[This article appeared in The Computing Teacher in 1990, Volume 17, Number 8, pages 25-28.]
A condensation of this article, How to Design a Successful Project, has been widely circulated on various newsgroups and lists ever since.
For some teachers, telecommunications expands the horizons of their classroom, opening the doors to real audiences and exciting interactive activities from locations around the country and the World. These teachers know its capacity to motivate students and involve them in productive learning experiences.
Many others, however, fail to realize this potential power. For every successful long-distance learning experience you hear about, you are bound to hear others testify, "I tried that, and it didn't work."
Articles and conference presentations are often guilty of hyperbole. The author or presenter has had successful telecomputing experiences and relates glowing reports of life-changing online communications with distant colleagues, and how these experiences improved their classes. It is easy to be beguiled with such evangelistic accounts. Yet many novices are often frustrated, discouraged, and disillusioned with the actual use of this "powerful, exciting" technology.
Much of this frustration is due to the learning curve imposed by the current state of technology in the classroom. There are still a myriad of technical obstacles to overcome in preparing to use computers, modems, and phone lines in the classroom.
A more damaging source of frustration, however, has to do with the ways teachers think about how telecomputing technology ought to work, and what they expect from it. Most computer using teachers expect instant results as they implement technology: plug the computer in, boot the word processor, and begin writing. Plug the printer in and begin printing. Plug the modem in and dial an information service. They expect to announce their presence on a network, request a "computer pal" and instantly have their students involved in meaningful exchanges. When, two weeks later, they have not received even one reply, they are understandably disappointed in the "promise" of this technology.
These teachers haven't yet realized that installing their modems, learning their terminal software, and getting connected online are simply the preliminary and easiest parts of their task. Having dealt with these technological components, they must now depend on other people to participate with them in an interactive project. And, unlike their fairly predictable experience with technology, this new social realm is vastly unpredictable and even sometimes temperamental.
On the FrEdMail Network, we have evolved a number of guidelines and principles that have led to many successful collaborative projects involving hundreds of classrooms and thousands of students. Like many aspects of successful teaching, we have found that planing is the key to success.
The first rule of successful online learning activities is to avoid starting with the stereotypical pen pal activity. Jim Levina pioneer researcher in electronic networking at the University of Illinois, has documented the reasons why pen pals are not effective for eliciting high-quality networking activity. While this format can result in some positive benefits for individual students, pen pal activities are often disappointing as a whole class activity.
How then does a teacher take advantage of the much-vaunted "promise" of telecomputing technology in the classroom? The guidelines presented below have been validated in numerous highly successful classroom-based projects on the FrEdMail Network. These guidelines, along with the sample "Call for Collaboration" in the sidebar to the right, will help guide you through a successful online learning experience with your students.
Networking activities can encompass a wide variety of project ideas, especially projects in which students can collect data and information for use by other participants on the network. As teachers gain skill and comfort with networking technology, and as networks become more accessible to both teachers and students, classroom telecomputing technologies will grow in importance as a tool for involving students in interactive projects that will motivate them to improve their skills and learn about the world around them.[Al Rogers, Executive Director, FrEdMail Foundation; Yvonne Andres, School Improvement Coordinator, and Mary Jacks, District Media Specialist, Oceanside Unified School District, Oceanside, CA 92054; Tom Clauset, Computer Coordinator, Winston-Salem/Forsyth Co. Schools, Winston-Salem, NC 27102.]
FrEdMail is a free educational messaging network joining 120 local bulletin boards. The coordinators of each board work together in a system-wide conference, and all participants are asked to contribute to the activities of the network. There are several network-wide open conferences: an IDEAS exchange for teachers, and KIDWIRE, a bulletin board to post student work, ORILLAS for multilingual project, and others.
Levin, J.A., Rogers, A., Waugh, M., and Smith, K.(1989). Observations on educational electronic networks: Appropriate activities for learning. The Computing Teacher, 16(8), 17-21.
[This appeared as a "sidebar" in the orginal article.]
With local access to a continent-spanning network of FrEdMail electronic bulletin boards, our fifth-grade teachers in the Winston-Salem/Forsythe County Schools were anxious to develop a social studies telecommunications project that would give their students practice in map and globe skills with a particular focus on U.S. geography. Through teacher-to-teacher connections made earlier in the year, we learned that fifth graders across the country studied U.S. geography, and that map and globe skills often began as low as third grade and continued on into the seventh and eighth grades. Could we develop an exciting project that would lure students to reference books and maps and get them to practice their geography skills in a real-life context?
The result of our collective brainstorming was the spring, 1989 FrEdMail telecommunications project, "The Geography Game." Here is the call for collaboration as it appeared on FrEdMail.
To: &IDEAS@OCNSIDE From: &IDEAS@SDSU Sent: Mar 1, 1989, 11:28 AM Rcvd: Mar 2, 1989, 10:26 AM Subj: US GEOGRAPHY GAME From: BLADEN!WSALEM!TCLAUSET GEOGRAPHY GAME TEACHER GUIDELINES The object of this game is to try to learn where the TEACHER PAL classrooms are located; and, learn a little United States geography at the same time. The first part of the activity requires that each classroom fill out the "Geography Game Questionnaire" in this file and Email it back to the project coordinator (TCLAUSET@WSALEM) by Friday, Feb. 10. The next week you will receive a file which will include the names of city/state locations of all the classrooms participating in the TEACHER PAL PROJECT. In addition this file will contain descriptions of these locations. Your students must help you to try to figure out which description goes with which city/state listing. The winning person or class is the one who correctly matches up ALL of the city/state locations with their correct descriptions. PROJECT TIMELINE 1. Guidelines mailed out: Monday, Jan. 30th 2. Your class' description of our city needs to be mailed in to TCLAUSET by: Friday, Feb. 10th 3. Geography game locations & descriptions will be put into Email by: Thurs, Feb. 16th 4. You have until this date to work on the game with your class. You must mail in your class' answers by: Tuesday, Feb 28th 5. Game results will be mailed out: Thursday, March 9th FILLING OUT THE DESCRIPTION FOR YOUR CITY You might want to start with a whole-class discussion of the game and go over the identifying characteristics of the 8 description items. Discuss latitudes, time zones, land forms, points of interest, tourist attractions, state capitals, and nearby rivers as needed. Divide your class into groups of two or three and give them each a question. Have them do a little research in the library or with the local maps to find the answer to their question. Come back together in a whole-class discussion and elicit the answers to each group's question. Have a student in the class act as a 'secretary' to compile the answers. Type up the 8 answers and Email them to TCLAUSET (...BLADEN!WSALEM!TCLAUSET) by Friday, Feb. 10th. The following is an example of 8 questions for a sample city: City: Lancaster, Pennsylvania 1. Latitude:40 degrees 2. Time Zone: Eastern 3. Winter: Cold & snowy! -High today: 40/Low: 20 4. Dress: Heavy coats, boots, gloves, hat 5. Closest River: Susquehanna River/gently rolling farmland 6. Tourist Attractions: Amish farms 7. Population: 386,600 8. Direction from capital: Southeast 9. Famous For: Home of former president James Buchanan; location of Franklin & Marshall College PLAYING THE GAME By Thursday, Feb. 16th a file containing the locations of each of the classrooms in the TEACHER PAL project as well as an equal number of location descriptions will be put into the mail at SALEM. You may want to gather a few materials for the class so that students can break up into small groups to begin the process of matching locations up with descriptions. (Large United States map showing time zones & latitudes, set of encyclopedias for individual state maps, AAA road maps, Rand McNally Road Atlas, Almanac, etc.) Run off enough copies of the city/state locations to give one to each child in your class. Print out the descriptions, divide your class up into 4 or 5 groups and give each group an equal number of the descriptions You might want to set aside two or three 20-30 min. "Research Periods" for the groups to try to match up their descriptions with the city/sate locations. When each group has done the best job they can on the match ups, type up a list, with each city/state listed with the number which matches its correct descriptions and Email it to TCLAUSET by Thursday, Feb. 23rd. WHO WINS THE GAME Within a week or two of the conclusion of the game, the results will be mailed out to all participants. The winning classroom(s) will be the one(s) which is/are able to match the most locations with their correct descriptions. GEOGRAPHY GAME QUESTIONNAIRE 1. What is the latitude of your city? 2. In which time zone are you located? 3. Describe the winter season in your area. Include temperatures, precipitation, and seasonal dress. 4. List any prominent land forms in your area and name the closest river. How far are you from this river? 5. Name the points of interest or tourist attractions in your area. 6. What is the population of your city? 7. In what directions is your city from the state capital? 8. For whom or for what is your city famous?
Students enjoyed matching the descriptions to cities, and were successfully lured to maps and resource books in their classrooms and libraries. The matching-up process typically took two weeks. At the end of the project timeline the correct answers were mailed out, allowing each class to check for itself to see how close they had come to the true location descriptions. All in all, the project was a great success!
Here are a few comments from teachers involved in the project: