Technology: The Great Facilitator for School Twinning

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege to give a session at the International School Twinning Network Conference together with my friends Amihai Bannett, Shira Leibowitz, and Aaron Ross. Of my three colleagues, only Aaron Ross and I met and became friends in the real world before conversing in the digital world; although we have definitely become closer through our many collaborations facilitated by the online space. I met both Shira and Amichai on Twitter as they gradually became valuable members of my personal learning network. I actually did not meet Amichai in person until the day of our school twinning presentation. I felt like I already knew Amichai well, as we went from Twitter messaging to email to Google Hangouts and almost met in person in Israel last summer. But our first meeting face to face, or F2F as we would say on Twitter, came only minutes before our presentation.

This vignette illustrates the power of technology to facilitate school twinning. As Shira Leibowitz aptly says in her blog post on this event, "It's not about the technology, it's about the learning and the relationships". But when trying to create meaningful relationships with teachers and students spanning the globe, technology can be the great facilitator to make these connections possible. Yes, we were pen palling before the Internet and social media came along but actually speaking to each other face to face using Skype or collaborating on a lesson together, that was only the stuff of the Jetsons.

At our presentation, Shira, Aaron, and I described three areas where technology can be a tool for school twinning, synchronous communications, asynchronous communications, and what I call, common collaborative workspaces. As with any toolkit, the key is to decide what you wish to accomplish and then choose the appropriate tool.

For example, if your goal is to achieve synchronous communications, to get your classes together to talk to each other, than web conferencing platforms like Skype or Google Chat would be the best option. One thing to be aware of is to stick to cross-platform tools that work best with many different technologies as you do not know what type of technologies the other school in a different part of the world might have. For this reason, I would stay away from any proprietary platform like Facetime which only would work on Apple products. Also, one should always plan ahead and test all connections in advance, and make sure to have at least one "techie" on each side of the conversation to be able to troubleshoot if things go wrong. I have fulfilled this role when Skyping between my school, The Frisch School, and our sister school, Ulpanat Harel in Nahariya, Israel on both sides of the ocean, once from Paramus, NJ, and the following year from Nahariya. You can read more about these two twinning activities between The Frisch School and Ulpanat Harel here and here. Below are two pictures taken at these sessions.

Picture of Skype conference with Ulpanat Harel taken at The Frisch School in 2011. I am on the far right of the picture.
Picture of Skype conference with Ulpanat Harel taken at Ulpanat Harel in 2012. I am on the far left of the picture.
One problem that technology cannot solve when planning synchronous sessions is the time difference. For this reason, these classes can only be planned for special events, maybe to celebrate a holiday or to cap off a unit studied together. For more regular communications, asynchronous platforms are best. In this area, technology has advanced tremendously in recent years with the spread of Google Docs and its constantly improving suite of collaborative tools. Students can literally be "on the same page" as they create a document together or design presentation slides. Every revision is saved and this is an activity that can easily be done asynchronously with a school in the United States picking off where their Israeli counterpart left off hours earlier.

Google Hangouts can be used to combine both of these elements as one can set up a synchronous video session to discuss a Google Doc which was created asynchronously and the Google Doc will actually appear right in the middle of the video hangout. This is a powerful tool that I have used when planning conferences with friends across the globe. I eagerly await testing this out with my students in a classroom setting.

While these synchronous and asynchronous tools can be powerful on their own, what they need is a common online space to host them. As my dear mentor Dr. Shmuli Spero OBM used to say, "What do you give to the person who has everything? You give him a box to put it in." I have found wikis to the best box, the best common collaborative workspace, to host our various school twinning activities. Others have wondered if the wiki is going the way of the dodo as it is being eclipsed by newer platforms. However, I still find that nothing beats wikis in terms of being able to easily design a webpage that anyone can edit with every revision saved, embed various other content on the page like videos or documents, and host discussion forums connected to every page. From the beginning of our Frisch School Wiki, we have found it to be the ideal platform to host our partnerships. You can read various news articles about how the Frisch wiki has facilitated our partnerships here.

If you would like to create a wiki of your own below are two resources to help you get started, a presentation on using wikis in schools, and a Wikispaces how to guide. Please feel free to share the ways you use technology as a great facilitator of school twinning in the comments to this posting.