Net gains bridge cultural gap after chance meeting
Computer engineer sets up a cyber-student exchange between China and the US, Paul Mooney reports
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
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
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 www.oumu.org.cn/da
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
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
With a beachhead established, Opperman is now turning his attention to expanding the programme into rural areas.