Flat Connections: An Ideal Global Collaboration Model

One of the most innovative new approaches to instilling global citizenship is by using current technology and contemporary social issues to connect students from schools around the world. Once a global collaboration community has been established, students can work together in a project-based environment to develop workable solutions and learn about their own agency in the world.
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One of the most forward-thinking organizations   that is creating these forums is “Flat Connections.” ASAC spoke with the founder,  Julie Lindsay, an Australian educator with substantial international teaching experience. In recent years, she has become an expert in integrating tech into the classroom. She is currently Director of Learning Confluence and Flat Connections, co-founder of Flat Classroom® and Global Collaboration Consultant for THINK Global School. She is also co-author of Flattening Classrooms, Engaging Minds: Move to Global Collaboration One Step at a Time, Pearson 2012.
ASAC: It seems that one reason more schools have not engaged in projects like yours is because they are still not adequately equipped in terms of technology. But we have discovered that many schools suffer from more of a PERCEIVED lack of technology when in fact they have tools they could be utilizing more effectively. What is the minimum amount of digital tools needed for a school to participate in the “FlatProjects” for example?
 
JULIE: Flat Projects are based around the use of Web 2.0 tools as these are the real ‘flatteners’. Tools such as wikis, blogs, audio and video sharing and educational networking building for discussion and interaction allow teachers and students to connect and collaborate. They go beyond a typical school learning management system which although serving the immediate school community is 
usually blocked and locked down for external participation. Flat Projects also build communities of teachers for each project so this relies on a common set of tools for communication. These are the essential tools used and provided (if a subscription is needed) by Flat Connections:

  • Screen Shot 2014-01-25 at 12.50.15 PM  –  Wikispaces
  •   –  Ning for older students, Edmodo for younger
  •   –  Google groups for private teacher interaction
  •   –  Timebridge for scheduling
  •   –  Diigo for social bookmarking
  •   –  Fuzebox and Blackboard Collaborate for virtual meetings
  •   –  Skype for classroom interactions
  •   – Voicethread and other Web 2.0 tools for sharing multimedia. Each project determines other Web 2.0 tools according to the needs of the teacher and group and project – there is flexibility as no two projects are ever exactly the same.
 ASAC: What has been the benefit of connecting schools from countries that have drastically different socio-economic conditions?
 
JULIE: I do not believe Flat Connections projects have included very diverse socio-economic classrooms yet. We have connected students from across the world from many different school systems in most continents so that students have experienced cultural interaction and been able to gain a deeper understanding of lifestyles and influences in those cultures. Many of our schools are international schools, so depending on the type of school (and there are many) the students could be very western and can share their experience of the culture they are immersed in with us. Our goal is to be able to include more diverse classrooms and build on the social-learning aspects of global collaboration. 
 

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ASAC: On the surface, your project is very similar to TIGed and iEARN. For schools trying 
to decide between the three, how is Flat Connections different? Or is there overlap between them? 

JULIE: This is a really good question as it is important for teachers and schools to understand the differences and be able to include opportunities from all of these partner groups in their curriculum across the K-12 years. What distinguishes Flat Connections is usually the length and depth of each project we organize. We have a limited number of projects (currently 6) and each of these runs twice a year, once per semester. The projects are offered on a subscription basis – although we never knowingly refuse any school due to lack of funds, especially schools from more diverse locations. The projects are also fully managed and supported by teachers who have completed the Flat Connections Global Educator course. Teachers with no global collaborative experience are guided through the project, and teachers with lots of experience are able to help shape a unique project for themselves and the other classrooms. Weekly online synchronous teacher meetings provide the glue to keeping the project together. The projects all have learning outcomes and a timeline and structures for completing certain things at certain times – but we do not provide curriculum as such – which is why classrooms across the world can embed our projects into their normal learning. Yes, there are some overlaps between us and iEARN and TiGED – but I believe Flat Projects currently demand a higher level of technology use to connect, communicate and collaborate (both teachers and students), and move collaboration to co-creation. We work very hard to build communities for learning around each project and ‘flatten’ the learning by expecting teachers and students to be one classroom, not a number of classrooms working individually and sharing their products at the end. 
 

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ASAC: Can you share a story from one of your current or past school collaborations that seems to exemplify the benefits students gain from this type of program?
JULIE: Well, in our book, ‘Flattening Classrooms, Engaging Minds’ we share a number of our stories and stories from others – it really is all about the stories we tell about achievement and personal success that makes this so special and encourages us to continue to bring these opportunities to schools. A more recent simple story is from one of our subscription schools in the USA where all Grade 10 students complete the Flat Classroom Project (now called the Flat Connections Global Project). One student, upon moving into Grade 11 came back to tell the teacher they felt lost and closed in – the learning had been opened up for them with regular teacher and student-driven connections with project schools, and regular conversations and co-creations. Once that mode of learning was taken away (well, it never existed in other classes in Gr 10 either!) it was missed. I think this is an excellent indication that we are having an impact on personalized learning modes and new ways of acquiring and synthesizing information that are more in tune with the needs of young people who are digitally fluent in many ways.
 
ASAC: For schools looking to integrate one of the Flat Connections initiatives into their schools, do most schools directly integrate this into their curriculum or do make it more of an extra-curricular activity like a Social Action Club or Global Issues Network style? 

JULIE: Most schools now integrate projects into their curriculum as the amount of time each week needed to complete a project goes beyond a 1-hour weekly session for an after school club. However, a project such as Global Youth Debates could be club-based with students meeting between weekly gatherings to do research and record their debate responses. For many years I ran global collaborations as after school initiatives – it was hard work – until I realized the best experiences and learning was occurring beyond the designated learning times as such, and I am now a firm advocate of bringing these experiences and opportunities into the regular classroom.
 

 

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ASAC: One of the limitations of initiatives like this is due to financial resources. I am thinking about GIN in particular. I notice you have a Flat Connections conference in Sydney. Do schools that may want to become a part of the  Flat Connections network have to make this trip and if not, will their experience be any less meaningful?
JULIE: I believe the Flat Connections Conference Sydney 2014 (and previous Flat Classroom Conferences – Japan 2013, China 2011, Qatar 2009) have demonstrated that a new conference – one that includes teachers and students working together and separately is an exciting and viable 21st century model. I believe this is an excellent next step, or alternative step for those schools who belong to GIN and pay to send their school community to those conferences. We provide similar but more process-based experiences with group/team work at the event – not focusing so much on what has been done in the past back at school. So yes, it is expensive, but we provide a cultural experience and a chance to work hands on with new technologies. Schools who are not able to attend in person can join virtually, and depending on the determination of the teacher and students to be a part of this learning experience, they can become team members and contribute to outcomes. We always run a virtual piece including video-streaming sessions live to the world and running a backchannel and other social media.
Thank you Julie. We wish you the best of luck with this most worthy endeavor and you other projects!
 
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