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Generation "I" and the Virtual Classroom
Meeting real-world needs with Virtual Classroom projects
By Alicia M. Thomas

Why all the fuss about project-based learning, service-learning, and teachers as facilitators these days? Learners seem to genuinely like it! Recently, we spoke with Illinois students, ages 11-14, who have spent the last year or more steeped in collaborative, technology-based learning. The kids -- Pete, Brittany, Dennis, Frank, Elena, Dan, Alex, Trenton, Katie, and Adam -- are learning to research and present topics online with astounding results, and they just happen to be having a fabulous time. They are participants in a course called the "Virtual Classroom," which began as a school's answer to an international technology competition. Their work last year landed a handful of these same students in Hong Kong as grand-prize winners! The competition has come and gone due to lack of funding, but the kids are already hooked on a class that exceeded all of their expectations. According to 13-year-old Frank, "This class is loads of fun and anybody who would think that this could not be fun -- there has got to be something wrong with them!"

virtual classroom image


In the Virtual Classroom, project ideas come from the real-world Web site needs of Illinois and District 97. Students decide what projects to undertake, and with facilitation from veteran teacher Janet Barnstable, they brainstorm, troubleshoot, and create solutions together. The students produced a Tobacco-Free site this year. Trenton explains: "The Tobacco-Free site was actually requested from us from ITSC [Illinois Student Technology Conference], so it was actually their idea that we just took up and decided to follow through on."

Adam adds: "We've been trying to ... just make something that people can look at to learn about the dangers of smoking and try to have fun with it too, and not try to make it really serious and boring, but try to make it interesting to read about." They succeeded.


In addition to the research on tobacco products, the students gathered personal testimonies in interviews about the choice to use or avoid tobacco. "We did a lot of interviews," says Elena, "especially with family members and friends that we could interview easily."

Pete adds: "We also interviewed two teachers through e-mail."

"They had some pretty tragic stories; it was a learning experience for all of us," says Dennis. The research had an impact. "I have family members that smoke, so I always knew it was pretty horrible, but I read some of the statistics and smoking is pretty gnarly actually. I never knew about some of that stuff, like how many people it's killed and everything."

Brittany agrees. "I never want to smoke and I never wanted to smoke before I did the Web site. I just know a lot more about it, like other ways it can harm you besides diseases and cancer."

These sentiments resonate with her classmate, Frank. "I never really thought it was very smart anyway to smoke, but after we were done with the Tobacco Free site, it was like: 'Wow this is probably dumber than I actually thought, '" says Frank. Hopefully, that's the message other visitors to the site will get too.


"We've been trying to ... just make something that people can look at to learn about the dangers of smoking and try to have fun with it too, and not try to make it really serious and boring ..."

Another project in progress is their Online Multicultural Center. Katie explains: "We have a multicultural center ... in District 97 ... in two years it will be at Julian [Middle School] in our building. ... The center is in one of the elementary schools in our district right now." To share the center's artifacts and resources with other schools, the Virtual Classroom students have created an online presence with much of the center's content.
The students take pictures of artifacts and research their origin and use. "We keep getting more and more artifacts," says Adam, "... so you just keep adding on ... [the site] just keeps getting bigger and bigger!" To present the artifacts online, he says, "most of us ended up doing things like taking pictures and turning them into a turntable." They achieve the "turntable" effect by taking multiple shots and sewing them together in a QuickTime Virtual Reality (QTVR) frame.


students of Julian Middle School's
Students of Julian Middle School's "Virtual Classroom" team.

Katie says they also, "wrote about the object that [they] took pictures of." Given the enormity of the site, such research and writing is impressive.

The multicultural site currently covers only a portion of the global artifacts available to District 97 kids, and the Julian kids hope that students who follow them will continue with artifacts from other continents. Elena describes one of her roles in the creation of the site: "I did some text for Africa and for Latin America. I've done a QTVR on Zampoñas which also uses PhotoShop. Zampoñas are pipes by the way." The students have a diverse knowledge of African and Latin American cultures, thanks to the time spent creating the multicultural site.


students collaborating in the Virtual Classroom
Students during a teleconference with us!

The Virtual Classroom team does comparatively smaller service projects for kids in their own town. Dan describes one such opportunity: "At the beginning of the year, we took these drawings that second graders and third graders made, and we had to animate them. They were mostly from fairy tales and famous kids' stories, and we kind of had to make the story by animating it." The youngsters loved seeing their drawing come to life through digital animation!

What does it take to put together such entertaining and educational projects? According to the students, there are a variety of tasks, from research, writing, proofing, and Web design, to videography, JavaScript programming, musical composition, and animation production using Flash and Swish. Adam remembers some of their tools: "This year mainly we've been learning a lot of Flash and a lot of HTML. But we've also learned how to do QTVR which is the spinning stuff ... and Adobe PhotoShop, which we used a whole lot of, and Homepage."


Since so many of the programs were new to the students, Frank says, "We learned by reading the tutorials and going through and doing it -- fooling around with it and pushing buttons -- and eventually you get it to do what you want it to do."

Trenton adds his advice for future students: "If they are trying to figure our how to learn something, a lot of it is on the Net; so if you really want to learn, you can probably just search for it. It's there to just help you out and let you figure things out.


students collaborating in the Virtual Classroom

"Everybody has their own skills and they share them with everybody else in the room."


Although the students shared an interest in computers before enrolling in the Virtual Classroom, their savvy comes from the synergy of mutual risk-taking: a teacher willing to let go, and students daring to leap forward. Dennis describes the classroom environment: "Mrs. Barnstable's whole theory on teaching ...[is] the students teach other students. Everybody has their own skills and they share them with everybody else in the room." When another student notes that they felt technologically unprepared at the outset, and really had to depend on other students' strengths, Dennis remarks, "We weren't only clueless about how to work on technologies and how to use computers .... I was completely clueless about how to work something like this.

Though Mrs. Barnstable provides a basic structure, the students must take responsibility for finding and implementing feasible research and production solutions. Frank says: "When you first get here,though, it's kind of hard to adapt ... you have to figure out what to do. When I came here last year, I was just like: 'Um ... what do I do next?'" He's quick to add that it gets easier, once you realize "how the class works."


Brittany says, "If you don't understand something, or don't know how to do something, ask other people. A lot of times, I didn't understand how to do things in the class and I got help from a lot of my other peers who taught me how to do things." Encouraging students to go to one another for help has given these students a refreshing attitude: they acknowledge when they don't know something, aren't afraid to ask for help, and are, in turn, charitable in teaching the skills they do possess. They communicate well with one another, respect each other's skills, and genuinely operate as a team.

Pete says, "Mrs. Barnstable's idea of asking students has really helped me, because sometimes when a teacher explains it to you, it's a bit confusing. But then when one of your fellow students explains it to you, you understand it better because they have a better sense of what you can and can't understand.

Dan likes the freedom he has to explore his strengths and hone his skills in the Virtual Classroom. His advice to other students is to "find the thing in the class that you are good at, and focus on that."


students thinking
Students think hard while answering our questions!

Alex agrees that when working on a big project, it's nice to "stick to what you know and try to find other people that know the rest of the stuff that needs to be done." The opportunity to complete a professional-looking project, even when you're not yet skilled at every aspect of its production, is really rewarding. Such work values the individual strengths of students, yet also teaches them how to locate the resources they need.

The students have also learned that reaching for a goal may hurt a little, but it pays off. Katie, who didn't know much about computers when she enrolled, has found the Virtual Classroom very helpful. She says: "It's good that if you set a goal, it might seem like it's hard and it might seem like you are not going to finish it ... but it can end up good in the end."

Adam likes the autonomy this environment affords: "You just work on whatever you want to. There are a whole bunch of different projects going on at once, and you don't have to work on the same one over and over again. You just switch from project to project -- if you want to, daily."


Trenton notes another perk: "The more people you have, the better it will get along because you can split up the things you have to do with the project so it gets done a lot faster," he says.

The kids like being able to share and brainstorm ideas too. When asked about why it's important to learn with technology, they can't get the answers out fast enough. The following excerpt from their conversation sums it up.

Pete: Technology is the future.
Brittany: Yeah, but why do you say it's the future? [It's] now!
Frank: Because everything is turning ...
Elena: It's not even necessarily that right now there are a lot of technology oriented companies. It's just needed because right now the world is developing technology so fast and you want to keep in touch.
Pete: It's becoming the Internet age and if we don't know about the Internet, we're in trouble.
Elena: So we're generation I, not generation X.

Ironically, it's their teamwork that brings these kids such success, and as Pete so simply states: "There's no I in team."



Interested in the Tobacco-Free site? Visit these sites!

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Students interviewed for KidSpeak are nominated by teachers. Send nominations to the editor.

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