CMC and the Online Classroom: Vol 1 Chapter 5

Cover of CMC Book

Volume One: Computer-Mediated Communication and the Online Classroom: Overview and Perspectives

Editors: Dr. Zane L. Berge &
Dr. Mauri P. Collins

Chapter 5: CMC and the Educationally Disabled Student
Anne Pemberton: Nottoway High School, Nottoway, VA
Robert Zenhausern: St. John’s University

The Americans with Disability Act was initiated to ensure the rights of the handicapped with respect to access, employment, education, and all those amenities less-challenged individuals take for granted. People with physical or sensory impairment have made substantial gains both in terms of the physical environment and accommodations in employment and, most pointedly, in education. The child with visual problems, for example, is given a rehabilitation approach to problems involving vision; alternative sensory input are provided (braille, talking books, etc.). This is in marked contrast to services provided to children with educational disabilities. Educational disabilities is a broad term that encompasses children who are labeled mentally retarded, learning disabled, emotionally disturbed, autistic, and all those myriads of disorders that fall under the name “developmental disability”. Individuals with educational disabilities are unfortunately often treated as though they were responsible for the disability. They are told to: “Work harder,” “Pay attention,” “Stop being lazy.” Blind children are not given drills in how to see, but the child with an educational disability is given practice in precisely what he or she cannot do, which is called “remediation.”

This chapter explores the use of computer networking as a rehabilitation technique for children with educational disabilities. The initial use of computers for students with special needs focused on drill and practice. The game formats, graphics, song and dance, and the novelty of the computer were all used to disguise the fact that the students were getting electronic ditto worksheets. The goal of such software was to improve basic skills through repetition with the hope that it generalized to other situations, such as tests. This is the inherent structure of remediation.

The rehabilitation aspects of computers began with the introduction of word processing, spell- and grammar-checkers, and speech synthesizers. Educationally disabled students can depend on the computer for basic techniques so they are free to concentrate on the content. Computer-mediated communication (CMC) becomes the natural next step, opening a wide variety of content to students. Students are not just learning computer literacy but are becoming truly computer literate.

The chapter contains three sections. The first section shows how CMC can be used with educationally disabled adolescents to provide basic computer literacy, motivational reading, writing, and thinking activities, and an introduction to the world. Actual classroom situations that have arisen over the past two years as a result of CMC activities are summarized. The second section shows how the special education teacher can use CMC to address professional needs. Experiences are drawn from the archives of a series of Listserv discussion groups located at St. John’s University in New York City and the online experiences of educationally disabled adolescents in a high school in rural Virginia. The final section includes tips for teachers and lists of available online resources specific to the needs of special education.

Students and E-mail
Class starts on an exciting note when one of the young men in my class bursts into the room bearing a treasured missive from the most beautiful girl in the school. Whatever the planned lesson, it won’t begin until the whole gang helps decode each and every precious word.

E-mail correspondence has the same sense of reality as a note from a pretty girl. The following e-mail anecdotes were saved from the correspondence generated by several classes of students identified as “learning disabled” (LD) or “mildly mentally retarded” (MMR). Several students with sensory or physical impairments, in addition to the educational disability, also participated. These students attend a small high school nestled among the tobacco fields and dairy farms in southside Virginia.

Students were given class accounts on Virginia’s PEN network and access through a single computer with modem in their classroom early in 1992, and one day a week was set aside in their English classes for the online activities. The following gives a flavor of the interactions that arose from this correspondence. E-mail correspondence was successful in broadening the horizons for these students, but one unique type of interaction involved a group exchange with an interesting “expert” that allowed the whole class to contribute to a single reply.

One class corresponded with an educational philosophy PhD candidate, J.C., who wondered if emotions could be transmitted in such a coldly technical medium. It happened that he had to have surgery and the following notes were sent before and after that occasion.

Date: Thu, 24 Sep 92 12:19:10 EDT

Dear John
I hope you come out good with your surgery. Tell if it hurt? Tell us about it when you get out. Are you scared? T said don’t worry it will only hurt for a little while. Im sorry to hear that you are going into the hospital I hope everything will come out all right. I will say a prayer for you tonight. Please write us to let us know how things came out. We all love you so take care and keep in touch.

Love ya!

Mrs Pemberton’s class.

Date: Fri, 25 Sep 92 12:26:26 EDT

Dear John
We are glad to hear from you. Im glad things worked out for you. My brother is going to have the same thing when he gets older. I asked my mom what operation it is and she told me. I’m really glad things came out great for you. I’m looking forward to hearing from you again.
Take care and keep in touch. WE LOVE YOU!
M and class.

Students who participate in these correspondences have become proficient in keeping up with their e-mail. At first, messages were stiff, barely answering direct questions with single words and simple sentences. Over time, not only has the complexity of text increased, but a certain writing style has also developed as the students pooled their knowledge of the mechanics of CMC and tried to apply it all to whichever one of them was writing for all at the keyboard.

CMC provides a variation on the Pen-Pal theme in which the delays between messages can be measured in days rather than weeks. One unique forum for PenPals is the BITnet discussion list BICOMPAL@sjuvm.bitnet (Big Computer Pals), which is an international project linking disabled individuals through computer networking. The goal of BICOMPAL is to develop student-mentor relationships between individuals with various disabilities. It serves as the “personals” file in which potential Pals can leave messages about themselves and describe the characteristics of those with whom they would like to communicate.

One of the earliest stories on the list involved N.N. who was described as a 16-year-old part-Cherokee LD student good with his hands and already in trouble with the law. For a few months CMC caught his imagination, and he enjoyed reading and writing and took pride in doing it well. He wrote to a shop teacher in Australia:

The weather here is cloudy today. We have all kinds of weather here. Do you have any favorite singer? How long have you been teaching? Why did you decide to teach?  I am making picnic tables in the shop class. What are you making in your shop?  Well I have to go now.

Getting a bit braver, he decided to send a picture of himself to an interesting young woman in grad school who went skiing on weekends.

I am 16 years old. I do like snow but we dont get much here. What does your name mean? I like to work. What do you look like?

For emotionally disturbed fourth graders in New York City, the improvements began after a mere two weeks of computer networking. Students improved word spacing, spelling, punctuation, and format; and students changed their perceptions of themselves. One child wrote that he had hit his teacher. The responses to this were sympathetic, and the child responded that he felt bad that he did it. This did not seem unusual until his teacher told everyone that this was the first time the child had expressed any remorse for his actions.

In addition to these general e-mail messages, some very special relationships emerged that were very close to the concept of a resident tutor. Dr. Zenhausern corresponded with a class who called themselves “The Computer Heads.” He helped them explore their own thinking styles and taught them some neuropsychological generalities. The following illustrates how these learning disabled students applied what he had taught:

Date: Thu, 19 Mar 92 13:12:40 EST

dear dr.z,

In class on Tuesday we wrote directions off of maps. Mrs. P gave us 2 cities in VA and the map of VA told us to write the directions to go from one to the other. Then she told us to give left brain directions to go from one to the other. She read us your left brain directions as an example. L. has the best left brain directions and O. has the worst. We decided that because L. has the most words in hers and O. has the least.

bye for now

The computer heads.

The CHATBACK List initiated a resident tutor program under the name Far Star. The Far Star Project spun the tale that a spaceship of curious but friendly aliens had tapped into the Internet and wanted the participant students to describe themselves, where they lived, and some aspects of their society. Some of the postings were individual responses to all the questions, and some were class group responses to a single question.

A small group of learning disabled and mildly retarded seniors attempted to explain to the aliens the significance of the colors of Earth seen from the spaceship in the flyover. After a few false starts, and lots of discussion on what the aliens would already know, the group posted the following:

When you fly by the planet across the top that we call the north pole, you will see two pieces of land that we call continents one is big and one is small. The small one is called North America. We live on North America. At the top of North America you will see white. You are looking at Canada which is white because it is winter and it is cold. Below the white you will see green that is the United States. That is the color of the trees, and grass. Half way down the United States you will see Virginia. Look to your right until the green touches the blue of the water, and you will be looking at Virginia. Nottoway County is about 130 miles from the water among the trees.

A class of 11th graders, who called their class group “The Educated Brains” in their online signature, replied to the question of how we are “programmed”:

You wanted to know if we are all equally intelligent. And how we are programmed, and who decides what our program will be. We are not all equally intelligent. Some people can think better than others. Some people can talk better than others. Some people can remember better than others. Some people can read better than others. Some people can write better than others. Some people go to college and some people can’t go to college. Some people can learn better than others.

We decide ourselves what we learn. Some people help us decide what we learn. Those people are teachers, parents, friends, guidance counselors help some times, governments, principal, and the man up stairs.

A class of 10th graders with notoriety as rebels chose to answer the question of whether there is “violence” on our planet. Only the opportunity to think about and explain such an “irreverent” topic induced them to get into the discussion and writing of this reply:

We are answering question number five. You want to know why we have violence on this planet. We have violence on this planet because we don`t like each other. We fight over property, we fight over girls, we fight for peace, we fight for freedom, and some of us don`t fight.

We stop fighting when someone wins or someone dies or someone gets hurt or we blow up the earth. We might stop fighting if people could learn to keep their big mouths shut.

The youngest participants accepted that the aliens were real, and the adolescents wrote tongue-in-cheek, but kids in the upper elementary/middle school grades were undecided. Toward the end of the project one such group from Ohio shared their disbelief with a similar group in Germany. They explored whether or not their teachers were writing the “alien” posts and whether one of the aliens would actually appear in their school when summoned. Enter Zman, Student of the Aliens, with an assignment from his teachers to find out if the children were “real.” If the children would just explain to him how they think, he could determine if they were real or made up by *his* teachers!! After Zman finished his assignment, with the help of his curious friends, the spaceship flew out of the range of communications. Yet, well into the next school year, every few weeks, a short message appears on TALKBACK with a student asking if Sherose and Ali-Enn and Zman have returned to earth orbit.

Students and Projects

Far Star was one of many projects that have emerged from The Chatback Trust is an organization that was created five years ago in the United Kingdom by Tom Holloway under the aegis of IBM. The purpose of the project is to utilize computer technology in the education of students with special needs. Initially, CHATBACK was limited to Dialcom, an isolated network developed by British Telecommunications with no outlet to the Internet. In 1991, CHATBACK was imported to the United States with the creation of the BITnet Lists CHATBACK@SJUVM and TALKBACK@SJUVM.

The CHATBACK List is reserved for the planners and teachers who use it to develop and evaluate the projects for the children. TALKBACK is the List in which the students post their results for the projects.

The Projects on CHATBACK are many and varied. In addition to Far Star, the Projects during the 1991-1992 school year included Breakfast Game, in which students described what they had for breakfast that day. In the Christmas Food Game, students described what they were going to eat on Christmas (or another December holiday) Day.

Because the participants on CHATBACK are international, activities that require students to write descriptions of their daily life tend to gently raise the cultural consciousness of the students involved. Students in Special Ed English classes in rural Virginia read about half the postings to Christmas Food Game before composing and posting their own anticipated feasts. Several commented on the fact that European children were more likely to mention drinking alcohol than American children. But no one missed the line from Tom Holloway, Director of Chatback, who promised that his Christmas Breakfast would include: “Spotted Dick with Custard Of Course.” The first anticipation for an e-mail response accompanied the wait—to learn that “spotted dick” is a steamed pudding with raisins, in a traditional yule log shape, served with custard.

The school year 1992-1993 brought new CHATBACK projects. Steel, Beans, Games, and Rivers were new BITnet lists that gave a growing number of students an easy way to participate in these creative projects.

Steel is an actual around-the-world yacht race that began in late September 1992 and ended in May 1993 and which was sponsored by the manufacturer of the 10 identical yachts that were competing. Daily postings of latitude and longitude coordinates encouraged students to plot the progress of the race either on printed maps, or on Geoclock, a shareware program of world maps.

One school in Ohio explained how it was using the Steel project in the classroom:

This is what our 5th and 7th are doing with the Steel race. Each person created a tiny ship with the graphic editor of Print Shop. The other grades voted on the 10 best. These 10 were christened with the 10 Steel Race names. The class was divided into 10 groups with each drawing a boat, and each time a posting comes in one of the members of a boat moves that boat to the correct latitude and longitude. The 7th choose to use a globe and the 5th choose to use a World Map.

Many student’s first posts had word-spacing difficulties, frequent spelling errors, little punctuation, incorrect capitalization, and consisted of short, stiff sentences. As replies came in, and students realized there were *real* people out there, they developed pride in their work—enough pride to conquer mechanics. As time and development continued, students developed individual writing styles for their online correspondence.

Professional Needs
The computer networks are not only valuable for the education of the students, but they provide an impetus to professional growth that then can be reflected in the classroom. One advantage of CMC to the special ed teacher as a professional educator is access to the experience and ideas of others in the field. Unlike professional journals, discussion lists and newsgroup participation bring together one teacher with other teachers and with academics.

The ALTLEARN BITnet list features a discussion among the professionals who work with the learning disabled and those with similar educational disabilities. ALTLEARN discusses alternative approaches to learning, particularly those that adapt instruction to the learning style needs of the student. ALTLEARN brings together academics and practitioners in discussions and resource sharing that benefit the students as well as the professionals.

The LD-reading list on the province-wide network in Saskatchewan is one of many online courses available to professionals. Ld-reading pairs a discussion list and a weekly electronic conference to provide technical support for introducing the Direct Access Reading Technique (DART) to teachers at a remote school in central Canada. DART is a reading technique that works for the kids who fall through the cracks in phonics instruction.

Information on specific disabilities is often gleaned through interaction with parents and the adult disabled in a support group. There are several electronic support groups for persons with various disabilities that would be of interest to special educators.

AUTISM List at SJUVM is an electronic support group for children with autism, their parent, and teachers. The list has also become the domain of high-functioning autistic adults who bring their unique and experiential insights to those who now work with children with autism.

The following messages were exchanged by a mother who is autistic and has an autistic daughter and the father of a girl who is autistic. The mother and daughter live in Australia, and the father and daughter live in New York State. This interaction shows the advantage of sharing experiences halfway around the world. The mother wrote about her daughter’s difficulties with social interactions:

When we went on that school excursion to Blackbutt Nature Reserve, during the lunch break the teachers took a small group of children each to play games. As each group followed its teacher to a corner of the playground, H was left standing in the middle of the field on her own. From where I was sitting I could see what the problem was . . . . no one had said “Come with us!” She stood there for about a minute and I was just about to get up and go to her when she turned and came running back to me and buried her head in my shoulder. It turned out that she was convinced that nobody wanted to play with her. I took her over near the group on the pretense that I was going to play with her but as we got close the teacher spotted us and asked H to join in. Without a moment’s hesitation she ran up to the other children and joined in their circle.

The father was able to apply this to his own case:
I think I see the point that you’re trying to make: Helen was not being rejected, just thought she was because no one explicitly asked her to join in. I see that in S too, although there are times she will go over and try to join in. Unfortunately her actions and methods of joining in are different and other people (grownups and kids) don’t understand it and kind of get estranged by it and walk away, assuming my daughter won’t understand, they fail to see she was trying to join in with what they are doing even if it wasn’t the same.

A major topic of discussion on the AUTISM List has been the effectiveness of facilitated communication as a technique of communication for people with autism. (In facilitated communication, a facilitator puts his or her hand on the shoulder, arm, hand, etc., of an autistic person who is answering questions by typing on a keyboard.) The use of facilitated communication was considered from a variety of perspectives, including its effectiveness from an empirical standpoint, the possibilities for abuse, and the almost mystical nature proposed by those from the more extreme fringes.

The computer networks and facilitated communication have been combined at PS 177 in New York City, a school for children with developmental disorders. By means of a grant from NYSERNet (New York State Education and Research Network), a private, not for profit corporation, PS 177 has been given access to the Internet. The children will be able to use facilitated communication techniques in sending messages around the world with the expectation that CMC will serve to amplify the effects of facilitated communication. The project began in January 1993.

Information Retrieval
Sometimes the special educator needs to locate information on a specific topic in a hurry, perhaps to develop an effective program for a student returning to school after an accident, or for a student transferring from another school with an uncommon disability. The teacher needs access to current information without trips across town or across the state to the libraries that may store it. Electronic retrieval tools give teachers access to information stored in libraries around the world. There are more than 4,000 BITnet discussion lists and 2,000 Usenet groups, most of which maintain archives of past postings. A list of some BITnet lists of most interest to special educators is shown in Figure 5.1.

The BITnet lists have a very simple and effective information retrieval system that will allow searches of the archives of any BITnet list, providing an index of the entries or their actual copies. The search can be by key word, author, date, and topic, as well as by any boolean combination. For example, there were two major discussions on attentional deficit disorders on the ALTLEARN list in 1992 and as an example, the following command was sent to

//Scan JOB Echo=Yes

DATABASE SEARCH DD=Data Outlim=5000 Cpulim=999

//Data DD *
Select add or adhd in ALTLEARN since 92/01/01

A sampling of the 390 entries received is shown in Figure 5.2.

Universities are storing dissertations and papers in electronic form. K-12 networks are building archives of curricular and instructional materials. Software, books, and movie reviews are available in electronic form. A satellite TV network publishes its programming in electronic form. Lots of public domain, shareware, and software samples are available electronically. Even the most revered and sacred of paper documents, such as the U.S. Constitution, the laws of the land, the Bible, the Koran, and other religious and secular texts, are available in electronic form. During the 1992 presidential election, the position papers and many of the speeches of the candidates were available in full, in electronic form. Locating this information is as easy as using a word in the document title in a keyword search using the ARCHIE program to find out where the document is stored. The FTP program can then be used to bring the file to the teacher’s computer. (More information on these information management tools can be found in Sudweeks’s chapter, this volume).

Another means of accessing electronic information is with VERONICA and Gopher. Gopher is a menu driven, Internet information and retrieval service developed by the University of Minnesota and named for their mascot, the gopher. VERONICA is a refinement to Gopher and was developed at the University of Nevada, Reno. Like ARCHIE, VERONICA is a keyword search program that searches through the information cataloged on the electronic Gophers and creates a custom menu on the users screen to aid in the retrieval of the desired information. The Gophers are menus of documents, files, and such related to a specific topic. In January 1993, there were about 300 registered Gophers and many more under development. One of interest to special educators is the Cornucopia of Disability Information (CODI).

Suggestions for Teachers
The most important consideration is the teacher. A teacher must be an accomplished networker before he or she can run an effective electronic classroom. It is critical to provide the training, time, equipment, and support that the teacher needs to become accomplished. The following suggestions might be useful in initiating your own CMC project.

Standard Security Precautions

  • Do not let students use your account.
  • Never give a student your password (type it in for them if necessary).
  • Always keep the passwords for all student accounts on file.
  • Monitor student accounts frequently. Set accounts to save all outgoing and incoming mail.
  • Maintain a professional correspondence with anyone your students correspond with (or their teachers).
  • Read all incoming and outgoing mail from strangers with students.
  • Discuss Netiquette before getting online the first time.
  • Remind students that rude, racist, sexist, demeaning, abusive, and scatological language or remarks could result in loss of access.

Preparations for the First Experience

  • Activate the student account, set up the password, and set any parameters to make use easier for students
  • Forward some exciting/interesting mail to the student account so they will discover something there and have a reason to write their first e-mail.
  • Provide a seatwork assignment for any students who aren’t interested in the first session. Permit them to change their mind.
  • If available, project the first few session onto a large screen. Point out to students how to read the headers, where to find the body of a message, and the role of the signature file.
  • Put the most hyperactive student at the keyboard for the first session. Tell this student what keys to press, and let the other students watch the results on the screen.

Day-to-Day Activity

  • Rotate the person at the keyboard among all students. Each student should have the opportunity to logon, read incoming mail, and reply or write messages. Don’t let a single student monopolize the keyboard.
  • Students who are shy of the computer should be given very short sessions at the keyboard until they become more com-fortable.
  • Provide students with enough class time to keep up with e-mail responses.
  • Always schedule more time (days per week, especially) for network activities than you expect to need.
  • Always keep an alternate assignment available for times when nets are down.

Choosing Online Projects

  • Start looking for projects before students get online for the first time. Pick some topics that will appeal to the interests and experiences of the students.
  • Study the project thoroughly. Make sure that students will have access to the information to be collected and posted. Make arrangements for any field trips, visitors, and so on, necessary for the project.
  • Forward to the students’ account a description of the project and directions on how to become involved.
  • Let students make the final decision to participate in any online project.
  • Let students read the contributions of others to a project both before and after they upload theirs.
  • Encourage students to keep a hardcopy of their project expe-riences. This can be as simple as a printout of a log of all related files, or as complex as a slick desktop publishing product.

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