The notion of virtual schools and learning communities on the Internet has captured the imagination of educational researchers and school reform advocates. The National Science Foundation Educational Technology Workshop report, Setting a Computer Science Research Agenda for Educational Technology (Draft, February 1996), predicts that computer networks will cause fundamental changes in how the roles of teachers are defined. The report suggests that teachers will need a community to help them understand and make the change to new roles, and that virtual communities for professional development and socialization can help teachers make the transition. At the same time, research on teacher professional development (TPD) is seeking ways to provide teachers with opportunities to participate in professional communities; access and discuss exemplary reform-based models and materials; co-construct, review, and publish resources that reflect new beliefs and teaching practices; and jointly create locally relevant solutions and practices (Lieberman & McLaughlin, 1995; Little, 1993).
However, most current on-line educational "communities" (typically a small, homogeneous group engaged in a well-defined task, or a larger number of users who browse a Web site or post messages to a bulletin board or listserv) only peripherally reflect established notions of successful working communities. They provide few of the tools, communication channels, and contextual supports needed to elicit the kinds of cognitive, collaborative, and social interactions that are characteristic of successful collaborative work (Kuutti, 1991; Lave, 1988) or communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Kollock & Smith, 1995).
These changing roles, and the common need for richer, more meaningful on-line interactivity than Web pages and listservs can support, have motivated a coalition several San Francisco Bay Area K-12 science professional development providers and SRI to come together around a common vision of year-round on-line TPD activities in a virtual place (Harrison & Dourish, 1996)–– a new on-line venue for the Bay Area TPD community in a multi-user virtual environment (MUVE).
We built TAPPED IN with Diversity University Inc. EduCore software, which enables TAPPED IN users to attach text and images to virtual objects, associate web pages or outside Internet links to them, and even represent three-dimensional objects using Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML). It enables users with World Wide Web access to open a web window into TAPPED IN, allowing them to view multimedia information associated with virtual objects, and to use web forms, icons, and links that represent the available commands. TAPPED IN supports a range of user interface styles on both Mac and PC platforms. All provide the same underlying functionality; two support multiple windows, point-and-click input, and graphical output for those who have the computing power and network bandwidth. User groups and individuals select the UI that best matches their needs and computing capabilities.
Based on needs identified in the TPD research literature and our own informal teacher surveys, we established several initial design criteria for achieving a thriving, sustainable community including:
In addition, our partner TPD organizations provide us with design requirements for their own workspaces. Each organization must describe its teacher professional development mission, the teachers it serves, and on-line collaboration needs. It must specify the initial group of teachers using TAPPED IN; what they will do in TAPPED IN; how the organization will support them on-line (e.g., office hours, lead group discussions); and how participation will grow over time. The organization must address expected benefits to the organization and teachers and how it will assess whether those objectives and benefits were achieved. It must also outline contributions it will make to the TAPPED IN community as a whole (e.g., making TPD resources available, donating expert time on-line, providing Internet access accounts, matching teacher stipends or release time, joint proposal writing and/or earmarking funds in proposals for TAPPED IN training, activities, and support).
Second, we believe that our project can help infuse local education reform efforts with the fruits of research on education content and pedagogy by providing a common venue for researchers to introduce new ideas and technologies into ongoing professional development projects. For example, we envision building the Math Forum WWW library in the project suite used by our Life Lab math and science integration project, linking ScienceWare RiverBank software (Java version) to a project room where California Science Project staff and teachers are developing curriculum around a local pond, or integrating the KIE SpeakEasy asynchronous discussion-support tool into the meeting rooms occupied by Bay Area School Reform Collaborative’s Design Task Force teams. Teachers would be able to explore and understand the value of these tools and resources in the context of their own work, not as something unrelated and intimidating as part of some research project.
More generally, we believe that the MUVE spatial metaphor, discourse affordances, and object construction, manipulation, and persistence are consistent with theoretical models of situated cognition that emphasize the role of environment in supporting cognitive activity (Kuutti, 1991; Nardi, 1992; McClamrock, 1995) as well as next-generation collaborative work technologies (e.g., Harrison & Dourish, 1996; Orfali, Harkey, & Edwards, 1996; Hardin & Ziebarth, 1996; Roseman & Greenberg, 1996; Curtis & Nichols, 1994; Robertson, Card, & Mackinlay, 1993). For example, Orfali et al. describe the place-based metaphor as the next evolutionary step beyond the desktop and meeting metaphors: "...all tasks performed on the connected desktop involve working with people––for example, customers, friends, suppliers, and coworkers. These people are located in various places––for example, meeting rooms, offices, homes, libraries, auditoriums, or parks. Specialized things––or tools if you like--help you communicate, work, and play; examples include fax machines, telephones, pens, erasers, yellow markers, post-it notes, and bulletin boards" (pp. 302-303). MUVEs not only offer these kinds of tools but also embody most established criteria for effective groupware design: transparency, malleability, persistence, personal benefit, and awareness (Buxton, Bly, Frohlich, & Whittaker, 1996). Consequently, we can learn much about how these emerging groupware technologies could support future distributed learning communities by conducting research in MUVEs today.
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