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Code - Community - Ideas
What We've Done
Onward

The Internet has been built out with special attention and success to schools across the country and around the world. Yet mainstream educational software has progressed little beyond either online workbooks with flat multiple choice drills or an amalgam of chat rooms, static Web pages, and threaded bulletin board messaging made available to students under the umbrella of a given class or school. Classrooms and dormitories are linked to the Net, and those seeking educational applications say: “Now what?” We believe that, with the right structure, the linking of classrooms and students to the global Net can become indispensable to a variety of teaching environments — and we have tested this belief through a series of pilot projects implemented at Harvard Law School and elsewhere. These projects seek to answer the surprisingly difficult questions of what to do with a classroom once it is wired and how to help teachers, unobtrusively but effectively, inspire and lead their students through the use of networked technologies, fostering online intellectual communities with innovative tools that fundamentally differ from existing educational systems.

We call the latest generation of these projects H2O to evoke the fluid relationship between and among communities, ideas, and code. Apart from the pedagogical ideas embedded in the software, which this document will describe, the H2O project also tests the concept of community-based development of educational software. The fundamentals of Internet protocols and software sprang from the educational and non-profit communities, and we believe these communities can play a useful role in concert with .com to develop the space. As we shift from prototype to full release, we have launched the first public version of the Rotisserie, an innovative structured discussion system built to encourage discourse among communities. The completed system will include a means by which teachers and other leaders of intellectual communities can share written resources and discover who else in the world is studying issues similar to their own — perhaps from a refreshingly different angle.

Code - Community - Ideas
In contrast to the Berkman Center’s approach of spearheading the development of educational software, most universities currently use one of a small number of commercial educational portal products. These products provide all of the basic capabilities thought to be required for teaching a course online — a content posting system, a chat system, a discussion system, a grade book — and a few other bells and whistles. The idea that these categories represent both a floor and a ceiling for online dimensions to coursework is puzzling, since such systems have yet to prove themselves particularly helpful, much less transformative. Yet the companies producing software for teaching accept the playbook without much deviation, leaving little room for fundamental innovations in the nature of the online educational experience. Vast amounts of time and energy are spent re-implementing the same basic services — content management, chat, discussion, etc. — that have already been implemented elsewhere. We do not believe that this void in the universe of educational software exists because there is nothing useful left to invent, and we offer a years-long set of successful technology-in-teaching endeavors — including free “online lecture and discussion” series open to as many as 1,500 people at a time — that puts that claim to the test.

Our vision is to encourage the growth of a more open set of intellectual communities than those spawned by the traditional university system. In particular, we focus on the ideal of introducing inventive methods of interaction to allow these communities to form in new ways. Rather than segregating users based on which university they happen to attend (or indeed, whether they happen to attend a university at all) or even the large subject areas encompassed by university classes, the system allows users to interact with one another in focused ways based on the specific ideas they are addressing at the time: users can gather around the specific details of a recently passed piece of legislation or the implications of a particular article, rather than around larger subject blocks. H2O encourages users to share the content they create through these interactions by making archives of previous materials easily available and browsable and by enabling the sharing of content among different intellectual communities.

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What We've Done

In 1998 the Berkman Center began the development of prototypes of H2O tools, including the first version of the Rotisserie, real-time polling tools, a real-time comment submission system, and interactive webcasting systems; the latter two tools have been used around the world, including at meetings of ICANN (see http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/icann/yokohama for an example). In May 2001, the Berkman Center received a first round funding grant from the Harvard Provost’s Fund for Innovation in Distance Learning. Using these funds, the H2O project launched its first public tool, the Rotisserie, which will be used in courses this fall at many schools, including Harvard Law School, MIT, Stanford Law School, Duke University, St. John’s University, and the Harvard Extension School.

The public launch of the Rotisserie beta is the biggest milestone so far for H2O. The Rotisserie implements an innovative approach to online discussion that encourages measured, thoughtful discourse in a way that traditional threaded messaging systems cannot. In contrast to the completely asynchronous, broadcast-to-broadcast mode of existing threaded messaging systems, the Rotisserie adds structure to both the timing and the flow of the discussion. The timing of the discussion is broken into semi-synchronous rounds. Users are allowed to post responses at any time, but their responses are not published to other users until the deadline for the current round passes. This structure allows users to put significant thought into their responses rather than competing with other participants to post first. More important, this structure allows the system to control the flow of the discussion by distributing responses to specific users for further discussion at the end of each round, ensuring that every post is distributed to at least one other user for comment and that each user has exactly one post to which to respond. Lastly, the Rotisserie system includes support for discussion not only within a given class, but also between many different classes at once, allowing, for instance, Internet law classes at Stanford and Oxford to participate in a discussion about digital rights management with an engineering course at MIT and with a radio show audience that has just listened to a show on the topic.

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Onward

The Rotisserie is currently fully functional and will be used at several universities this fall. For the next round of development, we plan implementation of an already-designed, more easily navigable user interface and the addition of a content-sharing system that will allow project leaders to share course content (lectures, readings, syllabi) as easily as the system currently allows them to share discussions. In addition, we are working to bring more of the tools that have been in prototype use at the Berkman Center, such as a real time polling tool and a multimedia archive, to public release. Our work is clearly ambitious, both in the sweep of the vision and the work required to fully articulate it. But it is also demonstrable in manageable quanta, several of which have already been completed. We feel that we have seen the potential of an idea like “free e-mail” — before hotmail.com was created.

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