Bridge to the Future

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A unique graduate program at a tiny Vermont college aims to make teachers masters of technology.

High in the Green Mountains of southern Vermont sits tiny Marlboro College, founded 52 years ago on the belief that "all it takes to learn is a teacher, a student, and a log to sit on." There is certainly no shortage of logs at this school housed in a collection of mid-19th century farm buildings, but until recently, that was about it. The dorms got in-room phone lines only two years ago, and even today there is but one television on campus.

Described by the Atlantic Monthly as "one great place to be a hippie in the '60s and '70s," this progressive, laid-back, and quintessentially rural college of 260 students seems like the ideal hideout from the onrushing new millennium, a refuge for those who yearn for the Age of Aquarius. It is all the more surprising, then, to discover that Marlboro is in fact hustling to bring the Information Age to the K-12 classroom.

Just a little more than nine miles downhill from the school's main campus, in the relative metropolis of Brattleboro (population 8,612), the college has opened a new graduate center. In a building it shares with the Holstein Association (yes, as in the Holstein cow), the school offers two master's degrees it says are unique in the United States. One, a master's of science in Internet strategy management, is designed to help business students use the Internet effectively in the corporate world. The other, a master's of arts in teaching with Internet technologies, is intended to help teachers navigate the rapidly changing, high-tech world of cyberspace with the goal of turning them into masters of the far-flung electronic universe.

With the teaching program, the college has zeroed in on a problem that has hobbled the technological revolution in education so far. As scholar Larry Cuban and others argue, no school reform works unless teachers embrace it, and so far, many teachers have yet to even figure out how to turn a computer on, much less how to teach with one. Marlboro aims to fill that knowledge gap, making teachers more computer-savvy. But the school has a much bigger goal, as well: to make teachers the leaders of the technology revolution.

Marlboro's Graduate Center went from dream to reality in six short months--at what academic director Mary Greene describes as "corporate speed"--and opened in January of this year with its first class of nine students. Everything about the program is brand-new, from the curriculum to the students to the equipment. Hardware and software are top-of-the-line; Pentium laptops and multimedia desktop computers fill the three classrooms, which sport interactive whiteboards that magically allow the instructor's in-class notes to be electronically saved for later review by the students. No expense was spared, according to Ian Kozak, technical systems administrator for the Graduate Center and a recent Marlboro graduate. "We wanted the students to have access to the best. . . . If they ask 'can we do this,' we want to be able to say 'sure.' " It didn't hurt that the college received $1.2 million in anonymous gifts to launch the project.

The degree program takes one year, with no vacations, to complete. Most of the work is done online, through bulletin-board discussion groups, e-mail, and Internet research; classes meet only two weekends a month, on Friday evenings and Saturdays. All of the students are from Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York; the most far-flung lives in upstate Vermont and drives a little more than 100 miles to get to the graduate center.

The seven course requirements demand that teachers learn to decipher computer network systems, design online curricula and materials, develop Internet research strategies for various disciplines, and ponder the weighty ethical and legal issues involved in integrating technology into the schools.

Participants log considerable time at the keyboard doing nuts-and-bolts work, but "we don't turn out techies," Greene insists. Rather, the program aims to show teachers how to bulldoze resistance to technology in their schools and pave the way for valuable uses of the Internet in the classroom.

"This is not a training program," says Graduate Center founder Paul LeBlanc, who came to Marlboro as president of the college in 1996. "It is really a leadership program; we want our graduates to be thoughtful teachers and purveyors of change." LeBlanc, author of several books on computers and teaching, sees the Marlboro program as an answer to what he calls the "white-coat syndrome." Traditionally, LeBlanc says, each school has but one impassioned computer teacher--the school's "techie"--who works to integrate technology into the classrooms. Bit by bit, however, as technology catches on in the school, more demands are placed on this person, who begins to feel exploited and burned out. The white-coat syndrome has sabotaged more than one effort to marry technology and education, LeBlanc argues. "This is not a rational, well-thought-out plan."

A techno-savvy teacher unprepared to answer the challenges of the ubiquitous techno-phobe is a lonely teacher indeed.

Devising a rational, well-thought-out plan for change is a dominant theme of the masters program and the focus of Jim Woodell's Curriculum Design and Assessment Theory class. "We have to discuss how we want schools to be a different place," he says, "not just what we want students to learn." Woodell is a pioneer in this burgeoning field. He has a master's in education from Harvard, lectures widely on integrating technology into the curriculum, and applies his skills as director of online productions for GlobaLearn, an educational Web site. His teaching style, though, owes more to John Dewey than to Bill Gates. This trimester, Woodell has created a fictional school, given the class a make-believe $350,000 grant, and asked them to come up with a plan for implementing technology into the school's curriculum. His students--eight teachers and one librarian, seven women and two men--all play different roles within the school: principal, teacher, technology coordinator, and parent, among others. In a lively conversation that twangs with Friday- afternoon punchiness, they explore the kaleidoscope of issues surrounding the implementation of technology at the "Elwood School." In this particular classroom, there isn't a computer in sight, though the large table--made of Vermont maple, of course--was custom built to include electrical outlets and Internet hookups at every seat.

As the class debates, it becomes clear that while these individuals feel strongly about the need to incorporate technology into their schools, they have run up against much opposition. Frustration with balky school boards, difficult principals, and apathetic colleagues flavors their comments. One teacher expresses incredulity at the length of time it takes to get equipment purchases approved; another derides the bullheadedness of school board members who feel "they must make every single decision for every school in the district." The group also shows little patience for colleagues unwilling to take the cyberplunge headfirst; when one laments a fellow teacher's hostility toward technology, others around the table nod in agreement.

"I think the reason we haven't had significant success in technology implementation is that it is all about the rules that get written down, not about what actually happens," says Woodell, whose insightful manner and quick, wry sense of humor simultaneously challenge and relax the class. All talk and no action, he is saying, will not get the job done. The effective technology leader must be a mover and a shaker, not a dreamer.

Between bites of snack food and sips of Coke, the students toss ideas back and forth. They are looking for the best way to bring the most technology to their make-believe institution, to get the biggest bang for the buck. One student suggests leasing computers rather than buying them; others debate the relative worth of hiring more technology teachers as compared to spending more on equipment.

The role-playing exercise is designed in part to help the students avoid LeBlanc's dreaded white-coat syndrome. Here, in this sheltered environment, they learn that it is important to enlist colleagues and consider the forces at work in a school--specifically, the agendas of other teachers and the demands of other departments--before charging ahead with technology implementation. "I think the good thing about having these discussions," Woodell tells his class, "is that people are forced to think and respond rather than just looking at things." A techno-savvy teacher unprepared to answer the challenges of the ubiquitous techno-phobe is a lonely teacher indeed.

The nine teachers who have come to this high-tech oasis and its decidedly low-tech locale have done so in part, perhaps, to escape a kind of loneliness. Like many purveyors of change, they are often isolated, especially in their schools. But here at Marlboro, they can take strength from each other, protected from the cold shoulders of the unenlightened. This class camaraderie, though, has taken a while to build. As one student puts it, "teachers are used to working alone, so we had to get used to being able to support one another."

The students, of course, hope the money and time they have invested in their degrees will eventually pay off financially as schools and districts vie for their expertise.

The program requires a great deal of both thinking and doing. Jim Woodell's curriculum and assessment class, for example, examines technology in a variety of abstract ways. But Woodell also asks his students to create an online Webzine, a task that requires nitty-gritty knowledge of the HTML programming language. The class breaks into two sections, a "design team" and an "editorial team." The design team must craft an attractive, workable Web site to house the articles drafted by the editorial team. Each group huddles around a computer, directing the student with the mouse to point here and click there.

Though classes meet infrequently, most students agree that the curriculum is taxing. "I could easily spend six hours a day on my coursework," says Frank Klucken, a math instructor at Landmark College in Putney, Vermont. Adds Peggy Tiffany, a social studies and writing teacher at nearby Marlboro Elementary School, "The learning curve is really, really steep."

Steep, too, is the program's $15,000 tuition. Though the college awards one full-tuition scholarship, most students pay for the courses out of their own pocket. "My principal came across the program and suggested I look into it," says Maggie Sargeant, an elementary teacher in a three-room schoolhouse in Keene, New Hampshire, "but the school isn't paying for it."

Paul LeBlanc puts a more positive spin on the financial demands of his program. Indeed, he sees the cost as a bargain investment. "The students in our Internet strategy management program think nothing of the cost," he says, "because they get immediate return in the business world. Teachers don't get that, but they will get return down the line" as technology takes hold in schools. Right now, says LeBlanc, schools are in a "backlash period" caused by the rapid and often reckless introduction of new technologies. This phase, he adds, will continue until schools learn how to use technology responsibly. Graduates of the Marlboro program, he argues, will lead the way.

The students, of course, hope the money and time they have invested in their degrees will eventually pay off financially as schools and districts vie for their expertise. Most believe the larger education community will also reap rewards. The Marlboro instructors, Sargeant says, force the teachers to look beyond the walls of their schools. "They've really challenged us to think and to consider how we approach the rest of the world."

Although some of the students intend to use their degrees as a springboard into something new, Peggy Tiffany, this year's scholarship recipient, plans to keep teaching in the Marlboro schools as a way of repaying the college for its generosity. Over the years, Tiffany has spent a lot of time circling the educational block--she holds two bachelor's degrees, and the master's she will earn at Marlboro will be her second--but her enthusiasm for the program is no less than that of a first-time graduate. As she speaks of the ways she hopes to apply what she has learned, her voice becomes quieter, more intense. Technology, she believes, will help her reach even the most stubborn students. "I really want to make a difference," she says, "and tap into teenagers' 'me-ness.' "

Klucken and Sargeant, who have been listening to Tiffany talk, clearly share her enthusiasm. "We're all pretty excited," Sargeant says. And with that, the three head back to class, back to their keyboards, and back to the future.

Vol. 10, Issue 2, Pages 42-46

Published in Print: November 1, 1998, as Bridge to the Future
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