Course outline: School-centered network communities

Vijay Saraswat
AT&T Research ,180 Park Avenue, Florham Park NJ 07932

With the rise of the Internet, a powerful new set of ideas is emerging around the notion of network community --- groups of people with shared interests and goals, connecting regularly online (perhaps from all over the world), building, sharing, constructing, learning, playing, working...

At AT&T Research, I am developing a framework for the use of these ideas in the context of K-12 education. We are working on two fronts simulatenously. First, we are developing a powerful new architecture for such spaces ( Matrix ) --- based on Java, it allows creations made by participants to move from server to server, and it integrates powerful visual interfaces. Second we are working to develop pedagogical programs across the K-12 spectrum, and across the curriculum, via active classroom engagement.

This course is intended for pioneering K-12 educators, parents and education researchers who are interested in getting a deep grounding in this important and fast-moving area. K-12 educators must be interested in helping to develop ground-breaking projects for their students, parents must be interested in working online with their children (and their friends) and serving as adult mentors in the community, and education researchers must be interested in develop methodologies for curriculum development and assessment. The course will focus on developing a sound understanding of the principles of network spaces, and the technologies that underly them, and on complementing that conceptual understanding with intimate hands-on experience in a real live network community, Meadows (run by AT&T Research in collaboration with several school districts).

What is most desired for participants is a pioneering spirit, a positive and helpful attitude, a willingness to work hard, and to play hard, and a desire to become involved with these ideas. No particular mathematical or computational sophistication is assumed of the student. A general exposure to computers and the net would be helpful --- if the student is completely new to computing, I may consider giving a short separate two-hour session on the basics of windowed interfaces and the net.

Each week I will give out notes on background material for next week, including some readings from the emerging literature and research on network communities. Before starting the course, the student is expected to have acquired the paperback novel "Snowcrash" by Neil Stephenson, and should be ready to participate in classroom discussion. Student evaluation will be done primarily on the basis of constructions the student has undertaken online and his/her participation in the development of curricular projects.

Topics I want to cover.

The course will be divided into three parts: Introduction , Matrix and Meadows , and projects .

A. Background and Introduction

What is the internet?

How do you hook up to it, packet communication, naming, world-wide-web, client-server communication.

What are network spaces?

Their conceptual basis: connectivity, persistence, accountability, world-construction.

Pedagogical bases for network spaces.

  1. Opening up the classroom --- to parents, other community members, to the world, appropriately restricted. Community of learners. Each one, teach one. Cross-grade collaboration, mentoring. Audience for the classroom experience.
  2. Providing an authentic, persistent, constructive, cross-curricular context for learning. World-objects and processes are tools for exploration and construction and experimentation (simulation, modeling, design, diagonsis, debugging)... but with real people. Topics from all over the curriculum can be dealt with.. energy, ecology, history, geography, culture studies, ethics, governance and civic organization, money... Construction of real-world structures such as houses leads to notions of social organization.. towns, boroughs, streets, sewage systems, energy distribution. Connection between people and nature --- weather, shelter.
  3. A place and a world for intermixed fun, work and play: between the school, home and playground. A child's work is play. Construction as a means of self-expression. "Novels" being constructed by children .. places they grow with, change as they go, revisit. places they invite their friends to show what they are doing. Virtual pyjama parties. Their online home, playfield, classroom.
  4. Providing a persistent account of development. Computer-represented, processable.

Social interaction in such spaces. Study of various social phenomena that have already emerged in network spaces: exploration of identity, verbal play. Some unexpected consequences of this "warm" medium. (Turkle, Reid)

Principles of constructionist pedagogy. Vygotsky. Donald Schon. Penni Eckert. (perhaps Papert.) Learning via a series of focused conversations, experimentation.

As part of the course, participants will be taken on online tours of various network communities. In addition, at least one class day will be set aside for a field-trip to AT&T Research (in Florham Park) where researchers on Internet technology will discuss some of their work with class participants.

B. The technical basis for network spaces: Matrix and Tictoc.

The basics.

Connecting, disconnecting, logging in.
Objects with properties and verbs.
Classes as templates. Changing classes.
Setting properties and messages.
who, look, examine, @details, @audit.
Getting and giving help:
help, @911.
Moving around:
move, join, taking exits.
Naming objects:
Finding objects in the context (parsing).
Creating objects:
$furniture, $thing, $container, $openable_container, $food, $clothes, $door, $controlled_exit, $windows, $note, $community_corkboard.
Making places. Connecting places.
[Possibly: Browsing the net together from the network space. ]
Mail. Reading, sending, sorting mail.
[Possibly: live mail, objects sent through mail.]
Mailing lists. Starting your own.
Newspaper and community bulletin boards.
Posting, reading.
Adding to it, reading from it.
(Public/private, logged/unlogged) Communication channels.
Staying in touch while working in different locales in the network space.
Help database. Adding to it. Community help.

b. Specifying behavior (Tictoc)

Bots (software robots). Objects that have a life of their own. Can be taught to act in response to events in the world around them. Can move around in the world, page other players and bots, record what they see. Can be queried about what they know. Can initiate actions, delay their response.

Fish. Objects with position and velocity and acceleration. Can move around (continuously) in 3 dimensions. Can bump into other objects. Eat food. Get hungry. Aquariums. Bubbles. Ponds. Fishing. Ecologies.

Cars/Buses/helicopters. Move people from place to place on Meadows. Traffic lights. Traffic.

c. Administration and management issues.

Classroom administration. Classroom, students, assignment boards, bulletin boards, cabinets. Setting, submitting, grading, returning assignments -- online. Developing student portfolios. Changing passwords. Creating characters. Seeing real information.

Ethical issues. Privacy vs. Monitoring. Freedom of speech. Community guidelines. Appropriate online behavior and conduct. Maintaining a learning environment. "Crime", "punishment", "discipline". Novel possibilities in network communities.

C. Projects

Each educator enrolling in the course will choose a particular project area to work in. In collaboration with their school district, arrangements will be made to bring their class on The Meadows later in the course, so they can participate in the projects being designed by the educator. Educational researchers and parents taking this course will be expected to team up with educators on projects.

Some sample projects