Curriculum, Diversity, EdTech & Design, Engagement, School Community

Building Community through Online Contact

International projects that link schools to create cohesion

Around the world, many children live and attend schools in environments that separate them from neighbours who are different in religion, race or ethnicity. They are living what British Prime Minister David Cameron has called “separate lives.”[1] In other places, children may be separated by distance or historical conflicts. Sometimes it is difficult or impossible to cross these boundaries with face-to-face contact, so innovative educators in many countries have turned to online learning programs as a way of bringing children from diverse communities together. In this article, we will look at some examples of projects that bring students together in this way in Ireland, the U.K., Europe, and Israel and we suggest ways in which the approach might work in Canada.

Community cohesion

In the United Kingdom at the turn of the century, concerns about ethnic strife that focused on immigrant communities, specifically race riots in Bradford, led to a study commonly called The Cantle Report.[2] In that report, the authors found that Britain’s children were living in socially isolated communities, in what some researchers called “isolated, parallel lives” and others referred to as a process of “enclivisation.” The issues seemed similar to those that led to the famous 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision[3] that concluded “separate is not equal” when it comes to schooling.

Concern about the impact of social divisions on school children is not limited to the U.K. and the U.S. Immigrants from former colonies face similar “parallel lives” across Europe, and there is religious and ethnic separation in Israel. There are tribal conflicts in Africa and ethnic divisions in Asian countries. We see similar phenomena in Canada in the “two solitudes” of French and English Canada, in the isolation of Aboriginal communities, and in efforts to deal effectively with the needs of new Canadians.

The idea behind “community cohesion,” then, is to find ways to build a sense of inclusion or belongingness in which individuals who differ in religion, ethnicity, or other ways identify themselves with a common set of social goals.[4]

Why use online learning to promote community cohesion?

It might seem that the logical way to bring communities together would be to have people meet face to face to work collaboratively on issues that would give them shared experiences and a basis for greater mutual understanding. This is the reasoning that led the U.S. Supreme Court to abolish segregated schools. It is also the heart of what social scientists call the “contact hypothesis” – a clearly elaborated and highly researched argument that says when people from different groups work together, there is a reduction in prejudice among members of those groups.

However, in Israel, teacher education researchers at the Mofet Institute have found that when cultural norms (and possibly safety concerns) demand separate schools for students of different religious and ethnic groups (as well as separation of the sexes in some cultures), both teachers and children can grow increasingly comfortable with cross-community communication in online environments that minimize the appearance of those differences.

On the island of Ireland, the Dissolving Boundaries Programme has accumulated over a decade of experience in bringing children from the Republic of Ireland together with children in Northern Ireland to work collaboratively online on curriculum questions.

We have found no examples of North American school projects that used online learning methods with the explicit objective of increasing community cohesion. In the U.S., the difficulty at present is that although many children attend racially and ethnically integrated schools, few are actually in classes with students who differ racially or ethnically from themselves.[5] If 60 years of bringing groups together in the same building has not resulted in increased social and academic contact, then it might well be time to try online communication that is designed to do just that. In Canada, the more pressing problem may be the great distances that separate many Aboriginal students from other Canadians, but once again, online communication could overcome the challenges posed by those distances.

In short, the focus of online communication is communication and the goal of community cohesion is to get people communicating with others who differ from themselves. We have the technology; why not give it a try?

International examples

Ireland’s Dissolving Boundaries Programme[6] began in 1999 as a collaboration between the National University of Ireland at Maynooth, in the Republic of Ireland, and the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. Ireland was divided in two by a 1921 treaty that sought to end centuries of conflict between Ireland and England. Throughout the 20th century, however, conflict continued until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. This history of conflict has left a legacy of suspicion and distrust that continues to affect relations between the two parts of Ireland, and also between those in Northern Ireland who favour union with the Republic and those who prefer to maintain a closer connection with the U.K.

The Dissolving Boundaries Programme, importantly, was funded by the governments of both parts of Ireland. The project draws inspiration from the “contact hypothesis” and provides support for teachers who are willing to use technology to enable their students to work on common curriculum issues with students in the other part of Ireland. Currently, over 200 school-based projects involve hundreds of teachers and thousands of children who use online conference software, videos, and email to work together on teacher-developed activities that engage students in shared research, problem solving and writing in all curriculum areas. Face-to-face annual meetings are seen as an important motivational aspect of this program. Research and evaluations have consistently shown that the students enjoy the experience, that they feel they know more about students in the “other” community, and that they have more positive attitudes toward people who are different from themselves.

The eTwinning program[7] in Europe seeks to address a host of challenges involved in creating a political and economic union of people from a variety of cultures with different languages and a long history of conflict – including the two world wars in the 20th century. Additional challenges relate to the influx of people from former colonies and the further cultural and religious differences brought by immigrant workers. In 2005, the eTwinning program was created to promote the use of computer-based communication technologies to bring school children together in education projects that crossed national boundaries, with the intention of promoting mutual understanding and tolerance.

It is telling that eTwinning changed its motto in 2008, from “school partnerships in Europe” to “the community for schools in Europe.” By July of 2012, there were 33 ministries of education participating in eTwinning and over 170,000 participants in more than 5,300 school-based projects. Assessments of the effects of the eTwinning program have largely been in the form of case studies and the perceptions of participants. In general, they indicate that participants believe the projects have increased technological skills, supported meaningful collaboration, and fostered improved understanding of other members of the European community.

Israel’s Mofet Institute also uses communications technologies to bring together children from the country’s ethnically and religiously diverse community. (Major religious groups are Jewish, Islamic, Christian and Druze; major ethnic groups are Jewish and Arabic.) The task is complicated by the diversity within these major religious and cultural groups. Since some of these groups require religiously separate education and some also require separate education by gender, many of Israel’s children attend schools with classmates who are very like them; however, there are also schools with a greater diversity in the student population. The divisions reflect the divisions in society, including housing patterns, and for many of Israel’s children there is little opportunity for face-to-face interaction with children from other Israeli communities.

Israeli researchers began their online work by bringing together teacher educators who were prepared to conduct online projects in the schools. The project leaders in the teacher education faculties have developed a variety of models of online educational interaction, including games that stimulate discussion of social issues. More recently, Israeli projects have engaged students in the use of social media to reach out across religious and ethnic barriers. Research based on interviews with teachers and students has generally showed that students begin the online class projects with concerns and reservations about communication with members of the “other” group, but that at the end, they report increased levels of trust and reduced levels of prejudice.

Challenges to community cohesion in Canada

How might such programs be of value in Canada? As noted earlier, many Aboriginal Canadians live in remote areas that impose a form of geographical isolation. We also have the French-English linguistic divide. Lastly, new Canadians often live in urban areas where school children may have contact with their own and other immigrant communities, but may not have much exposure to Canadian communities that were established long before their arrival. In each of these cases, in different ways, we believe that online school projects aimed at common curriculum objectives would contribute to a more cohesive Canada.

Canada has the technology to implement such programs and many of its teachers (and students) already have the necessary technological skills, so what is stopping us? One major challenge may be the issue of jurisdiction – education is a provincial responsibility so there are different curricula and no formal mechanism for national projects. Exacerbating this issue, Aboriginal education is a federal responsibility. However, if we look at the European Union, the national differences are even greater than our provincial differences. The E.U. put eTwinning into operation as a voluntary program built on individual teacher initiative, with professional development and small financial support as incentives. The Council of Ministers of Education of Canada is well situated to take a similar leadership role in building a comparable pan-Canadian program, and doing so would be a nation-building enterprise of considerable importance.

For this to work, we need to have faith in the ingenuity of Canadian teachers to find the curriculum matches that would make joint projects feasible. It may well be that such matches would prove to be easier than we might expect, given previous collaborative initiatives like the “Western protocol” and the use of a relatively common set of textbooks. Here, too, the example of the E.U. could be useful – the eTwinning website provides extensive guidance on how to find partner teachers and how to design and develop online learning projects.

Online schooling services in many provinces could also be a strong catalyst to moving quickly once an initiative has begun. As a bonus, such a program could provide the incentive for technological skill development in some teachers who have yet to find a reason to bring technology into their classrooms.

Language issues could, of course, be a sensitive point in developing Canadian online projects. While most eTwinning projects are conducted in English, the only language requirements of the program are that the teachers agree which language is to be used and the students have comparable levels of achievement in that language. In Canada we might want to encourage some bilingual projects in which learners use both official languages. Teachers working with Aboriginal students might see merit in projects that give their students opportunities to teach Native languages to other Canadian students. The key point is that the projects should encourage appreciation of linguistic diversity and support the learning of language skills.

Having examined the use of online learning to build community cohesion elsewhere in the world, we see a grand opportunity for Canada to not only learn from what has been done elsewhere, but also to develop a homegrown version that could be an important part of Canadian nation-building in the 21st century.

Illustration: Dave Donald

First published in Education Canada, March 2014

EN BREF – Les comparaisons internationales des résultats scolaires ont suscité beaucoup d’intérêt au cours des 20 dernières années. Ces comparaisons tendent à porter sur la littératie, la numératie et les habiletés de résolution de problèmes, en partie parce que l’Organisation de coopération et de développement économiques a ouvert la voie à l’élaboration de mesures fiables. Toutefois, dans de nombreux pays, les gouvernements reconnaissent que les écoles jouent un important rôle pour développer l’identité communautaire ou nationale – elles ont la responsabilité de rapprocher les gens. L’article porte sur quelques exemples internationaux de programmes scolaires élaborés pour développer la cohésion communautaire et demande aux enseignants canadiens d’établir quelles leçons peuvent être tirées de ces initiatives.

[1] D. Cameron, Speech on radicalisation and Islamic extremism (Feb. 5, 2011), reprinted by the NewStatesman.www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-staggers/2011/02/terrorism-islam-ideology

[2] T. Cantle, Community Cohesion: A report of the independent review team (London: Home Office, 2001).http://resources.cohesioninstitute.org.uk/Publications/Documents/Document/DownloadDocumentsFile.aspx?recordId=96&file=PDFversion

[3] Brown v. Board of Education, United States Supreme Court, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=us&vol=347&invol=483

[4] S. Muers, “What is community cohesion, and why is it important?” The Guardian (March 21, 2011).www.theguardian.com/housing-network/2011/mar/21/community-cohesion-definition-measuring

[5] G. Orfield, J. Kucsera, and G. Siegel-Hawley, E Pluribus . . . Separation: Deepening double segregation for more students, The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles (Los Angeles: University of California at Los Angeles, 2012). http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/mlk-national/e-pluribus…separation-deepening-double-segregation-for-more-students

[6] The Dissolving Boundaries Programme website is: www.dissolvingboundaries.org

[7] The eTwinning Programme website is: www.etwinning.net/en/pub/index.htm

Meet the Expert(s)

Roger Austin

Roger Austin is a Professor of Education at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. He has held a variety of leadership roles and is currently the Co-Director of the Dissolving Boundaries Programme, which uses ICT to link schools in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and ePartners, which links schools within Northern Ireland.

Their recent book, Online Learning and Community Cohesion: Linking Schools (Routledge), provides much more detail about the projects mentioned in this article and related topics.

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Bill Hunter

Bill Hunter is a Professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) and was founding dean of the Faculty of Education at UOIT. He previously taught at the University of Calgary in Alberta and Mount Saint Vincent University in Nova Scotia.

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