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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

to CHCI fund MUD for BEV

By Sally Harris

Spectrum Volume 21 Issue 09 - October 22, 1998

Although community involvement in public-school systems is critical for the success of those systems, community involvement nationally is declining. However, a recently funded program at Virginia Tech may provide crucial research and intervention to increase community participation.
The Hitachi Foundation, though its Role of Information Technology in Education Initiative, has awarded a $99,656 grant to the Center for Human Computer Interaction for its project called Facilitating the Community as a Learning Community, which will expand and improve the Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV) community network. The project's goal is "to improve the current network model with respect to the quality and range of community involvement in K-12 education," according to John Carroll, professor and one of the principal investigators along with Professor Mary Beth Rosson. Partner organizations include the Town of Blacksburg, the BEV Seniors, the Montgomery-Floyd Public Library, and the Montgomery County Public School System.
The researchers will implement a web-based multi-user domain (MUD) for accessing the hypertext information of the BEV, including web projects created by K-12 students. MUD's allow thousands of computer users to interact simultaneously and get immediate responses. BEV has not yet developed a broad-based real-time communication framework, Carroll said. The project will develop, implement, and investigate educational activities that involve real-time collaboration with community members and activities that engage citizens on matters of community interest.
The new project expands the on-going Learning in a Neworked Community (LiNC) Project in the direction of building information-technology infrastructure to support community involvement in the public-school system.
High-school students and teachers will interact with university faculty members and students, private- and public-sector experts, community members, parents, and students and teachers in other schools. Blacksburg will use the MUD to elicit broader citizen participation and comment than occurs through in-person town meetings. Activities include community planning sessions, software design and testing, teacher training, use analysis, troubleshooting, and a sophisticated evaluation.
"The MUD will model the actual layout of Blacksburg," Carroll said. "The rooms of the MUD will correspond to buildings, parks, classrooms, and other locations. As community members visit locations in the MUD, associated images will be displayed in their web browsers."
For example, Carroll said, when community members visit Town Hall in the MUD, they will see the town's web pages. Unlike in the standard web paradigm, users also will be able to encounter and interact with others who are currently visiting that same location in the MUD. "Thus, community members will be able to `go' to the local schools' web sites, view student web projects, and discuss the projects with the students, teachers, and others visiting that classroom in the MUD," Carroll said. "This capability will facilitate new kinds of community involvement in school activities, such as remote mentoring and continuous virtual science fairs."
The Hitachi program was extremely competitive, Carroll said, with 811 initial proposals. In the second round, 90 groups competed. In the end, Hitachi funded 13 projects.
"The key to our success was a wonderful site visit that included a variety of participants," Carroll said. Carroll, Rosson, and Director of Development, Research and Graduate Studies John O'Neil presented an overview of community and university efforts and goals.
Graduate students Craig Ganoe, Philip Isenhour, Dennis Neale, and Craig Struble demonstrated two software systems and described on-going research to further develop and evaluate the utility of computer support for community cooperation. The group also met with school Superintendent Fred Morton.
The grant is part of the Hitachi Foundation's $1.2-million Role of Information Technology in Education initiative launched in 1997 to challenge and expand the current boundaries that define teaching and learning.
"While as a country we've been placing computers in classrooms for years," said Barbara Dyer, Hitachi Foundation president, "we are only beginning to see their potential for transforming what happens in the classroom. These projects will help us reveal and better understand that potential."