Virginia S. Little
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Conference Title: The Promise: Virtual or Real?
International Telecommunications Conference Paper: September, 1997
Special section contribution: Education and the Internet-The Reality
Designing, Implementing, and Assessing an
On-line Creative Writing Program
by Virginia Little
Reality: n. that which constitutes the real or actual thing as distinguished from that which is merely apparent.
How's the Water?
We find ourselves in the midst of a cultural transformation, in uncharted waters. Controversy and chaos walk as companions to change, as does resistance. Media headlines fuel fears about pornography and the Internet. School districts without established Internet policies result in multi-million dollar school computer labs standing empty. Most teachers do not have adequate time or training to know how to use technology in their teaching. When confronting the unknown, some people feel threatened and become paralyzed. Convinced the water is too cold for swimming, they stand transfixed on the shores of change.
I see an example of this fear in a natural context. On a beach in Florida, I watch a father and his three year old son who is afraid of the ocean. The father leads the child to the edge of the water so that it laps just over his small, sandy white feet. The wide-eyed boy looks down intently and jumps from one foot to the other as the water reaches his ankles. His feet disappear, sinking in the wet sand, and he backs away a few steps, uncertain. A bigger wave breaks with more force and he tries to pull his hand out of his father's grip. He begins to cry. Two days later, I see him building a sand castle and playing catch-me-if-you-can with the waves as they break on the shoreline. He is no longer afraid and laughs delightedly. The boy conquers the unfamiliar and plays with new found confidence. It has taken the patient guidance of his father, trust, risk-taking, and time. These principles can serve to guide educators as we navigate the turbulent waters of the tides of technological change. We must tell the stories of our experiences as we test the waters, evaluating both the strengths and the potential drawbacks of on-line education.
Going Swimming: Diving In
A "second" class
emerged on-line extending beyond the boundaries of our scheduled bi-weekly meetings. Replacing the common lament after class, "oh, I wish I would have said that," or, "why does that person always
have to dominate the discussion?" everyone found a level playing field to share their ideas on their own time schedules, and in their own comfort zones. Class connections did not "end" at the sound of the
bell. Some lurked as readers only for a time, while others acclimated more readily and began posting immediately. Monitoring the natural flow of on-line dialogue provided me with a valid source of inside knowledge
about the primary questions relating to their growth as teachers. This helped me to create a curriculum more attentive to their individual needs. Perhaps more importantly, a true sense of community formed on-line beyond what
I had ever witnessed in traditional classroom settings.
One middleschooler wrote: "So many of my friends are getting pregnant. They are just kids themselves and they're having children. I don't understand it. What can we do?" A young mother, working her way through college and finding it quite difficult, responded that as a young girl she had equated love with sex, and had been careless, resulting in pregnancy. While she loved her son, given the chance, she would have done things differently. The power of the story reached the dark corners of unspoken places. School is not separate from life; rather, teen pregnancy, drugs, peer pressures, urban violence, divorce, love, and typical teen angst permeate the classroom. On-line communications provide a forum for students to talk openly about their sources of "ultimate concern." As educators, we can help guide students as they explore these most important life issues.
Creative Writers on the Net Program: Overview and Design
We "connected" through a computer server company, Metasystems Design Network (Metanet) at the cost of $100 per year per student. The company provided technical support, on-site training during orientation, and conferencing software to "house" our private campus. In addition to the on-line work, students met face-to-face three times during the year: the orientation and technical training, a second gathering for an Empowerment Evaluation session which served as the primary assessement approach, and the end of the year celebration and sharing of achievements. Otherwise, the course was conducted solely on-line.
I designed the virtual classroom environment to be context familiar and inviting, including:
The Homeroom for announcements, assignments, collective reflections, technical help, and general question about coursework and program development
Within each of the conferences, participants have the capacity to create as many items as they wish, with room in each item for
thousands of threaded responses. The thirty students averaged 150 new responses per day throughout the year and reported spending an average of 1-2 hours per day reading, responding and composing on-line, and varying additional
time off-line. The generative nature of the medium creates a multi-voiced, stream-of-consciousness type dialogue. Topics drift, as in regular conversations. Particular items flowed from a discussion of poetics to politics to
physics, creating a learning forum of highly integrated knowledge. This enhanced the development of an emergent curriculum based on students'interests.
The transactional nature of learning, with students and teachers as co-learners, replaces former transmission models with the teacher as authority and imparter of knowledge. On-line learning focuses not only on course content, but on interpersonal relationships. The social, collaborative, and communicative aspects of constructing knowledge are central to on-line learning environments. As my student, Amie, writes about a "dusty" boy without hope in a trailer park, as Greg struggles with depression and thoughts of suicide, and his peers affirm his value to their community, I observe how life and learning overlap. Late at night by the flickering light of a computer screen, we reach towards our common humanity, struggle with the chaos of existence, and relish in the love of questions without answers. By sharing our stories, we seek to make sense of a rapidly changing world. Together, we re-define ourselves as individuals, as an on-line community, as a society. We are all at once teachers and learners-connected by modems, wires, and our artistic natures.
Grabe and Grabe (1996, p. 19) aptly describe some of the fundamental changes in educational paradigms occurring as a result of technology in the classroom:
1. Shift in student role from storing information to creating knowledge
When theory translates to practice, we learn what works, what doesn't, and why. We face the simple reality that technology doesn't transform; rather, it's how we apply the technology to create new educational environments. As educators, our task is to create interactive learning models which "will survive the tests of time and changes in technology" (Edgar and Wood, 1996).
Assessment and Empowerment
Designed to promote self-determination and a promise of a
learning community (Fetterman, 1995), the primary facets of Empowerment Evaluation include training, facilitation, advocacy, and illumination with four complementary steps: taking stock, setting goals, developing strategies and
documenting progress. Weekly questions based on student-centered learning goals provided a continual feedback loop for refining program and curriculum development. Natural cycles of action and reflection allowed students to
experience the power of inquiry, of questioning their own understandings and growth as a learning
1. To continue to grow as a community/family of writers
It took over an hour for the students to articulate these purpose/goal statements. As facilitator, I would re- iterate students' comments to ensure meanings were not misinterpreted, and asked questions to prompt further reflections on their original ideas.
Students addressed the question: "Where are we now?" by rating each goal on a 1 to 10 scale, with 1 being the lowest rating and 10 being the highest rating. We posted the
averages of all the groups' ratings for each item. In my research field notes following this session, I wrote: "The students took control of their future learning directions and we transformed by embracing an attitude of
inquiry, of learning through a genuine source of questioning, and of a wanting to know. Assessment became an integral part of our process today." During the session, I stressed that developing an exemplary program was a
shared responsibility. At the end of the year I posed a question about significant memories and one student responded, "I unenthusiastically woke up early and dragged myself to orientation. Then WOW! I remember thinking,
this is amazing! We have complete control over this class. It could go anywhere. We could do anything. The limitless possibilities enthralled me."
Forming a Community of Writers: The Lifeboat
Since improving writing was one of the students' primary goals, I posed the question: "What is creative writing?" Responses included:
"Creative writing is the easy and natural expression, and the most difficult chore. It can flow from us like water, or bead in small droplets from hours of labor. It is about abstract ideas or unreal
people, and it is the mirror of our Selves. Creative writing is recording the colors, faces, events and feelings inside of me. It is converting ideas into words, taming the flames, and molding the clay into forms palpable on
"If everyone had their own language of being and their own inner world, creative writing would be the great translator; a bridge that links us to each other. Creative writing is freedom made literal."
"To create literally means to cause to exist or bring into being. You are bringing an idea or image into being where there was emptiness before. You are causing a thought to exist for others, where it lived in your mind alone."
These student definitions created a shared meaning base to apply to their
work and growth as writers. The students express an understanding of writing process as a search for Self, as a window within, and as a bridge to the human spirit of others. Within creative expression lies the infinite
possibilities of transformation. At the end of the year, the students compiled a 71 page book of their favorite works. Chapter themes included worldviews, family, love and relationships, responses to writing
invitations, works on being a writer, and looking inside-out. As writers, they had ventured into composing and re-creating their visions of reality and their sense of Self; writing became a process of discovery.
These wide-ranging dialogues, for which there is little time in the regular fifty minute classroom focused solely on mandated curricula, allowed students to discover,
articulate and question their beliefs and values. Students uncovered their underlying assumptions, and as writers, began composing reality. As one student stated, "I've been at this for about a month now. If we were
sitting next to each other in an uptight classroom, our relationships would be so different. We'd say, "Hey, what's goin' on? Nothin. Whadja do this weekend? Not much." Here in divine aloneness and privacy we write our
thoughts on God, soul-searching poetry, politics, and all else in the universe. We seriously write. The awkwardness of rejection -fear is all but eliminated, at least for me."
"I believe that the on-line process is mimetically related to the action of the poet's mind in which there is, practically speaking, no center,no beginning, middle or end-or rather, perhaps, the center is everywhere, and the process is more simultaneous, multiphrenic, and multivocal than it is orderly, linear, and conclusive...as the author H.L.Goodall has said, the only answer to life's strangeness if furtheer and deeper strangeness, not simplification and clarification. Certainly this is true of both poetry and the increasingly complex technical world" Claire Bateman (The Nearness of You, 1995, "Other Voices Other Rooms," p. 169, Teachers and Writers Collaborative: New York).
As writers and as learners in a virtual classroom, we dove into the riptide of many-to-many communications. As trust developed and on-line communications skills improved, students began to move outward into new communities within the Metanet on-line forums. Students explored conferences of mutual interest including: Books, Seasonal Salons, Artist, and Paradigm Shift. The "Metacommunity," including lawyers, artists, photographers, teachers, writers, retired military men, and homemakers, among others, offered students additional knowledge and resources beyond my own capacity. One student commented: "Through the exploitation of this infinite resource, there is potential for infinite growth! Another adds, "The on-line world is immeasurably vast in its volume of knowledge and information, and no one person can master all of it."
The Metanet company's underlying philosophy states their interests are in "closing the gap between the human condition and the human potential and in promoting values of curiosity, candor, cooperation and creativity in the on-line community." As one of the oldest computer server companies in existence, Metanet facilitates computerized interactions between "organizations interested in systems views, organizational development, and socially responsible technological applications for business and education." Our connections with the Metanet community continue to ripple.
Just recently Metanet hosted an on-line Civicnet conference including 350 participants from around the world. While in this conference, I encountered administrators, whom I had never met in person, from our local Kalamazoo Community Network, Telecity (http://www.telecity.org). Subsequently, Telecity hired three of my students to design a LearnNet component connecting parents, teachers and students in on-line forums. Another student is doing an internship this summer at Metanet headquarters. Yet another works with me as a student-researcher and editor. Creating these kinds of democratic partnerships between civic communities, education, businesses, and youth offers a promising vision for a hopeful future.
We are standing knee deep in the waters of change. Technological advances increase at a rapid rate; the learning curve rises daily. It is important that we find ways to transcend software and hardware limitations, and share the success stories of interactive technologies based on communication and the creation of vital on-line communities. The promise? Very real indeed. The hope lies with educators who are willing to envision the creative potential of the medium, and who are willing to dive into deep water without really knowing what's beneath the surface. Future schools may become community resource centers with teachers as facilitative mentors for student-directed, project-oriented learning. In this scenario, school learning will become increasingly relative to life and work.
Instead of qualifying our experiences in terms of black and white polarities, we must look at the colors of the spectrum. The following list outlines the strengths and complementary drawbacks gleaned from the first year of the Creative Writers on the Net program:
A. Not everyone acclimates well to the on-line environment; Those who do are afforded freedom and flexibility in choosing how and when to engage. Participants have the space to pause and reflect before responding.
B. Students are responsible for, and must take ownership of, their own learning; Some students are unaccustomed to self-directed learning and levels of participation vary. Students who do not engage are invisible. Students who are offline for a few days are able to review all archived classroom communications, unlike students who are absent from regular classrooms, miss the day's interactions, and can only complete "make-up work"
C. External pressures are minimized on-line and students feel safe disclosing, especially normally shy students who find face-to-face classroom interactions intimidating; Some students may find it difficult to trust those they cannot physically "see".
D. Students on-line receive a myriad of responses to their work from an authentic audience instead of relying solely on the teacher for assessment and feedback; Some are initially hesitant to post their work knowing "everyone" will read it.
E. Text-based medium necessitates daily reading and writing. This fosters attentiveness to clarity, creative composition, and audience. Writing well carries prestige in on-line communities; Potential for miscommunications may initially be high as users acclimate to the absence of "body language" and other physical softeners.
F. Students get to know peers from the inside without traditional barriers of age, race, class, and geographic locations; Students miss physical connectors such as hugs, eye-contact, and laughter.
G. Classroom distractions, such as bells and disruptive behavior, are eliminated; Loss of "spontaneous" learning catalyzed by energetic classroom interactions.
H. On-line learning fosters improvement of literacy, computer and communication skills; Technological glitches may overwhelm and cause intermittently high levels of frustration or anxiety.
I. On-line environment provides an infinite and generative resource; Medium can be overwhelming to some, especially those with erratic levels of participation. Few teachers have experienced the power of the Internet for enhancing regular classroom learning environments. School resources are severely limited and technology costs prohibitive.
J. As we demonstrate positive educational applications, it prompts schools to upgrade their systems and to "connect" students to the resources of the Internet. Equity of access issues continue to deny equal educational opportunities for all students. Students accessing only from school are at a disadvantage to those with home systems. The gap continues to widen between privileged and marginalized populations.
K. On-line communications are time intensive; Rewards are multi-faceted.
may be co-created between students and teachers in a democratic fashion. In these kinds of classrooms, much of the curriculum is emergent, requiring a tolerance for ambiguity. Traditional teachers will translate former paradigms to
on-line learning environments stressing skill and drill formats, or transmission versus transactional models of teaching. On-line learning environments necessitate new ways of thinking about the ways we engage with our
O. Students and teachers become co-learners in the on-line environment with the expertise of students often surpassing that of the teacher. This provides excellent opportunities for students to teach teachers; Some teachers resist relinquishing their authority as classroom "expert". Varying skill levels makes learning more difficult for some. Technical training and support are a necessity.
Following this first year, many questions still remain unanswered. How will technology impact school systems? How responsive is our teaching to the ways technology impacts thinking and learning? What is the preferred balance between combinations of on-line and face-to-face learning modes? How do we best structure the on-line learning environment, establishing a line between creative freedom and chaos? How will our evaluation approaches reflect the increasingly social, collaborative and interactive nature of writing within computer-mediated classrooms? How will ideas about literacy and writing process shift as a result of composing using technological applications?
Next year the enrollment for the Creative Writers on the Net course has tripled with a long waiting list of interested students. First year students have requested to continue in an advanced class and will mentor incoming students. Twenty middleschoolers will gather on our campus in their own conference, The Writer's Guild. I will also link teacher-educators on-line with my highschool students, believing students are the best teachers of teachers. I look forward to how the process will continue to unfold. Some of my questions will be answered. But more importantly; new questions will arise in an interminable quest for what's possible. Through establishing connections between technology and the arts, business and education, life and learning, we will continue to compose new realities as we ride the waves of change.
KEYWORDS: COMMUNITY, EDUCATION, EMPOWERMENT, INTERACTIVE, ON-LINE, TECHNOLOGY
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