COLLABORATIVE LEARNING IN A NETWORKED CLASSROOM
by Jane Lasarenko, PhD
We've come a long way since those early years of pioneering technology in the classroom, the days when the hue and cry went up against traditional classroom forums as places that privileged academic literacy and middle-class values. Those early dissenters who advocated student-centered pedagogies, who advocated the use of technology and networked-based discussions, who raised the ideal of democratization of discourse through anonymity are now at the forefront, if not of the profession as a whole, at least at the forefront of a much larger, and growing faction. In fact, the number of academics using technology in composition classes has "reached critical mass," as someone recently expressed it on ACW-L. The analogy struck me at the time and continues to reveal itself in numerous frightening ways. First, of course, is the scientific nature of the analogy; we continue to define ourselves in terms of the "other," the "scientific." Again, the analogy suggests explosion, destruction: to reach critical mass is to be unable to hold within the boundaries of matter, to violently explode into an energy that destroys all around. Certainly the use of technology alters much in our pedagogies, forces us to reexamine our heuristic and practices. We perforce must let go of many of our cherished and hard-won exercises that we worked for years to develop--they simply don't translate easily into the new medium and environment of computer-based classrooms. One such practice that requires extensive re-visioning is that of collaboration.
This past year I was given the opportunity to establish a dedicated English Department computer classroom. With a great deal of excitement, I set about purchasing the necessary hardware and software and spent hours drawing pictures of my "perfect" classroom setup. Long a proponent of collaborative learning, I investigated all the current technology--listservs, MU* technology, collaborative writing and editing software, chatrooms and word processing and graphics applications. I was to teach two sections of Freshman Literature and Composition, our second semester writing requirement, in the classroom. As the "big day" approached, I got more and more nervous--I had never actually taught a computer-mediated class.
The first day, the students walked into the classroom and blanched. Literally. The excited looks I had envisioned on their faces were the first of many things to fail to correspond to my fantasy. Instead, confusion, fear, and outright hostility met my welcoming gaze. Questions of "are we in the right place?," "what is this?," and "what's going on?" echoed throughout the room. What administration and I had both overlooked in our zeal was notifying students in an easily identifiable way that these two sections of the course were different from the others. So, warmly, jokingly, I assured them that they were indeed "in the right place," and began to talk about the opportunities we had here for the semester. We would use e-mail, we would meet at a MOO, we would join a listserv, we would "surf" the Internet. As I went on, the faces went increasingly opaque; I was indeed speaking a foreign language.
As a first-day ice breaker, I had intended to have students write a short paragraph using WordPerfect about their feelings and experiences with computers to share with the rest of the class. As I asked them to turn the computers on and log in, they sat there. And sat there. Only then did it occur to me that these students had never been near a computer in their lives, much less know how to turn one on, log in, and use it. We went over logging in and reviewed the software and mouse actions that they would need to access the software. I could see their curiosity begin to take over--as well as the relief on their faces--when we finally got to the WordPerfect screen. They duly typed, and we tried to save their paragraphs. At that point, the entire computer network crashed! I was frustrated and angry; they were just plain crushed and scared. What an ice-breaker. Assuring them over and over again that it was nothing "they did," that the system just had some glitches, I frantically tried to pull things back up. By this time, our first class was about over, and I was positive I wouldn't see any of them again.
For whatever reasons, however, they were all back in the room the next class period. In the interim, I had frantically reworked the syllabus to allow much more time for computer training. All I'd heard seemed true--teaching with computers meant teaching about computers and not teaching English. Computers didn't help students learn to write, they helped students learn to operate computers. Trying desperately to hide and overcome my despair, we began again. And again, and again. And in the multiple beginnings, true learning occurred, both for them and for me.
For the past 10 years, I have been an active proponent of collaborative learning strategies in the classroom. Collaboration builds community, and as we have all experienced, community often helps overcome fear and thus engenders learning. So I duly put them in groups of five, explaining carefully what I expected from each group. They would take all their quizzes as a group; they would write and revise their papers as a group; they would work through the class activities in their groups. Many balked; collaboration has yet to hit the mainstream of Texas high schools. Some, however, were relieved; they weren't on their own, left to founder on the reefs on keyboards and network drives. I was smug and complacent; it simply never occurred to me that those painstakingly planned collaborative activities that had always worked so well would not easily transfer to a computer-mediated environment.
For the next four weeks of the semester we went very slowly. I indeed began to feel as if I were teaching computers, not English. We played solitaire to learn how to manipulate the mouse; we began to use WordPerfect to draft paragraphs. One week was devoted almost exclusively to learning how to use e-mail and how to subscribe to the class listserv. I completely gave up on the idea of my syllabus--there was simply no time to cover learning about literature, learning how to write research papers, and learning how to use a computer. I told myself I would be happy if they learned only to write and revise their papers on computers.
The groups seemed to be working well together, although I noticed no improvement in typical freshman quiz grades. Moreover, while they discussed things in their groups, clearly they were unable to write on a computer in a group. As in all groups, one person tended to adopt a leadership role and I noticed that without exception that person did all the necessary keyboarding for their group. Moreover, this same person generally sent the group discussion summary to the class listserv. I mentioned this in class, asking them to make sure that they switched roles every so often so that everyone would get a chance to practice using the computers. All, of course, to no avail. Since this was a writing class, I became rather insistent, I changed the "rules"; part of their grade would now be determined by how often they wrote to the listserv. Good students that they were, they duly complied with my request (although not without much grumbling, griping, and muttering), and the listserv became a high-volume, high-traffic respository for generally worthless statements and redundancies, replete with all the foggy, smoggy statements of agreement that pollutes virtually all the newsgroup boards. I asked for it, I got it. Crying "uncle," we sat down for a class pow-wow to discuss what was going on. A few admitted that they didn't have their own e-mail accounts, some felt they couldn't summarize as well as others in their group, some were just plain too busy, running off to work right after classes. I put forth the argument that successful group work was marked by cooperation and active participation of all its members, not just one or two. They countered by asking "what was the point of groups if you didn't use the resources of its members"?
Well, they had a good point on that one. I spent the weekend rethinking my concept of group work and collaboration and came to the conclusion that they were right. In all my own experiences with groups, work was divided by time constraints, individual strengths (and weaknesses), and accessibility issues, and not by some ideal structure dictated by the "boss." In more traditional classroom environments I had the opportunity to more closely monitor group interaction, could control more easily who did what on a given day. Most important, however, in my zeal to teach generally reluctant students to work collaboratively, I had lost sight of the reasons for collaboration. I had genuinely forgotten that all members did not work equally all of the time.
During the next few weeks, I watched these groups more intently, not as policewoman extraordinaire but as a learner. I first perceived a marked change in the class atmosphere. In the midst of lectures and activities on audience, on ethos, on style, I could see a few surreptiously hook up to Netscape. Rather than discouraging this activity, despite the whispering that went on, I ignored their "off-task" activities. As you no doubt suspect by now, that was no easy task. They were going to miss out on my (wonderful) wisdom, others in the class were going to be distracted, they would not learn what I was "supposed" to teach them. As the days wore on, more and more of the students gravitated towards those who were "surfing"; fewer and fewer were paying attention to the task at hand. I often almost "lost it"; I was "losing control" of the class, I was a "bad" teacher. Luckily for me, however, I did not lose it; instead, I noticed that those who remained paying attention, taking notes, constituted yet another "group," one whose function was clearly to take notes for the other members of their quintet. These students were way ahead of me; I had never even thought of a note- taking function in group work.
Changing tactics yet again, we came back to computers--this time to Netscape and ways to search the Internet for research materials. This time, there was a marked difference in their responses. They were so proud, they beamed at me, they already knew how to use Netscape. "What?", I exclaimed, pretending disbelief. "Oh yes," they assured me, they'd show me and the rest of the class. One of the students bravely opened Netscape and went directly to the Playboy page! Everyone gathered around the student, oohing and aahing and exclaiming "gol-ly! Man, that's cool." Well, what could a struggling technoteacher do but "ooh" and "aah" along with them for about a minute. Swallowing all my bitter thoughts once again, I brought them back to other aspects of Netscape: to Yahoo and other search engines, to Alan Liu's Voice of the Shuttle page and Anderson's American Literature website. But now, students couldn't wait to come to class--they arrived 15-20 minutes early on a regular basis--just to check out some sites and references so they assured me. Classes were getting rowdier and rowdier, more and more of the time was spent on the Internet, critiquing pages. I started to get excited. They were ready to MOO.
I had spent most of the previous semester familiarizing myself with *MU technologies, (an abbreviation for all varieties of Multi-User Domains, Multi-Object-Oriented User Domains, and their less educational kin, Multi-User Shared Hallucinations). These programs are similar to Internet Relay Chat programs (IRC) but differ in that students can construct text-based models, rooms, and objects based upon their learning. For example, one high school class at Diversity University MOO constructed a modern-day version of Dante's Inferno, complete with a bar at the entrance and several layers representing modern counterparts to Dante's vision.
More and more, universities and technorhetoricians are beginning to explore these media for their distance learning and pedagogical potential. I had contacted others on the Internet interested in having classes meet and discuss literature and composition, had created a virtual classroom on Diversity University MOO, and set up several dates for the classes to meet. We spent one class period on the MOO, learning the basic commands to speak, express emotions and actions, and move. Thereafter, students met twice with another composition class from Arizona to discuss several common readings. Given the nature of the medium, MOOs are ideal spaces for collaborative work, particularly for brainstorming and peer review sessions.
As the semester progressed, students wrote one poetry paper, created a website on Glaspell's A Jury of Her Peers, communicated with one another outside class via their listserv and MOO discussions--all collaboratively. In fact, the only work they produced individually was their "long persuasive essay using resources from the library, Internet, and interviews to increase their credibility and authority" (my rather long-winded way of avoiding the dreaded "research paper"). Given the number of peer revisions and generous help they provided one another, even that assignment was heavily collaborative. Almost without exception (there's always one staunch individualist in every classroom), students relied on one another consistently throughout the semester, and the sense of community and group bonding was astonishing to see develop. As the semester drew to a close, students repeatedly requested that they be able to take the final examination collaboratively as well. After all, they argued, they had accomplished everything else for the semester in groups, so the final shouldn't be any different. I half-jokingly rejoined that on that basis, the entire class should receive just one grade, myself included. Well, that was a mistake! They were all in favor of that idea. Despite the jokes, however, I spent another long, agonizing weekend over that one. The sense of community and bonding had spilled over from their individual groups to encompass the class as a whole. I didn't want to jeopardize that collective entity at all. Moreover, I was reluctant to compromise myself--after all, I was the one who encouraged them to start viewing themselves and the others as parts of a larger whole and not simply as a collection of individuals occupying a shared space. Yet there were university "rules" to which I must adhere, there was the long (and strong) tradition of "grading policies" and "examination policies" and all the other "olicies" that had determined all of our academic lives. Yet I was intrigued: What would a collaborative examination look like? How would it be accomplished? What differences would there be from more traditional forms of examinations?
Well, you guessed it; I went for it. The examination consisted of two parts: a short-answer definition section and a lengthy essay. The entire examination would be taken via e-mail on their class listserv. Students were responsible for creating the short-answer section of the test; I would post the essay question to the listserv a week before the scheduled time for the exam. As I watched them struggle with and debate about what should be included in the short-answer section, I became more and more excited. These students were displaying critical thinking skills far beyond those of my more typical freshman sections. For example, one student suggested the following questions: 1) Who wrote "Hills Like White Elephants?" and 2) "What are some of the characteristics of good writing?" The responses from others to these suggestions ranged from silence (often signifying rejection in electronic discourse) to outright slamming. Yet a few took the time to try to explain to the student why these questions weren't very good, basing their evaluations on course goals and objectives rather than simply on scope. The questions the students finally agreed upon were those I would have included myself and then some. They then surprised me even further by dividing the responsibility for answering those questions among themselves. I had thought the collaboration would end with the establishment of the questions. Some expressed a degree of discomfort with this proposal, wanting to contain the activity to their own group. Others pointed out that the examination was a class project and not a group one, a curious distinction to say the least. They finally arrived at a compromise: the entire class would share the responsibility for the short-answer section and each of the individual groups would create their essay responses. Moreover, they decided that if someone failed to contribute to the answer(s), that person would fail the examination. Quality of input was not an issue for them. When I pointed this out, they responded that they would establish a "quality control" group, consisting of those who were not responsible for answering a particular short-answer question. What, I responded, should happen in the event that the quality control group slipped up? That one stumped them until one of the students said "Hey, none of us are perfect. We've all messed up on exams. This is no different. If we get some answers wrong, we get some wrong. I don't know about the rest of you but I don't have the time to answer every question and work on the essay."
Their responses to the essay question, however, while very good, were not so collaborative in construction. In retrospect, I suppose this was inevitable given time constraints and the limitation of the media. Everyone in the class posted at least one response or one aspect of a response to the question: Over the course of the semester you have had the opportunity to practice writing in numerous forums and media. We have enjoyed face-to-face interaction, e-mail exchanges, MOO conversations, formal paper interactions, and journaling. Write an essay in which you discuss the similarities or the differences in your writing behaviors among these media or situations. Time, of course, was at a premium, and generally students left the essay drafting to one of their group members, similar to the way in which they would write their own drafts and comment on one another's work. Unfortunately, they began to feel the stress of other courses, other exams, at this point; most of the writing and editing was done by only one or two of the group members. During the scheduled exam time, we discussed the process of creating this "class examination." Students were generally proud and happy with what they had accomplished, although most felt that only a few had done "all the work." While not quite true, I wish I had given them more time to do the exam, perhaps two to three weeks. I was in the midst of a sizable collaborative writing project myself, and had the class had more time, they, too, could have experienced the joy of true collaborative writing via e-mail. As it was, they fell back on the ways they had already mastered, ways that almost always result in the dominance of one or two voices.
Despite the hassles, the mistakes, the roller coaster ride of emotional swings--or maybe because of them--the semester was a huge success. These students have remained in touch with each other and with me. We learned so much, especially about collaboration in computer-mediated classrooms. We learned that collaboration can take many forms, and that not all traditional collaborative activities work in new environments. We learned that new collaborative venues will open up as the technology advances. We succeeded in forming a strong community of learners, and I thank them with all my heart for the experience.
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