Wednesday, March 12, 2008

ePals: Connecting Made Easy and Safe

ePals offers a "learning social network" for schools with class email, blogs and other tools. Over 132,000 classrooms are connected through the site, reaching over 13 million students worldwide. Steve Lohr reports in The New York Times on ePals' latest venture: National Geographic has invested in it and is now supplying educational content for its series of learning projects. Aside from the great content provided by National Geographic, ePals has some fantastic tools for teachers, students and administrators.

The main goal of ePals is to provide safe and easy-to-use tools and forums to connect students and teachers around the world. Its purpose is to enhance not only curriculum-based learning but to expand students' worlds and contribute to the kind of higher-order thinking that educators know is critical in an increasingly globalized and information-heavy world. The following tools are available at the ePals website (teachers or schools can sign up for free) and will be made available on Classmate PCs being shipped by Intel and laptops provided by One Laptop Per Child in developing nations:
  • in2books is a "curriculum-based online mentoring program" that offers adult pen pals for students. When students receive a book, they also get a letter from their new pen pals. These pen pals motivate students to read, think about and discuss books. The pen pal aspect is meant to encourage higher-order thinking beyond word recognition and vocabulary. The pen pals serve as an authentic audience for student writers and thinkers. They also connect students with real adults who can serve as role models, coaches, friends and guides into different parts of the world, country or even students' own city.
  • Classroom Match connects classrooms statewide, nationally or internationally. ePals' instant translation tools make this kind of connection fun and easy. Teachers can choose a learning project or make one of their own to invite others to. Connected classrooms can share emails, blogs and discussion forums. The search engine makes it possible to search for a particular classroom, for a class in a certain part of the country or world, or for other classrooms doing the same project.
  • School Blog is meant to be user-friendly and safe. Many teachers, parents and administrators have legitimate concerns about the open memberships of blogs, email and social networking sites generally available. School Blog allows teacher control so that blogs are worry-free. On the School Blog page, you can find links to a sample blog and links to featured school blogs. The page also lists available tools and has a brochure to explain how to best use the tool. There is also a PDF of a research article on the benefits of blogs in K-12 programs.
  • School M@il takes a lot of the headaches out of email for teachers and school administrators. ePals' well-known translation tool is one of the highlights here. Of even more interest to teachers, principals and parents are the blocking tools that can be set by an individual teacher for his or her class or by administrators for the entire school's use of School M@il. Teasing and attacking emails can be blocked, particular words or combinations of words can be blocked, and outside users can be blocked from entering or participating in the system, reducing concerns about predators and others who are unwelcome and freeing up a teacher to deal with academic content, writing skills and other educational matters. The mail service also has a spell checker, virus checker and spam filters. The centralization makes this a great tool for class use.
All of ePals' options and tools can be accessed at the main web page. You can find featured teachers and learning projects, a poll asking teachers and students to tell ePals what kind of content they are looking for or want, and featured videos and discussion forums. There is also a great "Ask an ePals Teacher" section where users can connect with other educators, get answers and advice, and share projects or exciting news about their classroom activities. With the near-bewildering range of Internet tools available out there, ePals certainly makes connecting students to the world easier and more secure for already-busy teachers.

SOURCE: "A Capitalist Jolt for Charity" 02/24/08
photo courtesy of Wesley Fryer, used under this Creative Commons license

1 comment:

Steve O'Keefe said...


I've worked with ePals on a number of projects for K-12 classrooms. It's fairly easy to find classrooms interested in specific topics, age ranges, and languages. And you feel safer approaching them through ePals email system than contacting them directly.

ePals partnered on a 10-week, junior high school science program with me. They've also allowed us to post information about The LIVEbrary to ePals members. Several LIVEbrary members have joined us through ePals.

It's good to see ePals getting financial support from The National Geographic Foundation. ePals has spent years building a decent worldwide, language-friendly connectivity engine for K-12 classrooms. Secure networks of that size are nearly impossible to find.

The Annick LIVEbrary