Finding Their Voice


Via an online debate program that models the use of technology to foster collaboration,special needs students are discovering a thing some doubted they had-potential.

Finding Their Voice Look to your teammates for answers. What do you think?Why do you think that?

THESE ARE THE behind-the-scenes counsels ofCara Coffina, the social studies literacy coach for NewYork City's Special Education District 75, imploring herteams of students as they engage each other in thedistrict's spirited annual debate competition.

This is no ordinary debate, however, conducted in no ordinary debate setting. The debates match teams of mostly middle school special education students and are held virtually via Elluminate Live!, a real-time online classroom environment designed for multiperson dialogue and collaboration. To broadcast the debates, District 75 works with Elluminate partner LearningTimes, a producer of web-based conferences and events. Elluminate's virtual classroom platform comes complete with interactive tools such as an electronic whiteboard, a chat function, and video, allowing for synchronous communication between users.

According to Jonathan Finkelstein, founder and executive producer of LearningTimes, his organization delivers a range of e-learning services to New York City schools. "In the case of this program," he says, "we collaborated with District 75 on the design and logistics of the student program, and then brought our Elluminate resources to the table to host the actual online debates."

The online competition was launched in the 2005-2006 school year. Eight debate teams competed that first year; the following year 19 teams representing 13 schools participated, with slightly more participation this year. That expansion necessitated the partnering of experienced teachers with those who were new to the project and the online platform. In some cases, Coffina, who coordinates the program, also helps train teachers to set up the technology.

District 75 encompasses more than 350 school sites across the five New York City boroughs. So a traditional face-to-face debate program would be impossible because of the travel time, making the online approach so vital. Although the participating special needs students face various learning challenges, as well as emotional and behavioral issues, they take on serious subjects that strike close to home, such as cell phone usage in schools, and reach nationally and globally, such as immigration and the Iraq war. The debate judges are all volunteers, and many are K-12 or higher education professionals. The competition culminates in a face-to-face debate in June, where the District 75 debate champion is crowned.

Virtual UN To Hold Water Summit

WHILE CARA COFFINA and her social studies program at NewYork City's Special Education District 75 were gaining recognition forthe district's flourishing online debate program, Coffina was busy planningand developing a new web-based project: "Global Connections:Virtual UN Global Water Summit."

After months of planning, the project was launched in late 2007with a workshop for teachers. The project engages students in theexploration of global water issues. The first task for the 23 participatingclasses was to develop a website that provided a class profile, includinginformation on their schools' nearest bodies of water, so that all theparticipating classes could get to know the other students and theircommunities. As the project rolls out, it is connecting District 75 studentswith students in nine classrooms around the world, in countriessuch as Nigeria, Bulgaria, Sweden, India, the Federated States ofMicronesia, and Panama.

To draw students into the project, Coffina and the other programplanners found a key resource in a UN Works project, in partnership with MTV, that features hip-hop megastar Jay-Z.In the documentary The Diary of Jay-Z: Water for Life, the studentscan follow the rapper around the globe and watch as he exploreswater issues in daily lives of people worldwide. One segment showsJay-Z as he walks with villagers in South Africa up and down steephills just to get drinking water.

The Global Water Summit has six cycles, each lasting two to threeweeks. The cycles include specific missions for the students, such asdetermining where their drinking water comes from, where their wastewatergoes, and how much water they use daily. The students post theresults of their research, along with pictures, to a special online communitycreated by LearningTimes. As part of theirmission to find where their water comes from, for example, the studentsare asked to post pictures of themselves next to their water source. Theonline water summit in early May closes the project's final week, witheach team presenting a proposed solution to the issue it researched.

Coffina says the debating experience encourages students to discover their own ideas, to consider what they really believe. In the process, they discover that they can be competent, thoughtful individuals, surprising themselves, their teachers, and their parents as they develop collaborative and debating skills. As a result of the project, Coffina says, "we're seeing increased confidence, a willingness to work collaboratively with teammates, the ability to work independently, and improved social skills, all of which are particularly critical for our students." Finkelstein adds, "The authentic world audience that includes debate judges gives [students] a reason to perform at their best.

In addition to showing the potential for special needs students to engage in an activity many may have thought was beyond their capacity, the District 75 debating project demonstrates how technology tools can lead a rebalancing or reprioritizing in education of the three teaching-andlearning dialogues: 1) teacher to student, seen in teachers' daily work of teaching, guiding, and directing students; 2) student to student, most often expressed in discussion forums, small study groups, projects, and increasingly in blogs, podcasts, and other interactive experiences; and 3) student to resource, the dialogue that occurs between students and the almost infinite array of materials now available to them, including books, videos, the internet, podcasts, and their own life experiences.

The teacher-to-student dialogue has traditionally dominated the school environment, with teachers driving teaching and learning. Coffina's debate program advances a more learner-centered approach, shifting the nexus away from the teacher. The online debates move the teacher from center stage to the background and sidelines, from star to facilitator and director.

As teachers are no longer merely talking at students, the student-to-student and student-to-resource dialogues gain prominence. Students work in teams to prepare the elements of a debate-opening statements, positions, crossexaminations- workinging collaboratively and with all the research materials at their disposal.

Teachers are keenly interested in collaboration, including what tools can encourage and foster it among their students and incorporate it into learning. The online synchronous classroom provides them with such a tool. Teachers are developing a set of practices that still provide essential teacher direction and support, but also include more personalized and customized help. And students are finding ways to use online classrooms and other Web 2.0 applications to direct the path of their learning experiences and to develop confidence in what they can do.

One way to approach selecting and using collaboration tools is to think about the role of the three academic dialogues within the face-to-face or the online classroom. Working toward achieving a balanced dialogue model is a way of creating a 21st-century framework for teaching, and, in the process, developing good practices with the new technologies.


FOR MORE ON THE DISTRICT 75 debate project,go here, or read anElluminate case study here.

But though this wave of Web 2.0 applications such as the online classroom is making it possible to more easily achieve a more collaborative, student-centered learning environment, the applications alone are not enough. We need teachers who are open to this new equalizing of the three classroom dialogues to design collaborative learning experiences that draw students in and place them in authentic and challenging situations. And we need administrators who support this type of collaboration and outreach. Collaborative learning experiences engage learners, and engaged students learn more.

Judith V. Boettcher is an independent consultant specializing inonline and distance learning, and the pedagogical applicationsof new media.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.