Monday, January 24, 2011

Cultural Understanding via Technology

I found Teddy Bears Go Blogging to be a very interesting example of how technology can enhance the ways we teach. By taking the classic pen-pal method of interacting with, and learning about, another culture and expanding its possibilities though the use of modern technology we can see how beneficial the internet can be when used in a creative way. I can think of a particular instance in my own life when having access to technology like this would have really helped to enhance the experience.

When I was in middle school a group of students and myself were assigned partners at a school in Hartford made up primarily of students from lower income families. We met the students in person once or twice, but our main method of interaction involved writing letters. Communicating by mail constrained our interactions and resulted in a somewhat trite back and forth conversation. Had we been able to use blogs to communicate with each other I can imagine a number of different things that would have improved the experience.

Perhaps foremost is that communicating by blog would have allowed us to interact at a much faster pace. Relaying our daily lives would have been a lot easier and we would have gotten a much better picture into what our respective lives were like. We would have been able to share videos and links to websites that we found interesting and would have then been able to discuss them in a more open format. If we had access to Facebook our Hartford friends would have been able to get a general idea of what our social lives were like and we would have been able to see pictures of their friends and neighborhoods. Had we been able to blog, the experience would have been much richer.

Perhaps the most apparent lesson from Teddy Bears Go Blogging is how the Internet can help us to understand what living in a different culture is like. This would seem to me to be an extremely difficult thing to teach children. When I was young, and even to this day, I often found myself thinking that people from different parts of the world lived lives and had interests that were vastly different from my own. As I have grown older and been able to experience people from other cultures firsthand, the most amazing thing I have discovered is how similar we are. An example I always think about is when I spent a couple weeks at the University of Botswana during winter break while in college.

On the face of it the Botswanan students and the students from my college would have seemed to have little in common. While we came from towns with paved roads and had unlimited access to electricity, medical care, and an unseemly level of creature comforts, many of our Botswanan friends came from small villages with dirt roads, intermittent electricity, and very little in the way of consumer goods. However, after interacting with them face to face, it became apparent that we all generally wanted the same thing: to get drunk with our friends, to meet members of the opposite sex, to experience entertainment, to get good jobs, etc. I was able to experience firsthand how similar we actually were. It was an extremely uplifting experience. I believe that through creative uses of technology we could bring a similar level or understanding between cultures to our classrooms.

With the technology available today it is fairly easy to set up video chats between people on different ends of the earth. An American history class covering the Vietnam War could be greatly improved if the students were able to spend time chatting with a classroom in Vietnam. What would have been merely a lesson on two cultures fighting to the death could instead end with a lesson on how much has changed and how both sides viewed the conflict. A social studies class addressing the war on terror would be greatly improved if students from America were able to talk with students from Palestine or Pakistan. By communicating with each other from and early age I feel like we would be able to prevent a great deal of the misunderstanding and mistrust that we absorb from second-hand sources. For less than a hundred bucks we could outfit a number of classrooms with webcams and make something like this possible.

As we continue on to the future I believe this kind of communication will become more and more available and will allow us to interact with other people on a much deeper level. Beginning this lesson early, with something as simple as blogging about a Teddy Bear’s journey, will have a hugely positive impact down the road.


  1. Very interesting thoughts here, thank you for sharing!

    As I was reading your description of your experience in Botswana, I thought of Jared Cohen's book Children of Jihad - you might like to check that out sometime. He also points to the common ground that youths have, and also the role that technology can play in these global interactions.

  2. I just checked the book out on Amazon. It sounds very interesting. I have become more and more interested in the ways people from across cultures are the same. I often think that, especially with politics, we should spend a great deal more time addressing the issues that we all agree on. I'm going to see if my local library has the book in stock.

  3. I hope you enjoy it! Let me know what you think about it.


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