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Windows on the World Are Opened on the Web

February 22, 2001|SUSAN McLESTER | smclester@cmp.com

A New Delhi snake charmer claims to be happier than other people despite his poverty. Rastafarians in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica disagree on the finer points of heaven and reincarnation. And when it comes to single parenting, Russians are the most tolerant, Koreans the least.

This information and much more comes from the Planet Project (http://www.planetproject.com/en/home.html), an international poll conducted on the Internet and also through in-person interviews by pollsters sent to remote areas of the globe. Efforts such as the Planet Project highlight how effective technology can be at closing vast physical distances for curious students.

The forces behind the Planet Project are 3Com and photographer Rick Smolan, known for his "A Day in the Life" books and the haunting "Passage to Vietnam" CD published by his company, Against All Odds. Smolan's mission was to use technology to reach people of all nations and invite them to "share and compare their thoughts, beliefs, opinions, fears, similarities and differences instantly--on what it's like to be human at the beginning of the millennium."

For those without access to the Internet, a combination of laptops, hand-held computers, modems and portable satellite uplinks ensured their responses were conveyed immediately by reporters in Sri Lanka, China, Nairobi and other areas. The result: opinions from people in more than 230 countries and, according to Smolan, "the sparking of a global conversation."

A big part of this effort was driven by the International Youth Panel, composed of students from 20 countries working together to compile questions for the surveys. Questions answered by the 460,000 participants include everything from "Do you usually dream in black and white?" to "Is it OK for parents to smack or spank their children?" Students can go to the site and read profiles of international team members, take a survey and see how their opinions compare with those of the rest of the world.

Another collaborative student effort crossing international boundaries is the Web site An End to World Hunger: Hope for the Future at http://library.thinkquest.org/C002291/intro.htm, winner of the U.S. Department of State's Digital Diplomacy Award. Created by three students--in the United States, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom--this ambitious site explores hunger from numerous perspectives, with case studies on famines in China, Ireland, Korea, Ethiopia and Ukraine.

It also examines natural disasters, economic issues and other causes of hunger and offers some solutions. The site features a quiz, lots of opportunities to respond to articles, suggestions for classroom research projects and an open invitation for students from around the world to contribute their own thoughts and ideas.

Technology plays a critical role in educating people, promoting understanding and prompting action to solve problems worldwide. But things are still very lopsided.

In many respects, our kids are the natural pioneers of technology, as comfortable with computers and the Internet as earlier generations have been with phones and television. Although the digital future might reside more in their hands than ours, as parents and teachers we still have the power to help shape that future through what we encourage our children to become. Their involvement in international projects like these can go a long way toward instilling in them the kind of awareness and ownership it takes to be an active global citizen with the power to help crumble the remaining Berlin Walls of the world.

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Susan McLester is editor of Technology & Learning magazine.

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