By Alan Heil
Four years ago, a school in a sparsely populated South Carolina county had a dream: “Why not build an on-line bridge via the Internet, so elementary school kids could embark on a common learning experience with their contemporaries in a sister school in Kenya?”
That was the start, in Allendale County, of a venture that enriches the lives of youngsters from kindergarten through sixth grade at least once a week on line via real-time on line communications. The idea: to reach and exchange insights with students around the world via regularly-scheduled video conversations to learn about each other’s cultures as part of drills on social studies, history, and mathematics.
Phil Noble is a co-founder and chief architect of a newly-christened organization based in South Carolina. It’s called World Class Scholars. Mr. Noble recently outlined the stunning growth of his movement at a forum at the American Foreign Service Association August 14 in Washington co-sponsored by the Public Diplomacy Council and USC’s Annenberg School.
World Class Scholars today matches South Carolina students with their contemporaries in 200 schools in 26 countries. Those reached include Algeria, Argentina, China, Cyprus, Colombia, Finland, India, Ireland, Mali, Morocco, Mongolia, Senegal, Spain, and Tanzania. Elementary schools in Croatia, Indonesia, and the United Arab Emirates also have asked about joining.
The system works like this: World Class Scholars scans on-line sources daily for inquiries from elementary school teachers abroad interested in linking up via Google hangouts. They follow up by engaging these teachers and counterparts in South Carolina and other states in the U.S. and suggesting they set mutually agreed hours with partner schools abroad for class interchanges each week.
Many types of on-line connections are used, including telephone lines as well as Facebook and Twitter exchanges. Teachers on each side of the ocean jointly agree on a curriculum that best meets the needs of their students. Today, there are learning exercises in more than 26 countries, with themes agreed upon by American pupils, teachers and their newfound friends abroad. Examples include agriculture and water (Kenya), building businesses (Argentina), social studies (Ghana), basketball and sports (Croatia), photography (Finland, Cyprus and Ireland). Eventually, World Class Scholars may add high schools to their clientele.
Does it work? Phil Noble has no doubts. In his words: “We provide a turnkey solution with everything the schools need — partner schools, technology platforms, training, how-to materials and ongoing support. At a minimum, schools need only a single computer with an Internet link, and the program expands for classes with multiple devices.”
As one Allendale, S.C. mother put it: “When I wake up in the morning, it’s the first thing I think of. Those kids are establishing global friendships. Amazing, those kids in Port Victoria, Kenya! We exchange ideas to build and strengthen relationships and even exchange packets of seeds for plants via trans-Atlantic mail. We’re on with Kenya at least once a week. Wow!”
The World Class Scholars budget has reached $600,000 this year, and Phil Noble hopes with private contributions to expand it to $1,000,000 dollars annually by 2019. To test out the impact of WCS, he recently went to the Allendale elementary school in the program and asked the librarian if he could borrow any book on Africa. “Unfortunately we don’t have any on the shelves,” the librarian exclaimed. “They’ve all been checked out.”
Exchanges of knowledge, on the move, in America and overseas. Intriguing that education can work both ways. Correspondent Jan Sluizer in San Francisco recently met a returned U.S. Peace Corps volunteer who had finished a tour in Costa Rica several years ago. The volunteer, Chase Adam, recalled riding on buses in the town of Watsi, Costa Rica. How discouraged he was to see impoverished beggars passing a hat down the aisle and receiving no contributions from the other passengers!
Until one day, he noticed how a woman had spectacular success as her hat was passed around a bus, and wondered why. Turns out the woman, an anguished Mom, had included in her collection recepticle a little red folder that summarized her son’s medical record. It was a brief description of her son’s life-threatening ailment, easily curable. Nearly every passenger on the bus made a contribution. And of course, Peace Corps volunteer Chase Adam did, too.
Soon after returning from his tour to California, he organized a website to make it easy for Americans to contribute to those abroad in need of medical help. Appropriately, it was christened The Watsi Fund. In Chase’s words: “You can go on the website and see photos and stories of patients who need health care, but can’t afford it. Any you can donate as little as five dollars and help directly fund the cost of their life-changing medical procedures.”
Watsi works today works with a network of non-profit medical organizations in 23 countries. They identify patients in financial need, and provide the care once it’s funded. They work with doctors and health professionals in nearly two dozen countries, including Cambodia, Guatemala, Kenya, Nepal and Cambodia. Criteria are simple. “The cures,” says Chase Adams, must cost less than $1,500 and significantly improve the patients’ health.” Over several years, Watsi has raised $7 million dollars. Donors can follow their contributions via the Watsi website from start to finish, as well as their impact.
Former White House press secretary Mike McCurry recently had high praise for the World Class Scholars program, but his words might well describe the Watsi Fund as well. As Mr. McCurry put it: “There’s so much about the need for high quality education, but the idea is that you’re going to take it globally and really make those connections and help us understand what needs are there. We are living increasingly in a globally interdependent world economy and projects such as the World Class Scholars program (as well as Watsi) go right to the heart of how you begin to break down those barriers.”
Alan L. Heil Jr. is a member of the Public Diplomacy Council and retired deputy director of VOA. He is the author of Voice of America: A History, Columbia University Press, 2003, and a PDC anthology, Local Voices/Global Perspectives: Challenges Ahead for U.S. International Media, 2008.