For years, social studies teacher Josh Reppun felt confined by short class periods that brought seminar discussions to an abrupt halt.
"It's like the discussion ends and you never come back to it," the La Pietra Hawai'i School for Girls teacher said.
When he discovered the "Internet classroom assistant" at NiceNet.org, he found not only a way to keep students engaged in thematic discussions after they left the classroom, but also a way to level the playing field between dominant and reticent students.
Senior Kat Jensen, 17, said NiceNet gave her the ability to express ideas she couldn't voice in class at the spur of the moment. In the virtual NiceNet classroom, "My voice wasn't drowned out by the more 'loud' and dominating participants, since all text looks the same," she said.
"Also, it was great to get on the computer during the late hours of the night when a thought suddenly popped into my head and I could share it," she said.
While leery of using blogs (on-line journals) and bulletin boards, given all the recent attention to cyberbullying and Internet predators, Reppun found these were not a problem in the virtual classroom space at NiceNet.
Unlike unregulated sites such as Xanga.com, a blogging site popular with teens, NiceNet allows teachers to set up boards that can be viewed only by class members and invited guests.
"The critical thing about Xanga for all of us in thinking about this is that there is no gatekeeper at the door. Anyone can get in," Reppun said. "This is different because it has a gatekeeper and the gatekeeper is a teacher. It's just a virtual classroom that anyone can use for free."
As in a regular classroom, Reppun was able to set up rules that prevented students from slipping into the "e-chat" style of writing often found in teen-agers' blogs and e-mails, which disregards many of the rules of formal writing, such as capitalization, punctuation and spelling.
"It's a sort of dumbing down process of communication," Reppun said. "It just kills my ability as a teacher to teach good writing habits."
In Reppun's NiceNet classroom, students have to use formal language and check for spelling. All posts have to be sensitive to other classmates and students are forbidden from using all capitals to express anger and they are not allowed to pontificate or post long speeches.
Students are graded on the number of posts, the quality of their writing and whether they are moving the conversation along or just pontificating.
When Reppun tried it for the first time last spring, he and the students posted 759 messages on 14 topics, such as the election, Guantanamo Bay, Kamehameha Schools, the state Board of Education and the landfill.
Reppun appreciated the way NiceNet drew out quieter class members.
Students Catherine Ly and Amanda El-Dakhakhni, both 17-year-old seniors, had only good things to say about their experiences using NiceNet last year, pointing out that it gave them more time to formulate responses and focus on the topics they found most interesting.
El-Dakhakhni liked being able to contribute to several different discussion threads instead of being limited by a single topic in classroom debate.
"I feel online classroom discussions really take the issues outside of the realm of the classroom and enable students to discuss topics freely without dealing with limitations such as a large class size or short class period," El-Dakhakhni said.
Although Ly said it is easier for her to express herself orally, she found blogging beneficial because it allowed her to think her ideas through before presenting them. In addition, she said, "People do not have to fight for their own time to speak and are able to find those that share their beliefs and values."
The keys to success: Realizing that the students would not keep the discussion going on their own, Reppun himself was very engaged in the process.
"I take roll calls, ask questions, be the devil's advocate and I provoke gently," he said.
How he did it: Reppun looked for technology that would help further classroom discussions and looked to the school's technology department for help.
Once finding NiceNet.org, he set up a classroom, gave accounts to his students and served as facilitator to make sure they kept the conversation going.