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Keeping Connected, An Asynchronous Communication System to Support Student Teachers

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Kristin:

            Hi everyone! For my new assignment, I am  teaching social studies to sixth graders. I am beginning a unit on Latin America. I need some ideas for things I can do with my enriched class. I don’t want them to be bored.

 

Kara:

            These kids are crying for a project. Have each student or group pick a Latin American country and do one of the following things:

 

1.    Create a map of the country with geographic and cultural features as well as natural resources.

 

2.    Pick a country again and have the students research the food of the area — have them           bring the food in, and it’s goodbye café food for the day.

 

3.    Study the economy of the country and develop a nationwide plan on what the country could do to help its economy.

 

4.    Spend a whole class or half of a class on the music, dress, location, culture, and lifestyle of     a country — have students coordinate the time and find the resources.

 

 

Kara:

            I have a 12th grade American Government and Law class. I have complete control of the class and can do anything I want. I’m having a great time, but I need some help injecting some fun into my unit on the legislative branch.   Any ideas?

 

Kristin:

            Thanks for the ideas on Latin America. And now to return the favor, I have a possible idea for your government class. Have the students mimic Congress. Present them with a bill (or have them think of one) that needs to be voted on by Congress. Make sure they get the true flavor of Congress by having them make speeches and filibusters, and let them add irrelevant details to the bill. You could also modify this to work on the state level. It might be fun. Good luck.

 

 


 

 

Drawing on diverse backgrounds and hungry for exciting ideas to bring into their classrooms, student teachers across the country have conversations like this on a daily basis. The atypical part of this dialogue is that it was conducted through electronic asynchronous communication.

 

The East Stroudsburg University Department of Secondary Education established an Internet user group for student teachers to communicate with peers and university professors via electronic mail. Each student teacher was required to join the user group and communicate at least four times with other teachers throughout the semester. Communicating asynchronously through the user group allowed students to dialogue with colleagues at any time convenient for them.

 

Problem

East Stroudsburg University, located in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, is part of the State System of Higher Education, where first-generation college students make up a high percentage of the student body. The university also attracts a significant number of mid- and second-career adult learners. These characteristics affect the connections students have to other students, teachers, and the university community.

 

Development of the user group was prompted by two problems students reported in formal and informal evaluations of their student teaching experiences. The first, isolation from peers and professors, is a function of the geographic area served by the university. Student teachers at ESU are placed throughout a large region in eastern Pennsylvania and northwestern New Jersey. Each semester 35 to 45 students are placed in 20 to 35 different school buildings. Student teachers, therefore, are relatively secluded from peer support groups during an especially stressful time in their education (Wittenberg & McBride 1998).

 

Secondly, student teachers also experienced difficulty obtaining personal and professional support. Practicum, the accompanying on-campus seminar designed to provide students with ongoing support, was scheduled too infrequently to meet their need of ongoing and immediate feedback. Phone calls to supervisors often were long distance, thus posing a financial deterrent for some students. Evenings, peak planning hours for student teachers, were not ideal times for interaction with supervisors. On the one hand, some supervisors were teaching evening classes and were inaccessible. On the other, students were reluctant to interrupt professors at home. A final deterrent was that supervisors were sometimes unknown to the student teacher prior to student teaching. All of these conditions occurred at a time when student teachers most needed professional support as they moved from theoretical to conditional knowledge (Schlagel, Trathan, & Woodrow 1996).

 

The Department of Professional and Secondary Education first sought to address these problems by modifying Practicum. Large group sessions were minimized and replaced with smaller groups of students functioning as a support group facilitated by their supervisor. Recent evaluative data suggested, however, that this change was still not meeting the student need for feedback in an immediate fashion.

 

After further assessment, it seemed that asynchronous communication had the potential to alleviate the problems of isolation and timely feedback, with the added benefit of student teachers becoming more proficient with technology and more aware of its potential benefits. This secondary benefit is becoming more critical as technology and the Internet now play such important roles in the education of K-12 students (Deal 1998).

 

Action Taken

Working with the Academic Computing Support Department on campus, the Secondary Education faculty set up a user group through the university e-mail system with access through an ESU account or an outside provider. One faculty member needed to be designated as the manager of the site with other faculty signing on as users. Students signed on initially any time during the semester.

All correspondence was collected at the end of each semester, and a content analysis was conducted using ethnographic software, The Ethnograph V4.0. The purpose of the analysis was to determine the major concerns of the student teachers and the type of feedback they received.

 

Results

The content analysis revealed that students most often e-mailed to discuss lesson planning (43%). The second most popular topic was classroom management (19%), followed closely by affective concerns, logistics, and motivation. It should be noted that though the students were required to communicate, they were not required to discuss any particular topic, rather it was their choice based on need. An example of a typical exchange that crosses several areas follows:

 

 


Date: Tues, Sept 9 17:38

            I taught my first lesson today, and I know I need a lot more practice. I am a bit discouraged but will hang in there for the next sixteen weeks...Hope you are doing better.

            Your fellow teacher,

            Christian

 

 

Date: Tues, 9 Sept 18:53

Chris,

            The first time was probably the scariest! And you got through it! Now you know some of the things you need to do. Every day will be a wonderful learning experience — though some days may be more wonderful than others:) Give me a call if you need to talk about anything. We’re all here to help you be successful. And talk with the other student teachers - they know just how you’re feeling.
Do you have any idea when you’d like me to come see you? Late this week or early next week?
I’ll be in touch!

P. Smeaton

 

 

Date: Tues, 9 Sept 22:29

Chris,

            I was so scared my first day that my voice shook SO much that the students could hardly understand the content. Trust me, it got better. Within three days, I was feeling more confident and made fewer mistakes. I think that will happen for you.

            F. Waters

 

 

Date: Mon, 22 September

            Hello there, fellow ESU student teachers

            Just wanted to let you all know that today in my lesson I got............CLOSURE!!!

            Yes, I really had a start and finish to the lesson today....

            Yip yip hooray...if you could have seen me, I was dancing...wh'ever said teaching physics was boring was sadly mistaken.

            Thanks for listening and good luck. 

            Christian

 

 

Date: Tue, 23 Sept 16:47

            Greetings and Salutations,

            Like Christian, I also had closure, and a set! Yes Dr. S. I did both!!

            Thank you. 

            Jeffrey

 


 

In some instances, students established dialogues, a term we used to describe multiple messages on one subject, such as the one between Kara and Kristen. Both students and professors responded and provided different perspectives. Sometimes many students answered one message, most frequently regarding a need for suggestions on how to teach a concept in an interesting way. Often, ideas for useful Web sites to explore were exchanged.

 

It may be difficult from one semester to another to predict the specific issues that will trigger the most interest, but planning for instruction and considering the realities of actual classroom management dilemmas and the need for encouragement are the topics that tap most frequently into the students’ needs. Colleagues eagerly responded and generated ideas and resources, and showed a willingness to wrestle with complex issues such as:

 


Hi everyone,

            In my 8th grade Math class 2 weeks ago I assigned a short story that had to do with concepts and scientists. The students were asked to write a short report about the story — I asked them to answer 5 questions. Although I enjoyed some of their comments and answers, two of the reports were IDENTICAL — word for word!

 

 

Dear Wayne,

            I would definitely punish them for cheating but not give them “0’s” on their reports. That would be grading them for their lack of morality rather than their ability to write a report. The best way to do it might be to make them stay after school and rewrite their reports. Make sure you explain to them that you will not tolerate copying and sit them far apart from each other (you wouldn’t want them to be tempted to cheat again!).

 

 

Hi, Wayne,

            I had a similar experience with my students, also 8th grade. I confronted the two kids and one of them admitted right away that she copied. I gave her a zero and the other student a warning! I didn’t think I would do much good if I embarrassed them. They have been good since.

 


 

Hopefully, giving student teachers multiple perspectives and concrete examples will shorten the learning curve and the stress related to it.

 

 

Overcoming Obstacles

Implementation of a user group requires patience, problem solving skills, and persistence. When using technology like this, there will be some difficulties (Souviney & Saferstein 1997; Wepner 1997).

 

First, there were technological glitches to be worked through. The most significant was some students’ lack of access to a computer with a modem. The university had arranged for all students who needed one to get an e-mail account, but students still needed to orchestrate access to the Internet. Some students had their own computers or had access to one at their student teaching site while others had to use the public sites on campus.

 

A second issue was that not all e-mail providers interfaced easily with the university system. It took some time to discover what the problem was, and in some instances students had to deal with the frustration of maintaining a second e-mail account that could access the user group. One possible solution to this is to issue each student a laptop with the appropriate capabilities (Souviney & Saferstein 1997).

 

A third obstacle came when the university system was upgraded as part of a Y2K review. The automatic approval response to join became an automatic disapproval response in the new system. Since no one had anticipated that problem, there was some frustration and a time lag until the reversal was discovered.

 

The need to follow a protocol for requesting approval to join the user group presented a fourth problem. Students who were not adept at using computers sometimes made several mistakes in the electronic communication. As their messages continued to bounce back, they became discouraged. The department has sought to decrease this frustration by making appropriate program adjustments. Beginning in fall 1999, all student teachers joined the user group on the first day of the semester in Practicum. The department can now clearly articulate which providers do not work, heading off some of the problems that were previously encountered. Additionally, operators of the user group will be included in the communication loop with the academic computing support personnel on campus.

 

Another unanticipated problem was that some of those who were technologically literate faced a hurdle in accepting electronic mail as a conversational tool. Some students expressed discomfort with exposing personal and professional struggles to strangers. As an alternative, one student utilized a subject area user group in her academic discipline, citing familiarity with participants and a heightened sense of collegial responsibility. A potential solution, piloted in fall 1999, was the addition of a subject area academic discipline specialist. Another potential solution was to include cooperating teachers in the user group (Souviney & Saferstein 1997; Wepner 1997). This idea was rejected at ESU so students could continue to share frustrations and difficulties freely. Instead, in-service teachers who are graduate students but not serving as cooperating teachers have volunteered to respond. The teachers/graduate students have perceived this as an opportunity to gain fresh ideas, and gladly filled the role of specialists-on-hand.

 

A common problem for many student teachers is time management. Some mentioned the heavy time demand involved in student teaching as a reason for not partaking in the user group. Students who had the most trouble with this were ones who did not have a personal computer. Clearly those who used e-mail regularly were more likely to participate.

 

University supervisors also created some of the obstacles. Two distinct correlations from the content analysis were found regarding supervisors. First, supervisors who regularly use e-mail responded to users more frequently. Second, more electronically active supervisors had student teachers who contributed more frequently to the user group. The result was that this limited the faculty participation and worked against providing immediate and personal responses. This evidence prompted the department to conduct an information session on the user group to student teacher supervisors. In addition, Link-to-Learn training information on CD-ROM was distributed to all department members to allow them to become knowledgeable at their own pace in the privacy of their own homes or offices. The result has been more support and involvement from the faculty.

 

Follow-up

The content analysis of the user group communications and a survey of the users provided important information that is currently being used to improve the student teaching experience. The data indicate that there is an interest in and need for information on planning, classroom management, and technology. After analyzing the information, the methods courses were restructured and the credit hours increased so more work and practice could be implemented in planning, management and technology.

 

Regular use of technology must be introduced earlier in the program if students are to be adept with its tools by the time they enter the field. The Arts and Sciences faculty will contribute to this objective by setting up user groups attached to the academic discipline pedagogy classes, e.g. Teaching of Science. This will help students become more comfortable with technology and asynchronous communication. Arts and Sciences faculty will also be contributing members of the student teacher user group in order to provide more immediate and subject-specific ideas.

 

 

Conclusion

Student teaching is a time of isolation and high stress. The content analysis and exit survey support that the electronic user group established for the East Stroudsburg University secondary student teachers did offer students a way to help alleviate the anxiety. Despite the technical difficulties, student teachers often commented on the benefits of communicating with others. This experience also presented student teachers with one more opportunity to practice using technology. Clearly, the use of technology is becoming essential in teacher education as computers are being used more and more in the classroom. With planned, ongoing use of technology incorporated in the teacher education curriculum at every stage, ESU students will be ready for the demands of the future in meeting the needs of their students.

 

 

 

 

 

Patricia S. Smeaton is an Associate Professor in the Professional and Secondary Education Department at East Stroudsburg University. She teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in the teacher education program. She also conducts teacher-training workshops, is coordinator of the campus tutoring program, is co-author of The ESU Comprehensive Assessment Model, and is co-founder of the newly formed professional development school.

 

E-mail: psmeaton@po-box.esu.edu

 

 

Faith Waters joined the faculty of the Professional and Secondary Education Department at East Stroudsburg University after a 20-year career as a teacher and administrator in K-12 schools in eastern Pennsylvania. She teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in teacher education and administration. She is a co-director of the Center for Teaching and Learning, serves as Chair of the Professional and Secondary Education Department, is co-author of The ESU Comprehensive Assessment Model, and is co-founder of the newly formed professional development school.

 

E-mail: fwaters@po-box.esu.edu

 

 

 


 

 

References

 

Deal, Nancy, 1998, “Getting Teacher Educators Caught in the Web,” T.H.E. Journal, 26 (1), pp. 50-53.

 

Schlagal, Bob, Trathen, Woodrow, and Blanton, W., 1996, “Structuring Telecommunications to Create Instructional Conversations about Student Teaching,” Journal of Teacher Education, 47(3), pp.175-184.

 

Souviney, Randall and Saferstein, Barry, 1997, “E-Mail Communication and Clinical Supervision,” Journal of Computing in Teacher Education, 1(4), pp. 21-27.

 

Wepner, Shelly, 1997, “‘You Never Run Out Of Stamps’: Electronic Communication in Field Experiences,” Journal of Educational Computing Research, 16(3), pp. 251-268.

 

Wittenberg, David K. and McBride, Ron E., 1998, “Enhancing the Student-Teaching Experience through the Internet,” JOPERD, 69(3), pp. 17-20.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.

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