Redefining a "Virtual Community of Learners"

Lorraine Sherry and Shelley H. Billig
RMC Research Corporation, Denver

Fern Tavalin
The WEB Project, Vermont

Description of the Project

Conceptualized as a project to "create a Web of Evidence" and improve student learning through the use of multimedia and telecommunications, The WEB Project was one of the 19 Technology Innovation Challenge Grant winners from the first competition in 1995. RMC Research Corporation conducted the external evaluation of the project during the 1995-2000 grant period. Over its five years of funding, The WEB Project created a set of strategies that impacted teachers' instructional practices and gave a new meaning to the term "learning community".

Important variables associated with success were reliable access to the Web, strong technical support, paid and reliable mentors, student choice, self-directed learning, posting of works-in-progress (rather than final products) and requests for specific types of feedback, the need for one-time face-to-face communication to enhance the student-mentor relationship, and a discussion of various levers for change.

The WEB Project established a system that linked ten participating schools and districts and multiple cooperating initiatives in discussions of student work. Art and music students posted works in progress and received constructive feedback from community practitioners and learners. Middle school students from three schools across the state of Vermont conducted book discussions, facilitated by staff from the Vermont Center for the Book and their teachers. Teachers discussed challenges, conducted action research and shared results, and co-developed rubrics to assess process, progress, and outcomes. As a result, The WEB Project contributed substantially to knowledge of effective practice for conducting online dialogue and design conversations.

Teachers affiliated with other practitioners in their discipline throughout the state via the participating initiatives and drew on their expertise. For example, art teachers and students shared online interactions with traditional artists, graphic artists, and multimedia designers; and music teachers and students carried on conversations with resident musicians, music teachers, and composers. The mentor-practitioners, in turn, were asked to give students feedback and essentially became co-instructors in the course. This learning community resembled an apprenticeship model, but allowed for many mentors in asynchronous time.

Online Design Conversations

Together with students in various disciplines, teachers formed partnerships with other teachers and practitioners who were actually working in an academic discipline (e.g., music, traditional or digital art, or language arts) so that they could instruct students and give them feedback on their work. For example, music teachers from multiple locations throughout Vermont met together electronically using threaded discussions on The Vermont MIDI Project forum, located on The WEB Exchange, a virtual meeting room for public and private communication established on The WEB Project's Web site. They decided on a theme for student compositions, worked with students to teach them the elements of composition, and had students compose individual or collaborative pieces using notation software on a MIDI keyboard, perhaps illustrating a fairy tale, utilizing a particular style such as theme and variations, or a creating a piece for a particular medium such as a string quartet or a jazz ensemble.

Students worked on their compositions individually or in small groups. When they felt their work had reached a point where they wanted some critique on specific problems of theme, melodic line, transitions, and the like, they posted their work as a "request" message on The WEB Exchange together with a description of the piece. Other music teachers, students, composers and musical performers who served as mentors in a virtual community then provided feedback on the students' work.

The WEB Project tried to foster a cycle of "request-respond-reply" to facilitate design conversations between students and mentors. The "respond" messages contained feedback in response to a particular challenge the student identified (e.g. "in bar 28 I'm trying to convey a sense of foreboding with the drums. I don't think it is working. How can I create that better?")

Once a student received feedback multiple times, possibly from multiple mentors with a variety of perspectives and suggestions, he/she might "reply", incorporating filtered suggestions from the mentors and re-posting the work-in-progress. After one or more revisions, the student finally decided when the project was finished and submitted it for a grade or for a competition. A common teacher-created rubric was used to capture student reflections about their compositions.

In a similar fashion, traditional art, digital art, or multimedia students posted works in progress on the ARTT forum, stated their intentions in creating the artwork, and asked for help to convey a specific intention, mood, or feeling. Artists, who were paid a small stipend, commented on the work as often as they were asked. Final products were judged using common rubrics.


Here is an example of some of the online design conversation between a special student and his mentors.

Request: This is a work submitted earlier called "Serenity" that I decided to arrange for string quartet. I renamed the piece to "Strolling", because it seemed a more appropriate name for the music, and it also gave me a sense of strolling through a park. I believe the character of the piece would fit a string quartet nicely. There are solo sections between the first and second violin starting at measure 17. Do they need supporting chords or rhythmic figures in the other voices? Is the ending a little abrupt? Are there any string techniques that would make this piece more interesting? Does the transition from the B section back to the A section work? Any other suggestions greatly appreciated.

Response: A music teacher who replied that she was gratified by his clear questions, said that the piece was written very well for string quartet and that there were no technical issues. She suggested transposing the first violin part up an octave and adding a few ties over the bar lines in the violin parts to create some overlap. Four days later, the student replied with a second draft:

Reply: Hi Everyone! Here is what I'm hoping is my final project. F or this second draft of "Strolling", I pushed the first and second violins up an octave. Then I overlapped measures 17-20 with 8th notes and would like to keep this as a duet between first and second violins. I also put a portion of the viola section up an octave (on my mom's suggestion) except measures 6,7,8,16, and 30-34. I think the effect works great in the octave they are in now. And finally, I connected B back to A with an ascending cello part in addition to the first violin. (I hope this sounds OK!) Any feedback on the changes I've made would be greatly appreciated. Also, how does it sound going from four-part harmony to an overlapping duet between the two violin parts? Thanks for any suggestions you can throw at me.

Response: The teacher praised the student for the improvements he made and added a few more suggestions for some fine-tuning of the piece. Two days later, the student posted his final project with the following remarks:

Reply: Hello everyone! It's finally here: my Final Project. I would like to thank [my teacher] from the bottom of my heart for helping me through this arduous process. And I would also like to thank [my online mentor] for her brilliant critiquing skills and insightful suggestions...My finished project reflects most of the suggestions from [my online mentor]. I hope everyone is as pleased with it as I am.

Besides a very supportive response from the music teacher, the student received a congratulatory message from the Vermont MIDI Project Coordinator. She indicated that the piece was one of the dozen or so compositions by Vermont student compositions that would be played the following month by the National Symphony Orchestra, on tour in Vermont from Washington DC:

Response: You've done a wonderful job with your piece. I just listened again to how it developed from the beginning to this final version. The B section of the piece is so much more developed from the first posting. I can see how much you've reworked it and used the suggestions from [your online mentor] and your mom to guide you. I think the whole piece will be great fun for the National Symphony Orchestra players. Hope to see you at the concert...good work!

Online Dialogue

Language arts students moderated discussions on curriculum-related texts with students from other schools in an online forum called Taking A Stand, which was facilitated by an expert from the Vermont Center for the Book. In contrast with the design conversations that were closely related to the goal of designing, developing, or refining works of art or music, students who engaged in online dialogue attempted to comprehend text, respond to text, make inferences form text, use evidence from the text to support arguments, make informed decisions, or negotiate meaning.

While students practiced conversations in class using the guidelines found in A Guide to Online Discussion, developed by The WEB Project, participating teachers clarified the standards in their own minds and communicated them to their students. Students knew what they were expected to do. Each conversation ended with closure and reflection. Students reformulated and summarized what they understood. The online conversations promoted participation among quiet students who did not usually converse in class. When these students had sufficient time to reflect and compose an online response, they were often better than those composed by avid in-class conversationalists.

The guidelines for participation went far beyond ordinary "netiquette" guidelines for online postings to listservs. Here are some of the typical guidelines:

An online teacher forum was running in the background the whole time, which gave teachers a chance to observe and reflect on the student conversations as they occurred. At no time did these two forums mix. Teachers let the students moderate their own conversations without interference from adults, even though at times a few students wished that adults might participate as well. The collaborative action research among the participating teachers might be construed as "collaborative metacognition" because they addressed identifying problems, suggesting and evaluating strategies, and all the complex mental processes that normally take place in individual metacognition.

According to the project director, the process went beyond addressing common academic standards as reflected in the Vermont Framework (which is an important factor but in itself not sufficient) to embracing a common notion of reflective dialogue shared by students teachers, and facilitators. It broke the boundaries of the classroom. Schools were connected and students expected their partner schools in three distributed locations to participate. Fifth and sixth graders conversed with seventh and eighth graders. Although in traditional classrooms they are not considered peers, online, nobody really cared what grade which student was in. This sort of anonymity leveled the playing field among all the students in the distributed learning environment, and it sustained the conversation.

Rather than posing simple questions and simple responses, students moved to a flowing dialogue that was rich and deep. Conversations addressed students' perceptions and preconceived notions, not just "what did the book say?" or "what would you do if you were the main character?" They infused technology into the language arts curriculum. There were more perspectives than in a single classroom because of the online exchanges among the distributed schools. Moreover, the online dialogue was thoroughly integrated into the in-class discussions.

Impact on Student Performance

Teachers felt that online conversations had a positive impact on student motivation, thinking and learning processes, performance in academic subject areas, and transfer of skills to other domains. Structural equation modeling of student pre/post surveys, correlated with scores on teacher-created rubrics, validated this perception. Results of the data analysis will be reported at the October AECT meeting in Denver.

In the arts, student work improved so much that a new rubric to measure "advanced" work was developed. Many music students had their works played by the National Symphony Orchestra. Language arts students showed increased scores on performance measures and attendance. Many students also indicated that they had either changed the direction of their career aspirations, and/or would find specific uses for their newly acquired skills.

Suggestions for Further Inquiry

An interesting area for analysis was the notion of the unit of change for these schools. In most cases, teachers formed alliances with other discipline-based teachers and practitioners throughout the state. They supported each other in terms of professional development and project implementation, and showed great success with students in their disciplines. However, they remained marginalized within their own schools, and in some cases were resented because they had more technology, better equipment, and more support than others did.

This raises questions about the unit for change in marginalized disciplines like the arts and music, and questions about sustainability once The WEB Project grant is over. Great investments were made in individuals rather than changing the whole school culture. This means that the reform is portable and follows the teacher to a new setting if he/she transfers, but does not necessarily build a school-based culture for support. Instead, The WEB Project built a very strong discipline-based support system within a virtual learning community.

Issues of the unit of change, sustainability of valued activities, and the technology-driven change process in the ten participating schools are currently being investigated. Preliminary results indicate that an academic discipline itself may be a more viable, dynamic locus for change rather than the school or classroom; and that the partnership with practitioners based on an "old" apprenticeship model may be a stronger lever for producing increased student achievement.