Bridging Gaps Between Cultures, Classrooms and Schools : A Close Look at Online Collaborative Learning
Johanna E. Cena
Using the Worldwide Web in Collaborative classroom projects can serve to heighten students’ global understanding and enhance inquiry-based learning. Curriculum can now be developed around needs and interests of students, which facilitates critical thinking. Online projects allow classrooms to become more student based and less teacher directed. The ownership and literal connectivity students feel with online projects and communication make learning more effective. Students light up at the sight of an e-mail response from a student in a foreign country; responses from Doctors, professors and other experts in a student’s interest area fascinate and inform. Since students pursue questions they care about, learning is authentic, meaningful and lasting. The WWW and educational applications allow for global collaboration, school wide curriculum integration, and student teacher connectivity.
School wide Collaboration
As a Technology Coordinator in an American School in Spain, the Internet has become an integral part of our school curriculum, communication and teaching methods. It has become an intertwining tool that threads our school community together. Students across grade levels work collaboratively integrating all areas of curriculum in producing projects that successfully illustrates various facets of their community and environment. With community based projects students of all grade levels can contribute according to their integrated areas of study, individual needs, and questions. Collaboration of parents, students and teachers to gather cultural information and expertise, brings forth a sense of ownership and unity.
When our 8th grade computer class entered into the Global Schoolhouse Cyber Fair competition through http://www.globalschoolhouse.com/, we had a task that involved collaboration on several levels. We established a rubric to decide what was needed to develop a thorough web page that was representative of our community and our best work. As a class and in small groups, we decided what we needed to do in order to be successful and who was going to accomplish each specific task. From aesthetics to content, we decided what shape this project would take.
We discussed who in our school and local community could help us to further our knowledge of our own city and environment. We developed school polls and collected data. Local leaders, parents and community role models were contacted to collect information. This added a new perspective and forged a strong working relationship between students and our local community. Pieces of Barcelona’s history, dances, favorite foods, famous people, art, architecture, and politics were carefully crafted together into a web site. This allowed students to tell their story and display a view of their own city. Students of various grade levels were contributing to our cyber fair projects as a class and individually. Fourth grade students read and evaluated our site during their study of Barcelona. The 6th grade helped type and layout pages, the 7th grade brought pictures and stories to contribute to the site. Cyber fair participants also worked with students from Buenos Aires, Australia, Bulgaria, India, Israel and many more with peer editing and evaluations. Students could exchange ideas with their peers about their process, triumphs and struggles. Our project can be seen at: http://cyberfair.gsn.org/bfis/Index.html
Collaborative projects using the Internet also discourage the competition between technologically advanced students and students who do not have computers at home. Students are aware of who computer “experts” are and enter the classroom with a lower level of computer confidence. This is where the role of the teacher is crucial. It is necessary to establish small groups where each person has an expertise. Student’s titles may be “the Word Processor”, “The Information Analyst”, “The Designer”, “The Web Navigator” or any others that seem appropriate. If the initial groups are established with “experts” everyone plays a substantial role. Throughout the process, students learn from one another and teach their area of expertise. In the end, the experts begin to shift, as groups move on to other focused projects.
With various learning styles and technical levels, collaborative projects allow students to learn cooperatively. Within one class of 20 students we rotated through inquiry based projects: Hyperstudio multimedia projects, HTML web site design, inquiry Internet research, and Newspaper layout design. Students developed the assessment rubrics, discussed the topic and style of their project and evaluated themselves and their peers.
They then taught the skills acquired to the next group rotation, with a manual and hands on teaching ideas, which they developed. In the end, students were leading mini workshops to younger classes and teachers. This cross-aged mentoring and group teaching helped students become experts and the computer confidence soared in students who were previously fearful.
All students are involved in gathering information within their immediate and global environment, which broadens their world understanding and opens up physical and symbolic lines of communication.
Globally, online projects allow students to look into the lives of students their own age and of varying life situations. This broadens their world of understanding and opens up physical and symbolic lines of communication. With Online projects such as Cyberfair, Inquiry based research, Virtual Field Trips, and peer editing writing groups students are able to reach out to other cultures, perspectives and ideas. I witnessed a shift in interest and compassion as students evaluated other cyber fair sites. Newspapers and online resources became an important part of students lives because the wanted to see what was happening in the lives of their peers around the world. This allows learning to take place, questions to be answered and cultural barriers removed. It is no longer a matter of an outdated Encyclopedia, it is hands on, “real” and tangible in the context of student's lives. “The WWW offers immediate access to up-to date raw information on every conceivable topic from a huge variety of sources” (Abrams, 1998).
With online collaborative projects, students work in an environment, which is free of judgment, racism, religious preference and socio economic standards. Yet, inevitably students bring their life views to the project and are able to expose students to different perspectives. There are very specific online collaborative projects that are designed for teachers to work with. All of which allow students to be exposed to and correspond with students from all over the world.
www.ccnet.com “CCCnet is a web site created for teachers and students by Computer Curriculum Corporation. CCCnet is a subscription service that provides online activities and projects in math, reading/language arts, science, and social studies.”
www.thinkquest.org “The ThinkQuest Internet Challenge is an international program for students ages 12 through 19 that encourages them to use the Internet to create information-rich Web-based educational tools and materials. Students form teams with their colleagues from around the world and are mentored by teachers or other adult coaches.”
www.globalschoolhouse.com Cyber fair “Online Projects, linking teachers, students and parents. Home of the Cyber fair competition and many more online projects.”
In addition to online projects, we also developed an inquiry based collaborative Internet research project that allows students to explore their own interests as a small group. As a class, discussions about the validity of web sites, the author’s legitimacy, and the overall standard of information within web sites was necessary. A guide for determining the validity and usefulness of a web page was developed and adhered to. A working navigational log and bibliography of useful and not so useful sites helped students track their research and become more efficient with their research. This was the first step in allowing students to use the Internet to think critically. It was up to the students to decide how to uncover and effectively utilize the information they were collecting. They needed to take two diametrically opposing views and decide how to filter and use the information. “In a society where we are bombarded with often contradictory information, we must cultivate the ability to evaluate it critically. We must become critically literate (Macedo, 1993).
Because I was interested in students exploring the process, the subject was left open for their own inquiry. With project rubrics established collaboratively (figure 2) prior to the work, students were focused on the goals of the assignment, but were given freedom to explore various facets and areas of interest. Teens were naturally drawn to topics of drug abuse, AIDS, political movements and the environment, all of which present extremely opposing ideas. Students thought critically to sort through the abundance of information and to confirm their thoughts and ideas with experts in their field. This is a skill that textbooks can not teach students. They learned to become critically literate readers and thinkers by actually doing the work instead of reading about doing the work. The work connects directly with a student’s interests and is not simply chosen by a textbook editor. This therefore makes the activity more effective.
The projects included e-mail correspondence with an expert in the subject area in which they were interested. They were presented their process of research, converting information into a written summary with graphic representation and sharing the project orally to several grade levels, using visual aids. They explained which sites could not be supported and why site were not useful or valid. This project was presented to various classes and grade levels. They shared the information and the process of researching a new topic from identifying their questions to managing the pitfalls to completing their report.
Figure 2. Project rubric developed by students
In addition, several collaborative e-mail projects with kids worldwide have been established in all grade levels to discuss anything from learning English as a foreign language to writing joint stories with children across the world in Spanish. A middle school creative writing group is underway with correspondence between middle school students in San Francisco, CA and our students in Spain. The project is an exploration of home, community and country through creative writing. Students will share and critique their writing through corresponding by e-mail with other students. The online peer editing will give students a new perspective and insight into their writing. The final project will be a collaborative WebPage where students writing, photography, and thoughts will be published. There are several sites that are available for online publishing, peer editing and e-mail collaborative projects.
http://www.writes.org/ “Writes of Passage, and online source for teenagers”
http://www.inkspot.com/young/ “Inskspot for young writers offering writing resources discussion forums, interviews with authors and young writes”
http://www.stonesoup.com/ “Stone Soup brings young readers thought-provoking stories, heartfelt poems, and beautiful art by their peers worldwide. Budding writers and artists are encouraged to create and submit their own work.”
For Educators and Curriculum
For educators, the Internet allows teaching to shift from textbooks to real life experiences. “Textbooks are static and usually our of date by the time they are printed…Students have little opportunity to gain access to raw, unfiltered even contradictory information with which to challenge their critical literacy. Yet in the real world this is precisely the kind of information they must deal with.” (Wilson, 1988) With the WWW experiences can be felt, touched and created through the lives of other people. Learning about different cultures and situations no longer are one dimensional, but rounded and textual.
School curriculum can now incorporate methods of reaching children of different learning styles as well as allowing students to convey their ideas in a context that suits their needs. Whether it is a spreadsheet, a web page or a multimedia presentation, it is creating meaning for and by individual students.
I have watched students who were not succeeding in writing essays about a novel or social studies unit, flourish in presenting their learning visually with multi-media programs, backing their information with web sites and e-mail response. The confidence, the level of learning and the success is unparalleled to anything I have seen in the traditional classroom setting using only textbooks.
With the use of proper assessment such as electronic portfolios, learning logs, and teacher student interviews, both teacher and students are able to let learning happen in new and innovative ways. It no longer depends on the test scores, but the process of asking the right questions, contacting the right sites or people, and putting it all together in a comprehensive display of learning. It is very easy for students to take information off the Internet and call it their own. It is mandatory that teachers take the time to interview students, to review their portfolios and to ask the questions of why and how? How do the students know that the information that they learned on line is valid? Why do they think other students see the world in such a different way? It is an opportunity to truly create critical thinkers and learners.
In our program, students have a folder on our server, which holds all self-evaluations, logs of how they feel about the progress of their project, technical and group dynamic problems, struggles and triumphs. The question of how technology has helped them reach their conclusions and how has it hindered them, is important. Students are learning when technology is a tool and when it is a distraction. As a teacher, it is readily accessible to see how learning is taking place. It eliminates the focus of learning how to use computers and shifts the concentration to how to utilize computers as a tool to express a higher level of learning.
There is no better way to provide professional development for teachers as they begin to see the potential of collaborative projects. It allows teacher to step out of the forefront and guide students in using technology critically to become life long learners. Many teachers who are not familiar with technology have a fear of using the Internet as a teaching tool. With the accessibility of comprehensive online projects already prepared, complete with mentor support and step by step lesson plans, teachers will be more inclined to take the risk, as will our students. If the project is multifaceted, so is the outcome. Teachers can work closely with students and other educators to reach educational goals and standards. Teachers will then be inclined and encouraged to incorporate online projects into the curriculum. With the numerous sites that match teachers up and mentor them through the process, there is little room for apprehension.
A technology aware teacher can be paired with another teacher to complete a collaborative project together. Teachers can work as mentors to each other exposing new teachers to the wonders of learning with the Internet.
Eventually teachers develop the confidence to create their own online projects to further the individual needs of each student. This is especially helpful in customizing the education for students with special needs. With proper use of rubrics, assessment, learning logs, electronic portfolios, teachers can successfully manage and guide students to a higher level of learning. The Internet has been a crucial part of school curriculum and online projects have allowed teachers the structure and security to take the risks necessary to allow students to flourish in this online learning environment.
The Internet and collaborative online projects are changing education, assessment, professional development and our overall global connectivity. Our students can truly become critical thinkers and life long learners with technology bringing them real and current information as well as touching them with relationships and interaction with students all over the world. Online collaboration only opens the doors and minds of all involved the students, teachers and community. It is a shift in traditional teaching, but one that finally allows students and teachers to step out of the textbooks and connect with real lives and situations.