Thursday, 24th April 2014

Computer Learning Networks and Distance Team-Teaching

Posted on 02. Feb, 2010 in Communication & Consumer Technology, Educational Resources

As with other simple but powerful educational strategies, it
is far easier to describe what distance team-teaching
partnerships tare notu than it is to come up with an invariable
definition of what they are. Team-teaching partnerships between
two distant classes are definitely tnotu student-to-student
“penpal” projects, but rather are class-to-class collaborations.
And while there are no hard and fast rules for organizing a
team-teaching partnership between teachers in two schools, we
can expect that in a typical partnership –as a bare minimum–
two teachers will plan identical short-term projects in both
their classes and, as a culminating joint activity, each teacher
will exchange her students’ work with the distant partner class,
allowing both groups to compare and contrast their efforts.
Indeed, these basic elements are common to every one of the
hundreds of documented cases of distance team-teaching projects
over the last seven decades. For, like many simple yet
powerful classroom strategies, these distant collaborations are
perennial, with deep grassroots origins and a long history which
began before microcomputers were dreamed of (Sayers, 1990).

Another recurring feature of distance team-teaching is the
extraordinary impetus it provides for teachers to become
involved with classroom technologies of all kinds. For from the
moment distance is introduced into the teaching equation,
students and teachers are required to rely more heavily on
educational technology as a tcultural amplifieru in their
efforts to “turn up the volume” in their dialogue with a distant
partner class, in order to compensate for the inevitable
distortions introduced as messages crossed time, space and
cultures. Students’ written communications became more
meaningful to their faraway colleagues when supplemented by
audiovisual media, and often mixed media.

Finally, nearly every distance team-teaching partnership
creates what may be termed a “network for intercultural
learning.” The very fact of having a partnership with a distant
class encourages local students to look more closely at their
own community and at the multiple perspectives that may be found
right before their eyes, within their own class and school and
in their neighborhoods. As these students complete projects with
their distant classmates, they will develop important insights
into how reading and writing can mediate intercultural
communication. Moreover, If they are using word processors to
polish their writing, and if they finally share their projects
using computer-based communications systems, these students will
also be building important technological skills while they
engage in intercultural learning.

tOrillas: An intercultural distance team-teaching networku
The classroom teachers who participate in the tOrillasu teacher
partnership network, which the author has helped coordinate
since 1985, make use of telectronic mailu and tcomputer-based
conferencingu to plan and implement joint educational projects
between their distant classes, and to “electronically publish”
their students’ collaborative work. tOrillasu offers an
interesting case in point of a contemporary intercultural
learning network that weds the traditions behind decades of
long-distance team-teaching with the multi-faceted possibilities
presented to educators by modern communications technology.

tOrillasu team-teaching partnerships are multilingual (in
Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, English, Japanese, Portuguese,
Spanish) and multinational (with schools in Puerto Rico, Quebec,
and the United States, but also in English-speaking Canada,
Costa Rica, France, Japan, and Mexico). tOrillasu has been
described as an exemplary curricular project for bilingual
education programs (Cummins 1986; Cummins & Sayers 1990), adult
literacy programs (Sayers & Brown, in press), English as a
Second Language programs (Cazden 1985), foreign language
programs (Willetts 1989), and writing programs (Figueroa 1988).
The network was also cited as a noteworthy project for
linguistic minority students by the U.S. Congress Office of
Technology Assessment (Roberts & staff, 1987). Finally, DeVillar
and Faltis in tComputers and Cultural Diversityu (1991) judged
tOrillasu “certainly one of the more, if not the most, innovative
and pedagogically complete computer-supported writing projects
involving students across distances” (p. 116).

tOrillasu has always been concerned to seek low-cost
alternatives to electronic networking, thus making intercultural
learning more accessible to a wider range of teachers whether
from urban or rural areas, and regardless of whether their
classes are located in industrialized or developing countries.
Presently, most tOrillasu teachers pay nothing to send and receive
electronic messages to fellow educators in 40 countries, aside
from the initial start-up costs of purchasing a modem to connect
one of their school’s computers to a telephone line. This
low-cost approach to intercultural communication is made
possible by the linking –underwritten by the National Science
Foundation– of two computer networks: FrEdMail (Free
Educational Electronic Mail) and the Internet.

For years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has
advocated that universities should provide K-12 teachers with
greater access to campus computers as the nation moves toward
building its new “Information Superhighway.” To this end, in
1989, NSF awarded a two-year grant toward the development of a
mechanism –the NSF Internet Gateway– for greater access of
public school teachers to university computing. To launch this
initiative, NSF chose the largest existing K-12 telecomputing
network, FrEdMail, upon which to build its ambitious outreach
strategy. FrEdMail is a confederation of several hundred
electronic bulletin board systems (BBSs) in over 150 school
districts across the country and in several nations. During the
day, teachers leave messages for distant colleagues on one of
these electronic message systems and at night, when telephone
rates are low, the BBS’s call one another and pass messages
along to their ultimate destinations. However, this grass-roots
approach limited the international scope of FrEdMail.

The NSF Internet Gateway built upon the informal FrEdMail
system, making it much more flexible and far reaching, and
further reducing –indeed, in most cases, eliminating– the
costs of exchanging “email” (electronic mail) between teachers
over long distances. The NSF strategy was simple: key regional
FrEdMail BBS’s were identified that were located close to
universities. Under the coordination of Al Rogers (FrEdMail’s
founder and one of ten innovators named by tElectronic Learningu
magazine as “Computer Educators of the Decade”), these BBS’s
were specially configured to serve as gateways, that is, they
were programmed to pass teachers’ email messages into the local
university’s mainframe computer, where the messages could then
be delivered for free to any one of thousands of other
university computers in dozens of countries all connected by the
Internet (often termed the “network of networks”). Thus, once
these NSF Gateways were established, tOrillasu teachers and other
public school educators were able to route their messages
through the closest gateways, eliminating costs for most
teachers to participate in long-distance curricular projects.

The remainder of this article will consider the day-to-day
logistics of establishing and maintaining an effective
team-teaching partnership, with a special focus on the role of
telecommunications in implementing successful distance learning
projects. As we shall see, teacher partnerships (a) begin with a
firm commitment between two teachers, (b) are inaugurated with
an exchange of culture packages, and (c) culminate in some
identical curricular activity in both classes, which is then
shared with distant partner “classmates.”

tGetting Started Right (endnote #1)u

There is a saying in English, “Well begun is half done”. This
is nowhere truer than in the planning and in the initiation of
effective team-teaching partnerships. Three elements are
especially critical in getting off to a good start.

First, the commitment of both teachers is decisive. Finding a
partner teacher is easily enough accomplished. Many effective
partnerships begin when two teachers from neighboring
communities who already know each other agree to work together,
or when two teachers meet at a conference and plan to engage in
joint curricular projects. Other teachers prefer to contact a
“Partner Teacher Clearinghouse” like tOrillasu –reachable at its
Internet address ( or by phone
(212/998-5485)– to help locate a class in another state or
country to work with.

Yet in every case, the key word is tcommitmentu: perhaps the
most critical element in long-distance team-teaching is the
quality of the working relationship between the two partner
teachers who are determined to meet their mutually agreed upon
goals. For while a team-teaching partnership may prove a simple
yet effective context for learning, it can only produce results
if the partner teachers honor the commitment they have made to
work together. When both teachers keep their commitment, there
are few strategies that are more exciting and rewarding; if not,
the results will be measured in the frustration and
disappointment of students in both classes.

Second, before launching a team-teaching project between
their two classes, teachers usually find it helpful to exchange
what have come to be known as “Culture Packages,” which serve to
to break the ice and establish a common point of reference
between distant classes by exchanging a “group self-portrait”.
Culture Packages are envelopes or small boxes filled with
student autobiographies, maps, photographs, audio and
videotapes, student artwork, and other memorabilia from the
school and the community such as postcards, school newspapers
and exemplary student work. As school and community
“self-portraits” are shared, partner classes begin to compare
and contrast their communities and world views, so often taken
for granted. In this way, critical thinking skills are developed
that are rooted in students’ daily lives in their families,
their school and their community.

The day that a Culture Package arrives is an exciting day in
any partner class. As a rule, everything else stops in the
classroom as the teacher and students prepare to discover the
contents of the Culture Package. Yet students’ natural
enthusiasm when opening the package can be channeled by teachers
to further magnify the learning experience. This takes careful
timing and a commitment by the teachers to provide relevant and
timely feedback to one another. For example, it is usually best
if the two teachers agree to mail the Culture Packages on the
same date, rather than one class sending a Package and then
waiting for the partner class to send theirs (a “waiting game”
that is certain to prove frustrating). Also, the sending class
can help the receiving class maximize the impact of the Culture
Package by including a detailed “packing slip”. This packing
slip can add a fascinating dimension to receiving a Culture
Package. On the packing slip the sending teacher should indicate
her class’s rationale for selecting each item; for instance, the
sending class might include these annotations for the receiving

tITEMu: Photographs of the students. WHY WE THOUGHT YOU WOULD
BE INTERESTED: In this album you’ll find a photo of each of
the students in our class. Each student brought in a photo
from home so that you can see where they live, a vacation
they took, or other family members.

This audio tape is really an oral “group letter” describing a
typical day at our school. As a class we discussed what we
wanted to tell you, planned out in what order the students
would speak, practiced our speeches and THEN recorded it. We
wanted it to sound nice, like a radio show!

created this video to illustrate give you an idea of what our
community is like. So we all took a stroll through the
neighborhood that ended with us walking into our school and
up the steps to our classroom. We hope you get a feel for
where we live and study.

INTERESTED: Six of the students in our class are also in the
journalism club and worked on this edition of the school
newspaper. The editorial about the school dress code was
written by Gustavo and addresses an issue that has been very
controversial here. A group of parents have been trying to
discourage gang activity by getting the school to adopt a
school uniform.

The receiving teacher can use this packing slip to shape her
class’s discussion as the contents of the Culture Package are
revealed, item by item.

The first impulse upon opening a Culture Package is to
immediately display its contents. However, before exhibiting the
Culture Package, it is very helpful for the receiving teacher to
take a few moments and jot down notes of her students’ reactions
to the items in the Culture Package. She can ask her students to
respond to such key topics as “What we liked best or found most
interesting about the package you sent us”, “Questions we have
after receiving your package”, and “Things about your class,
your school and your community that we would like to know more
about”, all topics of tremendous interest to the sending class.
It is very important to timmediatelyu mail these questions and
comments tby return postu to the distant partner class. The
receiving teacher’s notes will offer invaluable feedback to the
students who sent the Culture Package, and will stimulate these
students to develop a more critical awareness of their school
and community.

Third, after exchanging Culture Packages, it is important to
begin immediately on a team-teaching project that extends the
curriculum in both of the teachers’ classes, a project that can
be completed by a specified date, usually before the end of each
semester. The most effective team-teaching projects are those
which make sense in tbothu classes. Obviously, as teachers
negotiate the design of their joint project, they will need to
communicate constantly, sounding out ideas, refining
suggestions, setting deadlines, and ultimately putting their
plans into practice.

This is where telecommunications –electronic mail and
computer conferencing– can play a vital role. Of course, it is
inevitable that each partner teacher will have different
curricular goals; for example, one teacher may be teaching ESL
through the social studies content-area with a unit on Families
while her partner might have a math/science unit on Mapping. Yet
if they have access to an open line of communication such as
electronic mail, these teachers can plan a common activity in
such a way that both their curricular goals are achieved and
extended. For example, students in both classes could ask
parents for their birthplaces, and could then translate this
information according to a common format such as:

My name is Waleed Graham. I was born at Latitude: 43N,
Longitude: 73W. My mother was born at Lat 43N, Long 73W. My
father was born at Lat 23N, Long 83W. Here is some more
information about my family tree:

My mother’s mother’s birthplace was Lat 17N, Long 78W.
My mother’s father’s birthplace was Lat 17N, Long 78W.
My father’s mother’s birthplace was Lat 20N, Long 77W.
My father’s father’s birthplace was Lat 22N, Long 80W.

The partner classes could then exchange the paragraphs they have
written. Such an activity could lead to interesting and
provocative discussions in both partner classes on immigration
and family mobility; in the instance above, the student’s family
tree reveals much about Caribbean history and migration to New
York. The key point in this example is that both teachers have
designed a “do-able” team-teaching project in a way which
complements, extends and enriches each of their tpre-existingu
curricular units.

tThree of the Most Common Team-Teaching Projectsu
Partner teachers generally undertake one of three types of
curricular projects: (1) shared student journalism and
publishing; (2) comparative investigations, including dual
community surveys, joint science investigations, and contrastive
geography projects; and (3) both traditional and modern folklore
compendia, extending from oral histories and collections of
proverbs to folk rhymes and riddles, lullabies and game songs,
as well as fables and folktales.

(1) tShared Student Publicationsu. Classroom journalism and
publishing are among the most common team-teaching projects.
This is probably because student newspapers and magazines are a
flexible format into which virtually any type of writing growing
out of a curricular project can “fit”. Also, everyone in a
student journalism project has clearly defined roles. Students
are “reporters” when they write articles for local newsletters;
“editors” while revising and polishing their writing; and
“correspondents” when they send finished articles for inclusion
in the school newspaper produced by their distant partner class.
Every element of classroom technology also has a clearly
defined, familiar function; for example, computers become
typesetters or teletypes at various stages of the editorial
process. If teachers wish to take full advantage of the daily
give-and-take that electronic mail makes possible, two partner
classes decide to plan and publish a single newsletter by
establishing a “joint editorial board.” Students from both
classes form a panel to make the innumerable decisions which go
into a successful journalistic product, ranging from the title
of the newspaper and the topics that reporters will cover in
both classes, to the final stages of production involving
artwork, layout and printing. This project can be enriched by
inviting reporters and editors from community newspapers to
offer professional advice to students, and by organizing field
trips to local newspaper offices.

(2) tComparative Investigationsu. The second type of
team-teaching project can take many forms, but one of the most
popular and illustrative is the “comparative community survey”.
Here, the partner classes pick a theme of common interest. This
theme is usually a controversial one that confronts and
challenges the students’ respective communities (for example,
homelessness, drug abuse, deforestation, or the depletion of the
ozone layer). The classes nominate and together evaluate various
items for inclusion in a joint community survey that taps public
opinion on their chosen theme. Items are selected which provide
both quantifiable data and open-ended reactions. When the survey
is completed, the partner class teachers help students to
analyze the results and to craft a report on their community’s
stance toward the controversial theme. These reports are then
shared between partner classes. The spirit of the comparative
community survey is to “Think Globally and Act Locally”, and the
project often leads to joint community actions initiated by
teachers and students. Throughout this type of project, students
and teachers make constant use of electronic mail to coordinate
actions in both classes as they shape their collaborative

The goal of this activity, like other comparative
investigations, is to develop students’ critical inquiry skills.
As community “self-portraits” are shared, partner classes begin
to compare and contrast their communities and world views, so
often taken for granted. This same impulse drives other
team-teaching projects which fall under this category, such as
joint science investigations and contrastive geography projects.

(3) tFolklore Compendiums and Oral Historiesu. In the third
category of team-teaching projects are collections of folklore
and community narratives. These projects can involve numerous
distant classes, not only two partner classes, since the more
wide-ranging and diverse the participation, the richer the final
product. There is no lack of folklore material to investigate
locally, and then to share, compare and contrast with a faraway
partner class or with dozens of other classes in the tOrillasu
network: proverbs and the fables with which they are often
associated; folk games, riddles and rhymes; traditional
folktales; even lullabies and folksongs.

An especially important outcome of folklore studies is that
students come to view their parents and relatives as vital
sources of valued cultural knowledge. Folklore studies often
lead to more sophisticated oral history projects, in which
students conduct more extensive, formal interviews with their
peers or elders on themes relating to community history. Thus,
this category of team-teaching project is perhaps unique in its
use of high technology and modern communications networks, but
with the homespun goal of sparking students’ involvement with
oral traditions that span generations of family and community
history, traditions which might otherwise vanish.


Through sharing Culture Packages and Team-Teaching Projects
tbetweenu distant classes, _Orillas_ provides students with
diverse opportunities to display and share their changing
linguistic competencies and varied cultural experiences twithinu
their classrooms, thus fostering genuine second language
learning and authentic “cross-cultural” knowledge. These are the
skills necessary for creating and sustaining learning
communities capable of confronting the social, cultural, and
ecological challenges of the coming years — that is, the sort
of learning communities that have deep local roots in the
community tas well asu an extensive global reach.

Cazden, C. (1985, April). The ESL teacher as advocate. Plenary
presentation to the TESOL Conference, New York.

Cummins, J. (1986). Cultures in contact: Using classroom
microcomputers for cultural exchange and reinforcement. tTESL
Canada Journal/Revue TESL du Canada. 3u (2), 13-31.

Cummins, J. & Sayers, D. (1990). Education 2001: Learning
networks and educational reform. In C. Faltis & R. DeVillar
(Eds.) tLanguage minority students and computers, Special
Edition, Computers and the Schools, 7u 1-2), 1-29.

DeVillar, R. & Faltis, C. (1991). tComputers and cultural
diversity: Restructuring for school success.u Albany NY; State
University of New York Press.

Figueroa, E. (1988). Efectos del adiestramiento en redaccion
computadorizada en las actitudes del personal de Tecnologia
Educativa (DIP) hacia la ense$anza de la redaccion.
Unpublished typescript for Masters Degree coursework,
University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico.

Roberts, Linda & staff. (1987). tTrends and status of computers
in schools: Use in Chapter 1 programs and use with limited
English proficient students.u Washington: US Congress Office
of Technology Assessment.

Sayers, Dennis. (1990). tInterscholastic correspondence exchanges
in Celestin Freinet’s Modern School Movement: Implications
for computer-mediated student writing networks.u Keynote
Address, November 17, 1990. First North American Freinet
Congress, St. Catharines, Ontario.

Sayers, D. & Brown, K. (In press). Putting a human face on
educational technology: Intergenerational bilingual literacy
through parent-child partnerships in long-distance networks.
In David Spener (Ed.), tAdult biliteracy in the United States:
A National Clearinghouse for Literacy Education Forum.u
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Willetts, K. (1989). Computer networking applications. tAthelstan
Newsletter on Technology and Language, 2u (2), 1, 2, 3, 10.


(1) Many of the suggested activities described in this section
are drawn, in edited form, from orientation materials authored
or co-authored by Kristin Brown, Enid Figueroa and Dennis
Sayers, coordinators of the tOrillasu teacher partnership network.
As this network has focused on K-12 educators in bilingual and
ESOL programs, the examples provided are drawn from these

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