Using Virtual Blackboard In The Classroom

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Using technology in the classroom can be challenging to even the most veteran teacher. The "world" in the World Wide Web is huge. However, many teachers are looking for ways to further implement online resources in their classroom. A recent study by "Education Week" related that 61 percent of teachers use the Web in class, and 53 percent use software. Unfortunately many teachers also relate that their classroom computers lack sufficient "power" to use many of these resources in their curriculum. In other words, many teachers find it difficult to match up educational Internet sites and software with what they hope to accomplish.

How can a teacher find online materials, put them into a user-friendly format, and develop activities for their classes? One example of how this is being accomplished is Virtual Blackboard.

For example, allow me to describe my own experience using a typical Virtual Blackboard "module", which is a collection of web sites arranged in a "teacher’s resource tour", "sample student tour", and a set of classroom activities. Most Virtual Blackboard tours contain approximately 15 web stops as well as several activities.

For my freshman-level "Introduction to Social Science" class, I decided to use the Virtual Blackboard "American Presidents" module. Since we were in the middle of a chapter on government, I thought the Presidents’ module would be a good supplement to that topic.

I took the class to one of the computer labs in our building. Getting to the module was easy, and students went to the student tour by simply using the navigation buttons. Since we had enough computers to allow each student his or her own machine, they could navigate at their own pace. An alternative if there were more students than computers would have been to have students work in pairs or teams. Or, if there were only one computer available, the entire class could view it if the monitor were sufficiently large.

What students see in each tour stop includes the actual Web site in an upper window, and a small informational blurb about that site in a lower window. There are also "navigational buttons" in a small window that allow the user to go from location to location in the tour. I allowed students to do this at their own speed, which as I expected, took the better part of a class period (50 minutes). I had allowed for this, and had already anticipated that completion of the project would take more than one day. However, I would add that I believe that a teacher could easily fit this activity into any time frame (one day or more).

After they took the student tour, the class and I had an impromptu discussion about what the "duties and responsibilities" of the president were. We discussed roles of the president including "chief diplomat", "head of state", and "chief executive". From that, we discussed what the president’s responsibility to the people should be, and how the president best determines that. We considered presidents taking stands on policy that might be less popular than other stands, such as Johnson’s policy on Vietnam, or Hoover’s Depression policies. (I spent a few minutes during this time explaining what issues those policies dealt with.) We then also discussed how presidents gauge public opinion. One of the suggestions was that presidents gauge support or opposition to an issue through the amount of mail they receive in favor or against a particular policy.

We then discussed how best to write a letter to the president. I wanted to have my students do this as a classroom exercise, based on one of the activities in the module, "Making Your Voice Heard". I developed a set of criteria for what a letter should include (correct addressing and salutation, as well as helping students develop possible subject areas to write about, and reminding them to use correct grammar and spelling). After distributing these, I then guided the students to one of the tour stops, the White House web site.

We navigated through the part of the site that allows interested persons to send e-mail directly to the president. I gave students the option of actually sending notes to the president via e-mail for extra credit, but they had to send me their drafts so that I could critique them. Students who did this could then send their letters on school computer equipment via e-mail, with the requirement that they had to send a "cc" of their letter to me so I had a record. I gave them extra credit for this exercise.

The outcome of this lesson was gratifying. The students enjoyed doing the research, taking the tours, and completing the activity. They felt a sense of pride in being able to express their concerns and beliefs to someone as important as the president. Several weeks after submitting their letters, some students reported that they had received replies from the White House regarding their original e-mails. While we recognized these were "form letters", and not personal replies, it did excite the students that someone did actually read their letters.

Virtual Blackboard is a site containing many "curriculum modules" for K-12 teachers. All the modules located on the site are available free of charge for classroom use. The site is operated by Tramline Incorporated, which also offers for a small fee, "TourMaker," a software program that can be used by teachers to create their own classroom web tours. Each module contains a "resource tour" for the teacher, a "student tour" for the pupil, and a set of activities that can be used in the classroom. Classroom teachers nationwide contributed the modules, and many can be used either in an elementary or secondary classroom, in a multi-computer setting or one-computer classroom.

These modules can help even the least technology-proficient teacher bring online technology to their classroom and use it in an effective way. The modules also provide an extensive list of activities in any number of subject areas that teachers can use and modify, thereby making learning more enjoyable, and making students more active participants in the learning process. Moreover, the modules reduce the need of teachers and students searching the Web to find the same sites.

Critical Reviews

Critic N

For review by Critic N, click here.

Critic TT

It is a really a descriptive piece about "how I did it". If you want Horizons to be at that level, it IS an interesting case study but with an "n" of 1! It really cries out for a graphic of the basic screen (at least) rather than the verbal description. Is that possible?

I read the comment of critic N and essentially agree with his/her comments. They would improve the piece but it still would have limited interest among the readership.

Critic Z

There are much better resources on the net. The problem is getting teachers to them. We probably want to give teachers a site that is a learning based entity rather than this kind of a program.

Critic Q

The article in its present form is not at a level equivalent to other Case Study articles in TS. I think the idea is appropriate if more thought is given to the piece and more details are provided.

Reading the piece gives the impression of "...I ran across this neat web students used it...they thought it was cool..."

Are there similar sites? Why did you pick this one and not use the others? How were these concepts taught in previous terms? If they were not taught, what was not taught this time? Could a quick survey show differences in % of students preferring method A vs. method B? Are there assessment items that indicate relative performance of students with method A vs. method B? Did the students like this activity because the rest of the course involves passive lecture? A number of possible questions come to mind that might be of interest: were there differences among subsets of the class--male/female? high/low achievers? those from politically active/inactive families? students with/without Internet access at home?

The March '99 Case Study by Ken Stevenson did a really nice job of describing an innovation and including data that gives a good sense of what happened and the impact.