Tapped In Member Perspectives: Meet Terri Zopf-Schoessler

Terri Zopf-Schoessler is a 20-year veteran English, drama and, sometimes, dance teacher at Skyview High School in Soldotna, Alaska. She has been using Tapped In since January 2003 during her ARCTIC (Alaska Reform in the Classroom through Technology, Integration, and Collaboration) training in Juneau, Alaska. (The ARCTIC program was a federally supported program that funded rural Alaskan teachers to attend intensive, month-long technology training in Juneau and a follow-up summer session. The grant also helped pay for technology equipment in their school districts.) For someone whose technology skills were limited typing and sending email, the technology immersion was, by turns, exciting, frustrating, enlightening, and overwhelming. However, since the training's goal was to teach teachers how to use technology - and help their students use technologies - to demonstrate their understanding, she survived and, eventually, became a technology convert.

Terri's Perspective

The Skyview High School library is unusually loud. Several students complain that they can't find the Tapped In 2 website; others mill restlessly about the Tapped In 2 Reception room. Hands wave frantically in the air while other students merely yell for assistance. A few students lean over to help others; one student, who styles himself as the_laid_EEZ_man69, tries to engage a teacher from Pennsylvania in a Private Chat by telling her that he is an Alaska teacher. Other students jump into their conversation to ask, "Do you know you're talking to a 16-year-old high school boy?" She signs off in disgust, and messages from the TI2 monitor start appearing: "Who is your teacher? Why are you here? Where are you supposed to be?"

It is an inauspicious beginning to my online discussion groups.

As part of the ARCTIC 6 training I received in Juneau, I was required to design a lesson unit, teach it, and report back on the results. Part of the war unit I had designed required integrating new-to-me technologies in my sophomore English classes. Although I'd spent time setting up my TI2 classroom, creating the Zopfler's Conflicts discussion group, and posting my discussion questions, I hadn't exactly figured out how to sign my students up online. In the interests of saving time, I told my first class to go to the web address listed on my board, log on as guests, go to Zopfler's Conflicts, click on the question they wished to answer, and post their responses.

I missed a few steps along the way.

First of all, my students' familiarity with computers varies widely. Some found the site effortlessly; others spent ten minutes trying to type the address correctly. Secondly, while people may log on to TI2 as guests, they are not allowed to post anonymously. In fact, not only must they register, they must also ask permission to join any group—and wait for permission to be granted by the moderator before they may post any response at all. Finally, as evidenced by "the_laid_EEZ_man69" and others whose contributions to the TI2 Reception room discussion were of the "u suck! no U suck!" variety, many of them have some "netiquette" issues that need work.

My lesson plans that day were in shambles. I ran around the library, grabbing mice, moving cursors, clicking away madly, saying ever so brightly, "See, this is what the site looks like. Next time we'll log on and do some actual postings. I just want you to be familiar with what the site looks like...um, why don't you close out of this site and we'll open our books to page..."

Desperate not to crash into the same "technical" wall during my afternoon class, I spent my prep hour talking to BjB, a TI2 monitor, trying to figure out how to get the rest of my sophomores online more efficiently. She was knowledgeable and gracious despite the chaos I'd created only minutes before in the reception room. I took my next class on a much abbreviated trip to TI2, spent much of the evening online with my professor, Mary Wegner, picking her brain, and generated a "how to," step-by-step student handout. The next morning I gave the handout to two students - a copy of this handout may be found at the end of this paper - and I asked them to see if they could get online using only those directions. I anxiously sat at my computer waiting to see where the "Requests Permission to Join" messages would appear. After I had located them and responded in the affirmative, I sagged in relief. Maybe this was going to be "do-able" after all!

Teachers, parents, and other adults on the Kenai Peninsula - like those elsewhere in Alaska - are concerned with raising literate students, with improving their reading and writing skills, and, of course, helping them pass the state exit exams. A variety of practices and teaching methods have been implemented to aid students in meeting these goals. Online technologies have been recruited in this quest as well, and researchers have begun to study the use of online chat rooms as part of an established curriculum. In particular, teacher/researchers like Albright, Purohit, and Walsh have studied chat rooms. Part of their findings notes the unique structure of online responses and the key characteristics of chat room language. Specifically, they observe that synchronous - or "real time" - online communication is frequently fast and informal, and often includes colloquialisms (e.g., AznBoi for "Asian boy" or "grrl" for an assertive young female), acronyms (e.g., LOL for "laugh out loud" or OIC for "oh, I see"), symbols (e.g., &, #, $), and "emoticons" (e.g., 8-) symbolizing a person wearing glasses and smiling). Not surprisingly, they also find that the standard rules of punctuation, capitalization, and grammar are often ignored. Simultaneous - or similar comments - posted in real time, like talking over each other in the classroom, often make the thread of the discussion difficult to follow. However, in their use of chat rooms as part of their class curriculum, they also found that once discussions have been established, students follow same the "pattern of initiation, response, and evaluation (IRE)..." often observed in traditional classroom settings. (Albright, p. 697-699) While these researchers - like educators and other adults - have come to see online discussions as an integral part of their students' "real" lives, they also feel that, in order "to authorize online chats as a legitimate kind of classroom discourse," more research should be done and guidelines established for its use. (Albright, p. 695)

Indeed, the use of online technology has spurred national debates over its benefits and risks. When commenting specifically on chat rooms, Trevor Shaw notes that while parents and other adults often worry about children's exposure to online pornography, they are sometimes less attuned to the danger of "the exposure of (their) children to people who would do them harm in chat rooms." He further states that several recent abductions have been traced back to an initial contact in a chat room. (Shaw, p. 35) Mainstream news sources such as the Christian Science Monitor echo his concern and cite surveys that show "nearly 1 in 5 teenagers who regularly use the Internet said they'd received an unwanted sexual solicitation or approach on the Net in the previous year. In 65% of those instances, the youth 'met' the solicitor in a chat room." (Free) Business Week Online further notes that MSN has recently followed AOL's lead to limit access to its chat room to paying customers in order to keep "pedophiles from preying on younger Web surfers." (Salkever)

These risks are expanded in education journals, where commentators such as Shaw insist: "Chat changes social discourse, and... it influences people, especially adolescents, to behave in unsafe ways." (Shaw, p. 35) In turn, he cites Nancy Willard from the University of Oregon, who offers her insights into the dangers inherent in Internet discourse. During her presentation on "cyberethics," Willard talks about factors such as empathy, punishment by authority, and peer disapproval as things that cause us to behave in an ethical way. She believes that the distance provided by computers can make these factors go away and take some people's inhibitions with them. (Willard, p. 1)

Why, then, with these kinds of risks, would teachers attempt to harness online technologies? Some educators respond by stating: "For technology-rich classrooms and computer-savvy teachers, setting up a video conference or real-time chats could be a powerful learning adventure." (Wilson, p. 49) Other teachers like George Drops claim, "An added plus for online chats is the likelihood that one student's question or comment can resolve the concerns of many other students in the course and encourage the building of a learning community in which students are more eager to share their ideas, experience, and concerns." In a practical vein he also notes, "Discussions are recorded and documented allowing class members to review what has been communicated whether or not they were participating in the discussion." (Drops, pp. 7-8) Even in his article outlining the dangers of chat rooms, Shaw goes on to say that they are also an opportunity to teach ethics by asking students to examine people's behavior in chat rooms: "Students must be encouraged to examine what they see in chat rooms and explore why people behave in the ways that they do." (Shaw, p. 37)

The contradictions in this ongoing risk/benefit debate echoes Sarah Baase's concerns in her book, A Gift of Fire. Like Prometheus' gift of fire to mankind, technology has both the capacity to create and to destroy, to simultaneously enrich and deplete our lives, and to bring with it both positive and negative consequences. Although it is sometimes tempting to simply eschew technology, teachers cannot afford to ignore its lure. According to Albright and his associates, all of whom are both teachers and researchers, "The appropriation of these students' cyberselves into the classroom, the immediacy of new technologies, and the vivid sense of presence signal the need for teachers (and students) to develop an awareness and an analysis of the rhetorical nature of cyberliterate practices...By approaching cyberculture as a language with certain literate forms of its own, we look not only at the questions of access and online responsibility, but at how schools can or should participate in their use." (Albright, pp. 703-4)

In the end, I must emphatically agree with Ruth Peters as she writes in USA Today, "The Internet's promise is still true: It is an incredibly powerful tool that offers our children unprecedented opportunities to learn and grow. As with any such tool, however, adult supervision is required to make it work safely and effectively." (Peters) Online discussion groups must be carefully set up and monitored by the teacher. Every attempt should be made to find sites and implement practices that will best meet the goals of the teacher and provide security for her students.

For the teacher, Tapped In 2 provides for both synchronous ("real time") chats as well as asynchronous, threaded discussions. While students greatly enjoy the first, for the purposes of my English classes, the asynchronous or posted discussion group provides the opportunity for students to reflect before writing, promotes comments even from the most reticent students, and allows me the chance to ask for clarification and details from each student. In addition, I've noticed that the "semi-permanent" nature of these threaded discussions encourages students to follow more conventional English mechanics. While this is not uniform - "advanced" or "honors" students are more likely to use standard English in their postings while "remedial" English students adopt a writing style that more closely resembles the informality of a typical chat room - the fact remains that all of my students post something during the course of our online discussions. This site also generates an email each time a student posts a response, and first-time teacher/users may simply chart the postings and then delete the corresponding email. Over time, however, I have found myself adopting scoring criteria similar to the guidelines outlined in George Drops' article, "Assessing Online Chat Sessions." He recommends three ways to qualify - rather than simply quantifying or grading simply on the number of responses - student postings: Identify student comments that are on the topic, ask students for more information to clarify their responses, and "use Bloom's Taxonomy to distinguish simple recall from comprehension, analysis, and evaluation." He further recommends that teachers ask open-ended questions and "positively reinforce a student's contribution while directing them to clarify and develop their ideas." (Drops, p. 8)

Tapped In 2 also addresses security concerns for the students, a consideration that likely contributed to my initial difficulties in using it. The fact that students are not permitted to post anonymously and that they have the ability to block their email from others, to change their profiles, and to check the profiles of others contributes to the "safer" environment of TI2. While this site is not "temptation free" - I recently spent some time chasing my Advanced Placement students out of the "Hot Tub Room" - these safeguards as well as the "moderated forum" option where the moderator grants or denies others permission to participate in her discussion group, make TI2 a welcome addition to my curriculum.

To other teachers who wish to use Tapped In 2 as a resource, I recommend they peruse Sarah Horton's book, Web Teaching Guide: A Practical Approach to Creating Course Web Sites. Her ideas, in fact - while specific for online discussions - are sound suggestions for virtually any classroom activity: Teachers should make every attempt to build community, to make sure they know online discussion is essential and the teacher expects their participation, and to spend class time showing students how to use the discussion area. (Horton, p. 2)

UPDATE: In the fall of 2003, TI2 launched a K-12 section for teachers to use with their students. The side of the Tapped In community has more security options and fewer opportunities for students to wander aimlessly through the online campus. In fact, when students login, they are taken directly to their teacher's classroom, and they can only participate in those discussions or visit the K-12 reception room. (Sometimes I wish we could restrict students to these options in "real" life!) Setting up the classroom takes a bit more time, but the parameters established for the K-12 Tapped In experience more closely align themselves with the Security and Acceptable Use Policies in place for most school districts.


Sources:

Albright, James, Kiran Purohit, and Christopher Walsh. "Louise Rosenblatt seeks QtAznBoi@aol.com for LTR: Using chat rooms interdisciplinary middle school classrooms." Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 45:8 (2002): 692-705.

"Free Chat rooms, Checked." Christian Science Monitor. 30 Sept. 2003, 95:214 natl. ed.

Drops, George. "Assessing Online Chat Sessions." Online Classroom: Ideas for Effective Online Instruction Ap (2003): 7-8.

Horton, Sarah. Web Teaching Guide: A Practical Approach to Creating Course Web Sites. Yale University Press, November, 2000. http://www.dartmouth.edu/~webteach/articles/discussion.html.

Peters, Ruth. "Internet: Boon or Ban for Kids." USA Today 29 Oct 2003.

Salkever, Alex. "MSN's Smart Move on Anonymous Chat." Business Week Online 2 Sept. 2003.

Shaw, Trevor. "Chat Rooms and Adolescent Communication: Where Do Schools Fit In?" Multi Media Schools 9:6 (2002): 35-37.

Willard, Nancy. "What Is Right and What Is Wrong? How Can We Help Young People Use Information and Communication Technologies in an Ethical Manner." Presented at National Conference on Cyberethics. October 2000. http://responsiblenetizen.org/onlinedocs/documents/whatisright.doc.

Wilson, Cindy K, Susan L. Jones, and John M. Hail. "How to Transform One Classroom into a Powerful Learning Tool." Learning & Leading with Technology 31:3 (2003): 46-49.