Teacher's Guide to International Collaboration on the Internet

Helpful Suggestions from K-12 Teachers

Tips and Q&A from Joan Vandervelde's Web page and minilectures that she has used with teachers in online classes. This is based on a compilation of questions she has received in the past three years.

  • Educational outcomes are significantly greater when e-mail is an integrated process, not an add-on process. E-mail activities should be a substantive contributor to academic goals.
  • Use students' e-mail as sources of authentic material to review vocabulary and writing skills.
  • Monitor student writing during collaborative projects. Ask students to forward a copy of outgoing and incoming correspondence to their teacher.
  • Stay in touch with your partner teacher by way of weekly e-mail to monitor the project.
  • Find ways to have students share in small groups what is happening with their e-mail connection.
  • Install a virus program on your classroom computers.
  • Review class rules for being a good net citizen. Post your class netiquette in a visible place or in your course outline.

Questions and Answers

Q: What if my school does not allow individual email accounts?

A: Students do not have individual e-mail accounts in many schools. In these situations students write their messages with some word processing software. The letters are saved on a disk; then sent as an attached file to the teacher in the other location. Another option is to cut-and-paste the letters to an e-mail template to form one large letter to be sent to the other school. The recipient then prints the letters or saves them as individual text files.

Q: My district uses Internet protection software that prohibits some free email sites because they also include chat rooms. Also, our students do not have email addresses for school as do the teachers. Besides Yahoo and Excite, how else can students get free email accounts to use for school?

A: There are WWW sites, such as Edmail ( It is geared to students and educators and doesn't allow chats. A very restrictive filter such as, I-Gear, will filter out Hotmail and Mailexcite, but will allow Edmail.

Q: How are learning partners assigned?

A: Once a connection is made students first names and interests are exchanged. One teacher pairs the teams of students and the exchange begins. The students are instructed to introduce themselves. They are coached about "Netiquette" and security issues, and asked not to release last names, addresses or phone numbers. At this point, the exchanges can take two different forms. The students can write informally about anything they desire or participate in a structured exchange in which they share specific information. In the initial stages of the exchange it is helpful to do a mini-unit about the location in the other country.

Q: What are the pitfalls?

A: A problem is school calendars. This is especially important when working between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Schools in South Africa, South America and Australia are not in session due to summer vacations in December and January. Starting a project with one of these schools in November is almost impossible since their school year is ending. Similarly, they are in session during June-August when it is difficult for northern schools to engage in project work.

Q: One of the articles wasn't real encouraging about the completion rate of projects he conducted or participated in - with that in the back of my mind...what kind of time line and maintenance would be necessary to make this activity be better than a classroom, or school activity?

A: A common problem in e-mail exchanges is a lack of interest if the project goes on for too long. Three months seems to be the limit for simple keypal exchanges. Beyond that, the classrooms need to be engaged in project work to sustain the relationship. Specific information exchanges usually have a set time limit. Once an exchange is initiated it is important for both teachers to communicate in a timely fashion. If there is a problem (computer problems, teacher illness, etc.), it is important to inform the other school by phone or mail. This will minimize the disappointment of students at the other school. The key to success is the enthusiasm and excitement combined with the work of the collaborating teachers. If both teachers are positive about the exchange then students will share the enthusiasm. A teacher must realize that the exchange is not self-generating. Students will have to be reminded of deadlines, will need encouragement and a sense of direction for these projects to succeed. The extra effort can result in a memorable learning experience for your class. In general, teachers should interact first, establishing timetables, expectations, etc., before students start exchanging messages.

In this regard, the hardest projects are those between just two schools. Remember, if one school cannot participate for any reason in a one-on-one partnership, neither school can continue. Joining a group project minimizes such difficulties.

Q: When is a collaboration project not a good idea?

A: If you do not have a reliable computer to access e-mail, then a collaborative project is not a good idea. It's essential to have access to a computer at home or school because it's too time consuming to use an alternate location like a public library or a friend's computer. It is also not a good idea unless you are willing to commit time to the project. Some projects that look easy on paper may involve unforeseen activities. Unless you are willing to complete the project, do not get involved.

Q. I would feel uncomfortable using e-mail on a regular basis with no monitoring of messages.

A: It's appropriate to review the writing as if it were an assigned paper since this is a school assignment.

Q: How should collaborative projects be graded?

A: You can grade it as a technology activity (word processing). You can grade it for letter writing skills, or as an activity in a content area. It helps to provide a rubric to inform students in advance of the expectations and points earned, etc. as part of the evaluation process

Three-part Series of Questions:

Q: My district's AUP is very strict when it comes to students using email. In other words, they can't and don't use it at school. As a teacher, I like the idea of students communicating with other students around the world and country. Other than having the teacher do all of the emailing, how can we integrate some of these neat projects into our curriculum? and
Q: What if keypal projects don't match my curriculum objectives or I can't manage the email situation? and
Q: I teach over 700 students a year and I do not want to set up 700 e-mail accounts. I could choose 1 grade level which would be approximately 230 students.

A: Two other options to consider are: Classroom to Classroom projects and Classroom to Expert projects. These are especially good activities when the objective is to provide a larger information base to draw from, broader set of ideas and opinions. Students from all over the world are frequently involved in short term process-oriented data collection and data sharing projects. These work especially well in science, social studies, language arts and math curriculum areas.

Q: I would like to know specifics of how we can send projects over e-mail, such as menus students make (My students create a restaurant menu, and it would be nice to have them critiqued, and in return, our class could critique theirs.

A: Probably the best way to exchange projects is via files that are attached to an email.

Q: It seems that almost all activities I read about deal with writing, language, culture, science...... anything but math. I will be able to use email in my Consumer Math class because it is a lot like Economics. However, how can I effectively use email or video conferencing in a regular math class?

A: Colleges and universities have special projects for students involving math. Many of these are collaborative. Others involve collection of real time data. Students in two or more locations can solve real time problems using e-mail and video conferencing. A search of collaborative projects by subject areas can yield math projects for students from K-12. Bluewebn from PacBell Class2class collaborative lessons MathMagic

Q: My school district has a very strict policy concerning the posting of pictures and information about our students on the internet. Is there a way to ensure that the conference connection is secure and free from potential hackers, predators or people who shouldn't be there?

A: Your school district's policy is a prudent one. There is no way to insure that the conference connection is free from predators. There have been cases where parents have sued a school district because a child's face and name were displayed in a school Web page. Their contention was that since the school's address was available on the site it was remotely possible for a predator to contact their child after school. In Australia, the government regulations now forbid all childrens' pictures and names on Web pages. It is possible to use a photo "soap" product that blurs a face in a closeup. Another idea is to use group photos and make the picture so small that you really don't see the childrens' faces, and it can't be enhanced.

Q: Although the readings seem to emphasize getting the word out about the project you will be managing, even seeming to aim for the greatest possible number of participants, I see a major problem brewing. How can we make certain that we do not wind up with far more participants than we can handle? If that is the case, how do you decide who you accept and who you eliminate?

A: When you send out a proposal for a project, limit the number of participants. If you get more than you need, thank them for their interest, but explain that all slots are filled. Offer to keep their e-mail addresses for any future projects you or your colleagues might create.

Q: To what extent can a teacher who is conducting a project put his/her students in charge of operations? What are the elements that can be student-managed, and what are the ones that MUST be managed by the teacher?

A: If the class is a responsible one, and the children are mature, it's great to assign tasks. A rubric enumerating tasks at the beginning of the project would be helpful in this situation. A few examples of tasks might include: download and print out e-mail messages, file and record messages, respond to messages, etc. If there is a need for digital photos, students can be trained to do this task, edit the photos, size them for email, etc. If there is data collection outside of school (e.g. water temperature, recycling information, etc.) the students can handle the task and enter recordings on a spreadsheet. These duties need teacher supervision, but can be done by students.

All correspondence should be approved by the teacher and sent from school or the teacher's home. School to school or teacher to teacher correspondence is the safest way to handle contacts. It is possible for a teacher to manage the student tasks, but the responsibility for the final product rests on the teacher.

Source: Joan Vandervelde - University of Wisconsin-Stout School of Education

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Last Modified: 09/24/2009