The use of technology has the power to transform learning. More than ever, opportunities exist to create authentic experiences for our learners. Technology allows us to produce connections for global collaboration as well. Combined with the ideas of Terje Pedersen, a teacher in Bergen, Norway, connective technology has been essential to our work with his colleagues and school.

Education Has No Boundaries

Harrisburg South Middle School in Harrisburg, SD, has been working with Rothaugen School in Norway for almost two years. It all started in May 2015. My staff at Harrisburg South Middle School was planning a Teach Like a Pirate Day for the final full day of school. I planned to lead a drone experience and took a picture of a student flying a drone before school began that day. In the tweet, I used #drones, which gained a response from Pedersen (@terjepe) in Norway. He responded by sending an engaging video of his students working with technology, including drones. That simple picture has created multiple opportunities for learning, even though the schools are seven hours (and an ocean) apart.

Over summer break, we started sharing our ideas and connecting teachers using social media platforms. When school resumed for both of us in August 2015, we collaborated with a plan to connect teachers, students, and relevant topics in our curricula. We both were driven to produce authentic learning outcomes. That is when things really took off.

Video Chats

Pedersen and I connected via video chats to set the framework, and then brought interested teachers into the mix. We started with English-​Language Arts (ELA). First, we wanted our students to critique each other’s writing. We did this through Google Apps, but then wanted a personal piece added. The problem? A seven-hour time difference. We were determined to find solutions so our students could engage in video chats. 

After some thought, Pedersen had his Norwegian students lengthen their school day so it aligned with the start of our day in the Central time zone. Now, our learners could connect in real time and discuss content and topics. At first we used Google Hangouts, but we later switched to to facilitate these discussions.

Mentoring in English

Pedersen wanted our students to mentor Bergen students in the use of the English language. Using Google Docs, Google Hangouts, and, the students critiqued spoken and written language components. Students were placed in groups of two or three and had a peer group across the ocean. It was common to have 10 or more video chat groups working at the same time during a collaborative session. 

Another learning opportunity involved Native American topics. We created a private Facebook group for our students to discuss Native American topics, including culture, prejudices, and stereotypes. Since South Dakota has several Native American reservations, this was a great fit for our students and our state history. This endeavor expanded to include another one of our Harrisburg South ELA classes. Students arrived early to school, and we implemented a Padlet discussion board on the same topic. Padlet provided a medium for real-time discussion and questioning.

In Search of Experts 

Our Harrisburg South students wanted more from this project, so they searched for experts to visit our school. Through a simple Google search, we connected with Troy Worley and Marlys Big Eagle. Worley works with the U.S. Department of Justice as an attorney for Native American issues; Big Eagle works for the U.S. Department of Justice as a victim witness coordinator. In addition to their visit to our school, we conducted a private video chat with our students, Worley, and Big Eagle, and sent it to Pedersen’s students as an archived file on our YouTube channel. Another class video chat took place with Bergen and Harrisburg students to discuss Native American dress and culture.

Learning in math was also influenced from this teacher collaboration. Pedersen’s colleague, Anne-Marit Selstø, had been using drones to learn coordinate planes. Expanding on this idea, we created a lesson to use our Parrot Jumping Sumo drones to explain the Pythagorean theorem. We also used Parrot’s quadcopter and Sphero robots to teach about coordinate planes. These activities were shared between our schools, and teachers also set up challenges on selected Fridays during the year. 

Social Media Platforms

Throughout the year, the story of these projects was highlighted on social media platforms. The main medium was Twitter, but Instagram and Periscope were also valuable. Periscope allowed for a live audience to view student work in these areas and had a chat feature to allow for comments and questions. During one broadcast, another innovative Norwegian teacher, Kim Aarberg, had our students change a physics experiment as they were working. The live conversation added value to the experiment. 

With regard to political science, we are connecting Bergen with one of our U.S. senators in South Dakota—John Thune. He came to our school to engage in a video discussion about the United States’ presidential race and process. This was a live video chat and included a back-channel experience using Padlet. 

In September 2016, our schools began a global project that included schools from India and Malaysia, thanks to UNESCO. Pedersen had a connection with an educator in India, and now our learners will work collaboratively on the topic of migration. Learning has moved beyond school walls, oceans, and continents, thanks to the technology available.

Even today, Pedersen and I connect on two or three times a month. In March 2016, I traveled to Norway to give presentations with him at universities and schools. Collaboration can be a global experience, but you need to embrace the transformational tools that make these projects possible. We need to be willing to take risks and provide our teachers with the freedom to dream these opportunities. I want my teachers to create, not be a slave to a prescribed curriculum. 

Education is slowly developing these pockets of thought and growth mindset, but our students need this development to increase its speed. My personal growth is due to my personal learning network (PLN) on Twitter and personal connections with innovators such as Pedersen. I am amused by the phrase “think outside the box.” In my mind, there is no box; it’s just a benchmark to be satisfied with a task. I challenge educators to release themselves from a “box” experience and view all the possibilities available in our profession today. 

Darren Ellwein is principal at Harrisburg South Middle School in Harrisburg, SD, and a 2017 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year. 

Making It Work

Thinking about a global collaboration? Consider these elements:

Vision and Outcomes. Decide if you want a cultural or curricular connection.

Finding Partners. Facebook Groups, PenPal Schools, Twitter personal learning network (PLN).

Platforms. Find the best avenue for sharing and communication.

Teachers/Facilitators. Seek out people willing to take risks, use their time, and share content.

Network Capabilities. Consult your tech department about available tools and bandwidth issues.

Students/Learners. Be clear regarding the goal of the project; set expectations.

Persistence. Finding the right fit for your vision and school is key.