The NETC Circuit is the newsletter of the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory's Northwest Educational Technology Consortium.

Building 21st Century Collaborative Learning Communities

By Jeff Cooper

When I taught freshman English at Richmond High School in California in 1996, the school ranked nationally in the 4th percentile and many of my students read at the third-grade level. English was their least favorite subject. Many of these students had dropped out mentally for many reasons—some were ESL, others gang-bangers, almost all lived in impoverished conditions—but those reasons did not ease my struggle to find ways to address standards and inspire students to learn.

In my classroom, at that time, was one 386 computer with no friendly user interface or even a hard drive. What the computer had, though, was a Unix-shell connection to the Internet, which had just become accessible the previous year. I found a listserv entitled "Newsday" and subscribed to it.

Using Bay Area Writing Project guidelines, I worked with my students to develop their "Autobiographical Incident Story" paper, which was one of the standards we were required to address. I advised my students to work hard and not to worry about their grades. I assured them that I would do everything I could to help them. I also told them that I was typing all their papers into the computer and by means of an Internet site would send their work to other schools around the country and the world. They worked hard at telling their stories, and I started typing the 100+ papers into the 386.

Within a month school newspapers around the world were publishing my students' stories.

"Andre, guess what? You're published in North Carolina."
"That's great," he replied "Can I have a copy for my grandma?"
"Sure, no problem."
Other school newspapers started coming in.
"Nicole, you're published in Canada"; "Jesus, you're published in Finland."
"That's great! Where's Finland?" he asked.

By this point, my students were engaged and inspired enough that they wanted to do other online projects. We did poetry, limericks, and keypals with students in (of all places) Martha's Vineyard. My experience brought me to understand what I thought to be an essential learning process: facilitation—validation—motivation—collaboration.

By facilitating the writing process and being student-centered in my approach, the students were not threatened and were able to discover their individual voices. Being published in school papers around the world validated their efforts, because other students thought enough of their writing to publish them. From this experience came increased motivation for students who had previously tuned out of En-glish class. Collaboration with other schools followed. I became more and more involved with the Internet as a critical tool to enable collaboration and my students became more and more involved in their own learning.

My experience brought me to understand what I thought to be an essential learning process: facilitation—validation—motivation—collaboration.

My early adoption of the Internet as a collaboration tool placed me in a leadership role at Richmond High and led to later positions as Computer Applications and Resources teacher in the Bay Area. Eventually, I became the education technology specialist for the College of Education at Pacific University, a position I held for three years. My resource page has many resources for preservice and K-20+ educators. All URLs appear in a table at the end of this article.

Freedom of Virtual Speech

Imagine a classroom in which no one is allowed to speak. Teachers usually set rules regulating who speaks and when, but I am suggesting that no form of real-time communication be allowed by anyone including the teacher.

"Absurd!" I hear you exclaim "This guy is nuts!" Well, maybe, but that is exactly the policy almost all school districts in the United States have toward the use of synchronous chat during school hours.

Almost all schools ban the use of chat rooms citing a variety of reasons, most notably the concern that the students may engage in inappropriate behaviors with strangers. Of course, it is a most serious drawback if teachers and administrators cannot protect children from predators because they cannot monitor online behavior.

Teachers also argue it is not a wise use of time to allow students to talk with each other in nonacademic pursuits and that nothing useful develops from chat that could not be accomplished through e-mail or message boards. Without doubt there are other legitimate security concerns about open ports and district policies against using outside software or servers.

The list goes on, but these represent the major objections. There are tools available today that address all these concerns and more, for example, Tapped In and districtwide Multi-User Virtual Environments (MUVEs).

Almost all schools ban the use of chat rooms citing a variety of reasons....

Tapped In is a Virtual Learning Community (VLC) with more than 8,000 members. It permits educators to collaborate with peers as well as hold secure real-time classes both with their students and, with permission, other students around the world. Registration is free and educators can easily set up a virtual office in less than five minutes.

The environment is extremely user-friendly and a Help Desk offers free, real-time support most of the time. Major features of Tapped In include synchronous logged chat, threaded discussion boards, whiteboards, and file sharing, as well as the ability to create and monitor student accounts. Support is critical for ensuring the success of online projects. Educators need to know that they have a place to ask questions, find answers, collaborate with peers, develop professionally, and soar with their careers. Tapped In is one such place.

There are tools available today that address all these concerns and more...

Diversity University is another example of a multi-user virtual environment. In this type of environment, students log in, create their own accounts, and eventually receive permission to build rooms, design objects, and become programmers. MUVEs currently exist in a variety of educational settings K-20 and offer more than an individual school or district could create on its own. Any high school-level computer class could join Diversity University to develop its own schoolwide MUVE

Currently there are a number of sites that support the creation of other styles of virtual environments, like Neopets, which may serve as steppingstones to greater creativity, ingenuity, and self-motivated learners.

Virtual Learning Communities

Imagine students conversing online in secure chat rooms, discussing their projects, and receiving e-mailed transcripts of their discussions. Imagine parents, teachers, and administrators receiving, if they choose, copies of the transcripts of all these conversations.

Communities like Tapped In and Diversity University permit students to collaborate as part of a polysynchronous virtual learning environment to expand their teaching and learning opportunities. This technology allows students to communicate with each other and with students around the world on projects previously only imagined. It also enables school administrators to maintain a safe and secure environment that minimizes outside attacks on their students and computer network.

dear jeff,
i had my cable teenage show on teevee today the topic was on THE IMPORTANCE OF RXTRA CURCULAR ACTIVITITES IN EDUCATION, i will like to your students to be sending me contributions weekly on the cable show, next week topic is the place of science and technology on academic advancement of teenagers, will your students sent their ideas and names i will like to give them and the school credit, i have taken some pictures of my students farm work, i will like you to see them so i will down load to you once it is developed, so that you can see our environmental work practically, my students are on mid term, so they will be in school next week, i will like them to share many things, our student internet will soon be fixed, so we may not use public library again, it will really help us, also we will be having our annual aards soonst, will your student like to come atleast witness a new culture, moreso i will like to visit you and my students for a cultural exchange programme. pls reply and state your feelings nks martins akpan

 

To engage in online discussions, students will require either typing skills or access to advanced computer labs equipped with headsets, microphones, and voice recognition software that types out the text for them. (Microsoft Office XP offers this feature.) When higher-end equipment is not readily available, teachers can arrange partnerships with other schools and community service organizations so that older students or community volunteers work with younger students. Since text-based chats do not have bandwidth issues like audio/video chats, low-end equipment as antiquated as a 386 PC with an Internet connection serves quite well.

With MUVEs, the most serious hurdle to overcome is synchronizing with other schools in different time zones. This can be particularly challenging when trying to work with others halfway around the world, but it is not impossible.

For example, I received the e-mail presented in the sidebar through a connection I made at epals, from a Nigerian educator with whom I'm developing an ongoing professional partnership.

This e-mail message indicates how easily professional collaborations can develop over time. Martins and his students are doing some wonderful projects with environmental reclamation in his area. He has sent me a screenplay for an educational film we may produce together (further collaborations with other schools is possible), as well as a number of photos from the environmental reclamation project.

I have contacted an educator at another school who is actively involved with Roots & Shoots who may continue work with Martins on the environmental project. The screenplay is based on a true story about a girl in Nigeria who was almost kidnapped and how she avoided capture. Consider students producing such a work in this country that may end up saving a life.

A film project like this may be difficult to pigeonhole into an existing standard but it should open the door to the creation of others. Collaborations grow and ignite the imaginations of teachers and students alike. The important thing is to find a project that gets teachers and students actively engaged with the learning. When students take responsibility for their own learning, they begin to create pathways that maximize their love of learning through self-involvement and sharing with others.

Transcendent Teaching Through Technology

If you're not quite sure about the reasons to engage with technology in education, you might want to read NETC's Technology in Early Childhood Education: Finding the Balance or Jason Ohler's Then What? There are a number of free journals (Syllabus, T.H.E. Journal) that focus on the ways teachers can effectively integrate technology into the curriculum.

The pertinent questions to consider if you want to get started with online collaborations are: "How will you use the Internet to collaborate with peers and get your students involved with their education?" and "What will work best to get you, your students, and your peers past everyday pressures that constrain you from teaching the way you really would like to?"

There are a variety of ways to collaborate. I suggest you take a look at my 15 sites that relate to collaboration. I recommend them hoping they help you clarify the pertinent issues and serve as a springboard for further exploration and discussion.

What I am suggesting here is not that you use these specific tools or latch onto particular ideas or frameworks, but rather that you shift your thinking beyond the constraints of current methodologies, pedagogies, and political mandates. We can raise morale in schools by raising awareness and embracing the possibilities that technology brings us.

I suggest that you pick and choose what works for you, collaborate with your colleagues, and learn something new each day. I strongly recommend that you register at Tapped In. This will give you an instant virtual presence in an environment where you can collaborate with thousands of fellow educators.

How you use the sites discussed below and get started with online projects depends upon a number of factors: time, support, platforms, and virtual presence.

...get(ting) started with online projects depends upon a number of factors: time, support, platforms, and virtual presence.

Time Factor

No educator has enough time and sometimes integrating technology with curriculum, or transcending curriculum through technology, requires more time than most educators will admit to having. I consider this a temporary condition, since seamlessly integrated technology may actually reduce the time requirements of various endeavors. By routinely incorporating technology tools, you will optimize your time, both in and out of the classroom.

Consider visiting these sites for help with lesson planning.

New York Times Learning Network: NYTLN offers, free, the most highly articulated grade 6-12 lessons on the Internet. Aligned to standards, with thorough activities, references, and much more, educators may reduce the time they spend building their lessons. Teachers may consider permitting older students to research their own lessons and deliver them individually or in groups. This style of collaboration makes life easier and more productive, but it requires shifts in routines and thinking about how to prepare for class.

HPRTEC: The High Plains Regional Technology in Education Consortium has a number of very useful and free tools for educators.

Trackstar allows educators (or students) to create up to 15 annotated links (per track). This is very useful in the elementary grades, as the Trackstar framework allows students to surf the Web, and then immediately come back to "square one" for other sites. Trackstar is also keyword and subject searchable, so educators and students may find already created tracks on particular subjects.

Public Bookmarks Bookmarks should be shared among peers. Mybookmarks has an additional program called "Remark" that allows one to easily upload and download bookmarks from your computer to a public site. By creating an account and sharing the login information with your peers, you may collaborate and support peers through the sharing of links. Another excellent site for sharing bookmarks is Backflip.

Epals is a Web-based e-mail program, vastly superior to Hotmail and other Web-based e-mails in a variety of ways:

TakingitGlobal is a student-run global collaborative where students discuss issues and work on projects together. I was particularly impressed by an Indian student who put together a Web site for African students who had wonderful art but no electricity. A friend of the Indian student took digital photos while in Africa. Then the student put together a site that gave the African students a Web presence without even having a connection to the Net.

Global Schoolhouse is an excellent site for online collaborative projects including Newsday, Cyberfair, and an excellent Projects Registry. I strongly recommend joining one of the excellent projects here (or at IECC or Hilites) rather than trying to start your own from scratch. In this way, you can begin participating right away.

Myschoolonline and Think.com are two excellent sites for creating Web pages for yourself and your students. Both have easy-to-use templates and content galleries that allow for quick and easy Web page building. Furthermore, you may grant students access and allow them to build pages within their site. This is tremendously useful for building online portfolios and collaborating with other educators. There is a $30/year subscription fee to Myschoolonline. Think.com is free and offers a full range of other services that you might find useful.

Support Factor

Without sustained support, educators do not easily shift routines. One-day staff development workshops may bring forward wonderful ideas, but these ideas will not find their way into the day-to-day classroom unless there is sustained support.

Face-to-Face Workshops, in the standard style of a one-day training program offered during staff development days, generally do not provide support for the implementation of the new ideas introduced. All too often, once the excitement of the workshop wears off, educators quickly return to their original routine and the opportunity for change is lost.

Phone Support is the standard model where help desk personnel answer calls for help. Although this may solve a problem or two, it does little to engender long-term change. It is analogous to the teacher-centered, didactic model of education, whereby knowledge is centralized and dispersed as needed. This model, in which very few support the needs of many, is by nature inefficient and does not empower the user to change.

If one-day, face-to-face workshops and phone support do not provide the most effective long-term support to empower change, what types of support do? Online Support has become available through a variety of means: e-mail, chat, remote computer control, FAQ pages, threaded message boards, tutorials, or a combination of approaches. Tapped In offers a number of tools that support both real-time and asynchronous communication.

Virtual Communities of Practice (VCoP) offer educators the opportunity to collaborate online with peers and mentors in forging supportive relationships. Communities may be built upon grade levels or subject areas (consider Teachers.net and then click the Mailrings link to join appropriate lists). You may also want to consider creating your own local VCoP with your fellow educators, using a tool such as Yahoogroups to facilitate group e-mailing, file sharing, calendaring (with reminders), photo sharing, etc. When you create your own local VCoP with a tool like Yahoogroups, you can restrict access to group members only and extend that access by invitation only. Meetup.com is a good place for connecting with others with similar interests. You will be required to register (at no cost) if you choose to be part of a virtual community of practice.

FAQ Pages provide a "Frequently Asked Questions" section for your school (or district) either in the form of a Weblog or threaded discussion. A central repository for questions and answers that would permit input from a wide variety of resources (faculty, staff, parents, and students) would help develop community spirit. Knowing about a number of online resources currently available and free would be useful. The following are a few examples of useful online resources:

I am not suggesting that you should use just one of these support systems, but rather a composite that allows you to maximize utility among your cohorts. You will pick and choose among the many types of online support systems so that you can grow according to your needs.

Platform Factor

Tapped In is a global educational collaborative platform that allows users free virtual office space. This platform enables users to create threaded discussions, project Web sites on to student computers, create up to 50 secure student accounts, file share, and whiteboard. It offers regular meetings for many subjects and grade levels. And, there is real-time support for:

Weblogs (Blogs) are platforms that can be used to create instant Web sites in collaborative spaces. Moveable Type is an open source blogger that allows users to "trackback" to other blogs, as a way of connecting comments from one Web page to another. An excellent example of the use of this technology can be seen on the Web site of Lewis Elementary School in Portland, OR. Tim Lauer, the principal at Lewis, uses Moveable Type to excellent effect. There are a number of blogger sites that can be accessed online for free, but many display banner or pop-up ads. Ujournal is free and ad free, but its interface is plain and not customizable.

Wikis are simple online databases that can also be used like blogs (but blogs cannot be used like Wikis). Wikis generally allow free editing of the Web site, including deletion of previous entries by anyone with access. For this reason, consider the possible ramifications of having students collaborating via Wikis.

Nicenet offers a free classroom management platform that may be compared to WebCT or Blackboard Lite.

Skype gives free Internet-based phone access for distance conferencing, both nationally and internationally.

To facilitate the collaboration process, there are software applications like Camtasia, Snagit, and Dubit that allow users to create onscreen tutorials. There is a wide variety of remote control software like Netmeeting, which is the cheapest because it comes with Windows, and NetOp School, among others. Then there is educational software like Real Lives, which allows students to create a virtual life anywhere in the world and live it from birth to death (and relive it!), as well as other sites like Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for Math and Science or a host of other things. We need human support to facilitate these connections. We need to draw upon our own strengths and continuously develop professionally with the help of peers, those who are right next door or on the other side of the world.

Virtual Presence Factor

The key for both teachers and students is to start to map out the virtual presence you want to have. It could be e-mail, Web pages, collaborative projects, Tapped In, bookmarking, whatever seems interesting and appropriate. I recommend working out some sort of jigsaw in terms of responsibilities and work in groups of four. That way, different roles and tasks can be negotiated in teams. Collaborating between teams and cohorts becomes easier as each of the teams develops its own virtual presence. Team teaching and real-time support through Tapped In could be used on a daily basis, allowing teachers to collaborate and students to work together.

Imagine teachers teaching collaboratively, giving and receiving help throughout the school day. Imagine your students participating in global project-based learning curricula. A multi-user virtual learning community like Tapped In provides the framework. Register today and begin to define your virtual presence.

Conclusion

Technology and support rank high on the list of staff development needs. Unfortunately, technology and support are often among the first items slashed in ever-shrinking budgets. And, although access to technology is on the rise in some K-12 classrooms, when a teacher asks, "I'm wired, now what?" the question remains largely unanswered.

I suggest we turn to some of the many excellent technology tools available online to increase our students' involvement and motivation and improve our professional relationships with each other. If my ideas spark controversy, use them as springboards to consider how establishing a virtual presence would make your teaching more effective and less stressful and help your students become more engaged with their own education.

Sometimes the obstacles to collaboration seem daunting, but as educators we need to collaborate to evolve best practices. By developing great collective partnerships through collaboration and support and seeing the possibilities for curriculum transformation through technology, we can truly become 21st century educators.

Jeff Cooper has been supporting educators and students on computer-related issues since 1995. Besides his experience as a high school language arts teacher, he has taught computer applications and desktop publishing and supported more than 70 teachers and 972 students in two middle school computer labs. He served as Education Technology Specialist at the College of Education of Pacific University in Forrest Grove, OR. Jeff considers his patience and sense of humor as important as his technical knowledge when facilitating collab-oration, support, and technology integration. Contact Jeff at coops@pacificu.edu to learn more about building collaborative learning communities.

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