Section 5: Lessons learned

In the course of conducting these projects we learned several important lessons which will guide our future efforts and which we believe are of use to others planning online interactive projects in any field. Some of these bear on the way the projects were experienced by their classroom participants, others on the administrative dynamic that determines how smoothly everything runs.

1. Teachers are best able to use projects that respect the constraints of the classroom.
Teachers don't have much time for preparation, especially on short notice, and the resources they choose for their classrooms need to be dependable. Therefore the more advance notice that can be given the easier it will be for teachers to integrate these projects into their regular curricula. Once the project begins, its important that reports, updates, or new segments arrive consistently. If they do not, teachers may decide the project is not worth their class time and abandon it. Timeliness is also importance in sustaining interest on the part of kids. If you hold out the promise of establishing a relationship, however limited or transient, with someone out there it needs to be honored quickly and for the full extent of the project. Delays will be exacerbated by the use of experts who do not have access to or proficiency with email, as was the case with some of the aircraft pilots in the Kuiper project. Project organizers may benefit by establishing a separate Internet account dedicated exclusively to the project. This will segregate time-critical messages from normal everyday business. Also, a tendency emerged for a small number of teachers to be responsible for a large number of the questions asked.

2. Not all content experts are created equal.
We intended that experts would serve as more than clever databases, that they would stimulate students to write in with questions and excite and motivate them to pursue careers in science and engineering. This requires both enthusiasm and a particular personality type from your expert, one that is difficult to specify in a project description. Our recommendation is to evaluate potential participants as best you can for their online interpersonal and then closely monitor their interaction with the students to ensure it has the tone you seek. Boring experts can sound the deathknell of an interactive project.

Discussion groups related to the projects, whether LISTSERV or newsgroup based, need seed messages to get them going. Those for Live From...Other Worlds and FOSTER Online didnt have these, and as result never really gained momentum. You may want to consider whether separate discussion groups for each subtopic (i.e. Mars, telepresence, etc.) are really necessary to the overall success of your interactive project. The simpler the project structure the more likely it is that teachers will take full advantage of it. Therefore each potential component should be evaluated to see if it will pull its weight from the teachers perspective.

3. Simplicity is the catchword for a successful project.
Our experience indicates that while a large complement of interactive components (discussion groups, multiple Listservs, email with experts, searchable databases, elaborate conference moderation) may be attractive to the project designers they dont necessarily add value for the classroom participants and may in fact be confusing. If you plan to use volunteers to assist in as content experts, moderators, or in some other ongoing capacity, plan to spend a lot of time and effort to keep these relationships working smoothly for all concerned. Consider volunteer components as another type of project overhead, rather than a device to reduce it: the main reason to include them may be to give them a particular type of learning experience, rather than because they will make your life easier. Keep in mind, too, that a good many of your participants will fail to follow even the most straightforward instructions regarding message addressing, file paths, and the like. Software-based toolkits for automating project functions like message translation will probably not be as helpful as you had hoped, if they can be gotten to work reliably at all.

4. Catch them while you can
If you expect to collect survey information from your classroom about their participation, do so promptly at the projects conclusion or, better yet, while the project is ongoing. Former participants can be difficult to track down and motivate where post-project surveys are concerned. This year we hope to increase survey participation by making available an HTML formsbased instrument to those users with high-end connectivity. We expect that this will be more engaging and enjoyable than a typical text-only survey.

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