What does it mean to be a man? In the United States, men who take particular care of their physical appearance are widely considered to be less masculine. Noa Fay thought that was a standard belief. But in a gender studies course taken through 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 the American perspective isn’t ubiquitous.

Fay had to check her assumptions several times, in large part because of what she heard from her peers around the world.

“The way I’m thinking about things is probably forever changed,” said Fay, who took the gender studies course through GOA last year as a senior at the private Noble and Greenough School in Massachusetts.

GOA is a collective of about 90 member schools around the world, offering accredited, online classes to middle and high schoolers. The courses, across a range of subjects, encourage students to develop global perspectives. And the program gives them a chance to do so through inquiry-based and project-based learning. Fay knows that her teacher, Kim Banion, designed her Gender Studies course and gave all the assignments, but she says the day-to-day class activities were student-run. The online conversations, either over video calls with classmates or through discussion boards, were among students. And it was their perspectives and insights that opened Fay’s eyes.

“It’s important to understand the significance of making those global bonds, not just for the purpose of extending your own view of things, but also just to develop relationships across seas.”

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That’s how Banion intended it. Her class offers a theoretical framework for students who generally enroll in the course because they already have a passion for topics like feminism and gender inclusivity. The unique value of GOA, though, is that Banion can capitalize on students’ diverse experiences. Simply asking them to share examples from their own local media and popular culture brings a wide array of discussion topics.

Fay, for one, particularly liked this. She said even in her regular classes, she finds the most value in working with and debating her peers.

“That’s just hearing perspectives literally within my own community,” Fay said. “It made so much more of a difference to hear from people all over the world.”

Forming global perspectives is at the heart of GOA, but it’s not the only benefit 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 work. 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 benefited from both perspectives when tackling complex medical problems.

“While they would focus on one aspect of the problem, I could bring in something else,” she said. She also reports incorporating some of their approach in her solo work, becoming more efficient and organized.

Because she had attended an international school, it wasn’t a stretch 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 first-year students. She found out through GOA that online courses require students to be more independent than she was accustomed to in her regular classes. She couldn’t rely on classmates she saw face-to-face or a teacher she saw every day to keep her on task. She also had to master the online platform that housed all the course materials and assignments.

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Each GOA teacher is a little different, but Banion posts weekly modules for her Gender Studies course and students generally have the full seven days to complete that week’s assignments. They can fit the schoolwork into their days wherever it’s most convenient for them in their respective time zones, but they routinely have to coordinate with their peers to find time to work in pairs or small groups on assignments, often via video calls. Students also participate in GOA’s annual Catalyst Conference, which gives students an online forum to present projects that aim to spark change locally, based on what they learned in their GOA courses.

All of these online interactions provide fodder for one more lesson from GOA. Students find out that it’s possible to forge close relationships with people half a world away. Sometimes they’re surprised by the strength of their virtual connections.

Fay finds that lesson particularly noteworthy as the United States curtails ties abroad.

“It’s important to understand the significance of making those global bonds,” Fay said. “Not just for the purpose of extending your own view of things, but also just to develop relationships across seas.”

This story about global online academy was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a staff writer. She launched her journalism career with two award-winning pieces co-produced during a three-month stint at the Kitsap Sun in Bremerton, WA. After graduating with...

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