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Global Projects and Digital Tools That Make Students Global Learners [Available Full-Text, Free]

By Sheila Offman Gersh - Posted Jan 1, 2009
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Back in 1988, the dean of the school of education from the City College of New York was visiting London, and she met with the director of the Polytechnic of South Bank (now called the South Bank University). The director, Lady Perry, informed the dean that she had just moved across the street from the Mayflower Pub. Enchanted by the name of the pub, Dean Posamentier questioned if that had anything to do with the famous ship bearing that name. Lady Perry remarked, "Why certainly. The captain was a regular patron there."

The ensuing conversation revealed the differences in what school children on either side of the Atlantic are taught about the event. In England, the passengers of the ship and their reasons for leaving the country are emphasized, whereas in the U.S., their arrival is highlighted. Realizing how nice it would be to enable children from both countries to better understand both sides of the story, The Global Education Telecommunications Network project was born. This project linked school children in New York with children in London using the best available and most cost-effective technology at that time: email. Within a short time, at least a dozen countries joined the network, and classes around the world were learning using email.

Now, 20 years later, the technology is far better, and the need to make our students 21st-century and global learners is so important. We are finding that more and more classrooms around the world are participating in collaborative global projects. The world has changed greatly since 1988, and so has the use of technology in the classroom. As teachers begin to prepare their students to succeed in the global marketplace and society, they are integrating international content into the curriculum and linking students to other students to teach them the values of other cultures.

Today’s students are truly digital learners. Outside of school they are texting, using cell phones, creating social networks on the internet, and playing interactive games online; they often do all of these things at the same time—multitasking. They expect to use some of these tools when they are in school. Teachers can create new learning opportunities for students and turn classrooms into the 21st-century global classroom when they integrate technology into the learning environment. How can teachers begin to create such environments?

Using New Technology Tools

Although it is important for students to acquire new technology skills, what is more important is how these skills can strengthen and enhance classroom instruction. At the very least, students need the skills to allow them to engage in meaningful global collaborative projects. These include the following:

• ‑Internet basics such as searching, evaluating, citing internet resources, and developing appropriate and ethical use policies

• ‑Using the internet for access to information, experts, and other students

• ‑Creating and designing websites to publish student work

• Using desktop videoconferencing

• ‑Using Web 2.0 tools to create interactive, collaborative environments

Teachers can collaborate with other teachers around the globe using a variety of technology tools. For examples, ePals allows for safe student emailing and blogging. Using the ePals tools (, teachers have access to more than 130,000 classrooms in 80 countries. Teachers can also use other communications tools such as Skype ( to bring free videoconferencing into their classrooms in order to see students around the globe; they can also set up blogs so students can communicate and collaborate on project topics. Examples of how a blog was used to do projects between Japan and India and Japan and Chile are found at and

Google offers teachers and students Google Docs, a variety of free, easy-to-use online tools ( that are similar to applications we have on our computers, such as word processing, presentation software, spreadsheets, etc. There’s also the website creation tool Google Sites (, which is wonderful for students who want to design websites. And Microsoft’s Windows Movie Maker enables students to create multimedia projects done as digital stories.

Using such digital tools is not only very appealing to students, but it also often makes a difference in their learning. And the tools often "come with" established learning communities, providing students with authentic audiences.

Project-Based Learning

Global projects encourage teachers to engage in project-based learning. Students will work in groups to study real-life situations and to try to solve real problems—for example, studying the environmental concerns of students in various cultures or exploring how families celebrate holidays around the world. When they research their topics, students will use a variety of resources, both print and electronic, to synthesize, analyze, and communicate the information. An excellent project-based learning tool they can use is available at

Of course, engaging students in project-based learning can be a challenge for some educators if they are accustomed to more traditional teaching approaches. The central idea when doing global projects is that students develop their own authentic projects based on their own interests and questions about other cultures. Teachers take on the role of coach and guiding partner while students plan and carry out the work of the projects. Students become engaged and eager learners when they share their work with other students electronically. They are also more eager to produce work that is of high quality because they are now sharing their work with a real audience.

Participating in Global Projects

Students need to learn more about other cultures. Teachers should teach about and review the general concept of "culture" and "cross-cultural," understanding as well as exploring the many diverse aspects of cultures such as literature, art, music, history, religion, language, daily life, customs, and traditions of other cultures that exist both in their own country and other countries. Through this experience, students learn the characteristics of the cultures of the countries, regions, and groups in different part of the world. This also helps students understand the similarities and differences across cultures. Understanding other cultures will help students avoid biases, preconceptions, and myths about other cultures.

Teachers can create their own projects or join one that is compatible with their curriculum. For sample international collaborations, see the sidebar titled "Global Projects Your Class Can Join."


In 2002, The City College of New York initiated a project called CultureQuest ( as a professional development program designed to train educators to effectively lead students through inquiry-based investigations of other cultures. In the past, textbooks served as the primary, if not the only, source of information about other cultures in our schools. In contrast, CultureQuest relies on both books and the vast array of resources available on the internet. Students can also communicate with peers as well as experts in a given culture and then publish the results of their research by creating an educational website to inform other students and the community beyond.

CultureQuests allow students to examine, understand, and appreciate diverse cultures, including their own cultures. These inquiry-based projects are rooted in student questions and interests, and they involve the focused, intensive study of one or more aspects of the literature, art, music, history, religion, language, daily life, customs, and traditions of other cultures. A CultureQuest is undertaken by an entire class working together, within which small groups of students focus on areas of the culture that are of particular interest to them.

A secondary goal of a CultureQuest is to provide students with the technology skills they will need for the 21st century.

Before undertaking CultureQuest projects, educators should 1) feel comfortable using technology to teach, 2) understand the meaning of culture and the most effective and appropriate ways to study it, and 3) employ pedagogically sound strategies for guiding students in project-based learning experiences and facilitating collaboration with teachers and students in international classrooms.

Teachers in the U.S., Japan, Australia, Israel, Sweden, India, Chile, Austria, and Spain have participated in CultureQuest projects. Second grade students in Spain did a CultureQuest about India. After forming groups of topics such as food, festivals, sites, national elements, and games, the students learned about India from books and the internet and by emailing students in India. A first grade class in New York City studied holiday foods in Israel. They emailed questions to students in Israel and also used books for their research. They drew pictures to represent their work and wrote a sentence or two about each picture. These pictures were later scanned and used to create a digital story. At the secondary level, a Spanish class in New York City did a CultureQuest project about Spain, studying a variety of aspects of Spanish culture, including fashion, music celebrations, language, food, everyday life, and sports. A social studies class did a project about immigration in America. This project allowed students to study the many cultures of their own country, examining the similarities and differences among them.

CultureQuest projects can be viewed at,, and

We recently began another project called ScienceQuest, which you can learn about at

Sheila Offman Gersh, Ed.D., is director of technology and international projects for the center for school development at the City College of New York, School of Education. She is a speaker at local, national, and international conferences. She teaches graduate courses and professional development workshops in the area of integrating technology across the curriculum. She also co-directs the CultureQuest project. She can be reached at or Visit Sheila's Guide for Educators web site at

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