Yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak with Ed Fish, CEO of ePals Corporation. I first heard about ePals through Intel, who recently announced that they would provide hooks to ePals' services on their Classmate PCs. While it's easy to describe ePals as "the world's largest social network for learning," an anecdote that Mr. Fish recounted gives a much better feel for just what this company does. I'm paraphrasing here, but I think you'll get the point:
Recently, a classroom of Chinese-speaking students learning Spanish posted a "want-ad" on ePals (part of their classroom matching service). A classroom of Spanish-speaking students who were learning Chinese responded and now the two classes are corresponding regularly to practice Spanish and Chinese together
At its core, ePals is a social network, just like MySpace or Facebook. It provides a means for students, teachers, and schools to connect both internally and with other institutions worldwide. Unlike MySpace, however, ePals provides rich content (ePals merged in 2007 with In2Books, a major provider of curriculum-aligned online educational content), a strict educational focus, and serious tools for teacher monitoring and moderation. Better yet, it provides built-in translation tools with support for 72 languages (including standard Chinese, with Arabic coming soon).
While Mr. Fish, who ran AOL's instant messaging service before coming to ePals, noted that roughly 60% of the users live in the States, the service connects students in 200 countries. The interface is intuitive and largely centers around sending and receiving emails (which teachers can monitor). Synchronous tasks, such as chat and videoconferencing are also supported. Thus, where bandwidth is limited, asynchronous communications do not limit student involvement.
According to Mr. Fish, ePals has "thrived in the absence of formal training." However, they, like Intel with its Classmate PC, continue to develop an ecosystem of support, such that, for example, local OEMs distributing Classmates can also train teachers in the use of ePals.
However, as most of us know, kids tend to step into computing systems with little trepidation; ePals has found that simply allowing students to begin clicking away is highly effective. Mr. Fish did note, as Intel has long held with the Classmate, that an appropriate infrastructure must already be in place for ePals to be a "killer app." Thus, this functions best in the context of a classroom.
While blogging, forums, and email are all available simply within a classroom, most classes connect via searches and "classifieds" where classrooms can find other well-matched groups learning about a particular topic. I found 446 matches to a search for the subject of Chinese, based in English, appropriate for 15-17 year olds. I found 12 matches for Genetics for English-speaking 16-18 year olds.
ePals also coordinates specific matchups. They have brought together many classrooms, in conjunction with National Geographic, to complete projects on global warming. Ultimately, these will be part of a submission to the UN Junior Ambassador program.
Share your experiences with ePals below. As we wrap up the school year, I'll be piloting ePals with my own classes and will report back.