Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 1, Number 3 / July 1, 1994 / Page 6
"The network is one of the most wonderful things a school can give to its students."
The students, in this case, were not really students, they were former students: graduates of the Harvard School of Education teacher training program. I spent an hour on the phone with a seventh grade teacher in Augusta Georgia, the result of a chance conversation with her mother.
Fifty to sixty percent of new teachers leave their profession within five years, she said. To find out why and to see what could be done about it, several years ago Harvard set up the BTCN (Beginning Teachers Computer Network. For $25, a graduate can rent a computer and modem for a year. The system comes set up, with an 800 dial-in line and hotline help. The documentation is primarily education on "email etiquette"--actions and feelings to expect on a network.
The graduates have been through an intense twelve months of training. "We get very close in the program and are then hurled off into the cruel world. The first year of teaching is awful, it's very very hard. It was the worst year I've ever had, the hardest thing I've ever done. It's brutal. It's hard. You never sleep, you're grading all the time, you're planning all the time, you're crying all the time."
She estimated that 60 out of a class of around 100 took the offer and joined the network. Some "forums" are devoted to specific disciplines: Humanities, Math & Science, Foreign Languages. Others are topics: Classroom Management, Evaluation. In an Introduction forum new participants are guided in trying out the technology together. "Soapbox" is a general forum. Some Harvard faculty participate in the lightly facilitated forums, which are also studied for research purposes (a consent form is part of the rental agreement). "Private forums" (person-to-person email) are unmonitored. (Recently they upgraded the system and added a "Chat Line" for synchronous communication. She is unsure the new features warrant the increased complexity, though.)
"It was really lifesaving for me, it kept me grounded when I needed it, helped me see what things are mountains, what are molehills. It's a time when you are feeling panicky about the world, worried about the future of society and children. Classmates really understand things so well. We could help each other in a wonderful way, not naive yet still excited."
Questions were often specific. "'I'd like to stress writing, but the class is 35 kids, it seems too big... Should I teach Julius Caesar or Macbeth?'" Sometimes, though, "It was like reading an education journal" in a positive sense, "where theory and practice meet up."
Some classmates who had not found teaching jobs got on the Teachers Network but inevitably stopped participating. To her surprise, arrogant classmates she "couldn't stand" in school were likable and helpful on the network, all struggling with similar problems.
"It allowed me to see the longer range. With intense, miserable experiences every day there is a tendency to say 'forget it.'" Students encourage each other or just "vent."
Her year of computer rental up, she bought a computer to stay on the network but finds herself participating less in the forums, which remain focused on first-year problems raised by the newly graduated class. (This year for the first time current students at Harvard can monitor and (rarely) participate.) She mostly uses private forums (email) to a few friends who also stayed on.
It seemed a very special set of circumstances so I asked her uncertainly whether she sees any other uses for networks of this sort. She was ready. "Parents! Of kids in the same age group. I'm thinking of starting a newsletter for them. Parents of middle school kids see their kids turn into monsters and don't know what to do. It's a monstrous age, difficult to live through. Seventh grade is the height of monsterness." She laughed. "Parents need to be told "you were a monster when you were 13 and your children's children will be monsters when they're 13."
She sees many opportunities. "Networks for parents of infants. For people starting new businesses..."
Jonathan Grudin is with the Information and Computer Science Department at the University of California, Irvine.
This article is reprinted by permission from the March 1994 issue of The Network Observer. The entire issue, including subscription information, can be obtained by sending a message to "firstname.lastname@example.org" with the subject line "archive send tno-march-1994".