What does it mean to be a man? In the United States, men who take special care of their physical appearance are widely considered less masculine. Noa Fay thought that was a standard belief. But in a gender studies course taken by the Global Online Academy, or GOA, Fay heard from classmates in Kenya, Hong Kong, England, India and South Africa about how masculinity is defined in their countries, and she learned that the American perspective is not ubiquitous.
Fay had to check her assumptions several times, largely because of what she heard from her peers around the world.
“The way I think about things has probably changed forever,” said Fay, who took GOA’s gender studies course last year as a senior at private school Noble and Greenough in the Massachusetts.
GOA is a collective of approximately 90 member schools around the world, offering accredited online courses to middle and high school students. Courses, across a range of subjects, encourage students to develop global perspectives. And the program gives them a chance to do so through research-based and project-based learning. Fay knows her teacher, Kim Banion, designed her gender studies course and gave all the homework, but she says day-to-day classroom activities were student-driven. Online conversations, either through video calls with classmates or through chat rooms, were between students. And it was their insights and ideas that opened Fay’s eyes.
That’s how Banion had wanted it. Her class provides a theoretical framework for students who typically enroll in the course because they already have a passion for topics like feminism and gender inclusion. The unique value of GOA, however, is that Banion can capitalize on the diverse experiences of students. Simply asking them to share examples from their own local media and popular culture provides a wide range of topics for discussion.
Fay, for her part, particularly liked it. She said that even in her regular classes, she finds the most value in working with her peers and debating.
“It’s just hearing the perspectives literally within my own community,” Fay said. “It made so much more of a difference to hear from people around the world.”
The formation of global perspectives is at the heart of GOA, but it is not the only benefit that students cite.
Adriana Castro Colón grew up in the United States, first in Puerto Rico and then in Georgia. She then graduated from an international high school in Portugal, where she moved for her father’s job. Castro Colón considers herself a creative thinker. In a medical problem-solving course last fall, she worked with students from Hong Kong and Taiwan. She found them to be more analytical thinkers. And she said her group benefits from both perspectives when tackling complex medical issues.
“While they would focus on one aspect of the problem, I could contribute something else,” she said. She also reports incorporating some of their approach into her solo work, becoming more efficient and organized.
Because she had attended an international school, it was no exaggeration for Castro Colón to work with students from other countries. Taking an online course, however, took some getting used to. And it was good preparation for her plan to enroll in Lynn University’s online program for freshmen. She found out from GOA that online classes require students to be more independent than what she was used to in her regular classes. She couldn’t rely on classmates she saw in person or a teacher she saw every day to keep her focused on her task. She also had to master the online platform that housed all the course material and assignments.
Every GOA teacher is a little different, but Banion releases weekly modules for their Gender Studies course and students usually have the full seven days to complete that week’s assignments. They can fit schoolwork into their days wherever it works best for them in their respective time zones, but they must regularly coordinate with their peers to find time to work in pairs or small groups on homework, often via video calls. Students also participate in GOA’s annual Catalyst Conference, which provides students with an online forum to present projects aimed at driving change locally, based on what they have learned in their GOA courses.
All of these online interactions provide fodder for another GOA lesson. Students discover that it is possible to form close relationships with people on the other side of the world. Sometimes they are surprised by the strength of their virtual connections.
Fay finds this lesson particularly remarkable as the United States shrinks its foreign relations.
“It’s important to understand the importance of creating these global bonds,” Fay said. “Not just for the purpose of expanding your own view of things, but also simply to develop relationships across the seas.”
This story about the online global academy was produced by The Hechinger Report, an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Register for Hechinger’s newsletter.