A Virtual Network

Technology puts a variety of easy-access electronic tools right at the fingertips of teachers looking to tap into a support system for professional development.

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The greatest barrier to professional development too often is the classroom wall. Unlike professionals in other fields, teachers' hectic schedules and working conditions seldom allow for thoughtful discussions with their peers in the next room, let alone colleagues within their own states or across the nation.

But as more schools become wired for access to the Internet and state telecommunications networks, and as the number of personal computers in schools and homes continues to grow, some promising new professional-development programs are tapping into technology to provide teachers with a variety of electronic forums to discuss their classroom practices.

Electronic mail allows teachers to share their daily frustrations and successes with their peers without regard to distance or time. And videotaped lessons store the best classroom practices and allow teachers to replicate them anywhere, anytime.

Satellite and fiber-optic networks give master teachers a wide, even a continental, audience of eager students for interactive programs, while the immense storage capacity and global access of the Internet place the best curriculum materials and teaching practices at the fingertips of computer-using educators.

It's not clear exactly how many technology-dependent professional-development projects exist nationwide. But, according to Kathleen Fulton, a former researcher for the now-defunct congressional Office of Technology Assessment, many promising approaches using a variety of technologies are already in use.

In its report, "Teachers and Technology: Making the Connection," the OTA featured several programs nationwide taking advantage of technology to help teachers both at the pre-service and in-service levels. But the report also noted that professional development by means of technology is still a field in its infancy.

"We said it was a recommended area for development and for research," Fulton explains. "How much of it is going on we didn't really survey in any comprehensive way. Like everything else in the area of educational technology, there have been some bits and pieces and fits and starts."

While still very much the exception rather than the rule, electronic professional-development programs are taking hold under the direction of the federal government, state legislatures, a growing number of private concerns, and even individual school districts and colleges of education.

The U.S. Department of Education, through its Eisenhower Clearinghouse at Ohio State University, offers a home page on the Internet's World Wide Web with exemplary curriculum materials and guidance on how to take an on-line course in computer literacy offered by the University of Arizona.

Another promising project at the federal level, also cited in the OTA report, is Mathline, an initiative of the Alexandria, Va.-based Public Broadcasting Service. The project began two years ago as a means of disseminating effective practice in math education as defined by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Almost 70 PBS affiliates around the country distribute videotaped lessons of exemplary teachers, either by broadcasting them during late-night hours or providing videotapes free of charge to middle school teachers nationwide.

"They're real teachers in real classrooms trying to implement teaching standards," notes Jinny Goldstein, the vice president for education project development at PBS. "What they're supposed to do is stimulate the teachers to think about their own teaching practices."

Teachers can then take to their computers to discuss the lessons in mediated on-line forums or post messages for one another on an electronic bulletin board. The number of participating teachers has grown from 500 to 2,000 in two years.

At the state level, the OTA report notes, Iowa uses a government-owned fiber-optic communications network to provide professional-development seminars to classroom educators. Texas gives teachers unlimited Internet access through the Texas Education Network, a cooperative venture of the Texas Education Agency and the University of Texas system, for $5 a year.

Scattered private-sector efforts have also hooked up to the burgeoning telecommunications industry to enhance teaching.

TI-IN, a San Antonio-based provider of math, science, and foreign-language classes for high school students learning by satellite, has long included professional-development courses in its offerings.

Genentech, a leader in genetic engineering based in South San Francisco, sponsors Access Excellence, an ongoing forum on the World Wide Web where high school biology teachers can go to find the latest information about scientific developments, hold on-line discussions, and pose queries to Genentech scientists about scientific advances.

The Utah-based Video Journal of Education provides school districts that subscribe a series of video seminars featuring such well-known psychologists as Yale University's James P. Comer and Harvard's Howard Gardner.

And many large school districts are experimenting on their own to find effective ways that electronic media can help them deliver in-service training.

The Los Angeles County Office of Education operates a satellite network of its own that provides teleconferences and professional-development seminars for teachers. And in cooperation with the Los Angeles Educational Partnership, a nonprofit reform group, it also 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 on the Internet, as well as social-service agencies and other resources.

Technology has also found its way into education schools as a means of offering professional-development support to both practicing and student teachers.

At Western Illinois University, the college of education and human services uses a video link to tutor teachers and student teachers in the Springfield public schools some 90 miles away. Student teachers also run a video-based homework hot-line that allows students to get much-needed answers by fax from their school libraries.

"Our students are seeing, in that case, low-cost technology used for an instructional purpose," says Bruce Barker, who oversees the program, which has received funding from the U.S Education Department and the Ameritech Corp.

The recent overhaul of the nation's 60-year-old telecommunications bill, which guarantees schools "affordable" access to telecommunications, may also help spur innovation in the use of technology in professional development. A hint to the sort of projects these revisions may foster can already be found taking shape in Maryland.

Starting next fall, the Baltimore Electronic Learning Community will use the Internet to bring huge amounts of curriculum materials, lesson plans, and even video links between classrooms to local teachers. The cooperative effort of the University of Maryland's college of education and the Baltimore City public schools will give teachers 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 allow educators to track down other teachers conducting searches on similar topics and find out whether they have already written lesson plans for the material.

Research is still scanty on just what makes for effective use of electronic media in professional development.

But, according to Fulton, the former OTA researcher, distance-learning by satellite or video link--which generally incorporates some sort of two-way communications connection to allow teachers to accept and answer student questions--has proved its worth in many 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." But, she adds, there is no reason the same approach should not be effective with teachers, provided that it is more ambitious than the simple "talking head" variety of television programming.

It may also be that teachers, who generally aren't exposed to technology in their professional training, may need time to learn how to use such applications to get the help they need. An independent appraisal of the Mathline project, for example, found that teachers rated the availability of quality video lessons as far more important than access to telecommunications.

Tom Keating, a former marine biologist who is now a doctoral student at Stanford University, thinks many teachers will face a steep learning curve when it comes to technology. His experience running a national telecommunications network for 30 teachers at 13 schools creating a high school biology curriculum suggests as much. But he's quick to add that adapting a communications model from the world of science may not be the most appropriate way to infuse networking into daily classroom use.

"Scientists need to be in constant communication to do their work. That's not true of teachers," he says.

"The question is how does it become routine in a teacher's life," Keating adds. "And that's a difficult thing. But I do have faith in teachers. That teacher wisdom and teacher insight into the classroom experience is important."

Vol. 15, Issue 30, Page s37-39

Published in Print: April 17, 1996, as A Virtual Network
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