Education

On-Line ‘Academical Village’ Links Students and Teachers

By Debra Viadero — January 17, 1990 10 min read
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When Thomas Jefferson designed the University of Virginia campus here, he envisioned a quiet place where faculty housing and classroom space would be interspersed with student dormitories.

The idea was to create an “academical village"--a setting where geographic proximity would foster learning and dialogue among students and professors.

Now, more than 170 years later, the university’s Curry School of Education is attempting to accomplish the same goal on a grander scale. It is nurturing an innovative computer network with the potential for fostering interactions among students and teachers worldwide.

“What we’re essentially trying to do is create an electronic ‘academical village,”’ explained Glen Bull, an associate professor of instructional technology and co-director of the program. “We’re using computers to create geographic proximity.”

Begun with donated computers and other equipment, the network is first and foremost a bridge for local teachers and teacher-educators.

It links the education school with the homes and classrooms of teachers here and in surrounding Albemarle County; it allows student teachers working in classrooms 20 miles or more from campus to communicate quickly with their professors; and it gives on-campus teachers-to-be the ability to question veterans in the field on lesson plans, grading policies, and other nuts-and-bolts aspects of the profession.

But what distinguishes the Curry project from the handful of other computer networks that have recently sprung up in schools of education across the country is its scope and versatility.

Through the university system’s complex interweaving of several computer networks, students and faculty members here are connected not only to their Virginia colleagues, but to schools and universities throughout this country and virtually around the world.

Classrooms on the network in Virginia can communicate with computer ''pen pals” in places as far away as Spain and Ireland. And Curry students, in addition to being able to talk to their peers in foreign countries, may also find themselves answering questions from a 5th-grader in Ohio or kindergartners in Alaska.

“Sometimes other universities put in networks, but they don’t connect to anything else,” Mr. Bull said. “They’re electronic cul de sacs.”

With the Curry system, he said, “the possibilities are endless.”

Rooted in Reform

The groundwork for the “electronic village” was laid five years ago, when the university gave instructional technology a higher profile in its teacher-education program.

A task force formed in 1984 by the Curry school’s new dean, James M. Cooper, had as its goal the broader target of redesigning the entire teacher-education program. But panel members quickly saw that instruction in educational technology was an integral part of the reformation.

“They were convinced that, because of the potential of computers, our graduates would need to be more than computer-literate; they would have to be computer-competent,” Mr. Cooper said.

That is a sentiment shared by a growing number of teacher-educators as evidence mounts that the nation’s rush to equip schools with computers and other electronic devices has not been matched by an adequate effort to make teachers technologically aware.

The U.S. Office of Technology Assessment has reported, for example, that only a third of the K-12 teaching corps has had even 10 hours of computer training.

As a result, says Linda Roberts, an OTA researcher, “a computer may be used and some kids may use it, [but] there are just some really lost opportunities.”

One such casualty, experts say, has been the loss of the technology’s power to assist in the attainment of such education-reform goals as collaboration and classroom experimentation. And critics lay a large portion of the blame for teachers’ failure to use technology creatively to the cursory overview of the subject they often receive in college.

At the Curry school, that situation changed dramatically after the task force offered its recommendations. Dean Cooper made it a policy then to provide a personal computer to every faculty member who wanted one. Today, 90 percent of faculty members have computers in their office--an increase from 25 percent five years ago, according to Mr. Bull.

In addition, all students entering the Curry School receive an electronic-mail identification code, which they keep until one year after graduation. The students learn how to use the code and other fundamentals of computer use in a basic education course they are required to take in their first year.

With these identification codes and their access to computers in the campus computer laboratories, students can send personal messages to anyone, inside or outside the school, who has an “electronic mailbox” on the same network. They can also send “mail” to entire groups at once through the use of a single address, such as “Math.Teachers.”

“With any kind of network, the key to making it work is critical mass,” Mr. Bull said. “If you don’t have enough people trained in using it, it doesn’t do any good.”

Computer Forums

The students also learn how to use what is known in the field as an electronic-conferencing program.

Different from electronic mail, in which messages are sent to a specified destination, electronic conferencing allows any number of users to join in an ongoing dialogue on a specific topic. Mr. Bull compares it to a “classroom without walls,” where a number of conversations are taking place at the same time.

The conferencing program the Curry School uses is Caucus by Metasystems Design Corporation. It includes a number of individual forums for conversations, some of which have led university personnel to assume alter egos in their search for creative new teaching modes.

Jennings Waggoner, for example, a highly regarded history of education professor and author of extensive studies of Thomas Jefferson, recently became Mr. Jefferson in a computer letter to children in Ohio and Virginia.

“What a marvelous way to communicate,” wrote the founding father. ''In my day, mail could travel no faster than a horse could run or a ship could sail the seas.”

The exchange took place through a computer-conferencing forum known as “Time Warp,” which makes lessons literally come alive for children in classrooms on the network. In addition to historical figures, they can commune through “Time Warp” with their favorite literary characters.

Ramey Watson, a 10-year-old from Ohio, recently addressed his network entry “Dear Soup.” He was referring to the fictional character from Robert Newton Peck’s books, and he asked “to know more books that you were in and ... more about you.”

Within days, the child received a reply from a University of Virginia student studying to be a teacher:

“I live in a pretty good size house,” “Soup” answered, “I’ve got my own room but we all have to share the bathroom, which really takes the fun out of things when you want to play with your boats in the tub for a while.” The letter, geared specifically to Ramey’s, went on to give “Soup’s” birthday and describe other books featuring him.

Other figures featured on the forum have included “Miyax,” the Eskimo protagonist from Julie and the Wolves, and “Ralph,” the mouse from The Mouse and the Motorcycle.

One of the busiest conversational forums for Curry students, though, is “Lounge,” whose name was chosen to evoke the teachers’ lounges common to most schools. During a typical month last year, more than 400 entries were logged into “Lounge.”

The forum allows students to turn either to peers or veteran teachers for advice on the everyday problems of the profession.

Meg Harvey, for example, used the system recently to seek out advice on grading policies.

“How do secondary-school teachers here feel about having a grading scale that is supposed to apply to all subjects and all classes?” she asked in an October communication. “This is something new for me and I am bothered by it.”

Within two days, the Curry student had received at least three responses from teachers.

The system connecting these specialized capabilities with classrooms around the world is made up of a number of smaller national and international networks. They include ARPA Internet, BITNET, USENET, CSNET, and others, and their availability has meant that students and faculty members here can communicate with virtually anyone who has a computer on the right network or access to the same conferencing system.

Teacher-LINK

The key, however, to building a working network that extended beyond the university campus was a much smaller project known as Teacher-LINK.

Initiated in 1986 with a donation of $1 million in computer hardware and software from IBM, the project provided personal computers with built-in modems to 50 student teachers and 50 classroom teachers working in school districts in Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle County.

With the grant, the school also hired Judi Harris, a former teacher who was then a graduate student at Virginia, to provide computer training to teachers in the project.

The school enlisted the local telephone company to help defray the cost of installing telephone lines for the modems in teachers’ classrooms. And the participating school systems picked up the remainder of the cost.

“We can get a signal from 3,000 miles around the world, but the last 200 feet to the teacher’s classroom is the hardest part,” Mr. Bull noted.

To negotiate the “last 200 feet,” the Teacher-LINK team took what Ms. Harris called a “grassroots” approach, first recruiting teachers with the enthusiasm and interest to keep the network going, then taking the idea to district officials.

In the project’s early days, the principal motivating factor was the desire to provide an extra support system for student teachers. Working in classrooms 20 or more miles away from the university, they often had no effective means of keeping in touch with their professors.

As Mr. Bull pointed out, “Teachers are the only white-collar professionals who don’t have access to a telephone.”

On their lunch breaks, students would try to call their professors, only to find that the university instructors were unavailable. The professors would return the calls when the students were teaching classes. This game of “telephone tag” might go on for days, Mr. Bull said.

Using the electronic-mail system, teachers and professors could simply leave a message in the computer that would be displayed when the recipient sat down and logged on.

Joseph Garofalo, an assistant professor of mathematics education who oversees the student-teaching experiences of an average of four students each semester, said he uses the Teacher-LINK system to schedule visits to his students’ schools. Students also contact him to ask whether a test item is appropriate or how to get a particular mathematical concept across to their pupils.

“If I had to contact everyone by telephone,” he said, “it would’ve been a disaster.”

But a myriad of other uses soon became apparent.

Mr. Garofalo, for example, received an inquiry from a clinical instructor who wanted to know the algorithm for pi. He sent a reply the same day.

Janet Tevendale, a 3rd-grade teacher at nearby Earlysville Elementary School, said she uses her Teacher-LINK computer to put students in touch with “pen pals” in classrooms around the world. Her class has communicated electronically with children in Dublin, with a 14-year-old girl in Denmark, with classes in Alaska and Canada, and with a college student in Pennsylvania, among others.

“One of the goals for 3rd graders here is to become aware of the world,” she said. “Many of these kids have a limited view--Earlysville and that’s it. This is a wonderful way to introduce them to the rest of the world.”

Her class has also communicated with “Charlie” from the children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and has worked on writing projects using computer printouts.

In addition, Ms. Tevendale, a self-styled “computer nut,” frequently works on her computer at home at night, often logging into the “lounge” conversation or sending messages to the student teacher who works with her.

The Teacher-LINK project formally ended late last year. But teachers such as Ms. Tevendale will be able to keep their classroom computers, provided local school systems agree to assume the cost of maintaining the equipment. The Curry School has also applied for a grant to extend the project to teachers across the state.

In the meantime, the Teacher-LINK coordinators say they hope the foundation they have laid so far is strong enough to keep the network going on its own power.

The hope now, Ms. Harris said, is that the teachers who already have computers and are trained in how to use them will persuade more of their colleagues to join the “electronic academical village.”

“Essentially, what I’ve been trying to do,” said the program trainer, “is work myself out of a job.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 1990 edition of Education Week as On-Line ‘Academical Village’ Links Students and Teachers

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