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Online collaborative projects: A journey for two Year 5 technology rich classrooms

Ian W. Gaynor and Barry J. Fraser
Science and Mathematics Education Centre
Curtin University of Technology
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This paper documents the experiences of two teachers while they taught an online, thematic, outcome focused, portfolio based learning experience in two technology rich classrooms. This learning experience provided two classes of year 5 students with an opportunity to enhance their literacy, geography and information technology skills. The study, part of a longer term research program, explores the use of an online resource within a classroom where every student has a notebook computer and access to the Internet using wireless technology.

Two themes will be explored in this paper, firstly the pedagogical practices of the teachers and secondly the levels of collaboration and cooperation of the students, while working within an online environment.

The outcome of this online learning experience for the teachers was a dynamic, collaborative, student centred and constructivist classroom, while the students explored engaging and rewarding learning opportunities. This paper documents the teachers' experiences and students' journey while providing an informative and rewarding insight into a dynamic learning environment and presents a useful model of information technology integration.


Introduction

The focus of this study was two year 5 classes in a private co-educational school in Perth, Western Australia. The unit of work, based upon constructivist principles was an online task that provided students with an outcomes focused, portfolio based learning experience that presented a thematic study on literacy, Australian geography and ICT skills. At the commencement of 2002, the school implemented a notebook computer program, for which all enrolling year 5 and 8 students were required to purchase a notebook computer. During the 2001 school year, a number of strategies and initiatives were implemented to support the new technology rich classrooms. These strategies included the creation of a technology support centre that provided technical support for students and teachers, professional development in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) skills, and the integration of ICT into the curriculum, and collaboration and curriculum development time. The school also installed a broadband wireless network with Internet access to all notebook classrooms.

The technology infrastructure provided within the classroom reflected the innovative and advanced application of wireless technology, the provision of ample power supply and networked technical and systems support. These initiatives and strategies provided an opportunity for teachers to focus on the transparent embedding of ICT into the curriculum.

This case study is significant in that it contributes to the field of learning environments and the use of educational technology in the classroom through exploring the use of an online resource by teachers and students in a personal notebook computer program.

Aims

The research aims for this study were:
  1. To investigate the pedagogical practices of the teacher while using the online resource.
  2. To examine the collaboration and cooperation of the students while using the notebook program.

Background to the study

The foundation of this research program is the field of learning environments, and the specific forms use of notebook computers to promote online learning within a technology rich classroom. The focus of this paper will be to explore the various dimensions of the pedagogical practices of the teacher and the level of collaboration and cooperation amoung students

Learning environments

The research program will draw on and contribute to the field of learning environments (Fraser, 1994). The field of learning environments research is highly suitable foundation for the study of technology rich learning environments (Aldridge, Fraser, Fisher, & Wood, 2002). Bitter and Pierson (2002) indicate that research on the use of technology within a classroom often provides a focus on specific aspects of the technology use, rather than the conditions of the learning environment. Fraser (2001) states that the classroom environment strongly influences the student, while the field of learning environments has been successfully used to evaluate online or technology based classrooms and their effectiveness (Fraser & Maor, 2000; Maor & Fraser, 1996).

Notebook computers

Fouts and Stuen (1997) indicated that the portability and functionality of notebook computers have been shown to increase teacher and student ICT literacy levels, the levels of student collaboration, responsibility, motivation and independence, and the standard of the student products.

Fouts and Stuen (1997) also reported that a student's writing, communication, and presentation skills improved markedly when a notebook computer was used in the classroom. Finally, the ability of all students to access a notebook enabled them to learn using the same tools, to access the same information sources and to present their work using the same delivery mechanisms (Bradshaw & Massey, 1996).

Research conducted by Gardner, Morrison, Jarman, Reilly, and McNally (1994) identified that notebook computers can increase the ability of students to undertake inquiry based activities and project based and self directed tasks. McMillan and Honey (1993) identified that students participating in notebook programs had marked improvements in persuasive communication skills, compiled information more easily, organised effectively and possessed and used a wider range of vocabulary.

Online learning

Within many sectors of education, online learning is viewed as a mechanism for providing enhanced opportunities for improved learning outcomes, increased flexibility of meeting the needs of either the individual or groups of students, and a higher quality of educational interaction (Stacey, 2002). The use of online learning and educational technology are recognised as means of promoting opportunities for an inclusive and flexible curriculum by creating opportunities for the relevant integration of ICT and provision of appropriate depth of content, while promoting a developmental approach for the individual through collaborative learning opportunities (Curriculum Council, 1998).

Constructivist framework

Clark (1991) outlined that the use of the notebook computer as a learning tool influenced the learning strategies employed by the teachers and assisted in the construction of the content rather than just the delivery of content. The practice of constructivist pedagogical princip les was found to provide better outcomes than other models of instruction by Berg, Benz, Lasley, and Raisch (1998), who also found that exemplary technology using teachers used and integrated technology, employed teaching strategies, used class based activities and applied resources in a constructivist manner. Students of these teachers were engaged, involved in activities that were problem oriented, collaborative and based on authentic assessment. Newhouse (2002) indicates that, when teachers and students work within a wireless network, using portable computing devices, school management, teacher ICT competency, curriculum design and the pedagogy of the teacher are focused on maximising the use of the notebook, combined with appropriate structures for supporting teacher and technology, a constructivist learning environment will emerge. The practice of constructivist pedagogical principles provided better outcomes than using other models of instruction.

Professional Development

Becker (1994) indicated that the circumstances that contributed to the high standard of computer use by teachers where based upon improved opportunities for professional collaboration, the design of tasks used by the teachers, access to professional development opportunities and a low student to computer ratio in each classroom. Becker (1994) also stated that teachers who where characterised as exemplary computer users employed class activities that exploited small group work. Wenglinsky (1998) found that when teachers experienced professional development with computers they where more likely to use computers in effective ways, while Sulla (1999) stated that teacher professional development must include but also go beyond to include the instructional strategies that will ensure the effective integration into the instructional process.

The e-postcard task

The resource used was an online task 'Postcards Around Australia' http://www.beenleigss.qld.edu.au/postcards/index.html as the basis of this program of work that was based upon an online collaborative email partnership with another primary school. The strategies for the use of the online resource were developed using a framework founded on constructivist principles (Vygotsky, 1978). These principles provided the opportunities and strategies for students to build upon prior knowledge and construct complex levels of understanding through a thematic project using online collaborative resources.

The online task involved the students taking a virtual holiday trip around Australia. The task required each student using the resources provided to visit electronically at least one coastal and one outback region for each Australian state and mainland territory. This represented a total of six states and two territories. There were 16 locations and therefore 16 postcards. While visiting each virtual location, students were required to select an appropriate electronic photograph from the images provided, compose the postcard text and email this e-postcard to the partner school.

The concepts and principles that were developed or integrated into the unit of study included:

  1. the development of an understanding of a physical, technological and cultural perspective of Australia.
  2. the development and enhancement of literacy skills and ICT skills
  3. online, peer and class based communication and collaboration skills.
  4. the use of language to communicate ideas and information with peers, both locally and remote.
  5. the use of task repetition to reinforce skills and concepts.
  6. the use of research skills to identify and locate a resource, to evaluate and rationalise its use, and then to communicate this with others.
  7. the opportunity for students to develop self motivation and confidence in their approach to learning and to work individually and collaboratively.
  8. provision of an opportunity for the development of higher order thinking skills by allowing students to evaluate the use of a particular resource and to synthesise information within given context.
  9. provision of an opportunity for students to work and explore at their own pace.
  10. provision of students with of choice within a particular context.
Students recorded this virtual journey travelled in an electronic portfolio that was used as a school based assessment mechanism. This portfolio also included data collected on a daily basis, stored, and where appropriate represented graphically. For example, data recorded included spelling, mathematics and reading exercise results, personal vocabulary lists and the results of directed writing exercises and daily and weekly goals.

Research methods

Introduction

The aim of this study was to contribute to the field of learning environments through the study of a web based resource that is used as a basis for a thematic study. This case study used a combination of quantitative and qualitative research methods (Fraser, 1999; Fraser & Tobin, 1991), which was grounded within an interpretive framework (Erickson, 1998), to describe the complex nature of the classroom.

Sample size

The sample consisted of two classes of Year 5 students involved in a personal notebook program. This primary school sample consisted of a sample size of 58 students and their two teachers, (one teacher for each class).

Case study approach

The conduct of the program was framed within the methodology of a case study. The case study approach enables the analysis of the many diverse aspects of a classroom and the manner in which educational technology is being implemented (Cohen & Manion, 1998). This approach presents the opportunity to provide balance to the data collected and analysed (Fraser & Tobin, 1991). This is likely to ensure an appropriate coverage on multiple perspectives of the integration on learning technologies.

A combination of quantitative and qualitative research methods was used within this case study. Qualitative information was based on the interpretive framework of Erickson (Erickson, 1998). Previous studies have successfully applied a multiple method approach to describe the complex nature of the classroom for the students within a class, or for groups within a school (Fraser, 1999; Fraser & Tobin, 1991). The observations were approximately two hours in duration and were conducted on a weekly basis for seven weeks. The observations were used to develop a commentary on the classroom. By using such a method, it was possible to use classroom observations and interviews to establish a rich perspective on the classroom and its learning environment. The mechanism for establishing this rich perspective was through the idea of researcher-as-bricoleur (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994). The data used for this particular analysis involved the intensive observations of one class and interviews with both teachers.

Findings

This section provides selected results and a summary of the findings from the case study from the perspectives of the teacher and the students. These multiple perspectives provide the reader with the opportunity to develop insights into these dynamic classrooms. The reporting is organised using the study's two research aims.

Aim 1: To investigate the pedagogical practices of the teacher while using the online resource

In the observations of the class and in the interviews with the teachers, both teachers held very positive views about the use of the notebook computers in their classes and the improved opportunity to explore, implement and experiment in a collaborative manner. However, both teachers felt that there was a considerable level of work and preparation involved in integrating the notebook computers within a student centred approach. In addition, there was a change in the way in which the teacher operated within the classroom. In both cases, the teachers enjoyed working in the notebook computers classes and enjoyed using resources such as e-postcards, despite the considerable workload and the extra demands placed upon them by integrating ICT into their classrooms:
...You're always on the go ... you don't have your time out like I used to. ...When the kids are all engaged you are either with a small group of students (so that you are conferencing them) or assisting and guiding them. [8:2002:11/09] [1]
The changing role of the teacher was also evident in the level of collaboration and communication with the partner teacher. They would meet, talk, collaborate and decide on the progress and nature of the program and determine further areas for enhancement, improvement and consolidation. The increased levels of reflection also involved exploring potential methods of refinement for the further use of the online program for the following year.
I suppose that the use of the notebook computer has been a good challenge for me in my teaching. To actually instigate something has been new and challenging. It just opens up a lot of options and a lot of avenues in learning experiences and learning ideas for the students [9:2002:11/09].
A shift also occurred in the teachers' role in the classroom from a directive role to a facilitative role. The teachers indicated that the e-postcard task increased the opportunities for flexibility in the task and enabled a change to a more student focused environment. This resulted in the students taking a higher level of ownership in the selection and structure of the task and having pride in the emailed postcards and any related work. This occurred despite the students having a defined set of expectations regarding the postcard production. This flexibility of the teaching program to meet the students' needs enabled each student to make an increased level of commitment and ownership of the learning context. This ownership was important and valued by the students:
I suppose that is one of the things that was good: just allowing students to branch off on areas of interest within the framework of the study. Before, you would have your teaching program organised and that is the only way you went. However, in this context, you start with a base of the program or project and its outcomes and then kids come along and say: "Oh I'd really like to go this way, or I'd really like to research this, or I'd really like to look more into this". Then you can actually ask to them to bring me back their plan of what they want to do. I think that's starting to happen now. A couple of kids are coming up and saying "I'd really like to" or "Can we do something on this?" I'd say: "Well you can do that on your own, and you don't have to ask me to do an extra or individual project on this particular topic." The students are actually going off and researching on their own to support areas of the e-portfolio. The notebooks have opened up a lot to some of them. [22:2002:11/09]
Observations of the classroom and interviews with the teachers indicated that the teachers were required to change the way in which they worked with the students and to implement strategies that addressed or improved the changed teaching circumstance in the student centred classroom. These changes made by the teacher eased the process of transition, for the teacher and student, to a student centred classroom. The changes that the teacher made included the types of assessment, modes of observation and student conferencing to ensure an appropriate level of knowledge of all students' progress and achievement was maintained:
The e-portfolio task and the use of the notebook computers have enabled some students to move on and develop their own investigation. A couple of students are looking at debating whether Uluru should be climbed or should not be climbed. So they're researching that aspect, they're taking a different viewpoint and then they're debating that to the class. The students are starting to move out and become more in control of what they are doing. [23:2002:11/09]
Doing an online collaborative project motivated the students, but the e-postcard program did not have a high level of success with all students, due to the lack of response from some of the students in the partner school. In many cases, partners were created with students in the other year 5 class.
This is a problem with these online projects. We're trying to remedy it all the time. Some kids are getting feedback and it is great. Some aren't and so there is that element of disappointment. Initially they were really quite keen to get involved. It was central that we were going to communicate with someone else whom they did not know. It was quite motivating and they got behind the program [27:2002:11/09].
The participating teachers noted that an important factor of the e-postcard program was the level of ownership and control that the students had in the way in which they work on the production of the assessment items. With this high level of ownership, students very rarely were off task. They required little redirection or focus. On many occasions, they were still engaged and often unaware that the lesson had concluded. Additionally the teachers experienced little or no behavioural or discipline related problems:
The biggest thing is just the motivation for kids. The motivation for learning, I think, has come in with these children. Because of the facilitative role that I have and the student centred nature of the classroom, I don't have any behaviour management problems like ones that I would normally have had in previous years. [36:2002:11/09]

Aim 2: To examine the collaboration and cooperation of the students while using the notebook program

During the observations, a major feature of the classroom environment was the large amount of debate, conferencing and peer tutoring. The teachers indicated that the high levels of collaboration and independent learning were attributable not only the design of the task and the role of the notebook computers. Throughout the year, the students had been provided with opportunities to develop skills in cooperation, communication and independent working skills. During the e-postcard task, the students worked in pairs or small groups while creating and researching their postcard on their own notebook computer, sharing their resources, conferencing, or learning new ICT skills from each other:
I really liked the collaboration that exists with the use of the notebooks in the classroom, as well as the peer tutoring that results. It is just real positive stuff --- just having the kids being able to learn from each other, being able to collaborate on different projects... on everyday tasks. The notebook computers and the thematic study have allowed students to explore areas not previously available. The kids at the beginning of the year needed significant guidance and direction, but they are now independent, they are inventing, and they actually are letting themselves independently think and create, predict, explore and learn at rates and in areas not previously demonstrated. [39:2002:11/09]
In many cases, students sought support and advice from their peers before seeking help from their teacher, despite the teacher constantly being available and moving around the classroom to assist and help students. However, some students still needed a level of direction and guidance to assist in task completion:
It's like any class. You have students with different developmental levels, but a lot of them have become more independent and more responsible, and they value their own learning and just being able to be confident to experiment and do things on their own [51:2002:11/09].
One of the features of student use of the notebook computers was students' modelling of effective use of notebook computers and the application of computer software to complete or solve problems. This included the use of Inspiration to develop timelines or create concept maps, or the use of simple sound edit programs to capture and attach a sound files to the postcard.
The students were con sistently making independent choices as to which tool on the computer could efficiently solve a given task. However there has been a lot of the instruction in the use of applications and computer software to start with. Now they are actually starting to think about what tool they could use for this particular task [73:2002:11/09].
Students also gained ideas about page layout, and about design that was modelled by peers or by using a data projector to show and explain completed class work. Then students justified how and why the product was created. The notebooks and the online task prompted students to look, to reflect, to search and to make decisions.

Conclusion

For this case study, the data collected during the conduct of the e-postcards task involved the use of interviews with two teachers and intensive observations of one class for approximately two hours per week for seven weeks. The results from the data collected indicated that the online e-postcards activity, when used in conjunction with the students' personal notebook computers, generally was a success. The degree of success can be attributed partly to the constructivist framework of the online task, the methods employed by the teacher to promote a student-centred, collaborative classroom, and the degree to which the students embraced the level of independence provided. The case study indicates that the students and teachers favourably supported the online task and the resultant pedagogical strategies and methods.

The e-postcard task was not complex or highly defined. The task built upon and promoted high levels of cooperation through shared problem solving and peer mentoring. The e-postcard task enabled students to learn from personal and other students' successes and failures. Through this experience, individuals explored and built on existing knowledge and success through a thematic online collaborative task. Students experienced problems in the lack of feedback from the partner school, requiring the teacher to support and assist students from the other year 5 class as online e-partners. Students also exploited the opportunities of independence, cooperation and collaboration by working and sharing their ideas via email and group meetings, and by using modes of learning that suited the given context.

Teachers and students clearly indicated that the personal notebook computer, with its wireless networking technology, provided the opportunities for learning anywhere at anytime. The opportunity to produce work at high standards provided students with access to motivating and relevant resources, appropriate for their task, from a large range of resources. This enabled the students to work independently and collaboratively, and to select software tools appropriate to the task. Students were encouraged to use the notebook computer as a diary and a planner, recording not only the development of the postcard in their own portfolio, but also new vocabulary, spelling results and other daily statistical data. This use encouraged many students to view the computer as a valuable tool rather than an expensive toy. The role of the teacher reinforced the changing nature of the classroom in that the online task encouraged the teacher to facilitate and encourage individualisation and excellence. This shift also encouraged and reinforced a task-orientated classroom promoting peer mentoring and student collaboration. The collaborative, inquiry-based, student-centred classroom provided students with many opportunities to find success and to develop a sense of ownership in their online task.

The use of the online e-portfolio task reinforced and enhanced the existing use of notebook computers and constructivist pedagogical practices, and provided opportunities for students to explore and enhance an already-existing student-centred classroom. Students clearly demonstrated that they desired an improvement in the classroom-learning environment. It was clear that the success of the e-postcard task relied not only upon the task structure and upon the classroom strategies used to exploit its potential for the students, but also the provision of seamless access to reliable portable notebook technology with broadband wireless network support and reliable technical support services. The high levels of technology infrastructure support enabled a rich and vibrant learning environment where the student was the priority.

Endnote

  1. This code indicates that this quote is the eighth quote used from an interview conducted on 11/9/2002.

References

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This paper is based on a paper presented at the Third International Conference on Science Mathematics and Technology Education, January 2002, East London, South Africa.

Please cite as: Gaynor, I. W. and Fraser, B. J. (2003). Online collaborative projects: A journey for two Year 5 technology rich classrooms. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 2003. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/2003/gaynor.html


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