What have you already learned to do with the Internet? Please take a moment to remember and make a list. (Go ahead! I'll wait.)
Does your inventory look something like this?
In reviewing the list, do you see any
patterns? I see at least one that is important to our thinking as
educators, and which points to a primary theme in this column. Most of
our Internet-related learning to date has been about tools; specifically,
software which can help us to locate and create information, either
individually or collaboratively. When weíve been learning about the
Internet, for the most part, we've been learning to use Internetworked tools.
Yet, as teachers, we know that tools, no
matter how powerful their educational potential, donít directly help
our students to learn. What's important is how we use the tools to
assist teaching and learning. In other words, there is a big and
important difference between:
Operating Internetworked tools is an
important, but merely prerequisite step toward creating powerful
telecollabortion and teleresearch in our classrooms. How to apply the tools in
curriculum-based educational activities, although less frequently the
target of careful thought and in-depth investigation, is a much richer,
more complex, longer-term, and more critical area for educators to
explore at this point in time.
Why haven't more of our workshops, conference
sessions, and Internet-related publications addressed how to apply
Internet-based tools in elementary through secondary curricula? There's
a common, but usually unstated, assumption held that explains the
pattern. It presumes that learning to operate hardware and software is
most of what is involved in successfully integrating use of
computer-mediated tools into our classrooms. How to create and enact
successful educational applications which integrate use of software and
hardware is assumed to be obvious, once the tools themselves are known.
This is part of what Seymour Papert long ago dubbed "technocentric
thinking" (1987, p. 22). The tool, in and of itself, no matter how
powerful its features, cannot make learning happen. The toolís
user/teacher, no matter how technically competent, enters a related,
but distinct realm for inquiry when s/he plans for educational
application of any new tool. It is into this educentric realm that
I invite you.
Lesson Plans? Not!
Did your list of what you have already learned
to do with the Internet include any curriculum integration work? By
now, I'll bet that some of you have participated in professional development activities
that were designed to help you consider how to use Internet tools and
resources in your curricula. Since Iím already wagering here, I'll
speculate some more. In these curriculum integration sessions, were you
told about successful projects that worked well in other classrooms?
Shown places to go online that contained large collections of lesson
plans and project examples? Encouraged to try these ideas in your own
"What's wrong with that?" I hear you thinking.
"Real-world applications that work in real classrooms with real
students are far more helpful than college professors' theories!"
(Don't worry; I wonít take that thought personally.) I agree with part
of what you may be thinking on this issue. Stories of activities and
projects that worked well in other teachers' classrooms are indeed
helpful to us, but in a manner perhaps different than the one with
which you may be familiar.
Can you remember an instance in which you
"borrowed" an idea for an activity or project that had worked well in
another classroom? The idea might have been successful with students of
similar ages, backgrounds, and interests as your students'. The
curricula for both groups of pupils might have been comparable. And
yet, think back and remember what happened when you last tried to ìplug
and playî an idea from another classroom into your own. How well did it
work? How well did it really work? Not so well, eh? If it was successful, think
carefully about what you did while you were planning its
implementation. You had to change it a bit to get it to work well with your students,
didn't you? And, if you didnít think to do this - perhaps when you were
much less experienced as a teacher, or when you were particularly
pressed for preparation time - the activity fizzled, now didn't it?
Why is this so? Why does the same educational
activity triumph in one classroom and falter in another, even when the
students, curriculum, and materials are very similar? As teachers, the
answer to this question is obvious to us. Conditions among classrooms
are quite variable. Students are different; teachers are different;
resources available for teaching and learning are different. Prior
experiences and content-related comprehension for both teachers and
students are different. Group dynamics are different. Differences can
even be caused by the time of day, week, month, or year at which a new
activity is introduced. Think about what your students are like at the
beginning of the day, just before lunch, just after lunch, and at the
end of the day. If you didnít know better, on some days, you might
suspect that they werenít the same people with whom you had been
working since the beginning of the year. Now contrast the students as
they behave during the first week of school, the last week before the
winter holidays, and a week in late February. Same class? Not really.
If we know of these biologically-, psychologically-, socially-,
historically-, and temporally-rooted differences among studentsí
receptivity to educational activities, then whydo we believe,
even for a minute, that we can successfully "plug and play" someone
elseís wonderful project into our classroom?
The answer, of course, is that most teachers don't really believe
that learning to apply a new tool educationally is just a matter of
"plug and play." Most of us know to ìtweakî an idea to fit the unique
nature of the context (learning styles and preferences, teaching styles
and preferences, past experience, resource availability, etc.) in which
they work. We expect to learn from mistakes and unexpected reactions
when an idea is first implemented. Yet we know from both experience and
research (e.g., Rogers, 1995) that tweaking someone elseís idea isn't
nearly as satisfying, or as effective, as designing an activity
that fits the unique combination of factors that present themselves in
any particular classroom at any particular point in time. Reinvention;
the process of taking something like a new tool or idea and making it
our own in its application, is very important to both teachers and
students. Feelings of ownership are crucial if new tools are to
continue to be employed in ways that will benefit users. This is what
is known as true adoption of the innovation (Rogers, 1995). Think about
it: which is more satisfying - watching an original idea that you
created succeed, or observing someone elseís idea that you borrowed and
tweaked get a good reception?
When we are asked to wade through large
collections of lesson plans, replicate projects from other classrooms,
or follow overly-prescriptive directions for educational activities
written by folks who canít possibly know our students as we do, we are
asked to ignore much of what experience and reflection have taught us.
Using Internet tools and resources in our classrooms in ways that will
benefit students and teachers - in ways that are truly worth the time,
effort, energy, and expense - call upon us to function more as instructional designers
than direction-followers. Creating and implementing learning activities
as a designer is an artisanís endeavor. I speak to you as that artisan;
analogously, as chef rather than cook; conductor rather than metronome;
educator rather than automatron.
I can hear what some of you are thinking now:
"I donít have time or space in my curriculum to be an artisan!" It's
true that as the years pass and our schools and communities change,
preparation time for teachers dwindles, while demands for additions to
our curricula increase in number and complexity. So, I won't be
suggesting that you "reinvent the wheel" or add anything more to your
already-crowded program. Instead, I will propose the use of some
"wetware tools," or thinking apparatus, that will help you to engage in
the important design processes that we know are essential to powerful,
regular use of new tools in our classrooms. These thinking tools are
created in such a way that they can assist your design work in a
time-efficient, energy-conserving manner.
Is it "worth it?"
What's one way to save time and energy in our
classrooms? Choose educational activities that give students maximal
return for the amount of time and effort that all of us must expend to
ensure success. There is a point of diminishing returns, the ìlocationî
for which each of us estimates when we consider the implementation of a
new technique. In a phrase, we decide whether the new application is worth it. In
terms specific to educational telecomputing, is a particular use of an
Internet-based tool or resource in a particular situation for a
particular group of students and teachers worth the time, effort,
expense that it will take to use the tool or resource in this
particular way? Note that this is not a unilateral decision about all
Internetworked information and implements for all time. Instead, the
"Is it worth it?" test is applied each
time the use of the Internet is
considered in an educational situation. That implies that answers to
the "Is it worth it?" question will change as people and resources
change. The ease and speed of Internet access in your school and
classroom will continue to change. What is possible and available on
the Internet will continue to change. As you and your students learn
more about and do more with Internetworked tools and resources, you
will continue to change, too.
How can we best make this decision each of the
many times that we will be called upon to do so, to help others in
doing so? I suggest that, keeping in mind a specific, feasible
educational use of the Internet, and in terms of both content and
processes that students need/want to learn, we consider the honest
answers to two questions:
If the honest answer to both of these
questions is "no," there is no reason to use Internet tools or
resources in the way that we are considering. Our time, effort, and
resources would be better used in another way. In any particular
instance, if using traditional tools and approaches can allow students
to learn just as well or better than using new tools and approaches, it
doesnít make sense to use new tools in traditional ways. It isn't
"worth it" to do so, for students or for teachers.
This implies that when we do use these new
tools, usually it will only be "worth it" for us to do so if they can
be applied in new ways to help new and worthwhile things to happen in
our classrooms. "Well, that's obvious," you might be thinking. Perhaps.
Yet, whenever we are offered new tools, something interesting happens.
Most of what we initially do with the new tools looks very similar to
what we did with older tools that were functionally similar to the
innovations. When teachers first began to use electronic mail and
electronic bulletin boards in elementary, middle-level, and secondary
classrooms in the early 1980's, for example, what kinds of projects
were most prevalent? Keypal projects! This pattern makes sense if we realize that
electronic mail was first seen with reference to its similar
predecessor, surface mail. Penpal projects, using paper, envelopes, and
stamps, were successful educational activities in classrooms long
before networked computers were in the world. At first, electronic mail
was seen as faster surface mail. Later, as users continued to
experiment with and exploit this global communications tool, our
visions of how e-mail can be used for educational purposes expanded.
Now there are at least seven different ways (of which keypals is only
one) that interpersonal exchanges can help students to learn.
How can we, as teachers, use telecomputing
tools and resources in powerful, curriculum-based ways that are "worth
it," making sure that we function as instructional designers without
overburdening an already-challenging workload and schedule? We can
consciously utilize a set of design tools, along with a wealth of
corresponding real-world, classroom-tested project examples, to
efficiently and effectively create curriculum-based activities for our
unique classrooms. These design tools are not prescriptions, or
step-by-step directions, or blackline masters. They are a special type
of thinking tool that I call an activity
Wetware Tools: Activity Structures
What's an activity structure? Let me begin by
telling you what it's not. It's not a model, template, plan, mold, or example.
It's a flexible framework, much like the wooden frame of a house or the
skeletons in our bodies. Its basic shape is clear, strong, and simple,
but, as with houses and humans, the same frame can support a myriad of
different architectural or bodily expressions. The structure literally
holds up the house, creating spaces for living. In a similar way, activity structures can
support the generation of powerful educational environments, or spaces
for learning and teaching, which are constructed, decorated, and used
in customized and ever-changing ways, according to the needs and
preferences of their inhabitants.
Want an example? OK. Please think of one of
your very favorite educational activities to do with students; one in
which the students are actively involved with their learning. (Now, really think of one,
OK? I'll wait.)
In a moment, I will ask you to work with that
sample activity in a particular way. To show you how I would ask that
you examine it, I will give you an example from my own middle-level
teaching experience. I taught sixth grade, all academic subjects, in a
school just outside of Philadelphia, PA. In Language Arts class,
instead of asking my students to memorize and use predetermined lists
of vocabulary words, I helped them to form personalized vocabulary
lists each week that were drawn from both their individualized and
common reading in all subjects. In addition, to help them to develop
their skills in recognizing and deriving meanings of words unfamiliar
to them, we did "vocabulary sniglets." You remember sniglets, don't
you? Rich Hall, their creator, says that a sniglet is "any word that
doesnít appear in the dictionary, but should." (Hall, 1984, cover) Here
are a few examples, excerpted and shared on the Web:
ACCORDIONATED (ah kor' de on ay tid) adj.
Being able to drive and refold a road map at the same time.
CARPERPETUATION (kar' pur pet u a shun) n.
The act, when vacuuming, of running over a string or a piece of lint at least a dozen times, reaching over and picking it up, examining it, then putting it back down to give the vacuum one more chance.
ELECELLERATION (el a cel er ay' shun) n.
The mistaken notion that the more you press an elevator button the faster it will arrive.
PHONESIA (fo nee' zhuh) n.
The affliction of dialing a phone number and forgetting whom you were calling just as they answer.Enjoy more sniglets collections at these Web sites:
Anyone remember sniglets?
Do you see how examining the different parts
of a word, and also their linkages, give us an understanding of the
meaning of the whole word? I invited my students to construct sniglets
out of phonemes in the same way, sharing them with each other and with
me, emphasizing the resulting meanings that were created when different
word parts were concatenated. We even wrote programs in Logo so that
sniglets would be randomly generated by the computer. Our challenge was
to deduce the meaning of the new "words," and find good uses for them
in sentences and stories.
Now...how might educators typically classify
that activity? As a Language Arts activity? A vocabulary activity? A
middle-level activity? Letís study this example quite differently, so
that you can understand what an activity's structure is. Let's
"extract" both the content and the grade level from our description of
the activity, and see whatís left. In this "vocabulary sniglets"
example, students individually used units of meaning as building blocks
in combinatorial action, then deduced definitions from the
playfully-formed concatenations according to what they knew about the
meanings of the individual units, and their placements with reference
to each other. (Can you see how this description of the activity
depicts only what what the students do, without reference to the
content area or level of learning occurring?)
What follows is what is most powerful about an
activity structure. How might the structure described above be used in
a different content area, and at a different
instructional level? (Yes, I'd really like you to pause and brainstorm
answers to this question.) One way might be in secondary-level
chemistry classes, when students are introduced to the periodic table
and how elements combine to form compounds. What if these students
could creatively form compounds, then research their stability (or lack
thereof) according to the patterns of protons, neutrons, and electrons
in each element being combined? Do you think that they might enjoy
deducing what kinds of compounds (and chemical reactions) are formed
(or not formed) when they combine elements of different types in
The same activity structure could be used at
an early elementary level in an art activity, in which students combine
paint in different primary colors to see what secondary colors are
formed, and discover if they can predict before mixing the colors what
hue will result. In a middle-level music composition class, students
could similarly experiment with note combinations to form resonant or
dissonant chords. In a high school geography class, students studying
the development of different civilizations could use a simulation
program to help them to create differing patterns of historical
development which have their roots in geographic region, weather
patterns, natural resources, population density, etc. Do you see how
the same activity structure can be used for creating powerful,
similarly-structured learning in many different content areas and at
many different levels? How might the structure of the activity that you remembered be
used successfully in different curriculum areas and at different grade
The activity structure, then, is a teacher's
instructional design tool; a piece of "wetware." It is a way for us, in
our conversations with ourselves and others, to capture what is most
powerful in a particular type of learning activity, and communicate
that in such a way as to encourage the creation (not replication) of
individualized, context-appropriate environments for learning. It's as
if the activity structure is the frame of the house, resting firmly
upon the conceptual foundation of this architectural approach to
building potentially powerful learning spaces. The frame gives shape
and strength to the actual learning activity, but it is completely
flexible, so that the walls, roof, doors, windows, and decor are
content-specific, student-centered, individualized according to
preference and past experience, and reflective of locally available
resources. The same frame can support many houses whose external
appearances and intended functions are actually quite different. Which
do you think would result in houses that are maximally serviceable and
aesthetically appealing: limiting architects to a standard procedure
for design with little room for variation, or inviting the exercise of
their expertise and creativity? Would you rather live in one of many
"little boxes," as Malvina Reynolds sang about in the 1960's, or in a
more expressive creation? I suspect that our students would rather
learn in spaces that are as unlike "little boxes" as possible. It is
essential, therefore, to all of the inhabitants of the space, for us to
practice instructional design in the traditions of architecture and
crafting, rather than replication and assembly.
Telecomputing Activity Structures
Some of you may be wondering why I am
emphasizing this notion of flexible frameworks for instructional design
so forcefully. When you thought about the sniglets example above, did
you figuratively shrug your shoulders and fail to be impressed with the
notion? Did you think that activity structures need not be consciously
processed, because we use them quite effectively without realizing that
we do so? This may be so, with one important proviso. Specific activity structures are often limited in
scope and application according to the tools and resources that are
available for their implementation. In
other words, existing activity structures are often best applied using
existing instructional tools. Remember the "worth it?" test? If a
particular educational use of Internet tools and resources is going to
be "worth it," according to the definition that I suggested above, it
must enable students to do something that they need or want to do,
either that they havenít been able to do before, or they haven't been
able to do as well. Using new structures to design curriculum-based educational
telecomputing activities can help us to increase the chances that these applications
will be both "worth it" and custom-tailored to the unique combination
of characteristics that describe a particular group of students,
working with a particular teacher, in a particular classroom, school,
and community context.
There are 18 telecollaborative activity
structures that I've identified to date. They group themselves into
three genres of educational online activity.
Information Collection and Analysis
Want to learn more about activity structures
for curriculum-based telecomputing projects? A more in-depth
exploration of designing and directing K-12 telecollaboration and
teleresearch was released as a book by ISTE in
1998, the second edition of which is due out in 2006. It is
called: Virtual Architecture:
Designing and Directing Curriculum-Based Telecomputing, and was written by your humble columnist. As a matter
of fact, you have just read most of the first chapter. <grin> I
hope that you now want to read more.
Hall, R. (1984). Sniglets. New York: Collier Books.
Papert, S. (1987). Computer criticism vs. technocentric thinking. Educational Researcher, 17 (1), 22-30.
Rogers, E. M. (1995). Diffusion of innovations (4th ed.). New York: The Free Press.