Connecting Schools Is Only a Start

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The national movement to connect all schools to the Internet is wonderful, but simply getting on the information highway is not enough. Educators must know where they want to go, why, and how they can get there before the use of telecommunications can truly benefit students in the classroom. We need for the technological infrastructure to be put in place as quickly as possible. But simultaneously, we must move beyond the logistics of wiring and technical concerns to focus on the pedagogical and organizational changes necessary for success.

When we reported in these pages, more than a year ago, on what we found worked and didn't when schools integrated new technologies and telecommunications into their classrooms, the response from teachers told us we had hit a nerve. More than 15,000 requests for reprints have been processed. The "principles for action" we described then were based on the first year of a longitudinal evaluation of all the education and technology awards made by the USWest Foundation in 14 states. ("Upgrading School Technology," May 1, 1996.) Having now spent a second year evaluating what happens when these schools and districts continue to integrate technologies in ways large and small--and in a period of rapidly escalating use--we offer the following expanded list of principles that should guide action in this field:

Learning to use technologies is necessary but not sufficient. A large chasm exists between knowing how to do a search on the Internet and being able to build on the capabilities of the computer or the video camera in one's curriculum. Too often, new technologies are simply being pasted onto old methods of teaching. Using PowerPoint to make presentations instead of a chalkboard, or trying to have the entire class make use of a search conducted by a few kids at the computer, does not begin to touch the power of what's possible.

In growing numbers of schools, we are starting to see the maturation of these innovations. The boldest teachers have learned that they must rethink their entire approach to instruction, and are changing their process of transforming content into curriculum, often recognizing that it is student participation in that process that produces the most learning. The results these teachers are achieving as they allow students to reach new levels of insight and ability are literally thrilling.

In one project, for example, teachers guided 4th graders through a complex interdisciplinary ecology unit designed to determine which of four watersheds would be best for release of salmon fingerlings raised by the students. Pupils at the four sites tested water quality, shared statistical data via the Internet, conducted distance-project meetings using CU CME software, recorded their progress with video and digital photography, and made presentations to community members.

As this kind of project demonstrates, optimal uses of technologies often require more work on the part of educators, not less. Significant planning and time are needed to research, prepare, and share resources. Considerably more effort has to be expended to restructure both a style of teaching and a classroom to accommodate this open style of learning. Not least important, teachers must make conscious efforts to realign the expectations of parents and administrators so that these transformed goals are communicated and shared, and unnecessary obstacles are not imposed.

It's easy for all parties to be misled about the difficulty of this process--both by the claims of software and hardware vendors and by the sometimes naive enthusiasm of new converts or trainers. The "guide on the side" phrase has been oversimplified and overused to the point ad nauseam to characterize this new style of teaching, but it simply paraphrases in catchier language everything that John Dewey espoused almost a century ago. Like Dewey's ideas, it will be increasingly dismissed unless educators--and the public--understand that student-centered learning environments demand more structure and feedback than traditional teacher-centered ones.

Flexibility and structure are the yin and yang of effective use of technologies. As teachers move to new levels of comfort with computers, most recognize that the power of the technologies cannot be creatively exploited in a context of lock-step learning by everyone at the same time. In many classrooms, project-based learning successfully provides the framework or template that makes it possible to move away from the whole-classroom model of teaching. But projects for projects' sake can just as easily be a waste of time if students' learning goals and the means to achieve them are not clearly structured, communicated, and assessed.

A useful analogy to the teacher's new role is the preparation a climbing guide goes through before taking a group of new climbers to the top of a mountain. Basic expertise and techniques must be mastered, then flexibly combined with new routes or new approaches. A lot of psychology has to be learned or intuited, and a fine balance between calming fears and setting up challenges established. Often, it is climbers' unexpected experiences along the way--the journey itself--that create the foundation for continued exploration. And the marvel of reaching the top is quite comparable to the "peak" learning experiences we want all our children to achieve.

Teachers need to master this same mix of content knowledge with confidence about new techniques and approaches in their use of technologies. They need opportunities to practice using software before introducing it to students, while remaining flexible enough to allow kids to become the "experts." They must provide, and be provided with, just the right mix of motivation and security in the new classroom environment created by telecommunications. And they must themselves regularly experience those peak learning experiences in order to be able to share them with their students.

Interestingly, project-based learning seems to work best for both students and teachers to gain meaningful, long-lasting achievements in this new environment. Pairs or teams learn what they need to know as they truly need to know it--in an open, mixed-pace, results-oriented structure. Based on our observations, we believe teacher training programs at all levels will be most successful if they reflect this project-based orientation.

Communicate, communicate, communicate. Many of the teachers and faculty members in the projects we've studied--all of whom are pioneers--have labeled communication as the single thing they wish they'd done better. Whether it concerns purchasing new equipment, motivating or focusing teachers or students to participate in training, or conveying to boards the excitement and the achievements that telecommunications make possible, communication that is too little and too late can regularly halt progress.

Daily e-mail updates and scheduling, desktop publication of weekly parent newsletters, video news briefs, and Web pages provide countless opportunities to increase the momentum of a school's transformation. And often the first or most obvious use is not the best. Many schools--like many corporations--developed World Wide Web pages in the first flush of excitement about telecommunications that were basically ads, and of little interest after a single visit. Now they are discovering that internal communications, posting and updating of curricula, assignments, and community-enhancement projects can all be easily and advantageously conducted via their Web sites.

Perhaps one of the greatest gifts the new technologies will give us is this awareness of how consciously and explicitly--and repeatedly--we must communicate our expectations, assumptions, goals, and accomplishments. Often overlooked in the past, communications strategies are one factor schools are now learning they should include in their overall plans for technology use. Equally important, teachers are learning that they must regularly educate their various publics about everything occurring in their transformed classrooms. This new learning must be documented in compelling ways to show what results when students go beyond the "basics."

The new professionalism requires new skills. Until very recently, most teachers at every level functioned like islands, only loosely linked in an archipelago of learning. Now that they are finally becoming able to connect easily with other educators, community members, and expert resources across town and around the world, it is apparent that new skills are required to function successfully outside the closed classroom door. Fortuitously, these same skills are what students need to be learning to function successfully in the 21st-century workplace.

Communications skills, peer-coaching abilities, public relations and marketing savvy, negotiating skills, teamwork capabilities, an understanding of political strategies needed to gain support from school administrators and boards, powerful presentation skills, and the ability to function as a change agent may all have been implicit tools of the most successful educators in the pre-Information Age. Now these capabilities must be explicitly taught and mastered--by all teachers and students. And the time required to master them must be inserted into school, pre-service, and in-service curricula.

Networking is no longer just for cocktail parties. Use of on-line networks can provide significant support and resources, especially if backed up with occasional face-to-face meetings. Enormous comfort comes from learning that other teachers and schools are experiencing identical problems hooking up their computers or dealing with the one-computer classroom. Students are fascinated to learn that someone who comes from a different culture shares their same worries and aspirations, and are extraordinarily motivated by the chance to do applied research about water quality or regional history with their peers.

But countless grant proposals conjure up lively ongoing exchanges between student "key pals," or portray on-line discussion groups that will be avidly followed by teachers, without thinking about what's required to actually make them work. The reality is that networking--both on-line and in-person--is as much of an art form as education itself. For on-line linkages to work, it's not enough to say, "Hi, my name is Mary and my favorite color is green," or "My class is doing a project studying whales and it has been very exciting," and expect a response. After a few weeks, these networks fizzle out because they have no common mission or continuing need to relate to each other.

For schools to exploit the advantages electronic networking can provide, the power twins of planned communication and flexible structure again come into play. As one of the teachers in our study noted, successful projects will have ascertained equipment compatibility in advance, and will have structured what is to be shared, in what format, and when. An explicit agreement about goals and objectives for the networking should be in place, as well as plans for a definite conclusion. The plan must also include contingencies for technological failure, and have back-up structures for using regular mail to send videos or letters, so that the linkages remain viable during the project. Again, this means significant effort up front, but the end result will not be students or teachers who expect a lot and are severely disappointed when their e-mail queries go unanswered.

The technologies are simply tools for learning. They should be considered as such, not as ends or entities valued in and of themselves. All the parts of the new technical infrastructure--the wiring, the telephones, the computers, the video and still digital cameras, the audio recorders, the scanners, the printers, and the faxes--can be used in hundreds of ways to support learning. But only if they are readily available, if teachers and students know how to use them, and, most important, if they consistently work.

Just as one would analyze the need for tools in a woodshop, those creating the technological infrastructure of a school must consider what tools are needed for what purposes, what quantities of various tools will be most efficient, what quality levels are sufficient but not excessive for various activities, and how to make sure that everything is always in good working condition. Nothing is so frustrating to teachers and students as to be ready to work on a big project and then find that an on-line connection is down or there's no ink in the printer or a camera's battery has died. Specific responsibility for this maintenance and troubleshooting needs to be assigned and compensated, rather than casually relying on the teachers who have become known as "tekkies" to handle it in addition to all their other responsibilities.

Part of creating a viable technical infrastructure relies again on communication--and not simply a discussion between the district technology coordinator and the purchasing department. Expectations and frustrations about what equipment is needed, where it will be located, and how it will be used need to be widely discussed within the context of a specific school's culture--or significant divisiveness will result. Strategies that best serve the most learning need to be developed and agreed to--recognizing that feelings about geographic and political turf, professional roles, and outmoded notions about the capabilities of students will all need to be openly addressed.

One issue that is changing rapidly is the question of which hardware platform a school should use. New machines provide ready cross-platform and multimedia capabilities, while older machines can either be designated for specific tasks--since students must still be prepared to use both platforms in the workplace--or upgraded and networked. The surprise is that the dual-platform issue was often an adult problem--not a student one. Students readily seem to understand that it is the pattern of the process, not the external specifics of the machinery or software, that counts.

Students are our most underutilized resource. In an older, agrarian age, students knew they had real and valuable work to perform. Today, many child-development experts and sociologists speculate that some of the problems of modern adolescence may originate in the simple feeling of being unneeded and unable to do anything meaningful. Some schools, however, are discovering that, just as students are amazingly comfortable using both computer platforms, they also are perfectly comfortable and capable of being trained--or training themselves--to handle wiring, technical installation, and troubleshooting.

Many schools have been driven to this radical change in allowing students to have "real" and potentially "dangerous" accountability by simple desperation. The lack of technical expertise in the country has affected all the high-tech industries, which have publicly acknowledged they are thousands of appropriately trained employees short. Nowhere is that shortage more apparent than in our school systems.

Yet there exists a ready and eager workforce willing to tackle any technological job--if they are trusted, allowed and assisted to train themselves in phases from low-risk to quasi-professional, and if the expectations for their behavior and responsibility for these new privileges are made very explicit. In one school we've visited, some of the special education students have demonstrated a real flair for these technical tasks. Their pride and pleasure in having an important, recognizable responsibility is notable.

In other schools, there are students who have learned to do very respectful and efficient peer coaching and teacher coaching on how to use the technologies. With students as well as adults, the basics of good teaching are not something one necessarily knows intuitively, and they are less easily figured out independently than are some of the technical problems. But once a group of 10 or so students is well trained, they can fan out to teach hundreds of people. Pyramid selling schemes may be disreputable, but pyramid teaching programs provide fast-track success.

Moreover, teachers are beginning to accept that students can provide excellent curricular support in such subjects as math, science, and English. The old saying that the best way to learn something is to have to teach it is proven true as students create topic-specific modules using the Internet. These materials are then available for teachers to use as resources in future classes.

And in a few cases, we are seeing students who literally work on professional levels doing history or development projects for their communities--all as part of an education that will truly prepare them for their future--and all before they have graduated from high school. One cannot help but ask how much capability has been wasted over the years by confining students' output to work sheets and multiple-choice quizzes.

Partnerships accelerate progress. From the simple discovery that people learn how to use technologies much more quickly if they are paired with a peer for support and encouragement, to the remarkable synergy that can be achieved when a school, a university, and a community agency work together effectively, it is clear that success in today's world requires the multiplier effect of partnerships. However, like marriage, it is a lot easier to initiate the bond than to make it work.

Partnerships--especially between different schools, districts, or educational organizations--require careful planning and, once again, real reliance on explicit communication and structural organization. Too often we see universities enter into partnerships with schools and assume that it is a one-way street, with all expertise flowing downward. Or those involved with multiple partnerships based around state and community educational agencies wonder why the infighting seems to take more of their time than the actual project.

Regular and structured evaluation can turn this around, by continually asking everyone involved, "What can we do to make this partnership more effective?" The answers such surveys provide are often astonishing to the leaders of a partnership, but as they progress, all admit that the changes in attitude, style of communication, clearly articulated responsibilities, and two-way learning are invaluable. In any partnership, large or small, teamwork skills often need to be explicitly addressed and taught. These can be an unexpected bonus to a project, and the basis for important lifelong learning for teachers, students, and community members.

Old traditions need to be openly questioned. Until recently, textbooks were the identifying touchstone of the classroom experience. Once teachers truly start integrating use of the technologies and individualized project-based learning, textbooks are no longer so essential. In fact, many teachers now find them too bland, too restricting, and too out of date. Publishers are scrambling to try to figure out how to make them more flexible and useful, and more easily integrated with materials on the Internet. The jury is still out on whether they will succeed.

Sadly, one of the main obstacles that teachers who are innovators and who win grants for equipment confront is their districts' traditional purchasing policies. We've received countless reports of whole schools unwired, or wrong equipment purchased, or projects delayed for months simply because no one has considered that budgetary policies that worked for a slower, more easily regulated period simply are not viable in today's world.

Even such "givens" as the 180-day school year or the wisdom of separating students into fixed grade levels are open to question when the needs and possibilities of teaching and learning with technologies are examined. Flexible structuring and strong communication are again the key as boards, administrators, teachers, and parents meet to reconsider what really works and what doesn't to make education effective today.

In the end, systematic, lasting change requires simultaneous top-down and bottom-up ownership and innovation. Many of the projects we studied learned that one of the critical requirements for success was to spread ownership, rather than relying just on the pioneers. Innovators--especially already-busy teachers--often get burned out if they are not encouraged to plan for their own succession, and if they are not helped to spread ownership of these new changes diffusely.

We have also learned that technology integration is not just a school issue, but that it is a community issue as well. Integrating technologies into the school can provide an ideal lever for making the school a true community learning place--providing parents and seniors and businesspeople the opportunity to keep on learning, right alongside the students. To accomplish this requires that planners think systematically about every component of the school's transformation. They need to consider vertical and horizontal strategies, and think about new ways of using time and space.

Communicating the needs, goals, and accomplishments of our schools must become a new priority for educators--in ways that go well beyond the traditional. Rather than isolating individuals, as was originally feared, the new technologies and telecommunications have significantly widened our worlds of interaction and potential impact. We need to make the time, and the effort, to master this new universe.

Vol. 17, Issue 02, Page 52, 42-43

Published in Print: September 10, 1997, as Connecting Schools Is Only a Start
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