For a great many teachers, the most formidable barrier to professional development is the classroom wall. Unlike professionals in other fields, teachers have hectic schedules and working conditions that seldom allow for thoughtful discussion with peers in the next room, let alone those elsewhere in their communities, their states, or the nation.
But thanks to technology, that is beginning to change. As more and more schools become wired for access to the Internet and to state telecommunications networks and as the number of personal computers in schools and homes grows, teachers increasingly will gain access to significant learning opportunities that simply haven't existed in the past.
E-mail allows teachers to voice frustrations, seek help, or share successes with colleagues nationwide and beyond. Satellite and fiber-optic networks let novices interact with master teachers a continent away. And the Internet offers wired educators a vast storehouse of professional resources, curricular materials, and classroom strategies.
No one knows how many technology-dependent professional development projects currently exist in the United States. But according to Kathleen Fulton, a former researcher for the now-defunct congressional Office of Technology Assessment, there are many. In its report Teachers and Technology: Making the Connection, the OTA featured a number of programs that use new technologies to help teachers both at the pre-service and in-service levels. The document also stated that professional development by means of technology is a field in its infancy. "We said it is a recommended area for development and research,'' Fulton explains. "Like everything else in the area of educational technology, there have been some bits and pieces and fits and starts.''
Still, programs have taken hold with support and direction from a variety of sources, including the federal government, state legislatures, private concerns, colleges of education, and independent school districts.
At the federal level, for example, the U.S. Department of Education, through its Eisenhower Clearinghouse at Ohio State University, has created a home page on the Internet's World Wide Web, offering exemplary curricular materials as well as information on how to take on-line computer literacy courses offered by the University of Arizona.
Another federally supported project cited in the OTA report is Mathline, an initiative launched two years ago by the Public Broadcasting Service to disseminate effective practice in math education. Almost 70 PBS affiliates around the country make videotapes of exemplary teachers available, either by broadcasting them late at night or by distributing them free of charge to middle school teachers. The tapes show "real teachers in real classrooms trying to implement teaching standards,'' says Jinny Goldstein, a vice president at PBS. "What they're supposed to do is stimulate teachers to think about their own teaching practices.'' Those who wish can take to their computers and tap into mediated on-line forums to discuss what they've seen on the tapes. The number of teachers participating in these forums has grown from 500 to 2,000 in two years.
The OTA also highlighted several state-level programs in its report, including an Iowa initiative that lets teachers take part in professional seminars via a government-owned fiber-optic communications network. In Texas, a cooperative venture of the state department of education and the University of Texas has given individual teachers unlimited access to the Internet for a mere $5 a year.
Scattered private-sector initiatives to enhance teaching also utilize technology. TI-IN, a San Antonio-based project that delivers math, science, and foreign-language courses to high school students via satellite, has long included in its offerings professional development courses for teachers. Genentech, a genetic engineering firm based in South San Francisco, sponsors Access Excellence, an ongoing forum on the World Wide Web that high school biology teachers can turn to for a wide range of scientific information; teachers can even pose on-line questions and get answers from Genentech scientists. And then there is the Utah-based Video Journal of Education, which distributes among its subscribing school districts a series of video seminars featuring such well-known educators as Yale University's James Comer and Harvard's Howard Gardner.
Los Angeles County is among the many large school districts using electronic media to deliver in-service training. The county office of education operates its own satellite network that provides teleconferences and professional development seminars for teachers. And in cooperation with the Los Angeles Educational Partnership, a nonprofit reform group, it runs the Los Angeles Learning Community Network, a computer bulletin board and e-mail system that makes it possible for some 5,000 teachers to access professional development materials, various social-service agencies, and other resources.
Some schools of education also have begun to turn to technology as a way to guide and support both practicing and student teachers. At Western Illinois University, for example, the college of education and human services uses a video link to tutor teachers and student teachers in the Springfield public school district some 90 miles away.
When federal lawmakers re-wrote the nation's 60-year-old telecommunications law last year, they included a provision guaranteeing schools "affordable'' access to the latest telecommunications applications. Most agree that this provision and other revisions in the law will lead to many new kinds of learning opportunities for teachers. An initiative under development in Maryland provides a hint of what may be in store.
Starting next fall, the Baltimore Electronic Learning Community will use the Internet to bring a treasure trove of curricular materials and lesson plans to local teachers. The project, a collaboration of the University of Maryland's college of education and the Baltimore City public schools, even plans to provide two-way video links between classrooms. Teachers will gain access to instructional materials from such diverse sources as the National Archives, the Space Telescope Institute at Johns Hopkins University, and the Maryland-based Discovery Communications, which owns the Discovery Channel. A special tool will link up teachers conducting Internet searches on similar topics so they can share information, materials, and lesson plans.
Scant research is available on how best to use technology for the professional development of teachers. But according to former OTA researcher Fulton, distance learning via satellite or video link--which generally incorporates some form of two-way communication that allows instructors to take and answer questions--has proved its worth in other fields.
"The research that is out there about distance-learning technologies tends to be more on adults in business and military-training applications,'' Fulton says. "The motivation of the adult learner tends to be different. They're paying good money and spending good time on it.'' Still, she adds, there is no reason the approach would not be effective with teachers, provided the programming is more sophisticated than the simple "talking head'' variety.
Unfortunately, most teachers received little exposure to technology and its various applications during their pre-service training. As a result, many will have to learn how to use computers and the like before technology-driven professional development can really make its mark on classroom practice. Some observers wonder whether most teachers will be willing to make the effort.
Tom Keating, a former marine biologist who is now a doctoral student at Stanford University, has run a national telecommunications network for 30 teachers at 13 schools creating a high school biology curriculum. The problem, as he sees it, is that many teachers aren't convinced that the new technology--and the links it gives them--will enhance their professional lives.
"Scientists need to be in constant communication to do their work, and that's not true of teachers,'' he says. "The question is how does it become routine in a teacher's life. That's a difficult thing.''