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Virtual worlds or reality: Computers' effect on peer interaction

1 June 1997


The purpose of this research was to look at how computer use in a fifth grade classroom influences peer interaction. In reflecting on the increased use of computers in the classroom and the political initiatives to continue this trend, I believe it is critical to understand the nature of these types of interactions. Since many teachers do not have the time to set up cooperative groups, peer tutors, or class experts, I thought it worthwhile to observe how these naturally occur around a computer environment. Computers are playing a larger role in education and will have a significant impact on education and classroom culture. While there are some concerns about the educational experience surrounding computer use, proper practices lead to positive results. Among these positive results are increased peer interactions, cooperative learning, peer support (presence), and peer tutoring. These benefits create a quality educational experience for children. This study took place in a suburban K-5 elementary school located in Oregon. The participants were fifth grade students. Information was gathered at a small computer center just outside the fifth grade classroom through a variety of methods including observations, taped interviews with students, and discussions with the class teacher. Pseudonyms are used to protect the privacy rights and anonymity of all the participants. Through the process of organizing field notes, interviews with students, and discussions with the classroom teacher, a variety of paUems emerged in the kinds of peer interactions that occurred while students were working in their computer center. This research confirmed the variety and abundance of peer interaction that occur in computer centers. Some students achieve a more positive social standing as a result of their expertise in using computers. Further, my research identified that peer tutoring occurs through a scaffolding approach and through a demonstration approach. While I discovered that students were often distracted from their work by their peers, most distractions turned out to be positive academic experiences. Some students were distracted when they noticed projects their peers had printed (Peer Work Interest) and pursued their interest by engaging in a conversation about the project or asking to read it. In:these peer interactions, the students engaged in discovery learning as they inquired about a project which interested them, but not part of the task on which they were supposed to be working. Other students noticed something that a peer was doing on their computer (Peer Computer Interest) and were distracted from their work. These students often learned about computer functions, software, scanner's capabilities, etc. which were new to the them. Another distraction which holds the potential to be a positive academic experience is Computer Exploration, where a student begins to explore the capabilities of the software program being used. Understanding the potential for positive learning experiences in the midst of these distractions has implications for the environment of computer work. To foster discovery learning, teachers must understand the importance of peer interactions. Without this understanding teachers could structure a sterile environment (computer culture) where students miss the opportunity to discover for themselves and learn from their peers. By understanding that there are interactions which look like distractions, but can hold the potential for positive academic experiences, teachers can better structure their expectations for computer use so that discovery learning is encouraged.


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