• Action Research Project • Proposal • Research (Working Draft) • Plan of Action • Cycle 1 Report • Cycle 2 Report • Action Research Project Report •
Letting Go: Online Collaboration and Communication
in the Classroom
The primary goals of this project were to enhance collaborative learning,
reduce the perceived role of the teacher as the focal point, and engender a
greater sense of community among my middle school students around their
learning. Secondary goals were to jointly track and manage student projects
online, and to set up an online system that allowed students to record
reflections and comments privately but allowed me to look at all of the
students' work and respond if necessary.
I used four different complementary online tools: CoWeb, Tapped In,
discussion groups, and a student reflection website. CoWeb is a collaborative
website that anybody with access can change or create any page, making it
suitable for joint projects. Tapped In (TI) is a multi-user virtual
environment used for unthreaded synchronous communications. The online
discussion groups, using both Web Crossing and FrontPage discussions, are used
for asynchronous threaded discussion. The student reflection website, referred
to in the paper as Tri-Class Reflections, is a modification of a web-based
database access application. Students record or modify their reflections in a
web browser while the teacher can read all of the students' writings and
respond to them.
Students used the first three tools for collaboration as they could see,
and respond to, the work of all other students. The Tri-Class Reflections
differed from these as students could only see their writing or the teacher’s
comments on their writing in the Tri-Class Reflection database.
The CoWeb was most useful for collaboration and communication, followed by
Tapped In, with the discussion groups trailing a distant third. Reading the
students’ work in these, as well as the insights I got from regularly reading
student reflections about their work, helped me understand how they felt about
their courses or what might be causing difficulty. This allowed me to make
changes to the class or to help a student solve a project problem that wasn’t
evident during class time.
The results show students worked together collaboratively using these
tools, both inside and outside of the classroom. The changes in the CoWeb
showed students taking responsibility for their learning without teacher
oversight. They felt the tools were helpful and they collaborated online with
other students they would not necessarily choose to work with in class. They
also provided suggestions on how to improve all of these approaches, which
indicated the discussion groups most likely trailed due to lack of attention
on my part. Tracking student projects and communicating with students online
helped me keep up with their progress.
One unexpected issue arose. Along with the students being able to
collaborate and communicate with each other online on class topics set up by
the teacher came their desire to build and create on numerous topics. They
played as they built pages, sites, and objects that had nothing to do with the
courses. Their actions challenged my preconceptions about what it meant to
teach in such an environment. I finally realized these activities were not a
distraction but were a way for students to build their own community. I had
During this research, I taught math and technology course to middle school
students in a private international school in Japan. The school follows an American
curriculum and requires English proficiency for ESOL (English as a Second or Other
Language) students. The school’s main clientele are expatriates in Japan who wish
to have an American-style education for their children. Families are mostly corporate
transferees, diplomatic personnel of various countries, or military personnel
who are stationed at the U.S. Embassy. Most students have their tuition paid by
a parent’s place of employment, although there is a significant community of self-payers
at the school.
During the second semester, I taught five different courses:
Math 6 is based on the Connected Mathematics Project, which is
a National Science Foundation funded development. I have the same sixth grade
students the entire year, and the class meets every other day for a double period
of 92 minutes.
Exploring Programming is a one semester exploratory course for seventh
and eighth graders that meets every other day for 44 minutes. I developed the
course to give students a basic introduction to programming and a chance to explore
programming. In the past, they worked with projects in Logo, Visual Basic®,
and Visual Basic for Applications®. The intent is for them to explore
programming to see what it offers rather than for me to give them canned tasks.
During the semester of the research, I changed the course to have them focus more
on projects that they select after they have had an introduction to the basics
as I did not feel I was meeting my idea of what it mean to explore programming.
As a result, this semester we spent most of the course in Logo with a short introduction
to Visual Basic. Many students elected to finish their work in Logo even after
the introduction to visual basic.
Multimedia Skills is a one semester exploratory course for seventh
and eighth graders that meets every other day for 44 minutes. Students now develop
their webs on a FrontPage enabled server in a multi-author environment. Translation:
they can use the advance features of FrontPage without needing to know how to
program, and they all work in the same area together when they begin. In previous
semesters I had primarily focused on technologies that went into web sites. This
semester, as with the Exploring Programming course, I changed the course to have
them focus more on project that they select after they have had an introduction
to the basics. For their projects, I let them choose whatever they wished as long
as it had something to do with creating something in a medium besides strict text.
I also listed software that they could use for their project, but they would have
to work with each other to learn how to use it. They had access to a wider ranger
of software than in previous semesters, including Macromedia Flash for animation,
Sonic Forge for sound editing, and Adobe Photoshop for images.
Invent & Engineer is a hands-on course I introduced for students to
build and invent. It too is a one semester exploratory course for seventh and
eighth graders that meets every other day for 44 minutes. Projects have included
disassembling VCRs and making something useful from the parts, building and racing
CO2 powered dragsters, creating structures and bridges, building and
flying water powered rockets, and building and flying two-and-a-half meter tall
hot air balloons.
Keyboarding Skills is intended for teaching keyboarding to all sixth
grade students and any seventh or eighth grade students who didn't have it at
their previous schools. Although it is possible to get a waiver from keyboarding,
few of the sixth graders do so. It also runs 44 minutes every other day for a
For the exploratory courses, almost all of the assignments must be done and
completed in class as students often have an hour or more of homework a night
in their required subjects. This meant that much of the research on out-of-class
work had to fall to my math class. Also, the tools used in each course were somewhat
different because of the nature of the courses. The tools were:
- Math 6: CoWeb, Tapped In, discussion groups;
- Exploring Programming: CoWeb, Tri-Class Reflections;
- Multimedia Skills: CoWeb, Tri-Class Reflections;
- Invent & Engineer: Tri-Class Reflections;
- Keyboarding: CoWeb.
In January of 2001, I pursued the option of using a CoWeb after attending
Mark Guzdial's (Guzdial 2002) presentation at the Computer Supported Collaborative
Learning 2002 conference in Boulder. The CoWeb is a collaborative web pioneered
by Mark Guzdial's CSL laboratory at Georgia Institute of Technology. The key feature
of the CoWeb is that any user may change any page through the web browser unless
it is locked. As such, it is "subversive" using Guzdial's term. The CoWeb is available
for most common operating systems and installation is simple.
However, the greatest difficulty with using the CoWeb software from a teacher's
point of view is that it must be installed on a computer that has a port outside
the firewall, i.e., other computers on the Internet can see it and connect to
it. This is not the case in most institutions and schools as those computers are
usually behind a firewall and invisible to the Internet. Instead, the teacher
must seek out one of the tech support staff and convince her to install it on
one of the school servers, set up another computer just for the CoWeb, or open
a port to the teacher's computer. The first option potentially compromises stability
of a school server. The second option requires more equipment, which is generally
in short supply, and the third option is a security concern. The result is that
the technology support staff is reluctant to work with the software until they
have had a chance to test it. Given the under-funding of most technology departments,
they typically cannot accommodate special requests in a reasonable (in the teacher's
For expediency, then, it makes sense to try to find another server or to set
one up from home. In my case, the Technology Coordinator had stated that a teacher
having an outside server was acceptable. I have a friend who runs his own development
server for fun and he had the CoWeb installed and running a couple of days after
I suggested it to him. Although he provided the equipment and did the initial
installation, I was responsible for the full operation of the CoWeb. One of my
criteria was that students' work-in-process would be done in a non-public area
which requires that each student had an individual username and password, although
the CoWeb software only records the name of the connection and not the name of
A critical component of learning is not only doing, but reflecting on the process
and outcome. In Multimedia Skills, Exploring Programming, and Invent & Engineer,
I felt the courses did not provide an opportunity for students to think about
their learning and the process; the emphasis was on product. Also, in the course
of a class or activity, I might not find out how a student felt about what is
happening or if they are making choices that make it more difficult for them.
I wanted to be able to read about how students felt about their work and their
learning and, if it was important, write a reply for them to see. From this came
the Tri-class Reflection, so named because I wanted students to complete it about
every three classes. My requirements for such a program were:
- use password protection;
- only allow each student to see his own input and my responses to his ref
- allow me to see a number of reflections by different students or different
classes at a time;
- allow me to respond to any student's reflection;
- allow the students to modify their own reflection yet not allow them to
modify the teacher's.
The Tri-Class Reflection is the only tool used that I had to create. I looked
into several different ways: FrontPage® discussion groups, modified
discussion group software, modified FrontPage database components, and even a
CoWeb. However, each of these had major drawbacks and it became obvious that such
a program would require a database.
After much searching, I created the Tri-Class Reflection from the publicly
available GenericDB Active Server Page (ASP) scripts. GenericDB allows somebody
with only minimal programming skill to create a web-based database application
that runs on the Microsoft Internet Information Server® (IIS).
As I have an account with a web presence provider (WPP), I was able to modify
the scripts meet my requirements. Rather than making each student a user on the
server, which takes a while, I elected to create a database of passwords and usernames,
then use the scripts to authenticate the student and only allow them to see the
pages that applied to them.
Tapped In (TI) is a multi-user virtual environment on the Internet, although
technically it is a MOO - multi user dungeon object oriented). TI is designed
for synchronous communications but in a richer environment than is available with
most common forms of instant messaging. Although the conversations are text based,
users may easily show their moods and their thoughts using simple commands. Users
may also build virtual objects, such as rooms, pets, clothing, etc., and attach
images to these.
One of the main advantages of TI is the transcript that is emailed to each
participant if they have the recorder function turned on. This was a requirement
for my students and all transcripts were sent to me, which I then automatically
forwarded to each student. For most users of Tapped In, the transcript is a valuable
resource for reviewing the concepts and ideas discussed.
Discussion groups permit asynchronous communications among students and numerous
programs and services have been developed to support discussion groups. Many free
services do exist, but most of them have advertising. For this research, three
different approaches were examined in depth:
FrontPage discussions are easily set up using FrontPage software for the web
and running the site on a FrontPage enabled server. The disadvantage of FrontPage
discussions is the threads are not collapsible, i.e., the table of contents listing
shows everything that has ever been posted. In this way, it is similar to newsgroups,
without the advantage of being able to mark messages as read so you didn’t have
to see them. (I did consider using news groups as public hosting is possible,
but news clients are not suitable when people check the news groups from different
The school purchased a trial subscription for ten accounts to Intranets.com
in December of 2001 as several teachers throughout the school had used the (previously
free) service the previous school year and wished to continue it for special projects.
However, in a school setting, Intranets.com has a major drawback–it requires that
the student have an email address as the notice is sent to the address. As our
school no longer provides email accounts, it means asking each student to provide
an email account and, if they don't have one, sign up. Intranets.com also required
that the users state they were thirteen or older, which applies to very few of
Web Crossing is run on a hosted server at a cost of $65 (US) a month. Unlike
most other services which charge on a per user basis, Web Crossing charges on
bandwidth. This makes it feasible for a teacher to use discussions for just a
short time if they wish. Web Crossing also provides email notification of new
posts for those who do have email addresses, although it’s not required for registering.
One Web Crossing drawback is that the user can change her user name, possibly
leading to confusion about who is who.
The school no longer provides email accounts for students as they are freely
available through various services on the Internet. However, this does have implication
for online collaboration as most students get their accounts through one of the
services in the U.S., which follow COPPA (Children's Online Privacy Protection
Act) and do not permit people who give a birth date that makes them younger than
thirteen years old to have accounts. Students usually just lie about their age
(Fincher, 2001), but teachers should not require students to lie to get an account.
Although I had not planned on using email, the issue came up with the first
discussion group service, Intranets.com. Not only are its users required to have
email as the invitation to join is sent in an email, users must also give a date
of birth that makes them thirteen or older when they visit the service for the
first time to register. I decline to use the service as I didn't want to tell
my eleven-year-old students to lie about their birthdates
However, with Web crossing and Tapped In, it is helpful, although not required,
to have an email address in the system. I did ask my students to send me an email
from an account they could use. Most students used a free service, although a
couple used their parent's email address.
After School Access
Anytime students are expected to go online outside of school hours, access
becomes an issue. However, the school has numerous public-use computers available
for students from before school until the late bus leaves. Also most students
have access from home, with broadband making inroads.
Access issues include students having to share the home computer and access
with siblings and parents, which also limit time. In the math class, one student
arrived in April so did not have a connection from home. Another student's browser
did not work with Tapped Iin, but her father was on an extended trip.
Fundamentally, I believe that learning is a social activity and learners have
to make their own sense of the world. If learning is to be a social activity,
learners must collaborate with each other and co-construct their meanings. Although
I try to do this in my classroom, I also wanted to diminish the perceived role
of the teacher as the focal pointStudents have a whole society around technology
about which we know very little. Students are developing a whole community through
school that is outside of “school.” Could some of that community be harnessed
I also wanted to jointly track and manage student projects interactively and
to improve one-on-one communication with students. I was concerned that my students
were not thinking enough about how their own learning and were not aware of how
much progress they really were making in their classes. When my students worked
on individual projects, I was concerned they were getting enough guidance from
me and it was difficult for me to keep up with who was doing which project. After
seeing a presentation by Scott Leduc of Generation www.Y at the Northeast Council
in Computer Education 2001 conference in Spokane, I came away with several ideas
on how to track projects interactively.
The first research was to try to understand the of communications community
of practice that middle school students had created (Fincher, 2001). From that
study, it was obvious students communicated and collaborated more with each other
than was immediately obvious, and that students learned how to use communications
technology from each other, even if their introduction frequently came from a
family member. They were comfortable using technology.
In October of 2001, I started researching ways to enhance communications with
my students and foster collaboration among them online. I chose the web-based
tools as all of my students had Internet connections at home and browsers are
One concern I did have with online tools was student overload. From experience
in the Pepperdine OMAET program, I know how much time a seeming simple assignment
can require and that synchronous communications can be a true time-waster if not
As noted earlier, I used four separate tools with a different combination in
each class. The choice for discussion is either to focus on each class, and discuss
how each tool was used, or focus on a tool, and discuss how they were used in
each class. I chose the latter.
The first class to be introduced to the CoWeb was the Exploring Programming
class. I had spent quite a bit of time understanding the technology in the CoWeb
and setting up the first website so that it could be useful to the students. Guzdial,
however, had described the CoWeb as subversive. The morning I stood in front of
the expectant faces of my class in the TRC, I had a list of instructions I was
going to give them and I regretted not locking the home page as I just knew they
were going to change it.
As I opened my mouth to speak, the word "subversive" kept coming back to me.
I believed that students should be a partner in their education, but if I were
to give them a list of things not to do, wouldn't I be taking away an opportunity
for them to be that partner. I realized I had to let go. I couldn't be the teacher
I believe I should be if I maintained that control.
I let go. I showed the students how to create their name in the "Who Is" page,
and told them that if they accidentally messed something up, not to worry--nothing
is every really gone in a CoWeb.
Students are amazing. Within a few minutes, they had edited their pages and
were showing them to other students. Some had created additional pages. And they
started changing each other's pages, which means students quickly found how to
lock their own personal pages with a password.
When I introduced the CoWeb to my Multimedia Skills Students later in the day,
Mary, who likes the word "quackers," immediately changed the home page to read
"Quackers Quackers", and then changed it back. We discovered the change as I was
demonstrating that nothing ever disappears in a CoWeb. I thought it was funny—I
had let go.
The students created their sites and rapidly began creating many pages. In
addition to creating pages about math, students also played in the site. Amy created
several pages, one of which included “The Page of No Apparent Reason” and “The
Page of Bizarre Information That Some Would Consider Useless, Though I Do Not.”
The titles aptly describe the pages. Billy, replying to one of her posts, merely
Early on, there was some confusion about the CoWeb. Although the limitations
were clear to me, some students attempted to use it as a chat room, an ultimately
frustrating exercise with most messages consisting of, “Is anybody on?” As instant
messaging and chat rooms are really the only place where students had communicated
with other students on the web synchronously, they may have been confused by the
ease with which pages were updated and by the fact that our early experiences
in the CoWeb were together in the computer lab, with the result that it seemed
to be synchronous as people were quickly changing pages.
Students quickly figured out how to get the effect that they wanted and they
shared with each other. In one case, a student asked how to get colored text,
and several jumped to help her. In another, a student put in scrolling text and
a small music clip. Soon, another student had figured out his code and put in
scrolling text and tried to attach a music clip.
Students did not always behave appropriately in the web. One student, Rick,
wrote “boring”, repeated numerous times, on a page two girls had put together.
After using several clue to figure out who did it, as the software doesn’t record
the user’s name, I had a talk with Rick about appropriate behavior and suspended
his privileges from the CoWeb for a week as he had violate school acceptable use
Structure was still necessary. In addition to their fun pages, I also had them
write some of their homework, either individually or as a group. Soon they were
complaining about not being able to find anything and about people writing inappropriately
in pages where they wanted others to share. This lead to a discussion about how
the CoWeb should be used and how we should organize it. To help them think about
what it meant to share a space, I used the metaphor of a boarding house. After
explaining how a boarding house worked, I asked them to think about how that might
apply to the CoWeb. They decided you could do whatever you wanted in your own
“room” but you had to help everybody else keep the rest of the house clean, and
that it was important to figure out where you could find things when you went
in the “front door.” Students then came up with several ideas for how to organize
the CoWeb, agreed on one basic procedure, and between the class meetings, students
reorganized the CoWeb to make things easier to find. Rick, the same student who
had lost his privileges earlier, took it upon himself to create a page that had
a link to every single page in the CoWeb, a difficult task as there were well
over a hundred pages at that time.
I also found another convenience for them doing the work in the CoWeb. Before
class started, I could see who had done what and see if they had any misconceptions
that we needed to talk about as a class.
In Multimedia Skills, although everybody could access the CoWeb, the primary
use was for project proposals. Most students were working on individual or pair
projects, and the CoWeb, as in exploring programming, was a convenient place to
keep track of the projects. Part of the reason the CoWeb wasn’t use more is that
we were also creating webs in the same spot on the server, so all work was visible.
As the CoWeb permits HTML code to be used in the pages, several students did practice
some coding in it.
Using the CoWeb in Keyboarding Skills was a spur-of-the-moment decision. Part
of the work in the class is to have students compose on a topic of their choice
while using the keyboarding techniques taught in the class. Some students have
difficulty with this and I was searching for a more engaging method for the composition
portion of the class. I had just read the papers by on using the CoWeb in English
Composition (Rick 2002) just before the time to start composing in class. I set
up a CoWeb and started a couple of short stories. I told students that they could,
if they wished, compose by writing stories together or writing stories for each
This became a very popular activity in one class with students wanting to go
into the CoWeb as soon as possible. The total number of pages in the CoWeb was
ninety-five in a six weeks from eight students. (The other students in the class
were also in my math class and used Tapped In for their practice.)
With my Exploring Programming classes, I set up an initial page that contained
links to the main Exploring Programming Website, the Who Is page, and a page for
them to post Logo code.
I also showed them how to paste code in the window for others to use as I introduced
Logo to them. At first, it seemed I was putting up all of the code snippets, but
I encouraged other students to link their code when they had something interesting.
Soon, most students were putting up their code and students were modifying code
that had been posted by other classes and posting their changes.
The CoWeb influenced my practice. I maintain a website for student information,
and had planned on putting debugging information in my class site but had not
yet done it. A couple of class periods after the CoWeb was started, a student
asked what an error meant as none of the others around her knew what it meant.
I helped her debug her program, then it hit me—put the results in the CoWeb! I
created the page in the CoWeb and asked students, as they solved a common error
message, to write their solutions in the CoWeb for everybody. Questions about
error messages dropped, with most new questions being about problems that weren’t
posted or requests to help figure out why a line of code didn’t work. (Expert
programmers still have problems with this!)
As with the Multimedia Skills course, the CoWeb was a convenient place for
them to write their project proposals as everybody could read them and I could
respond or ask for clarification as necessary.
The Village Project
After reading The Children's Machine (Papert, 1993), I assigned the
project to create a village to each of my Exploring Programming classes. In the
first class after brainstorming what might be in a village, the students started
to work on something that they thought might be in a village. The next class,
I began to create CoWeb page for each class for their code until the thought came—why?
Instead, I projected a page called "Village Code" and asked the students in
the first class to tell me what they were working on. "A house." "A lawn." "A
car." "A bank." (Entrepreneurs start young). Then I asked them to come up with
the categories. I put in the first three, houses and transportation, so they could
see what I meant by categories. Then I asked them to please put their code on
the page of their category, but they would have to create the category if they
didn't see it. Starting from just transportation and building, the students extended
the categories to houses, transportation, grass, people, decoration, park, buildings,
water, electricity, and mouse programs. One of the most noticeable events happened
when a student posted his airplane code in the transportation category. The period
after that, in both classes, I saw the airplane flying across numerous screens.
Synchronous communication is valuable in distance education when well run,
although my own personal experience shows that it can be a waste of time as well.
One necessity for any synchronous communication was to have a transcript of the
conversation for me to re-read, but also for the students to be able to read.
I had looked at using the commonly available instant messaging clients but
they don't easily provide transcripts to all participants and they require software
to be installed on the computer. Although most of the students use instant messaging,
they do so in a very informal manner (Fincher, 2001).
An aspect of mathematics that I work on with the students is mathematical discourse.
Nowhere in the curriculum do we cover online synchronous communications and students
are developing their own habits in conversation with each other. With instant
messaging becoming more common for professional communications, I wanted to help
students develop their professional voice online. Tapped In was a late choice
for the research and we didn’t start it until the middle of April.
Introducing it too the students was, at first, confusing for them. However,
they found it exciting and different and kids quickly began helping each other
whenever they had a question.
In synchronous communications users have to be able to keyboard rapidly. Through
a quirk of scheduling, seven of my fifteen math students were also in my second
semester keyboarding class. However, most had a pretty good grasp of the keys
and most even used correct techniques. (Could they transfer what we had been doing
in keyboarding to an authentic situation—in most cases, yes. However, one new
student could not keyboard and could barely manage 10 words per minute when looking.
He used the "Nintendo Boy" technique (Machrone 2000) and participated very little.
In the videotape, all in view are focused on the action, but he keeps pushing
in and out on the rolling chair and seldom sent a message.
During TI sessions as class, the focus was on our professional presence and
using routine instant messaging abbreviations, e.g., "r u 2" (Are you, too?) or
slang ("wazzzup") was not acceptable. I asked students to use proper capitalization,
punctuation and spelling to the best of their abilities. Most did quite well.
For using Tapped In, not only did we do a discussion in class, which most of
the students found to be helpful from a mathematics viewpoint, I also assigned
students homework where I asked them to meet in Tapped In with others to discuss
a specific problem or to discuss their solution, edit the transcript to remove
extraneous commits and submit it. First, they were to send it to me, and then
I realized that not making the content public for the rest of the class deprived
them of an opportunity, so I then asked them to post the transcript in the CoWeb.
However, even though these transcripts were public, they did not generate comments
from the rest of the class.
For the assignments out of class, a few students never participated. Part of
the problem was access difficulty from home. Another part was lack of organization
as I had asked them to arrange times to meet with others.
However, students also played in Tapped In, usually outside of the time we
were in class. They learned how to use the various objects, mostly from just trying
them out and asking others. As I didn't want them popping into my virtual office
when I was having a meeting, I created a room named Student Plaza and had them
set that to home, then set the office so the students couldn't come in.
A few students also wanted to dig, the Tapped In term for building a virtual
room. For those students, I created a virtual room for each of them off the student
plaza and made them the owner, gave them a few instructions, and set them to it.
During Keyboarding Skills, the seven math students I had in that class used
Tapped In to practice their keyboarding and essentially played. They created various
pets and passed them around.
From mid-April until the mid-June, there were 385 student log-ins into Tapped
In. Some were short as students checked to see if anybody else was on. Some were
long as students just hung out or tried to create more objects. One student seemed
to spend a couple of hours every night on Tapped In and got two know some of the
Tapped In staff.
Most found Tapped In helpful as they mentioned that it helped them think. A
typical comment was, “I definitely think that Tapped In was helpful in learning.
Even if you were pretty sure about the answer you got you could still discuss
it with other people, without having to be at school, and get other points of
views. Sometimes I find it easier to discuss in Tapped In because you can write
whatever it is you want to say and then you can read other it real quickly and
make sure it makes sense. In the class room you can't do that since when you
say something you it's hard to take it back.”
Only the Math 6 class used discussion groups and Web Crossing. Although the
students participated, it didn’t meet one of the goals of not having the teacher
at the center. Part of problem was that I didn’t let go. I structured the software
so that only the teacher could start a discussion, then they could add to the
thread or respond to others in the discussion. In May, I set up an area where
anybody could start a discussion, but students by then were spending much of their
time in Tapped In. Also, most students had not entered their email addresses,
so they were not notified when people added or responded to discussions.
Unlike the other three tools, the Tri-Class Reflections were intended to allow
the student to reflect on his learning and allow the teacher to respond. In the
three courses that used the Tri-Class Reflections with varying degrees of success.
In both Multimedia Skills and Exploring Programming, students routinely completed
Tri-Class reflections as they would have time at the end of class and they were
already at a computer. The students in Invent & Engineer were not as apt to do
them as the projects in the course are hands-on construction courses, which students
view differently from other courses, and they had to do them outside of class.
As noted previously, homework in non-required classes tended not to get done.
The Tri-Class Reflections did allow me to see how the students were viewing
their class and their learning, to see what they may be struggling with, and to
have a record of their progress. A typical comment from Exploring Programming
was, “Its been amazing how much I have accomplished since last time. We have managed
to move the helicopter without leaving a trail. Besides that we also managed to
make the helicopter move without flipping around all the time. Now we are figuring
out how to make the helicopter land on a platform and making the computer say
U WIN after the helicopter lands.” Some did show more insight about how they viewed
learning, as one girl wrote, “I know that we are not really even close to being
done, in the 3 steps, we have done one. I know this would be termed as a failure,
but I think that I have learned what I set out to do. We wished to explore programming
enough so as we are comfortable with one or maybe two aspects.”
The students did use their reflections when they did their self-assessment
for each quarter as it helped them recall what they had done and helped me recall
as I assessed their work and effort for the quarter. Having the system online
was very helpful as 496 Tri-Class reflections were completed from late February
until the end of May.
One of the questions ourselves to ask when doing action research is whether
we had done some good and if there were confirmation from the people in whose
lives we had intervened (McNiff 1996). My math class is the one that I felt closest
to and I view their thoughts as being most reliable. I asked students several
times to give me their thoughts.
“I think that the TI class discussions
went very well in class. TI went well because it is sort of like you are not pressured
to talk, you can just follow along and say something when you are ready. CoWeb
also went very well. CoWeb went well because you could post up messages about
math and other fun stuff.”
“I think TI was useful in learning. When we were discussing
our algorithms, I found out, using TI, that mine wasn't correct. I also thought
deeper when we were talking about Samantha's tile problem. I also think that TI
is different from talking in class. I feel that I get distracted easier in class
than on TI. Maybe it's because I can play with things in class. It's possible
to do that on TI, but I find it more fun to actually touch and play with things.
I could also be because I can sort of talk easier with people when I'm not face
to face. I feel more comfortable at my house.”
“I think the CoWeb and Tapped In went very well. We
were able to talk to people who we don't usually talk to, and people who are usually
quite shy were able to tell their thoughts.”
“The CoWeb has been useful many times. It was interesting
[because] it was like our own web page. I didn't like that you couldn't chat but
I liked how you could organize your own information in your own space. It helped
doing reflections on the CoWeb [because] you could look at somebody [else's] reflections
and get ideas.”
“I think you should organize the CoWeb at the beginning
of the year, or when you start. It was harder doing that in the middle of the
year, when you already have lots of stuff on the web site. I also think you should
drop the webcrossing. I know it's different from TI and CoWeb, but I don't think
that it is as useful. It was neat looking at the other things, and choosing your
picture, but I think it's not as important as CoWeb and TI.”
With the Tri-Class Reflections, I really felt I had much better insight into
what students were doing and what their concerns were. However, I did not write
responses so communication was often one way, from the student to the teacher.
More responses on my part, and possibly more modeling of what it means to “reflect”
would have improved the results.
In the end, I realized the portions that were most successful were the ones
where I let go; where I acted as advisor and lead the conversations about how
to use the tools without telling them what they had to do.
Fincher, Derrel. “Communications Community of Practice among Middle School
Students: a case study.” Pepperdine University, (2001),
7 July 2002.
Guzdial, M., K. Carroll. "Exploring the Lack of Dialogue in Computer Supported
Collaborative Learning." Proceedings of CSCL 2002, Boulder. (2002)
Machrone, Bill. “Teach Your Children Well.” PC Magazine, February 23,
McNiff, Jean, Pamela Lomax, and Jack Whitehead. You and Your Action Research
Project. London: Routledge, 1996.
Papert, Seymour. The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of
the Computer. New York: Basic-Perseus, 1993.
Rick, J., M. Guzdial, K. Carroll, L., Hollaway-Attaway, B. Walker. "Collaborative
Learning at Low Cost: CoWeb Use in English Composition." Proceedings of CSCL 2002,
• Action Research Project • Proposal • Research (Working Draft) • Plan of Action • Cycle 1 Report • Cycle 2 Report • Action Research Project Report •