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African Stories in Online Curriculum Give Meaning to 'Globalization'

16 short tales, and warring commentaries on them, form the core of GlobaLink-Africa, a free, year-long, multimedia curriculum designed for grades 9-12. The polished, feature-rich web site is not only for high schoolers. Others can raid it for music, country data, or a crash course on Africa and the contemporary world.

African Stories in Online Curriculum Give Meaning to

Script writers created 16 fictional characters for the GlobaLink-Africa Online Curriculum.

By Kevin Matthews, Senior Writer

Students would send e-mails to the GRCA asking for 'information on globalization and Africa.' Where to start?

In Kenya, Irene Chege makes a good living exporting cut flowers—a winter trade in Europe and one that has been easier to compete in under EC common market rules. To maximize state revenues in another global commodity market, the Ghanaian Cocoa Board sets farmers' prices so low that many competitors of 70-year-old Kofi Amoakohene smuggle their harvests across the border to the Ivory Coast; with agriculture in decline, young Ghanaians leave the region behind, and extended families adopt new living arrangements. Maria de Sousa Sitoe, Mozambique's travel minister, turns underdevelopment in her nation to advantage by attracting so-called eco-tourists to lands described as "untouched," even as she pushes for infrastructure projects to support the tourism.

These and other complex, fact-based fictional stories—about "blood diamonds" from Sierra Leone and the expense of antiretroviral drugs for Ethiopian HIV/AIDS patients, about the long arms of capitalism, international organizations, global markets and migrations, the Internet, and Africa's colonial past—are told at length in the GlobaLink-Africa Online Curriculum created at the UCLA Globalization Research Center–Africa (GRCA) with grant money from the U.S. Department of Education.

For high school teachers, GlobaLink-Africa is a free, year-long curriculum that aligns with California standards in history, social studies, and English language arts. It's been focus-grouped and fact-checked and looks finished like boxed software. For anyone with Web access and a will to learn, it's also a collection of 16 multimedia short stories about how Africa and the wider world transform each other. Photos, music, country data, activities, and the arguments of two guide characters provide contexts for the narratives.

It wasn't built in one day. By the time of GlobaLink-Africa's official launch in May 2006, more than two dozen people had made substantial contributions to the curriculum and supporting materials over roughly four years. In addition to these programmers, graphic designers, script writers, editors, and consultants on pedagogy and Africa, there were undergraduates charged only with seeking permissions for music and photography. GRCA Director Edmond Keller, a UCLA political scientist, says that his center set out in 2002 to create a quality multimedia product "on the cheap" and finally succeeded.

Now the challenge is to convince schools and perhaps donors to join the effort. GRCA staffers report strong interest from teachers, some of whom lament in the same breath that their students don't each have access to a computer. That's where a donor could help out, Keller says. Another task is showing educators that GlobaLink-Africa facilitates, rather than detracts from, compliance with state and federal mandates. "Some of them can't wrap their minds around how they can make this fit the standards."

After Seattle

Keller began championing GlobaLink-Africa in 2001, the year that the GRCA was founded as one of four members, each with a regional focus, of a Globalization Research Network newly authorized by Congress. The network grew out of the federally funded Globalization Research Center at the University of Hawaii–Manoa, which was already working on an online high school curriculum organized around first-person case studies. GlobaLink-Africa is in many ways Version 2.0 of this initial effort, completed in 2002. Editors at the GRCA also embraced approaches from Rethinking Globalization (2003), a printed curriculum that has been used in grades 5-12.

All of these products were designed to fill a gap that had become apparent by the time of protests at the 1999 Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization. The gap would announce itself, for example, when high school students sent e-mails to the GRCA asking for "information on globalization and Africa." Where to start? Although popular books and college-level teaching materials on changing global relationships were available, high school teachers had little to use in the classroom, explains Epifania Amoo-Adare, project coordinator of GlobaLink-Africa.

Bobbleheads for Justice, Free Trade

Hired in 2002, Amoo-Adare saw the curriculum essentially from start to finish in four years while working towards a UCLA doctorate in education. The hours of the part-time job were hard to contain, she says. She worked closely first with Judith Stevenson, a GRCA content specialist and UCLA doctoral student in anthropology who contributed case studies on South Africa and Egypt, and then, beginning in Fall 2004, with Nickie Johnson, a fellow doctoral student in education whose academic work now focuses on the United States. Amoo-Adare wrote the Ghana case study about cocoa farming and—with Johnson, Stevenson, and Keller—had a hand in the editing of all 16 narratives.

One of the main innovations by GRCA staffers came in the form of animated guide characters who argue about the significance of the 16 narratives in GlobaLink-Africa. Graphic designers used still photographs of Johnson and Chielozona Eze, a 2004–05 Global Fellow at the UCLA International Institute, to create anti-globalization activist Naomi Stiner and globalization optimist Jalalu Bello. They bounce, smile, and cock their oversized heads. Others lent the characters their voices.

For the case studies, it was Keller who in 2001 began the process of drawing up a cast of characters who could not only talk about their own countries and occupations but stand in for African peoples and places not directly represented in the curriculum. He based what would become GlobaLink-Africa's first case study, narrated by Irene Chege, on detailed conversations with a Kenyan chemical engineer about his wife's entry into the cut-flower business. The 16-character list evolved, according to Amoo-Adare, becoming more diverse in its representation of regions, languages, and educational levels.

Amoo-Adare and Stevenson ("a gifted writer," Keller says) spent a good six months working out a rationale and key concepts for the curriculum. They found script-writers, many of them UCLA faculty and students, and developed a largely text-driven website.

Houman Mortazavi, the first graphic designer on the project, cautioned that "you're competing with MTV," according to Amoo-Adare. "You need to make it bite-sized," he said. "You need to make it interactive." Later, a group of three schoolteachers, UCLA alums, looked over the accumulated materials and deemed them too long and academic. They counseled more description with less exposition and suggested breaking whittled-down texts into segments.

Over and over late in the project's development, Amoo-Adare and Johnson asked themselves the same questions. Do pre-activities and assignments work with the theme of the case study? Is the language accessible to high school students? Are the facts right? Are we really making use of the Web? Are the multimedia elements relevant to the country and issues at hand? (The final version, by graphic designer Sheila Ramezani, uses about one-fifth of the photos gathered.)

Finally, are the debates between Naomi and Jalalu balanced? Privately, Amoo-Adare and Johnson both find themselves skeptical of many arguments advanced by globalization's boosters, Jalalu included. "We worked very hard for that not to show through," Amoo-Adare says. Johnson smiles and nods.