What is a Web-based collaborative project?
A Web-based collaborative project is a short or long term classroom activity. It gives teachers the opportunity to innovate in teaching and learn together with peers from other countries. This is a way of bringing cultural diversity into their classes. Teachers engage their students in online learning activities to learn first-hand about other cultures, experience intercultural teamwork, respect for diversity and mutual understanding.
A project of this kind entails information exchange in the form of texts (stories, essays), graphics (photos, drawings, and any other piece of artwork) or spreadsheets (tables of data, analyses). The project outcomes result from certain classroom activities, such as group work carrying out small-scale research within local communities. The projects provide students with intercultural learning opportunities based on real-life and concrete experiences leading to acquiring solid communication skills.
A brief history of the Web-based collaborative school projects
The first intercultural email exchange took place around 1989, when the Internet became an interactive communicative platform. It involved Soviet and American classes. The exchange had some political aspects, as it took place in Gorbachev era. The exchange goal was to prove that, despite political and physical borders, students are able to communicate remotely. This was the historical moment when educationalists realised that computer-mediated communication (CMC) could serve school curricula worldwide and enable students acquire basic skills of intercultural communication.
The idea of collaborative projects on the Internet was introduced byiEARN (International Educational and Resource Network), based on the success of the first email exchange involving American and Soviet schools. Then iEARN became one of the largest computer-based global learning networks in the world. The iEARN philosophy is that classroom email exchange should be organised around curriculum-based projects, since a purposeless exchange may quickly fail.
Research in education acknowledges iEARN as the initiator of this new teaching and learning approach, which is actually based on the ancient learning model developed by Freinet, in France and expanded by Lodi in Italy later. To enhance school collaboration, the two educators introduced the latest technologies of that time to the classroom: Freinet used printed paper while Lodi used audio tapes. Both paper-based publications and tapes were delivered to the partners in the form of a cultural package exchange. The basic idea was that classes act as both sender and receiver: they exchanged questions and related answers about the culture of their partners, either on paper or audio tape.
These activities were the first instances where classes were provided with a context, a purpose and a real audience for communicating cultures within school curricula. The students’ perception in relation to distance was better conceptualised, as Cummings and Sayers point out (1995, p. 137): “Distancing refers to the increased awareness of the social, cultural, historical, geographical, and linguistic realities of one’s own community as a result of the need to describe these realities in response to questions from distant peers”.
A major drawback of the Freinet model refers to the poor quality of the information delivered through paper publications which are normally built on the questions from the other side. The questions might be based on cultural stereotypes, as the partner classes might not be aware of the main attributes of the cultural settings of their partners. Argyle states (1994, p. 91) that “stereotypes are less important the more information is available”.
A key benefit of the Freinet model is the possibility of providing an alternative to teaching and enabling students to communicate and interacting with their own and other cultural and human environments. That leads to developing objective, conscious views, and critical perspectives on their lives within a cultural context. Nowadays, the Freinet model is still alive and applied by distant classes, as part of international collaborative projects, especially when exchanging cultural packages (see Learning CirclesOrillas).
The collaborative projects were introduced in Europe earlier in the 90’s, when the Open Society Institute from New York, also known as the Soros Foundation, in association with iEARN launched a programme in the former communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe. The programme aimed to provide schools with computers and help them communicate with classes worldwide.
During that period, teachers from Central and Eastern Europe contacted peers from the USA, Canada, Australia and, to a lesser extent, Western Europe. The dialogue between the two teaching communities in Europe has been increased since 1995, when the former Socrates programmes were launched by the European Commission. One of these programmes, Comenius, was the most popular with schools. It encouraged teachers not only to implement European collaborative projects, but also to get funding to visit their partners in Europe, and to publish content on the Web or on paper.
The former Socrates programmes and in particular Comenius made a significant contribution to connecting teachers from the two sides of Europe, and therefore to expand and strengthen the field of collaborative projects. Comenius actually was the school collaboration milestone, with which European teachers discovered both email and the Web as communication and publishing tools.
The classical model of Freinet was therefore improved and extended to what “school collaborative projects” are today. Introducing computer-mediated communication (CMC) in schools has enabled classes to carry out small-scale research and then prepare cultural information to be “exported” to their counterparts by email or other means of electronic communication. CMC has therefore replaced traditional communication means (letter, phone or fax) little by little, since it facilitates faster communication and serves an important purpose across the curriculum: getting to know other cultures.
Argyle M (1994), The Psychology of Interpersonal Behaviour, Penguin
Cumming J and Sayers D. (1995), Brave New Schools: Challenging Cultural Illiteracy Through Global Learning Networks, St. Martin’s Press