Pictured: Students impacted by the earthquake in Bam, Iran with the comfort quilt sent to them by students in the US.)
iEARN has sought to change how students learn through collaboration (rather than competition) in order to prepare them for working together globally on project work and later in careers. We want students to graduate from high school knowing that they can make a difference, and one of exponential size, when and if they work together with others everywhere in the world. As a corollary, if students are to model collaboration, then prizes and awards for individuals and projects — creating winners and losers in the network —actually damage the sense of community and process of working in teams to collaboratively problem-solve.
2. Decentralized Structure
The “flat” technology we all use in the online educational community defies hierarchy and central power structures. When iEARN created its global structure, Dr. Horatio Godoy from Uruguay gave sage advice. He asked why adopt a nation-state structure from the 19th century when the technology we were pioneering did not respect traditional national boundaries. Indeed, the terms “country” or “nation” did not appear in the 1994 International Constitution. Instead, a “Center” was defined by affinity group and services (professional development, support for student project work, working relationship with the ministry of department of education, local legal status and administrative structure, etc.) that it provided its members, not by its geography.
It was a revolutionary model reflecting and honoring the technology, rather than trying to fit an old organizational model to a new global technology reality. Independent iEARN Centers assumed responsibility for their own programs and teacher support in their own languages, cultures and educational systems. This meant registration as national organizations with close working relationships with their Ministries of Education. They were not “branches” of a US organization.
3. Honoring Teachers, Not Technology
From the outset, we realized that teachers did not need another curriculum to teach. Instead, they put what they were teaching in a collaborative project format and educators in other countries adapted it to meet their own state or national curriculum requirements. iEARN became a network of teacher-designed and implemented Project-Based Learning, long before that term began to be used and advocated. Being the “owners” and implementers of the projects, teachers were naturally invested in their success, quality and longevity. Teachers continue them because they see enhanced student learning and a motivation to learn. (Pictured: Teachers in Pakistan working and learning together to implement projects for their students.)
iEARN realized early on that the key to success in this field is not the technology, but professional development. Educators are not often taught how to collaborate with another class in their same school. Yet, in iEARN we expect them to work across geographic boundaries, cultures, educational systems, languages, time zones and with technologies that are probably new. To develop teachers’ skills in these areas, iEARN professional development is most often handled locally in accordance with local languages, cultures and educational context. In 2001, iEARN also started offering international online courses to educators on how to integrate technology-enabled project-based learning into the classroom. These courses enabled educators to interact with global educators, enabling them to experience international exchange first-hand, and ensuring that they quickly overcame the learning curve to integrate international technology-assisted project-based learning into a wide variety of curricular areas. The focus on teachers is integral to iEARN success.
4. Sense of Community
Teachers want to meet others who share their educational vision. iEARN has created a global technology-enabled community of educators who know that students learn better by using technologies to facilitate peer interaction internationally.
For many countries in the network, the very access to such a global community is something to be valued and cherished. In the late 1990s, I had the chance to visit a rural girls’ school in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. The disparity between school resources in different communities was dramatically apparent. Electricity was sporadic and the school had no running water. Internet access was through a dial-up telephone line to one computer that was allowed to connect every several days through a store-and-forward system that uploaded student work over several days and downloaded new incoming messages during a 15-minute connection at midnight.
At the girls’ school, I was greeted by the principal. She welcomed me into her bare office and we sat side-by-side near a coffee table on which sat a thick binder of papers. She opened the binder to the first page and I was taken aback that it was a message from me —along with a photo of me in my own office in New York! As she thumbed through the first 20 pages of a binder with at least 60 pages, each one carefully protected in a plastic sheath, she carefully explained that these were welcome messages, from fellow educators around the iEARN global community. She noted that her teacher had posted a message in the iEARN Teachers Forum saying that her school was new to global networking and looked to others for advice and support. In response, messages had arrived from educators around the world, offering words of welcome and support. This binder and its messages were a treasure. They represented the reality that this school was now as much of the global core as any other—taking the school’s teachers and students out of their geographic, economic and technical isolation.
To further this sense of community and sharing, iEARN, since 1994, has hosted an annual international conference every July in a different country to enable teachers to share with their peers how they had integrated technology into various curriculum areas. I hope you will join us at the 2016 conference in India.
The above four characteristics have played a key role in iEARN’s development and expansion over the past decades. They will undoubtedly serve the organization well as it moves forward in the coming decades.
As the first Executive Director of iEARN, Ed Gragert helped expand the program globally to become one of the world’s largest primary and secondary educational online networks. An education technology pioneer, he has worked tirelessly with a team to create a unique project-based, Internet-supported learning network that now daily engages 46,000 schools and 2 million youth in 140-plus countries. Write to: email@example.com