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Computer-Supported Intentional Learning Environments

What is CSILE?

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CSILE (Computer Supported Intentional Learning Environments) functions as a "collaborative learning environment" and a communal database, with both text and graphics capabilities. This networked multimedia environment lets students generate "nodes," containing an idea or piece of information relevant to the topic under study.

Nodes are available for other students to comment upon, leading to dialogues and an accumulation of knowledge. Students have to label their nodes in order to be able to store and retrieve them; over time, they come to appreciate the value of a precise, descriptive label. In addition to receiving writing practice as they create their own nodes, students get practice reading the nodes generated by others.

CSILE was developed by Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. It has been used in a research program within Toronto schools for over five years.

CSILE Used at Hawthorne Elementary School

Apple Computer provided support for introducing CSILE to a number of American schools, including Hawthorne Elementary School in Oakland, CA. Hawthorne teachers believe that CSILE has had major effects on their students' higher-order thinking skills and on their ability to do collaborative projects.

The program was initially implemented within three Hawthorne fifth/sixth-grade classrooms; a 3/4 classroom was added later. Each classroom was equipped with 8 Macintosh computers and one printer. Hawthorne's CSILE classrooms were linked to one another via a LAN.

The participating teachers were sent to an introductory three-day training session in St Louis, where they were introduced to the CSILE model of collaborative knowledge building and where they had the opportunity to meet other CSILE teachers from across the country. Throughout the first year of the project, all participating teachers were provided with e-mail accounts to facilitate the ongoing sharing of ideas, problems, etc.

Learning to Work With CSILE

The first year of implementation was difficult, given the general lack of familiarity and expertise with the system on the part of the teachers, as well as problems and limitations associated with the early versions of the software.

Two participating teachers, Sonja Ebel and Gail Whang, comment that an important component of this phase of the project was the opportunity that they were given to provide feedback and to have input in the development of the software. They note that CSILE has undergone many updates and changes since it was first implemented within their classroom.

This is viewed as an advantage in terms of the continual improvement of the program. However, it has also presented difficulties in that the system changes have required the constant adaptation to and learning of new sets of procedures.

Due to a lack of funds, outside technical support and teacher's e-mail accounts were discontinued at the end of the first year of CSILE implementation at Hawthorne. Lacking this support, very little was done with the CSILE system through the 1992-93 school year.

Integrating into the Curriculum

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A student is linking nodes

Research funds were made available in 1993, leading to a high level of technical and curricular support and a much stronger program implementation. Scardamalia and Bereiter, the researchers who founded CSILE and have overseen its development, began sabbaticals at Stanford in the Fall of 1993. Their two graduate students have spent two days per week at Hawthorne providing direct technical assistance and facilitating the integration of CSILE into the curriculum.

In addition to their individual classroom support, the graduate assistants meet with Hawthorne teachers as a group on a twice monthly basis. During the meetings, teachers discuss their curricular goals and possible matches with CSILE are suggested. Ebel and Whang state that this level of support has been instrumental in their ability to integrate CSILE more meaningfully into their curriculum.

When we first learned CSILE, I was trying to have my curriculum fit in with CSILE ...creating units so that it would be compatible with CSILE, which now I think is backwards. Now what I want is for the technology to support what we are doing in the classroom. And that was a realization that I had this year when we discussing CSILE with the creators, and that idea came out. We are the "experts" on what we're doing in the classroom, so why don't we have a discussion about the archaeology project, let the CSILE people listen in and then they're the experts on CSILE and how the technology operates. After hearing what we're doing, then they can give us suggestions for how we can integrate CSILE into what we're doing and how it would enhance what we're doing, which is really how it should be. - Gail Whang, elementary school teacher

CSILE has been integrated with the curriculum across a range of subject areas. During the 1993-94 school year, CSILE has been used for collaborative problem solving in math, as an on-line literature circle, and as a vehicle for collaborative work in social studies.

Hawthorne students, many of whom are still learning English, make considerable use of CSILE's computer graphics capabilities and often link graphics to their text nodes. Some students write their nodes originally in Spanish and then make a link to an English translation.

CSILE as a Support for Thinking Skills

Teachers Sonja Ebel and Gail Whang believe that CSILE is helping to develop thinking skills among their students. By trying to explain their ideas to other students and interacting with their peers around academic content, students sharpen their thinking and gain new knowledge. Reviewing their students' CSILE entries from the DIG Project, Ebel and Whang find traces of the kinds of supports students provide for each others' thinking and communication skills:

CSILE entry on Number system:
This is the slaminan's number system. It is a basic 10 number system too. It has a pattern to it. The number of lines increase up to five then it goes upside down all the way to 10.

[Above text entry is linked to an illustration of the number system]

Comment posted on CSILE from the "ritual group":
We all like the number system, but we want to know how the number 0 looks like, and you can do more numbers not just ten like we have right now.
Ebel comments:
One of the ways we used CSILE...student groups created graphic and text notes to explain what their cultural universal was. Then other students could access that and comment back right away, and say "Wait a minute, you can't make a boat out of a tree because our culture doesn't cut down trees!" So then they entered into a discussion about other materials. Students in this way could analyze and discuss what was being developed.

CSILE entry on marriage ritual:

TOPIC: Archeology Marriage&FamilyGroupings



[Text is linked to illustration of "Engagement Plant"]

Linked comment node:


I thik the marrig saramony is intisting but what if it grows befr the end of the moth we thik you shold keep this idea.

frrom jamedra and Emmanuel

Linked response node:

to Jemmedra and Emanuel

Dear Jamedra and Emmanuel, I think you have mistaken the way the ceremony goes if the leaf doesn't grow in a month then they can't get married, if it grows then they can get married.

Sincerely, Video Group

After completing the DIG Project, students began studying real ancient civilizations, again using CSILE as a tool for discussing their ideas and refining their understanding of the culture.

CSILE entries in response to a teacher question on the ancient Egyptians, "Why did they build pyramids?"
I think that they build the pyramids is because So t the theifs can't steel their golds. (JL)

I don't think that they just build pyramids so that they wouldn't steal there gold. I think that they also build them for like homwes for the dead people. and I don't think that the Egyptian just thought about stealing only... (MM)

I agree with you becaues right after I finish typeing on csile I went to Research and I read a book on pyramids. It says that they build the pyramids for keeping theifs away from their golds and stuffs that meen alot to them. And the pyrmids are for the Kings and Queens. When the kings or Queens die... In the pyramid has a tomb. You know whats a tomb right? then you know what happens.

...I disagree with you about you writing about the pyramids. Pyramids are build not for theifs so that they couldn't still. They are build to put things that are important to them. They wouldn't think that their people would do that to them. (PS)

Sonja Ebel comments on the implicit supports CSILE provides for practicing thinking skills:

There's a lot of high level knowledge embedded in it that they're not even aware that they are using. They have to produce summaries...All these things you used to teach out of a workbook and it didn't make any sense. Here it's a direct application. They need to be able to do this in order to access something. So it's automatic that they learn how to do it because they want to be able to access. Like with the Book Talk, they apply key words to their summaries, so that someone can scroll through and see, 'Now here is a book on family problems...' So making that kind of link, being able to synthesize your thoughts.. there's actually an application on CSILE for linking, so they can link one note to another, talk about what the connection is.

Value for Collaboration

When teachers Sonja Ebel and Gail Whang discuss the impact of the use of the computer within their classrooms, the theme that repeatedly emerges is the facilitation of student collaboration and communication. This is a focal point within their program, and a most valued aspect of CSILE.

The teachers feel that the groundwork for the cooperative skills that are so much a part of CSILE activities was first provided through an established program at Hawthorne training students in conflict resolution skills (the TRIBES program). Building on this earlier program, the teachers explicitly modeled and coached social skills and group process in the context of using CSILE for collaborative project-based activities.

First of all...social skills are explicitly taught and stressed--what it looks like and feels like to attentively listen and to share and to cooperate. Secondly, when we introduce CSILE and the concept of a comment, we have overheads that we developed and use which go through nice comments, put downs and helpful, thoughtful EM>make it clear that we don't just want nice comments. We talk about, to disagree, is that a put down? We talk very specifically about helpful, thoughtful comments--that they push people's thinking, they question things, they disagree if that's necessary, they give support. But they do it in a helpful way. They don't just say that's stupid, which is not very helpful, or that's nice, which is also not very helpful. Because some of the kids have been with us for three years, they're outstanding at it...ninety percent of the comments have been helpful, thoughtful. - Sonja Ebel

Within the DIG Project, students work in small collaborative groups to create a piece of the culture that they have taken responsibility for (e.g., language, number system, clothing). This information needs to be shared quickly and easily with the other groups, as each aspect of the culture is intertwined with the rest. CSILE has provided a useful mechanism for the exchange of information within this context:

For the DIG project, a lot of [the students] wrote messages in Slaminian, which is the language they created, and they were able to access this immediately. There was no way that the two students who created it would have been able to meet with everyone and explain it, so it made it easy and quick. Students were using it to work on their own universals, which are all connected in some way. So students working on dance could access what the costumes should look like. Through the computer, they were able to communicate all this with one another. - Gail Whang

Both teachers comment that the linkage across classrooms has opened up new possibilities for collaboration and dialogue between a greater number of students (i.e., across classrooms), thus providing a broader range of perspectives and information for students to consider.

For some students who are generally reticent in face-to-face settings, network activities provide a more comfortable communication channel. Such activities also appear to facilitate exchanges between students who otherwise would be unlikely to take the time or put forth the effort to communicate with and learn from one another:

They [are] able to communicate. They do comment, "your idea made me think about this aspect..." ...hearing different voices and different perspectives through the computer where they might not be able to talk to each other [face to face] in such an intimate way. - Hawthorne teacher
Whang describes an exchange that occurred between two students during the first year of the CSILE implementation. The exchange was between a Latino girl in Ebel's 4th grade and a Mien boy in Whang's 6th grade class.

The students within the two classes were engaged in a discussion over CSILE on the death penalty, entering and responding to one another's opinions. The younger student entered a comment about God (something along the lines of "It doesn't matter because God will take care of it"). The sixth-grade boy responded with a heartfelt message ("...I don't think there is a God, if there was he wouldn't have let my brother drown"). The two students entered into an in-depth discussion about life, death, and the existence of a deity.

Whang commented that this level of dialogue would never have occurred in person, especially given the gender and grade gap between the participants.

Ebel feels that the use of computers further supports collaboration among students because of its influence as an equalizing force within the classroom:

It seems like students feel equal around a computer--there's something about it, maybe because it's new and they haven't been tracked...They haven't defined who is good and who is bad on the computer and they all feel equal around it.

CSILE Projects

"Book Talk" is an ongoing activity involving students in all four CSILE classrooms in sharing thoughts about the books they have read through the school year. The interdisciplinary DIG project (involving two 5/6 classrooms) is an extended activity that lasts about eight weeks and takes up large portions of the school day. The project incorporates all aspects of the curriculum (reading, writing, social studies, math, science). Students communicate with each other in the process of collaboratively constructing cultural universals (e.g., language, housing, values) for a hypothetical society.

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