“ Come and teach in the real Africa,” was the advertisement that inspired my husband and I to accept our first international teaching positions in Zambia, January 1998. Our daughter, Violet, was three. We sold up most of our worldly possessions in hometown Melbourne, Australia and left for Africa on our new adventure as international educators. That was over 14 years, five countries and many experiences ago.
At Simba School, Zambia I had transformed from a music teacher into a computer teacher, where I was running an ‘Internet Club’ as an after school activity and groups of students participated in iEARN learning circle projects. This was an environment where only a single computer in a locked room in the library was allowed on the Internet (by directive of our school head) with the non-networked computer lab being a good 5 minute walk away. This did not deter us!
Moving to the Middle East I found a different environment where everyday my challenge was to be culturally sensitive to the host country while continuing to implement new technologies and ideas. In Kuwait the text books were highly censored and often large sections blacked out, the Internet was filtered of course, but I was able to access necessary websites and tools for education.
I continued my learning journey to Bangladesh, one of the poorest, most crowded and desperate countries in the world. It was during this time at International School Dhaka that we implemented a Palm handheld 1:1 program in the middle school, at a time in fact when the devices were not available to buy in the country.
I still laugh at the story told by my Head of school when he literally carried 20 Palms back from the US and sweated all the way through customs. But we did it!
Along with mobile computing, Web 2.0 was emerging as a platform for communication and collaboration. The time was ripe to embark on something new that could be scaffolded by online technologies and could join students across the globe in meaningful learning experiences. I joined my largely Bangladeshi classroom with Vicki Davis ’ class, Coolcatteacher from GA USA, and the Flat Classroom Project was born in 2006.
Moving back to the Middle East, Qatar, I was concerned whether I could transplant the Flat Classroom into this more closed and sheltered community. Yes, the first challenges were technical to do with tools and access; the second were political - relying on me reassuring my school administration nothing would happen to upset students or parents,
but once these were solved I focused on the real challenge of connecting students, teenagers, across the world from very different cultures but with many similarities. My fears were largely unfounded, students wanted to connect, and learn about the world, and they did it with pride, fascination and excitement.
I remember one parent, a beautiful Arabic woman in abaya and hejab, came to see me with tears in her eyes, exclaiming how excited the whole extended family were for her daughter to be in the Flat Classroom Project, collaborating using technology and learning about leadership and digital citizenship and global communication. I was in tears as well, tears of relief and joy, thinking she had come to berate me for exposing her daughter to the wide world
China is another story. You have to be in China to understand how cut off from the world we can be at times and how determined the powers to be are to keep it that way. But then again, I believe many schools in the US, Australia and other advanced countries are also existing under the same conditions, by choice!
If you are in this situation, remember my words about China - there is always a way to connect and communicate, you just have to be creative and persevere. If some tools are blocked we find others, we blog on a wiki, we take more control via server-based software..... it ’s ok, our programs can continue to be rich with multimedia and collaboration opportunities.
Very early on with Flat Classroom we saw the power and magic of connecting with others globally and the difference it was making to learning, including breaking through stereotypical attitudes and behaviours. Not only did we keep developing flat classroom projects but we had a dream to bring students and teachers together f2f to cement collaborative relationships and work on actionable ideas. If the impact of global collaboration was evident in an asynchronous project, we imagined the opportunity for growth if we could get students and teachers from all parts of the world working together in the same place at the same time.
Our dream came true in 2009, when the first Flat Classroom Conference held in Qatar changed lives and cast a vision for the future. In the words of Edgar, a student from Ethiopia at the 2009 conference, “….what the flat classroom is really about… [is] connecting and bridging different people and different communities….
Learning is not necessarily about learning one plus one, it is about different cultures and learning about the world as a whole. I think it ’s really important and it helps to make the world more of a global village”. This challenge-based event encouraged action projects for global curriculum and visions for improved education systems and saw all participants, including virtual team members, working together,
Following the success of joining learners of all ages together in Qatar we held out 2 nd Flat Classroom Conference in China, behind the Great Fire Wall ...or rather running along the top!
Being an international educator, and having a daughter as a ‘third culture kid’ I selfishly want others around the world to experience what we are privileged to live. I want them to be able to do this without losing their own identity and sense of belonging to a country or to a culture, and without feeling superior or inferior to any other person.
I encourage each of you to embrace your own global journey. There are three takeaways from my story I would like you to remember: Remember: Be Open to Alternatives: If you or your IT people don ’t have the answers find someone who does, or do it a different way
It ’ s cool to be ‘ flat ’ - you must connect with the world, it is imperative. Use whatever tools you can to connect yourself with the world. Focus on the experience and the learning outcomes and find a way. Go beyond the ‘wow’ and embed global collaborative practice into everyday learning so that ‘unflat’ classrooms are unusual.
‘ If you aren ’ t doing it, it ’ s not happening ’ - the words of Thomas Friedman in the 2007 edition of The World is Flat, in the chapter he writes about the Flat Classroom Project. So, get out there and make it happen, there are no excuses left, we have the technology, we have the pedagogy, it’s time to join the world.
My wish for everyone: To experience meaningful connection and collaboration that is beyond the daily expectation, that is global in concept and practice and supports cultural understanding and makes a difference to the world as we know it, one classroom at a time.