While schools are closed and both teachers and students are sequestered in their homes, one online education platform is continuing to connect educators and pupils through fulfilling project-based learning and collaboration.
iEARN, an online communication center that facilitates face-to-face teaching and learning for schools around the world, is providing unique opportunities for folks on-Island.
On a Zoom conference call, around 30 teachers and a scattering of students were broken into subgroups of four or five and discussed various topics ranging from success and impasses related to remote learning, and fun collaborative projects that kids can do together.
Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) librarian Kevin McGrath told the group that the idea of the iEARN chats is to meet other educators and students and circulate project ideas or solutions to today’s inherent issues in education.
On the call were teachers from Taiwan, Pakistan, Romania, Algeria, Morocco, Israel, Belgium, and several others.
Kathy Bosiak, a teacher from Lincoln County, North Carolina, broke the ice by asking how everyone is coping mentally with being separated from their students and fellow teachers. Mustapha Louznadji, a retired English teacher from Algeria, said a large number of people in his cohort are mainly focused on ways to continue providing alternative education to kids while in-person learning is out of the question. Louznadji said he is an online course facilitator with iEARN, and has been working as an education consultant in some private schools in his country.
“It’s really a lot of online learning. We at iEARN have been instructing teachers about online learning, and working with students so that they can implement what they have learned in their online courses in real life,” Louznadji said.
According to Louznadji, iEARN educators have recently been focusing on eight topics that affect everyone, no matter their location. He said discussing topics like womens’ rights, environmental issues, and racial inequity allow students to look at the world through a broader lens, and achieve a deep perspective on other cultures and places.
There are 148 countries and more than 2 million students currently involved in the iEARN network, and each country has a coordinator who reaches out to students so they can register for online courses.
“Many students don’t know that these resources are available, so we need to make sure that the word gets out,” Louznadji said.
In July, he said iEARN will start a worldwide five-week course that trains teachers in online education. Those teachers then select a group of students from different countries and select a global topic to work collaboratively on.
“While working with each group, students are going to work directly with their peers from around the world, make friends, and create strong educational and social connections that will strengthen our worldwide fabric,” Louznadji said.
Mahnoor Fatima, a high school graduate from Pakistan, was one of the students in the virtual chat room. Fatima was on the call to find out how to gain access to lectures and collaborative workshops offered by iEARN.
“All the colleges and universities are closed and I want to continue my education,” Fatima said. Louznadji told Fatima she could reach out to him and he would connect her with her country coordinator.
One central topic that drove the discussion between teachers and some students was how schools from different countries are planning on combating the virus once institutions reopen.
Louznadji said that in Algeria, there are generally 20 students per classroom, but schools will be reducing that number to 10. Students will also be expected to follow similar health precautions as those in America, like wearing masks and washing hands frequently, Louznadji said.
He also explained that conventionally, students would be taking their bachelors exams (similar to SAT or college preparatory exams in the United States) in September, which would include English, writing, and science segments. But now, Louznadji said schools are planning on having students take only the segments that they are focusing on in their tertiary education.
This means that if a student is looking to receive a science degree from a college or university, they would only take the science segment of their bachelors exam. Also, Louznadji said students normally sit for five days to take these exams, whereas now they will only sit for three days. Louznadji said these are only some of the examples of ways that schools in Algeria are planning on coping with the virus.
For his students, Louznadji said online learning has encouraged adaptability and time management, as well as formed close bonds between fellow teachers and students. One project the international student group worked on was a song with clips from individual students about unity and equality around the world, with kids writing and singing their own lyrics.
MVRHS photography teacher Chris Baer said the virtual platform began with an idea he had where students connected with kids from across the world to share photographs of what everyday life looks like in their home countries.
A few years ago, MVRHS got a grant from the National Education Administration to work on a professional development program with iEARN where the high schoolers spoke with a different country each week.
“It was just an incredibly fun and unique experience where you get to see really different perspectives,” Baer said. “But at the same time, you realize that cultures and language of these regions don’t matter as much in the way of education, the goal is pretty much the same.”
Baer said it is enjoyable and enriching to commiserate with teachers from different places on how they are dealing with the pandemic, and how they are adapting to an ever-changing situation.
One thing Baer said he learned after starting the online teacher-student forums is that the best way for kids to learn is for them to simply have conversations with each other.
“We don’t script these or have an agenda, we let the kids talk and talk for hours. There is something very educational and very human about letting these kids take hold of the experience and just see where it leads,” Baer said.