Call it a tale of two Williams--Gates and Shakespeare. Or call it Crafting the Essay (Electronically), a new distance learning course for very bright middle school students.
The centerpiece of the course--a CD containing lessons and exercises--is being unveiled this week by Hopkins' Institute for the Academic Advancement of Youth and Learnware International, a Baltimore software development company.
Ben Reynolds, an institute administrator and teacher of gifted teens since 1979, and Kimberly Nolan, colleague and fellow writer, adapted for distance delivery the basic principles of the institute's popular classroom-based writing courses. Development of the CD was fueled in part by a 1997 minigrant from the Provost's Subcommittee for Electronic and Distance Education.
Students participating in the online writing course receive the CD, email contact with a tutor and access to a dedicated chatroom, which approximates a real classroom experience. A student works at a self-selected pace to complete 14 writing assignments, which are received and appraised by a writing specialist. Course developers expect students to be able to complete the course in six months or less.
"The CD itself gets all the attention, but it's really just one part of the whole," Reynolds said. He adds that a student with CD in hand still needs to be matched with an effective tutor and with meaningful student-to-student contact.
Reynolds and Nolan said their aim was to make the course challenging, serious and occasionally playful. One lesson on the CD features a game in which animated characters, representing the five senses, reach into a "grab bag" and provide clues to the student about what they've seen, heard, felt, smelled or tasted. The clues, vague at first, sharpen into specific descriptions that allow a student to guess the contents of the bag--and also understand the need for precision in language.
"When developing the course, we needed to make the program appealing while still delivering what is essentially a college-level writing course," Nolan said, adding that writing concepts such as persona and organic form were ideas beyond the reach of most middle school students.
Next year the course will be marketed to 80,000 gifted students in the institute's talent search. In addition to its current students, the institute has had inquiries about the software from other schools and universities. The course is adaptable to meet the needs of these groups.
"This project was a good experience for us," said Luciano Corazza, director of the Center for Distance Education at the institute. "Working with Learnware helped us see how we could work well with a private company by providing good content and allowing the partner to implement it professionally," Corazza said.
Important elements of the institute's writing program--such as a mentor-apprentice relationship, a focus on realistic nonfiction writing and extensive feedback from a mentor and peers--owe a philosophical debt to The Writing Seminars, which in the late 1970s consulted in creating the course, the developers said.