Start with the Teachers

By Karen Diegmueller — January 01, 1992 8 min read

Computerized telephone greetings have become commonplace in this day and age. At San Jose State University in California, though, the greeting is just the beginning.

The caller is told to push button number three to access faculty and staff listings, and then she is instructed to spell out the party’s surname on the telephone keypad. On the first attempt, the caller accidentally scrambles the letters. The computer politely suggests that “perhaps the name is spelled differently.”

On the second attempt, the caller presses 3-7-2-6-2-2-7 and is successful. But the computer informs her that there are two listings for this name. Push number one or two, the disembodied voice intones, to locate the correct extension. Guessing, the caller selects number one, and lo and behold the listing is cited for Dolores Escobar, dean of the college of education.

This is the world that Escobar entered four years ago when she became dean. Here she was, a self-proclaimed neophyte to technology, plopped down smack in the middle of Silicon Valley, one of the nation’s premier high-tech centers.

Escobar concedes that she entered the age of educational technology “kicking and screaming.” But now, she says, “I’m convinced it’s the only way to go.”

The dean presides over a college that possesses some of the most sophisticated educational technology available: computers, laserdisc players, remote television facilities, broadcast production equipment, test-scoring scanners, and much more.

A personal computer and accompanying printer, tools she now uses to do her job, occupy one corner of her ground-floor office. More prominent, though, are the wall-length bookcase, the comfortable sofa and coffee table around which conversations unfold, plants, tapestries and artwork, and photographs of her children and grandchildren.

It is illustrative of an attitude that prevails throughout the college, the oldest teacher-training institute in California. Faculty and administrators here believe that the technology they have at their fingertips should not overshadow their primary mission of preparing teachers for the classroom.

Says James Cabeceiras, a professor of instructional technology, “We try to make the technology invisible.”

Escobar started her career in education in the 1950s as an elementary school teacher at the lab school of the University of California at Los Angeles. While rearing two children, she returned to college and earned a master’s degree and a doctorate. Eventually, she moved into higher education, holding various posts at California State University at Northridge. When hired away by San Jose State after 26 years, she was associate dean.

In terms of technology, Escobar says, Northridge was not far along; there had been some talk but not much action. “I remember discussions about getting a laserdisc,” she says. Escobar’s first glimpse of San Jose State University provided quite a jolt. “I came here to interview,” she recalls, “and I saw this whole range of technology.”

The dean is not the least bit embarrassed in recounting her initial reluctance to enter the high-tech age. She describes how, after moving to San Jose, her son would scold her for settling down at the piano in the evenings rather than using the time to practice on her home computer.

But that’s all changed. Though still learning, Escobar is now a full-fledged “techie,” and she attributes her newfound comfort with technology, in part, to several training sessions she attended that were put on for education school deans by IBM and Apple.

The sessions have transformed the way she does her job. She now uses her computer, for example, to jot down ideas generated by faculty members and to write them follow-up notes. “It has amazing results,” she says. “Faculty say, `You really heard what I said.’ She is also working to complete a computer network that will link the college to other university units, such as admissions, so student records can be checked immediately and reports can be more readily generated for such organizations as the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

Escobar has even discovered new uses for an old technological tool: the telephone. “Right now,” she says, “I use my telephone like a computer” to deliver inner-office messages via its voice mail function. She has resorted to that method of communication because not all the faculty and staff in the college have learned to use the electronic mail system run through the computer network.

“The dean is really pushing for more faculty to get on this network,” says Ji Mei Chang, an associate professor of education. Chang trains future teachers to use technology to help handicapped children learn. Some children, for example, lack fine motor skills and cannot write legibly, a frustrating problem that is easily eliminated with a computer keyboard.

Chang also employs computer technology in her research on cross-language reading disabilities; she taps into a special network that gives her affordable access to international researchers.

To encourage this kind of use of technology, Escobar has managed to outfit 80 percent of her faculty members’ offices with personal computers. “She understands what the technology is about and works for us,” says Alicia Rojas, an associate professor. “She gives us that support.”

Says Escobar: “My philosophy is: Don’t stand in their way.”

In some respects, the need to coax and persuade has been lessened because she has been able to hire 30 new faculty members since she arrived, and many of these new hires are from the generation that grew up with the technological revolution. MeiYan Lu is one of them. “We don’t just teach students how to turn on their computers,” the assistant professor says, “but also how to integrate them into their lesson plans.” One way Lu does that is by teaching her students how to use HyperCard, a software that enables them to do their own programming.

This is the area in which San Jose State teacher preparation differs from that offered at many institutions. Just shy of 90 percent of teacher education programs now have computer laboratories. But according to a 1990 survey conducted under the auspices of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, new technologies are seldom integrated into prospective teachers’ methods courses. Only 13 percent of students surveyed reported that computers were used “very often” or “often” in the instructional methodology they received during their student teaching. Fewer than one-third of prospective elementary teachers surveyed in 1989 felt ready to teach with computers.

A glimpse at a list of course titles offered at San Jose State University shows that the college of education wants its graduates to be among the minority who feel ready. Titles include “Curriculum Materials and Technology,” “Module on Technology,” and “Computers and Special Education Instruction.”

The commitment to technology among faculty members goes beyond teaching about it; many also use new high-tech tools in their own lessons. While teaching a math methodology course recently, Barbara Pence, a professor in the college of math and computer science, used a computerized sketchpad to rearrange shapes on an overhead projector. “Wow,” the students gasped.

Kathleen Cohen, an art historian in the college of humanities and the arts, is developing a visual database on laserdisc that she believes will be a useful tool for the prospective teachers she instructs.

Her hope is that it will enable her students to review images quickly and create slide shows and other types of presentations that will be particularly valuable for cross-cultural teaching.

“I see this technology as very significant for non-native English speakers,” says Escobar, whose specialty area is bilingual education. “It doesn’t need complicated language in order to make something meaningful. We cannot ignore this tool when we are working with diverse student populations.”

San Jose State also uses technology for community outreach. From a campus television studio, courses are broadcast, via microwave, to teachers attending classes at five community colleges in the region. The teachers at these remote sites can interact with the professor and students back in the studio.

The broadcasts have produced some exciting moments. One lesson, for example, was interrupted by the Loma Prieta earthquake. The teacher was shown ripping off the microphone and running for cover. A week later the very same professor was on camera when an aftershock hit. According to Escobar, the frustrated instructor exclaimed, “Not again, damn it.”

The college has not been able to make every technological innovation it has attempted succeed. A closed-circuit television connection for student teaching in local public schools didn’t work out for financial reasons. A technician was needed at each end, and the college couldn’t afford it. The student teachers are now videotaped, which provides them with feedback, albeit not instantaneously.

Nor has all the advanced technology meant that the college has been able to forego acquainting prospective teachers with more primitive tools of their trade. Recognizing that some schools do not have the means or will to acquire new technology, the college continues to offer instruction in the use of ditto machines and similar equipment.

Because of San Jose State’s auspicious location, it has become the testing ground for many of the surrounding firms’ new products. As a result, the college of education has received millions of dollars worth of high-tech gifts. Cabeceiras, for example, has been testing a piece of equipment that looks like a thick pen. It is linked to an overhead projector, which is hooked up to a computer. By moving the pen, Cabeceiras is able to perform a number of tasks on the screen without turning his back on the class. Working with this kind of gadgetry, he says, is one “advantage of being in the Silicon Valley.”

What’s often lacking, however, is continuity. Once the seed money is spent and the bugs are worked out of the pilot equipment, the college is often left without money to obtain more equipment or to keep its technology labs open.

Finding solutions to these problems is a challenge Escobar says she is prepared to take on. Her goal is to equip the college with the latest equipment and to persuade her faculty to master it so that they can be conduits. New teachers who enter the schools without a working knowledge of this equipment, she says, are insufficiently prepared for the job.

“Our own standards and expectations are high,” she says.

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Start with the Teachers