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Letting Go: Online Collaboration and Communication in the Classroom

Draft

Abstract

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 let go.

Background

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 semester.

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.

The Tools

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 view) time.

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 the user.

Tri-Class Reflections

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 lection;
  • 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

 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

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 locations.)

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 my students.

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.

Issues

Email

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.

The Study

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 for “school?”

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 ubiquitous.

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 structured properly.

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. 

CoWeb

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.

Math 6

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 wrote, “Strange.”

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 policies.

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.

Multimedia Skills

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.

Keyboarding Skills

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 other.

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.)

Exploring Programming

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.

Tapped In

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.”

Web Crossing

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.

Tri-Class Reflections

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.

Summary

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.

Sample comments:

“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.

References

Fincher, Derrel. “Communications Community of Practice among Middle School Students: a case study.” Pepperdine University, (2001), http://derrel.net, 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, 1999, 85

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, Boulder. (2002)

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