This morning, we successfully held a 2-1/2 hour discussion between students at Catlin Gabel and in Gaza City, Palestine. Mercy Corps runs a program called Why Not Youth, an Internet-based curriculum to facilitate greater understanding between Oregon and Palestine. I entered the activity with two uncertainties: How familiar could students get with each other through Internet video? Would the technology even work, and what would we do if it didn’t?
The experience far exceeded my wildest dreams. At first, the technology teased me with hints of success. We showed up at school at 7:00 a.m. (5:00 p.m. in Gaza). For a good 45 minutes, we watched the Gazans’ Skype status flicker on and off. What could be going on there? Power outages? Internet connectivity issues? Would the lesson be a bust? We got video first, to murmurs of excitement from our people. Then the audio clicked in … and out … and in. We were off and running!
For a distance of thousands of miles, using free Skype technology, the quality was absolutely amazing. We must have been getting at least 5 fps video rate and telephone-quality audio. Every 20 minutes or so, we got completely disconnected but reestablished contact within about a minute. In a way, the interruptions helped remind us how remarkable this connection was. If you don’t have it yet, get the latest Skype upgrade. The video compression is far superior.
The students on both sides prepared questions in advance, mostly so that the Palestinian students could find the English vocabulary needed to clearly express answers to complex questions about freedom, elections, and the press. For the first hour or so, the conversation proceeded in relative formality. Each group asked a question, and the others responded.
In the second hour, the magic really began. To my amazement, the students on both sides demonstrated a growing familiarity with each other. They laughed at jokes and awkward moments. One student played the oud. Our students admitted they didn’t know anything about the Oscars. They challenged each other with serious questions. Our students came to grips with how little they knew about life in Gaza. They sympathized with the plight of being virtually imprisoned in a 39 km strip of land.
Hyperbole thrives in the blogosphere. I truly try to avoid it. Today, I need to make an exception. The connection we were able to make between Oregonian and Gazan students today far exceeded my expectations. I truly believe that this represents a new frontier in global education. The technology is finally accessible enough that we can make exchanges between people in very different life circumstances, connections that truly challenge assumptions and teach in the most powerful manner. It is going to take me days to fully process what we experienced this morning. I can’t wait to plan the next one.