Network of Web Portals Helps Educators Become Innovators

HELSINKI, Finland, Oct. 29, 2007 – To experience firsthand the complex problems that influence biodiversity, Birgitta Kajler, an educator of future wildlife conservationists in Sweden, spends a lot of her time traveling the world. With the help of Microsoft’s Innovative Teachers Network, she now gives her students the same experience – but without having to leave their classroom.

Sweden’s upper secondary schools prepare students for the subjects they will pursue at university and in their careers. At Spånga Upper Secondary School, where Kajler works, the students study zoology. Making regular visits to tropical environments wasn’t a practical option, so when Tojosoa “Lytah” Razafimahefa, a tour guide in Madagascar, introduced Kajler to Lycée Joel Sylvain School in Ambalavao, she asked Microsoft for technical advice to help her build an information and communications technology (ICT) enabled collaborative project between her students and their peers in the African nation.

To help her develop the skills needed for this project, Microsoft introduced Kajler to the Innovative Teachers Network (ITN). With more than half a million members in 46 countries, the ITN is a fast-growing collection of online portals that helps teachers all over the world share ideas, lesson plans and best practices, as well as access a library of professional development resources made available free of charge by Microsoft and its content partners. While these portals are implemented locally, an option to federate with other countries means the ITN is becoming increasingly global in reach.

The ITN connects teachers to resources and other educators to help them achieve their teaching goals:

  • Classroom learning resources: A networked collection worldwide that includes innovative lesson plans created and/or classroom-tested by teachers

  • Professional learning resources: These engage teachers intellectually and help foster a deeper understanding of how technology works within pedagogy

  • Online teacher communities: These provide multiple opportunities for teachers to learn from each other by sharing and discussing ideas and best practices

Built on Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007, the ITN portal in Sweden enables easy integration with other ITN sites, providing its members with access to a broad community of educators around the world. The information Kajler found on the ITN helped her improve her skills in using ICT for the classroom. She was able to employ this knowledge to forge the collaboration project between her students and their counterparts in Madagascar. Under the ”Animals, Nature and Environment” project, which Kajler now shares with other teachers via Sweden’s ITN, the students in Sweden and Madagascar exchange ideas and knowledge to find solutions to biodiversity challenges – from balancing the needs of conservation and development in poor countries to tackling the endangered-species industry in rich nations. The students collaborate by using Skype, MSN and Web cams.

“The ITN has expanded my boundaries as a teacher and allowed my students to collaborate on classroom projects with other students that are half a world away,” says Kajler. “With innovative ways to employ ICT, my students can communicate and work with students at our sister school in Madagascar. It’s not a Swedish classroom anymore, it’s a global classroom.”

In addition to hosting the ITN, Microsoft organizes the Innovative Teachers Forum (ITF). The forums are annual events that recognize and reward teachers who have used technology in creative and innovative ways. The ITF does physically what the ITN achieves virtually. Every year, teachers from over 100 countries take part in regional and country forums, with those who have shown the most innovation in their work going on to the Worldwide ITF.

The ITN and ITF initiatives comprise the Innovative Teachers pillar under Microsoft’s Partners in Learning (PiL). Partners in Learning supports the goals of Unlimited Potential, Microsoft’s long-term commitment to provide relevant, accessible and affordable technology and training to help create sustained social and economic opportunity worldwide. One of Unlimited Potential’s major goals is transforming education through ICT in partnership with government and non-government organizations, educators and business and community leaders.

“By fostering interaction and dialogue among educators around the world, the ITN and the ITF provide continued resources as they strive to transform their classrooms into technology-rich learning environments and help today’s students become tomorrow’s informed global citizens,” says Ralph Young, vice president of Microsoft’s Worldwide Public Sector.

At the third annual Worldwide ITF, which opened today in Helsinki, Finland, almost 100 teachers joined school administrators and education policymakers to share expertise and information and showcase their projects. The forum also provides the teachers with an opportunity to learn about new technologies and tools. The event will conclude with an awards ceremony the evening of Oct. 30.

One ITN member who is attending this year’s Worldwide ITF is Katarina Veljkovic. A teacher at the Technical School for Mechanical Engineering and Traffic in Kragujevac, Serbia, Veljkovic uses the ITN to exchange ideas about project-based learning methods with other educators. This has helped her find solutions to the challenge of making her Computer and Programming course for third- grade students at the vocational school more interesting and relevant to the their future employment needs.

One of these solutions involved motivating her 17-year-old students by tasking them to put their theoretical knowledge into practice. With technical assistance from Microsoft, she created educational materials and lesson plans for a new course that requires students to create a robot application in Microsoft Robotics Studio and apply it to a LEGONXT Robot.

“My students always wondered what the point of the Computers and Programming class was,” says Veljkovic. “The point was made very clear once they used the curriculum content to design a real robot and commands to control it. This new approach sparked such interest, they even organized a lecture to pass on what they learned to first-grade students and designed a presentation to explain the project to the media.”

Veljkovic now shares this project with other teachers in Serbia via the country’s ITN, which she deems responsible for changing her teaching style. “As well as the high-quality materials available, the ITN gives me the opportunity to exchange ideas on teaching methods with teachers who face similar challenges as me. Through discussions with my peers, I have improved my ability to deliver project-based learning to my students and my lessons have become more interesting.”

The project-based approach, which Veljkovic has become more confident in, is showing clear results. “As well as enhancing the students’ programming skills, the Computer and Programming course now gives them valuable project and collaboration skills,” she says. “Some of them have even taken the initiative to set up the Student’s Entrepreneurship – a virtual enterprise based on the robotics project.”

Veljkovic is currently using the ITN to brush up her skills in Hot Potato, Game Maker and Windows Movie Maker for a new project with her students: developing educational content for children with special needs.

The rich resources available through the ITN has also inspired Jordanian teacher Maha Al Shakhshir to improve her professional skills. In Dec 2006, Queen Rania of Jordan cut a virtual ribbon with the click of a mouse and launched the country’s ITN portal. “The launch of ITN is a milestone… it is a celebration of the success of yet another public private partnership,” Queen Rania remarked at the time.

For Al Shakhshir, a high-school biology teacher who participated in the launch event, the arrival of the Microsoft-hosted network in her country also marked a watershed in her career. On that day, she became a member of the ITN and has never looked back.

“The main challenge for me as a teacher in Jordan is to integrate technology into my lessons so that the education experience I deliver my students prepares them for life and work in the information age. My own ICT skills also need to keep pace with the digital revolution,” she says.

The ITN opened up a new world of opportunity to Al Shakhshir, providing her not only with the chance to improve her skills in using multimedia software, but also with inspiration and ideas from other teachers around the world.

“Through the ITN I learned how to use technology in innovative ways that I had not considered before,” she says. “In less than a year, my students and I have all become far more proficient in online research and with software such as Word and PowerPoint.”

Impressed with the lesson plans posted on the ITN by other teachers, Al Shakhshir decided to take a multimedia approach to a science project with her ninth- and 10th-grade biology classes at Jellol Secondary School in the Middle Bedouin District of Jordan. The project, called “The Kingdom of Ants Sends a Message to Human Beings,” would have been a textbook class, possibly with a field trip, if conducted a few years earlier. Armed with knowledge from the ITN, Al Shakhshir transformed the task into a new digital experience for her students.

The class researched information online and conducted observations of ant behavior. Visual observations were recorded with a digital camera and the students wrote their findings with Microsoft Office Word. Finally, the content was all consolidated in a multimedia presentation using PowerPoint and publishing software.

“Bringing the Internet and multimedia software into the project was a great way to motivate the students,” explains Al Shakhshir. “It allowed them to explore a science subject in a way that was more engaging than they had ever experienced. In the meantime, it pushed them to learn more about how to use ICT to accomplish their goals.”

The project went beyond a mere investigation of ants and generated discussions about human society and its complex relationships. “From the examples of lessons posted by teachers on the ITN, I also learned to look beneath the surface of topics to find the values and insights within,” says Al Shakhshir. The students gleaned insights into their own relations by studying the ant’s society. Al Shakhshir explained that the project taught the teenagers to be more compassionate, cooperative and understanding of other people and to feel more respect for the natural world. “One student has even built her own ant nest, which she now vigilantly protects,” she said.

Al Shakhshir finds it hard to conceal her pride in the “Kingdom of Ants” project, which she refers to as her “baby.” Her efforts were recognized in 2006 when the project won the “Secondary School Content” category at the Europe, Middle East and Africa region ITF. “This has been the most important achievement in my life,” she says. But she is careful to add “until now” to that statement. With the help of the ITN, Al Shakhshir has already created another engaging science project called “The Dream of our Embryos … Let’s Make it True,” which she has put before the judges in Helsinki.

Two years after it began, the biodiversity collaboration project between Spånga Upper Secondary School and Lycée Joel Sylvain i Ambalavao has produced equally impressive results in motivating the students involved. “The students keep finding new ways to use ICT to build the bond with each other,” says Kajler. “If they want to show their classmates in Madagascar what life in Sweden looks like, they just go and learn how to make a movie, make one and send it to them.”

She also credits the project with stimulating greater interest in learning. “Students who have graduated have taken the project with them to their universities,” she says. “And two students who had graduated before the project started returned to get involved. It’s not often you see young people eager to get back into high school.”

The students in Madagascar show equal levels of enthusiasm. Prior to the project, 95 percent of the pupils at Lycée Joel Sylvain i Ambalavao had never even touched a computer. Through this project, the school has secured five PCs for student use and, according to Razafimahefa, the result of access to this new technology, as well as the opportunity to interact with students in another country, has been dramatic. “The students have taken to studying English with incredible enthusiasm,” he says. “They even take extra classes on the weekends. And their teachers are reporting the best scores across the board in five years.”

Furthermore, the initial idea of exploring biodiversity issues has blossomed into a movement that takes action. The students’ environment group is now sought for advice by local farmers and they are organizing funds to help poor students get university educations. Other schools in Madagascar are taking notice and educators in Thailand, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Kenya and Bulgaria have expressed interest in joining the project.

Razafimahefa, who used to occasionally help foreign tourists make donations to schools in Madagascar, says he could never have imagined the chain of events that followed his meeting Kajler in 2005. “This project has become my life,” he says. “Before, I was fortunate enough to be able to use a computer from time to time. Now I use ICT daily to coordinate more than 1,000 students in different parts of the world. And what we are doing is changing their lives and even our country.”

Kajler foresees even greater results as the teachers in Madagascar increase their access to and knowledge of ICT and even start using the ITN themselves. “People from different parts of the world have so much to offer each other. Give them the right tools to connect and collaborate and truly amazing things will happen,” she says.

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