Involving Teachers in Web-Based Professional Development

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It is easy for those versed in computer technology to overlook the foreignness that can confront inservice teachers having their first professional development experience over the Web, especially if this instruction is provided at a distance. The absence of a live instructor, the strangeness of the presentation format, and the different roles demanded of learners are factors that can create a significant level of anxiety and discomfort in teachers more used to traditional classroom instruction. And this is not to mention the problems that novice users may have learning to use computer software and making connections to the Internet.

 

It should not be surprising, therefore, that many of the most successful Web-based courses are in computer science and other technically advanced fields where students are already comfortable and familiar with computer technology. Such courses are also usually directed at traditional learners — young students, often in campus-based programs, who are already familiar with e-mail and online discourse, and are thus likely to adapt quickly to the demands of Web-based teaching.

 

However, the most significant promise of distance education is its ability to reach non-traditional learners. To some degree, the success of Web-based instruction should be judged by how well it meets this challenge. Continuing education students, teachers in rural areas, and inservice personnel in need of professional development: these are the people who can most clearly benefit from the advances in Web-based technology and distance education. Unfortunately, these individuals are also the least likely to be comfortable with the structure and demands of Web-based instruction.

 

Inservice teachers bring a range of expectations and backgrounds with them in any type of professional development activity. Usually, these expectations are set by the patterns of traditional classroom pedagogy: an active, present instructor; instructor-directed activities and discussions; and a passive or merely responsive role for students. Web-based pedagogy, by contrast, tends to reverse these dynamics, making the instructor less present and increasing the interactive and leadership roles of the learners.

 

Highly motivated and confident learners respond well to this self-directed format, and they are the most likely to benefit from distance education. But to be successful, distance education must be designed to address the needs of more typical learners, particularly those non-traditional students who may be most uneasy with the format of Web-based professional development. In our program we have found that the solution to this problem is not in communicating clearer expectations for the way our activities are structured, but in shifting learners’ own expectations as to what their roles and experiences in inservice activities can and should be.

 

We have thus come to view instructional development for distance education not so much as a matter of setting standards and practices, but rather as a matter of defining a process that increases learners’ comfort level and involvement in Web-based instruction. This process leads inservice teachers from their initial expectations of instructor-centered, passive learning to adopting a more self-directed, collaborative model that gives them ownership and control over their own instruction.

 

Background: The Collaborative Teacher Education Program

For the last thirteen years the Collaborative Teacher Education Program at Indiana University (CTEP) has been offering continuing education courses by distance education to teachers in rural communities. The program is comprehensive in that it enables inservice teachers to obtain teaching licenses and master’s degrees without coming to campus. The primary mode of course delivery is videoconferencing, but we have integrated Web-based conferencing and instruction into our program to help promote ownership and collegiality among the teachers. We have also recently added a completely Web-based course to our program catalog.

 

Participants in our courses are teachers, administrators, and other inservice professionals in rural communities who have difficulty accessing coursework in traditional campus-based settings. They meet live, in groups of 10 to 25 once a week in centrally-located distant sites, where they are linked to campus-based instructors in a video conference. Each class session involves two remote sites, and our activities stress learner interaction across sites.

 

Between classes, the teachers complete field-based activities focused on their actual school situations. They share their work and discuss course content using Web-based conferencing and e-mail. The conferencing tool we use is Alta Vista Forums (AVF), which is supported by the technology infrastructure at Indiana University. AVF offers a robust Web-based platform for discussions and document sharing, and allows the teachers to work together both in small teams and in large groups. They use this tool to discuss course concepts, to share work experiences, and to offer one another suggestions for carrying out assignments and improving teaching practices.

 

Increasing Teachers’ Involvement in Web-based Professional Development

The approaches we have used in professional development recognize that teachers are likely to be unfamiliar with a student-directed learning approach for the first few class sessions, and that they will be confused if we expect them to show the level of independence and self-direction in the beginning of a course that we hope to build in them by the end. Therefore, we have learned to view our role as making a shift toward greater student participation and ownership of their own learning. Web-based instruction, with its capabilities for learner collaboration and independence, is a significant tool for bringing about this shift. Through our use of AVF and the other components of our distance education technology, we promote learner-centered instruction in three main areas: participation, task performance and collaboration.

 

Techniques for Moving Learners from Passive Participation to Active Participation

Much of the success of distance education rests on encouraging an active role for learners. Thus, inservice teachers must learn to rely on themselves not only to access and master technology, but also to make up for the range of subtle directions, cues and information that they are used to receiving from live instructors. Both in class meetings and on the Web, we encourage an active role for the teachers. They take turns serving as on-site coordinators during class time, and in their AVF discussions we have them work in collaborative teams to define and address the issues they have about applying course concepts in their real-life school settings. But teachers coming into our classes are typically accustomed to a more passive format of instruction. We have found that they respond indifferently to many of our initiatives if we present them too early in the semester, and that patterns of independence and ownership must be built gradually rather than thrust upon them suddenly.

 

Accordingly, we begin our courses with a more traditional, instructor-centered approach, and proceed toward a more learner-centered model as the teachers become familiar and comfortable with the distance education format and technology. When class first begins, we do not require a strongly active participation. We ask for volunteer coordinators, but lead discussions ourselves. We encourage learner input, but give teachers time to script their answers. We follow this same pattern in our use of Web technology. Early in the semester, we rely heavily on e-mail to communicate with the teachers between classes. Their contact with us is typically one-sided, and our responses are detailed and individualized. As the semester progresses, we begin demanding more of their contributions. We move more class activities to AVF, so that their Web-based communication becomes an integral part of their professional development activities.

 

One of the keys to building learner ownership and participation is to introduce aspects of the technology gradually, rather than all at once. For example, like many users of Web-based instruction, we find it helpful to have a chat room or lounge at our Web site that teachers can use to discuss school-related issues or share ideas for applying specific teaching methods. Rather than providing this forum when a class first starts, we wait a few weeks until we feel the teachers are more ready to talk to one another, and they have a set of shared experiences to discuss. In the same way, we wait several weeks before breaking the class into teams for Web-based assignments, allowing them to get comfortable with us and with the basic framework of the course before having them branch out and begin working with their peers.

 

A crucial element in these early weeks of professional development is our use of fax machines and e-mail. Teachers acclimate to these technologies much more quickly than they do to Web-based conferencing, so they are natural media for building connections and keeping up communication between instructors and learners. Teachers fax us copies of their early work at our toll-free number, and we give them extensive, individualized feedback through e-mail. As the semester progresses, we give less detailed feedback, encouraging the teachers to use their own initiative and the examples provided by peers to make decisions about their projects. As they develop more confidence in their performance, we begin incorporating the Web conferencing site as a place to post work samples and project reports. This public forum encourages them to put more care into their responses, and gives them helpful models for judging their own efforts. A comment we saw recently in a team room was typical: “I was going to post my work, but after seeing what you guys wrote, I thought I’d better revise it first.” As teachers gain confidence in their use of the Web, they increasingly take responsibility for their own instruction and leave us in the position of facilitators.

 

Techniques for Moving Learners from Instructor-Directed Tasks to Self-Driven Tasks

In the past, we started a professional development course giving teachers very liberal reign in the types of responses they made on the Web forums. Our reasoning was that we wanted to use this learner-centered technology to build independence as soon as possible. What we found instead was that responses were short, sporadic and aimless, and that teachers saw the Web technology as an extra chore rather than as a space for meaningful work.

 

To remedy this problem, we now begin the semester with very specific activities that teachers carry out on the Web. The content of these activities is deliberately kept simple so the teachers can complete them easily. Furthermore, each activity is focused on one specific teaching point so we have tight control over the learning that takes place. A typical early-semester activity is to have each teacher list ten behaviors observed among their own students that illustrate a particular concept from the text. The activity is simple and clearly contained, but it gives them experience posting to the Web and accessing their discussion pages.

 

As the semester continues, we build in elements to make the assignments increasingly individualized and independent. One way we do this is to have the teachers learn through a problem-solving approach, applying concepts directly to the demands of the school settings in which they work. As they increase in expertise and in familiarity with the course content, we give them greater leeway in the issues they choose to address and the solutions they undertake. Ready access to real-life work situations is one of the great advantages distance education enjoys over campus-based courses. By completing Web assignments that are increasingly shaped by real-world demands and considerations, teachers can take on more and more responsibility for their work with minimal management and oversight by instructors.

 

We also use assignments to help teachers build the skills for using Web technology in the ways that most suit them. When we first used Web-based conferencing, we tried to introduce all its capabilities at once, giving a long demonstration and several pages of information on the different capabilities of the AVF program. Now we begin with the minimal information necessary to log in and post a comment, and use the successive assignments to build other skills one at a time. For example, we may structure one week’s activities to teach how to cut and paste text, and another week’s assignment to show how to reply to the comments of teammates. Since the teachers learn these skills in the context of course activities and field projects, they discover not just how to do each task, but also how it can be genuinely useful. As the semester progresses, they naturally incorporate more and more of the aspects of the conferencing software they find useful in their weekly assignments and group projects.

 

Techniques for Moving Learners from Non-Evaluative Sharing to True Collaboration

Perhaps the most important element of developing learner-centered instruction is building collegiality and collaboration among teachers to take the place of instructor direction. Through careful nurturing of teams and teamwork, we are able to encourage teachers by the end of a semester to take on many of the roles they would normally expect campus-based instructors to fulfill.

 

We first began using Web instruction in our courses to encourage teachers to give one another support and advice about their work. This is particularly desirable when doing professional development in education, as teachers typically have a wealth of experience and expertise to share that g'es well beyond what university instructors can provide. But we found in actual Web-based discussions that teachers were reluctant to offer genuine critical assessments of their peers’ work, and that most of the interaction was cursory or off-topic.

 

Accordingly, we have learned to progress toward collaboration by beginning with simple opportunities to share information and gradually including opportunities for real contributions to and critiques of peer work. We start the semester by exchanging personal information, describing school situations and experiences, and sharing simple teaching methods. As the teachers’ familiarity with one another increases, we ask them to offer examples or suggestions based on their peers’ work, rather than their own. By the end of the semester, we expect them to give full-fledged support and critiques of one another’s projects.

 

To foster confidence and collegiality, we structure “getting to know you” activities both on the Web and in the classroom. These may be simple games or lighthearted surveys that elicit responses in a non-threatening manner. After directing one or two of these activities ourselves, we ask teachers themselves to come up with others. Rather than using these icebreaker activities at the beginning of the semester, when their effectiveness is limited by the lack of real context, we use them after the teachers have had a chance to build some familiarity and shared experience. The result has been a sudden and marked increase in the level and quality of participation and collaboration as teachers become more comfortable showing their work and sharing their ideas with their peers.

 

A particular advantage of the AVF program is that it allows learners to work in small teams, a format particularly useful for building close collaboration. We have found, however, that it is very important to control the composition and direction of the teams when they are first formed. After a few weeks of class, when we have gotten to know something about the teachers and their work, we set up teams to balance individual strengths and abilities. We typically group teachers based on shared interests, as this provides a foundation for collegial sharing. At the same time, we try to place the strongest teachers in separate teams, so that they can provide good models for their teammates.

 

As the semester progresses, we have the teams move from simple sharing of teaching practices to more collaborative consultation. As an intermediate step, we like to have team members suggest approaches for their peers before, rather than after completing their own work. For example, we may ask team members to suggest assessment procedures for their colleagues to use before thinking about what methods they will use themselves. In this way they can give meaningful suggestions without critiquing their teammates’ work, and can incorporate peer suggestions into the initial stages of their own planning.

 

As the teachers continue their work in teams, we eventually expect them to give full critiques and suggestions to one another in their Web activities. Instructors model these responses in feedback via e-mail and in commentary in the Web team spaces. Increasingly, the feedback we give is less detailed and evaluative, as we turn responsibility over to team members for providing feedback and direction. We may point to particular peers whose work may be instructive, but as the teachers begin to follow instructor models this becomes less necessary. We even see individuals adopting particular phrasing they have seen in instructor feedback, e.g. “This makes a good start, but you could use some more specific detail in this part of your planning...” At this point, we can step into a role as true facilitators, structuring activities and giving suggestions that advance collaboration and self-instruction.

 

Conclusion

In order for distance education to be effective in professional development, instructional planning must consider the gap between the typical teacher’s expectations about the learning process and the capabilities and characteristics of instruction over distance. Careful, gradual introduction of Web-based technologies can guide and enhance learners’ transition from a traditional model of pedagogy in which their role is passive, to a model in which they take a full, active role in directing and achieving their own learning.

 

Paul Rodes

E-mail: prodes@indiana.edu

 

Dennis R. Knapczyk

E-mail: knapczyk@indiana.edu

 

Carrie Chapman

E-mail: cechapman@indiana.edu

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.

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