COURSE-INTEGRATED ELECTRONIC SOCIALIZING ON PLATO

Home Page of Leon James

October 31, 1991
University of Hawaii, Computing Center Newsletter
____________________________________________________________________________
The author, Dr. Leon James (formerly Leon A. Jakobovits), is Professor of
Psychology.  His PLATO integrated courses currently include Psychology 100
(Freshman Seminar Program only), Psychology 210 WI (Statistics), Psychology 260
(Personality), Psychology 402 WI (History of Psychology), and Psychology 408 WI
(Teaching Psychology).
__________________________________________________________________________

Introduction

For the past 5 years students in my courses have been faced with a surprise on the first day of the semester as I provide explanations on the Syllabus. One of the items is called "Plato Usage" and is worth 10 points (or 10% of the grade). Students thus find out that they will be expected to participate in an electronic bulletin board activity on PLATO. A show of hands each semester invariably indicates that no one has participated on an electronic bulletin board before. Another show of hands reveals that three quarters of students do not use computers on a regular basis, and some have actually never used one. My first task therefore, is to diffuse the instant anxiety generated by the announcement.

Students want to know why using computers is a requirement for a course in Psychology. "What if you've never used a computer? What if you don't have time to go to CLIC or Keller? How long do you have to stay on? What if you have nothing to say? Is it O.K. to skip a week? Can you say anything you want? Is there censorship? Will you train us to use it?"

The Training Session

I hand out written instructions and explanations. You need to sign on twice a week and stay for half an hour each time. You need to enter all five of the notesfiles, read all the notes that have been written since you last signed on, and leave one note yourself. What you write, or how much, is not part of the grade. There is no censorship. PLATO provides online HELP so you teach yourself how to use it. (For an article on PLATO, its features and history see this article.
See comments by Todd Takitani.
If you follow these instructions you're entitled to the full 10 points for PLATO Usage. PLATO keeps track of who signs on, when, how long they stay, and which notesfiles are entered. Your name automatically appears on the top of your note, along with the date and the time. The notesfiles left behind by students in prior semesters start on Page 2 of your course index menu on the screen. You are to spend some of your time when signed-on, to reading these generational bulletin boards. They will give you an idea of how an electronic bulletin board works. Read them forward in time and see how their mood changes over the course of the semesters, and what topics they liked to discuss.

I arrange for one training session at CLIC and meet the students there on the second or third lecture. For large classes, students pair up at the 11 PLATO terminals and stay for half an hour of practice. I give them a handout of instructions to follow and walk up and down the isle giving help as needed. After this, they are on their own. With hundreds of students participating over the years, I have had no cases where students were unable to learn to use the PLATO notesfiles on their own. This testifies to the remarkable effectiveness of the PLATO system in offering online HELP to its first time users.

PlatoLand Community

I have observed a typical pattern of student reactions from the beginning of the semester and onward, which is evident from their notes. "Why do we have to do this? What does this have to do with the course? This is a real pain, having to come here twice a week when I work full time and have to take 18 credits. This is dumb. I don't like computers. This keyboard stinks." However, just two weeks later, more hopeful notes begin to appear. "Well, this is not as bad as I thought. Hey, you guys, are you having as much fun as I am? I am glad to find out I am not the only one in this class who feels this way. So, how was your week end? Can anyone help me with this problem? Why don't we get together for a party?" As the semester progresses the notes begin to take on social complexity. Students meet each other electronically and regularly. Personalities and styles become evident. Harmony, mutual support, conflict and factionalism begin to show in the written exchanges. The PLATO electronic class group has become an online electronic community.

Students' liking for the PLATO activity is clearly visible in the notes they spontaneously post about it. There is a virtual unanimity of praise and appreciation of its value and fun. When I ask them whether I should continue using PLATO notesfiles, their response is very enthusiastically in favor of it. Many consider it the best part of the course. Another indication of PLATO's popularity is the fact that students log twice the number o f hours required (30 hours per semester instead of the required 15 hours). They do not receive points for the extra hours. A few students run up an amazing 100 hours of PLATO use time over the course of one semester. As for me, it takes between one and two hours a day to complete my PLATO bulletin board rounds.

The Affective Dimension in Education

As far as I know, I am the first to make use of a course-integrated electronic bulletin board in a college course. This approach allows college professors to address the needs of the whole student, including academic, personal, social, and emotional. In this view, a successful college education will include the following components: (1) developing academic and information literacy competencies; (2) having rewarding relationships and acquiring a sense of self-esteem; (3) being assisted in improving one's lifestyle and evolving an integrated philosophy of life; (4) receiving guidance in choosing a career. The electronic messaging component in courses answers to the affective needs of the whole student. Students establish multiple electronic relationships in which they share the expression of attitudes and feelings. Students see themselves from a generational perspective. This communication component serves to legitimate their feelings. From strangers, they are transformed into a community of generational peers who can provide objective feedback on themselves, their emotions, doubts, and wants.

One of my policies is to put all my courses together in the same notesfiles. In this way freshmen (Psych 100) and sophomores (Psych 210) talk not only to other freshmen but to upperclass students (e.g., Psych 402 or Psych 408). When the course is over, students are given the opportunity to sign up for a PLATO Alumni group which is also integrated into the same bulletin board. In this way college students with varying degrees of experience interrelate and enrich each other's educational experience.

Notesfiles

To encourage a variety of interactions, I provide 5 types of notesfiles as platforms for participation. "Psynotes" is an all purpose exchange file. Students socialize in many creative ways which they discover as they go along: socializing; jokes; personal problems with dates; sex; religion; quizzes; soaps; poetry; short stories; puzzles; careers; restaurants; and many more. "About Myself" is a social directory file in which they introduce themselves and give various biographical information. "Dear Dr.J" is where they ask me questions, complain, make suggestions, and so on. Over the course of a semester I have several hundred exchanges in this file in which I get to relate directly to most of the students in a class. Our discussions cover not only course-related issues but also wider personal and philosophical exchanges. "Comments/Forum" is a bulletin board dedicated to selected topics of intellectual interest to college students: abortion; date rape; euthanasia; afterlife; health and diet; driving in traffic; and others. "Psypad" is a graphics notesfile allowing students to create animated designs. Its purpose is aesthetic, technical, and expressive.

Persona Identity

Over the years I have made interesting discoveries in attempting to manage these five course-integrated bulletin boards. For instance, students prefer to have a secret "persona" name to sign on with, instead of their real name (star bright, wonderwoman, thanatos, bam bam, hey good looking, tiger eyes, etc.). They keep their persona secret until the end of the semester during which a party is held and identities are confessed. Throughout the semester there is an active social dynamic going on, facilitated by the secrecy or anonymity. This is an intriguing aspect of the bulletin board activity that I am continuing to investigate. Another feature that interests me is how I can use the electronic exchanges to expand or deepen my instructional relationship with the students. Given the appearance of anonymity, students are greatly emboldened to express themselves (often in explicit terms) on course requirements, policy, quizzes, topics. Each semester I receive hundreds of notes from students and to which I respond on the bulletin board. Most of these would not occur face to face in the classroom or in the office. As I respond to one student, I am always aware that the other students are reading over our shoulders, and so it becomes an opportunity to legitimate and justify decisions and principles. In the give and take of the complaint/resolution process, students and the professor become more real to one another.


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