A Telecommunications-Infused Community Action Project


To meet the goal of connecting all California schools to the Internet, Pacific Bell began the Education First Initiative, providing installation of ISDN lines and free usage for one year to any school or public library in the Pacific Bell service region. 

As part of the initiative, San Diego State University's Educational Technology Department became a partner, lending expertise in developing telecommunications-based learning applications. Key faculty members selected and advise three "Education First Fellows" who are charged with creating compelling projects and activities for learners that make effective use of the Internet and videoconferencing. These projects are then available online to anyone accessing the Education First Web site (http://www.kn.pacbell.com/wired). 

Another component of the Education First Initiative was to select 12 model sites (K-12 schools, community colleges and public libraries), from Chula Vista in the south to Mendocino in the north. Sites received extra equipment and support in order to pilot projects, some of which are created by the Education First Fellows. Such was the case with Nonprofit Prophets, where 70 students and three teachers at Century High School in Santa Ana, Calif., completed a first round of the project in the spring of 1996.

The "Prophets" Project 

Nonprofit Prophets, a telecommunications-infused community action project, was designed for high school students across the curricular disciplines. In the case of the participants from Century High School, students completed the project as members of English, Social Studies and Spanish for Spanish Speakers classes. 

Student teams began by selecting a social or environmental topic to understand, serve and, perhaps, solve. They were then matched to actual non-profit groups by the project manager and a team from "sacramento.org," a community-access server assembled by Access Sacramento, the Community Services Planning Council, and the Nonprofit Resource Center. In selecting partners, special attention was made to insure that the nonprofits' work focused on students' chosen topics. The sacramento.org team provided invaluable ongoing support, facilitating liaisons between students in Orange County and the nonprofit organizations, which were all located in the Sacramento area. Students and their nonprofit partners developed a mutually beneficial relationship through interactive videoconferences. Students received expert mentoring from adults who shared their concerns and students, in turn, created a World Wide Web site needed by their nonprofit partners. 

In building Web sites, students performed such technology tasks as writing HTML code, producing videoconferences, writing content for Web pages and designing their layout. They also maintained a multi-leveled communication flow with their nonprofits. Tasks not able to be completed by the core teams, such as advanced computer graphics, were sub-contracted to students at Watauga High School in Boone, N.C. 

One goal of the Prophets project was to test whether telecommunications technologies and a compelling learning situation could provide win-win partnerships between students and communities spanning California. A more fundamental goal was to model and foster in students some of humanity's most admirable traits: caring, having confidence in yourself and your ideas, and making a contribution to the world. A quick look at the results of an exit survey taken by the students who participated in Nonprofit Prophets suggests both of these goals were achieved.

Insights from the Classroom 

Managing a technology-infused project is often a daunting challenge for teachers. One main problem is too few computers and too many students. One solution is to form collaborative groups defined by technology tasks. Participation in Nonprofit Prophets required regular use of at least video teleconferencing and Web publishing with HTML. The former required a computer enhanced for videoconferencing and an ISDN phone line. For the latter, writing HTML could be effectively done off-line with a text editor as long as a Web browser was available to test the pages. 

Because she piloted the project with very limited access to the Internet and still wanted all students to be involved in a technology task, Century High teacher Jessica Puma invited students to become experts in one of five areas: producing videoconferences; writing HTML and corresponding through e-mail; taking photos; faxing; and communicating via traditional mail/telephone and running photocopies. Group selections were based on student interest and worked extremely well in all cases except one. 

The key to successful groups is to create situations where each group knows that without the work that only they could produce, the class as a whole will fail to reach its final goal. Working with actual nonprofit organizations created this kind of interdependence. 

The next major step involved training. An individual teacher could not hope to be the sole trainer and stay sane. Fortunately, the Nonprofit Prophets' home page has an array of links to Web pages grouped by a variety of technology tasks. Another good resource is a series of training sessions by videoconferencing. 

Mentoring these student Web publishers and videoconference producers were San Diego State University/Pacific Bell Education First Fellows (Tom March, Jodi Reed and Linda Hyman). For the many other skills students needed to learn, they mined the school community for experts. Other teachers, school secretaries and support personnel graciously contributed their help. To set up their training sessions, each student group contacted their prospective trainer, explained what learning they needed and why they needed it, scheduled the sessions, participated in the training, and made arrangements for any needed follow-up. 

Student self-selection and group responsibility for training helped reduce teacher stress and work load, but more importantly, produced in the students an immediate sense of pride and ownership of the skills they acquired. As one student put it, "...it is my job to be a leader in the teleconferences and to be able to communicate effectively with the other party involved. It also has helped me to become more responsible. I know that the teleconferences are extremely important for this project so it has helped me to take the class more seriously and always do my work.

Besides the technology tasks each student was also a member of two other groups: a writing group, responsible for generating the content of one specific Web page, and a literary group engaged in reading and discussing a work of 20th Century Latin American fiction (a topic related to course content). With each group working on different tasks, class time was sometimes hectic and the tasks were diverse. Because one job built on the next, no work could be late. When an assignment was due, students who knew they'd be absent phoned in with instructions for their group or sent friends and siblings to class with the assignment in hand. Clearly, a fundamental kind of learning took place at Century High School.

Working with Others 

Nonprofit Prophets attempted to foster a positive connection among people by placing students at the center of a community of caring individuals: the representatives from the nonprofit partners and a host of online mentors who tutored students via video teleconferencing in such areas as "Writing HTML," "Working with Nonprofits" and "Producing Videoconferences." 

A participating teacher observed that "respect and counsel were at the heart of most of the student-adult interactions" and concluded that the students in one class "expressed a sincere attachment to Ms. Tarango (of La Raza Bookstore/Galer'a Posada) and invested a lot of time in order to produce a Web site that would not disappoint her." It is valid to remind the reader that these very human bonds were created "virtually" through videoconferencing. 

By having students work in collaborative teams, facing the high-pressure task of completing a large project for professionals in the real world, the classroom itself became a testing ground for managing group dynamics and interpersonal skills. For example, students often found it difficult to meet deadlines. Because they juggled three main duties (technology task, writing Web page content and analyzing literature), they sometimes neglected one assignment to meet the deadline for another. Peers had to occasionally pressure each other to share the work load more evenly. Sometimes the teacher had to intervene for "group therapy." 

Many teachable moments arose naturally in the mix of completing the project, contributing organic lessons, setting up appointments, making clear agendas for meetings, learning to ask for help, showing appreciation for other people's time and work, saying thank you, and seeing peers and adults as valuable resources. These are small, but important points that can't help but improve a student's interactions with others, and are ech'ed by the SCANS Report and School-to-Career strategies.[1] 

Students Caring About Themselves 

Helping students to see, appreciate and feel their own value and worth as individuals is the central goal of Nonprofit Prophets. Students saw this first in that they had created a quality product valued by professionals in the real world. In one respect the World Wide Web acts as the ultimate refrigerator door where proud adults can post student work. 

As one student said: "one of the works that I created was actually put up in the Internet so everybody can see it. This made me do it and do my best." One of the most rewarding aspects for project teachers was repeatedly seeing how students became possessive of the class product, to the extent that at the end of the year, each class was convinced that theirs was the best Web site. 

Besides celebrating final products, working with concerned mentors also contributed to students' positive self-image. For example, Christina Tarango of La Raza Bookstore/Galer'a Posada not only gave detailed, constructive criticism to help students produce a better Web site, but through her sustained interest in the class and in the students, she became an effective role model and teacher. Students observed that expert knowledge was a gift enthusiastically shared by each adult they encountered. 

This modeling transferred to students too, as they took on the role of teachers themselves. As one student put it: "In our class everyone learned something different, HTML, faxing, copies, and so on, so everyone teaches each other." Establishing small expert groups as peer trainers was not only a good way to extend teacher time, but  also trained many students quickly and enhanced the student experts' self-esteem. 

Rather than attempting to boost student self-valuation through "feel good" pats on the back, the power of telecommunications enabled a compelling learning experience that both challenged and supported students as they saw how others valued their efforts, knowledge and creations.

Contributing to the World 

With 92% of the student Prophets surveyed agreeing with the statement: "I learned that I can make a good contribution to the world," skeptics might want to look to "the world" for validation. 

Unlike most learning activities in schools, Nonprofit Prophets can turn to the real world of professionals for its evaluation. Besides examining the student-made Web sites (see sidebar: URL List), the following three perspectives from nonprofit partners in Sacramento convey the impact of the students' contributions. 

Karen Lessman, of the Student Buddies Program, shared in the final multipoint videoconference: "We would not ever have been able to get this done; we're lucky to be able to take care of the kids we have." 

Christina Tarango of La Raza Bookstore/ Galer'a Posada said during the same videoconference: "I wish that the many people who have negative images of young people, particularly Chicano/Latino students, could all be in this room right now and see the dedication and the service that you have provided to your community... A project like this really feeds my spirit... I can go out there and know that cooperatives and collaborations can actually work and that corporations/big business and small nonprofits can get together.

Finally, Wes Doak, co-director of sacramento.org, offered a broader perspective on the impact Nonprofit Prophets had on the community of Sacramento. The following four points are quoted from an e-mail message from him: 

"1. The contribution of the Nonprofit Prophets heightened the visibility and role of local nonprofits to that of area business, government and education efforts in the Internet arena. Prior to that, "services" were practically unheard of in discussions of the benefits of Internet access in our community. All talk was of commerce and the like. 

"2. Smaller nonprofits, who were well aware of the values of the Internet but assumed they would never be players, were suddenly infused with a new "can do" spirit and began serious analysis of how they might benefit, and, more importantly, how their clients might benefit from Internet access.

"3. Once people could visit nonprofit sites on the Net and see the energy created, the sacramento.org began to get more volunteers eager to contribute time and effort. We have, for example, obtained the services (for free!) of Chinese and Korean webmasters to duplicate, in a manner of speaking, the efforts of the Nonprofit Prophets project for the Asian community. We expect this process to extend to other languages as well.

"4. Finally, the effect on local schools has been a good one. As news of Orange County high schoolers building Web pages for Sacramento nonprofits reached the ears of local school officials and kids interested in the Internet, we began getting feelers about having locals contribute to the cause. While nothing has been firmly agreed to, we expect to see at least one or two local high schools and at least one local community college help with the project in the next year or so."


A major premise of Nonprofit Prophets was that when students value their positive feelings and ideas, then turn that value into effective action, they will gain a sense of themselves as caring, thoughtful and  effective people. Many students don't get involved in the world around them because they mistakenly see themselves as powerless to change things for the better. Nonprofit Prophets strives to give students the deeply felt experience that even though the world is sometimes a hard place, answers do not come from apathy and withdrawal, but from caring and active commitment.

Note: Nonprofit Prophets will be open to many more participants in fall of 1996. Minimum requirements for participation are classroom access to the Internet and videoconferencing. Pilot teachers suggest doing the project with a friend or as a team so you have a close colleague for support, division of labor and sharing enthusiasm. The project is flexible enough to customize to a variety of content areas and strategies for implementation. Schools in California that lack access to the Internet and videoconferencing might contact the Education First Initiative; while schools in other regions should look to their local telecommunications providers for special offers that might exist to support schools.

Tom March is one of three Education First Fellows, sponsored by Pacific Bell, at San Diego State University. Nonprofit Prophets is just one of the Fellows' growing portfolio of creations located at http://www.kn.pacbell.com/wired. A former high school English teacher, March was a finalist in the 1991 San Diego Teacher-of-the-Year Awards. His specific professional interest revolves around creative use of technology to promote higher levels of cognition and compelling learning experiences. E-mail: [email protected]

Jessica Puma was the key teacher piloting Nonprofit Prophets for its beta test. Currently teaching Spanish, French, and Spanish for Spanish Speakers at Century High School in Santa Ana, Calif. Puma has been awarded a fellowship for Independent Study in the Humanities from the Council for Basic Education, as well as a National Endowment of the Humanities Fellowship for teachers of foreign language. She received her master's degree from UC Irvine. E-mail: [email protected]


  1. Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS), What Work Requires of Schools, U.S. Dept. of Labor, 1991.

URL List

Nonprofit Prophets Home Page http://www.kn.pacbell.com/wired/prophets

Student-Created Web Site

Centro Guadalupe -an organization designed to help families in need http://edweb.sdsu.edu/edfirst/prophets/centro/centro_home.html

Other Related Pages & Info

Education First Initiative - http://www.kn.pacbell.com/edfirst/ 
Hotline: (800) 901-2210 
E-mail: [email protected]

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.