Saturday, January 8, 2011

ePals - Friends From Around the World

Remember the "You've Got Mail" alert on your computer? As an educator, I like to try many different ways to help students learn about the world around them and become more connected. One way to do that is through a free, email application called ePals SchoolMail. I have worked alongside the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce setting up the student email accounts and monitors for three schools on a project involving the communication between students and businesses. They were working on their writing skills while finding out more information about different careers.

ePals SchoolMail is a student-only email service that was founded in 1996. It is free to the users and free of advertising as well. Tim DiScipio, epals' co-founder stated "We're looking for educationally relevant sponsors and foundations." They develop partnerships with these businesses and organizations so SchoolMail is ad free. Students can then focus on the email. Although it is a free service, guidelines and educator controls are in place. While ePals maintains the overall filtering system of content and language, the teacher/monitor for the classroom can monitor all incoming and outgoing email, adjust the level of protections, establish settings determined by student ages and needs, block or regulate attachments and even limit correspondence to certain students or classrooms.

Email is another way of providing cultural exchange for students around the world and preparing them for our global society. With SchoolMail there are no boundaries. It is easy to find another online classroom using the ePals map, which includes 8 regions with 200 countries using 136 languages. Educational projects with classrooms in the global community and virtual field trips allow students to be more connected and aware of the world around them. The email exchange with groups give them firsthand knowledge of each other's culture, help them develop a personal connection and see a lot of value in the other cultures.

Teachers monitor emails for appropriateness and being coherent; looking for correct grammar, spelling and punctuation, no texting slang, and providing more insight to different terms used in different cutures such as "football vs soccer." These guidelines have shown a positive effect and writing to students with limited English helped improved students' writing skills. They were more careful with sentence structure and helped each other with grammar and spelling.

Younger students can use email to help them learn about other local schools, counties and states, cyber etiquette, and various parts of an email as part of the Standard Course of Study. Some teachers have expanded the one-to-one email features by creating a SchoolBlog to communicate as a group. They post questions, answer others' questions, and share ideas. The enthusiasm to participate and learn more on a subject increases dramatically when the students start receiving responses. They start asking more questions, learn new terms, and will login at home if have access.

Email is another way students can live in the "now" with their global community and become stronger in their education. Let's think how we can put them in touch with the world around them and how it can make a difference.

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