Uniting Teachers to Embrace 21st Century Technology: A Critical Mass in a Cohort of Colleagues

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As we face the future, it is clear to see that the technological age is engulfing education, and that educators need to secure a role in addressing this paradigm shift. As with other changes, educators must be ready not only to address the change, but also to lead the change (Bryant and Ariza 1999). Teachers, administrators and parents are discovering that good use of technology requires more than just securing Internet access, or putting technology in the classroom. Technology affects the way teachers teach, students learn, and administrators operate (Norum, Graginger and Duffield 1999). Teachers must know how to source information, integrate the information into the curriculum, and be skilled in addressing technophobia as well as the various learning styles of today’s students.

 

In an effort to collaborate with Broward County teachers, Florida Atlantic University (FAU) and the Department of Educational Technology and Research in South Florida have implemented an innovative program to encourage public school teachers to embrace new technology and utilize it in their daily curricula. By creating a cohort of teachers employed within a zone that encompasses four elementary schools, teachers have begun to take courses that will culminate in a master’s degree in education with a specialization in technology. As the cohort works and studies together, teachers who would not ordinarily venture into such an unknown realm are bolstered by the knowledge that they are in the program as a team, and can call on one another for help, guidance and support.

 

Defining the Cohort Program

A cohort is a group of students who enter a program intending to take all of the courses as a group. This critical mass of teachers and colleagues forms a unique bond as they move through the program, providing encouragement and support to all members. The cohort program at FAU is offered on campus, via Web-based distance education, and through video conferencing via Broward Educational Communications Network (BECON), so that classes can be held at convenient school-based locations. BECON has 42 Video Conferencing sites located through the school district, facilitating geographic access for all teachers. Each cohort group consists of 20-25 students who stay together throughout the duration of the scheduled educational technology program. Classes are offered according to the on-campus academic calendar. The cohort classes correspond to the traditional on-campus classes, with the exception of one major advantage: the cohort classes allow the instructor the freedom to customize the curriculum to the needs of the class. Additionally, the course content contains activities created to address the real world problems of the teachers, such as creating Web pages for their schools, or setting up a database for their students. Because tasks are applicable to their classroom obligations, the teachers remain highly motivated and stay focused on course materials.

 

When students join a cohort group, they know in advance the courses they will be taking, and in which semester they will be offered. Courses are offered at the same location throughout the program, and the schedule usually includes one course, one night a week per semester, and two courses during the summer. All participants are asked to commit to FAU and to their cohort for the entire sequence of courses. Cohort members are aware that a lack of participation will not only disrupt the cohort but, if numbers fall short, will cause the group to disband entirely. Perhaps it is the understanding of this necessity of commitment to each other that keeps group attendance and participation strong.

 

Establishing a Cohort: The Administrator’s Point of View

As an administrator in a public elementary school, my independence came to a screeching halt as the age of technology slowly began to infiltrate the school system. As I attended technology team meetings, I was growing increasingly uncomfortable as the vernacular being bantered about by the “techie” and “computer savvy” teachers quickly became incomprehensible to me. I felt as if I were in foreign territory but, like most administrators, I was confident that those individuals “in the know” were making the right decisions. I had no technological input to offer and, therefore, had to trust in the expertise of others.

 

After about two years of attending technology team meetings, my technological inexperience intimidated me to such a point that my dependence on others became a burden. The wonderful secretarial staff in my school enjoyed several chuckles at my expense when I had to call on them for the silliest reasons, like turning on the computer, putting the floppy disks in upside down, or printing out a document. It was at this stage that I decided to take action.

 

Our school zone has three neighboring schools within an approximate ten-mile radius. The schools, faculties and students often cluster activities and share programs so that the majority of the population can be better served. It occurred to me that our nearest neighborhood school possessed a fully equipped lab that was going unused after school closed for the day. I felt technologically uninformed, and I correctly assumed that many teachers felt the same way. I devised a plan that would encourage teachers to consider undertaking a master’s degree in educational technology in a group format, where they would all study together, at the same speed, taking the same courses. By taking the courses in a cohort, our individual needs would be met, differing levels of mastery would be considered, and the professors would have to adjust to our group learning styles. As a critical mass of colleagues who know and like each other, we would become one common learning community where we would be able to support, commiserate, reinforce, and learn from each other.

 

Accordingly, I approached Dr. Richard Knee, a professor in the technology department at FAU’s Davie campus, with my idea for the cohort. He not only agreed to come to our school, but also mentioned that he was already experienced in creating cohort groups and was ready to begin.

 

My next step was to convince the teachers to buy into the idea. To gauge the interest level, I created an informal questionnaire to survey the teachers in my home school. The results were encouraging, as about 15 teachers responded positively. While teachers were intrigued by the idea of attending school in a convenient location, and meeting directly after school, the attribute that appealed to them the most was the fact that they would all be in the educational adventure together.

 

After that initial examination, I sent the survey to the three neighborhood schools. The results were dramatic as more than 40 teachers responded positively. As this was too large for one cohort, it would be divided into two groups meeting on alternating nights.

 

Another incentive for teachers to embrace this degree program was the availability of individual funding for the degree. Broward County offers each teacher $900 a year for professional development (TDIF — Teacher Development Incentive Funds) to attend workshops, conferences, and pursue continuing education courses. Teachers also earn credit for free tuition from FAU by collaborating with the teacher education program. For every student teacher that a master teacher supervises in the classroom, a voucher for a free semester of tuition is earned. For every three field experiences that are supervised, a tuition voucher is earned, as well. By taking one course each semester, two courses in the summer, and the occasional online course, the degree could be completed in two to four years.

 

Many teachers were fearful because they felt underprepared in the area of computer skills. However, they were encouraged because their colleagues promised to lend support and vowed to teach each other. With their collective confidence bolstered, they were ready to sign on the dotted line. Personnel from Student Services at the university went to the first cohort meeting, distributed the necessary documents for registration, answered questions, and addressed concerns. These teachers were finally ready to begin their first odyssey with technology together.

 

The Professor’s Point of View

The Cohort program attracted teachers from all grade levels and with significantly different backgrounds. Many students had been out of school for extended periods of time, so returning to pursue graduate studies was a major time commitment. A significant percentage of students had little or no experience with technology. These factors alone presented a significant challenge for the initial cohort instructor. Never again would the students be faced with so much radical change in such a short period of time. The concept of teachers helping teachers in the integration of technology is a perfect illustration of the statement, “Healing the universe is an inside job” (Lintschinger 1991).

 

A key issue in the success of the cohort was the need to provide additional technological scaffolding for participants who were novices in the area of the latest technological advances. Many participants lacked even the most rudimentary knowledge of computer operation, including the simplest of tasks such as sending electronic mail, browsing the Web, or even saving their work to a disk. This basic technological foundation was established with the help of graduate assistants who offered their expertise to individuals who sought extra help during additional lab periods. Cohort participants were welcome to spend as much time as they wished supplementing their skills in these unlimited group sessions. This remedial approach was successful, as the teachers could “bare” their lack of knowledge to the graduate assistants and not the professor. Once a strong rapport developed with the professor, this reticence was not so prevalent.

 

The Cohort Program facilitator decided to begin the program with a course in telecommunications to immediately provide the students with the ability to send e-mail, join a class listserv, visit the class chat room, and operate the videoconference equipment.

 

The instructional approach employed to facilitate this cohort of teachers can best be described as an example of constructivism, because it forced students to discover and explore as they learned (Means 1994).

 

Support is a major part of making changes, particularly when the change alters the individual’s professional identity and role. Learning from the experiences of each other can alleviate discomfort and anxiety associated with change (Norum and Duffield 1999). The element of a critical mass provided safety in numbers and the elevated comfort level was noticeable, thus enhancing the learning experience. No matter the difficulty of the course, or the demands made of them in their day jobs, knowing their friends and colleagues were going through the same experiences lightened the load for these teachers.

 

The same instructor remained with the cohort for the second course, which was an application intensive course. This continuity of instructor provided a useful basis of prior knowledge, as both professor and student knew each other’s learning and teaching styles. Students at all levels of comprehension (albeit significant extremes) had developed a strong rapport with the professor by that time, and felt comfortable with their progress and levels of understanding.

 

The Students’ Point of View

Many public school teachers realize there is an urgent need to become technologically savvy, but have no idea where to begin. Through the cohort group, they can take the plunge knowing that while many of their colleagues may possess more technological know-how, there are still teachers who do not know how to turn on a computer. The classes are a mix of abilities, resulting in a situation that allows teachers to do what they do best — teach each other. The cohort bonds as a group, which fosters a thoughtful camaraderie among the teachers, and this collegiality spills over into the workforce. A listserv group acts as a conduit so that a stream of constant communication and support among participants and professor continues. This constant group-member interaction demonstrates the ideal model of collaborative learning.

 

As another cohort participant succinctly stated, “We want our students to become active participants in an ever-changing world. Who would be best able to lead them through this frontier? While we become experienced as students, we become better teachers. Learning and teaching cannot exist as separate entities.”

 

Results: A Current Update

At the present time, the original cohort group that began in the spring of 1999 is now completing the fourth graduate level course in the program. The teachers are one third of the way through their program. The enrollment level has remained constant since the completion of the first course. Students who continued after the first course were strong in their commitment to the program and each other. The “dropout rate” has been about twenty percent with both the original cohort and subsequent cohorts, of which there are two. While there are many reasons some teachers decide to drop out of the program, the most common reason seems to be the conflict between time required for school activities, family life and academics. The program is rigorous and demands that students make a significant commitment to dedicating resources for hardware, software and time for a graduate level enterprise in technology.

 

The original cohort is now completing Visual Basic, an object-oriented programming language. All cohort members have active Web sites for their personal and classroom use. Most cohort members have already assumed additional technology responsibilities in their school, and two have secured new jobs as a result of their new knowledge. Teachers are now posting best practices with technology on the cohort listserv on a regular basis. This indicates that cohort members are already integrating technology into their classroom curricula. They have also become strong advocates of the use of technology to facilitate student learning within their school and zone. Many have moved from the technology sidelines to leadership roles within their educational communities. One can only wonder where they will be by the time they complete the journey.

 

Conclusion

Today’s teachers are asked to integrate technology and incorporate media into their classes to enhance teaching, while improving student learning. Money is poured into schools to supply labs with state-of-the-art equipment and software. However, all the best intentions in the world are impossible to carry out if teachers are not trained sufficiently, are not comfortable enough with the software and equipment, and do not really believe in the benefits of current technology.

 

Once teachers handle computers and the Internet confidently, they are then able to access the technology as a complement to their traditional learning techniques. The additional effort of advanced planning is vital in creating interactive activities that dovetail standard classroom curriculum. Teachers are apt to find value in offering students the challenge and stimulation of computers and the Internet because its use will appeal to all types of learners. By using Web pages, teachers can learn how to create a class Web site, create interactive projects, and incorporate electronic communication with each other as well as students from the world over. Collaboration is encouraged, which is a reflection of today’s reality in the workplace, and throughout life in general. Discussion groups, listservs, chat rooms, and cooperating with other teachers and students can offer a multitude of opportunities to research, investigate, and find immediate answers to questions.

 

But none of this modern “magic” can take place without the teacher. Creating teacher cohorts is one creative, innovative way to counter technophobia, and give teachers the tools they need to maintain excellence in 21st century, technology enhanced classrooms (McCormack and Jones 1997).

 

 

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Dr. Eileen N. Ariza is Assistant Professor of TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) at Florida Atlantic University.  E-mail: eariza@fau.edu

Dr. Richard H. Knee is Assistant Professor of Educational Technology in the College of Education at Florida Atlantic University.  E-mail: knee@gate.net

Ms. Mary Lou Ridge is Assistant Principal at Croissant Park Elementary School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  E-mail: ridge@interpoint.net

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References

 

Bryan, V. & Ariza, E. 1999. “Technology’s Impact on the Dilemma of Recruiting, Rewarding, and Retaining Competent Faculty in Higher Education.” Manuscript in review.

 

Lintschinger, K. and Capra, B. 1991. Mindwalk: A Film for Passionate Thinkers, Paramount Pictures, Hollywood, CA

 

McCormack, C. & Jones, D. 1997. Building a Web-Based Education System, Wiley Computer Publishing, New York.

 

Means, B. ed. 1994. Technology and Education Reform: The Reality Behind the Promise, Jossey-Bass San Francisco.

 

Norum, Grabinger, & Duffield. 1999. “Healing the Universe Is an Inside Job: Teachers’ Views on Integrating Technology,” Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, vol. 7 No. 3, ACCE, Charlottesville, VA.

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

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