FACILITATING TEACHER PARTNERSHIPS FOR CROSS-CLASSROOM COLLABORATION

This research (dated 2008) was awarded the 2009 Canadian Association for Teacher Education (CATE) Thesis and Dissertation Recognition of Excellence Award. Below is the abstract and the full document!

FACILITATING TEACHER PARTNERSHIPS FOR CROSS-CLASSROOM COLLABORATION

Abstract
Collaboration between classrooms, in a digital environment, was explored using
the self-identifiers of connectivity, constructivism, and collaborative comforts to
partner teachers. The research question investigated was, how might emerging
research on connectivity, constructivism and collaboration within the digital
environment inform the design of an interactive website that enhances the ways
in which teachers are able to collaborate with colleagues around the world based
on the development of a more complex partnering system? The Design as
Education Research Framework was used to implement the ‘design as research’
method and resulted in the design of the research object, an interactive website,
TeachersConnecting.com. Multiple data sources that informed the design
process were: the research object, a development journal, feedback from a
development panel, and academic literature in the field. Reflection via a virtual
convener, practical applications of connectivism and constructivism, as well as
the impact of a development panel on ‘design as research’ were described.
Cross-classroom collaboration projects were organized into a matrix that was
developed based on the comforts.

Keywords: cross-classroom collaboration, collaborative projects, design as
research, Design as Educational Research, collaborative comfort, constructivism
comfort, connectivity comfort, partnering teachers, interactive education website
design, connectivism

Introducing TeachersConnecting.com

Introducing: TeachersConnecting.com

(Welcome Video)

Have you ever wanted to find a partner for collaboration between classrooms? Is there more to finding a collaboration partner then just your grade level, or geographic location? These are a few of the questions and concerns that I explored when creating this website. The website is the product of a different type of research that focused on answering my questions through the design process. The result is a website that connects teachers for cross-classroom collaboration. The website drew heavily from the connectivism learning theory and has been informed by academic literature about collaboration, constructivism, and connectivity. The design process included feedback from a development panel of non-teaching and teaching members from different nations, continents, and perspectives. The design platform, Drupal, also greatly influenced the site. I often share that this site is Facebook for teachers, or e-Harmony.com for collaboration partnerships (a more intelligent way to find a collaboration partner).

What this site is:

This website is a virtual convener. It facilitates a ‘handshake’ between teachers interested in cross collaboration project. The comforts in connectivity, constructivism, and collaboration make this ‘handshake’ more intelligent. This virtual convener is based on connecting teachers using more than simply the grade level or location of classrooms.

What this site is not:

This site does not host tools for cross classroom collaboration projects. These tools change fast and are best left to specialists in these areas (e.g., classroom blogging, voice & video conferencing, and real time collaboration on documents, presentations, & spreadsheets). On this site you can find a collaboration partner to use these tools with!

What to do next?

Go to the TeachersConnecting.com.
1) Introduce Yourself:
Register then complete or update your ‘User Profile’ page to introduce yourself to others. Remember to keep updating your profile!

2) Find a Collaboration Partner:
Look for colleagues. Then click on their user name to view their profile, add them as a buddy, and send them a message. Begin a dialogue about how you might work together.

3) Add or Browse Projects:
Plan a cross classroom collaboration project with a person you found. Use the ‘Schedule a Project’ menu item to create a project and sign up for it.
-OR-
Browse for projects in the calendar and sign up!

After the cross classroom collaboration rate the project and leave a comment that reflects on your experiences.

Then Share This Site With Colleagues

The Genesis of My Current Research Interests

Initial Student Blog & Online Collaboration Project in 2004/2005

It was June 2005, the last week of school before the summer holidays, and a heat wave had taken hold of the city. The computer lab on the second floor of the school was registering temperatures in excess of 30 degrees Celsius and packed with my class of adolescent students. Instead of the usual comments, drama, and pre-teen behaviour that accompany many grade 7 activities, the students were each focused on their writing and reading assignment. Students were writing blog posts about their 2 days at a local camp for the year end field trip and posting them to an internet site shared by this classroom in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada and a classroom in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. After writing their posts, students entered the other classroom’s section of the site and read each post. After reading students posted comments that explained how that post connected to other text, their own experiences, or the world. In this hot room with stale air eyes were peering into this virtual looking glass, the rhythmic tapping of keyboards accompanied the hum of ceiling fans, and the ticking of the giant clock signified that over an hour had past. The silence masked the intensely social conversation that was occurring. The conversation was not with the student sitting in the chair beside them, this asynchronous conversation was occurring with students sitting half way across North America. Their conversations were within academic parameters. The reading strategy, making connections, had been taught and was now applied.

I experienced cross-classroom that fully engaged my students and myself as a professional. This experience used technology, but led to student interest beyond using technology and instead focused on the social learning opportunities that arose. Since the beginning of my teaching career, I used several recent technological developments in my classroom. In the summer of 2000 I purchased my first Internet address, mrhazzard.com, to set up a classroom website. This website featured student work that was captured and enabled with digital cameras, digital video recorders, interactive whiteboards, publishing software, web design software, concept mapping tools, and blogging software. Each of these tools showed potential and limitations. However, the turning point came when I began to collaborate with another teacher, teaching 2000 km away, that I had met at a conference about interactive whiteboards. This collaboration began as a professional sharing of ideas, and interactive whiteboard files before including our students. My students were engaged in cross-classroom collaboration projects that included reading groups between classrooms, as well as writing and reading assignments on the joint classroom web log, (blog). Students began to display interest as they used technology in the classroom to collaborate with other students but they did not comment on the technology tool.

Students commented on their relationships with members of the other classroom whom they had never met. Comments began to emerge from the students. “We have made friends before we met them (students from the other classroom),” shared one student in Winnipeg. A student in Sarnia mentioned that, “using the blog is just like what we do at night, only we talk about different things.” Anecdotally, this social connection seemed to engage and motive my students. The value of linking classrooms together for cross-classroom collaboration began to crystallize in my professional practice.

Several questions developed through this experience. Why are more classrooms not participating in such cross-classroom collaborations? How do teachers find a collaboration partner if they do not attend a conference with teachers from many countries and geographic regions? What made the collaboration experiences within my career successful? My research explores these questions.

Samples of discussion pages made during online synchronous concept mapping (click to view larger photos):

Literature Circle Online Concept Mapping SheetLiterature Circle Online Concept Mapping Sheet

Videos of the interaction (motion really helps enhance understanding):

Influences

A Selection of Books I've Referenced
Here are some books that have informed and built the foundation for my research and design process. Here are but a few in a visual bibliography (spine edition). There are several different clusters of thinking embedded within this stack: Drupal (the design platform), web usability, design and programing, and literature providing context. Some times a picture is worth a thousand words. That is only 4 pages. There are many more words represented with this image!

Situated Research and Design

Writing My Thesis
Context is important as it has influenced my research. This context includes the physical environment, tools used, and location. When writing or programming intensely I revert to the 180 degree of desktop space seen in the picture above. The pull out trays are enlarged on the right and left to allow easy access to research journals, books, design notes, or all of the relevant reference materials from my chair. This is has been my research habitat.

My father told me when I’d try some activity like wood working, home repair, or yard maintenance that the right tools make a big difference. The tools that I have used have adapted so that I can have the right tool for the job. A few of the tools that I have used are 3 external hard drives, an iMac, a second monitor, a new mac keyboard, various software, and a notebook. The external hard drives multiplied when my computer’s internal hard drive crashed. Fortunately, I have a nightly backup process scheduled to an off-site location that is on the internet via my iDisk. Following the crash, I set up the Timemachine program within the Apple’s Leopard operating system to automatically backup to a 1TB drive. Thank goodness for the off-site back up and the Apple store who helped me retrieve the files and continue to write while I waited for the 4 day repair process to be complete.

The iMac and second monitors are essential. Could I conduct this research, that includes writing and designing a website, on a Dell? Certainly. Could I write about my research on a Dell? Absolutely. Would the experience and work flow be the same? Certainly not! My iMac is 2 years old and amazingly feels as peppy and responsive as the first day that I turned it on. My PC upgrade cycle was every 2 years. I’m not sure what my Mac upgrade cycle will be, but it is not close yet! To freshen up my iMac I purchased a second monitor and it has extended the screen real estate available. One monitor is now for my writing or designing application. The other monitor is for PDFs of research documents, to do lists, and other miscellaneous windows. With the addition of the new Mac keyboard (slim, responsive, and very effective for writing) I’m as happy as a seagull at a fish fry.

Writing and designing has been about getting my thoughts organized into tangible forms. The right software for creating these tangible artifacts of thinking have been assisted by the tool that gets my initial thoughts on paper. My notebook helps me sleep at night. When an idea comes I write in my Moleskin ruled notebook. I organize this notebook by date and record all my note under each date. From meetings to ideas to events, this thinking is now out of my brain and on paper which makes it much easier to remember. These ideas then are reflected within the creation of artifacts via design and writing. The key software can be divided into a few categories.

Design:

  • BBedit – for editing code
  • Transmit – FTP client and so much more
  • CSSEdit – for adapting CSS to make the design look pretty
  • Drupal – the selected platform
  • Private webhosting – the ‘sandbox’ that made this design possible

Writing:

  • Microsoft Word 08 for the Mac – I didn’t start with this as my word processor (Pages and Google Docs were initially used), but this version included a feature that organizes my references in a database and displays these references within my document in proper APA format. Essential.
  • OmniOutliner – to categorize thoughts, organize ideas, and plan for revisions
  • Skype – enable the voice conferences with my development panel
  • Audio Hijack Pro – recorded the Skype conferences
  • Command+Shift+4 – allowed for quick screen captures for a selected region of my screen. This is how I document the changes to my design
  • MarsEdit – great blogging application that I used to write my development journal then post to my blog

This is my context. This environment, tools, and the location within my home has informed my research. As a teen I made a wooden bench in my parent’s basement with less then ideal tools. The wooden bench was informed my the location, environment, and tools. It looked like a first attempt. It didn’t sit level, the finish was flawed, and the edges weren’t true. Hopefully I have learned from this and created a design object that has true edges, a finish that doesn’t distract from the purpose, and levels with classroom practice.

Finding Projects

Finding projects on the site has been only accessible through a calendar interface. By exposing a view (recent projects created by buddies) there are now two options and a natural narrowing of projects as more are posted. Another small revision only shows people marked available for projects when looking for collaboration partners. 

The finding projects additions to the site are:

  • Find Projects Page
  • Recent Projects from Buddies

Find Projects Page

The Find Projects Page now allows for more suggestions and links to all projects and a new narrow sort: “See Projects From Buddies”. Eventually the ‘project matrix’ will be linked as the suggestion.

Find Projects Page - July 15

Recent Projects from Buddies

Now all your Buddies recent projects can be found. This enables people to narrow their focus within the ‘Find Projects’ section.

Recent Projects Posted by Buddies - July 15

Photo Credit: young kilroy by hangdog

Tuning, Fine Tuning

The design research object, a website, is progressing quickly toward completion. The final development panel meeting has occurred. Several existing elements have been enhanced and tuned based on this feedback as well as the feedback from Josh McCormack, pro Drupal developer, and colleagues with ‘fresh eyes’ toward the site. The development process will slow down with fewer features and refinements as I shift my focus toward writing the research paper associated with this site.   

Yesterday I opened this site / blog and realized it is quite confusing. Hopefully the additional of headings in recent posts has made the information more understandable. These posts really are for myself during this design research process. However, instead of writing this journal in Word it is published here to hear feedback and learn together. A secondary benefit to this development journal is that there are too many screenshots and revisions to include in my research paper, so I will be able to provide a link to this development journal and the Flickr page of screenshots.

The tuning, revisions, and additions to the site are:

  • “Subject” Element Removed from Comments
  • Menu and Footer Revisions
  • Search Improvements- Cron Module, Help Text, Tabs
  • Projects: Prompt to Sign Up, Not Required, Time Zones
  • About, Welcome, & User Profile Pages

“Subject” Element Removed from Comments

An ongoing complaint of the development panel was confirmed by Josh McCormack. The ‘subject’ line didn’t fit and was confusing. Do we really title our comments on blogs, Facebook walls, etc.? Digging into the comment php code allowed me to locate the element and remove it.

Removing Subject Line from Comments - July 14

Menu and Footer Revisions

The top menu and the footer have been revised. The top menu’s font size have been increased. The bottom footer region now includes site credits, About, and Help page links.

Revised ‘Top Level’ Menu
Revised Top Menu - July 14
First Revision Footer
Footer - July 14
Second Revision Footer
Footer Revision - July 15

Search Improvements- Cron Module, Help Text, Tabs

To enable the search function, the site must create an index of all the content that it holds. This indexing occurs when the ‘cron’ function in the site runs. To automatically schedule this indexing the Poormanscron module was installed. This module runs the cron function and the site indexes itself at regular intervals.

Now the search is working and the site is indexing it’s own content, the Search function was assisted through the addition of specific help text within the code of the Search module (included in Drupal’s core installation). Text was added to include changing search terms for cross cultural misunderstanding. The examples were also revised to be education centric instead of the default smurf text that was included.

Help text added to search - July 15

Another ongoing feedback concern was the ‘Search’ page contained two tabs, content and users. However the search results that were given showed both projects and users (teachers). These tabs gave options there were unnecessary. The code was searched and a code ‘snippet’ on the drupal.org forums was added to remove the tabs.  

Removing 'content' & 'users' tabs from search  - July 15 

Removing 'content' & 'users' tabs from search  - July 15

Projects: Prompt to Sign Up, Not Required, Time Zones

Triggers and actions were combined to prompt authors to sign up for their own projects upon creating or editing it.

Prompt to sign up when adding project - July 14

The feedback from the development panel consistently stated that the ‘Additional information’ field within the project creation page should not be required. This required field is now optional.   

Time zone handling has been adapted. The users will be from a variety of time zones around the world and the projects will need an accurate time zone label to be effective. Within the event module, the ‘Event time zone input” has been set to allow users to set the ‘event’ or project time zone.

Timezone handling handling for events - July 15
Timezone handling for events - July 15

About, Welcome, & User Profile Pages

Text has been revised in content and formating on several pages. The About page now sports a mailto: link for my email address and a revised first paragraph. The Welcome page now sports the option to ‘Browse Projects’ and formating has changed. Finally the help text on the ‘Editing Your User Profile Page’ has been changed to a higher contrasting colour, reformatted, and enlarged (slightly).

Revised About Page Text - July 15
Revised Welcome Screen - July 14
Revised help text blocks - July 15

Photo credit: headache by Aaron Edwards

Avatars & About

Visual elements and knowledge about the site have been enhanced. The following items have been improved:

  • Adding the selectable user selectable avatars
  • Page Revisiong: Front Page & About Page

Adding the selectable user selectable avatars

The Avatar Selection module was added. This allows for greater flexibility for users selecting or uploading their own photo or avatar. This module is dependent on the module jQuery Update. Now users have the option of selecting an avatar immediately upon registering. The avatar images are creative commons images and referenced fully in the ‘about’ page.

Avatar Module - July 8
Avatars Available on Signup - July 8

Page Revisiong: Front Page & About Page

The text on the welcome page of the website has been a challenge to effectively communicate to users. The work of Neilson & Loranger (2006) has been a guidance with advice such as “summarize key points and pare down” (p. 269). So the three headings now are more reflective of a summary of the site:
1) Introduce Yourself
2) Find a Collaboration Partner
3) Add a Project to the Calendar
The text the follows provides a brief explanation of this feature with embedded links.

Revised Front Page - July 9

The About Page of the website has paragraphs of text, but it is demarcated by large left justified headings and white space as recommended by Neilson & Loranger (2006). An email address and phone number will be added to gain credibility.
About page section 1 - July 9
About page section 2 - July 9
About page section 3 - July 9
About page section 4 - July 9

I Need Your Help

My design research is focusing on cross classroom collaboration projects. So my question is this:
What are the essential elements of a cross classroom collaboration project?
Below you will see the fields that I have deemed to be important (the date range was cut off).
What do you think? I welcome your comments.
Project Field Additions - July 08

Tuning & Tweaking

The website is being tweaked and tuned. There are no plans for new features. Instead time is being spent investigating how to streamline the existing site and the user’s path to several different sections. There are several important improvements:

  • Signup Module Adjusted
  • One Step Login
  • Me Alias
  • Additional Help Text

Signup Module Adjusted

In the default settings, the Signup module asked for a user’s phone number. This didn’t seem appropriate on this site and this would be too much personal information. To remove that field the second section of the code below was removed from the module. The resulting displays the user’s name signing up and omits the phone number field.

Adjusting fields displayed in Sign Up form via code - July 7
Revised Signup : no more phone number  - July 7

The tab within an event allowed for the user to Sign up, view sign ups, and email everyone signed up for this project. Unfortunately ‘Signup broadcast’, which allowed the creator of the project to email everyone was misunderstood by many users in the development panel. For this adjustment, the code within the theme of the module was adjusted to say ‘Email All Signups’. This revision will be shared with the development panel for feedback.
Adjusting Sign Up Broadcast Text via code- July 7

One Step Login

A common complaint of the development panel was that new users have to wait for a password to be mailed to them instead of getting access to the site immediately. Also users were given an obscure password instead of being able to select their own. The Login Toboggan module was installed and enables this functionality. Users are still sent a confirmation email to authenticate themselves.

This module also allowed users to be automatically directed to their profile after registering.

Register and pick your own password - July 7

Me Alias

TheMe Alias module allowed links to be embedded in the pages that are user specific and rely on their unique identifier but will work for everyone. The generic “me” is added to the section of the url with the number and now allows direct links to edit profile information.

Additional Help Text

Additional help text has been added to the site. Help text has been added to the edit profile form.

Help Text For Users Filling Out Their Profile - July 8