My eleven-year-old son Michael works diligently at the kitchen table. He is writing another letter to his pen pal. Although Michael and his pen pal live in the same town and have never met, their letters resemble those of old friends. A few months ago, Michael was playing a basketball game at the same location as his pen pal. In a previous letter, his pen pal had mentioned his team name and jersey number. Michael and I walked across to the other gym and glanced in. I spoke first, â€œMichael, there he is, thatâ€™s Lawson!â€ â€œOkay Mom, letâ€™s go now,â€ Michael responded quickly and anxiously. As we left the gymnasium, I asked him why he wanted to leave so quickly. He said that he would not feel comfortable approaching Lawson and would not know what to say. Why? Michael is an introvert and has always been extremely shy. However, through letters he feels comfortable and free to be himself, to be silly, to draw pictures for his pen pal, and to send baseball cards to his new friend. Michael writes to his pen pal while wearing a mask, figuratively speaking of course! Like the Phantom of the Opera, the mask allows him to behave differently than he would in a face-to-face situation. His pen pal has never seen him and has no idea what he looks like. Michael feels more comfortable to write in this setting and is more apt to take a risk in his writing and responses with his new friend. Although putting pen to paper is one of the oldest forms of communication, the concept remains the same: faceless communication for some individuals is easier than face-to-face communication. The idea of faceless communication and virtual community interests me. As a student in a distance education program and as a middle school technology teacher, I believe that an online environment can offer increased interaction; one that takes place freely and without reservations. It is my desire to develop an online unit of study for my young students, so that they may experience the benefits of virtual interaction. One benefit of online learning environments is that the normally quiet students have the opportunity to become active participants. As Paloff and Pratt state in their book, Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace, â€œIn our experience, computer-mediated education can successfully draw out a student who would not be considered a noisy learner in the traditional classroom. It can provide an educational experience that helps motivate students who appear to be unmotivated because they are quieter than their peers and less likely to enter into a classroom discussionâ€(1999). In essence, more students participate in online learning, thus creating a larger community. When learners interact with one another, new information is made meaningful (Wright, et al). Another benefit is the disappearance of social and cultural differences, physical appearances, and more. These differences can impede face-to-face interaction. Again according to Paloff and Pratt â€œâ€¦as our computer use increases, we are diminishing and altering our sense of self and of others, creating new barriers to what we long for: intimacy, continuity, and community. Direct connection to community building online can break down barriers, allowing for a new sense of intimacy and connectionâ€ (1999). In general, people form communities based on their cultures, hobbies, religion, age, and much more. I can attest to this as I stroll the campus daily. The students are clustered in cliques that represent the typical campus communities. Can middle school students feel comfortable to interact in a virtual environment without the physical presence and typical social identifiers? Yes, but the building blocks are based on non-physical characteristics such as: common interests, shared goals, and support. As Michael finishes up his letter to his pen pal, my 13-year-old son Derrick uses AOL instant messenger to maintain a virtual community of friends. The names on his buddy list are individuals with whom he shares interests, goals, courses in school, and hobbies. The virtual community allows them to communicate instantaneously. They feel comfortable chatting about adolescent issues and middle school difficulties in a faceless environment. Sometimes the communication is goofy and silly, but other times itâ€™s more than that; they support each other, verify homework assignments, and confirm upcoming events. This type of online communication can assist individuals in finding solutions and formulating responses to problems (Lynch, 1997). Faceless communication will break down barriers, build community, and support interaction. It will also help individuals like my sons to speak and be heard. Similar to the Phantom of the Opera, virtual communication allows individuals the opportunity to behave differently while wearing a mask. Contrary to the Phantomâ€™s mask, theirs are made of different material â€“ technology. It is this technology that allows them to be successful, develop a community based on common interests and goals, and gives them a safe arena to interact confidently.
Lynch, E. J.(1997).Constructivism and distance education. EMC703. Arizona State University
Palloff, R.M., &Pratt, K.(1999). Building learning communities in cyberspace. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Wright, Carol, Mazharul Huq, R. Thomas Berner, and Glenda Shoop. "Guiding Principles and Practices for the Design" (http://www.outreach.psu.edu/DE/IDE/guiding_principles/) ide - Innovations in Distance Education . 30 Apr 2004.