Building the First Global Classroom

October 9, 2018

Yvonne Marie Andrés wasn’t a scientist. She had never built networks or written software code. But as a teacher, she had an early vision to bring the Internet into the classroom to help students around the globe connect and collaborate.

The truly global impact of the programs she’s developed to accomplish this has made her one of the rare Internet Hall of Fame inductees without an engineering or mathematical background. For her many and ongoing contributions to growing the use of the Internet in education, Andrés was named in 2017 as an Internet Hall of Fame Innovator.

To be clear, she says, her efforts aren’t about distance learning, which has also been one of the Internet’s great contributions to education. Rather, they are about using the Internet to connect students with each other and with mentors, to give them a sympathetic audience, to help them learn, as well as teach about their respective communities and the world.

It all started in 1984, she said, when she began teaching in a disadvantaged area of Oceanside, California.

“A lot of my students came from homes where their parents were in gangs or prison, and they just didn’t have much need or respect for education,” she said. “I was looking for something to get their attention. A milestone was when a friend of mine went to England on a teaching exchange. When he came back he said the students he met there were fascinated with California and they wanted to know if they could write my students."

“My students were suddenly so excited," she added, "that they began using the dictionary as they wrote letters about their favorite things, including surfing, skateboarding, tacos, and guacamole. It took a month-and-a-half for their letters to make it across the pond and get a response back. By the time the letters from England finally arrived, my students had forgotten most of what they had written. But, they couldn’t wait to read and respond to those letters. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with this insight, but it clearly got them excited about reading and writing.”

As if on cue, Apple came along with a program called “Kids Can’t Wait,” she said, which gave every school in California a computer that was rotated from classroom to classroom. It came with very little software.

“When the box arrived in my classroom,” she said, “the students were super curious and asked, ‘What is this?’ When they learned it was a computer they were suddenly very interested, even though they had no idea what it would do. They knew nothing about computers and neither did I. They asked, ‘Can we set it up?’ And we did, together. That was my second insight. The kids liked it when the teacher didn’t know everything. Side-by-side learning was very effective.”

At the same time, about 40 miles away in San Diego, a teacher named Al Rogers was exploring the use of email to give students the power to write for an audience. Email accounts were expensive and there was no crossover between them. Plus, commercial word processors were awkward to use and did not address any issues of a good writing program.

So, Rogers went online and found a BBS (Bulletin Board System) program in the pirate Internet community call PMS (People’s Message System), which had been written by a teenager. The teen gave them permission to use his code and they developed their first email program, called FrEDMail, or ‘Free Education Mail.’

To use it, kids wrote stories and email messages that were saved on 5 ¼ inch floppy discs, and then the data was transported to a partner school in the middle of the night using the school’s phone line.

“It could still take a couple of days to get across the country,” Andrés said, “but it was affordable.”

Rogers and Andrés began developing a variety of collaborative writing prompts including “boomerang” stories, where one classroom would start a story, and then send it on to another for continuation. As a way to spread the word to other educators, Andrés co-authored her first book with Al Rogers, ‘Telesensations: An Educators Guide to TeleComputing,’ and began taking the concept of connected collaborative learning to conferences. In the fall of 1990, CERFNet and FrEdMail Foundation received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to build a gateway between FrEdMail and the Internet. The gateway software was completed in 1991. By 1992, there were over 200 systems that composed the FrEdMail Network, and there were nine Internet gateways, creating the first low-cost International backbone for teachers, eventually getting some 400 schools and 12,000 students connected. In 2005, the 25th Anniversary issue of Teaching and Learning Magazine recognized the FrEdMail Network as one of the top fifteen "Breakthrough Products" of the previous 25 years.

“It was never about distance learning, where you put a course out there and study as independent groups,” Andrés said. “It was always about creating an audience, having students write or work on projects and share portions of what they were working on with others. The educational benefit of peer-to-peer writing exchanges is enormous.”

Her next big milestone came in 1992, with a phone call that came “literally out of the blue” from Don Mitchell at the National Science Foundation. He invited her to participate in a new Internet-based video conferencing system being develop by Cornell University. For their first broadcast, her students talked live with students in England about environmental issues that were based on Vice President Al Gore’s book, ‘Earth in the Balance.’

 “It was a game-changer. Suddenly everyone wanted to get involved,” Andrés said. “It really opened a lot of doors and we were ready to accelerate the whole idea of collaborative learning.”

In 1993, the FrEdMail Foundation became the Global SchoolNet Foundation (GSN) and launched the ‘Global School House’ project, where schools could register ideas for projects and be partnered with other schools all over the world. The vision of a Global Schoolhouse was to provide a living curriculum that made the world a laboratory, promoted the quest for lifelong learning, and established a “global” electronic community that would benefit all sectors: education, health care, local government, business, and the home. 

From there, her longest and still-running project, “International CyberFair,” was created.

“It’s a virtual world’s fair,” Andrés said, “intended to help students learn about their community by getting outside of their classroom and investigating local history, landmarks, music, art and culture, and then creating a digital exhibition that can be shared online.

“Not only do they create their own projects, students are required to review at least six others. So, it has a double purpose. It has students learning about unfamiliar places around the world and also understanding how their own projects can be improved.”

Over the past 24 years, she said, more than five million students from more than 100 countries have participated in CyberFair.

In 2000, Andrés was named one of the 25 most influential people worldwide in education technology and was invited by President George W. Bush to launch “Friendship Through Education,” an initiative of the U.S. State Department designed in the wake of 9/11 to foster relationships through technology between American children and those from other countries and cultures.

She followed this with the “Doors to Diplomacy” program, supported by the U.S. State Department for ten years, to encourage middle- and high school students around the world to produce web-based projects that teach about the importance of international affairs and diplomacy.