The Online Educator
Collaboration Within Virtual Walls
by Anne Campbell and Mary Lou Guisinger
Technology Facilitators, Bloomfield Hills Schools, Michigan
Nothing is so powerful as an idea
whose time has come.
Authors' Note: Our story is meant to spark
your thinking about how groups of teachers and students
can come together in new and exciting ways using
technologies that are readily available in many schools
right now. What we are sharing with you in describing
our cross-district InterACTS collaboration model
is about good teaching and good curriculum design.
Computers and technology can never replace those
essential elements. But we know from our experiences
that teaching and learning are enhanced and enriched
by using technology tools. By the time you finish
reading this article, we hope that you will be intrigued
enough to reach out to educators throughout your
school district by trying your own version of this
How Young Is Too Young?
Most of our InterACTS experiences have been
with upper-elementary students. However, last
year, one teacher moved to second grade and wanted
to continue with the InterACTS model. We weren't
sure how younger students would respond to the
various components of the InterACTS model. To
our surprise, this group of second graders was more responsive
and productive than their fourth and fifth grade
(Advancement of Classrooms through use of Technology
Systems) is a virtual school model that we in the Bloomfield
Hills, Michigan, schools have created and implemented.
It's a model that can be easily replicated and adapted
at any grade level by teachers, media specialists,
and/or technology facilitators. Collaboration is at
the core of the model and advances in technology make
it possible to create an effective online team. The
InterACTS model affirms that school no longer needs
to be defined by a group of classrooms housed in one
The vision for InterACTS started more than 7 years
ago and stemmed from a desire for teachers to collaborate
with teachers in other buildings throughout the district.
The first notion was to create a separate technology "school
of choice," to bring these teachers together in one
building. But largely for financial reasons, it soon
became obvious that bricks and mortar were not going
to be part of the scheme.
Instead, we determined that we could attain our goal
of collaborating with teachers in other buildings, in
other parts of the district, by using technology
tools currently available, including computers with
Internet access, and adding a Webcam and iVisit videoconferencing
software. Our original start-up costs were about $150
per teacher for the Webcam and software. Today, you
can buy a Webcam for $50 and the software is free!
The reasonable cost and simplicity of the hardware
and software can make online collaboration a reality
for most classroom teachers or for a media/technology
specialist who would coordinate these activities through
the media center or lab.
Of course, the most important element for getting
started is recruiting teachers willing to take risks,
meet new challenges, and work a lot of extra hoursall
while maintaining a good attitude. This describes the
InterACTS teachers to a "T."
InterACTS is an elementary virtual school project
that involves 150 students, six teachers, and two technology
facilitators from three elementary schools in the Bloomfield
Hills (Michigan) school district. InterACTS combines
concepts of multimedia and distance learning to create
the virtual school model. Students and teachers collaborate
on yearlong themes, grade level curriculum, projects,
and field trips using technology in innovative ways.
In September, students get to know one another online
through HyperStudio introductions that are posted on
our district server and can only be viewed by the classrooms
participating in the project. (See Figure 1 above left.)
A face-to-face meeting occurs in October when all of
the classrooms meet at the school farm for team building
activities. (See Figure 2 above right.) The online
component, consisting of videoconferencing (the iVisits),
e-mail exchanges, and eBoard postings, begins in November
and continues throughout the school year. The diversity
of communication methods adds drama to the relationship
Videoconferencing with 150
Strategic planning is very important to the
success of the videoconferencing experience.
The students practice appropriate Netiquette
before going online for the first time. Each
class selects two or three people to speak for
the class. The speakers rehearse off camera prior
to the videoconference. All of the classes can
be seen and heard on the TV monitors via the
iVisit Web site. When glitches occurand
anyone who uses technology knows that glitches
are inevitablewe are ready with backup
plans. If a camera malfunctions, we double up
classes to share a camera or we conduct a conference call using the audio portion
of iVisit or the classroom telephones. All of these tools and strategies introduce
real-life applications of technology tools and the troubleshooting that is
necessary along the way. Parents love that their kids are being exposed to
techniques that many adults use in their work environments.
Less Is More
It is critical to the success of this type of model
that the lessons be designed to enrich and enhance
the curricular content without adding to the teachers'
already long list of responsibilities. All of the lessons
designed by the InterACTS teaching team are connected
with curricular content that must be addressed through
grade level standards and benchmarks. The collaboration
between students of different grade levels who attend
different schools creates an exciting dimension to
the learning process. Kids love to share what they
have learned with a real audience!
The Blending of
Curricular Design Models
There are many excellent curriculum design models
on the market. As a district, we are fortunate enough
to work directly with several of the leaders in this
areaSusan Kovalik, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe,
and Jamie McKenzie. They share many philosophical similarities
in their approach to curriculum design, with variations
in implementation. We combine what we like best about
each model, providing a "custom blend."
Each year the team of InterACTS teachers develops
a yearlong theme based on Susan Kovalik's Integrated
Thematic Instruction (ITI) approach to curriculum development.
The theme serves as a blueprint that guides how the
different grade level curricula are melded together,
while addressing the standards for which each grade
level is responsible. (See Figure 3 on page 19.) Kovalik's
ITI model, based on the most current brain research,
provides a framework for mapping out a yearlong theme
based on a "big idea." The theme is then broken down
into smaller components that have a connection to the
big idea. Lessons within the components are generated
by identifying "key points" of understanding for students
to delve into by using inquiry-based investigations.
This methodology is intensely engaging for teachers
and students and facilitates a thorough, connected
understanding of the curricular content.
Wiggins and McTighe's Understanding By Design model
is based on "backward design." Teachers start by selecting
standards and benchmarks in a particular area. Next,
they determine what they want students to understandthe "big
idea." This is followed by methods of measuring student
understandingsomething more than just the completion
of a product or project. Finally, rigorous lessons,
not cute activities, are designed to help students
develop a true understanding of the content. Working "backward" through
the process ensures that the lessons have a clearly
defined focus on which student understanding can be
assessed. Teachers need to take control of evaluating
the effectiveness of their lessons. If the lesson is
important enough to take the time to teach, then teachers
need to ensure that students are able to demonstrate
an understanding of the content at the completion of
Jamie McKenzie's book Beyond Technology: Questioning,
Research and the Information Literate School addresses
the importance of essential questions, posed first
by teachers, who then facilitate students through
the process of asking important questions that lead
to meaningful investigation. McKenzie's Slam Dunk
Digital Lessons incorporate the asking of essential
questions with online resources. The process of creating
a digital lesson is streamlined through the use of
lesson module templates, which are located in Module
Maker 2 on the Questioning.org Web site. The McKenzie Module, combined with elements from Kovalik and
Wiggins and McTighe, has become the cornerstone of the InterACTS lesson design.
A Case in Point:
The Leadership Module
One of the InterACTS modules we've developed is entitled
The Leadership Module. For this module, we started
with the essential question: "What makes a good leader?" This
tied in nicely with the fourth and fifth grade study
of government, as well as the fall elections and current
world events. The second graders' lesson was modified
to have them investigate good versus bad leadership
(bullies), which we tied to their study of community.
Here's a sequence of events for the implementation
of this module:
1. The teaching team took a planning day to develop
the module. The morning was spent brainstorming ideas
related to the topic of leadership. In the afternoon,
teachers worked alone or with a partner to develop
each section of the module using the online templates.
By the end of the day, the team had designed the entire
module. All members had input into the process of editing
and refining the module.
2. Teachers introduced the idea to their individual
classes at the several schools. As part of the module
implementation, they brainstormed qualities of leaders
and identified leaders in our school, community, and
government, as well as in sports, business, and entertainment.
3. Students then worked in small groups within their
classrooms to research several people identified as
leaders. They compared people by examining their leadership
4. The students were now ready to begin sharing what
they were learning with the rest of the InterACTS team
in other school buildings. An online bulletin board,
called eBoard [http://www.eBoard.com], was used by
the students to share their findings. Students typed
a message in a designated place on the board and then
responded to the other groups in the same way. This
reader response method was excellent for expanding
the dialogue and widening the perceptions on this topic.
5. Concurrently, the second graders were working
on drawings in Kid Pix to illustrate good and bad
leaders. (See Figure 4 above right.) The fifth grade
class from their building joined the second graders
one afternoon to help them type the labels on their
pictures. The end result was the creation of highly
effective visuals that illustrated the qualities
of a leader. It was clear that the second graders "got
6. The fourth and fifth graders also had an individual
writing assignment, which was part of the module. Each
teacher approached this activity differently, so there
was a lot of diversity in the end products. Once the
writing was completed, three students from each classroom
were selected to represent their class for the iVisit
videoconference. (See Figure 5 on page 20.) There was
tremendous excitement and enthusiasm as the representatives
from the fourth and fifth grades read their compositions
and the second graders showed their pictures. It was
a great culminating activity that led to additional
dialogue. Every one of these students developed a good
understanding about the qualities of a good leader,
as shown through their writing, pictures, and discussions.
While this module was spread out over several weeks
because of the collaborative extensions, a self-contained
classroom could probably complete the module in two
to three individual sessions. This is one example of
how the InterACTS team has designed and implemented
collaborative, interdisciplinary, cross-grade lessons.
Other lessons can be found on our Web site at http://www.bloomfield.org/interacts.
Experiences Are Key
This Web site provides a service that allows
us to use Webcams attached to our classroom computers
to carry out a live videoconference. The iVisit
Lite version is free; there is also a brand new
Plus version with added features that has an
annual subscription fee of $24.95. The iVisit
software can be downloaded from the Web site
and is available in Windows and Mac platforms.
Also, if you don't have access to cameras, it
can be set up to do audio visits.
In addition to the fun of getting together, there
is also a bigger focus on community. All of the students
are involved in a community service project with their
classroom. They exchange stories about their experiences
throughout the year. Political action is also incorporated
into the curriculum to help students form an opinion,
take a stand about current issues and events, and to
promote the understanding that they can make a difference
in their community. All of these experiences lead to
natural discussions about careers and career preparation
and help the students begin to think about their future.
One of the most fantastic aspects of InterACTS is our
ability to travel to remote parts of the world without
leaving the classroom. Our team has taken memorable
virtual field trips to Antarctica and China.
InterACTSit's not about technology, it's about
creating powerful teaching and learning experiences!
Kovalik, Susan. ITI: The Model Integrated
Thematic Instruction. Susan Kovalik & Associates,
McKenzie, Jamie. "The Slam Dunk Digital Lesson" [http://fno.org/sept02/slamdunk.html].
McKenzie Jamie. Beyond Technology: Questioning,
Research and the Information Literate School. FNO
Press, 2000 [http://fnopress.org].
McKenzie, Jamie. "The Question Is the
McKenzie, Jamie. Online module templates [http://questioning.org/module2/quick10.html].
Wiggins, Grant and Jay McTighe. Understanding
by Design. ASCD, 1998 [http://www.ascd.org].
For additional resources and lessons, please
visit our Web site at http://www.bloomfield.org/interacts.
Anne Campbell and Mary Lou Guisinger are
technology facilitators for the Bloomfield Hills, Michigan,
School District. They may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively.