Building My HI about AI: Part 2 with Maria Stavropoulus

Working at the District Level

In the first part of this series on building my HI (human intelligence) about AI (artificial intelligence), I interviewed a friend who is having an impact at the national level. Eric Nentrup is an independent education consultant and writer/producer who is part of the team that crafted Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Teaching and Learning: Insights and Recommendations for the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. I next turned to someone I know who has been working in a school district that has found support from national organizations.

I’ve been collaborating with my friend and colleague Maria Stavropoulus for a few years on a project for the North Carolina Business Committee for Education (NCBCE), located in the state’s governor’s office. We’ve helped the NCBCE establish a network of student technology teams across the state and have provided guidance, coaching, and some curriculum development. I’m fine with the curriculum stuff—even for topics new to me like Information Technology Fundamentals—but when it starts getting highly technical I’m lucky to have Maria on my side. She has a whole lot of HI in a lot of areas and is a great thinker. She’s always able to come up with a different way to see an issue or a task.

Maria is an educational technology (EdTech) leader in Township High School District 214 in the Chicago area. She brings a range of knowledge and expertise from both the EdTech and IT sides of the house, and for much of the time I’ve worked with her she’s been sharing her growing interest and activity in AI—even giving me nudges now and then. Maria is a former board member of Illinois Educational Technology Leaders (IETL). IETL is the state chapter of Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), and a professional association for K–12 EdTech leaders. She recommends the toolkit and guide that CoSN co-authored as a valuable reference for having conversations with educators in her district about AI.

It was fun to catch up with Maria and share my first steps with AI in a way many first-timers do—by giving ChatGPT a whirl. I told her that my experiences weren’t as fruitful as I had hoped because I was specifically working on learning activities for kindergarten and first-grade students. ChatGPT knew there were content standards, but it had a hard time describing activities that aligned with them or were at an appropriate developmental level. It also struggled to reduce the reading level of some passages I wrote to be appropriate for 5- and 6-year-olds—something I heard AI could do.

“Were you using the free version?” Maria asked. As a newbie, of course, my answer was, “Yes.” “The free version is based on older data and algorithms,” Maria shared. “You’ll get different results with different tools.” Lesson learned. It also echoes advice from my colleague Eric Nentrup: Use different tools because you’ll get different results. I’ll remember that going forward.

Districts Write Procedures Based on State policies, but Not Too Many States Have Created Policies to Support/Monitor AI

I know about Maria’s work with CoSN in her state. I know she has an understanding of issues related to AI in this broader context as well as at a more micro level since she works with teachers and others in her district. She’s also teaching a course for Quincy University called Exploring AI and Understanding Your Human Potential. I began by asking her what some of the best advice is she has for state leaders about AI.

“Policies are critical, because districts look to the state for policies so they can draft procedures for implementing new resources like AI,” she said. Her concern, however, is that not many states have crafted policies to govern AI or to guide educators in its use. Based on an upcoming presentation she was working on about AI for local educators, as of September 2023 only two states provide guidance on AI—and only 11 were developing guidance. AI is moving quickly in every business sector, few states have taken steps to consider guidance for education.

State AI Guidance

In just a couple of weeks since talking with Maria and as of this publication, we’ve now found AI guidance from seven states, so state guidance is growing.

California: Learning With AI, Learning About AI
North Carolina: North Carolina Generative AI Implementation Recommendations and Considerations for PK-13 Public Schools
Ohio: AI Toolkit
Oregon: Generative Artificial Intelligence (AI) in K-12 Classrooms
Virginia: Guidelines for Generative AI Integration Throughout Education in the Commonwealth of Virginia
Washington: Human-Centered AI. Guidance for K-12 Public Schools
West Virginia: Guidance, Considerations & Intentions for the Use of Artificial Intelligence in West Virginia Schools

There are educators across the country who rely on state departments of education for guidance on issues like this, just as they have for past technologies, such as the internet and cell phones. In the meantime, school and district leaders are turning to a hodgepodge of resources, including vendors and even the press, to try to figure out how to implement AI in their classrooms. Maria’s recommendation, if you’re in this boat, is don’t wait for the national release of any overarching policy. Instead, first go to your acceptable/responsible use policy and see how it might or might not support AI and work from there.

A key consideration is data privacy, which more states do have laws about. AI is in your schools, whether you have procedures or not. How do you know data and information from your staff and students are being kept secure as they’re using AI? How do you know your staff and students are managing to keep data secure? Do they even know? How do you know a vendor that incorporates AI bots or widgets into other products is keeping that data secure?

She notes that all too often IT departments get requests from teachers and are pressured to purchase resources without adequate scrutiny. Sometimes these things are purchased at the building or classroom level without IT being involved. That throws out a lot more questions for Maria like, “Can it be supported in your technology environment? Will it run on the devices and network resources? Who’s going to provide technical support for it? With equity as a concern, will the resource work for every student? Will students who have an Individualized Education Program or other accommodations be able to use it?” Yeah, a lot of questions.

Of primary concern is what does it do with the data that students, teachers, and other staff are feeding into it? School districts that have already investigated technology and curriculum purchases through the lens of data privacy and security may have a leg up on others, but now AI has to be woven into those purchasing decisions.

Another recommendation is to go to your vendors right now and ask them what they’re currently doing about AI. Have they started to infuse it? Are they thinking about it? Maria talks to vendors for her district and she’s had responses from “It’s in the pipeline” to one that has “21 separate AI resources running in the background.” Twenty-one! Others are slowly releasing it—by tomorrow or by the end of the school year. It’s likely your students will soon have an AI chatbot as a tutor that “lives” within a learning management system (LMS) you’ve already adopted and it’s just going to be added as a feature without your district having the opportunity to go back and scrutinize the whole service. Or teachers will have AI lesson plan support within or outside of the tools they currently use. “The train,” she notes, “has already left the station.”

From an operational standpoint, it’s critical you have these conversations with your vendors. How do the vendors talk to each other? How do the tools talk to each other? What data are they sharing? What assurances do you have that vendors are keeping data secure? If they are relying on a third party to provide some of these tools and resources, how are they keeping on top of them to ensure secure data? She notes that you can build on experiences from past curriculum adoptions. Ask similar types of questions. It just looks different, because it’s AI.

I asked if Maria had a good checklist or rubric to support decision-making when reviewing AI resources. She couldn’t think of one right off the top of her head, so she generated one to help you get started. Thanks, Maria!

Table
Table

District Leaders Should Partner with ALL of Their Departments, Not Just IT

Once again I learned that vendors play a crucial role in the development and deployment of AI resources. Education leaders can talk to vendors, but they can’t always control the actions vendors take or the decisions vendors make. So I asked Maria for advice on what district leaders can do in their district with the people they can influence.

Maria didn’t hesitate a second and noted that district leaders need to partner with their departments—all departments—to consider how AI might impact their work. It could be teaching and learning, transportation and maintenance, or the business department. AI is not just the purview of your technology department. She said that all of the district’s departments need to be having “the AI conversation.” That’s because it’s already impacting your systems—whether you have considered it or not.

Like me, you may be more familiar with the AI in our daily lives—Google Maps plots your route home, spell-checkers clean up your emails, word-prediction suggestions speed up your text messages, or maybe your rely on Siri or Alexa to tell you the weather or start your favorite playlist. The data we have been feeding into those systems has been training and customizing them and the way they interact with us for years. Maria said, “We all have that responsibility to start understanding what it means for us personally, as individuals first, and then consider how that translates into our work.” She suggested expanding those considerations to your department, your team, and even globally for people like you. It’s all moving so quickly that she encouraged due diligence to stay informed and keep up with it.

While all departments should be having “the AI conversation,” it is vital to keep technology departments looped in. They should be at the table, for example, when doing curriculum adoptions through teaching and learning, because they’re likely to include technology-based resources that contain AI moving forward. Take the popular Khan Academy that just released its AI tutor Khanmigo. And if the technology department can’t always be at the table, they might be able to check in at critical junctures and provide guidance and tools to support decision-making. Working in a technology department, Maria jokingly noted that technology teams are often viewed as the “No, nope, just say no” team. She says they don’t try to be that way. Instead, they need other departments to understand privacy and security issues and that the entire system is focused on protecting the PII—or personally identifiable information—of students and others.

“Sometimes I think the smaller districts do a better job at it if they have enough leadership that is proactive versus reactive,” she said. Larger districts can have more turnover and sometimes, she observed, things slip through the cracks. These issues can be swept away due to the “It’s not my job. It’s somebody else’s job” syndrome. She suggests this issue is likely at all of our jobs but we can all be diligent. “Use your resources. Find things in supporting documents. Identify and question things. Talk to your peers.” These are all ways we can be diligent about keeping on top of AI and how it’s being used.

If you’re in a district where you’re not exposing your staff to AI, Maria recommends you start at the top. “You can either partner with external consulting firms for structured AI training tailored to your district’s needs or leverage your internal talent to create a customized AI professional development program. Both approaches offer unique advantages, whether it’s accessing specialized expertise or fostering a culture of continuous learning and adaptability within your team.” But they have to have some understanding of AI first.

Focus on Instruction

Of course, your teaching and learning staff need to understand how their practice might have to change. For example, how do they shift the discussions they have with students? With other teachers? With parents? They need to understand how the tools and resources they are using might be incorporating AI. She notes that if you haven’t been focused on personalized learning, now more than ever you will be personalizing learning.

Personalized learning and the resources that support it have pushed data privacy laws and policies. AI ramps up the importance of following procedures to keep data safe and secure. AI is going to be embedded in all kinds of resources teachers use—their LMS, search engines, record-keeping tools, and even productivity suites like Google Workspace and Microsoft Office. If a student or teacher is using one of these resources and entering pirvate information or student identifiers, according to Maria, “we’ve got issues.” For teachers, that means what you have in your online storage, the information in your emails—perhaps information about students—all has to be kept secure.

Truly personalizing learning can yield benefits, though. Schools and districts that do it well have already seen those benefits. Just like when I was talking with Eric[DBH3] , we came across the “If you can Google it …” question. If you can, it’s not a great assessment. Now with AI, if you can get AI to answer it, consider turning it around. Asking students to write a definition of new vocabulary and use it in a sentence, write extemporaneously about a topic, or even complete a cookie-cutter science lab report are all tasks GenAI can do for them in a matter of seconds. But teachers may be surprised by the suggestions they might receive asking a GenAI tool to generate classroom activities that could replace these activities. Vocabulary practice could become collaborative storytelling. Students older than 13 might use AI to brainstorm ideas and create an outline for a writing assignment that includes peer review all supported on a collaborative document. Students might create their own labs to demonstrate their understanding of a topic. None of these ideas will be a stretch to most teachers and may just be reminders of more personalized learning opportunities.

When we truly personalize learning, we can move beyond auditing student recall and foundational skills. Maria is excited about the ability for AI to help generate opportunities to help students develop their critical thinking skills. It’s going to be necessary in some fields, as technology is not just replacing labor-intensive jobs but is supplementing or supplanting decision-making positions and creating the need for differently-skilled workers. Quoting The Future of Jobs Report 2023 from the World Economic Forum, Maria said many workers “will need to upskill and reskill to remain competitive” and there is a growing need for “soft skills, such as creativity, problem-solving and critical thinking.”

Teachers are often called upon to be creative problem solvers and to think critically. That’s because we work with humans—a wide variety of humans—and all their complexities. As Eric did, Maria sees the potential for AI to support education by completing some of the administrative tasks people don’t really need to do or by using it to assist in these tasks so we’re more efficient and effective. That leaves teachers to do what they do best, teaching those humans—but doing so with an assistant that’s going to take care of the little things that could otherwise sap your time.

Getting Started as a Teacher

Where to start? What if you are a teacher and already have all these other things on your plate and it seems like there just aren’t enough hours in the day? Maria echoes advice I received from Eric: “Jump in and try a few things, but use it for personal reasons first. If you’re comfortable with that, consider how those resources can help you with your instruction. Keep talking to it. Keep prompting it.” Maria said, “I love that it doesn’t get mad at me. I rephrase the question when I don’t get what I want, but that helps me get better at prompting.”

Prompting is an important skill in using AI. It’s strategic. In some tools, like Chat GPT, the user has to create the prompt. But there are tools like Magic School AI where it provides a template so users can build better prompts. It may ask, “What grade? What’s your goal? What are you looking for?” She compares that process to building a website from scratch versus using plug-and-play elements you can drop into a website template. Some people will need the template but others will not.

There will be users at different levels—from those who “geek out about AI” and want to have full control to those who will benefit from a template. Maria says the templates are a great way to get some people started. “Not everybody has to be a coder, or a developer, or a prompter of AI. They can use the supports that are built into some of the tools, whether it’s an adult, a child, or somebody in between.”

The course she’s teaching for Quincy University has 15 teachers and counselors exploring and using AI in their own practice. They recently completed an assignment anyone can do and it would be a good group project for any district or school trying to learn more about AI. She asked them to review all of the curricula that is being used in their line of work and all of the tools being used with their students. She told them to look for AI infused into tools. She challenged them to find AI elements and determine how it was being used right now. She also challenged them to think about how it might it be used. She asked them to evaluate how it might be used more effectively and efficiently. She encouraged her teachers and counselors to talk to their peers and also to students to see how they might be using any of these resources. “It’s important to talk to the students, because sometimes teachers assign things and don’t realize there are more ‘bells and whistles’ on there, but the students always find everything.”

She urges her teachers and counselors to build a more global perspective on AI and its uses. If they haven’t yet capitalized on these tools, she encourages them to go further to find out what is available. They are encouraged to start with something relevant in their practice and then go a step further with their students and create some acceptable classroom procedures that incorporate AI. By doing that, they are generating samples that can later be shared in their own schools and districts.

She shared one last activity that is not only fun but actually accentuates the idea that AI is more than just a text generator. There’s a lot of focus on plagiarized text right now, as my friend Eric noted, but AI can create a range of content in different media formats that can be used to explore, encourage, or reflect on new ideas. Maria had her students use a prompt to create an AI-generated photo. Using Adobe FireflyCanva, or Microsoft Bing and the prompt “A (color) (animal) eating (food) in (destination)” her students could generate images of a purple goat eating pizza in Rome or a pink giraffe eating macarons in Paris. She shared one of the images.

Make a Fake graphic using a prompt

It was great to have a fun ending to our conversation and to understand that not all is doom and gloom in AI land. I told her my next step was to dump our recorded chat into Otter AI so it could generate a transcript. “I’m so proud of you,” she beamed. “This is how it starts for you.” And, you know, I guess it is.

John Daniels and Eric Nentrup

This is the second in a series of three interviews on my path to learning more about AI. Next I will share what I learned from John Daniels, an EdTech coach at Newport Elementary School in Carteret County, NC. I have been working with the EdTech coaches this year and AI is a popular area of interest amongst them. John Daniels has taken it a step further and is presenting at the North Carolina Technology in Society (NC TIES) conference on how he uses AI with teachers in his school.

If you missed the first one, this conversation started  with an interview with my friend and colleague Eric Nentrup, who is one of the authors of Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Teaching and Learning: Insights and Recommendations and has more publications forthcoming.

Discover more about Maria Stavropoulos, an EdTech Specialist dedicated to enhancing education through technology in the Chicago area. Beyond her daily role, Maria is an active participant in the tech community, often sharing her insights at esteemed conferences like IDEAcon and CoSN. Connect with Maria on LinkedIn or via Advanced Learning Partnerships.

Build Your Own HI about AI by Exploring these Resources Maria Mentions

Please note: not all resources are free

Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Teaching and Learning: Insights and Recommendations f from the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education

The Future of Jobs Report 2023 from the World Economic Forum

Consortium for School Networking toolkit and guide

Illinois Educational Technology Leaders (IETL)

Khan Academy’s AI tutor Khanmigo

Magic School AI provides templates for prompting

Generate images with Adobe FireflyCanva, or Microsoft Bing[CH5] 

10+ Popular Digital Resources for Teachers from 2014

10+ Popular Digital Resources for Teachers from 2014

I actually look forward to “Top 10” lists that sum up educational trends of the year. They always have new things I’ve missed or resources I need to investigate further. They’re much better than those stupid year-end predictions that never seem to come true, like “This will be the year of…(fill in the flavor-of-the-moment resource)!!”

This year I decided to create my own list. There’s no empirical research behind it; no data to prove their popularity. These are just a few digital resources for teachers that I’ve observed in classrooms across the country. This year I truly made it “coast-to-cast” by working in districts from Pawley’s Island on the coast of South Carolina, to Redlands, California—just shy of the Pacific—and many in-between. These are resources I see teachers using or ones that teachers have introduced to me presented in no particular order. It was hard to keep it to 10, so I didn’t.

  1. Socrative. If I had the data, I bet Socrative would be the most popular digital resource I’ve seen in schools this year. It showed up a few years ago as a polling tool, but the updated version and new data reporting tools make it even more useful. I know some teachers like Today’s Meet, but Socrative is far more powerful. Whether used as a quick formative assessment or for actual quizzes or tests, Socrative provides teachers with a range of data—some that can be represented visually on the fly—that can confidentially be tied to individual student records for monitoring purposes. I’d be really surprised if someone in your school isn’t already using Socrative.
  1. Blendspace. This media-blending tool seemed to find a larger audience this year, probably due to the addition of assessment and data monitoring functions. I’ve used Blendspace in the past because it’s just so easy to find and link resources, but the additional functionality takes this resource beyond just a fun curation site to a powerful classroom tool.

Performance task presented in Blendspace

Performance task presented in Blendspace

  1. Kahoot! is really a hoot! O.K., it’s just a quiz game, but kids love it. I thought the gaming nature would only appeal to younger students, but I’ve seen Kahoot! even enjoyed by high school students. The concept is simple, but the graphics and music seem to make forced-choice quiz review or actual quizzing more engaging. Turn it around and have your kids come up with the questions to raise the cognitive demand.
  1. WeVideo. It’s about time video editing was free, easy, and online so we can get to our files from anywhere. There are others out there, but I have probably seen teachers and students using WeVideo more often this year than other video-editing tools, even MovieMaker and iMovie. With WeVideo, platform doesn’t matter, and you can use what you know from these older video tools to create your own videos for flipping your lessons, or have your kids create video-based digital stories, lab reports, documentaries, and on and on.
  1. Tackk. No one’s had to use HTML to create web pages for a while now, and sites like Weebly and Google Sites have made it easy for students and teachers to create attractive sites for assignments and projects. Tackk is a new entry in this market and shines above most others simply because it’s just so darn easy! Kids can focus on the content and quickly get an attractive web page up to share their work. Commenting and chat are built in, so the usual monitoring of social networking components is necessary, but we teachers should be already doing that with our students instead of avoiding these powerful tools.
  1. Thinglink. How quickly things change. Yes, we can all easily create, edit, and post video from devices like our phones—something that used to take expensive tools and software. Thanks to Thinglink, we can also now annotate videos and images with the click of a button. How cool is that? I’ve seen some interesting biographies and book reports using Thinglink, but there are many possibilities. Think of the exploration of primary source documents in multiple formats—very interesting possibilities. There’s a public and an education version.

Seven through 10 are some Google Tools you may or may not know about. I find a mixed bag of teachers who do or don’t know about these free, powerful tools that can add to their classroom. Very often, I seem to be in districts where teachers don’t realize the district has their own Google Apps for Education (GAFE) domain. This alone provides a wide range of security and functionality if your GAFE administrator sets it up correctly, so I’ll focus on some things you can use within your own GAFE domain or externally. I’m saving Google Class, possibly for next year. It’s still a little new to make the Top 10.

  1. Usage rights. Let your kids search the Web for images and what do they do? Almost every kid I see goes to Google Image search and copies and pastes directly from the found set—no concern for attribution or whether the image is even legally available for use. Most don’t even visit the site where the image is actually located. I even see watermarks and copyright symbols printed on images in student projects. Google’s made it easy to find images students can use in their projects through their Search Tools. Complete the image search as you usually would, then select Search Tools, and pick one of the Usage Rights. I suggest “Labeled for noncommercial reuse with modification” to get the maximum number of options, unless kids are just going to copy and paste, in which case they can use “Labeled for noncommercial reuse,” which implies no modification. You choose what’s best for your purpose.

Finding images you can use in a Google Image search

Finding images you can use in a Google Image search

  1. Research Tools. Open any Google doc or presentation, select the Tools menu and click on Research: Up pops the research pane that allows you or your students to do a full search of text, images, or other from within your document—including filtering by usage rights (see #7). You can add links to primary sources on the Web directly in your document, and auto-generate a list of citations following MLA, APA, or Chicago style. Why isn’t every teacher using this?

Using Google Research Tools

Using Google Research Tools

  1. Google is connecting everything, even people. Google Hangouts are basically multi-point videoconferences that can be supported by computers, tablets, or phones. There’s no need for expensive web- or videoconferencing services. Google does it for free. And just like email (or Gmail), Twitter, or other social tools, you can share images, text, and links.
  1. I personally haven’t used Moderator, but since I work in several districts with GAFE, teachers report to me it’s an easy way to support a class discussion if you’re not using a learning management system (e.g., Edmodo, Canvas, or even Google Class). It’s a discussion forum. Simple. Easy.

And the +! It really was hard to narrow down the choices. In addition to my top 10, this year I’m going to spend more time with two presentation tools that teachers tell me are easy to use and highly engaging. eMaze was described to me by a teacher as a cross between PowerPoint and Prezi but easier to use. It sure looks it. Powerpoint is so abused in classrooms and Prezis often make me queasy, so I’m interested to see how eMaze stacks up. PowToon is another presentation tool that I’ve heard of for a couple of years but I haven’t really seen any students using it in the schools I visit. It looks like it might take the place of xtranormal (not sure what’s going on there!) that was popular several years ago. The learning curves looks a little steeper for PowToon than eMaze, but I’m old and kids will probably figure it out far faster than me.

There you have it. Just a smattering of fun and helpful resources I see in classrooms across the country. I know there are plenty more, but many teaches often tell me, “I don’t need to know everything. Just give me 1 or 2 good tools that work.” Pick one and let me know how it goes.

Bringing the World to Your Language Classroom: The ePals Global Community

ePals logoLanguage teachers have long had a variety of technology-based resources available to support their instruction. Language labs with audio and video recordings, texts and workbooks, and other supporting materials go well back in to the era of analog media, and the digital revolution has only increased the number and type of interesting and helpful resources available to support language acquisition in today’s classroom. When I ask language teachers what needs still remain, many respond that it’s difficult for them to find native or fluent language speakers that their students can interact with. Most have access to a wide range of print materials and recordings they can use with their students, but finding a way for students to really engage with fluent language speakers remains a challenge.

In researching options over the past year to determine how language teachers might use technology to address this need, my paths kept crossing with Dr. Rita Oates, vice president of education markets for ePals. I’ve known about ePals for years, but there was some sort of synchronicity with our crossings, from her presentations in this world at the national ISTE technology conference in Denver last summer to my attending a session she presented in Second Life last fall. When we both appeared on the roster of an online learning Ning this Spring, I thought it was a sign I couldn’t resist and asked her to share some information about ePals and how educators from across the world are using ePals’ services to connect schools, classes, and students, especially in support of language acquisition.

More than a Pen Pal

In the textbook I co-authored and in workshops I present, I use ePals as one example that I encourage teachers of all disciplines to investigate, because the global connections it provides support multiple content areas and learning goals. In fact, ePals may best be known for successfully connecting classrooms from across the world so students (and teachers) can learn from each other and gain a better understanding the nuances of culture, society, politics, and exploring everything from what kids in other countries do for fun, have for lunch, and learn about in school. In fact, to date, ePals has connected more than 600,000 classrooms (that’s just classrooms, not people) in more than 200 countries or territories—for free! They have more than 2500 new schools sign up for their services every month.

Students from Sarah LaComb's French class in New York meeting their ePals form Arras, FranceStudents from Sarah LaComb’s French class in New York meeting their ePals from Arras, France

That all sounds good for some kind of classroom sharing, but in communicating with Rita, I wanted to know if ePals offered specific services that could help meet that one big need—providing access to native or fluent language speakers. She responded that this is one of the two main reasons teachers sign their classrooms up for ePals, the other being English as a second language teachers in countries where English is not the primary language looking for English practice for their students. If you think about it, it’s the same reason, really, with interaction with native language speakers being the ultimate goal. Need…meet solution.

Example of a French class in Spain seeking ePalsExample of a French class in Spain seeking ePals

The Menu: Taste or Feast

ePals offers a variety of services for educators, many for free, with new services developed and offered based on input from the educators that participate in its programs. One of the most common starting points for new members is the ePals Global Community, which is the traditional classroom connection that many people associate with a pen pal connection. But, of course, it has a 21st Century twist.

The ePals Global Community was built by educators for educators, so the sharing has learning outcomes in mind. The primary resource for sharing is e-mail, which might be common in American schools but not so in all participating countries. ePals provides a secure, filtered e-mail environment to support communication that includes several levels of protection for students. They hold TRUSTe certification, an especially rigorous data security certification, that makes them well suited to work with children of all ages, including those younger than 13. (According to the Children’s Internet Protection Act, parents must provide consent for children under 13 to enter data to an online service, which is why sites like Facebook do not allow these younger people to participate.)

Teachers can choose to moderate all, some, or no messages before they are sent, and can request to receive notification of all or just questionable communications. ePals also offers the option of an online translation solution that supports 58 languages, and that number keeps growing. Many classes go beyond exchanging short e-mail messages and share everything from poems, stories, multimedia presentations, to video. Others have incorporated videoconferencing for real-time interaction, which obviously requires some coordination depending on time zones and school calendars. You can view a short video presentation by students with emerging Spanish skills from Darlington Community High School in Wisconsin at http://www.epals.com/media/p/236857.aspx.

 

The Teacher View of ePals Message Center

The Teacher View of ePals Message Center

There are also student forums that are organized by topic and a Student Media Gallery, which provides a safe and secure place for teachers to post student work. Students can communicate with other students from across the globe on a range of topics that they find interesting, from the impression of Justin Bieber’s hairstyle to the impact cheating has on schoolwork. The forums are moderated by real people and nothing gets posted without review. Oates notes that music and sports are some of the most popular topics, however, the single most popular social issue based on student responses is “Do glasses make you a nerd?” So while the teacher-moderated communications in the ePals Global Community may be more formal and stress the use of academic language, the student forums provide a level of engagement through social interaction with other students with similar interests.

Teachers can choose the purpose and intensity of interaction, from once a month, once a week, or several times a week. It just depends on what they work out with the teachers they collaborate with. For example, one teacher required her students to compose three sentences twice a week to share with students in their ePals collaborating class in Italy. Oates recounted that the response from Italian students would often incorporate cognates that were familiar to them but not so much to the American students, who often had to look them up in order to reply—emphasizing the difference between academic and social language use and building connections between the two languages. (As an interesting aside to that particular story, the scores for the American students on their tests of English writing improved so much after the experience that the teacher was investigated by the state to ensure that the students hadn’t cheated!)

Teacher request for connecting via languageTeacher request for connecting via language

How to Get Started

One of the best ways to get started is to visit the ePals website at www.epals.com. The home page scrolls the news ePals classrooms so you can see where the classes are located and view a profile with the age and grade level and number of students in each class and the type of interaction the teachers are looking for. A search feature allows you to find additional classrooms from the hundreds of thousands that are registered in the system based on location, grade, interest, and other parameters. You can also sign up your class on the ePals website but all new members are reviewed and must be approved before their requests are posted or they are able to participate in any activities.

If you’re not sure how you’d like to interact with another classroom, ePals has some suggestions and offers other products and services that could serve as a focus of a project. For example, in2books is a curriculum for grades three through five that incorporates eMentoring, and the ePals LearningSpace is an online collaborative environment that encourages the sharing of curriculum and supports common Web 2.0 tools, like blogs, wikis, and forums. New services are developed and delivered based on input from ePals uses, so you can have a say on what additional services might be helpful.

One of the many projects ePals offers participantsOne of the many projects ePals offers participants

If you need more information, it’s likely you’ll run across Rita or one of the ePals team members at a conference, but in case you don’t, you can attend a free webinar to learn more about ePals. Rita actually presented the webinar I attended. To sign up for the ePals 101 webinar, sign up at http://epals.101.sgizmo.com. Get other questions about ePals answered at support@corp.epals.com.

There are other electronic pen pal services that you can investigate, so compare and find the solution that is best for you. I do want to thank Dr. Rita Oates, however, for working with me and sharing information about the technology-based solutions ePals provides that language teachers may want to use to address the critical need of student interaction with native or fluent speakers. It was nice to move from an awareness of the program to a better understanding of how teachers are using these services in their classroom. If you’ve used ePals or a similar program, I’d enjoying hearing about your experiences, as well.