Chapter 26 Learning Through Online Collaboration Robert Tinker Bob Tinker has, for thirty years, pioneered innovative approaches to education that exploit the power of technology such as probes and collaborative networking. He founded the nonprofit Concord Consortium in 1994 to concentrate on research and development of educational technologies. Prior to that, he was one of the principals of the Technical Education Research Center. Bob earned his PhD in physics from MIT in 1970. Introduction I welcome this chance to shed the academic third person and narrow focus on results. It is important to review the history of educational computing to capture the best developments, to avoid the pitfalls, and to take a longer perspective that allows us to look forward with greater confidence. Perhaps the sweep of history, which is so difficult to piece together from the academic literature, popular journals, or education books, will reveal itself more coherently in a personal narrative. Since this is not to be an academic paper, it is important to start by revealing my background, biases, and guides. By reading Martin Gardner, I fell in love with numbers and logic as a kid and so, in 1957, jumped at the chance to program an IBM 650 to generate prime numbers. I then wrote an Algol-like compiler and was so hooked on the technology that I dropped it cold out of fear that it would interfere with my academic work. I had so thoroughly left computers behind that it was only in 1972 when I was safely ensconced in the Amherst College physics department that I saw the first example of an educational application of computers that appealed to me: a planetary motion simulation that Al Bork demonstrated in Chicago using his remote time-share computer in Irvine. I loved the fact that I could explore the effect on planet orbits of different force laws and starting conditions. This was a perfect example of a computer model that could be treated as an experiment that simulated a real system that would not fit in the lab. With the advent of the first microcomputers in 1974, I let myself resume my love affair with computers because they could be used in a science instrumentation course I was teaching. The idea that a digital computer might actually help with scientific measurements — which are inherently analog — was a revelation that I was handed by Greg Edwards, a program officer at the NSF. I clearly remember concluding in 1976 while driving on I-91 to my classes at Springfield Technical Community College, that I could contribute to society through the intersection of science, education, and technology. That led me to a long string of developments 398 Robert Tinker Learning Through Online Collaboration 399 in connecting sensors to microcomputers for instructional labs, now known as ―probeware‖ and an important tool for science teaching and learning. But that is a different story. Network Science Greg Edwards, the first futurist I ever met, also predicted in 1975 that networking would be one of the most important applications of computers, a nugget of wisdom that I was unable to appreciate at the time. This observation did, however, inspire my team at Amherst and Hampshire Colleges in 1978 to develop NOS, a networked version of the CP/M operating system that worked across multiple S- 100 computers to share disks printers. About this time, inspired by Seymour Papert and Logo, we also built the first affordable high-resolution graphics cards (480x640 pixels of up to four bits each) and shared access to them over the network. With the help of TERC founder Arthur Nelson, we even formed Cambridge Development Labs to market this advanced hardware and software. This was the wrong direction, because others would build more robust and affordable hardware and software. Being first is not always good business. More importantly, the significance of educational networking is not the minor cost savings, but the ability to communicate and collaborate. This requires long- distance networking that had to wait for widespread access to low-cost modems and email. The situation changed by the early 1980’s, when the first commercial dial-up email services became available. The Kids Network As a consequence of Reagan's attack on federal support for education, TERC1 was without funding in 1982 except for a life-saving grant from the Carnegie Corporation that allowed us to analyze the educational applications of networking. We identified collaborative knowledge construction as the key added capacity of networking and our analysis gave us confidence to imagine building student collaboration into a curriculum. When the NSF recovered from Reagan, its first initiative in 1985 was to call for publisher-researcher partnerships that would develop bold but sustainable new approaches to elementary science. While we would have preferred to start in more advanced grades, we partnered with Monica Bradsher at the National Geographic Society (NGS) to propose Kidnet, a set of grade 4-6 science curriculum units that relied on student peer collaboration. This was a risky proposal that was roundly rejected at the preliminary stage. To make a stronger case for the final proposal, Jan Mokros and June Foster at TERC and Priscilla Laws at Dickenson College created, administered, and evaluated a trial unit that was taught in nine schools nationwide in 1986. At that time, Easterners were complaining about dying forests and the Reagan 1 Known at that time as the Technical Education Research Centers, a nonprofit R&D group. See http://terc.edu 400 Online Learning: Personal Reflections on the Transformation of Education administration was denying that there was a connection between this and acid rain from Midwestern coal-fired power plants. We decided that we could engage students in this debate by having students collect data on the geographic distribution of the pH of rain. An understanding of chemistry, acids and bases, and meteorology would be needed to make sense of the data, giving need-driven reasons to study of these topics. The results exceeded our wildest expectations. The teachers and students in the trial implementation loved it. The idea of sharing data with kids in Harlem, Kansas, San Francisco, and elsewhere was thrilling. During the test, acid rain was all over the newspapers and enterprising teachers assigned students to bring in related articles, adding to the students’ sense of importance. The excitement of actually relating to an adult concern of national interest unleashed a level of seriousness and dedication that surprised every teacher. Teachers appreciated that the activities were connected to quality science content that students learned more willingly and thoroughly than ever before. Our group also learned that teachers needed strategies for dealing with the combined data. In the trial, each school received pH values from the eight other schools, but none of the teachers knew how to analyze these data. One had the kids simply memorize all the pH values! The proposal passed peer review with flying colors and by early 1987 the Kidnet project was underway, initially under the direction of June Foster and then, for most of the project, Candace Julyan. To gain additional classroom experience, the project revised the Acid Rain unit and tested it again in a number of classrooms, but only using telecommunications to share pH data, not for messaging. The students spontaneously started communicating through postcards to other participating classes. In this way, the students taught us something we should have known: that creating a community was an important part of the collaborative learning process, and that we should have used our technology to foster community building. The desire to create an effective electronic community, and the difficulty teachers had with the combination of new technology and new pedagogy, led to the creation of an introductory unit, called Hello!. This unit helped create the trust and understanding needed in an online learning community while introducing the Kidnet approach and technology in the context of some very simple science — the pets that students own. We initially saw Hello! as a waste of valuable instructional time, but came to realize that it was essential to create a functioning online community. This need to invest in community building has been recognized independently by many other groups as essential to realizing the educational benefit of online collaboration. One of the important lessons of Kidnet is that the quality and extent of the curriculum materials were essential to its success. Teachers crave high-quality curriculum packages that address significant topics and they want substantial curriculum units, not single activities or some software package that they have to integrate into their lessons. Teachers were not attracted to the materials because of Robert Tinker Learning Through Online Collaboration 401 the technology, but they were willing to put up with the additional logistical problems the technology created, because they recognized the educational value of the integrated curriculum–technology package. Educational needs must drive the technology, not the other way around. The project went to great lengths to simplify implementation by providing detailed instructions and day-by-day lesson plans that even included sample classroom discussions. The project ensured that the software was powerful, attractive, and intuitive. Project staff, under the direction of Cecilia Lenk and Stephen Bannasch, created an integrated, award-winning application that included an email editor, automatic dial-up, email packing and unpacking of data, a grapher, and simple GIS (Geographical Information System) functions that featured data display on a zoom-able map. A heroic effort was required to make this functionality run on a 128K Apple IIgs connected to an email system through a 1,200-baud modem. The Kidnet project eventually developed a dozen units like Acid Rain, each running six to eight weeks in a typical elementary classroom. The units were published by the NGS and implemented in tens of thousands of classrooms. Over one million students used the material, making it by far the largest network-based educational curricula. The project could be flourishing now, but the Internet made the technology obsolete and the project was dropped by the NGS2. The kind of broad adoption Kidnet enjoyed is not possible with materials that are generated quickly and cheaply, demonstrating once again that significant advances in education require large-scale, sustained funding. Technology does not provide a way around this fundamental fact, it just adds to the cost. One of the reasons that there is no comparable technology-enhanced curriculum at present is that there is no comparable sustained, large-scale funding available. Kidnet proves that exciting technology-enhanced curricula are feasible. The Global Lab Kidnet inspired a wide range of subsequent projects that engaged students in the scientific process through gathering, sharing, and analyzing data (Feldman, Konold, & Coulter, 2000). In addition to fostering Kidnet-like projects (Barstow, Tinker, & Doubler, 1996; Cohen, 1997; Tinker & Kapisovsky, 1991, 1992), we wanted to explore a more sophisticated approach that was closer to scientific research. In Kidnet, the question, method, and data analysis was spelled out in detail except in one draft unit that tested well but was too different from the other units to fit into the Kidnet series. We decided to expand on this initial success and build curricula that would lead to student-designed collaborative experiments. In 1990, this gave birth to the Global Lab project at TERC and, later, at The Concord Consortium (Berenfeld, 1994). 2 Revised, Web-based versions are now available from TERC for grades 2-8. See http://LL.terc.edu 402 Online Learning: Personal Reflections on the Transformation of Education Each of the Global Lab’s participating classes establishes a study site, which it characterizes and describes to other participating classes. Over the course of a year, all the classes use inexpensive instruments to study the soil, water, and air at their sites. Sharing their observations with students at other sites enriches this experience and helps give students ideas for their studies. As students gain familiarity with their sites, their sites’ ecology, and the instrumentation, they naturally begin to ask questions. These questions are shaped into research projects that are written up and shared with peers through the network. We found that student critiques could be quite harsh and inappropriate, so we needed to prepare the way with online discussions about trust, goals, and helpful criticism. After a round of criticism, the classes undertake their research and eventually publish their findings online. This process closely follows the scientific process and gives students unique insights about the social norms of scientific communities. The network community of participating students provides peer review and a knowledgeable audience for research findings. Instead of memorizing ―the scientific method‖ (a fiction) or reading about how science is done (boring), students experience scientific research and learn that they, too, can be scientists. Networking is not the project’s focus, but without networking the project’s high quality of learning would not be possible. One of the challenges of the project was providing affordable general-purpose instrumentation and apparatus that students could use to get reliable and comparable results. We created a range of innovative equipment, drawn from our probeware experience and the advice of experts in low-cost apparatus, especially Jorge Trench, John King, and Forest Mims. The NSF funded the Global Lab project for almost a decade under the leadership of Boris Berenfeld, Stephen Bannasch, and me. During that time, students did many exciting and inspiring studies. The following quotes from teachers participating in the project give a sense of its impact: Science isn't good for anybody if it's out of a book. I want my kids to know that science is applicable to their lives. This is the first time they will be involved with real science. The Global Lab Project has had an immense impact on science instruction at our school. In large measure, the goals of this project have become the goals of our science department. … In essence, we want our science students to "be scientists". By actively living this role, students develop an understanding and appreciation of science that includes and transcends the facts and concepts emphasized in traditional secondary science courses. The Kidnet-Global Lab strand has inspired many projects that engage students in genuine science (Cohen, 1997; Feldman et al., 2000; Tinker, 2003), but neither has Robert Tinker Learning Through Online Collaboration 403 survived. Kendall-Hunt publishes the Global Lab but it has not caught on for a number of reasons. The material has proven to require unusual teachers who are willing to take risk and who understand science research from personal experience. In addition, the equipment, while inexpensive by professional standards, is out of reach of most school budgets and requires patience and ingenuity to use. But most importantly, the project requires extensive and expert facilitation of the student online collaborations. If this is omitted, the benefits of collaboration are lost; if it is supplied, it pushes the total costs beyond what schools are prepared to pay. In this age of standards, tests, and budget squeezes, there is little room for an open-ended curriculum with such exciting but unquantifiable goals. Online Courses In 1994, we launched the nonprofit Concord Consortium and turned our Global Lab experience in facilitating online collaboration to online courses for teachers. While the Web was still in its infancy, it was clear from reviewing prior successes with online courses (Harasim, 1990; Romiszowski & de Hass, 1991) that the Web was just the technology needed. Thus began a strand of research to exploit online courses for teachers, students, and online course facilitators. INTEC The International Netcourse Teacher Enhancement Collaborative (INTEC) was a project at the Concord Consortium that started in 1996 to study the efficacy of online teacher professional development to help teachers achieve difficult learning objectives. The goal of the NSF-funded project was to change the instructional style of secondary math and science teachers so that they were comfortable using inquiry as their primary teaching strategy. Inquiry-based learning is central to the new science standards but very difficult for teachers to implement, in part because few teachers have never been taught this way in teacher training programs or had any other opportunity to practice inquiry-based learning. The INTEC project, under the direction of Ray Rose and George Collison, was a yearlong graduate level course requiring about five hours of concentrated time each week. It started by having the participants learn through inquiry and then reflect on their experiences. The reflection, which is a central part of the learning process, took place in local study groups and in threaded discussion groups on the web, guided by a trained facilitator. It thus used a ―blended‖ approach, mostly online but partly face-to-face. We selected this design because we were unsure that a totally online course would be effective. The course had a complex design that involved strands of content specific to mathematics, biology, chemistry, and physics that were addressed in the context of educational issues such as assessment, student groups, misconceptions, and standards. Participants had a ―home‖ group, but often joined a discipline group with participants from other groups. The course was rigorously scheduled so that all participants were ready to 404 Online Learning: Personal Reflections on the Transformation of Education think together about the same activity at the same time. When teachers are motivated to keep up with this schedule, the experience is transformative. Teachers begin to use more inquiry and, sometimes, to influence their peers to do the same. The ―blended‖ nature of INTEC was double-edged. Many teachers reported that the face-to-face conversations were the most valuable part of the course. In many cases, the local study groups involved spirited conversations between teachers in different disciplines in the same school who had never talked about educational issues. On the other hand, these conversations seldom carried over to the online groups and actually subtracted from their value. This made it very difficult to capture what was learned in the study groups and to share it with others. In a blended model, there must be different learning goals for the online and face-to- face groups so they do not compete. INTEC was designed to reach over 800 teachers in groups of twenty. To scale up to meet this goal, we had to learn how to train effective facilitators for the all- important online discussions. Initially we did the training face-to-face, but we later developed an effective online course for the facilitators. Effective facilitation is central to the success of online collaboration and, although it requires many of the skills of a face-to-face group facilitator, we were surprised at how few people have these skills. Too often, beginning facilitators get pulled into separate conversations with each participant. This does not contribute to a functioning group and quickly overwhelms the erstwhile facilitator, which is probably why so many faculty members report that online teaching is exhausting. A good facilitator stimulates conversation within the group and stays out of the middle of this conversation. Hence, we named our course Moving Out of the Middle (MOoM). Done well, we found that facilitating using this approach requires about as much effort as a face- to-face course. The significance of INTEC is that it demonstrated that sufficiently motivated teachers can learn sophisticated content via well-designed web-based courses. It helped codify for us the elements of good online course design which include asynchronous communication, tight scheduling, good instructional design, and a central role for well-facilitated online conversations (Tinker, 2001). INTEC also introduced us to high dropout rates, a problem that bedevils many online courses. We found that high motivation was particularly important for teachers to complete this rigorous, yearlong course, because it was so easy to fall behind and then lose the thread of the conversations. We had a final project that involved trying project materials in class and then reporting to the experience. Unfortunately, few completed this, either because they did not need the graduate credit that we offered, or because they were too busy to write up their findings. We are confident that if we divided the INTEC content into shorter courses with stronger motivation, we would have realized very high completion rates. Robert Tinker Learning Through Online Collaboration 405 When other pioneers came to us for help in making their online courses work, we opened MOoM to them and published its notes as a book called ―Facilitating Online Learning‖ that has received critical acclaim (Collison, Elbaum, Haavind, & Tinker, 2000). This was the first of several courses that we named ―metacourses‖ because they are online courses about online courses. Eventually, we decided that offering metacourses required greater focus than we could give at the Concord Consortium, and spun out this most of this effort as a separate company under the leadership of Sherry Hsi that continues to offer a range of metacourses in English and Spanish3. The Virtual High School The Virtual High School (VHS) originated in a Concord Consortium retreat in early 1996 where we decided that the INTEC experience could be applied to online courses for students as well as teachers. We joined with Shelley Berman, superintendent of Hudson Public Schools, to propose a collaborative online school. The key innovation in the VHS was the idea of training teachers at collaborating schools to offer their own online courses, rather than hiring teachers who would offer them centrally. By late 1996, the VHS was funded for five years under the direction of Liz Pape at Hudson and Bruce Droste at the Concord Consortium. We directly applied the INTEC model to the teacher course, which we named the Teachers Learning Conference (TLC). The course was designed to introduce teachers to our model for online courses and to help them create their own course to be delivered online to students from any VHS school. On completion, participants have a course that they will teach the next year, designed to meet a long list of design and content standards. Like INTEC, the TLC is a yearlong course that relies on online collaboration. Unlike INTEC, it requires more time, between 10-20 hours per week, and we had enough confidence to discard the blended design, which was not feasible anyway, because TLC would have participants from throughout the country and the world. The TLC has very strict quality standards for the content and design of the course that participants develop. The only way a school can enjoy the benefits of the VHS is to have a teacher whom they nominate complete the TLC course by designing their own course that meets all the standards. These requirements certainly solved the motivation problem. The TLC has proven to be an overwhelming success. First offered in 1997, it has resulted in the development of over 100 high-quality, online, high school courses on almost every conceivable topic. We cannot keep inventing new courses, so a one-semester TLC was modified into a one-semester course for teachers who will facilitate a section of one of the existing courses, rather than making a new one. 3 See http://www.metacourse.com 406 Online Learning: Personal Reflections on the Transformation of Education We have learned to select teachers who are likely to succeed in these courses and to fail those unwilling to do the work quickly in the first few weeks of the course. As a result, we have over 95% completion rates. Many teachers say that TLC is the most rigorous and exciting professional development that they have ever had and that it improves their face-to-face teaching as well. The TLC is proof that teachers will take and complete a rigorous, 100% online, yearlong course if the motivation is right and the course is well designed and well facilitated. In the VHS model, a teacher’s school reduces their normal teaching assignment by one section so they can teach one section of an online course. The school loses the 25 seats the teacher normally teaches, but is compensated with the same number of seats that students select from any of the 100+ online courses. Thus, to a school, there is no change in the costs of instruction but a huge gain in the variety of courses they can offer. Unlike their response to most virtual schools, the unions love the VHS because there is no loss in local jobs and their members get high-quality professional development that greatly expands their professional options. The VHS was carefully analyzed by an outside evaluation team and pronounced a success (Zucker, Kozma, Yarnall, Marder, & Associates, 2002). We wanted the VHS to continue post-funding and it was clear that The Concord Consortium was not the right environment for this. The VHS needed a team that had the enthusiasm, financial constraints, and focus of a start-up, not an R&D group that is always studying the next innovation. For this reason, at the termination of the grant in late 2001, we spun out the VHS as an independent nonprofit under the direction of Liz Pape4. This transition was difficult, as it required both CC and Hudson to transfer to the new organization valued staff members, intellectual property, and cash. Generous funding from the Noyce Foundation was essential to make this transition feasible. The VHS is now funded primarily from school memberships and continues to offer over 100 teacher- designed courses on a cooperative basis. Many have copied the general idea of online high school courses, but none have adopted the cooperative model or the central role of teacher professional development through the TLC. Seeing Math Our practical applications of online collaboration have always been limited by bandwidth available in schools, starting with Kidnet, which pushed the envelope by requiring 1,200-baud modems as opposed to the then-current 600-baud acoustic modems. By early 2000, we expected that most schools would soon have sufficient bandwidth to support short video segments, at least for teachers. Thus, the logical next step for online teacher professional development was to design courses around video case studies, a project we named Seeing Math.5 We teamed 4 See http://govhs.org 5 See http://seeingmath.concord.org Robert Tinker Learning Through Online Collaboration 407 up with Teachscape6 to produce a dozen video case studies for elementary mathematics. Nine of these are currently available commercially. Each focuses on one math concept and shows one way to address the topic in a real class, not as an example to follow, but as a stimulus for discussion about the content and teaching strategies. The videos are very high quality and the associated materials provide extensive documentation that includes the teacher’s lesson plan, examples of student work, the associated standards, and video commentary by an expert mathematics educator. An extensive implementation guide helps school-based trainers design an effective district-wide professional development program that can be based on online or face-to-face discussion groups. We continue to try to anticipate advances in the technological sophistication of schools and to experiment with combinations of technologies that can enhance teacher and student learning. When we began expanding Seeing Math to secondary mathematics, we decided that it was now feasible to fold in software. Other projects at The Concord Consortium are experimenting with tracking student use of software tools and returning sophisticated assessment data to teachers and researchers. Our goal for our online Seeing Math algebra teacher courses is to combine this capacity with video cases to make compelling courses that will increase student learning. The software and videos both can be valuable stimuli to conversations between teachers. The software can also help the participating teachers brush up on the content, but it will also be available for use with their students. If teachers choose to use the software, it will provide the teachers and us with detailed information about student learning. Ultimately, I hope that we can integrate the Seeing Math course for teachers with a course for students linked through the software. I endorse the recent emphasis on higher-quality educational research. It must not be forgotten that the avoidance by the profession of hard-nosed research has been, in part, an economic issue: it is expensive. We are fortunate to have the resources to study both the elementary and secondary Seeing Math in detail. We are hoping to be able to demonstrate increased student learning as a result of teacher completion of online Seeing Math professional development. We plan a series of very careful tests that will be reproducible and, hopefully, convincing. As part of this planning effort, it has been enjoyable to brush up on statistics and experiment design. Closing Thoughts The journey goes on. Technology is not unitary, not all technologies improve education, and technology itself is not the goal of our work, but the evolving capacities of information technologies have much to offer educators. Online collaborative courses represent one of the most exciting new educational resources 6 See http://teachscape.com/html/ts/public/html/index.htm 408 Online Learning: Personal Reflections on the Transformation of Education created by technology. It appears that collaboration is central to the added value of online learning. Without collaboration, the social value of networking is lost and online courses become simply extensions of existing course formats. Effective collaboration comes at a cost, however, because a trained facilitator is needed for each collaborating group, which cannot exceed about 25 participants. In addition, groups need time to build understanding and trust. It may not be too surprising to have discovered that technology does not provide a substantial cost saving for courses, but it does offer many other advantages: quality, integration with other technologies, and the ability to reach thin audiences. Unfortunately, technology also creates many options for low-quality online courses. This has been a great problem for the VHS and Teachscape, which are trying to compete in an environment where almost anyone can create an impressive-sounding collection of online courses. Many state departments of education and companies have jumped in without the thought and resources to do an adequate job. The result is a plethora of options that have given a bad name to online courses and have created a cacophony that can drown out the few quality sources. Quality is a challenge to measure and difficult to document but the only acceptable goal. References Barstow, D., Tinker, R., & Doubler, S. (1996). National conference on student & scientist partnerships. Washington, DC. Berenfeld, B. (1994). Technology and the new model of science education: The Global Lab experience. Machine-Mediated Learning, 4(2-3), pp. 203-227. Cohen, K. C. (Ed.). (1997). Internet links for science education. New York: Plenum Press. Collison, G., Elbaum, B., Haavind, S., & Tinker, R. (2000). Facilitating online learning: Effective strategies for moderators. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing. Feldman, A., Konold, C., & Coulter, B. (2000). Network science, a decade later: The internet and classroom learning. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Harasim, L. (Ed.). (1990). Online education: Perspectives on a new environment. New York: Praeger. Romiszowski, A. J., & de Hass, J. A. (1991). Computer-mediated communication for instruction: using email as a seminar. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 3(3), pp. 265-283. Tinker, R. (2001). E-learning quality: The Concord model for learning from a distance. Bulletin of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, 85(629), pp. 36-46. Robert Tinker Learning Through Online Collaboration 409 Tinker, R. (2003, May 2). The Karplus lecture: History and the next revolution. Paper presented at the National Science Teachers Association, Philadelphia. Tinker, R., & Kapisovsky, P. (1991). Consortium for educational telecomputing: Conference Proceedings. Cambridge, MA: TERC. Tinker, R., & Kapisovsky, P.(1992). Prospects for educational telecomputing: Selected readings. Cambridge, MA: TERC. Zucker, A., Kozma, R., Yarnall, L., Marder, C., & Associates. (2002). Teaching Generation V: The virtual high school and the future of virtual secondary education. New York: Teachers College Press.
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