Educational Technology & Society 3(3) 2000
ISSN 1436-4522

The Civil War project: project-based collaborative learning in a virtual space

J. Scott Payne
Candidate in the Indivdual Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program
Washington State University, Pullman, Washington, USA

Nils S. Peterson
Director, Educational Technology Unit
College of Education
Washington State University, Pullman, Washington, USA


This project created on-line practicum and mentoring experiences for pre-service teachers and developed the research, information literacy, and writing skills of eighth-grade students studying the American Civil War. The task given to the eighth-grade students was to write a story of historical fiction about the American Civil War from the perspective of someone living during that time period. The system described supported all aspects of the pupils' research, data organization, pre-writing and drafting process. Pre-service teachers could interact with the pupils through an internal email system and by writing comments directly on the various elements of the students' work.

Keywords: Project-based instruction, Collaborative learning, Collaborative research, Teacher education, Professional development school

  • The databases for the collaborative environment are currently sleeping. Access to wake them up before clicking on any of the system-related links below. Once active, you can both view and operate the system as described in the figures.
  • Figures for this paper are directly linked to the system available on the web. The access details are provided at the end of the paper.



The Internet is a medium that can facilitate location-independent collaboration among four groups within the US educational system:  1.) university faculty, 2.) pre-service teachers, 3.) in-service teachers, and 4.) pupils.  While collaboration between universities and schools is desirable, historically, pre-service teachers and university faculty needed to travel to the school site to interact with pupils and teachers.  The goal of our work is to facilitate interaction and collaboration among these two location-dependent groups.  The Civil War project illustrates strategies for creation of long-term communities of scholars in public schools and higher education linked by the Internet.

Beginning in 1994, we began experimenting with ways pupils could use the Web for learning and simultaneously, ways the College of Education at Washington State University could use the Web to interact with young learners. Our first ventures were the 1995 Online Science and Math Fair (Facemyer, 1996), a Washington History and Peoples Expo, and the Youth Science Forum in 1996. Each of these experiments invited pupils to complete a project of their choice and prepare it for sharing on the Web. In 1995, university students assisted the pupils by converting their Microsoft Word documents to HTML. In the 1996 Youth Science Forum we asked pupils to compose in HTML. While generative (Brown, 1996), the limitation of these projects was that they were largely non-interactive. Our goal became to create better ways for pre-service teachers to interact online with the formative stages of pupils' work.

In December 1996, and then with better success in the Spring of 1997, Peterson's students (enrolled in T&L 445 Technology used in the schools) did interactive projects with public school classrooms. In these projects the teachers, Peterson and the WSU students were communicating by email lists. The pupils were composing web pages, which were moved from the school server to WSU's server by FTP. WSU students wrote comments directly into the pupils' pages, and returned the "papers" by FTP. The process took place for six weeks, and produced a variety of teacher-pupil communications, as well as authentic communications from the in-service teacher to the pre-services teachers (Schleisman et al., 1997). While the interaction of this process was much richer and more formative than the previous Science Fair and the communication richer, it suffered from no mechanism to archive each student draft and present the drafts in an organized fashion where teachers could review progress. The current project addressed those limitations.


Civil War Project

The Civil War Project was an 8-week long effort to provide on-line practicum and mentoring experiences for pre-service teachers and to develop the research, information literacy, and writing skills of eighth-grade students studying the American Civil War.  The task given to the eighth-grade students was to write a story of historical fiction about the American Civil War from the perspective of someone living during that time period. Since learning about life during the American Civil War was crucial to writing a meaningful story, research was a key element in this project. The on-line collaborative writing tool designed for this project divided the research and writing process into three stages: researching, synthesizing ideas, and communicating newly acquired knowledge in the form of an essay, or in this case a story. During the first stage, students were assigned to different groups based on key concepts related to American Civil War history (e.g. slavery, battles, agriculture, etc.) and began collaboratively building a database (Figure 1) of historical text and images from resources on the Web and elsewhere. [Most links to student writing referenced are to the work of a fictional student, Anthony Burns. Links to the work of other students is with permission.] Students also constructed a fictitious database containing information about fictional events created by the students to facilitate the composition of their narratives. Though these entries were fictional, their content was based on historical fact gleaned from other sources.

In the second stage, students began searching through the historical database (Figure 2) for information that they wanted to use as the historical framework for their stories. Students selected the desired data entries and placed them into their scrapbooks. The scrapbook (Figure 3) was a private workspace where students engaged in pre-writing activities focusing on how individual data entries would be utilized in their stories. During this synthesis stage, the mentors provided students with feedback on their scrapbook entries from historical and information literacy perspectives. When selecting research database entries for their scrapbooks, the students were required to fill the ten "windows" on their character's life that comprised the timeline. (Figure 4)  "Windows" into the character's life were the formative elements of the person's life for purposes of creating a narrative. The timeline had categories such as birth, marriage, friendship, battles, death, etc. for which information from the research database was needed. In their scrapbooks, students extrapolated from this historical data to the context and life of their specific characters. For example, a students writing about the lives of former slaves who fled to the North would give a very different account of their births, marriages, or even the role they played in the war itself than students writing about soldiers.

In the final stage students began writing the first draft (Figure 5) of their multiple draft essays by arranging, editing and augmenting the text composed in their scrapbooks. The most recently published draft (Figure 6) of an essay was viewable by all students and included a peer-feedback mechanism. All previous drafts as well as students scrapbooks were private workspaces accessible only to instructors and the individual authors.


System Design

As the designers and developers we wanted to build a collaborative learning environment that had the back-end power of a relational database, was easily accessible via the Web, and could be built in a fairly short period of time. FileMaker Pro 4.0 was the optimal tool since we are after all educators interested in teaching and learning and not trained programmers with extensive knowledge of database design and CGI scripting.

Designing this learning environment involved taking into consideration the goals and motivations of the participating groups. For the eighth-grade teachers, this cross-curricular project combined social studies and language arts classes and was intended to:

  • teach students to view history from multiple perspectives.
  • identify and explain key eras and turning points in U.S. history.
  • learn to analyze primary and secondary sources of information.
  • give feedback on writing and to revise ones own work, incorporating feedback received from peers and instructors.
  • learn to write in variety of forms and for a variety of purposes.


This list comprises key elements the social studies section of the state of Washington's Essential Academic Learning Requirements (1995), a set of state educational performance objectives.

For the university participants, the objectives included:

  1. experiencing and reflecting on the potential and limitations of on-line mentoring.
  2. developing partnerships with in-service teachers.
  3. studying the effects of this form of collaboration and communication on information literacy and writing skill development.


The system design also sought to overcome several of limitations of previous projects. Firstly, students and mentors were not required to be familiar with HTML. While it may be argued that writing HTML is a valuable skill, for those individuals coming into the project without such know-how, it posed the risk of complicating the task at hand, and responding well to student's content and writing was a sufficiently complex task. Secondly, we wanted a system that automatically saved all essay drafts and made them easily retrievable for viewing by mentors and the individual authors. Thirdly, it was important that teachers could easily attach comments to student writing that could only be viewed by the specific authors and other teachers. Finally, a closed email system was needed to facilitate efficient and flexible communication among students and mentors. The participating Junior High School, like many schools in the United States, did not provide email accounts to their students. Based on a few high profile reports, the potential of adult strangers contacting pupils via email accounts supplied by the school has terrifying legal ramifications for most school administrators. The resulting email system called ProjectMail (Figure 7) had the added benefit of including a personal photo of the author of each message sent (This feature subsequently (but independently) appeared on AOL.). This turned out to be one of the best design decisions and appeared to help everyone establish a telepresence and "get-to-know" each other a bit better. ProjectMail also produced a record of correspondence that could be searched and viewed by instructors and mentors as a document of interaction and for research purposes. What emerged from this development effort was a process-based tool for writing a research paper.

In the researching phase of the project, each research database entry included some text from a resource on the Web and the possibility of including a picture by creating a pointer to that image and displaying it within our system with the "copy image location" web browser function. Research data entries taken from Web resources required the source URL and automatically created a hot-link back to the original source for anyone viewing the subsequent data record. The research group (Pavillion) of the student creating a data entry was also attached to the record helping students construct better search criteria when gathering information for their stories.

When devising a search of the research database, students could search by their assigned research group, for text in the record title or text body, or by the name of the researcher. Each historical data entry or fictional data entry (Figure 1) potentially consisted of a title, a body of text, an image, a source URL, name of the researcher who created the record and that person's research group, and a button that when clicked saved the entry into the scrapbook of the person viewing the record. Each scrapbook entry (Figure 3) contained the text and image from the original source along with a field for pre-writing, the option to assign a different title to the scrapbook entry, and a radio button for placing the scrapbook entry into the timeline. Each scrapbook entry also contained a field where mentors posted comments on the students' choice of information and how they planned to utilize it in their historical fiction. In the timeline (Figure4), icons are used to represent the different windows on the characters life and needed to be filled before beginning the first draft of the story. Each timeline entry also includes hot-links back to the scrapbook entry and the original data source. When composing the first draft (Figure 5), students were able to drag-and-drop text from their scrapbook entries into an essay text field as a first step. After giving the essay a title and including their name and possibly a picture, students posted their essays to be read by their peers and instructors. Comments could be sent to the author of each published draft (Figure 6)by clicking on his or her hot-linked name at the bottom of the text. For teachers reading essays an additional text field allows them to give feedback that appears below the essay when viewed by the author. These teacher comments also appeared below the text body when revising an essay draft (Figure 8).

The process of writing a research paper is not a simple task for students to master, whether they are Junior High students or university undergraduates. It was our conjecture that a structured on-line environment would assist students in focusing on relevant information, analyzing references, synthesizing knowledge, and communicating what they had learned (Sullivan 1996; Griffin 1997). In essence, when guiding students through the process of writing a research paper the instructor must exert a great deal of energy on keeping the students focused on the most appropriate issues given their current stage in the process, in addition to providing feedback on their work. Thus, we sought to explore the possibility that the structure of a collaborative environment could act like a sheep dog, relieving instructors of much their herding duties and letting them concentrate more exclusively on providing valuable feedback on the students' work.

A final aspect of this design is that instructors are provided with an inside view of the research and writing process. Normally the first draft of a paper is the first opportunity that instructors have to view the fruits of their students' research and writing efforts. Being able to give feedback at earlier stages may make students more efficient and could possibly even produce a better end product. With this learning environment it is possible to track the contributions made by individual students to the research database, view prewriting text and efforts at synthesis, and give feedback before students begin composing their first draft.



This project produced some very interesting results that may benefit others with similar instructional aims. The pupils' writing provided unambiguous evidence of successful attainment of many of the project goals. The first goal of the Middle School teachers was to teach pupils to view history from multiple perspectives. Many of the 12 year-old authors did remarkably well at telling a story from the perspective of their character. Pupils produced interesting stories from the perspectives of slaves, children, nurses, soldiers (North and South), Northern women, and Southern women. (Figure 9)  Within the context of this task, identifying turning points in U.S. history was limited more to pivotal battles as students' interest appeared to focus more on character and plot development than delivering a heavily documented historical account. Helping students substantiate their creative prose with historical elements became one of the instructional objectives of the mentors. The third goal of learning to analyze primary and secondary information sources was not pursued with as much rigor as the creative aspects. This may have been in part due to a lack of awareness by the eighth-graders of the availability of primary and secondary data on the Web and may have been compounded by insufficient time for researching on the Web. As a consequence, pupils resorted to paper-based resources in their school and public libraries more than may have occurred otherwise.

Collaboration was explicit in student essays and correspondence on many levels. ProjectMail was used to support collaborative research (Figure 10) by informing fellow research group members about interesting primary and secondary Civil War history sources. Students with Internet access at home or the local public library were able to continue working on their projects over the weekend and to keep their research group members apprised of their progress. Collaborative research was also inherently promoted by the software design. Students shared resources by contributing a few entries to the research database and then drawing on the entire database for writing their stories. Students also read each other's writing and exchanged critiques. One interesting outcome that emerged from this process was the desire to merge their stories with those of other class members. Extensive negotiations took place via ProjectMail where students tailored their stories to incorporate the characters of their classmates. This included attempting to arrange marriages (Figure 10) and even meeting by chance on the road (Figure 10) while fleeing from advancing armies. Another interesting twist to much of the ProjectMail correspondence that occurred in the later stages of the project was pupils writing in character. This entailed adjusting their register to include archaic vocabulary of the 19th century and other linguistic aspects that the students thought would be typical of their specific characters. While one of the key motivations for intertwining their stories with those of classmates appeared to be purely social, the compromises reached entailed reworking the narrative and often incorporating new historical elements into ones story, thus benefiting the research objectives of their teachers.

Successful mentoring by the university faculty and pre-service teachers encountered many e-challenges. It was difficult to achieve leaps of understanding or those "ah-ha" moments among the 8th graders when mentoring them remotely. There are two factors which we believe may have hampered distance mentoring efforts. First, the asynchronicity of the ProjectMail exchanges. It was not feasible most of the time for mentors to correspond daily with students via ProjectMail. ProjectMail was typically exchanged every other day and in a few instances even less frequently when the students were focused on parts of the assignment for which they did not see a direct benefit of their mentor's help. By protracting problem-solving over time, it seemed more difficult for mentors to capitalize on teachable moments and help students to make important connections between the details in their stories and historical facts. This break-down in communication is clear in the Projectmail exchange (Figure 10) between one of the subject-experts participating in the project (a crop and soil scientist) and a student. In short, the character in the student's story lived on a farm near Harpers Ferry, Virginia where cotton was allegedly grown. The problem with this scenario was that cotton wasn't grown that far north at the time of the American Civil War. By steering the student to online resources including maps indicating the distribution of crop production during the mid 1800s, the mentor tried to help the student realize her error. This mentor-student exchange occurred between two individuals, however the experience was shared with other mentors while in-progress. The impression of many of the mentors was that if a synchronous exchange could have been arranged between the student and mentor, either via voice or text, there would have been a greater likelihood of the student arriving at the realization that cotton wasn't grown in northern Virginia.

The second factor limiting didactic communication was the lack of paralinguistic clues that are present in face-to-face communication. Conventional student-teacher interaction occurs face-to-face where teachers can read signs of comprehension, or a lack thereof, on the faces and in the voices of their students. Students not accustomed to receiving mentoring or instruction via distance seemed to find it equally difficult to express in writing what they don't know as a way to get help. Based on our experiences with numerous formats of on-line instruction, including this project, the argument could be made that many learners have not developed the written communication skills required for eliciting assistance in an on-line instructional setting. Being able to express in writing what you know, you don't know in such a way that someone can help you solve your problem is a script most often performed by people within a shared physical space.



Beyond the core instructional objectives stated at the outset of this paper, moving project-based, collaborative learning into a virtual space has the added advantage of simplifying the recruitment of subject experts to serve as consultants to students. The insight that such experts can bring to a research project can be invaluable and reducing their commitment to the click-of-a-mouse, gives participation a lower opportunity cost. This type of interaction between young students and university students preparing to teach in the public school system provides valuable instructional attention to young learners that is difficult for one instructor in a class of 25+ individuals to deliver. For pre-service teachers, having the experiences of reviewing and evaluating the work of pupils in the public school system is equally valuable. A particular advantage of this asynchronous environment was that pre-service teachers could discuss a student's work and possible responses before actually contacting the student. That kind of meta-cognitive work would not be possible in a face-to-face classroom setting. Finally, promoting contact and collegial exchange between university faculty in teacher education programs and in-service teachers in the public school system can provide opportunities for those at the university to stay in touch with what's happening in the schools and can give in-service teachers the chance to tap into some of the university's resources and impact the training of future teachers.


Lessons Learned

Conducting a collaborative project of this nature requires a common set of goals shared by all participants. A divergence in this area was a weakness in the Civil War project. Midway through the project it became clear that the primary objective for the university participants was the process with the product being of greatest importance for the 8th grade teachers. This is not to say that product and process are mutually exclusive or cannot be joint foci of a project if all participants share the same perspective. This difference in priorities became pronounced when the participating students received eMates as the part of a grant. The eMate was a portable computing device from Apple Computer that combined the handwriting recognition technology of Apple's Newton with much of the functionality of a laptop computer. While it was possible to surf the Web with an eMate, the types of webpage formats that lent themselves to being viewed effectively on an eMate was rather limited and the necessary NIC was not standard equipment. The effect of the eMate offensive was students disappearing from the project space to write off-line. After all, the eMate was highly portable and as long as they were generating a rich narrative (product), their teachers were happy. Students continued to post drafts of their essays, but this process began to resemble our earlier projects with the teacher collecting electronic copies of student work and sending them via FTP or as email attachments. At this point, the mentors were excluded from the research and writing process by being limited to reading fewer and much more finalized products.

To minimize the risk of this occurring in future projects, a set of project objectives and requirements must be negotiated and agreed upon by all participating instructors. By taking this step, it is our hope that the possibility of a project getting side-tracked (at least from the perspective of one or more of the participating groups) can be diminished. Additionally, a pre-project training session should be held where a condensed version of the project is run through by all participating instructors. This exercise would be intended to familiarize the instructors with the system and to make them aware of some of the questions and issues that their students may have during the project.

Another concern for organizers of collaborative on-line projects that involve less experienced users of the Internet is netetiquette. Developing protocols for how to handle flaming and other inappropriate on-line behaviors needs to be accomplished in advance. It may be important to decide who should respond to what kinds of offenses. In the case of the Civil War project, there were a couple instances of inappropriate ProjectMail messages even though students were cognizant of the fact that ProjectMail was not private.

Another limitation of the project was depending too heavily on students' ability to perform the research needed to populate the database. While having student enter some data into the database was instructionally valuable, having a larger core of material on-hand in the beginning would have been helpful.



Teachers have turned to cross-curricular instruction as a means of livening up their classroom (Tassinari, 1996), emphasizing multiple intelligences (Lambert, 1997), showing connections between disciplines, and illuminating multiple perspectives of historical and other educational issues (Lambert, 1997). Ringstaff et al. (1992) and Tierney et al. (1992) have reported on students learning with long-term exposure to rich computing environments. The Civil War project is a model for creating long-term communities of scholars linked by the Internet. The experience has convinced us of the utility of using web-linked databases to facilitate online interactions between pupils and pre-service teachers. Database technology allowed us to eliminate students' needs to work in HTML, gave location independence to the work (no FTP or email transport of materials to fixed University sites), and gave the teachers and researchers great flexibility to track student work progress.






Figure 1 shows the interface students used to add historical information to the database. Provisions were made for a title, text, and a picture. "Pavillion" is a reference to tents on a parade ground, and was the term for groupings of students with a common research focus. A citation could be referenced as either to a print or URL resource. The fictional database had a similar structure and operation. (Access: ilwar/FMPro?-db=historical&-lay=HistoricalLayout&-format=historicalnew.h tml&-Token=Guest&-view)

Figure 2 shows the interface for the database search. Full text search of title and text was provided along with author, date, and "Pavillion" (research topic) and date-range filters.  (Access: civilwar/FMPro?-db=historical&-lay=HistoricalLayout&-format=historicalse arch.html&-Token=Guest&-view)

Figure 3 shows the students' scrapbook, a separate database that interacts with the historic and fictional database searches using a mechanism analogous to "buying" and placing in a "shopping cart." To experience this, search a database, click the title of an item appearing in the search results summary and, near the bottom of the resulting detail page, click the "Add to scrapbook" button. Once in the scrapbook, the researcher can again view the item's details. In addition to acquiring an item into the scrapbook, the researcher can assign a point of view to the item, providing a new title and annotations for what the item means to the researcher in the context of their work. (Access: crapbookLayout&-Format=ScrapbookFormats.html&-error=scrapbookerrors.html &username=Guest&-Token=Guest&-Find)

Figure 4 shows the timeline view of the scrapbook database. In this view, items are summarized and sorted by date, allowing the author to look at the overall outline of the developing story.  (Access: at=timelineformat.html&-lay=scrapbooklayout&-error=TLerrors.html&-so rtfield=event%20date&UserName=Guest&-op=eq&timelineitem=Yes&-Tok en=Guest&-sortfield=Event%20Date&-sortorder=ascend&-Find)

Figure 5 shows the interface for writing the first draft of the story. Importantly, the author can copy/paste notes from the scrapbook (left column) into the developing story (right side).  When finished writing, work is saved with the "Publish" button. (Access: lay=scrapbookLayout&-Format=essayEdit.html&-error=essayerrors.html&- sortfield=event%20date&UserName=AnthonyB&-op=eq&timelineitem=Yes& ;-Token=AnthonyB&-sortfield=Event%20Date&-sortorder=ascend&-Find )

Figure 6 the public's search interface to locate student drafts. This interface lists the authors as the only search key. Note that only the most recent of an author's drafts will appear. Suggestion, search for the work of our fictional author AnthonyB. (Access: ro?-DB=essay&-lay=essayLayout&-Format=PubEssaySearch.html&-Token=Gue st&-View)

Figure 7 shows the detail of an email sent by one of us to "Guest". It includes the sender's photo and an optional URL which the sender is referencing.(Access: =emaildetail.html&-lay=fullrecord&-recid=33584&-token=Guest&-fin d)

Figure 8 shows the interface for revising a draft essay. (Access: ro?-DB=essay&-lay=essayLayout&-Format=RevEssayDrafts.html&-error=ess ayerrors.html&Author=Guest&-Token=Guest&-sortfield=draft&-sortor der=descend&-max=1&-Find)

Figure 9: Student Essays from multiple perspectives:

Figure 10: Student ProjectMail exchanges