Fostering Global Awareness through an International Online Collaboration: A Case Study

by Sandra Duggleby and Jennifer Lock


Sandra Duggleby, PhD, is a sessional instructor and field experience supervisor in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary. Her area of specialization is in curriculum and instruction. Dr. Duggleby has recently retired as a K-9 educator with teaching experience in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

 Jennifer Lock, PhD, is a Professor and the Associate Dean of Teaching and Learning in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary. Her area of specialization is in the Learning Sciences. Dr. Lock’s current research interests are in e-learning, change and innovation in education, scholarship of teaching and learning in higher education, and makerspaces.


 In contemporary learning environments, K-12 students benefit from authentic learning opportunities through online international collaborations to develop global awareness. Through the use of synchronous and asynchronous communication technologies, a digital learning environment can be created where students are able to take up topics and gain global perspectives from their peers who may be in a different country and hemisphere. In this article, we share an online collaborative project that occurred with Grade 3 students from an elementary school in Alberta, Canada and an elementary school in Lima, Peru. The purpose of the project was to explore how the physical environment of students’ local areas impacted their quality of life. Using a case study methodology, four key findings and three recommendations for practice are shared in how to design and facilitate online international collaborative projects to foster greater global awareness.



In contemporary education, students need opportunities to develop global and cultural perspectives. Through the use of synchronous and asynchronous communication technologies, students and teachers from around the world can come together to develop global perspectives through authentic learning opportunities. Within this digital space, students are able to explore topics and gain a global perspective from their peers who may be in a different country and hemisphere.Students who engage in authentic learning opportunities through online international collaboration develop greater global awareness.

In this article, we share findings from our seven-week online international project in which students engaged in learning the concept of quality of life through online interactions with their colleagues in Peru. The article concludes with three recommendations of practice to design and facilitate an international project to foster greater global awareness in K-12 classrooms.


Designing Authentic Online Learning to Foster Global Awareness and Competency

We live in a global society that is continually becoming more interconnected.Global awareness is defined as “exposure to other cultures and geographical areas to increase knowledge or perception of a world beyond one's own” (Nugent, Smith, Cook, & Bell, 2015).Peters (2009) argued that global awareness is a “frame of reference that embodies tolerance of cultural differences and knowledge of cultures, history and global economic, social, and political trends” (p. 120). Global awareness is a steppingstone toward achieving global competency, which is “the capacity and disposition to understand and act on issues of global significance” (Mansilla & Jackson, 2011, p. xiii). People who demonstrate global competency “are aware, curious, and interested in learning about the world and how it works” (Mansilla & Jackson, 2011, p. xiii).

Creating authentic, or real-world, online learning opportunities for the purpose of fostering global awareness and global competency requires intentional planning and facilitation. Designing a global learning opportunity in an online environment requires the following five elements:

1) Developing respectful relationships (Demovsky & Niemuth, 1999; Hull & Stornaiuolo, 2014);

2) Designing authentic inquiry (Newmann & Wehlage, 1993);

3) Facilitating collaborative opportunities (Burnouf, 2004; Lock & Redmond, 2009);

4) Fostering connected learning (Demovsky & Niemuth, 1999; Ito et al., 2013; Lock & Redmond, 2009); and,

5) Developing skills for active citizenship within the global context (Demovsky & Niemuth, 1999; National Education Association, 2010; Pacino & Noftle, 2011; Picardo, 2012).

Added is the purposeful selection and integration of technology to support collaborative learning that bridges geographic distance. With the diversity and robustness of today’s digital technology “[c]onnecting, communicating, collaborating and co-creating knowledge with others beyond our local communities have never been more attainable than we are currently experiencing in today’s digital world” (Lock, 2014, p. 140). The online collaborative learning environment can be a forum where “sharing, discussing, de-constructing, and negotiating meaning leads to knowledge construction” (Lock & Redmond, 2009, p. 178). To design such learning requires the activity to “embrace authentic, collaborative learning grounded in curriculum, facilitated through rich interaction and discussion among students, experts and/or other like-minded people that is delivered through the capacity of the technology” (Lock & Redmond, 2009, p. 137).

Expressing ideas, listening to others, and respecting different viewpoints in a participatory environment are important for developing a global perspective (Burnouf, 2004). Students need to have respect for cultural differences both in their own community and throughout the world to better understand global issues (Demovsky & Niemuth, 1999). To develop these skills, students need time to interact with one another so that relationships can develop. As these relationships flourish, students accept and appreciate the fact that their view or opinion is not the only one (Burnouf, 2004). Students benefit from comparing and contrasting information from different parts of the world by communicating with pictures, photographs, and written work to expand their global awareness (Harris, 1999). By expanding opportunities to learn about the world beyond the borders of their own country, students increase their level of cross-cultural sensitivity (Kurt, Olitsky, & Geis, 2013).

An online environment provides a forum where students and teachers can use synchronous and/or asynchronous communication technologies to not only receive information but to engage in communication and make connections with others.Lock and Redmond (2009) emphasized that rich conversations are necessary for sharing experiences, nurturing dialogue and co-constructing knowledge. To foster robust discussions among students, the instructor and/or facilitator “must develop skills and confidence in moderating online discussions, in asking questions to provoke critical thinking and in responding so to foster dialogue” (Lock & Redmond, 2009, p. 188).


The Global Awareness Project

Our project was an online collaboration between Grade 3 students from an elementary school in Alberta, Canada, and an elementary school in Lima, Peru. The purpose of the project was to explore how the physical environment of students’ local areas impacts their quality of life. Using inquiry-based learning, students engaged with Peruvian peers using both synchronous and asynchronous communication technology (e.g., blog, Skype, and Google Hangouts) to learn with and from each other. Through their interactions within a respectful and caring learning environment, they were able to explore the topic by asking questions and sharing information.

During the seven weeks, the students met as a large group at the beginning and end of the project. In the final synchronous session, students from both locations shared what they learned from the project. The Alberta students developed Venn diagrams to show what was similar and unique in their two locations in terms of the physical environment and quality of life. Through the development of two digital story projects, small groups of students met using synchronous technology to discuss the videos through question and answer sessions.


Research Design

A case study methodology was used to study our online collaborative project. This methodology “investigates a contemporary phenomenon (the ‘case’) in depth and within its real-life real-world context, especially when the boundaries between phenomenon and context may not be clearly evident” (Yin, 2014, p. 16). In our research, the phenomenon studied was how the online collaborative project fostered deep inquiry of the curricular topic. This topic focused on how the local physical environment impacts quality of life with students. The study addressed two questions: 1) In what ways can international online collaboration promote deep inquiry; and 2) What impact does collaboration (both in the classroom and online) have on student understanding of a curricular topic?

The Alberta students, along with their teacher, the technology expert, and classroom assistant, were invited to participate in the research. Informed consent was received from the three educators and eight students for their participation in the study.

Two sources of data were collected and analyzed for the study. First, students participated in a focus group interview, whereas the educators participated in individual interviews at the end of the project. Second, project artifacts created by the teacher (e.g., assessment rubrics) and students (e.g., digital video, written reflections and Venn diagrams) were collected. Using Saldaña’s (2013) two cycles of coding, as researchers we worked through the initial coding process through to identifying categories and themes and sub-themes.


Discussion of the Findings

For this article, the discussion of the findings purposefully focused on the following four areas that reflect the process of how the students began to develop greater global awareness.

Fostering a respectful and open learning environment. Developing a safe and trusting environment was crucial to the success of the project. “Building the trust required close attention and constant investment of time in refining the process” (Palmer & Zajonc, 2010, p.210). The entire team believed in developing caring and trusting environment, which served as a safety net when plans did not work out as expected. The teacher felt that students worked respectfully toward a mutual understanding of quality of life. Relationship building began with the two teachers (Alberta and Peru) as they planned and supported the project. In this safe and caring environment, the students began to listen to differing opinions and perspectives and developed a respect for the diverse ideas and practices that are presented by others.

Upon reflection of the experience, the Alberta-based teacher commented that modeling appropriate listening, questioning, and communication skills by the two teachers during the first Skype session played a crucial role in the students becoming effective problem solvers, collaborators, and communicators. These same skills were then practiced and used in the small group sharing that occurred a few weeks later when students led discussions using Google Hangouts. Students learned to ask highly-engaging questions so that their global peers could elaborate on their ideas for further understanding.

Impact of collaborative learning in the online environment. One learning task for the project was the creation of a video by each student that spoke to how physical environment impacts quality of life. Alberta students’ videos were posted online for their Peruvian peers to view; later, in small groups, the students from Peru and Alberta engaged in a question and answer session. Within the Alberta classroom, discussions occurred about what they valued in terms of their quality of life.

The culminating task for the Alberta students was the creation of a Venn diagram that showed what was unique for each location and what was similar (e.g., animal habitats, celebrations, languages, and geography). Through these two activities, students developed a deeper understanding of not only what they value in terms of quality of life but also what was similar and different in terms of physical geography and cultural aspects between the two groups. For example, with the Venn diagram, one student showed that Canada’s languages included English and French, whereas in Peru they speak English and Spanish. For trees, she noted the Alberta pine tree forest in comparison to the Peruvian tropical rain forest. Alberta has the Rocky Mountains, whereas in Peru they have the Andes Mountains. Information shared reflected not only what students learned about themselves in terms of quality of life but also what they learned about their peers.

By engaging with their Peruvian peers, students gained a new and different perspective about quality of life. As noted by the technology expert, “it gave them a chance to pause and reflect more than they would have done if it was just their own class, […] they had an audience to consider”. The following quote reflects the richness of the experience:

I felt that everything that they had learned in their Social Studies textbook was interesting. But once it was brought to life through this project it was really engaging for the students, because they were able to see what they had just learned being carried out through actual Peruvian [peers].

Students asked important and engaging questions during the Skype and Google Hangouts sessions. Through the power of the social interactions, the learning changed from knowledge acquisition to our real-world behaviour (Palmer & Zajonc, 2010). Students became actively curious as their passion for learning increased in this powerful global community that evolved over the course of the seven weeks. The teacher reported, for example, that students in Alberta demonstrated how snow was used for both survival and recreation. They discussed their experience of building a quinzhee (a shelter built from snow) in their Nature Explorers class so they could learn how to survive in the wilderness. In a response to the Alberta students’ question regarding out-of-school activities in Peru, the Peruvian students shared stories about surfing on sand dunes in the desert. This spurred on more curiosity and questions when the students met during the Google Hangouts session.

Intentional integration of technology for communication and collaboration. Access to the Internet and to synchronous and asynchronous communication technologies provides educators and students with an opportunity to move learning beyond the physical classroom environment. Titche and Rowe (2013) emphasized that, through global connections, students can expand their understanding of an ever-changing world. As noted by one educator, “the ability to communicate with someone that is on the other side of the world, it’s not that hard; it can be accessible and easier than others might think.” In the interview, students suggested connecting to other countries (e.g., countries studied in Social Studies such as India, Ukraine and Tunisia). As noted by one educator,

I think everyone should have the opportunity to have that experience with a classroom who is not in Canada, who’s in a different culture and in a different continent because you learn so much more. You are so much more engaged when it comes to life for you, you are not [just] reading about it.

Using technology (e.g., Skype, Google Hangouts, Google blog), students were able to engage in conversation (large and small group) and share their understandings of quality of life (e.g., video and Venn Diagrams). Through the structure of the learning tasks, their work was purposeful in why and how they connected with their Peruvian peers. Titche and Rowe (2013) emphasized that, through global connections, students can expand their understanding of an ever-changing world. Through these connections, they can make educated and responsible decisions regarding the action they will take to make a difference to other people in the world. “As more schools and educational programs embrace problem and design-oriented learning projects, educators, parents, and civic leaders are discovering that students are capable of doing much more than anyone thought they ever could” (Trilling & Fadel, 2009, p. 155-156).

Demonstration of global awareness and citizenship. During one synchronous session, the Peruvian students shared how they had completed a marketplace to raise money for people in the community with special needs. They had created items, which they sold, and they posted pictures of their marketplace on the blog. This intrigued the Alberta students, which led them to ask their teacher if they too could do something similar. The Alberta teacher’s openness in support of the inquiry supported the idea. The teacher reported that from their learning about the Peruvian students’ marketplace in the Google Hangouts group sessions, they discussed their own ethical responsibilities and designed their own marketplace to help victims of a complex geographical disaster. As the students made their plan to raise money for an earthquake tragedy in Nepal, teamwork and sharing ideas were key ingredients for their success.

The collaborative skills learned from this experience will help prepare students for success in the future. Through their marketplace activity, the Alberta students felt that they enhanced people’s lives and gave them hope for the future, which was a sense of care as a global citizen. As noted by one student, “I feel so grateful that we can all donate money.” The students learned how to be compassionate, actively engaged citizens in a real-world experience. “The communities benefit from the work, and the students learn valuable and powerful real-life lessons that make their academic work come to life” (Palmer & Zajonc, 2010, p. 184).


Recommendation for Practice

Drawing from the literature, data from the study, and our experiences with online international collaborative projects, we put forward three recommendations for practice in support of developing global awareness in K-12 classrooms.

First, to foster greater global awareness there is a need to create opportunities for students to communicate and collaborate within online international learning environments that bridge geographic distance. Students need to have “interaction with other modes of associated experience beyond the school walls” (Dewey, 1916/2011, p. 195). Additionally, teachers need to create learning opportunities where students are engaging with others from around the world through meaningful inquiry which “requires critical thinking, information literacy, and a measure of self-direction” (Lemke, 2010, p. 263). As noted by Muilenburg and Berge (2000), in the design of the online learning experience it is important to be “asking the right questions” (p. 10) to initiate discussions that deepen the learning beyond the surface level of understanding. A dynamic and compelling learning environment can be achieved through a well-planned program that supports and promotes global connections.

Second, within online international projects, there is a need to design, model, and foster open communication within trusting and respectful learning environments. Through cross-cultural communications, students are able to learn and grow from those around them, which includes when they are connected through the use of technology. Teachers need to design learning experiences where students engage openly in authentic discussions with peers in online international contexts. Creating a trusting and respectful online learning environment “requires careful facilitation and scaffolding of the discussions to foster deep, thoughtful dialogue” (Redmond & Lock, 2015, p. 147). The formation of a “trusting environment cannot be assumed. Rather, through intentional action this will be developed and fostered” (Redmond & Lock, 2015, p. 147).

Third, it takes time to develop global awareness. The investment in rich inquiry where students are purposefully engaged in authentic learning experiences takes time and commitment by both students and teachers. “Designing authentic learning tasks supported through technology-enabled environments brings the world into the classroom and into the learning. To work within this online global learning environment that strives to foster knowledge creation requires innovation in the learning design” (Redmond & Lock, 2015, p. 147). One way is to provide conditions for engaging collaborative experiences that motivates students to seek out more learning opportunities. When students are intrinsically motivated, they often push themselves to seek out more opportunities for discovery because they are highly engaged in their learning (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Fostering global awareness and global competency requires looking beyond single projects; it requires leadership and systematic planning of initiatives that fosters the development of knowledge, skills, and dispositions with regard to global competency that span across grade levels and discipline areas.



Contemporary education, to be effective, “must help students learn how to learn in powerful ways, so that they can manage the demands of changing information, technologies, jobs and social conditions” (Darling-Hammond, 2008, p. 2).Digital communication and collaboration technologies provide a means for connecting students and teachers from anywhere in the world and at any time to engage in learning with and from each other. The use of technology provides an opportunity for students to collaboratively use their critical thinking skills to take up real-world problems and issues within authentic contexts (Steelman, Grable & Vasu, 2004-05).

Through the design and facilitation of authentic online international collaborations, students will have opportunities to learn of global issues and challenges, and to gain multiple perspectives on these items. Such experiences provide a means for students to not only develop knowledge and skills but to begin to form and establish dispositions that are embedded in global competency. As educators in today’s global society, we need to be the designers of learning that fosters the development of not only global awareness but also global competency.



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Global Awareness, Collaboration, Global Citizenship, Inquiry-based Learning