The studies described in Chapter Six stemmed from research projects and resources that LCHC brought from New York, including a number of junior researchers who had participated in the LCHC projects described in Section 2.
By contrast, the research we describe in this chapter was initiated by LCHC researchers at UCSD who took a special interest in the potential of computers and computer networks to re-mediate the processes of education in more equitable and socially productive ways.
It was mere happenstance that the move of LCHC from Rockefeller to UCSD coincided with the burgeoning interest in a new kind of computer, a “personal” computer that sat on a person’s desk, enabled text editing, game playing, and communication-at-a-distance using modems connected to telephone lines. 1970s, the public face of a computer was a punch card. However, by the end of the decade, as LCHC moved to UCSD, an apple with a bite taken out of it became the symbol for microcomputers with promising, but yet unknown educational value.
To develop a research program that explored the potentials of computer-mediated human activity, Jim Levin was recruited to LCHC from a computer science research institute. He brought with him an ability and enthusiasm for creating new computer pedagogical tools, an understanding of the earliest burgeoning of the Internet, and a shared research interest in problem solving in everyday situations.
Supporting Learning with Computers
Preoccupied with projects carried over from Rockefeller University, many at LCHC first became involved with computers through its communicative potential. Email, which was just coming into widespread use within UCSD, quickly became our lifeline for coordinating our work across a distributed geography of research sites and fractionated project and teaching schedules. Shared research projects coupled with teaching obligations fostered an appreciation for the high level of coordination across distance that email could provide.
It was in the course of coordinating our work that we realized that our messages were not just about logistics. People began to write accounts of current work activities; we began to recognize that the formation of new ideas related to our more theoretical, academic concerns had begun to creep into the flow of mail. Our roles as educators and researchers became increasingly tangled together in the process. Computers as general-purpose communications media became, and remain, a central theme of LCHC.
Our vision of how to use computers for educational purposes rejected the two conceptions that dominated these early years. The first approach focused on teaching about properties of the computer itself. Teachers, who were themselves just learning about these new machines, brought them to class and engaged their students in figuring out how to develop basic operational skills, including typing and simple programming. The second, more common approach was for educators to buy educational software packages. This software assumed that the computer was a substitute for the ubiquitous workbook. Some of these early programs were even designed to look and feel like a workbook. In this approach, drill and practice of factual content tightly controlled by the computer “teacher” was the core of the curriculum, and memorization of facts was the valued outcome.
At LCHC, we were interested in efforts to use computers to support learning and problem solving in more creative and generative ways. Starting from the widely available “productivity tools” that were being developed for adult use (word processors, spreadsheets, and graphics programs) we began to fashion new tools and pedagogical practices that would support a more active, constructivist form of learning. We also valued games both as a way of providing visually interactive tools for learning and problem solving and as a source of motivation and creativity.
From the start, we were particularly concerned with issues of social equity. A 1983 article by The Computer Use Study Group, Computers in Schools: Stratifier or Equalizer, summarized the issues neatly. Three questions motivated this work:
- Will students from different strata of society obtain equal access to computers?
- Will students from different strata of society be taught similar or different uses of computers?
- Will computers enter schools briefly, and then, like previous forms of educational technology, be stored in the closet because teachers fail to find ways to use them to accomplish their educational goals?
Early on, it became clear that the answer to the first two questions was a disappointing (but not unexpected) NO. Poor kids had less access to computers. In addition, even when they had access to the technological infrastructure, narrowly understood, they received lower quality instruction.
Consequently, the challenge confronting LCHC seemed clear: How could we create economically accessible, pedagogically rich educational practices using personal computers that would provide real access for the economically disadvantaged?
Developing a new methodology
We recognize that some of the research summarized in this chapter may appear antiquated (the programs were initially designed for use on an Apple II with 64 KB of memory). While some of the findings remain of interest in themselves, we believe that the enduring significance of this early research is to be found in the general methodology we adopted. In one way or another, each project sought to implement the idea that educational activity is an interactive, culturally mediated, socially organized process in which learners should be active agents. The role of computers in this process is to support the teachers and students in creating such activities.
Based on the earliest documents describing LCHC members’ research on computers in educational activity, it is clear that whatever the specifics of the setting and the particular theoretical language used, there was a common focus on the idea that computers could provide a rich source of “dynamic support” for learning.
Whether drawing upon Vygotsky’s idea of the zone of proximal development, Feuerstein’s ideas about social mediation and educational enrichment, or cognitive scientists’ attempts to create flexible help in computer-based tutorial systems, our emphasis was on active, two-way interactions among people mediated by their tools, as central to the processes of teaching/learning and development.
As in the studies reported in Chapter Six, LCHC researchers placed emphasis on the need to address computer mediated educational processes at three interconnected “levels” of analysis:
- Tools:We were especially focused on the design of the tools of interaction “themselves.” In research discussed here, the tools are computers, their programs and supportive artifacts. Often this research focused on an individual learner interacting with a computer program designed to provide dynamic support for the learning process.
- Activity Systems:We also focused on the use of the tools in their social context, which often meant the design of activities and activity settings where two or more learners (adults instructors, and other class members) interact with each other with/through a computer. These “learner in context” interactions were seen as important sources of dynamic support that can amplify the learning process for all concerned.
- Networked Activity Systems:Lastly, we were interested in learners in teaching/learning settings in relation to the larger social context of the focal activity settings. In the case of connecting the activity setting with personal computers to the larger social world, special emphasis was placed on children who were separated geographically and temporally, but who were interconnected by computer networks. We believed that such distributed, cooperating, systems provide dynamic support for each others’ learning by creating new configurations of learning experiences where learners get to experience computers as tools in service of their own valued goals.
Although, as we shall see, these categories were often co-present in the research, we will use this simplified “three levels” approach as a heuristic device to organize our presentation. We will return at the conclusion to summarize themes common across studies.
1) Computers As Teaching and Learning Tools
It is perhaps now difficult to imagine, but in the late 1970s, it was not clear that young children could use word processors and other computer-based tools initially designed for adults. Keyboards were not common in elementary classrooms — typewriters were generally available only to students in high schools.
When we first placed a personal computer in an elementary school classroom, we discovered genuine naiveté about the most basic commands required to engage in the computer-based activities we wanted to introduce. For example, when students in one of the projects were asked to check out a game which had the early instruction “Push the space bar to continue,” they got excited because they thought that they were about to see the “space bar” in the intergalactic “Cantina Scene” from the “Star Wars” movie! However, they quickly expanded their vocabulary to include computer terms such as space bar, keyboard, disc, monitor, drive, boot, and reboot.
Early computer programs developed at LCHC focused on literacy and numeracy provide examples of the ways in which designing for dynamic support and actively engaged learning resulted in qualitatively new (and we believed, superior) types of classroom computer uses.
The Writer’s Assistant
At the same time that LCHC arrived at UCSD, another group at UCSD was developing a computer language called UCSD Pascal, which was designed to help people write computer programs. Jim Levin was able to modify the UCSD Pascal Editor to develop the Writer’s Assistant for use by young student writers. He retained already-available computer editing commands such as “cut,” “copy,” and “paste,” while adding additional command tools to enhance the level of dynamic support for writing.
For example, he created a “spelling verification” command, which allowed children to place the cursor over a word about which they were uncertain to ask for verification of their spelling. Instead of simply providing the answer, the program searched for and displayed a plausible match along with a definition. It was left to the children to accept the word or reject it and continue searching. The purpose of designing the spell checker command in this way was to require the children to engage the process of spelling in a conscious way, by requiring them to make a best guess at spelling and then have access to feedback.
We quickly learned that 3-4th grade children have little trouble writing with a word processor and enjoyed using it. However, we were poor prognosticators about what features of the program would attract them. Our specially crafted tools, or even cut and paste, were hardly used, but the children loved the ability to add and erase text without leaving a trace. One student offered his insight that the best thing about writing with a word processor was that when you hit the space bar, you got “exactly the right amount of space” (Levin & Boruta, 1983). When student erasures in a paper writing assignment were analyzed, it turned out that the majority of the erasures were to create more space between words or to close up space.
The Interactive Interpreter: An Early Approach to Hypertext Writing
To increase dynamic support for the writing process, Jim and his colleagues implemented an early hypertextual system called the Interactive Text Interpreter (ITI), which made it easy to create “interactive texts.” Different features provided different kinds of supports for reading and writing. For example, the ITIs could be “StoryMakers” that allowed children to “write” a text simply by selecting from a set of multiple choice sentence options (see Rubin, 1980; Bruce, 1987, p. 276; Bruce & Rubin, 1993). The resulting story could then be saved and further edited with the Writer’s Assistant. We also had “fill in the blank” ITIs, with which a person could “write” a text by typing in some text that fit into a template provided by the ITI.
These interactive texts occupied spaces between reading and writing, and helped writers avoid “blank screen” paralysis. A good example of how these ITIs can provide dynamic support for learning to write is contained in the master’s thesis research of Barbara Miller-Souviney (1985).
She constructed four ITIs that spanned the spectrum from simple choice to prompted writing. In the first interactive text, students “wrote” about how to make a sandwich by selecting a path from a set of multiple choices in the “StoryMaker”. Their completed text was saved, and the students could further edit it in the Writer’s Assistant, but the only text that each student typed initially was in his/her name.
The next two interactive texts that they were provided contained some text, but often required the learner to enter additional text as well. The resulting text (describing a day at school in the second interactive text and how to run a computer in the third), was about 50% text typed in by the learner and 50% supplied by the interactive text.
In the final interactive text, students described how to do something by following a sequence of prompts regarding the sequence of components of an appropriate expository text (the introduction, the steps involved in the activity being described, the conclusion paragraph). In this example, the learner wrote all of the text.
The Shark Games
Jim created a set of computer games for mathematics learning that provided dynamic support in a more typical game-like fashion, where each level of success leads to a more challenging estimation task by providing levels through which the player advances as they acquire expertise. The Shark Games were designed to teach numerical estimation skills, with players given the goal to “harpoon the shark” in a two-dimensional Cartesian screen space.
The game itself was designed to be played at different levels of difficulty (different sized sharks, different ranges of numbers across which estimation had be made, the introduction of negative and decimal numbers, hints about which direction to move along the number line, etc.). Despite its graphic simplicity, and perhaps because of it, the underlying number line schema, the development of which is the adult’s goal for the activity, stood out quite clearly. Moreover, it proved an effective medium for teaching this central aspect of elementary mathematics that remains relevant to this day.
2) Computers as Tools Embedded in and Shaped by the Activity Settings
Research relating educational use of computers to their activity settings took place in regular classrooms, in special activities set up as “pull out” programs during the school day, and as after school activities. Each set of circumstances provided different resources for exploring how changes in the overall structure of the activity could be mobilized to promote learning. Characteristic of many of these settings was that we had greater freedom to experiment with different forms of organization for different kinds of kids outside of standard full class, recitation-scripted instruction. Activity-centered classrooms represented one end of the continuum of experimentation with after school clubs representing the other. The studies conducted in these alternative settings were predominantly focused on children who were struggling in school for a variety reasons including diagnosis of a specific learning disability or the need to acquire English as a second language.
Computers in Classrooms
One of the earliest findings of the classroom-based work was that computers seemed to be more successfully incorporated into classrooms organized around a small number of “learning centers” rather than in classrooms organized around teacher-led whole-group lessons and seatwork. In classrooms where teacher-led lessons were the norm, a few computers might be placed at the back of the classroom and children who did well in their seatwork were rewarded by access to standard fare edutainment games.
However, in classrooms organized as an ensemble of learning centers, even one or two computers could be placed in a learning center and used effectively if students were encouraged to interact around the assigned task in pairs or triplets. Instead of decreasing social interaction in the classroom, as feared by many, the computers used collaboratively lead to increased levels of academically relevant interaction (Levin, Riel, Cohen, Goeller, & Boruta, 1985). A number of findings obtained in this study were replicated in the other settings and among the different populations of children to be described below.
When working together, the students routinely revealed to those around them their understandings of the problems they were encountering. This externalization of understandings played several important roles in addition to its diagnostic value for the teacher. It provided authentic occasions for children to formulate their ideas and test them “in the heat of the action.” It also resulted in original and often-productive divisions of cognitive labor that the researchers had not envisioned in their design of the computer program. This revealed new aspects of the cognitive work involved in the ongoing teaching/learning process. In addition, the dialogical interactions grounded in the computer-based tasks enabled students to learn from working with their peers.
The use of students as learning resources extended beyond the initial dyads as students developed reputations for expertise in this new domain. Students and teachers quickly learned which students could provide technical help and problem solving solutions. By drawing on the broader social context of the classroom, students become a valuable resource for knowledge building, both in content matter disciplines and about the technology (Riel and Levin, 1985). We made special note of the fact that it was often the students who were not among the academic stars of the classroom who became the expert in some new domain that was provided by the technology. This dynamic had a positive impact both on the new experts and on their peers.
Computer Problem Solving Activities For Students with Language Difficulties
Margaret Riel, who became a member of the Lab while a graduate student at UC Irvine, used computer games to study native English speaking children who had been placed in special classrooms because they had been diagnosed as delayed in their development of language (dysphasia). She sought to better understand how children’s specific language difficulties intertwined with their social and cognitive skills to disrupt classroom learning. Eight dysphasic students were drawn from two special education classrooms at two schools, and eight students from regular instruction classes were selected to be controls. Pairs of children in each group were invited to participate in a special “pull out” program in the media center where video cameras had been set up to record both physical interaction with the computer and social interaction between the students. As expected, the dysphasic children displayed more linguistic errors as they chatted while they played the games than their partners did, although these errors were sporadic and inconsistent for reasons that were difficult to identify (Riel, 1983).
Whatever the cause of the intermittent errors, the evidence of difficulty in their problem solving behavior was quite marked. The dysphasic children frequently began a new game without attending to instructions and often chose the most difficult level of a game. When play was difficult, instead of adjusting the level of difficulty they faced, they often changed the rules of the game!More…
English Language Learners
An important characteristic of a number of the classrooms that served as the sites for the initial research on computers in classrooms was the presence of a significant number of children whose first language was Spanish, and whose English oral language skills, as well as their literacy skills, were well below the expected norm.
Working in a classroom where computers were included in the array of activity centers, Luis Moll and his colleagues documented a myriad of ways in which the combination of poor reading skills and lack of knowledge of English provided severe barriers to the children, which of course became additional pedagogical concerns for the teacher. They also documented the ways in which the materials and practices adapted from the other LCHC classroom projects could significantly overcome, if not entirely remove, those barriers. At the simplest level, they translated some of the key written materials so that children could at least enter into the games. They also allowed the children to work together using any mixture of Spanish and English they wished, so long as they engaged the learning tasks embedded in the games. In addition, they provided bilingual teachers and research helpers.
Over the course of the school year, as the children began to develop increased oral English language, reading, and social skills, their need to turn to the teacher for help decreased. The teacher, for her part, learned to use the text generating capacities of programs like the Writers Assistant and ITI to provide text in Spanish or English so that the children were now able to engage with the computer tasks in two languages, as they had been able to do with each other orally. The children began helping each other, and as we saw in other circumstances, children emerged as recognized experts in relevant parts of the activities, which changed their identities as learners in the eyes of both the children and the teacher.More…
Luis and Anne Marie’s report makes it clear that, as in all of the other classrooms studied, flexible, multi-level, and dynamic support could be combined with the various design features employed in the entire corpus of studies to help bilingual children acquire valued academic skills, including skills in English reading and writing and identities as successful learners. But they also cautioned that such successes were highly variable and demanded a high level of effort from the teacher and the observer-cum-assistant. They especially cautioned against the illusion of a “one size fits all” form of computer activity that will produce success for all. They argued instead that the use of computers in the classroom to boost bilingual children’s learning required pedagogical arrangements that permit multiple entry points into the activity. Moreover, effective computer use in instruction requires arrangements that allow adults to provide dynamic support.
Using Computers in After-school Activities for Struggling Students
In the previous chapter, we described the after-school reading activities that we organized as a part of our research on learning disabilities, the term of art at the time this work was done. Here, we describe the other half of that after school program, which was the use of computers as media of interaction in an “after-school club” setting where we could design the activities to make maximal use of play and computer-mediated literacy and numeracy experiences. This mixing was evident in the scripted “play” of Question Asking Reading (QAR, see Chapter 6) but it was much more prominent once the activity left the classroom and moved in the after-school hours. Three such activities began simultaneously, each in a different neighborhood, with distinct ethnic populations.
We have already mentioned the Computer Expert club run by Esteban and Luis where the population was largely Latinx. Alonzo Anderson began a parallel program in a Black neighborhood. The best documented of these programs, which became a prototype for research called the Fifth Dimension Project. It was designed as only half of the after-school program, but we soon recognized it as a very useful tool for involving the children in the more recognizably academic task of literacy instruction.
The Fifth Dimension Initial Design
As a practical matter, we could not conduct the reading activities for all the children who came to “Field College” at the same time. The group sizes would have overwhelmed us. At the same time, we were mindful of the fact that we were dealing with an AFTER school context, so the activities the kids engaged in had to be fun or they could/should walk out. The children generally enjoyed QAR, but it could not compete for attention with edutainment games. Providing the children with both activities, and making “junior counselor” status in the Fifth Dimension contingent on good performance in QAR, offered a useful means to link the two activities.
In light of these issues, we divided Field College activities so that half the children “played computers,” while the other half engaged in the small, group reading instruction activities described in Chapter 6. In adopting this approach, we were taking advantage of the fact that video arcade games had just become a popular culture craze and that, as described above, several members of the Lab were actively studying the use of personal computers for educational purposes.
The eventual system that grew out of this work evolved over time as we struggled to put together the right balance of fun and education in children’s engagement with the still-new computer technologies that were sprouting up around us.
Before the Fifth Dimension came into being, we simply did our version of what our colleagues were doing in classrooms and “pull out” programs. We had the kids come and take turns playing different computer games together. Our “computer-time” facility consisted of three Apple II computers, two undergraduate assistants to act as computer aides, a part-time staff person, and a small number of promising new educational activities masquerading as arcade games.
Our initial results were mixed. On the one hand, the children and the college students who played the games along with them often created educationally effective interactions. Learning was happening among children who were said to be learning disabled. Nevertheless, the technology was very new and unstable. When we were slow to insure that the games we wanted to use were reliably available, almost immediately the children brought in commercial games such as Pac-Man that colonized the computer activities to an uncomfortable degree. We were chagrined when a teacher commented that we must have been trying to overcome their learning disabilities through improvement of psychomotor skills (a popular theory of the causes of dyslexia at the time, to which we did not subscribe). We also found that unless the adults present were very skilled at controlling the group of children using the facility, the bigger children, the more practiced children, and the male children monopolized the computers. The computer time activity stubbornly refused to “organize itself” into a mixture of activities that we could view as healthy.
It was this set of circumstances that motivated the invention of a semi-structured game world into which the various kinds of computer-based activities could be fit — a “more inclusive activity” that encouraged educationally productive interactions with a reasonable level of adult support and equipment costs. In designing this new form of “computer time,” we were well aware of the research carried out in classroom settings that we have been summarizing in this chapter. Jim and our other colleagues provided support, their expertise, and specially designed programs. We had also witnessed the potential power of computers as communications media, which could be part of a system that made reading and writing to children in distant places a resource –an authentic occasion to develop their literacy skills. The special challenge we faced was to integrate these potentials into a single, manageable system of activities for habitually failing children during the after-school hours.
Several considerations guided design of this after-school, computer-centered curriculum led by Peg Griffin. Our central design goal was to change the mix of computer activities in a manner that would satisfy both the children’s desire to have fun and our desire for them to develop the academic competencies that they were failing to acquire in school. In this design process, we were anxious to retain the good features of the social interactions around computer activities reported in the previously described classroom-based, computer-focused research. We especially valued the redistribution of expertise that gave children the opportunity to be experts vis-à-vis us and their peers, and the many opportunities for discussion of cognitive skills and strategic planning that multi-party game play encouraged. Further, we wanted to avoid the need for adults to micro-manage turn taking around the games. The system that Peg Griffin came up with was a fictional world called “The Fifth Dimension.”
The Fifth Dimension Prototype
The initial 5th Dimension (5thD) was loosely modeled on the role playing game, Dungeons and Dragons. It was composed of an ensemble of largely computer-based tasks that were coordinated by a Wizard who was never seen, but who communicated the rules of activity by video tape recorder in a deep and mysterious bass voice and who corresponded with the children via email.
We built a physical model of this play world in the form of a 3′ by 6′ maze with 21 “rooms” where the floppy discs containing the computer games and information about their use were to be found. After a great deal of shuffling about, we selected a beginning set of 22 computer games and 4 non-computer activities that children were invited to engage with when they entered the rooms in the 5thD.
Like commercial computer games, the 5thD had a set of embedded goals where success at some nominal level was both demanded and generally accessible. It also embodied a series of higher order goals that allowed the children to succeed while striving higher. Like Dungeons and Dragons, and other role-playing adventure games popular at the time, the 5thD had a chance component to it, along with various escape clauses that permitted the children an added measure of control over their fate. The Wizard gave children and adults somewhat equal control by providing each with typewritten copies of the rules and procedures, including a procedure to ask for clarification of unusual situations. All of these materials and their associated rules of use constituted a medium full of problem solving opportunities to be discovered and tackled.More…
By the close of the school year, the new computer curriculum was in full swing. Every child had explored many of the edutainment as well as more academic games, and many children had put in hours of practice on specially designed LCHC games. From the standpoint of research, and with the Wizard’s genial, if erratic, collaboration, the flexible framework of the 5thD continued to evolve with the developing skills of the students, the undergraduates, and ourselves. Although it took some time to come to fruition, we were able continue research on the 5thD a few years later, a topic to which we turn in Chapter 11.
3) Connecting Classrooms at a Distance to Complement Learning Activity Systems
Several projects began to explore the educational potential of engaging children living in different parts of the same city or different parts of the world in collaborative projects using the earliest forms of store and forward messaging made available at universities and through private companies.
When initial ideas about the instructional value of networks surfaced, Jim Levin was working with Ron and Suzie Scollon in Alaska to explore the potential of asynchronous interaction in college-level instruction. To test out their ideas, Jim and Bud Mehan organized an undergraduate class taught by Mehan in which, for three weeks of the course, half of the students were randomly selected to engage in regular face-to-face discussion, while the remainder interacted with the class entirely through an asynchronous message system. A key finding of this study for using analogous methods with elementary school children was that several students who rarely spoke up in the face-to-face interactions were major discussants in the asynchronous, computer-mediated classroom discussions. This finding fit with the Scollon’s ethnographic work in classrooms and communities, which showed that Athabasscan children were more likely to wait longer times before turns of talk. (Scollon & Scollon, 1981).
Speculating based on these findings, Levin, the Scollons, and other LCHC members sought to understand if the much longer time gaps in e-mail exchanges might mitigate the issues of different face-to-face turn taking conventions and produce more engaged communication involving those often left out in face-to-face interactions. The researcher were struck by the parallels between the UCSD course findings and the Scollons’ studies of face-to-face discourse patterns among Native Americans in Canada, where standard classroom routines operated to disadvantage the Native Americans and students who had less verbal skills in English.
However, the initial efforts to use the connections between Alaska and California were overly constrained by the metaphor of e-mail as postal mail. Jim and Margaret connected students one-to-one in a computer-pals project, but unequal class and school sizes made matching students one-to-one time consuming and problematic because letters did not come for all students. The time and effort to create these informal personal connections was not matched with an increase in learning outcomes. Moreover, the genre of writing friendly letters was not central enough to the curriculum learning goals of teachers (Levin, Riel, Rowe, & Boruta, 1985).
But the effort, despite its shortcomings, produced important results. Firstly, it motivated a change from having children use networking in place of a mailbox. The first of these innovations was to have the children jointly produce a newspaper that combined stories from the two sites into a single “publication” that came to be called “The Computer Chronicles Newswire.” Secondly, it revealed that when properly organized, engaging in such joint activity engendered new forms of initiative on the children’s part. (Riel, 1990; Riel & Harasim, 1994).
The Computer Chronicles Newswire
The major problem with computer pals as a joint activity was that content being shared was personally directed; it was not learning content intended for the whole class. When the joint activity was to write for the Newswire, the students could select articles of particular interest to them. At first, writing for the newswire was not much different from writing to computer pals. The articles the children wrote were brief (averaging only 24 words). While the students appeared to be excited about writing on the computers and worked hard, they needed a lot of help figuring out what to write (a version of the “blank page” problem discussed earlier with respect to the Writer’s Assistant and Interactive Text Interpreter).
However, the dynamics of the activity began to change when the children started to receive stories written by children from Alaska. After the first exchange of texts, the length of their stories more than tripled and increased markedly in quality. The children relied less on the adults present to lend a hand and began to rely more on each other. Side by side with these changes, the students started to take an increased interest in editing their own contributions.
An especially important part of the Computer Chronicles writing process were the editorial meetings at which students from each site had to choose the articles that would go into the local issues of the publication. The children became excited when they were faced with deciding which articles written for the newswire would be published in their own next edition of the Computer Chronicles. They selected entries from the distant site with exotic news (“We couldn’t walk out on the ocean to go ice fishing because it was too stormy …”), but which also contained news similar to their own setting (“… so we stayed inside to play basketball.”)
As editors, the students began the process by evaluating the work of the distant students. They rapidly evolved a set of standards and conventions to guide their actions. At first, they were only effective at seeing the problems in the writing of others. Soon, however, they noted that they needed to apply their developing standards to themselves and began to edit their own writing without having to be prompted. Their orientation to the editorial and revision tasks changed so markedly that children began skipping recess to come to the computer lab and get a head start on editing articles.
Riel (1983) summed up the values of the editorials in the following terms:
“…the Editorial Board Meetings served a number of functions. They set new standards for stories that students would write in the future as well as guides for how old stories might be re-written. They provided motivation and suggestions for the editing of stories. Topics of other students provided ideas for future articles. The students learned about themselves and others through the medium of print. They began to understand why people write things and what makes a story interesting to other people…
…the educational goals of teachers (reading, writing, and revision) were being accomplished while students pursued their own goals of creating a written record of what they were sharing and learning from their distant peers” (p. 66).
Overall, this research demonstrated the new ways that network-based systems could provide new motives and dynamic support for learning. These network-based systems required new forms of social organization of the learning activities, but also provided powerful new ways to harness diversity as a strength, instead of as a barrier.
A Mid-Course Summary
The first decade of LCHC research into the communicative and educational potentials of computers and computer networks was a period of explosive growth. The national excitement about digital technologies and their educational promise gave new life to LCHC’s long-standing commitment to addressing problems of inequality — access to the new technologies became and remains a major concern. LCHC again found a professional audience and sources of financial support to continue its work (See Computer Networking for Child Development (1988), an article published in the Newsletter of Society for Research on Child Development and Kids and Computers: A Positive Vision of the Future (1989), an article published in the Harvard Ed Review).
In Chapter 11, we will return to describe how the lessons learned during these early days of using digital communication technologies to organize collaborations at a distance involving both researchers and the children whose learning they were charged with enhancing.