How PenPal Schools could change what we expect from education

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Credit: PenPal Schools

There was a time, back in the early 90’s, in the days of AOL, You’ve Got Mail, and dial-up modems, when something of a utopian future and/or shared delusion existed around the Internet. We’d envisioned it as the realization of the EPCOT dream — a connected world with no borders in which we’d be able to reach, interact with, and learn from one another without barriers. In reality, a look at nearly any comments section will quickly zap much of your remaining optimism about the benefits of this so-called open forum.

However, education startup PenPal Schools is looking to make good on those early promises by bringing back one key component that technology seems to have eclipsed: the human element.

The startup offers an online platform used by over 70,000 pen pals in over 90 countries that connects students and individual learners with pen pals in other states or countries. It’s free and built for use by any and everyone who wants to participate in an exchange, whether it’s through a class at school or on an individual level. The goal of the service is to provide students with coursework that will expand their education while also providing insight into the culture, lives, and learning process of students in another region.

“We see our program as oftentimes so eye-opening for students, and it’s their first glimpse into culture and understanding a way of life so different from our own,” says PenPal Schools founder Joe Troyen, adding that the startup recently rolled out a suite of new apps and features for the education platform that reinforces a mobile-first strategy that takes into account the limited Internet connectivity throughout the world’s many classrooms.

Pen pal exchanges have been a great way to connect people from across cultures for decades, and it’s on the foundation of exchanges like those that society built early universities and formal education. Troyen says the platform his startup has developed is no different from the collaborative exchanges of yore, except that technology has allowed for innovation focused on the education aspect. “[One] big innovation is curriculum. We connect students to not only write back and forth to each other as they did in the old days, but also to learn together through online, interactive courses,” he says.

Beyond textbooks and news articles

PenPal Schools offers several courses that focus on current events, culture and traditions, and the historical struggle against discrimination. In these courses, learners are paired up with a pen pal from another state or country who is taking the same course. Through correspondence that revolves around a guided curriculum, learners can exchange ideas and perspectives around certain topics and content.

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Troyen gives me the example of Brendan from New Jersey and Moneer from Kabul, Afghanistan. Through their guided exchanges, they discussed news items and current events where they live. One of the topics of conversation? Ongoing U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Because their personal experiences with the war in the Middle East are dramatically different, Brendan began to view the war in a new light. On the flip side, Moneer got some insight into the way the war is perceived by many in the United States and helped Brendan gain a new understanding of what, exactly, U.S. troops were doing in Afghanistan and why they were doing it.

The obvious question is this: how, exactly, does PenPal Schools improve upon the age-old, time-honored tradition of simply writing letters? Surely there are other places connecting pen pals digitally in the name of swapping knowledge. How’s this any different? While there are other sites matching up pen pals, the PenPal Schools difference lies in the way in which they’re leveraging technology and simplicity to create the best platform for both connecting and learning.

“PenPal Schools is the first to combine high quality curriculum and the best technology with multi-week 1-to-1 pen pal exchanges, which all adds up to a great experience for learners,” says Troyen. “We’re focused on providing a simple, fun experience with the kind of support students and teachers can’t find anywhere else.”

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Or, in this case, in the completion rate. While most online courses see a completion rates under 20 percent, the average rate for PenPal Schools is at 88 percent, the company tells me.

In taking courses through PenPal Schools, students receive weekly assignments replete with instructional texts, videos, and prompts designed to kick-start the conversation. From there, pen pals communicate via a chat-like interface. There’s no limit to the number of students who can take a course at a time, and students from all over the world can participate. For security reasons, classroom students are paired with other classroom students while individuals are paired up with other individuals. No personally identifying information is exchanged or revealed, and pen pals are always matched with someone close to his or her own age.

For now, all communication is written, but looking forward, Troyen says that PenPal Schools plans to offer video messaging and collaborative tools. That seems fairly logical, considering the penetration mobile chat apps (WhatsApp, Snapchat, Kik, Facebook Messenger, etc.) have had in the last couple years, especially as many of those apps attempt to integrate ways to follow and discuss the news directly from those digital conversations.

“We’ll continue to focus on asynchronous communication because it’s easier for teachers to coordinate, works across time zones, enables students to learn at their own pace, and meet the needs of learners who may not always have reliable internet access,” says Troyen.

Pulling a “TOMS Shoes” for education

Speaking of access, not every student or school has the funds available to participate in such a country-scaling education platform. Yet, if money is the main barrier to entry, PenPal Schools wouldn’t be nearly as potent as it would limit the diverse background of students.

Troyen also mentions that the plan going forward is to offer premium courses for a fee. While all of PenPal Schools’ original courses will remain on offer for free, these courses will offer premium features and content with the help of partners like textbook publishers. The fee structure will be designed around the concept of “buy one, give one”, meaning that when someone pays the fee for a premium course, a student who may not otherwise have access to the funds necessary to enroll will be able to participate.

And participation certainly seems to be enjoying some seriously mounting interest. Troyen tells me that just last week, nearly 200 new teachers from more than 20 different countries enrolled in PenPal Schools. The vast majority of PenPal Schools’ growth comes through word-of-mouth amongst teachers, making educators by far one of its most valuable assets.

The startup’s monetization strategy also involves partnerships with well-known education publishing companies, with PenPal Schools collaborating to create courses that compliment the learning process from teacher instruction, textbooks, and other interactive lessons. (For example, you’d gain access to a specific PenPal Schools course when purchasing a new set of textbooks for a class.) Beyond that, the startup also wants to move into new subjects to generate additional revenue.

Although the current crop of courses focus on history, culture, and current events, Troyen says PenPal Schools will soon offer new classes for persuasive writing and language-learning. And in the future, PenPal Schools courses could expand to non-traditional subjects, like music and cooking.

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