Learning with Technology
Communications Community of Practice among Middle School Students: a case study
December 10, 2001
This case study looks at a communications technology community among middle school students in an international school in Japan. For the school profile, the school follows an American curriculum and requires English proficiency for ESOL (English as a Second or Other Language) students. Approximately three-quarters of the 330 students hold United States passports, but many of these students are bicultural. Even so, most interactions among students in the middle school can be viewed as “typically American,” even for the students who are Japanese.
The school’s main clientele are expatriates in Japan who wish to have an American-style education for their children. Although not highly selective, the school only provides support for mild disabilities, and the community is further restricted by the annual cost of tuition, which is over twenty thousand U.S. dollars for the first year of enrollment. Families are mostly corporate transferees, diplomatic personnel of various countries, or military personnel who are stationed at the U.S. Embassy. Most students have their tuition paid by a parent’s place of employment, although there is a significant community of self-payers at the school.
One definition of a community is a “multigenerational group of people, at work or play, whose identities are defined in large part by the roles they play and the relationships they share in that group activity,” (Riel & Polin, in press, pg. 4). Multigenerational denotes the community as existing over time and through different individuals. For a community of practice, Lave & Wenger (1991), use the concept that the participants have common understandings about what they are doing and how it impacts their lives and the communities. Key aspects of a community of practice are: a common cultural and historical heritage, an interdependent system, and a reproduction cycle (Barab & Duffy, 2000).
As at any middle school, a variety of overlapping communities exists among the students, many of which are not obvious to teachers and are passed off as “adolescence.” This study is focused on a community of practice that has formed around using recent technological innovations for interpersonal communication, including email, instant messaging (chat), web journals, and interactive games.
I chose to study the communications community as I had noticed that students had a community that was within the school, but not of the school. During lunch, before and after school, and during free time, students would log on and check or write email, use instant messaging, or play multi-player games. As one of the courses I teach is keyboarding, at the end of class I would often give the students the last five minutes to check email or to use chat services. My initial goal was to help the keyboarding techniques we had been teaching transfer over to other areas of the students’ lives. However, the first thing I noticed is that students would immediately revert back to their original, inefficient ways of keyboarding on chat. Once I got over that shock, I started to notice how students were using instant messaging and email to communicate, and how they were helping each other learn to use other features. It was also obvious that few other teachers were aware of the community that had coalesced among these students.
One of the first issues that had to be resolved was to determine the extent of the communications community of practice. My original thoughts, based on observing students in my classes, were that it consisted of single-grade students, with some cross-grade interaction. To find out, I gave an informal survey, detailed in the appendix, to students in Keyboarding (mostly sixth-grade students) and Multimedia Skills (seventh- and eighth- grade students) classes, as well as to five California students who were collaborating with the Multimedia Skills students. In addition, I also interviewed six students as well as talked informally with students.
The community of practice can extend beyond the confines of the school to family and friends, some of whom are in other schools or other countries. Teachers are only slightly involved with the community and most interactions don’t involve teachers. The community also interacts with other communities, which helps new knowledge to flourish. As with most communities, the boundaries are somewhat fuzzy. For example, are parents really full participants, or are they part of another community interacting peripherally with the communications community? Guided by the definition of Riel & Polin (in press), I’ve chosen to define the community members as students in the middle school, or who actively participate with several middle school students. This community has neighborhoods where students may share a primary activity, games club, for example, but also participate in other parts of the community.
Lave & Wenger (1991) noted “where the circulation of knowledge among peers and near peers is possible, it spreads exceedingly rapidly and effectively” (pg 93). This certainly seems to be the case for email use. Out of fifty-seven students, only four did not have email. When asked where they had learned to use email, fifteen percent chose siblings, nineteen percent chose parents and grandparents, while thirty percent chose friends, but less than five percent selected teachers.
Surprisingly, thirty-two percent selected “Doesn’t Apply”, which presumably indicates they were self-taught although the question may not have had a choice they wanted. (These percentages presume that the four who did not have email selected the “doesn’t apply” choice.) Since some of these autodidactic students were nine or ten at the time they got their first email account, I asked several informally how they got their first account and also asked the question in some of the interviews I conducted. Most said they had seen others using email and had just signed up, although they couldn’t really describe how they knew how to sign up for their first email account. An interview with Mitchell (all names are pseudonyms) did provide some enlightenment. He described watching his mother do instant messaging using MSN Messenger® and noticing that it said “hotmail” in the program. He thought using email would be “neat” because he could then talk with his friends in the United States. He entered “hotmail.com” in his browser, and when it opened he saw the “email” button, clicked it, and figured out how to get the email himself by following the directions. Later, he again saw his mother go into MSN Messenger® and saw that she just put in her Hotmail® address. He tried that and found out he could get into chat.
This incident emphasizes the statement by Lave & Wenger (1991) that “very little teaching is involved, the more basic phenomenon is learning.” (pg 92). Meagan’s story about how she learned to use Neopets® sheds some more light on how children learn to use computer programs from each other. Neopets® is an Internet game site where participants can raise virtual pets and interact with other pet owners. It is very popular with upper elementary school students, particularly with girls. Meagan’s brother Carl had found out how to play Neopets® when he was in fourth grade and Meagan, in fifth grade at the time, saw him playing, wanted to learn, and asked for Carl’s help. As she says, “I got on and I had no clue what to do and he showed me what to do and everything. And he emails his friend using my Mom and Dad's email account and he, my brother’s friend, tells him some cheats and how to work and everything and then Carl tells me.”
The middle school computer lab runs a games club two or three days a week after school and students are also permitted to play games on the computers during their unstructured times. This is the policy of the lab manager, who feels strongly that the socializing and learning while playing games is an important experience for students and equates it to students using their unstructured time to read sports magazines or sit outside and talk.
Although games club is open to all students, girls seldom participate. Students in games club have a selection of games, but the popular games are the multi-player games, such as Starcraft®. These are played in one of the computer rooms during the after school session. As soon as the bell rings at the end of the day, students rush to get the correct CD and start forming teams as they pour into the room. Teachers who have the last class of the day in that room often must remind the students they have to wait until the teacher has finished all class activities before they are allowed in.
As the game starts, students begin calling out directions to their allies as well as making threats against their enemies. These are learned behaviors. Although each grade is assigned to a day, students in other grades can fill in if computers are available. At the first of the year, the lab manager appoints older students, who have demonstrated responsibility, as captains. The captains teach the new sixth graders how to use the game, which only takes a few minutes for the basics. After that, it’s a learning experience for the new students as they find out how fast they can be killed. In this case, engagement in practice is a condition for learning effectiveness, i.e, survival.
The contrast between how students learn technology within a classroom setting, even when encouraged to work with each other to learn, compared to how they do it within their community of practice is striking. Lave & Wenger (1991) note that a teaching curriculum limits learning. With a teaching curriculum, the inherent teacher-learner and learner-learner relations, and the implicit view that the goal is to teach a subject, give rise to a community of practice focused on the practice of those relations and the teaching of a subject. The learning curriculum evolves from this beguiling community of practice rather than evolving from a community that forms around the practice.
This teaching-curriculum-generated community of practice is very evident in the keyboarding classes I teach when we work on production jobs, i.e., producing single page and multi-page jobs to teach word processing and formatting functions. As these classes are required for all new students, they are filled mostly with sixth graders, but they have from one to three seventh or eighth graders who are also new students. In an attempt to get students more involved in the production jobs, I often give directions only once before posting them, along with suggestions on how to use the help files, and then encourage students to work together to solve the problem. I’ve also instituted a policy of “ask three then me” when students are working on such a project—they are to ask three others before asking me. I encourage them to get out of their chairs and walk to the other computers and talk with the students there. My one rule is that they may not touch the mouse or keyboard of another student to perform the task for them.
The results are right in line with what we should expect. Students are happy to talk with each other and ask questions of each other—which proceeds smoothly as long as someone in their vicinity knows the answer. However, once they run up against the limits of existing knowledge of those in their vicinity, which seems to be three or four students, they immediately start asking me questions. Even when encouraged to talk to all of the students in the class, they don’t do so. In particular, the sixth graders don’t ask many questions of the older students, even when I tell them the older student can answer their questions for them. As a result, I fall back on the “ask three then me” rule. I give suggestions for search terms to be used in the help file as it takes a while to get comfortable with the vocabulary. I point out students who I know have solved the part of the problem they are stuck on and suggest they go ask them. I tell them they have used up their question quota for the period. (Yes, I am aware of the inherent irony in this section.)
Although they eventually come to a solution, they do so begrudgingly. Furthermore, the way they help each other stands out. When one student is helping another, the helper has a tendency to take the mouse or keyboard and do the steps in spite of my injunction against it. Other students will remind them that they shouldn’t be doing that, but the reminding seldom comes from the one being helped. When they do talk them through the steps, it seems to be an effort for them to do so.
Contrast all of this behavior with the behavior when students are helping each other get email accounts, learn chat, or learn how to play one of the many multi-user games, such as Starcraft®. In these instances, legitimate peripheral participation holds sway. Often instructions are called out across the room, sometimes by two or three others. If the helper moves over to the computer of the learner, the helping student usually points to the screen and explains where to click or what to enter. The helping student also usually waits to be asked before taking the mouse or keyboard to demonstrate. When everyone is stumped somebody usually figures out how to pull up a help screen to read the directions. The one feature similar to class is the little cross-grade interaction between sixth- and eighth-grade students.
These actions have the effect of reproducing the community, but it isn’t so clear how reproduction occurs so as to be multi-generational. It appears there are three main paths. One path occurs when one member of the community explicitly helps another, newer, younger member. Another path occurs when someone outside the community helps a person become a member of the community. A third path occurs when a person has enough interest in the activity to learn to become a member of the community.
The first path seems to be one of the more obvious. In these cases, one student helps another get an email account, learn instant messaging, or learn a multi-user game. One way for the second path to manifest is when a parent or sibling helps a child set up an email or chat account. Brandt learned to use chat in fifth grade when his older sister helped him get set up. He also said that he learned how to use email from her but that she didn’t help him. That may be closer to the third path to the community. Mitchell’s experience of learning to use email and chat by watching his mother is a clear example of the third path.
As the students are truly engaged in legitimate peripheral participation, there are probably numerous small ways in which the community reproduces that are not yet obvious.
Although the school used to provide email accounts to students, it ceased that practice in 1997 as free email services became widespread. Now, students who wish to have email must get their own email accounts. As email is an accepted use of unstructured time at the middle school, students use it routinely.
Until August of 2001, the Middle School did not have Netscape Instant MessengerSM or MSN Messenger® installed on computers in the computer lab or public computers in the hall. However, it was installed on classroom computers since teachers often let their students download it, and the twelve library computers had it installed. Downloading and installing programs on the other computers was not permitted, although students were allowed to use browser-based instant messaging services, as well as browser-based MUDs (Multi-User Domain) and MOOs (MUD, Object Oriented).
The result was that Netscape Instant MessengerSM or MSN Messenger® were clandestinely installed by students and the lab manager spent a portion of her time chasing down the offenders, chastising or penalizing them, and uninstalling the programs. One of the issues with instant messaging that concerned the lab manager was that students in the computer lab for a class with their teachers would start up instant messaging services and chat with each other while they were supposed to be working on an assignment. A few of the teachers had so little technological knowledge that they did not realize students were, in effect, passing notes right in front of them.
The instant messaging programs were added for the current school year because the technology teachers and lab manager decided that, (1) classroom management is a classroom teacher issue and if the teachers aren’t aware enough to catch the instant messaging use, that is their problem, (2) many students were now using instant messaging because they had it at home, and (c) chasing down instant messaging users who clandestinely installed instant messaging verged on the ridiculous since they were allowed to use it in other parts of the school. The result now is much greater access to the instant messaging technology for the students.
Did the greater access result in greater transparency? It appears to have done so since instant messaging is used routinely and openly. Students in the same room will often connect and chat with each other if they have a few minutes.
Sequestration for newcomers does not appear to be a large issue. Unlike some schools, where students have to demonstrate certain competencies to gain more access to the computers, the middle school gives accounts and short training sessions to all new arrivals. After that, students may use any of the computers as long as they follow the acceptable use policy. Sequestration from the community arising from the fact that these are adolescents is more of an issue, but it is also part of growing up.
However, there are ways new arrivals, as well as existing members, are sequestered. For example, they may be “blocked” by other users who don’t wish to correspond with them. Parents may not allow their child to have an email account or participate in chat. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) in the United States may prevent the conscientious student from obtaining an account as COPPA requires that web sites must have a parent’s permission to provide services to, or collect information from, children under thirteen years of age. (From what I gathered, most students just lied when they wanted an account and didn’t want their parents involved.) Or students may not be skillful enough at the keyboard to participate fully in chat.
The school will also sequester students who have not followed the acceptable use policy by revoking unsupervised computer access privileges or students who have difficulty completing school work will have their unstructured time structured in a study hall or after-school homework center. Assignment to the after-school homework center has the largest effect on games club members as many of those students would choose to play games and socialize rather than completing assignments. (Games club does have one benefit for teachers—they usually can find the boys who are behind in their assignments playing. It’s not unusual for a teacher to “kidnap” a student from games club.)
Within the community, the ones who learn will then teach others. Several times I’ve seen a student ask how to do something, such as, “How do you get those hearts in Messenger?” learn how to do it, and then pass it on when the question is asked again by someone else who heard the original question but didn’t understand the explanation.
New participants often call out for help when learning how to do something special with one of the programs when working in the computer lab. Two or three students will rush to answer, but the learner will turn to the person who gives the clearest instructions if all else is equal. However, if an “expert” is in the room, the student will call for the “expert” by name.
Students who are technologically competent frequently become informal masters. These students learn to give advice by watching others and practicing, as well as building their reputation as ones to be listened to.
Part of the discourse in the community is being able to chat and email using the proper language, although the language varies somewhat depending on subgroups and the medium. “Proper” language would make many a grammarian shudder. “r u going 2” is considered to be a grammatically and syntactically correct sentence for instant messaging. Using punctuation singly is a cause for disdain by some of the students, as is using capitalization.
In games club, a large part of the practice is discourse, where being able to make threats, call for help, and discuss strategy using the appropriate jargon marks one as a member of the neighborhood.
Instant messaging has its own practice. When a group of sixth grade students, who are relatively new to instant messaging, is given a chance to use instant messaging at the end of class, they often start connecting with everyone in the room and sending messages back and forth in one large chat. Older students tend to connect with just a few others and chat.
One of the effects of being a member of the community is that students are able to key and speak the code—they become accepted by others of the community. Furthermore, they experience this together. The students even identify with being able to use the correct codes, and understand them when sending and receiving messages.
One of the most obvious manifestations of their identity and effects of participation has to do with the number of email accounts they have. From the survey almost eighty percent of those who have email have two or more email accounts. Asking students why they have the different accounts reveals both their motivation and identity. For example, Akiko, a sixth-grader, was given her first email account by her mother when she was in third grade, who set it up while she watched. In fifth grade, she decided to get another account as she hadn’t liked the name on her first account. When asked how she learned to get the second account, she said she just did the same thing as her mother had done. When I asked for the name on her first account, she told me, “akikokitty.” (Mitchell, being in the same interview, made the mistake of repeating it. Akiko punched him in the arm.)
This reasoning was true for others as well—they had “outgrown” their original names and wanted something better to fit in with the group. Many also frequently change screen names on their instant messaging service as well as customizing the fonts that others will see from their messages. One of the most popular ways for students, particularly boys, to make their names more visually appealing (a matter of taste) is to aLtErNaTe uppercase and lowercase letters in their name or add punctu@t!on or other marks.
One of the more unusual aspects of instant messaging is “side-by-side” chat. Here, two or three students, usually girls, sit at computers next to each other and silently send instant messages back and forth. When asked about why they do it, the first response is “it’s fun!”. When pressed for more details, the general answer is that it’s private and can’t be overheard by others. I’ve seen students do this for thirty minutes, in total silence.
The entire community is very social—it’s not unusual for two or three people to be gathered around a person as she reads and responds to email or chat, with the observers conversing and occasionally reaching over a shoulder to key in a comment. With games, two or three students may be gathered around game players offering comments, help, or just observing.
While it is social, there are also several annoying interactions, one of the largest of which is the forwarded chain letter. They proliferate almost as fast as a virus. I have never found anybody who likes chain letters—everybody finds them annoying. So, who sends them? It turns out to be students who want to do something annoying and they freely admit that they are sending annoying messages, even if the content is merely banal.
As students become more involved in the community and move towards full membership many of the choices and events that contribute to motivation and identity also contribute to continuity. For example, changing screen names is a practice of the community, but full participants tend to do so less often and usually settle on one or two. Their screen name often reveals how they view themselves or their interests. One student uses the name of his favorite action game; another uses a military-sounding name. Boys especially are likely to choose names that evoke images of action or violence, such as “Dr. Death.”
Conflict does arise between members of the community when, for example, a multi-player game is being chosen for play. In this case, students who have been members of the community longest tend to control the game. As these students are usually eighth graders, they are gone the next year and the new eighth graders take control. It takes a while for new arrivals to fit into the community, even if they arrive as eighth graders.
Another way change is initiated is when a member finds a new website or game for students to participate in. Members will gradually drift to the new activity, leaving only a small core with the original activity.
Web logs are a special neighborhood of this communications community of practice. In the one that I’ve found at school, one student really created the neighborhood. She is a prolific writer who was introduced to web logging by a cousin. She was so enamored of it she convinced several of her friends to sign up—and to write frequently. One entry from Jake read, “And Julia kept on bugging me about my [web log]. No offense to her, but I think she writes a little to much. She puts in like 2 a day at least!”.
Reading these accounts is quite revealing of the students emotions. As all of the members use pseudonyms for the journals, figuring out which pseudonym belongs to which student is a challenge. The language is often raw, and I think they might be mortified if their parents discovered some of what they wrote. As most of the students are under thirteen, COPPA applies to them but it seems apparent that none of these students asked their parents for permission. Members of the particular web logging community may respond to each other’s posts. Ironically here, unlike, in chat or email, the focus seems to be on being a better writer in terms of sentence structure, capitalization, grammar, and the ability to use punctuation to represent thoughts in natural-sounding words. The posts that were most readable seemed to have replies, whereas others that were more representative of chat usage had few replies. All of the discourse within web logging seems to be talking within the practice. However, I don’t know how long this subdivision will survive as there is no obvious mode of regeneration.
We must not forget that participation in the communications community of practice is compounded by the issues of adolescence. The following quote from a web log reveals the angst of a seventh-grade boy. (The term “socials” probably occurs as the class happened to be reading The Outsiders in Language Arts at the time this post was written.) Note the references to MSN and communication. All names are pseudonyms here, although they are spelled out for the world to see in the original posting.
If you read the thing that talks about me on the about user page you may already know that I hate socials. I truly do. They treat me like a pile of dirt. No. Worse than that. And I hate it. I want to be treated as an equal. I don't see why they have to treat me and all of my friends like this. It's just not fair. Becoming a social (from now on referred to as socs) seems like a drug of some sort. First they just try it sort of, when they are targeted by some other soc. The soc brings the target into their "group" or clique or whatever you want to call it, just because they think that the person is good looking or something. And then the target is exposed to a bunch of socs and starts to like it. Soon he is addicted. And then he gets a sort of high that never goes away. And I'm not saying that he acts like an idiot. I am saying that he becomes all happy and is always trying to show off and never has time for doing work and stuff like that. They just spend all of their time talking with people be it on MSN, the phone, or face-to-face. Soon the "drug" starts to eat away their heart. And after a little while they become mindless freaks who just appreciate the company of their own kind, are wild and crazy and don't seem to care much about their future, and treat the non-socs like dung. And there is always a "boss". The "boss" is the person who is like the main soc. Last year it was a match-up between Mike Charles and Richard Deens. And they both moved. And I was sure that there would be a new "boss" this year. And I was right. Now it seems to be Gary Porter who is a very mean person in my opinion who does not care one little bit for non-socs. All he cares about are himself and blond, buxom women. I have fantasized bloodying his face in front of all of the other socs. And then after I am done i just leave him there. And he is sobbing like mad. And then the socs realize that they should maybe give us some respect.”
Although this study focused on the community as manifested within the middle school, it’s also obvious that this community interacts with a larger community of similar-aged students in other schools. Students will sometimes talk about users several have corresponded with, even though they haven’t met them, and students will take the early morning time and lunch breaks to chat with their friends in Hawaii and on the West Coast of the United States. Over a fifth of the students said the regularly chat with people they haven’t met in person and who their parents don’t know about. Further areas of study would be how the larger community is formed and how it interacts with the local communications community of practice.
The communications community of practice thrives within the middle school. It meets key aspects of a community of practice with a common cultural and historical heritage, an interdependent system, and a reproduction cycle (Barab & Duffy, 2000). It will not disappear any time soon.
Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. NY: Cambridge University Press.
Barab, S. & Duffy, T. (2000) From practice fields to communities of practice. In D. Jonassen & Land, S. (Eds.), Theoretical Foundations of Learning Environments (pp. 25-55), Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Riel, M. & Polin, L. (In Press). Communities as places where learning occurs. In Barab, S., Kling, R. & Gray, J. (Eds.), Designing for Virtual Communities in the Service of Learning. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
I gave an informal, non-scientific survey to students to get an idea of how they used technology and how they had learned about it. The last question asked students to suggest additional questions or give other comments, particularly if they felt a question was poorly worded. The students who answered the survey were in my Keyboarding classes (mostly sixth graders) and Multimedia Skills class (seventh and eighth graders). Before I pointed the students to the website containing the survey, I explained to them I was trying to figure out how they learned about technology and asked them to give me any feedback about the survey. I assured them the survey was anonymous, and even took the opportunity to show the code to the Multimedia Skills students so they could see that no identifying information was tracked. Five students from a class in California also answered the survey.
These results are raw figures and have not been analyzed extensively. The questions are in bold face, with the responses below them. Replies for the last question are included, but nonsensical replies have been removed.
1. How many email accounts do you have?
2. How many email accounts do you use routinely?
3. If you have an email account, who helped you set up your first one?
4. Do you have email accounts your parents don't know about and might be upset about if they found out?
5. Do you use chat?
6. How many people do your routinely chat with?
7. Do you regularly chat with people you haven't met in person and that your parents don't know about?
8. What do you think would be really good questions to ask students about using technology? If a question was confusing, or didn't have a choice you thought it should, please put that down. What questions can we ask to find out how students learn about technology from other students?
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