Powerful Social Learning Tools Drive Digital Age Instruction
(06/20/2012)

Sixth-graders in Fresno, Calif., are using blogs, communication tools and virtual workspaces for collaborative projects with peers in Russia, Iceland, and Singapore to exchange cultural information and explore architecture, volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural and manmade phenomena. In Washington D.C., elementary-level students are building knowledge collectively with classrooms in Romania, England and Northern Ireland through video conference –based discussions about the Titanic and published materials surrounding the event. Secondary school students in San Diego, CA are conducting long-term exchanges via media galleries and school-safe email and with their counterparts in China, Japan and the Czech Republic to learn about their communities, and cultures and to reinforce language learning in an authentic context.

Global, collaborative activities such as these and many others are being facilitated by ePals, a cloud-hosted “social learning network ” and education media company, that aims to help school administrators deal with slashed budgets, and the challenge of easily integrating Common Core standards – aligned high quality content across the district. ePals’ free global learning community connects classrooms worldwide and offers engaging and rigorous educational content that emphasizes a host of college and career readiness skills, such as critical thinking, building content knowledge, using digital media strategically and understanding perspectives of widely divergent cultures.

Created in 1996, ePals is a pioneering online learning community and collaborative technology company founded by Tim DiScipio. ePals later merged with In2Books, a DC based literacy organization co-founded by current CEO Miles Gilburne and his wife, Chief Learning Officer (CLO) Nina Zolt. Under their guidance, the company has burgeoned into one of the K-12 education industry's most recognized and leading global brands, with 120 employees and more than 27 million teachers and students in 200 countries and territories worldwide on board. ePals’ client districts represent all U.S. geographical regions and a growing number of schools internationally, with late additions showing a leap in public and private school participation in India, Brazil, Germany and Kenya. Under Gilburne’s direction, the company is continuing its pioneering efforts on a global scale, with recent partnerships including the China-based Kaleido investment group, which is helping ePals ramp up its presence as both an in-school and after-school solution in countries around the world.

On a broad scale, ePals features a comprehensive, budget-friendly 21st century education package that combines a learning platform and content with collaboration and communication tools. The product’s platform is robust and secure and a range of Web 2.0 tools, such as blogs, wikis, and email meet kids where they are with digital technologies. Beyond such tools, ePals also provides teachers with project and assessment templates and high-quality, multimedia core curriculum content through partnerships with the Smithsonian, National Geographic, Educurious, and Cirque du Soleil Foundation’s ONE

DROP water ecology initiative. Additional science and reading literacy materials available for teachers to integrate into lessons include 14-plus reading-leveled kids’ magazines recently acquired from the well-established Carus Publishing brand.

Teachers in a variety of circumstances say ePals has allowed them to expend learning beyond classroom walls and to forge unprecedented project-based learning partnerships and cultural connections with other students and teachers around the world.

Says Tom Chambers, technology applications teacher at the Raul Yzaguirre School for Success [RYSS] charter school In Houston, Texas, who’s seventh and eighth grade students are currently working on digital art, Web 2.0 integration, and a NASA space weather exploration project, "I decided to use ePals because it's a global way for me and my students to get involved with collaborative projects to expand our horizons. ePals does a very good job of facilitating this process."

Troy Tenhet, who teaches sixth grade in California’s Panama-Buena Vista Union School District and who is director of the Global Learning Exchange, says using ePals has broken down barriers for his kids and impacted the learning experience in his classroom over the last six years since he’s been using the product. “Epals provides an open invitation to students all over the world to engage in meaningful exchanges of ideas and experiences. It takes the mundane daily routines of the classroom and transforms them into a worldwide stage where students can share and perform in a personally relevant fashion.”

ePals’ position as a thought leader in the education technology industry is something the company continues to view as a serious responsibility. Currently, Discipio is spearheading industry conversations around the importance of school administrators understanding the critical differences that education-specific collaborative tools and social learning networks have over consumer and mass-market social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter in the digital learning age. Beyond the issues of students being asked to use these tools at risk to their identity, privacy of information, potential contact with inappropriate users and content that compromises their online reputation and legacy, ePals is helping schools and departments of education around the world see how very limiting the resources and features of those tools are for education. In contrast, ePals is demonstrating how educational platforms designed for K12 are more cutting edge, easier to use, store school documents and class work better, and provide a legacy of schoolwork and publishing that follows them throughout the K12 years.

General social networks, while familiar to some teachers and students through use in their personal lives, don’t take advantage of or maximize 21st century “on-task” learning experiences and features the way that progressive education-designed tools such as ePals do, he says. A robust, policy-managed platform crafted to integrate with student information systems, easily deal with the exchange of large files, provide single sign-on and monitoring systems that authenticate and protect user identities and also offer high quality standards-aligned content, are among a powerful set of reasons to choose resources like ePals over consumer tools that kids may be using outside of school, says Tim Discipio. “It’s crucial that, before a school system makes a long-term decision about where communication and schoolwork will go, district decision-makers recognize many consumer tools can’t deliver the high-quality learning tools and community that students and teachers need to have in a 21st century digital ecosystem and participatory classroom,” he says. “Interestingly, most schools are also unaware that some mass market social networks actually own, or have rights to the work and documents that students and teachers create and share over those networks, whereas educational platforms don’t attempt to assume that work ownership.”

Moving forward, ePals is just now releasing a new version of their Global Learning Community with advanced search tools for finding classroom matches worldwide and new Content Learning Centers focused on Science, Writing, Digital Citizenship and a range of core subject areas with teacher-tested support materials. ePals has also recently garnered a CODIE award from the Software & Information Industry Association for its online eMentoring reading program, In2Books.

One thing the education industry and district and school users can count on for the future is an ePals that will continue to evolve with the new century.

Says ePals’ president, Ed Fish, “Our focus now is to provide even better collaborative learning experiences for the 800,000 classrooms and millions of teachers and students using ePals, by creating a truly global channel for the creation and distribution of next generation digital content for schools and homes.”

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