“That’s what’s exciting about technology – when you use it to connect people.”
– Richard Culatta, ISTE CEO
When I first saw this quote flash across my Twitter feed, it echoed what I was hearing in schools across the world: Educators and students are eager to draw connections to purpose, to the planet and to people on a very human level.
And it captured what I had witnessed with our global community of educators uniting in online spaces, including many of us who had never met in person but who consider each other colleagues and friends. Edtech allows us to take on some pretty big global challenges.
Today, our students are equipped to approach problems as investigators, curators, creators and even inventors. Digital learning and global education no longer exist as two parallel paths; they are connecting, criss-crossing and making way for a new type of teaching and learning, one built on hope, optimism and joy. Now more than ever, innovation and creative problem solving are crucial, and the world is looking to education to understand how to advance.
Engaging in global conversations
Education took center stage this fall during the United Nations’ Transforming Education Summit, where political leaders, stakeholders and researchers joined educators and students to talk about change and progress.
Discussions about educational equity, access, representation, and relevance — long a daily focus for educators — moved beyond the schools and into the great halls and assembly rooms of policymakers. Ministers of education led dialogues; young activists spoke with conviction; teachers came forward as the experienced guides. Questions around digital learning and global learning surfaced, and leaders put out a call to hear from all of us.
As educators look to engage their students in the growing global conversation of social action, here are five ways for connecting edtech to practice and purpose and, most importantly, to people.
1. Take action with the SDGs
In 2015, global leaders came together to determine a plan of action for a sustainable future. Organized as a set of 17 objectives, the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals offer a plan to care for our planet and to ensure that every person has access to food, clean water and equal rights. The SDGs, or Global Goals, call on each of us to do our part with small actions as we approach the “due date” in 2030.
The SDGs offer a space for students to explore topics such as life below water, clean energy, sustainable cities and gender equality, and they align to the student section of the ISTE Standards, which outlines how students can become empowered learners and innovative designers.
For example, students in Illinois created videos on gender equality to play on monitors for students and visitors. Videos taught about SDG5: Gender Equality and the school’s commitment to equality.
As students take on these projects, they apply knowledge and build skills. Bhavna Mathew, an educator from Pathways World School in Gurgaon, India, has been part of the work of bringing the SDGs to classrooms as a TeachSDGs Ambassador and an ISTE Community Leader. “The Sustainable Development Goals framework can resonate with the mission and vision of every educator,” she said. “It aids in the inquiry-based learning experience and the intention of shaping the students into socially responsible citizens.”
2. Broaden perspectives through virtual exchange
Virtual exchange allows classrooms of students to connect with people in different parts of the world who may live and look differently from them. Using communication and collaboration technologies and techniques, students and teachers can participate in class-to-class and school-to-school exchanges without ever leaving the school campus.
Students can tackle local and global issues, express their own beliefs and experiences, and develop skills as creative communicators, one of the ISTE Standards for Students, as they meet new people, engage in celebrations and discuss complex topics.
Tim Needles, an art teacher and technology integration specialist from Smithtown School District in New York, has participated in international virtual exchanges using social media and live videoconferencing.
“It’s always been a fantastic learning experience!” he said. In addition to being a great way to learn class content, students learn how to use new technology as well as understanding cultural perspectives. “The exchange becomes even more impactful when the students can connect and work on issues that affect us all.”
3. Get moving on climate action
Countries like Italy, Argentina and the Philippines have committed to climate literacy, environmental justice and tree planting, and in 2020, New Jersey became the first U.S. state to mandate climate education in schools.
As more countries and states move toward climate action, educators and schools are advancing quickly to incorporate climate activities across content areas and grade levels.
The Climate Action Project is one example. It invites educators and students to join a six-week global collaboration project to learn about causes, effects and solutions of climate change. Classes move through a design process that addresses two ISTE Standards: Global Collaborator and Digital Citizen. Students use digital tools to enrich learning by collaborating with others, and they become aware of the permanence of their actions in a digital world.
As Trasey Nomachi, Japanese teacher at Venice High School in Los Angeles, said, “Through our participation in programs like the Climate Action Project, students at our school have leveraged various edtech tools aligned with the ISTE Standards to research, advocate and collaborate globally for solutions to climate challenges that will affect their future world.”
Trasey’s LAUSD district is one of many that are beginning to incorporate climate literacy into the PK-12 curriculum. “It is important that students of all ages have access to these tools to raise up their voice and passion to change the world.”
4. Add to the body of knowledge
“Education needs to connect students to the world around them, teaching them about both natural and built environments,” said Rony Antony, a science teacher in Taiwan. “We also need to raise the awareness of issues impacting the environment upon which we all depend as well as actions students can take to improve and sustain it.”
Rony's students at the Starlight Experimental Educational Institute commit to research and reporting, acting as investigators and data collectors.
One recent research project included use of a visual surveying tool (original content graphic printed as a poster) to gather data by inviting students and community members to add their names to top sustainable practices. Results were then on display for analysis and consideration.
Educators looking to develop computational thinking skills use edtech for social good to break down big problems and large systems into logical parts and components.
As computational thinkers (ISTE Standards 1.1.5), students use digital tools to collect and analyze data and as creative communicators (ISTE Standards 1.1.6), they display findings as visualizations, models or projections with qualitative and quantitative evidence. Students can modify messages for intended audiences and can incorporate human-centered design principles to advance the work with people and purpose infused through all levels of sharing and storytelling.
5. Connect to community and service
Much like my connection to each of the 17 Global Goals, I find myself closely connected to each of the seven standards in the student section of ISTE Standards. The Knowledge Constructor Standard (1.1.3) is one I find particularly critical these days, because it invites students to use digital tools to construct knowledge, produce creative artifacts and make meaningful learning experiences for themselves and others.
There are beautiful connections educators can create between classrooms and their communities, using service learning and place-based learning. In our schools, we can connect to organizations, experts and others who share in our past and in our future.
Years ago on Twitter, I met Melissa Collins, Ph.D., an amazing second grade teacher with a great idea to engage her students with the local community. I did not live in her town or even in her state, but she welcomed me as a collaborator to empower her students as knowledge constructors.
She wanted to organize a peaceful march at the National Civil Rights Museum in her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, on what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s 90th birthday. With a few weeks to plan, we coordinated a Peace Sign Project using technology to have students plan, prepare and spread the word about their march.
Her students explored real-world issues, they pursued answers that would matter to others and they created original content. It was quite a special moment. Years later, Melissa and I still message each month. She recently shared with me the impact of the project. “Connecting my students to the community permits students to see how they can be change agents and advocates in the world,” she said. “The Peace Sign Project allowed them to shine a bright light on kindness for all humanity!”
Jennifer Williams, Ed.D., has been teaching for over 25 years and is the co-executive director and co-founder of Take Action Global, a nonprofit organization committed to climate education for all. She is the founder of TeachSDGs and is an ISTE Ambassador and author of the book Teach Boldly: Using Edtech for Social Good. Connect with Jennifer on Twitter at @JenWilliamsEdu.