Virginia S. Little

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International Telecommunications Union

Geneva, Switzerland-1997

Education and the Internet: The Reality

Creative Writers on the Net:  A Dialogue between Three Students

Edited by Virginia S. Little with Jessica Ott, Sean Moiles, Katherine Blanke

The following article is an edited dialogue between three students, Katherine Blanke, Jessica Ott, and Sean Moiles. Each of these students participate in the Creative Writers on the Net program in Kalamazoo, Michigan ( Kat and Sean participated for the full year during the 1997 school term and live in Michigan, while Jessica entered the program as a visitor during the final quarter. Jessica accessed the program from Geneva, Switzerland and next year will be enrolled as a full time student. The concept of a dialogic format, a word dance, for the article arose through their teacher sharing the idea of a "talking book" developed by Paulo Freire and his colleagues in their writings about education and social justice. "Here we are trying to decide how to get moments of each other's lives and to bring them to a book, a book which does not lose the essence of life. A dialogue is as the life that comes from the earth's springs" (Freire, 1990). Since our idea for the article surrounded bringing our own lived experience in education and the Internet, this format well-suited our needs and wishes. We anticipated questions our audience would wonder about or be most interested in and then began our dialogue around the umbrella question: How might we describe our experience in education and the Internet?

Kat: So far Education and the Internet is just beginning.  We're sort of like pioneers.

Sean: It's a great way to meet people from around the world therefore you learn about different cultures and diversity which you can't get within school boundaries.

Jess:  English class was boring, not even that it was boring..I've been talking English since I was two.  In the Creative Writers on the Net on-line class I am learning things, not just repeating things I've known for years.

Sean: Does it make a difference that you're learning with other English speakers, in a more natural context?

Kat:  Is it not so formalized like learning to say, "May I have a glass of water?"  It seems to me that it's confusing if someone is from another country is teaching a different language.

Jess: So much of what you learn in a classroom in language is things like names of animals and not really things you will need to communicate.

Kat:  On-line, it's like you wonder if people will speak other languages like French or German, but it seems really natural.  Like with Jess, it doesn't seem like she's across an ocean, it seems like she's right here with us.

Sean: Along with that, there's a blind element, you can't see people based on their color. Everyone is equal.  It doesn't matter how much money we have or other qualifiers.

Jess:  You get to know these people by what they think and what's inside, not what you see.  If you were speaking to someone, say you didn't like their haircut, you might not want to even get to know them.  You don't judge people on-line by their looks but by their mind and by their souls.

Kat:  We get to respect and accept each other by our views.

Jess:  If you write something you don't have to look a person in the eye to wait for their response, you don't have to be shy.  You don't see the person's reaction.  If I would write a poem and read it to you and you said, "it was bad" it would upset me. But if I read critique on-line, I don't mind so much.

Sean:   You're more likely to get the truth on-line, especially important for writing.

Kat:  People take more time thinking about what they're going to say.

Sean: On-line you get a chance to reflect before you respond.

Kat:  You take time, you can go back and notice little things, rather than just blanket, "this is good or this is bad."  This is what made our critique so much better.

Sean:  Also you get critiques from everyone, not just the teacher.

Kat: It makes you want to write more, people look more closely and that makes you want to look more closely at your own work and become better.

Sean:  And when you give critiques, and you have to pay close attention to other people's style, it helps you be more aware of your own writing and approach to creative expression. In the future, people may be reading computer screens instead of books too, for example, and it may change the way we express ourselves.  Longer posts, for example, are harder to read.

Kat:  The way we express ourselves on-line can be different, like when we learned html, we started adding color and graphics, for example, which added a whole new way of saying what you were thinking, it added emphasis and imagination. Jess, were you scared at first because you came late into our class as a visitor?

Jess: Yea, I was a little anxious, but not really scared. I was thinking they're going to think my writing bad. But instead of saying I don't like this, students say, I would change this or maybe think about this in regards to your writing.  It was comfortable and I felt welcomed and supported in taking risks in my writing.

Kat: It makes me want to write more cause I didn't know anyone so I thought it was more of a chance to be myself instead of what people thought I was. I also had never shared my writing with anyone before. I started with poetry, pretty bad poetry.  I had never written poetry before and I wanted to try something new.  It felt good. If it felt good, I'd write it down. Eventually I wanted to express myself more through words. That was good because if you try and look for a reason to write it seems forced, but when I had a reason to write from inside, it sounded good and people liked it, and I liked it!  That then made me want to write more.

Jess:  I like to write but I don't think of myself as a writer.

Kat: That's stereotypical though cause people think you're only a writer if you've published. I used to think that too, but not anymore.  Because of this class, I write more and I have more inspiration.  I only write now if I am inspired. It's an outlet. It's kind of like a right and a privilege. I think you're a writer if you write everyday, or if you think of yourself as a writer.  Why don't you think of yourself as a writer?

Jess:  I like playing basketball but I don't think of myself as a basketball player.

Sean: Do you take playing basketball seriously?  Or writing?

Kat: How often do you write?

Jess:   Not too often. When I have something to say, when it comes to me.  I can't just sit in front of a piece of paper and write something, like how they ask you to do in school.

Sean:   Did this class trigger more ideas or give you a need to write more often?

Jess:  I do want to write more often now.  I read some of the stuff other people wrote and I'd like to get to these ideas and be able to express them like these other people my age.  I was impressed by what people managed to write.  I want to be able to write like I see others doing.

Kat:  I like the discussions on-line.  We were free to express and voice all kinds of opinions without hesitating.

Sean: You're forced to read and write all the time and if you want to respond, you have to think about it, and really attend to your communications. There's no physical softeners.  You have to be clear and concise.

Kat: And we learned to use qualifiers in our writing, like "she says as she shrugs her shoulders."

Jess: I enjoy this cause I can work on my English, I can work on my writing.  I can communicate with people who have different views on life than the people I see every day.

Kat: Not only did we all become better writers, we became friends, knowing that we all came from different ways of thinking, and learning to respect that.

Sean:  In thinking about our audience right now, I presume they're thinking, "So what did you learn?"

Kat:  A lot more than you would in a regular classroom. In my English classroom I only knew a couple people well.

Sean:  What's more important is that in this class you learn more about what it is you really want to know and what you're interested in, and it's a more authentic process.  It's not like read chapter 3, test tomorrow.

Kat: It's not what the system requires, it's what you want to learn to be a better person and be better able to do what you want to do.

Sean: You interact with all different people instead of just the teacher telling you what to do. It's more of a democratic process. The teacher plays more of a role as a guide, asking key questions, questions for you to search upon.  If the class is on the Internet, you shouldn't just have the teacher as the authority. There are so many people and resources on-line that can be used.

Kat: Most teachers are more interested in being "The Teacher" and being in control than in the student and what they are learning.

Sean:  We need more teachers who spark ideas for you to search for answers instead of giving you the answers or telling you.

Kat: Yea, it's like multiple choice instead of true-false.

Jess:  Teachers I have, most of them, just want to get out what they have to do. Once they say it, we're just supposed to know it.  In this class, the teacher tries to get us to say, to get close to our own answers, not just saying "it's this way."

Kat:  We were more like co-learners in this class, not just the teacher relaying information to students for later in life, if they remember it. If I'm not interested I don't learn.  If a teacher seems like they enjoy teaching, it makes me enthusiastic.

Jess:  Most teachers only think about their job as a job, they aren't so interested in our questions, or our learning.  If you don't understand, teachers say, you should have listened. In this particular class if I didn't understand something, I could ask and the teacher would explain it in another way, or even again, in another.  In regular class, even if I listen and I don't understand, they think I am stupid or I should be in another class. It's hard to translate my thoughts into English. Let me think a minute.

Kat: This class seems more relaxed.

Sean: I look forward to it.

Jess:  I can go to "class" whenever I want to, you don't have to be in a classroom at a certain time, or worry about being late.

Sean:  There's no bells. I can write as long as I want without being interrupted.

Jess:  Now I am thinking that the audience is thinking, when can I be part of it?!  Or, are they learning what they should be learning?

Kat: I think some people think that if it's fun it's not learning.  A lot of kids in my school  said, you like this class? They didn't understand that you could take an English class and enjoy yourself.  Other classes are just lectures.  A class you enjoy is like gym, not English.

Jess:  I'm not even doing this for school, I'm doing this for myself. If I'm willing to learn outside of school, I do it for my own learning on my own time.  So it shows it's something I like and enjoy.  I wouldn't do it on my own if I didn't. If a class is taught in a way you enjoy, you don't mind spending your own time.

Kat: I spend more time on this class than my others. I work harder because I have a personal desire to do better.

Sean:  I work an hour a day nearly seven days a week. I also spend time off-line writing and reading.

Jess:  What motivates me is reading what other kids write and I think it's really good and I learn from that and I want to get to the same level.

Kat:  I learned from this class how to write more clearly. That worked out great. So now in my second year, I want to learn how to critique better and how to make my own work better, to say what I want to say and have it mean something.

Sean:  My writing improved; my computer skills improved. I can analyze a piece of literature more in-depth. I learned about different types of people and how different people are and think. I also learned the importance of revision. I always thought it was important I just didn't know what to look for to change.

Kat: I didn't know how to revise. I knew it existed but I didn't know how to do it, why for example you should keep a certain line, or trash another one. I've learned to be more myself in this class because I wasn't well-liked when I was growing up. I didn't fit in partly because I liked to read and write a lot.  I didn't like myself and I didn't want to conform.

Jess: Yea, seems like in school you have to be like everyone else, dressing the same way, like clones of one person, or an actor.  On-line you're just yourself and you act natural cause you don't talk about superficial kinds of things.  Like if somebody writes something it's about what they feel and then others talk about what they feel too.

Kat:  But even on-line it took awhile to get to know people.  We had to develop a sense of community and get to know each other more personally.  We did this through our writing, gradually.  People are complex.

Jess:  It's like an onion, peeling layers. And learning on-line is like that too. It's multi-layered and the learning is all interwoven.  Like in the cafe, we talk about everything from physics to music to whether we believe in God.  And yet, it's all creative writing and ways of expressing. This way the learning is not fragmented like in school with separated classes. We see more how things interrelate.

Kat:  I like the way everyone got along on-line when we talked about all these different topics on-line. That was good to know. We developed trust. Our book had chapters on worldviews, on being a writer, on relationships, on love and family, lots of topics.  We had lots we wanted to talk about and the on-line forum gave us the place and the space to do it. In regular classrooms there's no time nor allowance for that kind of dialogue about what means most to us.  We have to focus on getting the lesson that day, or doing homework instead of how we feel about stuff.

Sean: This on-line course created an environment where our creative ideas could flourish, and where learning became authentically integrated with life and discovery.  Our yearlong projects and our learning directions were inquiry-driven, on our own needs to know.  That's what true learning is about.

OK. I think we've addressed a lot of the primary aspects of our experiences and what other people would want to know or would question.  We've discussed the foundations of this class including:
1.  Cultural diversity and learning to respect disparate views
2.  The learning of languages
3.  The equality of the learning environment and democratic process
4.  The essential nature of literacy, how reading and writing correlate, and how literacy is shifting as a result of on-line communications
5.  The benefit of many-to-many communications
6.  The openness and respect that on-line education can catalyze
8.  Our thoughts on being writers and how life and learning can be integrated
9.  The purpose of the teacher on-line in contrast to the traditional classroom
10. The freedom and accessibility of the medium and the outlet for self-exploration that a class like this can provide
11. In general, what we learned

As some of the first students to co-design an on-line educational program on the Internet, we hope that this dialogue provides a window into our experience and will offer others insights to consider as on-line communications and the Internet become more widely applied. The quality of the learning experience should always be placed in the forefront when discussing Education and the Internet. We feel fortunate to have experienced such a  positive year as co-learners in the Creative Writing on the Internet program.

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