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CPSR Newsletter Winter 1997


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The World at Our Finger Tips

by Ginny Little

CPSR News Volume 15, Number 1: Winter 1997


"The numbers of computers in schools is increasingly rapidly. Surveys of computer purchases during the 1980s indicated that the number of computers in schools grew from 250,000 in 1983 to over one million in 1985 to 2.4 million in 1989. The number of computers is increasing at an annual rate of between 300,000 and 400,000 machines. If it is difficult to put these numbers in perspective, consider that between the 1983-1984 school year and the 1993-1994 school year, the ratio of students to computers improved from 125:1 to 14:1" (Grabe and Grabe, 1995).

With computers becoming more and more accessible to students both in their homes and in school settings, it is increasingly imperative that educators, in conjunction with their students, explore and document the possibilities unique to online learning environments. President Clinton has proposed an additional two billion dollars in federal money so that "every 12 year old can log onto the Internet by the year 2000" (Newsweek, Dec.1996). In choosing ways to use this technology, teachers must determine how it can best serve their pedagogical aims. To sustain public support for the use of technology in education, we must do more to demonstrate its potential educational value. How is technology being used today and how can we envision future possibilities? Berge and Collins (1995) concisely state the central question before us: "Now there is no shortage of technology, only a shortage of the educational vision necessary to use the technology to create new educational environments."

The primary question confronting us is not so much a matter of accessibility to the wealth of information available through technology, but rather of learning how to apply and use the information technology provides in ways that promote learning and literacy as a means for communication, critical thinking, self-awareness, and empowerment. Who better to demonstrate the impact of the lived experiences of technology in the literacy classroom than students and teachers pioneering such programs together?

In this new educational landscape, teachers and students become colearners. Indeed, students' technical expertise often surpasses that of the teacher. The very concept of education is being redefined and transformed, not by the computer, which is just a machine, but by those who are actively engaged in using technology to foster active and holistic learning experiences.

An example of one such program, Creative Writers on the Net (, is currently being cocreated by a multi-aged group of ninth to twelfth graders in Michigan, from eleven schools in nine districts, and two instructors, Virginia Little who resides in Michigan, and Dr. Donna Barnes from the University of San Diego. The online campus includes the following:

  • The Homeroom, for announcements, assignments, collective reflections, technical help, and general questions about coursework and program development
  • The Cafe of the Arts, for student-generated conversations and development of the learning community
  • The Cyberclassroom Writer's Forum, for assigned reading responses, writing invitations, and general coursework
  • The Visiting Author's Forum, for students to invite favorite authors or visitors to engage in online discussions
  • The Student Center, for students to explore, develop, and share individual or collaborative year-long creative writing projects
  • The Staff Lounge, as a place for coteachers to talk, document research reflections, and maintain contact with Metanet staff
  • The Conference Room, for synchronous chat sessions
  • The Archives, for student collection of year-long process-folios Our classroom community is housed on the Internet and the students have become a self-proclaimed "family of writers."

Each week the students respond to one of four writing invitations such as: "Write a poem about the things you'd like to do before you go. It can be serious, frivolous, funny, profound . . . or otherwise." Marta Brill, age 16, responded:

Before I go, I want to eat sunshine
I want to wear grass and flowers
And learn ballet.

Before I go I want to learn
So I can fully appreciate Botticelli and Vermeer
So I can really listen to Verdi and Chopin
I want to know what the carnival is like in Rio De Janero.
Or how an Indian monsoon smells.

Before I go I want someone to love me. And I want someone to
scrape the ice Off my car on some freezing morning.
Doesn't that signify love?
Before I go I want to be on television
Smiling, perky and articulate
With gorgeous hair.

Before I go I want to own something Prada. And quote Tao.
But if I can't, I'll be happy
If I can eat sunshine.

Students comment favorably on the freedom to write in creative forms and the ability to compose without being interrupted by bells and at times of their own choosing (90 percent of the students gain access from home computers).

The safety of the online environment allows space for reflecting before commenting and is especially helpful for normally "shy" students. In addition, students have access to the responses of 30 people to their ongoing work as writers, not just the usual teacher's review of their work. Students are finding their voices, exploring varying genres, engaging with authors and others interested in their work, publishing on the World-Wide Web, and partaking in intense debates on social and philosophical issues ranging from politics to religion to chaos theory. In essence, the students have helped to create a seamless curriculum in which knowledge is integrated and learning is personally meaningful as they seek to discover who they are and how they wish to contribute their unique talents to the world.

For purposes of evaluation, students identified six major purpose statements representing their collective ideas about the purposes and goals for our course:

  1. To continue to build on the foundation and to grow as a community/family
  2. To become better writers
  3. To discover the strengths and weaknesses of technology as a learning medium
  4. To discover more about ourselves through our own eyes and those of others
  5. To develop an environment where creative freedom can flourish
  6. To learn how to give/take/use feedback and critique

These are the touchstones that now guide their directions as members of an online community of writers. Students compile process-folios consisting of a collection of their work and quarterly reflection papers on their growth as writers and their participation in the online community, which are used to document student progress and as a program improvement feedback loop. Technology is not magic. Teachers and researchers in the classroom must engage in the dialogue about how best to use this technology in creating online communities that suppport creative endeavor, social consciousness, responsible action, global networks, meaningful learning, and a more humane technological landscape for the future. "I believe that the on-line process is mimetically related to the action of the poet's mind in which there is, practically speaking, no center, no beginning, no middle or end - or rather, perhaps, the center is everywhere, and the process is more simultaneous, multiphrenic, and multivocal than it is orderly, linear, and conclusive . . . as the author H.L. Goodall has said, the only answer to life's strangeness is further and deeper strangeness, not simplification and clarification. Certainly this is true of both poetry and the increasingly complex technical world" Claire Bateman ("Other Voices Other Rooms," in The Nearness of You, New York: Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 1995).


Return to Table of Contents, Winter 1997 CPSR Newsletter

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