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A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

Tech, county to be partners in networking

By Sally Harris

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 11 - November 2, 1995

(Editor's note: In the October 12 edition of Spectrum, it was announced that the new Center for Human-Computer Interaction had received a $1.1-million grant from the National Science Foundation's Networking Infrastructure for Education program. The following article contains additional information detailing a program funded by the NSF grant.)

Through the National Science Foundation's Networking Infrastructure for Education (NIE) program, Virginia Tech and the Montgomery County School System have received a three-year $1.1-million grant to develop a program to use computer networks in the Montgomery County schools to provide collaborative, project-oriented science education.

An interdisciplinary group including Montgomery County Schools, the Blacksburg Electronic Village, and Virginia Tech's Curriculum and Instruction and Computer Science departments used a planning grant to train public-school teachers in the use of computer technologies and to put together a team with a shared vision of the project's goals.

The NIE project, according to John Carroll, head of computer science and one of the principal investigators of the project, is basically using, in new educational applications, technologies that have recently been harnessed and refined. "Our project is trying to push a little on the ceiling of these technologies," he said.

The project developers, which include public-school teachers, will create a collaborative virtual environment based on the model of MUDS (multi-user domains). A MUD is a real-time chat environment in which people at different locations can communicate and work together by exchanging messages and running programs directly by computer. "We are there as virtual people," Carroll said.

Used mostly for recreational purposes at present, MUDS can be object-oriented, such as a virtual room in which one person "gives a lecture" by typing it out and others can comment or ask questions. "We want to extend this to public-school children working together on science projects and experiments," Carroll said.

The project designers also will link the MUD capabilities, which are text-based virtual environments, with high-resolution graphics that can be shared so the students can discuss things not merely described in text, but actually displayed, such as physics simulations currently used in classrooms, but not yet in the network, Carroll said.

"We're taking elements of two technologies, physics simulations and MUDS, and linking them so the students will have something more interesting to talk about and manipulate," Carroll said.

They can even go further with the project. They can make virtual school activities accessible to the community through the BEV network so parents can go to a science fair every week without leaving home.

"We know when the community participates in the schools, the schools are better," Carroll said. "But there are lots of obstacles to such participation. People have busy lives and work hard. So we plan to make some of this interaction possible asynchronously and remotely."

The project will involve Blacksburg High School and Blacksburg Middle school, representing town populations, and Riner Middle School and Riner High School, representing rural populations. In the rural schools, Carroll said, it is sometimes the case that not enough students want physics to justify the logistics and budget problems of hiring a specialized teacher. "Techniques like this, that are a sort of enriched distance learning, can ameliorate those problems to a certain extent," he said.

Larry Arrington, supervisor of technology for Montgomery County Schools, says the rural Montgomery County schools are able to offer advanced courses such as physics only every other year because of the low enrollment at the schools. "This project," he said, "will determine whether students can work collaboratively on projects from different sites. If that's the case, a lot of our work in providing laboratory experiences for students can be done on a collaborative basis. It's possible we can offer honors courses, too."

Arrington says previous partnerships with Virginia Tech have led to a number of advancements in the schools, particularly access to information through high-speed lines. Because of the association with Virginia Tech, he said the schools now have installed four T1 lines and are preparing to install a fifth. Those lines will cover six of the 20 school sites in the county.

"Our partnership also has prompted us to look at high-speed access for other schools in the county," Arrington said. "We are considering putting ISDN lines in all our other schools. This project will give us a unique opportunity to see how high-speed access to the Internet can be used effectively by both urban and rural students. One of our problems in our rural areas is lack of access to information, which is critical to education."

With the NSF grant, the group will draw up a prototype of the program, employ it in the schools, evaluate and study it. The Apple computer company is participating by donating equipment and the time of some of its scientists.

At Virginia Tech, the principle investigators are Carroll, Cliff Shaffer, and Mary Beth Rosson in computer science and John Burton in teaching and learning. Arrington represents the Montgomery County Schools.

The actual project will begin in January. This fall, however, Shaffer is directing students working on virtual reality that will be incorporated in the project. Carroll is directing students who are building MUDS. Carroll hopes the programs his students are building in his class will become part of the Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV) and will supplement BEV's already outstanding communication of information by broadening the educational discourse in the county.

"Participation of the teachers in the conception and design of the software is critical," Carroll said. "A lot of work fails because it is inspired by and driven by technological opportunity and not synchronized with educational needs and possibilities."

Besides teacher participation from the inception, the project also provides for ethnographic evaluation of the students--not just standard test scores, but a measurement of such things as the collaborative dynamics and social development in the classroom.

Four public-school teachers, supervised by Arrington, will be part of the technical staff. Also, Carroll hopes to get physics students in the eleventh grade to interact with physical-science students in the middle schools.

"It's known that kids who are just a few years older than other kids are often better coaches than adults are," Carroll said. "That kind of peer communication level can make a connection."