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Virtual Community Project: Introduction

"The teacher, particularly the teacher dedicated to liberal education, must constantly try to look toward the goal of human completeness and back at the natures of his students here and now, ever seeking to understand the former and to assess the capacities of the latter to approach itů For there is no real education that does not respond to felt need; anything else acquired is trifling display." (Allan Bloom, The Closing Of The American Mind, 1987)

The Virtual Community CD ROM was designed and produced by my class of thirty-two grade seven students at River Oaks School in Oakville, Ontario, Canada during the 1994-1995 school year. The Information Artist Learning Framework and the effective use of technology were critical components of that production. In other words, not only did the students design and produce the CD ROM itself; they were also intimately involved in the design and production of the learning framework they used to produce it. The phrase "Information Artist" was in fact the result of brainstorming within the classroom and captured our collective idea of what "learning to learn" meant at that time...

The curriculum at River Oaks was based on themes and the project blended a number of curriculum themes into a single unified whole. The Virtual Community CD ROM was not a single curricular theme, but a combination of themes. The timetable was structured such that one half of each day was spent with a single teacher. In addition, the classroom consisted of twelve Apple Computers, a range of peripherals, networked Internet access, as well as a wide range of multimedia production software. Each student had their own email address and, in addition to field trips, this was an important method of connecting them to people outside of the school system. Without the flexibility of blending curriculum themes, flexible timetabling and availability of technology directly in the classroom, this project would not have occurred. These three elements were the defining features of innovation throughout River Oaks School.

The Virtual Community Project CD ROM was sponsored by Industry Canada, the Canadian Association of School Administrators, and Apple Computer. In the fall of 1995, the CD ROM was distributed to 16,500 schools across Canada as a national benchmark in multimedia design. The reaction was mixed. Many schools were Windows based and could not view the CD ROM. Those that could fell into two general categories of reaction: a) interest in how they could build the ideas into their own teaching; and b) dismissal by those who felt that the teacher must have done most of the work. Since River Oaks School had a computer to student ration of 1:3, many also felt (correctly) that pursuing work like the Virtual Community CD ROM was simply out of their grasp from a technology perspective. In addition, River Oaks had "experimental" status from the Ontario Ministry Of Education and therefore could modify the structure of curriculum and the timetable (while maintaining the basic prerequisites of literacy, math and science) relatively easily. While River Oaks benefited greatly from this status, there was no systematic effort put in place to provide other schools with the same benefit. Toward the end of the 1990's the Conservative government of Ontario instituted a new provincial curriculum that ensured innovations like River Oaks would have no further opportunity in the province.

The driving force behind the project was the engagement of students in collectively designing and implementing their own model for learning. The use of technology and the delivery of curriculum content, while important, were secondary to this. In other words, if what we were doing in the classroom did not fit into our model for learning it was collectively questioned and frequently eliminated from practice. Phrases like the "process is the product" and the "product is the process" were irrelevant to us since both were closely integrated. What we tried to do, in concrete terms, was to create two distinct layers on the CD ROM itself. The surface layer captured the students' thoughts and ideas about various topics related to community life. This was interconnected with another layer that described the students thought processes and experiences as they related to the learning framework. The attempt was to try and reveal the thinking processes and experiences behind the thoughts and ideas that the audience would be viewing. Not only was the content brought into question, but so was the model for learning itself.

The end effect of the project is twofold. For the students that were involved in the project their learning experiences were transformed. The media interviewed many of the students involved in the project and some were in fact invited to make presentations in educational conferences. One student traveled as far as Vancouver B.C. to make a presentation. Upon reaching high school they were met with a return to traditional information based curriculum. While attempts were made to bridge this gap with the high school system, no progress was made. These students in the project were successful in the high school environment in terms of grades, but their motivation for being educated had decreased. This was evident in the conversations that others as well as myself had with them during their early high school years. The CD ROM had little to no effect as a national multimedia benchmark in education. Since it was created in a highly unique setting that was not generally available across the country at that time, this is not surprising. In the end, the project itself and the experiences that those thirty-two students had represent a brief and passing anomaly in the standard approaches to schooling and curriculum.

Over the next series of entries I'll try to pull out some of the key features of this case study and describe as best I can ideas like network learning environments, The Information Artist model, the effective use of technology and others as they related to The Virtual Community Project. Most of this material was written some 8 years ago now, but I'll endeavor to add some reflections as I go along.

Navigating the Virtual Community Entries
1) Introduction
2) Information Artist Learning Model
3) Description of the Information Artist Learning Environment
4) The Skin of Culture

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