I am always on the hunt for great technology-based resources, whether it is an app, a website, or another type of software. In my experience, students love the opportunity to interact with new technology. This, in turn, usually translates into high levels of engagement. What originally began as a search for international pen pals for my students, turned into a golden find. The website penpalschools.com was created to connect students and classrooms from around the world. Once a teacher decides on a topic, their students individually complete project tasks and then collaborate with other students from around the world through interactions online.
I was excited right away about the learning possibilities this website presented and the potential for my students to become highly engaged in these activities. With so many topic options available, I had my class work on a second project later in the year. Each project lasts 4-6 weeks, however, the weekly lessons are only about an hour long. All lessons, activities, and evaluation tools are included, as well as step-by-step instructions for learners on how to complete their tasks. Another benefit is that all the projects can be modified to best meet the needs of your individual students.
Applying the checklist for choosing educational technology we created together as a guide, I will analyze the PenPal Schools website.
- The technology supports student engagement, collaboration and collective learning amongst students.
My students loved using this technology and they were super engaged with the content and the lessons themselves. There was a high level of collaboration as students interacted with each other, as well as learners from around the world. The learning also went far beyond what the original lessons intended. Through their conversations with international learners, my students became naturally curious about differences and similarities in their daily lives compared to their pen pals. Lastly, the website provided a platform for students who do not feel comfortable sharing their opinions verbally in class. They were more than happy to engage deeply and share their ideas via online written communications.
- The technology is a transferable skill.
Communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, technology skills, digital literacy, and global awareness are all 21st century skills students will improve by using this website. These skills transfer to real life outside of the classroom and are needed long after graduation. It is important for students to learn about people and places outside of their community, province, and country. With each project, students listen to other people’s points of view from different backgrounds and this helps build empathy, respect, and improves their ability to resolve conflicts.
- The technology is accessible and the navigation is manageable.
The website is easily accessible as long as there is an internet connection. Students have their own individual accounts that they log in to and as previously mentioned, the website is simple to navigate, which is a huge plus for students and teachers who may not be very tech-savvy. It is also easy for parents to log in and see the learning that is taking place.
- The technology is internationally accessible.
The website boasts having students and classes from over 140 different countries. Other available languages include French, Spanish, and Mandarin.
- The technology meets FIPPA privacy guidelines.
The website does not require students to use an email address nor their last names and they can use an avatar for their profile picture. The website mentions that child safety is paramount and all data is secure and encrypted and only verified teachers and students can use the platform.
- The technology aligns with UDL and is adaptable for IELPs
Bates (2015) states “Universally designed courses attempt to meet all learners’ needs by incorporating multiple means of imparting information and flexible methods of assessing learning. UDL also includes multiple means of engaging or tapping into learners’ interests” (Bates, 2015, p. 295). The PenPal Schools website aligns with UDL because it includes audio, video, photos, and text in an attempt to meet all learner’ needs. The technology is also adaptable for IELPs because all texts are offered at multiple reading levels.
- The technology has built in tools for assessment and evaluation.
As for assessment, there are over 40 different assessment criteria a teacher can choose from that are aligned to academic standards. Student work can be graded on reading comprehension, writing, social-emotional skills, and digital citizenship. Of course, a teacher can also always choose to provide written feedback to their students.
- The technology can be adapted to all K-12 learners.
The PenPal Schools website and topics have been designed for students in grades 3-12.
- The technology accommodates neurodiversity.
The wide variety of available topics and content formats accommodates neurodiversity. The project tasks allow for different thinkers to be included and appreciated. Many students have difficulty writing with a pencil, however, because these activities are typed online, technologies such as speech-to-text can be utilized and help to empower students.
- The technology is economically viable for both students and schools.
When I used PenPal Schools, it was entirely free, however, I see that is no longer the case. It is still free for teachers to join and all teachers are given free classroom credits when they register that can be used to enroll their class in any PenPal Schools topic. Teachers can also earn more free classroom credits by simply referring colleagues to the site. Additionally, schools can pay $5 per student for unlimited access for the year, which is more than reasonable.
In conclusion, I believe that PenPalSchools.com is an example of a well-thought-out, multifaceted piece of educational technology. It was designed to make global project-based learning easy and it has succeeded. My students love it and even the hesitant writers become deeply engaged in the learning. The authentic audience and global connections help keep learners motivated. Students care more about the quality of their work and their responses because they are interacting with kids they do not know and they want to make good impressions. Reluctant writers willingly write page after page and they even proofread their work! Although this blog entry reads like a late night infomercial, I can attest to the benefits my students have enjoyed through the use of this website, and I have not received any form of compensation from PenPal Schools!
Bates, A. W. (2015). Teaching in a digital age: Guidelines for designing teaching and learning. Vancouver, BC: Tony Bates Associates. ISBN-13: 978-0-9952692-1-7