Fostering the Student-Centered Classroom Online
Three years ago I taught an elective class on creating Web sites, but at that time I had yet to create my own classroom site. I did that while teaching in a new school district at Penn High School in Mishawaka, Ind., the following semester. In 2000, I updated the site to include more information about the class and an interactive area. By the end of the year, the site registered just over 1,500 hits. In 2001, the site held a great deal more opportunity and requirements for students. By the end of May 2001, the odometer had turned more than 5,000 hits. Figure 1 (below), shows the classroom Web site traffic. Needless to say, I am thrilled that my classroom site is so much busier now.
Are more people visiting the site? Maybe, but that is not the primary reason it is getting so many visits. My students are using it far more than parents, teachers or students of the past. Many of my students use the Internet every day for entertainment, so it is only logical to them that their educators meet them in the same place. After all, the Internet is one of the most convenient and efficient centers for educational activity. There are many ways to maximize use of the Internet to benefit student instruction. On my classroom Web site I publish tutorials to assist with classroom instruction, and students use the site as a launchpad to research information. Both the students and I participate and publish in online discussions with distant classes about the literature we read to communicate and interact with a global audience. In addition, students publish their writing in electronic, showcase portfolios. I firmly believe that all of these activities challenge student learners and help the teacher create and maintain the student-centered classroom.
Digitizing the Classroom
Arguably, the electronic classroom promotes a student-centered learning model as much as any pedagogical practice. If the teacher is reliable about publishing a course description, a syllabus or calendar, assessment tools and student grades online, then the student has the opportunity to take individual ownership of their learning in a setting where communication is clear and expectations are understood. By maintaining such documents and resources online - always ready for student or parent perusal - the teacher is fostering clearer communication of expectations and responsibilities. If it is agreed upon in the beginning that the Web site has all the vital information about the class, then the student should be able to access the classroom site from anywhere to get important information about the class.
Second, the classroom Web site asserts the educational voice in an electronic world, where education can often be the last thing on the minds of the students who are using their computers to access the Internet. In conversations with students, I have discovered their online usage typically occurs after school and/or after dinner; and they primarily use it to chat with a particular online community. Such a community is typically made up of friends from school, but it also allows for a relatively safe way to meet new people. But when used as a common meeting place for learners, students who visit the classroom Web site do not do so just to chat. Often, they access it to peruse a current assignment, check its rubric, complete the assignment, turn it in via e-mail, post comments on the latest classroom topic of discussion, check their current grade or send a message to a classmate. Whatever the reason, students are now using the Internet for much more than instant messaging.
I publish classroom assignments on the Internet for selfish reasons as well. As any teacher will tell you, it can be a hassle when a student who is w'efully behind asks for the assignment. The perfect dodge is to direct them online. Personally, I find that conversations such as these epitomize the student-centered classroom wonderfully. If it is online, it is their responsibility to get it. I don't have the headache of reassigning it, and the student has the opportunity to turn it in for partial credit. Furthermore, it simplifies things for students who are absent from class but want to stay current. For example, a student wrote me an e-mail saying she was home sick, but was able to view comments fellow students made during a classroom discussion. She was still able to turn in her homework on time. Another student, who was taken out of state for a family matter, e-mailed me saying I should keep the site up because it kept him up to date. Other students found it useful, but hesitated to throw complete support behind it. One student mentioned that although the site is useful for checking on assignments, it may not be as helpful for those without computers at home.
Digitizing the classroom has meant additional time and work dedicated to running the class for myself and my students, though I believe we all have reaped, at one time or another, the benefit of having part of the classroom online. In grading student writing, I have often gone to their online writing portfolios to see the latest draft of something I did not get from them in hard copy. Equally important, students have told me they often access the online syllabus, and many more of my students - often with their parents - have accessed the assignments' page for a written clarification of projects. My students are also sharing their writing with friends and family through their online portfolios. After instituting an online book discussion between my sophomores and a couple of classes of seniors who were studying the same book, I had more than a few students tell me the discussions helped them develop their paper topics. These examples are the reasons - besides my technological curiosity - for my devoting time to develop and maintain an online educational arena where students, parents, administrators, fellow teachers and anyone interested in our high school English class can stop in for a look.
Long before I ever touched fingers to a keypad, I took up my pencil on an unlined pad of paper and brainstormed the elements I thought should be included in a classroom Web site. That brainstorm became my site map (see Figure 2). The structure of the site should be scalable - able to grow with increasing educational demands or able to change with modifications in teaching assignments. When I finished, I determined the best classroom Web site would have two sides. One side for the teacher's use, where I can post guidelines for publishing and model the type of writing expected on the second side of the Web site, the students' side. As the site becomes more prominent as a classroom tool, this basic dichotomy becomes less obvious, but it is a fundamental structure that provides stability and the potential for growth. Within this structure, the information pub-lished should be useful and important to all parties involved in the classroom; presented clearly so that everyone can comprehend its intent; and a model that students might emulate.
With such considerations, teachers are conveying their standards for content, which is most easily accomplished by publishing the course/class description page. In this document, a teacher can post course requirements, classroom procedures/expectations, appropriate use and grading policies, books to be studied in the year to come, etc. As students and parents visit the Web site throughout the year, they know where to find the most important information about the class. When students begin to publish to the site themselves, they will follow the standard already set by the teacher. With publishing activity on both sides, the classroom Web site becomes a dynamic place where all members of the class - and the people they invite - can share in the learning experience. The basic dichotomous structure is an underlying structure to many classroom Web sites, however, my classroom site developed into another structure. One of my original goals in creating the site was to give students a place to publish their work. Therefore, my site developed into a three-part entity:
1. The Information Disseminator - where teachers publish.
2. Electronic Portfolios - where students place their formal writing projects.
3. Online Literary Discourse - where students participate in literary discourse with other students and publish instantly to the Web.
The Information Disseminator
I often rely on my students for help with the technology and allow them the freedom to make their own decisions about how to use it. However, in these times when students are knowledge holders, it is important for the teacher to remember technology is only a means to an end, not the end itself. Curricular goals and objectives must remain at the center of the activity as both teacher and students strive to make learning meaningful. I try to make this clear on the teacher side of the site, where I explain my expectations and my standards as a high school English teacher. I have called this teacher side the "Information Disseminator." The Information Disseminator is the area a visitor first encounters on the site. It provides vital information about the class. Like most teachers, I hand out a course description outlining my expectations at the beginning of the school year. I also explain that the Web site is a good place to find answers to FAQs about the class. I encourage students to help their parents navigate their browsers to our site, bookmark it and get involved with the site right away. My e-mail address and my voice-mail extension are prominently displayed on the site's index page.
But what about the students without a computer or online access at home? The students at my school enjoy split-block scheduling, where they not only have a 90-minute homeroom every other day, they also have 90 minutes with me every other day. In homeroom, students are free to visit the lab to finish assignments, conduct online research or constructively utilize a computer. In my classroom, I often try to schedule the computer lab so that we can spend some of the time reinforcing our learning in the electronic setting. In addition, the same computer lab is open before and after school if students' extracurricular activities allow them the time. I encourage students without computers at home to use the school's printers to print copies of the Web site for their parents. As the year proceeds, students and parents visit the site weekly to check on their progress in the confidential gradebook. I also make certain time allowances for computer use when they are necessary and not habitual. Over the course of the school year, I find that students have no problem finding and using the technology at school to complete their assignments.
The Information Disseminator helps me run my classroom more efficiently and effectively. Students and parents do not have to guess about classroom content, reading deadlines, writing assignments, or rubrics and standards for assessing writing. Everything is accessible from any computer with an Internet connection, and it is there for the purpose of a dialogue. I want parents and students to e-mail me about my grading system, the reason for teaching a particular book or to ask about a project. This is helpful for all those who participate, and nothing makes it easier than the classroom Web site and an e-mail account.
Often, students are not motivated to write to the best of their ability because the teacher is not an "authentic audience" (Christian 1997) for them. Once a student's paper g'es through the assignment process, it is filed in the student's writing portfolio, where it is stored and forgotten in a file cabinet until the end of the year. At that time, the teacher will discuss with the student how their writing has progressed. Though I continue this practice in my classroom, my students and I have endeavored to create a paradigmatic shift in this very important part of learning to write by using an electronic portfolio. The electronic portfolio is not just the digital version of the filing cabinet where student writing is collected and catalogued. It serves as a source for student writing to be used and reused by the writer, and highlighted for all who visit the Web site. Instead of only meeting once on the progress of the writer, the electronic portfolio allows us to meet several times during the year to assess the student's writing as they publish it to the Internet. The electronic portfolio serves as a record of their work in progress. Each time the student visits the portfolio to revise their work, they also revisit previous projects, thereby gaining insight into their growth as writers. Though my students still maintain their writing portfolios for the state, they get a lot more out of their regular visits to the electronic portfolios. As we have endeavored in this process, my students have grown more comfortable with themselves as writers and with the idea of sharing their writing on the Internet.
Online Literary Discourse
The electronic portfolio section of the Web site turned out to be a great forum for formal student writing. Students wrote solid expository papers and improved upon their work as the year proceeded. For the latest version of the classroom Web site, I was looking for an innovation that would allow student writers to publish to a forum without sending it to me first - I wanted them to write informally about a subject. I used Microsoft FrontPage to create an online game we called "think-it link-it." It is a verbal rhyming and syllabification guessing game that I thought would be great online to encourage students to visit the site and post their own contributions. It turned out to be a popular game with many students participating. I put the game up to see if students could get to the site and participate from home. That meant publishing to the site without a teacher's editorial gaze looking over students' shoulders. Trusting my students with this much freedom was risky, but it never got out of hand. Instead, I received earnest contributions and genuine student excitement about the interaction.
With the knowledge that software could be used to allow students to publish online in a trustworthy way, I set about creating an online literary exchange of Ernest J. Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying. These online exchanges between my sophomores and senior A.P. students exceeded our expectations. Students who were free to respond to teacher-generated prompts made the most of the experience. I often found myself comparing the ease of the electronic setup with the drudgery of a teacher collecting their correspondence to give to their partners, only to return the following class with responses that didn't even approach depth. Our exchange was instantaneous and rapid. The printed version of the exchange was 296 pages. It was then that I realized how important technology had become to successful writing.
In addition, the students' writings were terrific. Because my sophomores wanted to sound like an authentic audience, they used dictionaries and thesauri to phrase their ideas as accurately as possible. They bounced ideas off of oneanother before they typed them out. Students explored the book and the discussion as if they were inspired by what they were doing. The students used noms de plume to correspond, further liberating them to write what they felt. Students began writing extra entries, and keeping up became a difficult task. I realize now that the project's success was the result of it being student centered. Students were writing without regard for the teacher so much as each other. I merely pointed them to a prompt or two, and they took it from there.
After letting students take control of their education in this fashion, amazing things happened. At times I was startled by the depth of the dialogue, the passion with which students expressed their ideas and the genius of their thoughts. Students never ceased to impress me with the depth of their analyses. One of the characteristics I immediately noticed in one student's writing was honesty. This may have been the result of the pseudonyms or an honest work ethic. It may have come out of the fact that they were not writing for the teacher; they were writing for much more authentic audiences in their minds.
The electronic portfolios proved to be the best evidence supporting the use of this technology. There I found students using the ideas they had developed in the online discussions as arguments in their formal expository papers. Furthermore, these late papers proved to be excellent pieces of writing. They were evidence of the students' growth as writers over the course of the school year, and proved the electronic discussions they participated in helped them articulate their ideas better when it was time to write an essay for the teacher. I contend students tested their ideas in the online discussions. Through that exchange, they discovered which ideas had merit and which did not. They also developed a profound sense of the book, becoming experts on it. As they dueled with ideas both online and in the classroom, their knowledge became the power behind their voices. That power resonated in their class participation and in their writing.
I believe that the online classroom's greatest potential lies in its ability to help the teacher create a truly student-centered classroom. The three elements that make up the classroom Web site for my class all work to move the students into the center of their educational journey, making them the maestros of their education and their lives. Friends and teachers will come and go, but in the end, it is what the students take with them - their education and their memories - that they hold onto most dearly.
Christian, Scott. 1997. Exchanging Lives: Middle School Writers Online. Urbana: NCTE.
This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.