Using Computers to Build Community

Imagine this: It’s academic choice time in your classroom and groups of three and four students are clustered around computer workstations. Two groups are planning an Internet-based inquiry project. Another group is learning how to use new software so that they can create illustrations for a project. Yet another group is using presentation software to design a computer game for the class. There’s a buzz of productive conversation as students switch from working with pencil and paper, to discussion, to watching eagerly as one member of their group works at the computer. When the period ends, they’ll each have a task to work on, reporting on the results at the next scheduled meeting. In this scenario, computers are an integral part of a vibrant, active, socially interactive learning environment.

As a teacher who uses The Responsive Classroom approach, I am interested in promoting the social curriculum in elementary classrooms. I am also interested in increasing the productive use of technology in elementary school classrooms. In fact, part of the work I do for my school district is to offer training in both areas. At first glance, these two interests might seem opposed. After all, a common argument against using computers in elementary schools is that they can lead to social isolation and deter social development. But this doesn’t need to be the case. Instead, computers can be tools that help students develop positive social skills and that help build community, both inside the classroom and in the larger world. But, as with any other classroom tool, you need to introduce computer work thoughtfully.

Getting Started

Space considerations. The first step in bringing computer work into your classroom is to pay attention to how you arrange your space. If you are in an ordinary classroom, with one to three computers, you want to make sure that a group of four students can comfortably sit by each computer. Also, the computer(s) should be visible and accessible, just like books, art supplies, and other tools of learning. Hiding the computer away behind a bookshelf encourages isolation and sends a message that computers are peripheral tools. In a computer lab, it’s best to arrange the computers in clusters rather than in rows. The cluster arrangement encourages collaboration; rows encourage individual work.

Exploring computers. Next, you want to be sure that all students know how to use computers effectively. Although many students probably know more about computers than their teachers will ever hope to know, it’s still important to spend time exploring the computers with your class, using different hardware and software combinations. This helps you assess students’ computer skills and lays the groundwork for future computer-based activities. I like to include a discussion about when it’s appropriate to use computers. A good question to ask is: “How can we use a computer to make this assignment (or activity or project) easier or better?” This question stimulates critical thinking about computers and helps students realize that there are times when computers just create more work.

After students are familiar with the hardware and software, I ask them to do a structured task as a whole class. For example, when we did a unit on the Civil War, I asked students to use the Internet to find a primary document describing the feelings of someone in the North and South. They then used a word processing program to write a paragraph summarizing what they learned in their research.

Within the Classroom

Group work. Once I’m sure that students know how to use computers effectively, I design lessons that encourage group work. Although there are times when it’s appropriate for a student to work alone at the computer, too often, students use computers for “skill and drill” type programs where they receive one-way, praise-laden feedback from the computer. Grouping students for carefully selected computer tasks creates an environment in which the students are more likely to offer each other feedback, think critically, and learn from each other.

In designing group projects, it’s important to keep in mind one of the basic guidelines for setting up any kind of collaborative learning group: each member of the group needs a role. For example, when my students were doing a unit on drug prevention, they worked in groups to prepare prevention posters. One of the groups divided tasks in the following way:

  • Gathering information by using an on-line library catalog or database to find appropriate books or print articles, going directly to the Internet, or accessing an on-line encyclopedia
  • Creating artwork about the topic, using a program such as Kid-pix
  • Creating a spreadsheet chart of numerical data about drug use and prevention
  • Creating the text, using a word processing program

Throughout the project, the students discussed the material and made group decisions about what information they were going to present and how the final product would look. A project such as this encourages students to take responsibility for their own learning and allows them to practice the skills needed to work collaboratively.

Web-Quests. Web-Quests, developed by Bernie Dodge from San Diego State University, provide a good model for designing collaborative projects. In a Web-Quest, small groups of students do focused Internet research. A well-designed Web-Quest includes a project description; detailed descriptions of tasks, process, and expected outcomes; a list of Internet and other resources; and rubrics for evaluation. In many Web-Quests, each member of the group approaches the research from a different perspective. For example, in a Web-Quest on nineteenth century Chinese immigration, designed for fourth graders, one group member would imagine they were a historian, another would be a reporter, a third would be a geographer, and the fourth student would be a politician.

You can easily find Web-Quests on the Internet by doing a search for the term, “Web Quest.” Web-Quests offer an interesting way to explore many academic areas and are good options to include in an academic choice list.

Beyond the Classroom

Not only can computers enhance collaborative learning within the classroom, they can also help students establish ties outside the classroom. Using e-mail, collaboratively designed websites, interactive sites, or videoconferencing, you and your students can develop learning communities with other classes in your school, other schools in your city, community groups, and international groups. Through Internet-based learning communities and e-pals, my students, who live in a small city in Wisconsin, learn about other cultures in a more direct way than reading a book, watching a video, or doing Internet research.

Internet learning communities. The Global School House is a free Internet learning community that provides wonderful opportunities for computer-based collaboration. At the Global School House site, students will find collaborative projects such as virtual field trips or a cyberfair, opportunities to create online newspapers, and links to service projects. Teachers will find a comprehensive project registry, communication tools that include conferencing and discussion boards, and professional development opportunities.

I have also found great success with an organization called I*Earn, a subscription-based learning community with worldwide connections. There is a fee to join I*Earn but if you or your school system can afford to join, you’ll have access to a wide array of projects, ranging from sharing family stories to addressing global social concerns. Any teacher who is part of the I*Earn community can propose and develop a project. Internet-based discussions revolve around each project, giving kids an international perspective on the topic they are studying.

E-pals. Another way to connect to the world community is with e-pals, the 21st century version of pen pals. The nearly instantaneous nature of e-mail allows students to develop more natural and personal relationships with their e-pals than they might develop with traditional pen pals. In order to do e-pals, you need to have e-mail capabilities in your classroom. The best possible situation would be one in which all students have e-mail accounts. If the students do not have individual e-mail accounts, they can type their message, save it, and insert it into one large message from one teacher to another. This sounds cumbersome, but works well. If you don’t already have a connection with a compatible class, you can do an Internet search for “e-pals” then a plus sign and qualifiers such as a state or country that you are interested in learning about.

A Note for Novices

If you’re not familiar with computers, the world of e-pals, Internet learning communities, and Web-Quests might seem strange and overwhelming. So start with small steps. Get comfortable with using word processing and e-mail. Ask colleagues—or your students—for help. Log on to some of the websites discussed above and look around. You’ll discover a diverse and interesting world.

Used with care, computers can be an important part of a teacher’s toolbox. Whether you are connecting students in your classroom through group projects, connecting your students with their community, or connecting children across the world, computers can help you create an exciting, collaborative environment.

David Grambow currently teaches fifth grade in Hudson, Wisconsin. He has taught third grade and has consulted on technology use in grades K–5. In addition to teaching, David is a certified presenter in The Responsive Classroom approach and is also a trainer for his school district in the use of technology in the classroom. David is married and the proud father of three wonderful children.

“I’m careful about what software I buy. Some software that is targeted at elementary schools helps students develop higher level thinking skills but there is also a lot of software that removes all opportunities for creative thinking. I look for software that simulates an experience that would be difficult for the student to engage in without the computer, such as identifying ocean animals in their own habitat. I also look for software that teaches a computer skill such as word processing. Here are some software titles that I like: Microsoft Word, Excel, and Powerpoint teach word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations; Gizmos and Gadgets teaches scientific reasoning; the Carmen San Diego series is great for geography; and any title from Tom Snyder is good for group problem solving.”

Tags: Small Groups, Special Areas