(CSCW '96 Worshop Paper)

TAPPED IN to Teacher Professional Development: An On-line Conference Center for Education Communities

Mark Schlager, Patricia Schank, & Richard Godard
SRI International, 333 Ravenswood Avenue Menlo Park, CA 94025
(650) 859-2881 FAX 859-2861

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).

What MUVEs are available and for what purposes?

Professional and educational MUVEs have existed for several years [e.g., MicroMuse (Kort, 1993); MariMUSE (Walters & Hughes, 1994); MediaMOO (Bruckman & Resnick, 1993); Diversity University; CollegeTown; BioMOO; see http://tecfa.unige.ch/edu-comp/WWW-VL/eduVR-page2.html for a more complete list], demonstrating their sustainability, usability, desirability, and utility across a wide range of activities, users, and age groups (third-graders to astrophysicists). A handful of projects have begun exploring collaborative learning through MUVEs (e.g., MicroMUSE, Pueblo, and MooseCrossing). Most focus on constructionist (Bruckman, 1994; Dykes-Woodruff & Waldorf, 1995; Kort, 1993), simulation (Spitulnik et al., 1995) and social/motivational affordances (Hughes & Walters, 1994) of the technology for children. None focus on professional development and school restructuring needs.


SRI and members of the Bay Area teacher professional development (TPD) community working with us as participant designers (Schuler & Namioka, 1993) set out to demonstrate that more can be done now (within the constraints of existing computing resources and teachers’ Internet skills) to support TPD on-line. We have created the Teacher Professional Development Institute (TAPPED IN), a multi-user virtual environment (MUVE) that integrates synchronous and asynchronous communication, document storage and joint viewing, and interaction with virtual objects in a venue patterned after a real-world conference center. Teachers can log into TAPPED IN to meet their peers, discuss issues, create and share resources, hold workshops and seminars, engage in mentoring, and conduct collaborative inquiries with the aid of familiar discourse-support artifacts, such as whiteboards, books, file cabinets, copy machines, slide projectors, notepads, and bulletin boards. TAPPED IN can support both scheduled events offered by providers and ongoing activities that teachers themselves can organize.

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.

Design Issues

Most education technology research projects focus on innovative new education content and pedagogy and develop or employ technology to support those objectives. Instead, our approach is to understand the basic discourse-support needs of those whose business it is to conduct professional development activities––teachers, curriculum developers, and professional development providers––and develop an appropriate venue, set of tools, and social infrastructure to enable those groups to go about their work more efficiently and effectively. As a professional community of practice, they choose the TPD activities and they assess their success in accordance with their desired outcomes. Our job as developers is to ensure that the solutions we implement are grounded in sound design principles and are compatible with existing, as well as emerging, technology; otherwise, our products will not be useful outside the research context. Our job as researchers is to ground our work in applicable theories, identify and investigate overarching issues that bear on the success or failure of the community, and turn the lessons back around into design guidelines.

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:

The Role of Users in TAPPED IN Design

Currently, individuals and organizations may become members of TAPPED IN at no cost. They must agree to open their activities to data collection efforts and provide periodic feedback aimed at improving TAPPED IN. We obtain regular feedback from users on questions relating to design deficiencies, usability, utility, satisfaction, and new capabilities and services via on-line suggestion boxes and surveys, interviews, and design meetings. User feedback has indicated that eachers will need ways to interact with the larger Internet community that TAPPED IN does not currently provide. Specifically, our user community has asked us to integrate the capabilities available in TAPPED IN with those of external email and listservs.

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).

Research and Evaluation

Our long-term research plan emphasizes three categories of issues: Our current evaluation activities are formative in nature. We collect (a) quantitative data on frequency of use for each capability, joint activity, level of participation via automatic data collection mechanisms in TAPPED IN and (b) qualitative data on expectations, goals, processes and outcomes of TPD activities via interviews and surveys. For example, we are investigating when and for what purposes users choose one mode or channel of communication over another (e.g., synchronous versus asynchronous; scheduled versus impromptu meeting); the patterns of collaborative activities users attempt on-line and through other means; their degree of success; and which resources, artifacts, and services best support collaborative activities.

Future Visions

We envision the SRI Bay Area TAPPED IN as the first in a web of linked TAPPED IN MUVEs. We expect that new TAPPED INs will be spawned in two ways. First membership within individual organizations now housed in TAPPED IN will become large enough to support a separate server (e.g., Lawrence Hall of Science serves tens of thousands of teachers). Second, coalitions of TPD providers and school districts in other regions will establish their own TAPPED IN to fill their local needs--sort of intranets for education organizations. SRI and its partners are prepared to assist both types of efforts with technology and and consulting.

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.

Demonstration of TAPPED IN Capabilities

We are prepared to take the group on a tour of TAPPED IN guided jointly by the presenter and members of the community logged in from their home sites (we hope the tour will be in the afternoon to allow our California-based members to have their morning coffee!). We will demonstrate the meeting-support facilities, project rooms, and library facilities. If fortunate, we will be able to sit in on actual TPD activities scheduled for that day. We will show both the basic and Web-based user interfaces.


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