Of The Power of International Collaboration


International classrooms will be one of the big wins of the technological revolution in schools. No longer will it only be that thirty students you always teach, because you now have a doorway to millions more students around the world, potentially learning the same material you teach. Moreover, each student will have a personalised education plan meaning you are not really teaching anyone in the traditional sense. Teachers become more problem solvers and planners than the deliverers of content, essential to some as a guide through the material, essential to others as explainers, superfluous to others as they learn to teach themselves.

(Aside on AI: Despite the Horizons report touting Artificial intelligence as being 4 to 5 years out it is sadly mistaken (or poorly phrased more likely). Heuristic techniques can simulate intelligence, but Heuristics are simply a flow chart of probability. They are algorithms designed to give the most likely thing you are looking for. Like Deep Blue, the first computer to beat a human at chess, they are not intelligent. Deep Blue could play chess, but it couldn’t navigate around an object, perceive danger, express emotion, or any task other than playing chess. And even then it was only due to its raw power that allowed it to do this. This is brute force computing and should not be mistaken for intelligence. In fact to model an actual brain is not something one should expect anytime soon. In 2014 researchers in Japan simulated one second of a human brain. It took the computer 40 minutes to simulate this one second, which represented 1% of the brains overall capacity. It used almost 10 Million Watts of power as opposed to the Brains 20 Watts. Educational AI is currently (and will for the foreseeable future) limited to an algorithm that knows a problem is trigonometry, knows if you get it right or wrong, and thus whether you understand that concept and can move onto the next challenge. Thus teachers aren’t going to be out of a job anytime soon…)

Agent Smith in the Matrix represnted an Artificial Intelligence that had broken from design. Able to work outside his own programming. Sadly (perhaps), we are a long way from this in real life!

Agent Smith in the Matrix represented an Artificial Intelligence that had broken from design. Able to work outside his own programming. Sadly (perhaps), we are a long way from this in real life!

Recently there was a disappointing result in my life. Brexit. The United Kingdom had voted to leave the European Union. My perspective is that the world needs less division, and here I the country I know and love looking for division (ironically only two years after a ‘Better Together’ campaign to keep Scotland in the UK). This has far reaching consequences for many areas from agriculture to finance, but it could have a huge impact on Science. The reason is that Science is no longer the loner professor with crazy hair sitting in their office working thirty years on their own stuff. Science is collaboration.

Albert Einstein's last project was supposedly a unifying equation of everything. Working alone however the work was never finished.

Albert Einstein’s last project was supposedly a unifying equation of everything. Working alone however the work was never finished.

We are in an era of mass scientific collaboration. CERN and ITER, two huge international scientific experiments based in Europe are reliant on being able to bring people to work there from all over the world. If it were made only of Swiss and French scientists (where the experiments are located) they would be much less effective in their ability to conduct groundbreaking research. Researchers in the UK design materials that have consequences on a global scale, and the worlds universities are full of students from all over the world.

Having students see the strength of collaboration is important. If the next generation of scientists grow up knowing the significance of collaboration first hand, it will become natural for them to expect it of their governments. Governments work primarily with the goal of retaining office, and so if the people vote for a government that collaborates that is what the government will do (in democratic society at least).

I have wanted to do something big and international for years, but as Kim Cofinos Blog demonstrates it is no mean feat of organisation. My plate has been just too full to accommodate a project on this scale. But this weeks reading has introduced something else to me as an idea I hadn’t considered before, but hits my targets without a huge expenditure of organisational energy. Have students write blogs.

What if I launched a Blog whereby schools from all over the world could submit posts. The idea would be for students to use the science they learn in school to create potential solutions to problems facing people in difficult environments or circumstances – for example getting electricity cheaply to their home. The ideas would then be peer reviewed by students from around the world. The best could be compiled into a book, or informational pamphlets, or something that would then be accessible to the people who might need them. This would hit several targets that I have for my own students this year:

  • Introduce more literacy into my classroom. Scientific literacy levels are reasonably poor (as evidenced by several of the papers I wrote in university and got decent grades for!) from my experience. An article on using blogs in university courses demonstrated literacy levels became more advanced when peers were able to read and evaluate it. Another benefit the study saw was lower levels of plagiarism, which is something my own school is working on this year.
  • Give the students in my classroom projects that are socially responsible, but also enable them to explore the topics we are covering in class.
  • Demonstrate where the science students are learning can be used in everyday life, and give them a more thorough understanding by applying this knowledge to the real world.
Flow chart demonstrating how this process might work.

Flow chart demonstrating how this process might work.

In terms of who could offer solutions it would be wide ranging. It could be 6th Grade students who just learned about Newtons 2nd Law, or it could be 12th Graders who found a unique and simple way to use common materials to utilise energy generation techniques. It could enable a route for the gifted students to extend their learning in younger years, or students to apply their knowledge in later years. Schools could contribute at their own pace. Students would use a predefined template so it would translate easily into other formats which could be more easily communicated to places that could make use of the ideas. For example if a database existed with all of the ideas, someone in a rural village in western China could text ‘electricity generation water’ to a number and get a quick result back which might help them build a generator that takes energy from water. This is just an example, and obviously has issues such as language translation and availability of equipment, but it’s part of a process of development that has an unknown tangent given the nature of the participants.

Moving forward students would be the drivers of how this could be improved and delivered to those who might benefit from it. Students know better than us the new platforms of distribution and so including them in the process is crucial to an effective delivery.

The world is more open than ever before thanks to the internet, but is becoming more closed politically. We can be the catalyst for change and help our students see the true beauty of what it means to live in an international world.

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6 Responses

  1. This is some great thinking, Alex. I’ve pushed blogs as a way of recording and sharing student thinking in the past, but always with my own structural elements. What material goes into a post? How frequently do they write? The intent has always been that defining this for students helps them know what to do.

    As with so many of my teaching habits, however, students often interpret those structures as a shopping list of exactly what I’m looking for. When they have done those things, they are finished. It actively prevents the students from using their knowledge and experience to say what the medium could be, what they think could be done with it, etc.

    I’m excited to see what you and the students create through this. It will be great working with you again this year!

    • Alex Bunting says:

      Hey Evan, thanks for reading!

      I get the shopping list thing too, and I think its partly why students at our school do poorly on things like Extended Essays and IA’s. They have the mark scheme or rubric and they do exactly what it says, but don’t go any further. There is less depth to their work and as a result they get lower grades because just one item left off the shopping list (or done poorly) and you cant make the entire meal.

      Maybe we need to work out how to make better rubrics 🙂

  2. Wow. Thanks, Alex, for this terrific post. You offer ideas, solutions, well stated thoughts, an easy to understand graph – even simple minds like mine can understand – and a powerful photo of Einstein that demands the reader to ask, “If he had been collaborating with a like-mind on a google doc, what might have come from his unfinished work?”
    Also, I share your feelings on how, really, wonderful the Internet opens the world up, yet politics in our countries seem to want to close things – build walls (literally and metaphorically). I think much of this derives from fear, and I agree with you that, yes, we “can be the catalyst for change and help our students see the true beauty of what it means to live in an International world.” I agree wholeheartedly, and I can say this from my own experience, they can TEACH US, too, the beauty of being global citizens. Last school year I was lucky enough to watch students in my library share, interact, and learn in different languages, different skin colors, different styles, etc, etc. Being global citizens already, they showed me how wonderful it is not to be tainted by politics, negative judgements, etc. Of course, it wasn’t always like this. There were days when I witnessed the exact opposite, but I’m digressing from my point.

    We can inspire

    and some can inspire us

    Awesome post, Thank you

    • Alex Bunting says:

      The Einstein photo is good – I cant imagine an Einstein with google docs 😛

      You are right of course that fear is what drives division. Brexit happened because of fear within the country of foreigners taking all the jobs. The Mexican wall was heralded as a way of keeping out all the ‘Drug dealers, Criminals and Rapists‘. Generation by generation however this will gradually get better with more general acceptance and understanding. The net will be a catalyst for this too, after people find out they have been talking with africans, asians, europeans, americans etc for the last few years online… and also find that their differences are less than their similarities.

  3. Ryan Harwood says:

    You guys have had a great conversation here that gives me hope. I sometimes feel like the answer to the world’s woes are in the international school communities where kids are actually interacting with peers from around the world and learning from each other about their countries and issues instead of listening to the news or taking textbooks at face value.

    As for the blog project idea @alexbunting it sounds like a Google Innovator project too me. You might should look into that in the future. You get to go to a Google Office somewhere cool and get support for a year!

    • Alex Bunting says:

      That google innovator sounds really good. It would be nice to actually have that as a job for a year and be able to do a really fantastic job of it. I will look into it for 2018 🙂

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