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Virginia Journal of Education

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Internet Collaboration: Taking Your Students Beyond Classroom Walls

While "Web 2.0" has focused attention on using the Internet to communicate and collaborate, online collaboration is not a new concept. In fact, since the advent of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, teachers and students have been using it to communicate beyond the walls of their classrooms. In the past 15 years, educators have created a wide variety of collaborative projects. If you're interested in adding collaboration to your own curriculum, several websites serve as clearinghouses for these projects. You can get involved in already existing projects or create your own and invite others to participate.

My favorite online project is called the International Boiling Point of Water ( ). Sponsored by the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education (CIESE) at Stevens Institute of Technology, this project asks the question, "What causes a pot of water to boil?" Students all over the world conduct experiments designed to answer that question and then share their data online. The project requires free registration and takes place twice a year. CIESE sponsors other collaborative projects related to science so be sure to visit their website at .

When I first went online with my middle school students in 1995, we only had one e-mail account (mine!), but I was determined to get them involved in some kind of virtual communication. We participated in the Letters to Santa project, sponsored by the Global SchoolNet Foundation. Already in its 10th year when we participated, the project links elementary students, who write electronic letters to Santa, and middle school students, who take on the role of the jolly elf and write responses. We were paired with a group of second graders from Ireland. The project was short-term and easy to do; yet it offered a variety of curriculum connection in language arts and social studies. The project ( ) continues to this day.

In addition to the Letters to Santa project, the Global SchoolNet Foundation provides information about literally thousands of other online collaborative projects. The Projects Registry should be one of your first stops as you consider integrating online collaboration in your classroom ( ). There are projects for all age groups. Some, like the Letters to Santa project, are short-term, while others may last for a whole semester or even a full school year. Most projects are free although they may require registration. Some have specific beginning and ending dates; others support ongoing participation.

If you're looking for a project that also incorporates service learning or social justice, then you should head to the International Education and Resources Network (iEARN) at . Projects sponsored by iEARN must answer the question, "How will this project improve the quality of life on the planet?" Many projects focus on using online collaboration to promote peace. The Narnia Project asks students to read one of the books in the Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis, then draw a picture related to the book and share it online. Sponsored by a school in Italy, the project includes participants from all over the world. In The Daffodil and Tulip Project, participants plant daffodil and tulip bulbs during the same week in November and then collect data on various parameters such as latitude, longitude, sunlight and temperature, as well as tracking when they blossom.

The iEARN Collaboration Centre ( ) provides a database of 20,000 teachers and 3 million students in over 120 countries who can serve as partners for more customized classroom communication, such as e-mail exchanges. The online discussion forums are a place for teachers and students to meet others on a more informal basis, and users share text, images, videos, sound and real-time media, in a multi-lingual and visual platform. These forums provide an excellent opportunity to discuss appropriate ways to communicate with others online and the site has valuable tips for both participating in online projects and discussion forums.

For beginners to online collaboration, I would recommend starting small. Pick a short-term project that you feel sure you can complete. Once you've gotten your feet wet, you may scale up and even consider creating your own project. Some of the projects get started just as school is beginning in the United States so now is a great time to spend some time browsing the websites to find the perfect online collaboration project for your classroom.

Richardson has been working as an educator for over 20 years, currently as an adjunct instructor in educational technology at The College of William and Mary, where she is also working on her doctorate in curriculum and educational technology. She also serves as regional director of the Virginia Initiative for Technology and Administrative Leadership, a professional development program for school administrators.


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