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Magazines > MultiMedia Schools > November/December 2003
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Vol. 10 No. 6 — Nov/Dec 2003
The Online Educator
Redefining Teamwork: 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.

­Victor Hugo

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 model!


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 teammates!


(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 building.

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 hours—all while maintaining a good attitude. This describes the InterACTS teachers to a "T."

The Model

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 between students!


Videoconferencing with 150 Students!

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 occur—and anyone who uses technology knows that glitches are inevitable—we 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 area—Susan 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 understand—the "big idea." This is followed by methods of measuring student understanding—something 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 the lesson.

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 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 qualities.

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 [], 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 InterACTS 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 it."

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



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.

Real-World Experiences Are Key

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.

InterACTS—it's not about technology, it's about creating powerful teaching and learning experiences!



Kovalik, Susan. ITI: The Model Integrated Thematic Instruction. Susan Kovalik & Associates, 1993.

McKenzie, Jamie. "The Slam Dunk Digital Lesson" [].

McKenzie Jamie. Beyond Technology: Questioning, Research and the Information Literate School. FNO Press, 2000 [].

McKenzie, Jamie. "The Question Is the Answer" [].

McKenzie, Jamie. Online module templates [].

Wiggins, Grant and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. ASCD, 1998 [].

For additional resources and lessons, please visit our Web site at


Anne Campbell and Mary Lou Guisinger are technology facilitators for the Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, School District. They may be contacted at and, respectively.
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