Education Opinion

High-Tech Teamwork

By Colleen Kozumplik — January 01, 1994 15 min read
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When the application for the AT&T Teachers and Technology Institute crossed my desk last February, it seemed to beckon, offering me an opportunity to make technology a more integral and relevant part of my students’ educational experience. My students are intimately familiar with computers. Some can make them do considerably more than I can. They drive cars that have computer-generated dashboards and cellular phones and play Nintendo when they get home from school before sitting down at their personal computers to do their homework. They work with Macintosh computers and graphing calculators in my classrooms. But despite all these high-tech gadgets, the math and science curricula at my school (and most others, I suspect) are the same as the ones I experienced in high school. It’s no wonder that the possibilities of technology as a learning tool have made such a small impression on my students.

In applying to attend the Teachers and Technology Institute, I had to present my vision of a science classroom in the year 2003. I spent hours daydreaming about that: notebook computers, modems, CD-ROMs, laserdiscs, lab interfaces, instrumentation—all an integral part of a science curriculum. I pictured myself teaching in a state-of-the-art lab to end all labs.

I was thrilled at the prospect of spending two weeks at the New Jersey facilities of the legendary AT&T Bell Laboratories, a national research institution. Bell scientists, after all, invented the transistor and the laser and discovered the background radiation from the “big bang” that created our universe. On average, a patent a day has been awarded to Bell Labs since their founding in 1925. Nobel Prize winners work there. If you are a good scientist all your life, you may go there after you die. So imagine my excitement last spring when I learned that I had been chosen.

On July 18, I boarded a plane for Newark, where I was to join 47 other lucky teachers—three of the best and brightest science and math teachers from each of 16 different states. This was the deal: AT&T was going to give us a glimpse of the technology of the future, and we, in exchange, were to share our vision of math and science education as we look toward the new century.

My first glimpse wasn’t too promising. I had been selected to make a few remarks on behalf of my fellow teachers during the opening session at the AT&T School of Business in Somerset, N.J. Although I had written my speech on the trip from California, I decided on the evening of my arrival that I wanted to make some last-minute changes. The available computer couldn’t access my WordPerfect 5.1 file. Indeed, it couldn’t read anything newer than version 4.2. Someone kindly volunteered to re-enter the speech from my paper copy. When that job was completed and my speech was being sent to the printer, somebody inadvertently flipped a light switch, and the computer went off. Fortunately, the printer kept chugging along and produced a crisp new copy, typographical errors and all. The document had not been saved in the computer before the power went out, so I was relegated to a primitive technology—the red pencil—for my corrections.

So much for cutting edge.

On the first day of the institute, we were divided into six teams of eight teachers. Each team, we were told, was expected to design a project to present to the group as a whole on our final day together. AT&T was not going to let us be passive players; we were to assemble the nuts and bolts of what we would learn during the two week program into something that would be meaningful and useful to our students.

The planners of the institute were aware that teachers tend to be soloists, isolated by discipline and grade level in comfortable little boxes of their own design. So we spent the first few days in classrooms and auditoriums at the Somerset facility engaged in team-building activities and creativity training. We even learned to juggle (yes, juggle). The purpose of these activities, it seemed, was to get us “out of the box.” Learning how to be team players ourselves was an important prerequisite to helping our students team up for learning.

We also saw the first of many impressive technology demonstrations we would witness during our two-week stay. We were introduced, for example, to the AT&T Smart Card, a “credit card” with a memory that can store financial information or medical records, offer access to secured areas, and handle other chunks of information a person might want to carry around and access from time to time. Then there was AT&T RightPages, an information screening and delivery system that can be customized to suit an individual’s needs and interests. It automatically sorts through articles as they are published, and, when something comes up that matches the user’s interests, he or she is notified by electronic mail. The user can access these articles and print them in their originally published format. Imagine the implications for student research projects.

My favorite gadget, however, was what AT&T calls the EO, an electronic briefcase and communications center, all packaged in a device about the size of a clipboard and weighing a little more than 2 pounds. The EO includes a cellular phone, a fax machine, a voice recorder, an electronic mailbox, an address book, a day planner, and a calculator; the user can operate it by writing on the screen with a pen. I’d seen this futuristic device touted in TV commercials, but I was surprised to find that it was already on the market.

Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., is crisscrossed by miles of corridors leading to thousands of labs and offices, where some of the nation’s best minds work together to conceive and create marvelous innovations. In a world defined by limits, boundaries, and barriers, the only confines in evidence here were the limitations of the human mind’s ability to imagine.

As we toured this high-tech wonderland, we were told that science is a community process, the result of teamwork and interactions among many people over a long period of time. We learned about microchips, microlithography, computer art, and dark matter. We were each given a microchip, a thin metallic wafer less than 4 inches in diameter that appeared to have etched on it an arrangement of tiny squares. Each of these squares contained a staggering 30,000 transistors and megabytes of memory. How do they do that? How do they get that many of anything into an area that small? The answer, we discovered, is microlithography: They “paint” atoms onto the surface of the chip a layer at a time in an elaborate process requiring dozens of steps.

After the excursion through the labs at Murray Hill, it was back to the classroom for instruction in Total Quality Management. But technology continued to assert itself as we participated in a distance learning demonstration and spent time familiarizing ourselves with the AT&T Learning Network. This curriculum-based electronic messaging system links teams of geographically diverse schools with common interests so that they can collaborate to create cooperative group projects.

The daunting team project we had been assigned on the first day was supposed to be designed so our respective students could participate via this network. Our assignment was to craft an instructional or curricular program that combined one or more strategic technologies—network computing, wireless technology, messaging, visual communications, or voice and audio processing—with one or more of AT&T’s stated corporate values: respect for individuals, dedication to helping customers, integrity, innovation, and teamwork.

My teammates and I had been struggling daily to apply what we were learning to the development of a project. But by the end of the first week, we were no closer to agreeing on a direction than the first time we met. As the deadline grew closer, the tension built. The diversity of the schools we represented, the courses we taught, and our student populations made the construction of a mutually acceptable program extremely difficult. Some of us taught math, others science; some gifted students, others regular; some seniors, others freshmen. Finding a point at which our interests converged seemed an impossible task. Our only consolation was that none of the other teams seemed to be making much headway either.

Finally, late Sunday night, at the beginning of the second week, we hit upon a theme we could all identify with: “patterns of change.” We weren’t exactly sure what we’d do with that, but at least we felt better.

Monday of the second week was another “gee whiz” day. First, we traveled to the Bell Labs in Holmdel and visited Arno Penzias, the grand old man of radio astronomy. He ran us up a hill (literally) to show us his radio antenna and told us about how it worked and what it signified. This was the device he and Robert Wilson had been using when they discovered the background radiation from the “big bang.” Later, in a briefing room, Penzias gave us a little “chalk talk,” including an abbreviated retrospective on computers.

The first computers, he told us, were known as numerical calculators. Then came IBM’s big breakthrough: cheap memory—roughly $1 a bit. (One million bits today, Penzias said, cost about as much as “a screw-on door hinge.”) Penzias led us through the era of data processing, when records moved from paper to electronic media; past the personal computer era, when computers with microprocessors acted as personal assistants; and up to present-day computers, which serve as communications interfaces. He talked about distance learning; he characterized the vast international computer network Internet as an information supermarket and encouraged us to use it. His parting gift to us was his electronic mail address and a guarantee that he would answer our “Email” messages promptly and personally. (One of my colleagues with a laptop computer tested this assertion that evening and received a reply the following morning.)

From Holmdel, it was a short drive to the Bell Labs at Crawfords Corner. There, we saw a laser that can pulse 1 trillion times per second (terahertz optoelectronics) and learned about solitons. The latter, we were told, allow for the transmission of extremely fast digital signals over long distances without a significant loss of the signal. Apparently, signal breakdown is a problem that complicates the transmission of telephone calls via undersea cables of optical fiber. At regular intervals along the length of the cable, a regenerator must be used to boost the signal as it begins to weaken. Solitons should greatly reduce the need for regenerators and provide a more intact signal at its final destination.

In the virtual reality room, we took a tour of Yosemite (kind of spooky) and a quick look at Leo- nardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (even spookier), and then we moved on to look through a scanning tunneling microscope, a tool that enables scientists to examine things on the atomic scale. We each received a couple of spectacular photographs of atomic structure to take home.

But the biggest and most impressive technological device we saw at Crawfords Corner was the 5-ESS switch. An enormous room filled with row upon row of transmission and switching devices, the 5-ESS handles hundreds of thousands of telephone calls simultaneously, automatically selecting the most efficient and economical route for each.

The most vivid impression of my institute experience came the next day in Steve Downey’s lab, back at Murray Hill. Each teacher was assigned a scientist to work with, and I was lucky enough to get Downey. His lab is a smallish room, about a quarter of the size of my classroom, with $1 million worth of equipment in it. Downey, a chemist, is working on something called surface characterization. This involves the use of an ion beam to remove atoms one layer at a time from a boron-doped silicon chip. The technique is known as sputtering. The ionized silicon is monitored using a mass spectrometer, which registers a change whenever it detects a boron atom. The behavior of these boron atoms within the solid silicon matrix governs the conduction of electrical impulses. So it is important to know whether they migrate over time under certain conditions. I watched the data accumulate as the laser slowly peeled away atoms, layer by layer, liberating an occasional boron.

I found myself thinking that a few years ago Downey was someone’s science student—someone not unlike myself.

Our last big high-tech excursion was to the AT&T Network Operations Center in Bedminster, where we sat in a gallery overlooking a huge wall of video displays showing telephone trunk lines spanning the globe. Beneath us, technicians were seated at stations of video terminals monitoring call traffic. We learned about network security and reliability and found out that a single cable break in an isolated part of the country can potentially affect phone service thousands of miles away. One teacher asked what would happen if the center were damaged or destroyed. Our guides told us that there is a duplicate facility elsewhere in North America, but they declined to say where. (They could tell us, but then they would have to kill us.)

Despite all we had seen, our team still struggled with the assigned project. We decided that we would offer our students a menu of options that all somehow reflected our “patterns of change” theme. So far, so good. But when it came to planning our group presentation, a couple of team members leaped swiftly back into their boxes. As far as they were concerned, they knew perfectly well how to make a good oral presentation, and they were going to make darn sure we used their recipes for success. The creative process is not without its pitfalls. Everyone is creative in his or her own way. Getting out of the box may be stimulating and exciting, but it can also be frustrating and irritating. The whole thing is a little reminiscent of childbirth: painful, messy, exhilarating, and productive.

Teams don’t come together overnight; group interactions are complex and require time. Doggedly we toiled on, carefully practicing the teamwork techniques we had been exposed to during the institute. Finally, the night before our final day, we had a plan that every member of the team felt good about.

We were scheduled to present first. As the moment approached for us to begin, it was interesting to see how each member of the group handled stress: One paced, another repeated her lines over and over, and a third sat uncomfortably, wishing it were over. (And then, of course, there was the team member who partied a little too hard the night before and almost didn’t show up at all.) Finally, it was time. We used an audience participation activity to illustrate our theme, presented a time line, and summarized. As quickly as it had begun, it was all over. The other presentations were well-designed. With bulges and warts, each had a distinctive personality of its own.

Following the presentation, there were pictures, certificates, checks, and classy plexiglass prisms with the AT&T Teachers and Technology logo on them. There were thank yous and speeches and a moving statement about the sad state of a society that does not treat its teachers as professionals. And then it was over—except for the final partying and goodbyes.

Looking back, I can hardly believe the experience lasted only two weeks. It was an intense time, and it has taken me a couple of months to “run my data decompression program” and begin processing the vast array of information and ideas I acquired. I will certainly never see communications technology in quite the same way. The limitless access it promises my students is awesome to contemplate. Still, it is not a panacea, an instant remedy for all of our educational and societal problems.

Technology provides us with powerful tools. But a tool is no better than the person who wields it. Technology’s tools can help us gather information, visualize relationships, conceptualize abstract ideas, model complex systems, and interact with a diverse group of people and resources, but they cannot reason. Technology is a means, not an end unto itself; it can provide all the parts, but it cannot determine the relative value of each part nor can it construct the big picture. We must certainly make every effort to give our students access to the versatile and powerful tools of technology. We would be shortchanging them if we didn’t. But we must also continue to make every effort to help our students learn how to reason and evaluate. We must not delete the necessary human elements of logic, intuition, values, attitudes, and ethics from the educational process.

The two weeks I spent at the Bell Laboratories changed my approach to teaching, but the change is only peripherally related to technology. It was the teamwork aspect of what we experienced that affected me most deeply. The team-centered management paradigm we explored has many features that make it a valuable tool for educators: motivate and encourage involvement (active as opposed to passive learning); support involvement and networking (teacher as mentor and coach as opposed to teacher as oracle); measure progress (where did we start, how far have we come); and recognize improvement and achievement (celebrate each success, no matter how small; in fact, celebrate failures as well, for they are the best learning experiences). In comparison with the old management paradigm (make rules, monitor compliance, take names, and kick butt), it makes great sense.

This movement toward quality in education is a positive one. It takes the coercion out of the picture and replaces it with motivation. It recognizes the student’s role as an active participant in the learning team. And it promotes a partnership between students and teachers. But most importantly, it teaches students the invaluable skill of functioning as members of a team, a skill that is as critical to their successes in the workplace of tomorrow as technological literacy.

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1994 edition of Teacher Magazine as High-Tech Teamwork


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