What’s unique about Out of Eden Learn?

This week more “walking parties” will begin their learning journeys on our new Out of Eden Learn platform. As I described in the previous post (WHAT’S NEW ABOUT OUR NEW PLATFORM?) we have spent a great deal of time working with our web developers to design a system that is uniquely tailored to the needs of our learning community. We believe that the way in which we cluster diverse classes enables students to learn as much from one another as they learn from Paul Salopek and our materials. In this sense we offer a more intimate and “ground-up” online learning experience than, for example, the kinds of MOOCS (massive open online courses) like edX and Coursera that are all the rage within higher education, including here at Harvard. Conversely, our experience is somewhat more tightly structured than the kinds of across-the-world collaborations fostered, for example, by the pioneering Flat Classroom Project. (I have a well-thumbed copy of Julie Lindsay and Vicki Davis’ book Flattening classrooms, engaging minds on my desk, which I would highly recommend as a point of reference for classroom teachers.)

The final activity of our pilot study last semester asked students to document their own learning journey or to plan a physical walk they would like to take one day. The following entry by “Annie,” a 10th grade student from Newton, Massachusetts, neatly summarizes the kind of feedback we got from many pilot study participants:

Going into this project, I was hesitant because I wasn’t sure how the whole collaboration thing would work. After beginning, I quickly changed my mind. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience with this Out Of Eden Journey. It’s really amazing that one man’s walk can be so inspirational and relevant that it was able to bring together several nations from around the world. Being apart of this made me more aware of not only other’s cultures and lifestyles, but also my own. I never really took time to introspect, but creating my posts during this project gave me more insight on what makes up who I am. I think when exposed to the details of other’s lives, you start noticing your own. Also, I thought it was amazing to show that so many people from so many different backgrounds and lifestyles can be connected in some way or another. We are always taught that, but we never really get a chance to truly experience it. This project allowed us to find similarities miles apart and spark up conversations. No matter where we are from and what we do, there is always something that brings us together. I’m really glad I had the opportunity to be apart of this. And best of luck to Paul!

Annie’s comments highlight three themes that I think point to the uniqueness of our community. We have touched on these themes in previous blog posts but I think they are worth revisiting.

(1) Paul Salopek’s unique and inspiring walk

What a gift it has been for us to collaborate with Paul! His walk is what galvanizes our community and serves as the backbone for all our activities. The fact that Paul is planning to walk for seven years gives our project a directionality and longevity that would otherwise not exist – and we hope to build opportunities for students to continue to engage with his walk over this period of time. Although we initially planned this community to serve middle and high school students, we are finding that the walk captivates educators and students from across the age range. Let me just say that Fares and Seema, Paul’s camels, may be destined to become rock stars in the world of early childhood and elementary education.

(2) A chance for students to learn more about themselves

You might think that one of the main purposes of our learning community is for kids to learn more about other people—and it is. But equally important is the opportunity our community gives students to reflect seriously about their own lives and to situate themselves more thoughtfully within a larger world. As Annie remarked, these two facets are intertwined: “when exposed to the details of other’s lives, you start noticing your own.” Furthermore, our activities are deliberately designed to encourage students to slow down to consider and observe their immediate surroundings in new ways, much as Paul is doing. In fact, we believe that a good deal of the power of our learning design comes from having young people look at their immediate worlds with fresh eyes in the company of “fellow travelers” who are undergoing similar experiences in different places.

(3) Authentic connection making

While Paul’s journalism emphasizes our collective human story – and some of our activities explicitly invite students to make connections between themselves and others – it seems to be the overall Out of Eden Learn experience that drives home for students that our human lives are interlinked and that young people around the world essentially have a lot in common. In Annie’s words: “We are always taught that, but we never really get a chance to truly experience it.” We hope that this kind of experience will have a long-lasting impact on our participants.

Finally a request: the uniqueness of our learning community also presents us with a unique challenge. We currently have more US schools signed up than non-US schools and we are having trouble creating “balanced” walking parties for some age groups. Please encourage educators that you know to check out our new platform and to consider signing up!

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