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Pushing Pen Pals

Pushing Pen Pals

The Internet is putting a new twist on one of the oldest forms of global exchange — pen pals. For students around the world, chatting with friends a hemisphere away is now as easy and instantaneous as if they were across the hall.

Online pen pal organizations have grown to encompass not only student-to-student exchange, but also classroom-to-classroom interaction. The nonprofit International Education and Resource Network, for example, connects a half million students worldwide each day through local branches in 95 countries. In the United States, IEARN’s $2 million budget is in part met through U.S. State Department grants. Government funding for online student exchange is not uncommon. In Argentina and Nigeria, funds from the state ministries of education help to support the local iearn. In Japan, the Association of Pen Friend Clubs houses its office within the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications.

A comparable for-profit pen pal site, ePals Classroom Exchange, has put a more capitalist spin on its services. The company enables 4 million students in classrooms in 191 countries to communicate online, a moving total that grows by an average of 700 students a day. Founded six years ago by two Internet executives, ePals features a free Web mail discussion-board with instant translation between eight languages; a chat room–like sidebar lists the locations of schools currently logged on to the system. Still in its first year, ePals is likely to generate revenues greater than $3 million in fiscal year 2002, with the help of additional commercial products.

In the United States, an initiative undertaken by the Bush administration in 2001, called the Friendship Through Education Consortium, is helping to increase online student exchange. Both epals and IEARN are part of the consortium. The consortium’s members, with seed money from the U.S. Department of Education, say they are committed, in particular, to expanding their existing programs to better link American students with those in Islamic countries.