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Telecommunications In The Classroom:
Keys to Successful Telecomputing

by Al Rogers, Yvonne Andres, Mary Jacks, and Tom Clauset

[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.

Keys to Successful Telecomputing

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.

  1. Design a project with specific goals, specific tasks, and specific outcomes. The more specific, the better; the more closely aligned with traditional instructional objectives, the better.
  2. Set specific beginning and ending dates for your project, and set precise deadlines for participant responses. Then make a timeline, and provide lots of lead time to announce your project. Teachers feel more comfortable participating in projects that have a definite goal and an ending date. Experience shows that peak use on an educational network is geared to traditional cycles of the school calendar. October through December, February through May, and July (with summer school) are very busy times on the network. However, most of the successful networking activities were planned, and announcements posted, six to eight weeks before the actual project is to begin. You also may find that you need to advertise for participants several times, and thus the more lead time the better.
  3. Phased deadlines establish a sense of accountability to the other participants in the project and make it easier to secure follow through. Even if the teacher is inclined to drop out, students who know the deadlines will often hold their own teachers accountable to complete the project.
  4. If possible, try your project out with a close colleague first, on a small scale. This can help you overcome both technical problems as well as problems with the basic project design. You will find that having a sympathetic colleague available to discuss and solve problems will be a big help. You'll also find that in some of your early networking experiences, you may have to mail the disks containing student writing rather than telecommunications.
  5. Request collaborators by posting messages on electronic bulletin boards, and by sending out flyers if possible.
  6. Give specific information about your project in the call for collaboration:
    • Goals and objectives
    • Your location
    • Grade levels desired
    • Contact person
    • Timeline and deadlines
    • How many responses you would like
    • What you will do with the responses
  7. Provide examples of the kinds of writing or data collection that students will submit. This is important to the success of the project.
  8. Find responsible students and train them to be part of your project. You're probably already doing this if you are using technology in the classroom. This will be a big time saver.
  9. At the conclusion of the project, follow through on sharing the results with all participants. If you publish any student writing, send a hard copy to all who participated. Have your students collaborate on writing up a summary that describes the project, what they did, what they learned, and what changes they would make. Post that message on the network for all to see (not just the project participants). Finally, have your students send a thank-you message to all participants. You might also want to send a hard copy of your summary and a thank you to the principal of each school that participated. This can be an effective way to reinforce one another in our ongoing efforts to educate others and validate our use of this technology.

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.]

Editor's Note

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.

Reference

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.]

Map & Globe Skills on the FrEdMail Network

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:

  1. From Ileen Wrenn in North Carolina: "During their free break time students would work on the game and try to figure out where the places were. Needless to say, they loved it."
  2. From Chippy Weavil in North Carolina: "I sent students home with instructions on how they should go about matching up the cities with the correct description. One student was the first to come in with the answers and got all of them correct! It was a fun activity and really got them looking at maps and pulling books off the shelves to read about places, especially those in California. Those were toughies. It also helped the class to work together and learn more about cooperation and compromise. I enjoyed listening to why some of them thought it should be one place over another---but, in the long run, the majority rules!"
  3. From Cathy Thurston in Illinois: "We had the kids start one day in groups in the library. Then they took the materials back to their room for a week. The teacher kept it on a back work table where the students could work on it whenever they had free time. She reports that they loved it--were very motivated by it--and went back wherever they could, with no prompting from her, to work on it. They asked her for maps daily. She says that in all the years she has taught, this has been the best map activity she's had! I initially thought it would be too hard for 3rd grade, but with a little help on latitude, they were fine."

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