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U Arizona Team Seeks To Construct International Internet Classroom

A team of researchers from the University of Arizona is working on a project to develop an "International Internet Classroom" as a way to centralize information and resources that could be of value to teachers. The effort, led by members of the Computer Science department, will rely on artificial intelligence and user-generated data to bring together pertinent educational resources into "unit packages," according to Paul Cohen, head of the department.

"We're asking, 'What is it like to be a teacher in the age of information?'" said Jane Strohm, an education informatics researcher working on Cohen's team. "The concept is that we need an easier way to get information and not get lost in the Internet."

"With the Internet a teacher can easily gather several different resources, such as lecture slides, interactive exercises, videos, audio material, experiments, homework assignments, among other things to meet the diverse needs of her students," she said.

The team said it expects to release a "Unit Package Editor" in February 2010 to a small test group of educators. This tool will enable teachers to build and share units, which consist of collections of educational resources, such as lectures, exercises, homework assignments, and videos.

"Just about every single educational idea is out there," said Cohen, whose expertise is in artificial intelligence and education informatics. "We want to make it easy to develop and to share that information."

Development of the unit packages, the team believes, will lead to a "virtual map of knowledge," suggested computer science graduate student Tasneem Kaochar. This map is a component of the team's vision for the International Internet Classroom.

A similar effort already exists in Europe. eTwinning has about 74,000 members and 3,980 active projects to aid teachers and librarians in Europe. The service connects educators in countries that are members of the European Union, allowing them and their students to work on collaborative projects in the virtual world. For example, a recent geometry, algebra, and calculus project in the United Kingdom challenged students to reconstruct "crop circles" using free math software. The software is available in 13 languages, and classes can interact with each other via audio conference, chat, e-mail, and virtual classes.

That aspect of global collaboration is attractive to the Arizona team. One of the biggest beneficiaries may be the United States, which is falling behind global competitors, Kaochar suggested. "There is lots of information indicating that other countries are exceeding the United States, and people are starting to talk about ways that we should be collaborating with other countries," she said.

That need for global connections among students is a view shared by others. "In other countries, there's almost a hunger for educators to connect their kids to other parts of the world," said Alan November, who travels globally to consult on education technology. "They know that teaching kids at a young age how to collaborate and to value different cultures and understand the richness of having different perspective to your projects is an essential lifelong skill." In a global economy, he pointed out, people work with others all around the world. "We might as well get started." Plus, he said, kids are social by nature. When they know others are working with them, it motivates them to pay attention. "Working in partnership adds a level of seriousness than if you're just doing it for yourself."

November pointed to initiatives such as a three-year partnership developed by the Specialist Schools Trust in the U.K. and the Khanya Technology in Education Project, set up by the Western Cape Educational Department that gives schools in England and South Africa a means to link students in both countries and to allow teachers to pool ideas for curriculum development. "We Americans don't do things like that," he insisted.

Lack of vision is part of the problem. "I do not detect any urgency in American education for global collaboration," said November. "In my workshops, the only country where I have to explain why this is important is the United States. You walk [into a school in] Sweden or Denmark or Scotland or Ireland or China, they're just waiting to figure out how to connect their kids globally. They know how essential that is.

U Arizona's Kaochar has developed a survey for U.S. educators to explore how they use Web-based resources and to learn what they need to make their classroom instruction easier and better.

According to recent survey results, Kaochar reported, about 63 percent of respondents said they use Wikipedia, and nearly 60 percent also use Discovery Education and YouTube. A smaller percentage--about 34 percent--reported that they use TeacherTube. Eighty percent said they use Google, Yahoo, and other search engines to locate educational resources.

"This shows that teachers want to move away from only textbook-based learning because frankly, today's generation of students are exposed to so much more visual and interactive stimuli that it is no surprise that they prefer to learn from more hands-on, visually exciting and interactive resources," Kaochar said.

"All this information put together indicates to us there is a need for a one-stop-shop for educational resources where teachers--and students--can go to find reliable resources quickly," Kaochar said.

"We are designing our portal such that it will be very simple and intuitive to navigate," she said. "We are moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach to education. If we can get this system up and running, the potential will be amazing."

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