Originally published in MOREnetworking Vol. 2 No. 3, May 2005
Not everyone’s typical elementary school experiences
One week in December 2004 students in Sherri Briedwell and Suzanne Stillwell’s Hallsville, Mo. Elementary School classes missed a regular appointment with some learning pals. The problem, a typhoon had disrupted class.
Since January 2002 elementary school students from Hallsville, Mo. have been participating in a cultural exchange program with students from Taipei, Taiwan. Using Polycom videoconferencing tools and the secure Shadow netWorkspace™ environment over the Internet2 network, third and fourth graders on opposite sides of the globe have been meeting regularly to give presentations and discuss topics such as a typical school day and activities; holidays; national symbols and traditions; weather; and favorite toys, pets and hobbies.
“Our students from a small rural community have gained a better understanding of a lifestyle very different from theirs,” said Hallsville teachers Briedwell and Stillwell. “They have developed a respect and acceptance of a different culture and, we hope, have a better understanding of how to relate to all people.”
When Missouri students check the weather for Hallsville, they also want to check the weather in Taiwan. One week in December 2004 the regular videoconference was cancelled because Taiwan was experiencing a typhoon. According to Stillwell, “First we investigated the difference between hurricanes and typhoons since our students had heard a lot recently about hurricanes. Then we visited the weather site to check out the weather in Taiwan.”
One of our students’ first questions was “Are they OK in Taiwan?” Missouri students sent e-mail to their remote classmates and not only got a response from the students in Taiwan that they were safe but also pictures of the typhoon. “It wasn’t like reading a news story about a storm in another country. Instead we were concerned that our friends in Taiwan were in danger,” said Stillwell.
“I have seen a change in the students in the [video]conferencing program,” said Briedwell. “They are more aware of the world.”
This exchange project is helping clear up misconceptions students have about each others’ cultures. During a presentation about breakfast foods, students in Taiwan were showing their partners in the U.S. what they were eating for breakfast. Several students said they usually didn’t eat the Taiwanese food they were showing us, instead enjoying a ‘traditional American breakfast.’ When we asked what a ‘traditional American breakfast’ was, they told us “hamburgers and hot dogs!”
Participants are not only learning about differences but understanding similarities between their cultures.
“With videoconferencing I have learned about the music and instruments in Taiwan,” said Josh Reinbott, a Hallsville student. “They know a lot about us and our country. When I played Yankee Doodle for them on the piano, they knew the song.”
Josh’s mother, Joyce Reinbott said, “It is so cool that they can learn the little things about daily life in another country. Our kids tend to think that everyone is just like them so videoconferencing gives them another view of life. I am amazed that the Taiwan students know so much about the United States when we know so little about them.”
Regular videoconferences and special events that bridge cultural differences and span time zones keep interest in the project high.
On Dec. 18, 2004, students from Taiwan were joined by many special visitors to conference from a mall downtown during a technology exhibit. Because of the time difference, Missouri students had to conference at 5 a.m. on a Saturday morning. So teachers Stillwell and Briedwell organized a sleep over to make sure the Hallsville students were gathered together for their 4:30 a.m. wake up call. They had such an overwhelming response to the sleep over that they had to limit participation for the pre-dawn conference in Missouri.
This project began as part of the University of Missouri-Columbia Global Initiative (later renamed ShowMe the World) through the University of Missouri’s College of Education. Dr. John Wedman, Dr. Judy Wedman and Dr. Laura Diggs set up partner schools and provided technical support/hardware for the Polycom set-up for participants in both countries. University staff and participating teachers traveled back and forth between Missouri and Taiwan developing strong bonds between the classrooms and schools.
“I think it is incredible that these students have the opportunity, in real time, to interact with students in another country and exchange ideas. I am jealous that we didn’t have this chance when I was a student,” said John Robertson, Hallsville principal and parent of a student participant.
“In past generations, a cultural exchange like this would have been students exchanging letters. But with the use of technology in the classroom, students can experience history as it happens. You can do this with television, but only as bystander. Videoconferencing allows the students to be part of the action.”
One of Briedwell’s students recently burst into class: “I just watched a story on the Today Show about Taiwan and China. Did you know… ?” Technology has enabled a very personal and direct concern to develop among the participants, one that surpasses traditional textbook learning about geography, history and cultures. In summer 2002 Suzanne Stillwell and her daughter visited Taiwan. The teachers from Taiwan visited the U.S. in 2002. Now the partner teachers from Taiwan and a group of their students are planning a visit to Missouri in August 2005, to experience end of summer and beginning of school adventures with their Missouri counterparts.
Briedwell and Stillwell received training and support as teachers in the eMINTS program, formerly administered by MOREnet, now a collaborative education program sponsored by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the University of Missouri Office of Academic Affairs. MOREnet provided the teachers with technical support for the Polycom connection on many occasions, as well as training in videoconferencing. They have also used Shadow netWorkspace™ as a secure platform for e-mail, safe chat rooms and a shared collaboration environment for student projects/workspace.
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