Connecting students to students....classes to classes....and students to the world

When I started teaching in 1993, the general public did not have cell phones and the Internet was still largely the realm of government and the military.  Now my students don't remember a time without cell phones, or the Internet, and my youngest students don't even know a time without Facebook. Needless to say, as a world language teacher, the information, visuals, and communication available on the Internet have completely transformed my teaching. For my students In 1993, French seemed like a language that no one spoke but me and the diverse cultures of the world that speak French were largely invisible to them. Internet access at school changed all of that: since 1996, I've been able to show the French-speaking world to my students, and in limited ways, they could explore that world using resources available on what was then called the World Wide Web. With the advent of Web 2.0, my students are no longer simply consumers of digital information (although they continue to use it for research)...they now collaborate online and use Web 2.0 tools to create and send their ideas and French projects to each other and to correspondents in Belgium and France.


However, the Internet is not just a "tool" for classes or a "toy" to use to "give the students a break".  In fact, the United Nations has gone so far as to declare Internet access a basic human right in June of 2011. As educators, we have a responsibility to purposefully craft lessons and activities that provide students with multiple opportunities practice ethical and meaningful exploration of the vast array of tools and information available and to begin to forge their identities as digital citizens of the world.


As a result, I am actively seeking ways to expand my classroom to...well...beyond my classroom. And Blackboard Collaborate is one of the key tools that will allow my students, their correspondents and I to do this.


I already have more than 40 hours of experience presenting professional development to teachers using the old virtual classroom platform (Elluminate) and have been waiting for an opportunity to bring this to my students. Just imagine the possibilities (I already have!). Last year, I had a student out for an extended period of time due to illness. While she was recovering, I wanted to use Elluminate (at the time) to provide the lessons she missed. As I was thinking about that last year (we never did get to do it because my district did not have a license for Elluminate), I realized that Blackboard Collaborate would allow me to give all of my students virtual office hours, where they could drop in once a week, ask questions, have virtual "French conversation groups" with students from around the world, and we could even use the virtual whiteboard, file sharing tools and web tours to provide examples supporting lesson content or enriching the conversation or use the polling tools and break out rooms to provide additional practice activities and venues.


Then I started dreaming bigger....what could we do with our epals in Belgium or France using this tool? Imagine what would happen if groups composed of two or three of my students could work in real time with two or three Belgian students in a breakout room on a real project. My students are concerned about multiple global issues and the opportunity to dialog with other teenagers with different perspectives on the same concerns is invaluable. Blackboard Collaborate allows students to work together in real time to not only practice communication skills but address real-world problems of interest to them. The time difference is a minor issue, but because my students have greater access to technology at home than their e-pals do, my students and I would log in from our homes early in the morning (so the Belgian students would still be in school) and they would work on their projects (designed themselves) from there. We could even collaborate with other French students in the United States using this tool. When students use their new language as the means of communication to address complex problems or create real products that are intended for an audience beyond the classroom, they gain both linguistic knowledge and the 21st century skills of collaboration, creativity, oral and written communication and media literacy that are so critical to their success post-high school. 


I'm ready to collaborate, but more importantly, I'm ready to turn the tools over to my students so they can experience the power of Blackboard Collaborate as they create and share information with each other using me for guidance and feedback rather than as the "source of knowledge". With the extensive experience I've already gained in Elluminate, I know how to use the tools and how to teach others to use the I just need to get Blackboard Collaborate for my school sot that the student-generated and student-centered collaboration and language development can begin!

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