By placing the Internet into the hands of adults and youth within the school system, we further empower an already technology-strong population. Like so many other tools to which we have access, the Internet gives us enormous potential: the capacity to build bridges of friendship, understanding and caring across national boundaries, or the capability to further alienate us from the people around the globe — and around the neighborhood.
One example of an attempt to couple telecommunications technology with a “make a positive difference” mindset is The PLANET Project (sm) — People Linking Across Networks.
In October of 1992, The AT&T Learning Network, PBS Learning Link, Big Sky Telegraph, TENET (the Texas statewide educational network), the International Education and Resource Network (I*EARN), and the FrEdMail (Free Educational Electronic Mail) Network came together to create an infrastructure across which teachers and students could collaborate on each other’s humanitarian, multicultural, action-oriented telecommunications projects.
The flagship collaboration of year one of the pilot was the PLANET Somalia project.
The twenty four project team members (including K-12 classrooms and community members located in the U.S. in Montana, Washington, New York, Texas, California, Connecticut, Wisconsin, and South Carolina, and internationally in China, Spain, Australia, and Somalia) pioneered techniques to build awareness of the situation in Somalia, and to translate their learning into action by contributing to that country’s relief.
Many activities transpired during the course of the year, including forging links with “Save the Children” (an aid organization), sharing student-developed peer-tutoring guides on line, creating wall murals, brainstorming via video telephone conference calls, fund raising leading to over $4,400 going toward Somalian relief, and sharing of scarce and unique classroom resources.
I provide one detailed example of our work, to illustrate the power of international, Internet-based education.
A Sample of PLANET Somalia’s Work
After taking full advantage of our network links, both within schools and through the Internet to community members, we were able to find a liaison to bring our letters of support to Somali students, and bring their responses back to PLANET. (Conditions in Somalia were very difficult in 1992-93, with many aid organizations reducing their presence due to increased fighting.)
Ali Mohamed Nur, a 16-year-old aspiring teacher born in Hargaysa, Somaliland (the northern region of Somalia), wrote:
“Kaalmada aan ka raba ururkas ee sisters organisation: waxaan kaa raba qalab aradaymimo.”
With the help of Virginia and Mohamud Jama, our project’s community-based translators, we discovered that Ali had written, “The help I need from [PLANET] is more educational supplies.”
It just so happened that Shari Solberg-Ayers’ third grade class from Buttonball School in Glastonbury, CT had recently completed a school supply collection drive. After much searching, we found a contact in Somalia who was willing to receive and deliver the supplies, but they needed a packing list. Shari wrote to her fellow team members with the following:
“We covered the room with pencils and papers today to get an estimated exact count for you. Here goes!
“Notebooks, pads, spiral notebooks, etc. = 920 pages of paper; Blue books, 50 pages each, 11 books = 550 pages; Colored construction paper = 92 + 50 =142 sheets; Lined notebook paper = 10,720 pieces; Misc. blank white, unlined, computer paper, etc. = 1,200 pieces; Unlined colored paper = 600 sheets; White unlined=1,000 sheets; Pencils = 909; Pens = 4; Markers = 17; Crayons 6 packs = 195 crayons; Chalk = 12.
“Our grand total, added by Evan and friends is 16,279 pieces of supplies! Let us know what to do next! Thanks for your help! –Shari’s class.”
Angie Hougas, our star community connection, wrote back with the final instructions for mailing, as well as a suggestion that the class rustle up some pencil sharpeners for all those pencils!
Shari’s class used some of the funds they raised from previous fund raisers to cover delivery costs, and Ali Nur and/or other Somali students will be able to do a little more school work as a result of PLANET’s efforts.
The Internet was an extremely important part of this project. Through the Internet, we discovered community experts on Somalia, who in turn helped us unearth inroads into the country. We located people who spoke the Somali language, and could do translation work for us. We stayed in close, inexpensive contact with each other, supporting each other when the going got tough.
By facilitating a service-oriented, international on-line project, a teacher can integrate vital technology skills with a “make a difference” project goal, thereby helping to prepare our youth for the exciting and rapidly changing times ahead.
(Note: The author served as the Across Network Facilitator for The PLANET Project, and also as the virtual classroom moderator for the PLANET Somalia Project.)