A trip along the Piccadilly on-Line

February 12, 1999

Catherine Scott describes an experiment in thought transfer between British and American young people

My students at the University of North London recently took part in an experiment in online group working with fellow students at the Richmond American International University in London. The experience was fascinating.

As the universities were close there was no time-zone problem. But we were able to expose students to British and United States higher education, with their differences in term dates, graded versus marked assignments, faculty versus lecturer status, and student culture.

We decided that they should work in teams of two students from each institution so that the collaboration included both face-to-face and remote partners.

The online environment we chose was WebCT, a password-accessible web-based suite of facilities designed to provide a set of digital learning "spaces", such as course notes, bulletin board and student presentation areas.

The students were originally very excited. They accepted with alacrity the principle of working remotely with someone who in reality was only at the other end of the tube line. They agreed to avoid the temptation of meeting or using the telephone in favour of a genuine online partnership. We were only aware of one Leicester Square assignation and that was not arranged for work purposes.

Students were encouraged to find partners by using the bulletin board to post mini-biographies of themselves, their ethnic and linguistic background and their academic interests.

To our horror, a number of these postings were along the lines of: "Hi, I am 22, with long blonde hair, new to London and interested in hitting the club scene, does anyone want to be my partner in this assignment?'' Needless to say, stricter guidance on what is and is not appropriate for inclusion in such an on-line CV will be offered to the next students taking the course.

Each team was given its own closed bulletin board (or chatroom) to work on the collaborative task. This was to critique one or more websites of relevance to their studies and post up a web-based review that would be accessible to all 120 students in the project.

One of the underlying purposes was to develop a similar set of analytical and critical skills for internet materials as other academic work develops for paper-based resources.

One of the unanticipated outcomes was the sheer scale of it: in the space of the three to four weeks when students were discussing this work online, over 1,400 messages were posted into the various bulletin boards.

Our original intention to assess students' individual contributions to the group report by monitoring their participation online was suddenly totally impractical. We had to recognise that these virtual interactions were the equivalent of students chatting together in the cafe, the library or elsewhere in real life.

As such, they were no concern of ours. We marked the final posted assignment, just as we would mark conventional paper assignments produced by a team.

The set of web reviews that resulted from this experimental collaboration were a fascinating mix, ranging from political analyses of contrasting online campaigns to support Cuba, to helpful descriptions of online learning sites for poetry study, to the cultural significance of bull-fighting in Spain as represented on the web, to consideration of interracial voices and other under-represented groups on the web.

These critiques may now provide the first tranche of a student-generated collection of useful web reviews for incoming students.

They may also become part of a student's portfolio of work online to be incorporated into an internet CV, as the concept of lifelong capability-based learning develops. In any case, the trial was deemed to be extremely successful: students will continue to work collaboratively online on these courses.

Further potential partner institutions have so far been identified in Maryland and Hawaii, so the draw of the Piccadilly Line will no longer be a problem. The internet will be the only communication tool.

Catherine Scott is course tutor in computers, text and language, University of North London.


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