Facilitation of the CMC Learning Collaboration in K-12 Education

Mike Emerson
Arizona State Public Information Network

Larry Hunter
Tempe, Arizona, School District No. 3


Computer-mediated communications resources have a real potential to change the classroom from a rigidly controlled instructional model to a significantly more flexible and dynamic role of the teacher as a learning facilitator. Facilitation, by its very nature, is a learner and curriculum asserted, open-ended process. Computer-mediated communication-based learning models can provide a radical and positive change in the way that desired learner outcome goals are achieved. This article looks at the transition of one classroom over the course of a year and a half from the traditional teacher-controlled setting through a metamorphosis resulting in a teacher-facilitator model involving a computer-literate second grade teacher and his class. Problems with the traditional approach, experiences and issues with the transition, and an assessment of successes and failures of the project are addressed.

Ultimately, the learning processes availed via the integration and infusion of a variety of dynamic technological tools, may empower all learners with an opportunity for higher-level cognitive collaborations. Whether resulting learning experiences involve synchronous or asynchronous communication, a combination of both, MOO environments, or any number of other innovative technology possibilities, is not terribly significant. Rather, the resulting processes themselves are the important consideration in these regards. Technological tools become pivotal factors in the rapidly changing world we live in, providing both access to technology resources essential to the vital learning environment and as a means for achieving viable solutions enabling the resolution of process issues inherent in such circumstances. There is no single use of technology or combination of technological implementations that is critically important. Rather than the technology tools themselves or the implementations involved being meaningful, it is the freedom to choose from a unique variety of tools to impact the legion of learning experiences and learning styles representative of a diverse community of learners. The dynamic nature of technology tools available today and those that will surely come forth in the near future represent but one driving force in the monumental paradigmatic shift in the learning environment. The limitations and constraints associated with the barriers of time, place, strategic instructional design, and in essence, learning models themselves, evolve as essentially non-issues opening the doors to an environment where learners take upon themselves considerably more responsibility for their own learning, facilitated by skillfully prepared and experienced teachers and other relevant virtuosos as mentors, guides, and collaborators in the learning environment.

Facilitation as an Instructional Model: Unprecedented Collaboration, a State of Flux, Simple Cell Analogy, and Navigating the Journey

Needed: A Facilitated Collaboration

Computer-mediated communication (CMC) online resources have a significantly understated potential to change an educator's original approach from a rigidly controlled instructional model to that of a role as facilitator. This transition is well suited to the eventual achievement of desired curriculum learner outcome goals. Ideally, learning environments that incorporate a successful collaborative CMC design would presume appropriate curriculum learner outcome goals to be both essential and influential factors in any variety of project implementations. A collaborative approach to learning within the structure of CMC is relatively unprecedented in K-12 settings. Thus, it is not surprising that teacher-facilitated learning environments where collaboration, learner involvement, and naturally occurring interaction exist, are not yet being supported, implemented, or even considered on a wide-scale basis.

A State of Flux

Fortunately, online resources have been available in my classroom for several years. Initially, like so many others in the world of learners, I attempted to fit the curriculum to the available technologies rather than approaching and ultimately developing projects that met the more genuine interests and needs learners collectively encountered in the world outside of the classroom. In retrospect, this classroom teacher found his initial assumptions regarding the use of technologies in the curriculum were unacceptable because they relied on the age-old philosophy of directly teaching to larger groups of learners much of the time. This technique was both habitual and an overly convenient delivery system that dulled students' appetites to learn. The technologies merely existed in the learning environment as tutorial and practice interfaces presenting learners with relatively meaningless and ineffective experiences that were based on arbitrary access and equity policies. At best, this approach to the use of technologies provided learners with isolated, and, for the most part, unproductive activities. This was a significant waste of resources, both human and electronic.

Simple Cell Analogy

The microscopic amoeba carries on vital functions of more sophisticated life forms. It is metabolic, grows, reproduces, has locomotion, and responds to external stimuli. This remarkable tiny jellylike creature is inherently predisposed to random, haphazard movements controlled by its contact with any external stimulus. The amoeba's focus and direction are controlled by the environment external to its thin outer plasma membrane. This unicellular animal's fundamental movement is simply a matter of where it happens to be at any one point in time and what or whom it bumps into. There is no strategic plan, no vision, no obvious goals, or support systems in place within its basic structure and function that could nurture eventual characteristics of self-controlled and self-directed locomotion.

More often than most educators like to acknowledge, resources were provided the classroom or site without a basic infrastructure to provide direction or clear portals for a learner's movement. These situational factors, much like those of the amoeba, usually resulted in various outside stimuli, which were randomly bumped into, controlling both learner direction and learner movement. Resources were all too frequently placed in the learning environment without providing an essential, yet minimal level of strategic planning, focused clarity of vision, and clearly defined learner outcome goals. This lack of infrastructure or base, resulted in an underutilization and ineffective use of hardware, software, and other technologies available for the learner.

The formulation of strategies for the design and development of a framework for curricular integration, accompanied by improved technology and curriculum support, began the slow, painful, process leading to unlocking the potential of available technologies. Facilitators recognized and used available technologies as innovative and motivational tools to assist in reaching strategic learner outcome goals. They began to recognize within themselves a gradual development of necessary instructional skills, improved expertise, and the inherent confidence that resulted from personal growth. Other resources ultimately availed themselves to the education marketplace. The very technologies that once were used primarily for reward, entertainment, and individual learner-centered activities in a teacher-controlled learning environment, were being redirected within a curriculum-based framework.

This framework was supported by curriculum learner outcome goals combined with a client-centered model that encouraged facilitation by the instructor rather than control of learning activities. The resulting processes successfully stimulated change, and, eventually, allowed for the emergence of online projects that were ultimately refined within a facilitated CMC collaborative approach.

Situational choices allowed for visionary outcome-based learning pathways, or, for an amoeba-like reactive experience. In the bumper-car, circus-like world of the amoeba, this "bump it and change direction" behavior appeared to be the necessary flow of its pseudo-podium at any particular time. Human beings, on the other hand, possessed the liberty to choose their own direction compared with the lack of this desired autonomy so indigenous in the amoeba. Individuals actively designed the collaborative infrastructure within which to map out the participant's routes and travel plans.

Navigating the Journey

The integration of CMC projects in the classroom represented a variety of successful and effective routes to reach any particular learner destination. Behind the execution of CMC online projects existed a carefully mapped-out learning plan. This plan provided for the integration of curriculum learner outcome goals with the available technologies to be found along the Information Highway. Classroom teachers often began involvement by finding and participating in existing projects encountered on their Internet journey. Examples of sites provided to accomplish these ends are Academy One, Kid Sphere, Classroom Connect, Global School House, among other project-rich resources that assisted in learner achievement of the desired curriculum learner outcome goals.

Project facilitators supported the most basic of concepts to be found on the CMC compass; integration of a combination of curriculum areas (such as math, reading, language arts, music, drama, etc.), provided for the successful implementation of a variety of available technologies in the classroom. A scenic journey filled with many open ended-learning experiences, was the result.

These experiences, in turn, encouraged traveling in an atmosphere of collaboration, sharing, valuing, and respecting the ideas and contributions of others. A well-planned trip into cyberspace also supported and nurtured the development of critical thinking skills, essential problem-solving strategies and communication skills for all learners. Participating voyagers truly became collaborators along the way. Learners became the drivers, passengers, and compass guides for the resulting learning adventure. This trip plan took advantage of the many benefits offered by a CMC online classroom. The very nature of CMC's rich and collaborative approach encouraged all learners to use a variety of communication tools in the learner's world. Genuine CMC learning environments came equipped with a built-in compass to guide learners as they progressed on their journeys.

Implementation: Prehistoric Giants--The Dinosaurs, Necessary Change, What Took Place, Collaborative Process, Ideas Validated, Reflection

A Good Place to Start

During the first weeks of school this last year, children in my second grade class continually requested to play with the computers on a simple one-to-one ratio involving little or no sharing of ideas or development of social, collaborative, and problem-solving skills. The children met together as a class, with the facilitator using a computer to display information on a large screen classroom monitor. This permitted us to share the year's curriculum goals and plans in a simplified format. The experience provided a forum for the children to begin thinking about and discussing curriculum themes and units they were going to encounter during the following months. Later, the children had an opportunity to select one unit or theme that they were particularly excited about participating in.

The decision-making process was accomplished in small teams of three or four learners; one member of each team was given a role as the team leader. Team members later returned to the whole group and shared which unit or theme was their group's choice. Dinosaurs And The Prehistoric World was an uncontested majority choice. Over the next few days, the children again were separated into new teams of three or four different children which then, with new team leaders, chose one of the selections from each curriculum area. All ideas were presented to the whole class, resulting in the class choosing two or more concepts from each area of the curriculum that were later integrated into the unit or theme.

Emergence of a Process

The following days involved many shared collaborative opportunities that subsequently resulted in the children valuing and respecting one another's ideas and opinions. They learned skills necessary to empower them to effectively solve problems. A selected team member from each team accepted the responsibilities associated with being a team leader and then facilitated small group activities. Eventually learners came to some consensus or agreement on a list of ideas the group was going to support for their online project. Learners decided as a class that there were many right ways to use the technologies available to them for this project. Then the groups chose to develop questions to use in their CMC online classroom quest for information and collaboration. The resulting partnerships represented person-to-person, classroom-to-classroom, site-to-site, and interstate locations specifically chosen to collaboratively achieve the computer-mediated communication goals associated with the project.

Learners brainstormed and listed questions based on the curriculum learner outcomes chosen for the Dinosaur Unit. Some of the questions would eventually be posted in appropriate educational forums (i.e., Kid Sphere, Academy One, Global School House, etc.). Each team of three or four learners met with its team leaders and selected one question that focused on the selected curriculum area. Collectively these questions were gently critiqued and edited by the whole group to best represent the class curriculum learner outcome goals and eventually were complied and formatted for WWW distribution. The adult facilitator, Larry Hunter, also wrote a brief explanation and request for participation to accompany the children's work.

After posting the class queries or questions, learners received more than 475 replies in a span of less than 20 school days. Altogether, more than 1,300 replies were received by the conclusion of the project. The replies represented other children of all ages, teachers, graduate students, professors, paleontologists, and interested persons from many vocational and cultural backgrounds from all over the United States and Canada. These acquired partnerships shared activities, information resources, recommended software applications, suggested relevant WWW home pages, shared appropriate games, CD resources, and many creative ideas to enrich the project. All who chose to participate contributed to one of the richest CMC online collaborative learning experiences this teacher has ever experienced with young children.

Collaborative Kudos

Learners in the class, as small collaborative partnerships, wrote letters and shared reports, replied to all who participated with notes of appreciation, provided information they received from several other sources, and asked questions of those offering to share their expertise. They began not only to respect and enjoy participating in the collaborative process, but also to appreciate that they were important members of a world community that is truly rich in human and material resources.

Confidence in learner decision-making skills and learner willingness to take risks in the expression of their own ideas were positively reaffirmed by other people of all ages and backgrounds. The collaborators valued the children's enthusiasm for the project and celebrated their excitement about the selected topic. They kindly demonstrated by their participation that the learners' ideas and interests were worthy of the nationwide community's interaction, recognition, support, and validation.

We succeeded in reaching the selected curriculum learner outcome goals, in some ways more obvious than others. Outcomes reached included improved spelling skills and the development of writing and editing skills that were advanced in relation to the learners' ages and grade level. Other goals achieved included geography skills.

Map reading was enhanced by the learners' abilities to identify where distant partners' towns, cities, and states were located in relation to their own community, Tempe, Arizona. Learners also acquired a better understanding of global perspectives than anticipated. Social studies outcomes were realized by learners recognizing that any community, whether local, regional, national, or global, depends upon the successful interactions and cooperation of its members.

A science theme was used for a curriculum base to design our 1994-1995 dinosaur CMC project. Learner outcome goals in science were reached and surpassed. Mathematics outcomes including weight and measurement, graphing, understanding spatial concepts, and reinforcing basic concept of number through related activities were achieved and enriched.

Participants successfully worked together as a community of learners, where respect and value for the opinions and ideas of others ensued. Learners were enthusiastic about embracing group problem-solving strategies that empowered project learner investment and ownership.

Corroboration and Perspective

Learners grew to value planning and working collaboratively. They shared and respected their own ideas and the ideas of others. Participants learned that problems may be solved effectively in cooperative learning environments. Another achievement in learner outcome goals, reached through CMC online collaborative projects, was that learners were actively preparing to become more successful and active participants in the global community.

The dynamic nature of the CMC classroom collaboration is evidenced by its curriculum-centered approach that encourages facilitators to welcome new and different technologies to enrich the learning environment. Our goals for the coming 1995-1996 school year feature learners' CMC collaborative projects that will include interactive videoconferencing. This will provide learners the option of sharing information, projects, and other appropriate multimedia enriched communication activities with local and distant partners.

Teleconferences will also be extended locally and with distant learning partners as well. Digital color cameras will be provided for making computer-generated images, home page development, and many other exciting activities. Children and facilitators will be able to use video cams and camcorders for live-action images, movie clips, and slide shows. They will learn how to import graphics into stories, newsletters, reports, and letters. Laser disk technologies will be combined with the integration of existing technology tools in the learning environment. Essentially, this approach offers participating learners tools that may provide for a variety of learning styles, adding vitality and success to selected CMC projects.

Learners will also be provided opportunities to enhance their CMC projects by sending and receiving fax, voice, data, and images. Additionally, collaborative groups will be provided opportunities to broadcast learner-developed radio teleconferences in partnership with other sites. Local and distant learning partners will be encouraged to join in the design and implementation of shared CMC collaborations and other related activities.

Technology partners in Larry Hunter's second grade class, Grace Lort's fourth grade class, and Esther Rehbein's fifth grade class at Curry School, Tempe School District No. 3 in Tempe, Arizona, along with other local and regional partners, will join with distant learning partners including Jim Hatleli's second grade class at Eagle Lake School in Eagle Lake, Minnesota, in the design and implementation of curriculum-based CMC online collaborative project activities throughout the 1995-1996 school year.

Participants will collaborate in the discovery and awareness of knowledge and share the insights and understanding derived from the Computer-Mediated Communication process. They will publish class books, individual writing projects, reports, and other curriculum-centered projects. Collaborators will also make Quick-Time Movie Clips, publish newsletters, create graphics and illustrations, share audio-files, print, and robustly celebrate the development of new skills using available Internet resources. Other selected local and distant learning sites will be invited to join these activities as time, expertise, and resources permit.

Consequential Catalyst

The desire to provide learners with the essential skills and necessary tools for successful, productive, and fulfilling lives is strongly supported by most educators. Learners are empowered to these ends by the effective uses of existing technologies and well thought out plans for the integration of all technologies into the curriculum. To provide for this integration and infusion of technologies, it is essential that facilitators nourish a learning environment where collaboration, team work, and problem- solving strategies are important.

Such an environment values and encourages learners to develop as active participants who truly collaborate with other learners, rather than merely being passive sponges for information provided by their teachers. Facilitation essentially transcends the role of the teacher being a singular expert disseminator of information to that of an instructional guide or mentor. Teacher-Facilitators also must be able skillfully to plan for and design CMC projects within the scope of desired learner outcome goals and age-appropriate objectives.

Computers in education are of undeniable value. Perhaps educators should not be so concerned with the quantitative issues such as how many computers are provided for any one group of learners. Instead, in the interest of all learners, they should strategically plan for a qualitative approach. A qualitative commitment should accommodate all learners' access to a rich variety of technologies with which to facilitate the successful accomplishment of learner outcome goals.

Facilitators, of necessity, simply have to be willing to change what they do by breaking down paradigms and creating new models for education that meet the criterion inherent in providing for the variety of learning styles required by any group of learners. This, of necessity, requires overcoming the bounds of time, of distance, and of limited resources. When dynamic facilitation is nurtured within a framework of thinking strategically, letting one's vision drive one's actions, and always clearly keeping project goals in sight, success in the achievement of learner outcomes has no limits.

Reflective Comments: Coauthor Larry Hunter

If one is to arrive at a desired destination at the conclusion of any journey, some strategic planning, charting of a course of travel, decision making regarding featured side trips and detours, and ultimately focusing on just where it is that one wishes to be at the trip's conclusion is requisite to any successful outcome-based process. A vested interest and ownership in this or any process on the part of all participants, whether they be active, or supporting members in the background, is essential if the process is to thrive and flourish.

A critical element to the productive implementation of a communication-based, technology-rich, learning collaboration requires that the local school sites, school districts, and communities at large are involved in the process from the inception. It is this interactive involvement, and resulting ownership in the process itself, that ultimately enables and empowers all learners to have access to the intuitive tools provided by Internet connectivity in the learning environment.

It takes more than "a village" to raise our global perspectives with regard to the learning environments we are to provide the 21st century child. The interactive involvement and ownership of a global community is essential if we are to encourage the concept of a world where peace and respect elevate learners to new levels of thinking, problem solving, and eventually collaboration irrespective of ideology, ethnicity, hue of skin, dialect, and social hierarchy. The Internet provides us global access that may well assist us in reaching educational outcomes beyond our wildest dreams and empowerment that we've yet to comprehend. Paradigmatic change is paramount to the evolvement of this wonderful Internet collaboration into a learner-centered infrastructure supporting our global learning community.

In Closing

Those of us dedicated to facilitating a lifelong commitment toward learning on the part of all participants, often find that commendable ideas and worthy projects frequently progress little, if any, beyond the conceptual stage due to frustrating bureaucratic delays and a lack of a most essential network of support. Insightful and forward-thinking people have provided me the freedom to take concepts and ideas beyond mere wishful thinking to that of a learner-centered collaboration, rich in opportunity even if limited in resources. Research Specialist Senior--Central Arizona ASPIN Coordinator, Mike Emerson, at Arizona State University, has provided me unparalleled and appreciated mentorship, volunteered considerable time, expertise, and his contagious enthusiasm for technology-rich learning environments founded on well-planned and carefully implemented CMC models. He remains an inspiration and friend, of the highest regard.

Tempe School District No. 3's Superintendent, Dr. Mary Ann Lawson, The Governing Board, our Director of Technology Services, Joe Bunting, and Curry School's Principal, Mike Klopfenstein, continue to extend me the much-needed trust and professional license required to facilitate necessary change to transition a traditional learning setting into a dynamically facilitated CMC learning model. Curry School's parents and children demonstrate this same kind of welcomed support and enthusiasm for innovation and productive change in the classroom.


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