When we look back at all we set out to do in the space of a year, we realize we were biting off a bit more than we could chew. In addition to our plan to use teleconferencing to allow our classes to work together to create short stories based on scientific fact, we had expected the science students to research and experiment with an abundance of the scientific issues they brainstormed, and the English students to review many science fiction writers' works, not to mention write original poetry and playlets in addition to their "stories." What was omitted here was due to our encountering the following obstacles:
1. Lack of Curriculum Space
Making space in an already overloaded curriculum presented a major challenge to this project. Keith Abouaf's Integrated Science II course at West High is taught is close cooperation with three other Science II teachers, meaning any major deviation from the regular schedule would be unacceptable. Also, the existing course schedule is very full because of the breadth of content coverage, which includes geology, physics, chemistry, biology and forensic science. As a result, much of the work was assigned as extra credit and students were expected to do research and writing outside of class. Jo Zarro faced a similar situation at Manual Arts, but was able to spend a bit more time on in-class activities related to the project.
2. Technological Limitations
In spite of one month's preparatory testing of the CU-see me software and Quickcams, our first video-conferencing attempt was a nightmare. The "chat" function, which allows the user to type in and send text messages to the other user, only worked in one direction - from Manual Arts to West High. Sound only traveled in the opposite direction, and apparently made the speaker sound as if he were submerged in a tank of water. The modem had at least a 10 second delay on any communication. As a result, the interface was very frustrating and slow. After about a half hour of "Can you repeat that?" and "We didn't quite get that," we gave up and decided to rely on e-mail as a means of communication. This worked better and put the students in direct contact with each other, but was certainly more difficult to monitor.
In Jo Zarro's opinion, the communication problem was a combination of two factors - the fact that the computer in the West High library is a PC (while hers is a superior Macintosh), and the fact that West High was relying on a modem, while Manual Arts has a T1 line. Clearly both sides are limited by the least common denominator in terms of technology.
3. Time Frame
Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles we faced was trying to interface a class in a year-round school with one in a traditional-schedule school. Jo Zarro's classes had two months off in the middle of our project, during which no communications took place. We knew this would be the case, and could have used e-mail to overcome it, but we were so busy trying to get the CU-see me software to work that we did not arrange for the e-mail connections. Actually, e-mail would probably not have been a perfect solution because many of our students do not have Internet access at home. Those who did not at West could email through the teacher, but the Manual Arts students would not have had this opportunity over their two month break. Jo Zarro reported that it was difficult to pick up where we left off after the break because in the two month period she had lost some students and gained a few new ones.
Another time frame problem was the time lapse in e-mailing Jo's students' stories to Keith to distribute to his classes, in getting them to make critiques and finally, e-mailing those back to Jo for distribution to her students. The one to two week gap between e-mailing was too much, and the students reported it was difficult to get back into their stories after the hiatus. Needless to say, both teachers' printers were overworked until the students began e-mailing each other directly.