Next month we will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, which fell Nov. 9, 1989, and many no doubt will sing the praises of Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev for this important historical marker signaling the end of the Cold War.
But there are, of course, many others who deserve credit. Who, for example, remembers that just a year before the wall’s collapse, the Soviet Union and the United States engaged in a unique educational experiment?
The architect of this partnership was a former New York teacher, Peter Copen, who used “computerized electronic mail” (the precursor of eMail) and the first satellite phones (the internet was still a plaything of the military) to connect a dozen schools in New York with a dozen in Moscow. The project’s goal was to improve understanding and break down Cold War tensions.
The project’s symbolic value was clearly as important as what it led to: the network’s expansion to include nine other countries and, after 9/11, the creation of a now 2 million user strong network across 120 countries–the International Education and Resource Network (iEARN).
Like many people in the U.S., President Obama seems not to have heard of iEARN or other international educational networks that now span the globe and are used proportionally in greater numbers by non-U.S. students.
In his famous Cairo speech, our 44th president called for the creation of “a new online network, so a young person in Kansas can communicate instantly with a young person in Cairo.”
The vision the president set forth was an exciting one–he said he looked forward to a world where we would begin to break down centuries of misunderstanding between the Muslim and the non-Muslim worlds through the same kind of youth-to-youth exchanges that Peter Copen advocated almost two decades ago.
This vision already is taking place in several forward-thinking schools. The fact that networks like iEARN (and others such as ePals and Global SchoolNet) already exist means we no longer have an excuse to continue to use technology in schools as a glorified electronic textbook, useful mainly as a labor-saving device.