Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

Harnessing Information Technology for International Education

Students today were born into the information age. Has our education system kept up? Photo: iStockPhoto

Students today were born into the information age. Has our education system kept up? Photo: iStockPhoto

Over the past decade we have seen a phenomenal growth in the use of technology in teaching and learning in U.S. schools. In 1994, slightly more than one-third of schools and just 3% of classrooms had access to the Internet. Today, all elementary and secondary schools and over 92% of classrooms are connected. [1] In addition to computers, schools are investing in laptops, wireless networks, PDAs, digital cameras, and a variety of software and services. Even more striking is the rapid acquisition of digital devices in U.S. households, particularly among families with children at home. In his latest survey of parents and their children aged 2 to 17, Peter Grunwald reports that 83% of homes with children have computers and that nearly eight in 10 households with children (78%) have home Internet access. From extensive data on patterns of use, Grunwald concludes that “digital media are claiming mindshare to an unprecedented extent in families.” He notes, “Increasingly, the most demanding consumers are becoming key gatekeepers and marketers themselves, and children, in particular, are progressively taking control of their media environment.” [2]


Today’s students were born in the Information Age, a time when video, computers, and cell phones have become commonplace. Typically, they are surrounded by electronic media, they go to the Internet for information, and they communicate via e-mail and instant messaging. When U.S. students are asked about their views of and experiences with technology, they come across as remarkably tech-savvy. Not surprisingly, they are overwhelmingly positive about the value of technology, and they see technology as essential to every aspect of their lives.[3]

Similar trends are occurring all over the world. Education Week’s annual report on technology for 2004 focused on information technology’s global links and found a thriving K-12 community of IT users in North America, Asia, Europe, South America, Africa, and Australia and the Pacific. While the extent of current use varies markedly from country to country, technology and the international dimension of education go hand in hand. “In so many ways, IT is the tool that makes it possible for educators from faraway places to establish links with one another. And when educators establish those links, they help build the global understanding and cultural awareness that are vital in today’s connected world.” [4]

With continuing advances in technology, telecommunications systems will reach still further around the globe. Computers have powerful multimedia capability, storage capacity, and connections to digital cameras that make it possible to tell the story of a community, capture heretofore unseen images, and conduct “face-to-face” discussions from distant locations. There is no question that information technologies make the world smaller, overcoming boundaries of time and space, connecting communities around the globe. International education efforts have much to gain from these new capabilities.

Access to Global Information
Thirty years ago, schools’ lack of access to information about the world outside the U.S. was a major factor limiting the opportunities of students to learn about the world. Even in today’s classrooms, students often must use textbooks that are out of date and limited in international scope. But with the Internet and World Wide Web, teachers are able to direct students to up-to-date primary sources and expert information on the websites of university area studies centers, research projects, and international organizations. In addition, students can gain a broader perspective by, for example, accessing newspapers from other countries. This unprecedented expansion in the availability of information about the world brings with it new challenges: teachers and students need to become critical users of Web information, since most sites have not been subject to an academic editing process.

Access to Global Learning Communities
Geography and time no longer limit classroom-toclassroom connections. Online learning communities are growing in number. Starting with e-mail links between classrooms in Russia and the United States in 1988, the International Education and Resource Network (iEARN) has grown to more than 20,000 schools in over 100 countries. Teachers and students enter online forum spaces to take part in collaborative learning with classrooms in other parts of the world. Products of these collaborations include magazines, creative writing anthologies (including work in multiple languages), websites, reports to government officials, and creative performances involving music and art. [5]

Research institutions have designed other global learning communities, in which classrooms and students play an essential role in conducting scientific measurements or gathering historical data. Begun on Earth Day in 1994, the GLOBE Project was designed to have students learn about the environment by having them conduct experiments, collect data, and share their findings with other classrooms and with working scientists. GLOBE involves students and teachers in 105 countries, and students have reported scientific data on climate, hydrology, soil, and atmosphere. Sophisticated database software systems make possible the entry of data from many different locations on a continuing basis. Students have provided more than 10 million measurements. They can see how their data contribute and can begin to form an understanding of science in a worldwide context.

Distance Learning and Virtual Classrooms
Since so few schools have the capacity to teach international content, distance-learning mechanisms (online courses, video teleconferencing, virtual high schools) can be harnessed to enable students to study international relations, economics, religion, anthropology, language, and other subjects that have international content or need an international perspective. For example, the Virtual High School, a collaborative of 200 high schools in 26 states, offers more than 150 full-semester courses in all areas of the curriculum. Most virtual school efforts have focused on Advanced Placement and other hard-to-offer courses, but more could certainly focus specifically on international studies, helping to overcome the barriers presented by a lack of teacher expertise in many schools. In addition, since there are member schools in 17 other countries, some classrooms have a built-in international perspective because students are involved in online discussions with students from a variety of countries, cultures, and economic backgrounds.

As technological advances increase capabilities and lower the cost of transmission for videoconferencing and live synchronous broadcasting over the Web, new forms of distance learning are emerging. For example, the Metropolitan Learning Center, an interdisciplinary magnet school for global and international studies in Connecticut, was paired with a high school in Iraq through the Global Nomads Group. The culmination of the Connecticut school’s Iraq study course, online discussions, and research was a two-hour teleconference with students in Baghdad just before the invasion of Iraq. Students learned about one another, tested perceptions and stereotypes, and probed how the media coverage was shaping public understanding. A second teleconference was held in June 2003, more than a year later, and even deeper discussions ensued. E-mail made it possible to continue the dialogue under tense and highly disruptive conditions. Students and teachers believe that the “face-to-face” meetings made possible by technology had a lasting and profound impact on both sides. [6]

Engaged Learning: Teaching for Understanding in a Global Context
What is striking about all of the examples above is the way in which information technologies and international content and context can spur student engagement and learning. Harvard University researchers point out that many of these projects have elements that have been shown to lead to deep understanding and meaningful learning. [7] Project goals often focus on big ideas and allow students and classrooms to approach the topic and participate in a variety of ways. Once involved, students find more to explore and discover, and inquiry is sustained. Students also communicate their ideas and knowledge on multiple dimensions and become part of collaborative communities.

It is also notable that technology and 21st-century learning are becoming increasingly linked in the minds of leaders of business, government, and education. Basic skills, mastery of core content, problem solving and inquiry, technological literacy, global awareness, and the ability to work across cultures are now considered essential skills for the 21st century. [8]

Missed Opportunities in the United States
One would think that the rapid infusion of technology into U.S. classrooms and the growing number of internationally oriented programs that use technology would have led to increased awareness and greater understanding of the world and its peoples, cultures, and interrelationships. Unfortunately, the data provided elsewhere in this special section tell us otherwise.

Despite the existence of exciting and innovative programs, relatively few of our students and teachers take advantage of the opportunities to connect, to learn, and to think globally. Of the 20,000 classrooms participating in iEARN, only 1,500 are in the U.S. If we compare classroom access to technology in the United States with that in the other countries in the iEARN network, the low number of U.S. participants is profoundly disappointing. So why are so few teachers and classrooms in the U.S. engaged in international projects and dialogues? And what can we do about it?

There are many reasons for the lack of participation. Few states promote teaching about world regions in their educational standards and assessments. And teachers worry about having to confront different languages, cultures, and time zones. But the larger issue is that teachers report that the current emphasis on testing and accountability in reading and mathematics has stifled their innovation and limited their options. Many report that there is no time for technology, much less for global studies and explorations. [9]

Looking to the Future: Learning, Technology, and Connecting to the World
Some would argue that it is just a matter of time before our classrooms and educational activities take on global dimensions, because information technologies are here to stay. But it would be a mistake to wait and miss out on opportunities to bring the world to the classroom and to make better and more exciting use of the technological capabilities we now possess.

If we know that students as young as fourth-graders are increasingly likely to tap the Internet for research projects and information, then pointing them to the appropriate resources (everything from country reports, international experts, and peers in other countries) is an easy and powerful way to broaden their knowledge. Students gravitate to new interactive tools, such as online world atlases. These tools can be linked to challenges and competitions that encourage students to learn more on their own time.

Clearly, teachers are critical, and they need opportunities to increase their own knowledge of other regions and cultures. While there are many established academic programs and summer study tours, many teachers lack the time or the funds to take advantage of them. They need access to online courses and shorter learning modules that tie international content to existing content standards in all the core academic areas.

School leaders and policy makers need compelling evidence that using technology to expand global understanding results in meaningful learning and student achievement. Research that follows students in their online global projects, coupled with evaluations of changes in teachers’ instruction, will help us to understand what is working well and what can be improved. And we need to show evidence that technology- mediated programs that engage students in learning about the world are also contributing to student achievement in reading, writing, science, and math.

After-school programs and other community activities offer ways to reach students as well. In Maine, where every seventh- and eighth-grader has his or her own laptop computer, students are willing to spend time learning on their own, following their interests, and sharing their newfound knowledge and expertise. [10] Just a few years ago, when I spent time at the Christopher Columbus Middle School in Union City, New Jersey, the students told me quite proudly that they were modern explorers, just as Columbus had been in his time. Their ship was their computer, and their ocean was the World Wide Web. They believed that the world and the vast amount of information available was theirs to discover, analyze, and make sense of. They were delighted that they could connect via the Internet with students in other countries and, amazingly, they didn’t see their own high-poverty circumstances as a limiting factor— now or in the future.

Vint Cerf, a major contributor to the invention of the Internet, sees many opportunities for learning and sharing in new ways:

As we begin the 21st century, we can see the dim outlines of forms of collaboration that are new or perhaps only nascent. The Internet and the World Wide Web . . . form an extraordinary system for the support of collaboration. Millions of Internet users prepare and contribute content on a variety of topics. Search engines link us to this information in seconds. Instant messages, e-mail, chat rooms, and voice/video conferencing systems provide opportunities for direct collaboration on a global scale. [11]

Building on the innovations under way and seeking new ways to reach out to students and educators through the use of technology will give us unprece dented opportunities to make global connections and to work together on a future that fulfills the promise of technology and improves opportunities for learning. It is worth the considerable effort required to overcome the current barriers to give children the access they deserve to these new opportunities.

Author: Linda G. Roberts is former director of education technology, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, DC.

This article was originally published in Phi Delta Kappan (November 2004). Reprinted with permission.

1 “Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools and Classrooms, 1994-2002,” U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

2 Peter Grunwald, “Children, Families, and the Internet: National Survey and Report,” prepared by Grunwald Associates, San Mateo, Calif., 2004, i. [see full report]

3 “Voices and Views of Today’s Tech-Savvy Students: NetDay National Report on Speak Up Day for Students 2003,” March 2004, available at

4 Technology Counts 2004: Global Links: Lessons from the World, (Bethesda, Md.: Editorial Projects in Education, 6 May 2004), 8.

5 Kristi Rennebohm Frantz and Edwin Gragert, “Global Education for Today’s World: Creating Hope with Online Learning Communities,” in David T. Gordon, ed., Better Teaching and Learning in the Digital Classroom, (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard Education Press, 2003), 141-58.

6 Telephone interview with teacher Caryn Stedman, July 2004.

7 Martha Stone Wiske, Kristi Rennenbohm Frantz, and Lisa Breit, Teaching for Understanding with Technology (San Francisco: Jossey- Bass, forthcoming).

8 Learning for the 21st Century: A Report and Mile Guide for 21st-Century Skills(Washington D.C.: Partnership for 21st-Century Skills, n.d.).

9 Van Zastrow, 2004.

10 “Voices and Views of Today’s Tech-Savvy Students.”

11. Vint Cerf, “Rethink All Assumptions,” The Laureate: Journal of the Computerword, Honors Program, June 2003, 17.