Chapter 7: LCHC Encounters Personal Computers and Computer-Mediated Communication

The studies described in Chapter 6 all stem more or less directly from research projects and resources that LCHC brought from New York, including a number of junior researchers who had participated in LCHC projects described in Section 2. By contrast, the research described in this chapter was initiated by researchers‍ brought together around ‍the potential of computers and computer networks to reorganize the process of education in a more equitable and socially productive way.

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. In the 1970’s, the public face of a computer was a punched card. But by the end of the decade, an apple, with a bite taken out of it, became the symbol for microcomputers with a promising, but yet unknown educational value.

To develop a research program that explored the potentials to 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.

Preoccupied with projects carried over from Rockefeller University, many at LCHC first became involved with computers through its communicative potential. Email quickly became our lifeline for coordinating our work across a distributed geography of research sites and fractionated project 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 coordination 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 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 new fashion 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. The issues were summarized neatly in the the title of an article by The Computer Use Study Group: Computers in Schools: Stratifier or Equalizer. Three questions motivated this work:

  1. will students from different strata of society obtain equal access to computers?
  2. will students from different strata of society be taught similar or different uses of computers?
  3. 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 a disappointing but not unexpected NO. Poor kids had less access to computers and 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?

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 kbytes 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 computer 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, Feurstein’s ideas about social mediation and educational enrichment, or cognitive scientists’ attempts to create flexible help in computer-based tutorial systems, the emphasis was on active, two-way interactions among people and their tools as central to the processes of teaching/learning and development.

As in the studies reported in Chapter 6, LCHC researchers placed emphasis on the need to address computer mediated educational processes at three interconnected “levels” or “units” of analysis:

1) Tools: The design of the tools of interaction “themselves.” In this case, the design of computer programs, in which an individual learner is studied interacting with a computer programmed to provide dynamic support for the learning process.

2) Activity Systems: The use of the tools in their social context (which often meant the design of activities and activity settings where two or more learners interact with/through a computer -- with each other, adults instructors, and other class members. These “learner in context” interactions were seen as important sources of dynamic support that can amplify the learning process for all concerned.

3) Networked Activity Systems: 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 separated geographically and temporally, but interconnected by computer networks. Such distributed, cooperating, systems, we believed, provide dynamic support for each others' learning by creating new configurations of learning experience where they get to experience computers as tools in service of their own valued goals.

Although, as we shall see, these categories were often co-present we will use this simplified “three levels” approach as a heuristic device to organize presentation of the research. We will return at the conclusion to summarize themes common across studies.

1) Computers As Teaching and Learning Tools

It is hard to imagine, but in the late 1970’s, it wasn't 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 naivete 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 “Starwars” 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 in LCHC, focused on literacy, and numeracy provide examples of the ways in which designing for outset dynamic support and actively engaged learning resulted in qualitative 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, designed to help people write computer programs. Jim 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 command tools to enhance the level of dynamic support for writing.more...
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 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 enage the process of spellling 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 had 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 tools, or even cut and paste, were hardly used, but they 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, that 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. The resulting story could then be saved and further edited with the Writer's Assistant. We also had "fill in the blank" ITIs, for which a person could "write" a text by typing in some text that fit into a template provided by the ITI.more...
These interactive texts occupied spaces between reading and writing, and helped writers avoid the "blank screen" paralysis. A good example of how these ITIs can provide dynamic support for learning to write is contained in the masters 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 what has been called a "storymaker" (links to Rubin, 1980; Bruce, 1987; Bruce & Rubin, 1993). 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 his/her name. The next two interactive texts that she used provided some text, but often required the learner to enter 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 of the sequence of components of an expository text (the introduction, the steps involved in the activity being described, the conclusion paragraph), but all the text is written by the learner.

This sequence of "dynamic support" to be effective for her students to learn to write expository texts. The sequence is a good example of how we designed computer environments in the ealry days of LCHC at UCSD to provide dynamic support for learners.

The Shark Games: Jim created a set of computer games for mathematics learning that provided dynamic support in a more typical game 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 and it proved an effective medium for teaching aspects of elementary mathematics to this day.more...
Place Value Place was a visual calculator that used apples, apple crates, and trucks with crates to provide a visual display for addition and subtraction. While most often used in activities with base 10, students could also experiment with changing the base. This visual calculator helps students understand multiple representation of addition and subtraction.

2) Computers as Tools Embedded in and Shaped by the Activity Settings
Research relating educational use of computers in relation to their activity settings took place both in regular classrooms, in special activities set up as “pull out” programs during the school day, and 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 the use of computers as educational tools. Characteristic of all these settings was that we had greater freedom to experiment with different forms of organization for different kinds of kids outside of standard all 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 was 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 seat work. 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 seat work 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 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, 1986) . 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 often 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, revealing 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 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 the disciplines and about the technology (Riel, 1985). We made special note of the fact that often it was students who were not among the academic stars in the classroom who became the expert in some new domain provided by the technology, with a positive impact both on those new experts and on their peers.

Computer Problem Solving Activities For Students with Language Difficulties: Special Needs Students. Margaret Riel, who became a member of the Lab while a graduate student at 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. The eight dysphasic students drawn from two special education classroom 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 videos 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 than their partners as the children chatted while they played the games, although these errors were sporadic and inconsistent for reasons that were difficult to identify.(Riel, 1983)

Whatever the cause of the intermittent errors, the effects on 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 instead changed the rules of the game!

In a followup training study, the Shark Game was presented as part of a special set of routines intended to provide dynamic support for approaching the game in an adaptive manner; supports were abundant at the outset, but were then gradually removed. The children were given experience playing the shark game with a focus on making good use of the instructions and making realistic predictions about their choice of difficulty levels. Given this additional dynamic support, the dysphasic children improved (compared to controls in other classrooms). They also improved in two transfer tests of their game-skills, one in which they were asked to teach younger students how to play the games and the second was in situations when they were asked to learn a new game that did not provide dynamic support. This set of routines as an ensemble nicely illustrates the way that dynamic support can be spread across computer and instructional practices when the activities are properly organized.
In research with a “space invaders” game, Margaret discovered another way in which the computer could provide dynamic support to dysphasic children. She found, consistent with expectations, that dysphaic students had special difficulty distinguishing between spoken words (the names of “friends” and “foes”) that appeared as space ships to be saved or destroyed). However, if the words were spoken slowly enough, the children could respond correctly. So she organized dynamic support by lengthening the critical sounds until the dyphasic students could make the distinctions. Paula Talal, a member of Margaret’s committee, followed up on the therapeutic potential of this finding and developed the idea into a major remedial program for dysphasic students.

English Language Learners: An important characteristic of a number of the classrooms that served as the locations of 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. Luis Moll and Anne Marie Newcombe, working in a classroom where computers were included in the array of activity centers, documented a myriad of ways in which the 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. And 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 Interactive Text Interpreter 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. The children began helping each other and as we saw in other circumstances, children emerged as recognized experts in relevant parts of the activities, changing their identities as learners among both the children and in the eyes of the teacher.more...
In an after school program of elementary school children called “The Computer Experts,” Esteban Diaz and Luis Moll made interesting observations of the ways in which the computer activities could change children’s identities as learners back in their classrooms. One day, knowing that many of her students were attending the after-school computer activities organized by Esteban and Luis, the teacher asked the children in her class “Who has learned something about computers?” All the children raised their hands except one little girl. Then she asked, “Who knows a lot about computers?” A few of the children raised their hands.” The teacher then turned to the one child who not raised her hand and “Why haven't raised you hand. You are member of the computer club, aren't you? The child, usually reticent in the classroom, responded proudly, “I was waiting until you asked who is a computer expert.”

Luis and Anne Marie’s report makes it clear both that, as in all of the other class rooms studied, flexible, multi-level, dynamic support, could be combined with the various design features of 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 caution against the illusion of a “one size fits all” form of computer activity that will produce success for all. They argued that the use of computers in the classroom to boost bilingual children’s learning required the pedagogical arrangements that permit multiple entry points into the activity. Moreover, it 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; 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 script “play” of question asking reading but it was much more prominent once one left the classroom and moved in the after-school hours. Three such activities began simultaneously, each in a different neighborhood, with distinct ethnic populations. more

We have already mentioned the Computer Expert club run by Esteban and Luis where the population was largely Latino. A parallel program was begun by Lonnie Anderson in a Black neighborhood. more…

The best documented of these programs, which became a prototype for research called the Fifth Dimension Project (to be described in Section 4) . It was designed as only half of the “Field College” program, but as an essential tool for involving the children in the more recognizably academic task of organized literacy instruction.

The Fifth Dimension: Initial Considerations: 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 AFTER school, so the activities the kids engaged in should be fun or they could/should walk out. The children generally enjoyed Question Asking Reading, but it could not compete edutainment games. Giving them both, and making “junior counselor status in the Fifth Dimension contingent on good performance in Question Asking Reading provided an additional incentive for linking the two programs.

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.more...
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. But we were slow to get the Shark game and other games we thought promising reliably in place and almost immediately the children brought in commerical games that colonized the computer activities to an uncomfortable degree. We were chagrined when a teacher commented that we must be trying to overcome their learning disabilities through improvement of psycho-motor 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 and their expertise and special 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 our design of this after-school computer-centered curriculum. Central was our desire to change the mix of computer activities that would satisfy the children’s desire to have fun and our desire to be able both to provide more refined diagnosis of their reading difficutlure and for them to develop the academic competencies that they were failing to acquire in school. We were anxious to retain the good features of the social interactions around computer activities reported in the previously described computer-focused research, especially the redistribution of expertise that gave children the opportunity to be experts vis a 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 had to micro-manage turn taking around the games. This goal required us to invent computer-mediated system tasks that the children experienced as useful in an activity they liked. 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 which 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 playworld in the form of a 3' by 6' maze with 21 “rooms” where the 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 Fifth Dimension.

Like commercial computer games, the Fifth Dimension had a set of embedded goals where success at some nominal level is both demanded and generally accessible. It also has a series of higher order goals that allow the children to succeed while striving higher. Like Dungeons and Dragons, and other role playing adventure games popular at the time, the Fifth Dimension had a chance component to it, along with various escape clauses that permit the children some 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...
From the properties of successful arcade games, we knew that it was important for the children to discover new challenges and goals as they moved about in this artificial playworld. They were initially provided with a “cruddy creature,” a small, dime store figurine, to use as an avatar that they moved from room to room in their “journey through the Fifth Dimension. They learned upon entering one of the few entrances to the maze that if they could master enough games to get to another exit, they could “transform” their cruddy by selecting in its place a fancy, “dungeons and dragons creature” then in vogue. When the children entered the classroom on the day that the Fifth Dimension arrived, they found that they could not log onto the computer until they had entered into the game, and they met up with the goal of helping their tokens to escape the Fifth Dimension by one of the possible exits. If successful, their characters were "transformed," and the children could return to the store to purchase new characters to re-enter the maze. If they showed mastery of the full set of games, they could ascend to the role of “Wizard’s Assistant” and play specially selected games in exchange for helping other kids through the maze. Within a week or so all of the children were spending their computer time in the Fifth Dimension. The first student to achieve the goal of transforming a character was a girl who had, until this time, refused to deal with computers at all.
Although some of the children grumbled about restricted access to arcade games that the rules of the Fifth Dimension entailed, most began to find a greater variety of games interesting. In some cases, when the rules gave a choice for a child to enter a room that s/he knew included an arcade game or another room that provided a more education-like game, the child chose to forego the opportunity to play the arcade game in order to achieve goals appropriate to the Fifth Dimension, expanding their range of mastery.
Several additional design features seemed to be involved in the success of the Fifth Dimension environment as a setting for the computer games. Every activity in the Fifth Dimension has three pre-set levels of achievement which controlled movement to a new room and the award of tokens instrumental to some freedom in choosing rooms. For each activity, levels always included at least one that was easily achievable and one that was very hard. consequently, from the perspective of the game-world, arcade games and educational games did not differ much in difficulty; all had goals that were very hard and very easy to achieve, and all demanded skill to gain freedom of movement.

An important factor in the Fifth Dimension, felt strongly by adults, was the mediation of control through the role of the Wizard and its rules. The Wizard quickly developed into a quasi-“real” being with whom the children could negotiate the rules and could be expected to write back promptly when It received email. At times we found ourselves siding with the children as we chafed against circumstances where the children's actions seemed worthy, but were not provided for in the rules or when an activity provided by the Wiz seemed dumb or excessively schoolish. Over time adult participants and children alike learned to use the rules, including rules for petitioning to modify the rules, in order to relinquish on-line control and help an upset children negotiate with Wizard. We and the children learned that we could always find an acceptable escape clause in the rules that maintained the child’s participation.

By the close of the school year, the new computer curriculum was in full swing. Every child had explored many of the edutainment games and 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 collaboration, the flexible framework of the Fifth Dimension continued to evolve with the developing skills of the students. Although it took some time to come to fruition, we continued revising this educational /gaming environment in preparation for a more refined assessment of its usefulness, a topic to which we turn in the next major section of this wikinarrative.

3) Connecting Classrooms at a Distance to Complement Learning Activity Systems

Several projects began to explore the educational potential of engaging children living in markedly different life circumstances in joint projects.

The Mental Gym- Computer Learning with Low Performing Students: Jim Levin, Margaret Riel and Marcia Buruta brought computers to an elementary school twice a week to work with students who were significantly behind in grade level achievement. These computers were set up in the auditorium and students identified by teachers as not succeeding in the classroom spent three hours a week in the Mental Gym. The goal was to explore how personal computers could address learning problems. While there is often a stigma attached to “pull-out” remedial programs, the Mental Gym was projected as a high status activity and students who were selected were seen as having special aptitude in this new form of learning. Students were eager to be selected and those selected were proud of their participation. At first the experimentation was on a combination of educational tools and software we had created (more). But during this time networking with Alaska became possible and this transformed the activities from learning centers to networking computer activities.

To test the idea that email might help create more effective inter-cultural exchanges, Jim and Margaret worked with teachers in Alaska to set up one of the first “computer-pals” project between third through fifth grade students in San Diego and in rural villages in Alaska.

The idea for this project arose from comparing the findings from two projects. One was an early comparison of online and in class instruction where the finding suggested that the students who had been been passive in the classroom discussion took the lead in the asynchronous discussions. This finding suggested that the online environment might address the needs of learners who are not as skilled in gaining or holding the floor in verbal exchanges (Quinn, Mehan, Levin & Black, 1983; Quinn, Mehan, Levin & Black, 1983). more...
When initial ideas about the instructional value of networks surfaced, Jim Levin working with Ron and Suzie Scollon explored the idea of asynchronous interaction in college-level instruction. . Levin and Mehan organized a taught by Mehan, in which, for three weeks of the course, half of the students were randomly selected to enage 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 the San Diego-Alaska project was that several students who rarely spoke up in the face to face interactions were major discussants in the asynchronous, computer-mediated classroom discussions.

The other finding came from ethnographic work in classrooms and communities which showed that Athabasscan Indians children were more likely to wait longer times before turns of talk. (Scollons, 1981). more...
The Scollons (1981) found that Athabascan Indian children followed a social convention of waiting a slightly longer period of time after a participant’s turn ends in a dialog before initiating the next turn. They waited about a half-second longer than European Americans. This half-second hesitation meant that when responding in the classroom and were frequently frustrated by seldom getting a chance to participate in a discussion with faster talking European Americans.

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 in a manner that evens the playing field.

Levin and Mehan were struck by the parallels between their 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 have less verbal skills in English.

Networking slowed the pace of conversations and might encourage more participation by different groups of learners. However our first efforts to utilize the connections between Alaska and California were overly constrained by the metaphor of e-mail as postal mail. We connected students one-to-one in a computer-pals project but this effort was not view as successful for a number of important logistic issues and learning outcomes. Unequal class and school size made matching students one-to-one time consuming and problematic as letters did not come for all students.more...
Since this work preceded the development of the Internet, personal computers were used to "portage" email messages from one email system to another. The word “portage” emphasizes the tedious manual labor involved in the process of moving email messages from the state-wide email network in Alaska to a personal computer, and then from that personal computer to a commercial email network.

More importantly we realized that 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, J. A., Riel, M., Rowe, R. D., & Boruta, M. J. (1984). more...
A crucial observation made in this work was that when children sent messages to their computer pals, they showed little interest in reading messages not addressed specifically to them, and did not see any purpose in editing their own or their computer pal's friendly letters.
This began an extended exploration of computer networking and classroom learning (Riel, 1990a) and the development of research perspectives on network learning (Riel & Harasim, 1994).

Computer Chronicles Newswire: The problems with computer pals was that content being shared was personally directed and was not learning content for the whole class. Jim, Margaret and Marsha sought a different purpose for classroom exchanges and settled on a “Computer Chronicles newswire” service as a common activity for the children in different locations. Then in each of the different classrooms, the students could select articles and publish a Computer Chronicles newspaper. At first, writing for the newswire was not much different than writing to computer pals. The articles they 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. In the second month of the study, the length of their stories more than tripled in length 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 contributions. We noted earlier that Writer’s Assistant appealed to the youngsters because they could check their spelling and make corrections to their texts without spoiling the quality of the finished product. At first the children writing for the Chronicles would wait to see the finished printed text before editing, but soon editing on the screen became a part of the writing process itself.

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 Computer Chronicles. The idea of having their work published changed the dynamics and increased student interest in evaluating the quality of student writing both locally and from a distance. more...
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. The editorial process required them to assess the quality of the writing and, if an article was of value but was difficult to understand, the students could elect to accept with edits. 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.”) Since many students both in San Diego and Alaska were writing in English as a second language, there were many errors to correct.

By agreement, students began the editorial process by evaluating the work of the distant student. They rapidly evolved a set of standards and conventions to guide their actions. At first they were effective at seeing the problems in the writing of others. Soon, however, they noted that they needed to apply these 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 (1985) 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 the future as well as guides for 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 (1983, p. 66).

A key finding from this research was the new ways that network-based systems could provide dynamic support for learning, by providing a diverse range of participants in the learning environment. These new 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.

The Computer Chronicles Newswire provided an early working model that was extended in a multi-classroom research project (Mehan, Riel, & Moll, 1985). In some of these classroom students who began fourth grade below grade level gained, on the average, two grade levels in standardized testing in language arts. The small group of students who worked as editors of the first edition of the newspaper gained four grade levels.

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