Implementing and Sustaining Hybrid Learning Activities: The Fifth Dimension

Compositors: Mike Cole

In Chapter 7 we briefly described the initial design of an activity for elementary school children attending an after-school program where it was hoped that we could engage them in academically valuable pursuits. In this chapter we take up the use of that system, dubbed “The Fifth Dimension,” both as a means of studying basic issues in learning, teaching and development and as a means of understanding the circumstances under which such activities can be sustained.

By the end of the research described in Chapter 7, we judged the Fifth Dimension to be a marked improvement over the spontaneous choices of the children with respect both to the acquisition of academic skills and the socio-emotional predispositions to participate in activities where print mediated the interactions they were enjoying. Feedback from parents was quite positive. Initially suspicious, the teachers reported that several of our children showed improved performance in the classroom. And kids kept on coming, improving their ability to deal with a wide range of appropriately challenging academic tasks.

At this point, the Fifth Dimension became an object of intense interest to us. Kids liked it, adults responsible for children outside of school seemed to like it, we liked it both as a way of studying new ways to engage children with intellectual matters and because it proved to be a rich medium for research on into general issues of learning, culture, development and instruction. We also were impressed by enormous impact participation had on the undergraduates who participated in the activities as an apprenticeship in research.

For the next few years we sought funding from the National Institutes of Health to continue the work, but the shift in methodology we had adopted – immersion in the 5th Dimension as a simultaneous means of diagnosis and medium for remediation—seemed too clinical to some committees, too deviant in its mixing of ethnography and psychology by others. It was too applied for the NSF, yet too basic for the Bureau of the Educationally Handicapped that had supported the initial work. To our good fortune, we found support for our work from private sector foundations.

One such organization was the Carnegie Corporation, which had supported earlier research at LCHC, and whose staff members took an interest in our efforts to design new modes of reading instruction incorporating computers and computer networks. They also were interested in our methodological approach that brought together scholars from several different social sciences to wrestle with understanding how it can be that normally developing children find learning to read, let alone acquiring a disposition to read, an insurmountable task. In addition, Carnegie also supported efforts to link this general question to the very specific issue of ethnic and social class inequalities in academic achievement. The support of the Spencer foundation, which was interested not only in issues of technological change and education, but our focus on out-of-school time as a resource for educational improvement, also proved essential in those earlier days.

Using a compilation of such resources, the Fifth Dimension Project was officially launched. When it re-emerged during the 1986-1987 academic year the project had the essential features of its canonical forbearer and a new identity. It was now a “successful educational innovation, ” born as part of a project on understanding the phenomenon known as a learning disability at a time when the public was fascinated by the potential and perils of computer games for children. It continues to this day toward the middle of 2014.

The Fifth Dimension as a Tool of Research

We pursued several goals when we once again took up the Fifth Dimension as an object of research in 1986. The American educational community was a-buzz with concerns that the U.S. was a “nation at risk” and educational researchers were spending a lot of time and effort trying to figure out how to get American children to spend “more time on task.” (Cole, Griffin, & LCHC, 1987). Despite professional and policy concerns, it was not clear how to get children to sit longer at their desks or to do more homework. Nor was the public sufficiently concerned to vote funds for a longer school day or a longer school year.

We knew from our earlier research with the Fifth Dimension, as well as collateral research by other members of LCHC, that there are a variety of ways to attract children and engage them in intellectually engaging, academically relevant activities after school. But we did not know what the potential reach and variety of such activities were, either with respect to potential host community institutions, child populations, or specific kinds of activity.

Based upon our prior experience with the Fifth Dimension, we thought it provided both a potentially effective attractor of children who could benefit from “more time on task” and at the same time allowed us to investigate any special qualities of instruction that might be provided by computer mediated activity in the after-school hours.

The way in which we summarized our goals at the time is a direct implementation of the cultural practice approach to understanding culture and development discussed in Chapter 8. However, in this case we wanted to go beyond bits and fragments of evidence to make our argument. We were seeking a way to provide a convincing empirical evaluation of our analysis in these terms:

1. To research the power of a cultural practice theory to engineer powerful reorganizations of educational activity within a variety of community and school contexts;
2. To investigate the power of communication between sites as a method of fomenting within context change;
3. To create a new kind of educational activity system which can be taken up and maintained by the community with its own resources.(link to Spencer Grant Proposal of 1985.

Each of these goals will be in play in the narrative to follow. The issue of sustainability deserves special attention, because while a basic issue in our proposal, we were least prepared to deal with it methodologically, theoretically, and practically. Our commitment to sustainability, and in particular study of the process of failure to sustain – the devolution of the system – a focal concern. At the start, it was a distant, imagined, state of affairs, so in the early years of the project, it was difficult to think about sustainability theoretically – everyone was very involved in the doing and documenting. At the time of this writing it has become central to the project of the Fifth Dimension.

The Value of Focusing on Sustainability

As recounted elsewhere, Cole’s interest in the issue of sustainability as a goal of educational reform was piqued by early work in West Africa (Cole, 1996). During the interval where we were searching for funds to continue research on the Fifth Dimension, our interest in sustainability was rekindled because LCHC had been commissioned to write a monograph for the National Research Council to identify barriers to the participation of women and minorities in technological fields of study. While immersed in gathering information for the report, an NRC staff member sent the group a report prepared by the American Association for the Advancement of Science about successful technological education programs targeting women and minorities, the very topic we were supposed to be researching (AAAS, 1984). The report identified 16 characteristics of the successful programs, which, if implemented, indicated that “if minorities and women are provided early, excellent and sustained instruction in these academic areas...then their achievement levels parallel those of white males. (AAAS, 1984, p.iv)

The 16 characteristics of the successful programs:

1. Strong academic component in mathematics, science, and communications, focused on enrichment rather than remediation.
2. Academic subjects taught by teachers who are highly competent in the subject matter and believe that students can learn the materials.
3. Heavy emphasis on the applications of science and mathematics and careers in these fields.
4. Integrative approach to teaching that incorporates all subject areas, hands-on opportunities, and com-puters.
5. Multiyear involvement with students.
6. Strong director; committed and stable staff who share program goals.
7. Stable long-term funding base with multiple funding sources.
8. Recruitment of participants from all relevant target populations.
9. University, industry, school, etc. cooperative program.
10. Opportunities for in-school and out-3f-school learning experiences.
11 Parental involvement and development of base of community support.
12 Specific attention to removing educational inequalities related to gender and race.
13 Involvement of professionals and staff who look like the target population.
14. Development of peer support systems (involvement of a critical mass of any particular kind of student).
15. Evaluation, long-term follow-up, and careful datacollection.
16. "Mainstreaming" integration of program elements supportive of women and minorities into the institutional programs.
We could not help asking ourselves why our report was necessary given that the answers were seeking presumably known? Why were new programs, many of which lacked the essential characteristics identified in the AAAS report being reinvented every year, including programs at our own universities? Why, in short, were proven, effective, programs not sustained?

The simple answer in both the American and Liberian cases seemed to be that the successful programs could not be integrated into the normal operation of existing social institutions because they required extra effort in terms of creating the conditions that enabled a sufficient proportion of those 16 success markers to be present. Such “admirable experiments” were tolerated by the social institutions where they were developed only so long as they "paid their own way"; when outside funding dried up, they could not compete successfully for internal resource demands given higher priority than inclusive education.
Here was a new challenge. If we could demonstrate the effectiveness of the Fifth Dimension and have it win acceptance in a host institution, could we do so in a way that was sustainable “over the long haul”? As Cole later posed the question,

As Cole later commented:
"Obviously all innovations don't go away. Some come and stay for a long time, such as the use of IQ-like tests as measures of academic achievement or Thorndikian drill and practice methods to teach basic academic skills. What are the factors involved in the process by which an innovation is taken up or rejected, even if it fulfills society's expectations of it? (Cole, 1996, p. 288)"

A research plan was born. We would create several after-school computer-mediated programs modeled on the original Fifth Dimension in different institutions that hosted children during the after-school hours. These activities would provide the highly desired “more time on academic tasks.” We would run a practicum course in child development at UCSD as a source of “older peers” to provide academically able and motivated personnel to enrich the after-school settings and opportunities for creating zones of proximal development. We would trace each system over time to observe the processes of development that we were attempting to create. During this same period we would learn as much as we could about the history of the institutions we worked with, their current organization and practices. The “activity” (the Fifth Dimension) studied in its “context” (its institutional center, the place of that center in its community, the place of that community in the larger, regional social order).

The goal of sustainability was specified as the continuation of community-university collaboration modeled on the 5thD after the special research funds ran out. Note that LCHC did not propose total withdrawal from engagement. Rather, we specified a cost sharing plan in which both sides would continue involvement, but the presumed costs of continuing would be greatly reduced for each partner because of the resources provided by the other through close coordination.

We obtained a grant to last for four years. Year 1 would be devoted to goal formation‑‑ staff at each community institution, in collaboration with the project staff, would investigate a broad range of potential computer‑mediated activities for children suitable to their site. Years 2 and 3 would be devoted to designing and running the system. Finding methods to improve and evaluate our activities would be uppermost during this period. Year 4 would be the "uptake year" during which each institution would seek to make adjustments needed to continue the project once the startup funding had been terminated. By analyzing the patterns of success and failure. We thought we would have something interesting to say about the conditions that enabled or doomed sustainability of the Fifth Dimension as an inter-institutional educational innovation.

Diagnostically, whatever goal formation had gone on during the workshops, little was in evidence. The local elementary school decided not to go ahead with their involvement because they feared for the safety of their computers; they offered to help the Childcare Center instead. The BGClub and Library personnel had enjoyed the 5thD and thought their kids would like it too. The Library personnel expressed the hope that this could be done in a way to involve the children with library functions, and we agreed it was a good idea. Then the process of development and attrition began.

Each site followed its own, emergent, path of development. At the end of four years, only the BGClub 5the Dimension was continued. The Childcare Center and the Library each dropped out of the program in an institutionally specific way and for very different reasons. The BG Club continued for equally specific reasons that made continuation attractive for the Club, despite the need to pay more of the costs of the program.
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Childcare Center

The first 5th Dimension to expire was at the Childcare Center, where our activities continued only 2/3 of the 1987‑1988 academic year. The demise of the Childcare Center's 5th Dimension was not the result of the failure of the activity to please the children or the staff. In fact, not long after starting the program we were asked to modify our procedures to allow all of the kids could get a chance to participate.

The stress point that led to the demise of the 5thD at the Center was fear of child abuse combined with the relatively rapid turnover of undergraduates (UCSD classes run for only 10 weeks a quarter). As a result of publicity surrounding an alleged child abuse case in Los Angeles and a high level of concern about child abuse more generally, the agency that licensed the Childcare Center insisted that all adults working in a day care facility register their fingerprints with the Department of Justice and obtain a TB test. Money was not a problem but time was; the quarter was well under way by the time all the paperwork was completed, and the undergraduates could go to the site. As a consequence of these complexities, the Center's Director was grateful when we suggested, prior to the start of the third quarter, that we suspend the project.

The Library

The Library 5thD was located in a back corner of the library. When it was not in session, the computers, the maze, and other paraphernalia were stored in an adjacent closet. Because it was located across a freeway from the elementary school, children who attended the Library 5thD were generally dropped off and picked up by their parents and it took a few weeks for the new activity to catch on. By midway through the first quarter we had a steady complement of 6-7 children attending twice a week. In the second year, we accommodated increased demand by running two shifts of the 5thD for an average of 8-9 children per session, four days a week.

Despite its small size, the Library 5thD was the most successful of our systems from the perspective of its impact on the children (Nicolopolou and Cole, 1993). Students and children formed close personal bonds, interactions at this site were marked by the high level of task involvement that developed among the children and the undergraduates.

From early in the project we worked with the Library staff to build expertise in the running of the 5thD and we helped them raise money locally to begin the process of providing hardware and software. We created special activities that required the children to acquire library skills and we met with the staff periodically to review progress in the program. The librarian was helpful in seeing that a phone line was placed near the 5thD to facilitate communication with the Wizard.

At the end of the third year of the project we met with the staff at the Library to discuss the future. We could guarantee that students would keep coming (because Cole could teach the classes or arrange for someone else to), but we could not continue to provide a site coordinator and we could not be responsible for computer upkeep, purchases, etc. The local Friends of the Library agreed to pay for a site coordinator, but the Library staff decided that they did not want to continue the program. There were many reasons for this decision: the Library was short of space, the children sometimes got noisy when they became excited about a game they were playing, there were administrative difficulties in handling the money needed to pay a site coordinator, they did not have time to train people to work with the children, etc. Each of these problems could have been solved, but the fact of the matter was that the librarians had come to the conclusion that the 5thD did not fit closely enough with their main goals as librarians. And that was the end of the 5thD in the Library.

The Boys and Girls Club

The 5thD at the BG Club took place in a large room that well exceeded our initial, modest capacities to accommodate children. We slowly added to our 4-5 computers and undergraduates came in larger numbers, so our capacity to handle larger numbers of children increased. As soon as we had the person power, we kept the program open four days a week. Since the space was not being shared with other programs, we had the luxury of leaving things set up between sessions. We could also put the maze in a prominent place in the center of the room, put children's artwork and posters relevant to 5thD activities on the walls.

The number of children who sought admission to the 5thD fluctuated wildly from a low of 4-5 to a high of 12-13. In accordance with the norm of the Club, children came and went as they pleased; some came only once a week while other were habitués, depending upon their life circumstances and interests.The rapid flow of children, both within and between days, made it difficult for children and undergraduates to get to know each other. The undergraduates and researchers found it difficult to keep track of which games children had completed at each level. These conditions made it difficult for the undergraduates to grasp and make use of the rules and conventions they and the children were supposed to follow. As a consequence, some children (and undergraduates) felt that the rules were coercive and external to them, so they either resisted or ignored them.

These difficulties were sufficient to induce us to try to various strategies to simplify the operation of the 5thD but our attempts were a total failure. Before long the children settled into playing whatever games suited their fancy at whatever level. The Undergraduates themselves started to introduce new rules, but these were not related to each other and everyone felt they were arbitrary and unproductive. But the children kept coming, the Club personnel were pleased, and the students continued to sign up for the class.

That summer we ran a special summertime 5thD at the BG Club in which we returned to the original 5thD structure, elaborating new artifacts to deal with the complexities of the BGClub setting (record keeping devices, a carefully worked out organization of the games within the maze, improving task cards, for example). When the 5thD re-emerged in its elaborated form, it proved a gratifyingly sturdy tool.

I should note that whatever our discontent with the 5thD, the children kept on coming. During the second year, ambitious undergraduates opened a new 5thD in one of the neighboring BG Clubs, and soon thereafter a third BGClub asked for, and got a 5thD. The Clubs gave the program an award and embraced it as an important new addition to their program. Most importantly, they provided the needed support for computers and telephone lines.

When we met with the directors of the Boys and Girls Club at the end of the third year they were committed to continue the program. They did not shy away from picking up responsibility for paying a site coordinator part time and they had already started to provide the needed support for computers and telephone lines. Other BG Clubs in the area also showed an interest in the 5thD and for a while we ran three of them. When the recession of the early 1990's caused cutbacks at both the clubs and at UCSD we cut back to the "main 5thD" at the original Boys and Girls Club.

Following the official end of the project, the 5thD at the BG Club continued to serve as a source of inspiration through which to address the theoretical issues we were anxious to put to the test. The practicum class continued to be taught at UCSD and we continued to send students to the 5thD at the BG Club. We had reached a kind of plateau where we could focus heavily on the work needed to keep the activities developing in a healthy way and in documenting the changes we were (and were not) observing. We wrote articles about what we were seeing and seeking financial support to continue our efforts.

A Foreign Fling with the Fifth Dimension

As summarized in Chapter 10, as part of the Velham Project, in the summer of 1987 an international team of Soviet and American developmental psychologists/educators succeeded in conducting a special summer camp not far from Moscow and a paired camp in San Diego, during which we were able to institute a version of the 5th Dimension including the potential for the kids to interact via a store-and-forward messaging system. The child-to-child correspondence ranged from comparative strategies about how to win at a commonly experienced game, more personal exchanges involving various kinds of cultural display, including riddles, poems, and comparisons of favorite objects The adult discussions were also useful. Scholars on the two sides jointly discussed a wide range of topics including the strengths and weaknesses of various software the children were being exposed to, optimal ways of organizing interactions between the children and particular games, and strategies to take advantage of telecommunications in order to stimulate children’s active engagement in learning and communicating.

From approximately the fall of 1998 to the beginning of the 1990-91 academic year we conducted a wide range of studies in and around the 5th Dimension which complemented work we had already begun in the United States. We placed a high premium on being able to motive child-to-child correspondence; the internet was still too primitive to allow transmission of video cheaply, so we complemented 5th Dimension engagement with various projects to engage the children’s imaginations about each other’s lives and common problems, such as the armed conflicts that broke out in both Estonia and Iraq. Overall, we learned a lot about how difficult it could prove to organize child-to-child correspondence outside of school-like settings, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. Having a reliable foreign partner also allowed us to separate problems in organizing collaborative activities across sites within a country and a shared language from complications arising from unshared language and time delays between opportunities for communication (American sites specially organized in a Chicago housing project, a New York Community Center, a working class suburban New Orleans after school program, and a Southern California free school).

The Velham project advanced our research agenda in several ways. First, vis-à-vis our ability to do interesting design work, we were fortunate to create a unique international team that included a private American software company, Soviet computer scientists and developmentalist-educators to re-design a popular program for teaching children to create algorithms in a manner that mixed Soviet and American ideas on maximization of the program’s potentials (Griffin, Belyaeva, Soldatova, and the Velikhov-Hamburg Collective, 1993).

With respect to sustainability issues, the matter was more complicated. The existence of the 5th Dimension in Moscow was always something of an anomaly, kept together by the project directors on the two sides within the political agenda of the late Soviet era and in particular, Velikhov and Hamburg. The Velham project enabled us to engage others in pursuing our research goals and it certainly made our work visible, but at the same time it fell outside of the scope of our sustainability analysis because of its direct, politically entangled, origins. However, it had a marked impact on the sustainability in the United States

The Unexpected Proliferation of Fifth Dimensions

We have just noted that in order to find a common scientific object that could organize socially acceptable collaborative research between Soviet and American educationalists and developmentalists, three Fifth Dimension replicas were created in three new settings. Each setting provided important data our overall investigation of how the qualities of the 5th Dimension emerge from the process of its implementation in different social, cultural, economic, and institutional circumstances. Significantly, one of the new sites, the La Jolla Children's School, took place during school hours -- a break from the past tradition of placing 5th Dimensions only in the after-school hours. In fact, the 5th Dimension became, for two years, the "computer curriculum" for the school, which believed strongly in the importance of mixing play and education in the schooling process and at the same time, were anxious for the children to become citizens of the world. Oddly, for us, many of the school personnel though the 5th Dimension to be too school like for their taste!

This arrangement suited perfectly our needs for children to be regularly present in order that they be able to engage through the internet with children from different parts of the US, but especially the children from Moscow. Because of its proximity to UCSD, we were able to reduce the turn taking time between receiving and sending notes back and forth in email to less than a day. One effect of this arrangements was to allow us to test the limits of internet-mediated communication among children speaking different languages.

While our attention was focused on the Children's school, the 5th Dimension at the Boys and Girls club continued to function in what we came to think of as its “feckless ways”—the activities were more educationally engaging than ordinary afterschool programs but less educational than we thought deserving of the status as a “successful educational innovation.” But survive it did.

Most surprisingly, it not only survived, it began to evoke requests from nearby Boys and Girls Clubs to start 5th Dimensions of its own. And, to our surprise, it spontaneously gave rise to new 5th Dimensions in the immediate geographical area. Two of these efforts were relatively short-lived. In one case, traffic problems made it too time consuming for undergraduates to reach the site, in the other local budgetary cutbacks reduced the staffing and available space to the point where the program could not maintain its distinct character.
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However, one new site, which over the years played a central role of the development and sustainability of the 5th Dimension project was begun by Olga Vasquez, who came to UCSD as a post-doctoral fellow in 1989. Olga arrived at a point in the implementation of the 5th Dimension at the Boys and Girls club at a time when we had been spending a lot of energy and student ingenuity on what we considered a glaring shortcoming of the Boys and Girls Club. It did not attract the relatively large number of Latino children attending the local elementary school. And we were not succeeding.

Olga arrived from Stanford where she been conducting research on children’s learning both in a variety of neighborhood and family settings, as well as in a computer activity for girls organized by Shirley Brice-Heath. Instead of writing up her thesis, as she had expected to do, she got caught up in the idea of starting her own form of 5th Dimension, one that was specifically designed for the Mexicano community half a mile away from the Boys and Girls Club. The result was La Clase Magica, the goal of which was to create an ideal learning environment that integrated its activities with its local community in such a way that it might be able to sustain itself if, as she expected, she would be going away before long.


Contrary to that early expectation, Olga remained at LCHC as a faculty and for many years has played a central role in the development of the 5th Dimension project. Additional information about the development of Olga's program of can be found in Chapter 12 or by visiting here.


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