Coast-to-Coast E-Learning Experiment Enhances Youths’ Communication and Computer Skills

REDMOND, Wash., June 13, 2001 — Brandon Lloyd’s classroom at the SEED Public Charter School in southeast Washington, D.C., looks much like any other middle-school social-studies classroom. Descriptive terms about the federal government are pasted on the walls and windows. Here and there, artwork decorates the walls. A teddy bear guards the “instigator box” where Lloyd stashes index cards with questions for the students about previous lessons, which they use to warm-up their brains for the day’s session.

Sequoia Junior High School students listen to a park ranger during a visit to Mt. Rainier, one of many field trips the students took as part of Microsoft’s Washington2Washington program. (Click for a print-ready image.)

There are also eight computers placed around the room. While there are computers in many classrooms, those in Lloyd’s class are very unusual indeed, providing virtual windows into another world a continent away. They have linked Lloyd’s class of 7 th graders with students in a similar classroom at Sequoia Junior High School in Kent, Wash., for a year of interactive learning and close collaboration as part of Microsoft’s Washington2Washington program.

Throughout the past school year, the two classrooms have been using technology tools both in class and online to communicate ideas and conduct peer-to-peer instruction, focusing on the subject areas represented in their geographic regions. The students shared information with each other, using the unique data collected from their regional classrooms that included the spectacular natural resources of the Pacific Northwest and the national monuments and federal institutions of Washington, D.C.

“At most schools, computers are used as teaching tools. The twist in this program was to use computers as communication tools,” said John Litten, program manager, Microsoft Youth and Learning division. “Aside from gathering information via the Internet and Microsoft Encarta, the students shared information with each other using Microsoft PowerPoint presentations, digital photos and other technologies. The program met and went beyond our expectations. Once we gave the students a little guidance, we just got out of the way.”

At each school, the students used computers donated by Dell, including OptiPlex desktop systems for the classrooms and Latitude notebook computers for field study work. Microsoft supplied the classrooms with Sony digital still and video cameras and Vernier sensors for field study in Washington State. All of the students used the Microsoft Windows 2000 operating system, Microsoft Office 2000 productivity suite and Microsoft Encarta Reference Suite 2001, as well as Microsoft’s Windows Me operating system for video editing on two of the PCs. Students communicated online using individual Hotmail accounts and MSN Instant Messenger. They shared documents and photos on an MSN Custom Web site.

According to a study on the Washington2Washington program prepared by Dr. Ursula Hermann, a project consultant, the program provided an opportunity for moving beyond the acquisition of technological manipulation skills such as keyboarding and creating spreadsheets. It clearly evolved into a venue in which students were able to think about technology as a vehicle for communication, self-reflection and metacognition, or, thinking about their thought processes. According to Hermann, technology became the students’ vehicle for interacting with their environment and their intellects. It became a communication tool that began to erase the boundaries of educational inequity.

The shared curriculum, developed by Lloyd and Sequoia teacher Paul Neff, centered on the creation of new countries by eight teams made up of students from both schools, which were responsible for developing a government and growing a population in ways that did not harm the country’s natural resources. The students completed several field studies in which they examined the environment as well as the government of the United States, helping them create their own framework for development.

The Sequoia students visited Mt. Rainier, the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge near Olympia, Wash., and other nearby creeks and rivers, while the SEED School students visited the U.S. Capitol, the Library of Congress and the National Zoo. The field trips provided insight into issues that were relevant to the settling of the imaginary countries, and also extended the students’ learning beyond the classroom. After each field trip, the students were responsible for preparing written reports with their field notes to share their experiences with members of their teams across the country. Digital pictures of the field trips were posted on the MSN Custom Web site.

“The Washington2Washington program allowed students to learn in different ways and it allowed me to teach in different ways,” Lloyd said. “Although the course of study focused on social studies and science, in the process of using computers as tools, the students got a basic course in computer literacy that gives them an enormous advantage for their age.”

Each team had a folder on the Web site. Using Microsoft Visio, the students mapped their countries with cities, roads and even national parks and forests. The students used Microsoft Publisher to make the bars and shapes that comprised their countries’ flags. After a visit to the National Zoo, where the SEED School students took pictures of various animals, students from both schools used Microsoft Encarta to determine reasons for designating one of the animals their country’s national animal. In the case of the country named Colossus V, the white Bengal tiger was named the national animal.

After a visit to the Library of Congress, the SEED School students created a PowerPoint presentation about the Bill of Rights, which all of the students then used to create similar documents for their new countries. Colossus V included an amendment to its Constitution designating 13 as the legal driving age.

The students quickly adapted to the technology. Minutes after a meeting with U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn at the Sequoia classroom, students posted digital photos of the event to share with their Washington, D.C., counterparts, who had submitted questions via e-mail to Dunn.

“Coming from a normal class where you just use paper and pencils, it’s a lot different to use computers for everything,” said Michelle, 13, a student at Sequoia, who said she planned to use what she’d learned in the Washington2Washington program on her family’s home computer.

Every two days, the Sequoia students took digital photos of salmon in a tank in their classroom as the salmon grew from eggs to small fish. These photos were posted on the shared Web community along with a PowerPoint presentation explaining the stages of salmon growth as well as stream health and ecology. The students released batches of the salmon three times during the year, using Vernier lab probes and censors to measure pH and oxygen in the streams the salmon were released into. The SEED School students are looking forward to participating in the last salmon release during their visit to Washington State.

Although Lloyd and Neff met during the summer, when Microsoft brought them together to develop the Washington2Washington curriculum, the students had never met their cross-country counterparts until early June, when Microsoft brought the Sequoia students to Washington, D.C., for three days. (The SEED School students are in Seattle this week. Students from both schools will visit the Microsoft campus today.) At a dinner at the SEED School that included the families of the SEED School students, there was noisy camaraderie among the students, who acted as if they’d known each other for years.

Ronnisha, a 13-year-old student from the SEED School, said that it was fun being able to communicate electronically with children her own age but that using computers made it more challenging. Misunderstandings were constant, she said, as a student from one school would use a word or phrase that meant something completely different at the other school. These misunderstandings were always cleared up, however, and most students agreed that learning to communicate within groups in writing was an important benefit of the experience.

Theodosia Todd-El, whose daughter Carsia attends the SEED School, agreed that communication was a critical piece of what Carsia learned through the Washington2Washington program. “As she and her team put together a country, she enjoyed it. She was able to learn and understand how laws were made and the purpose for them.”

Microsoft’s Litten believes that technology can make a difference in any child’s life. “The Washington2Washington program proved that when you put technology in front of students, regardless of their socio-economic background, they will perform and they will take you to levels that you never dreamed possible.”

According to Litten, the success of this year’s pilot program has led Microsoft to consider extending the Washington2Washington program for another year.

Through products, programs and partnerships, Microsoft is committed to building a modern learning infrastructure, providing any time, any place access to learning, and integrating technology into all aspects of classroom activities and school administration. Litten cited Microsoft’s Connected Learning Community (CLC) Grants as an example of this commitment. The CLC grants provide significant cash and software donations on a local level with the goal of using information technology to enhance learning and communication for disadvantaged communities. Microsoft recently announced its spring round of CLC grants to 22 nonprofit organizations totaling $310,000 in cash and over $1 million in software.

Technology training programs such as the Microsoft Classroom Teacher Network, a finalist for Computerworld’s 21 st Century Achievement Award, and as well as rich learning resources such as the Encarta Reference Suite 2001, enable Microsoft to work with teachers, educational organizations, community groups and businesses to make learning tools and educational content widely available.

Citing the wealth of new experiences students in Washington, D.C. and Washington State had over the year, Sequoia teacher Neff called the Washington2Washington program a resounding success. “The kids now have a good foundation for what computers can do, and they won’t be satisfied with sitting around, just doing word processing anymore,” he concluded.

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