Net gains bridge cultural gap


Mark Opperman was on a horse-riding trip though Sichuan's scenic Jiuzaigou in 1999 when he came across a Tibetan teacher. Opperman, then a computer engineer with Sun Microsystems, asked the teacher if his students had access to the internet. "Internet?" quipped the teacher. "We don't even have a telephone." 

This simple conversation planted a seed in his mind. After returning to his home in Palo Alto, California, he started to think of ways to bring this teacher's school into the cyber age. The following year he cashed in Sun shares, and set up the Oumu Foundation (Ou Mu is his Chinese name) and set to work linking students in the US and China through the internet. Lack of the necessary satellite links to rural areas limited him to Beijing. 

The link was launched early last year with the help of his friend Kelly Kobza, who taught Chinese history as part of the sixth grade curriculum at Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School in Palo Alto and was involved in Stanford University's SPICE - the Stanford Programme on International and Cross-Cultural Education, a project that promotes education on international themes in American schools. 

Having worked in Paris, Lausanne, Beijing, Tokyo and London, Opperman was keenly interested in foreign languages and culture. He had a particular interest in China; he taught computer programming at Beijing University in 1985, had studied Chinese and had visited the country several times. 

Through SPICE, Opperman learned of the National Consortium for Teaching about Asia, which put him in touch with the National Committee for US China Relations. This led to introductions to the Ministry of Education and several top schools in Beijing. At the same time, he was lining up schools in California. Apple Computer China promised assistance. 

The Oumu Foundation donated iMac computers and video and digital cameras to each of the schools so the students could produce their own videos. One of the biggest needs was training, particularly in video technology. "You can't just dump technology on someone and say good luck," Opperman said. 

He invited Michael Rubin, author of The Little Digital Video Book, to Beijing to help train teachers and students. "There was a bit of a language problem, but nothing that a little pantomime or a helpful precocious student couldn't get through," Rubin said. 

At the end of the week, a contest was held in Beijing. Students drew subjects from a hat and then headed out on to the streets to scavenge for subjects to shoot, which included slices of life such as shoe repair, bike repair, people playing games and construction. Four hours later they returned to the Apple office to edit their work into a two-minute video. The results, which can be viewed at jiang2003/, are impressive. 

The video sketches, accompanied by free play music, use cutaways and other simple editing techniques. In some of the videos, students used slow motion. "We didn't teach them how to do this, they just figured it out by themselves," Opperman said. 

The programme has been successful in initiating a dialogue between the students. When an American student produced a video last year on an average day in her life, Chinese students, the vast majority of whom come from single child families, were struck by the fact that she had several siblings. 

"This prompted my students to ask really great questions about the one-child policy. And it prompted the Chinese kids to ask questions about American families," Kobza said. 

The exchange has made her students "much more motivated", she said. "They are studying about ancient China and the philosophy of Confucius and Lao Zi, and they've learned that customs and society still operate under such precepts." 

She said the programme had helped the students learn that China is a country of varying conditions. "In China you can drive down the street and see a high-priced German car next to a three-wheeled bicycle," Kobza said. "Or you can walk in an area where you'll see a high-rise building standing beside a hutong (residential alley)." 

For the Chinese students the programme has also provided a practical application for learning and using English. They must communicate with their American counterparts in English, and negotiate the foundation's English-language website. 

"My students want to improve their English, and now they have frequent contact with American students, which they really value," said Li Hui, a teacher at No171 Middle School in Beijing. "It's a great activity for them." 

To date, seven schools and some 470 students have taken part in the exchanges. In addition to the video sketches, students are also exchanging digital photo albums and e-mail. During this school year, the Oumu Foundation will sponsor projects between four schools in California and four in Beijing. During the Christmas and Chinese Spring Festival students were requested to get footage on their respective holidays. 

With a beachhead established, Opperman is now turning his attention to expanding the programme into rural areas.



© 2013 Paul J. Mooney