Building a Community Using Technology

Kim: I am having a difficult time with discipline. I feel like the kids see me as their buddy instead of their soon-to-be teacher. I want to find a happy medium where I can be nice yet maintain respect. Is this possible? I could use some ideas.

Alice: Also, I have found that it's important to take great caution to do the "teacher things" rather than "kid things," such as sitting with them in the cafeteria or walking in line with them. It really helps me model what my cooperating teacher d'es.

Mary: For those of you having trouble drawing the line between teacher and friend, I might be able to help. I greet the children in the morning and smile at them frequently. I use a stern voice when necessary. What works best is to talk with the group and tell them about my expectations. It helps too if your cooperating teacher tells the students to cooperate with you as with any teacher in the school.

Jim: I am trying to prevent discipline problems by writing good lesson plans that keep the kids excited about learning and always engaged in thoughtful tasks. That seems to work for my cooperating teacher.

Kris: I didn't understand the motivation behind my teacher's discipline plan, so I began to observe and ask questions. I could tell she was using some of Glasser's ideas in her approach. I found her goal was to create an atmosphere where students learn to regulate their own behavior and to try to help their classmates do the same. It is amazing to see kids meet together in a democratic type of environment and set classroom goals. Now that I understand her philosophy, I have much more respect and commitment to her approach.

Deb: I guess the biggest thing that I have learned is that school is more than just math, science, and reading, etc. Children have to learn about good citizenship and being courteous to each other. Teachers really do have a complex task.

Conversations such as these occur daily with preservice teachers enrolled in an experimental program for elementary education majors at Appalachian State University (ASU). On first impulse, one might picture these students as participating in a university seminar or having a discussion in a school lunch room. Not so, however! This discussion occurs while each of these students is in a different classroom in a different school. Technology structured to facilitate dialogue via electronic mail and discussion lists makes this discourse possible.

With the onset of a highly technological age, it is imperative that teacher-preparation programs and public schools utilize emerging technologies as tools for the preparation of practitioners. Pedagogical dialogue is one way that technology can assist in this process. Telecommunications can provide teachers with a tool for communication and reflective thought and can connect a community of learners that reaches beyond the school building.

Yet despite the enormous potential that telecommunications holds for education, it has been estimated that only 3% of teachers use this technology.[1] With the array of resources available, the question is not whether to link up to telecommunications, but how to link up and how to assist schools and teachers in the productive use of networking.

How Can Universities Assist Schools With Technological Networking?
Universities can provide technological network assistance to schools in numerous ways. Access to a university computer network allows schools to connect to a vast system of resources. E-mail and other telecommunications systems can enhance communication among educators who are geographically dispersed. Cooperative grant writing through e-mail can enable schools to obtain needed hardware, software and support. These necessary underpinnings for successful telecommunications use may be found frequently in partnership relations between public schools and universities.

However, assistance in the application of technologies is far less common in practice than it should be. We believe that a key role for university faculty in these partnerships is to help public school teachers and preservice teachers learn to use telecommunications by using it with them. It is through participation in shared activity that learning best occurs.[2] In this paper we describe how a university/public school partnership structures telecommunications activities and dialogue to create a community of learners.

How Have We Created Our Electronic Community?
At ASU we have established an electronic community. We have connected our university with local public schools and other universities, creating a network where teachers, students, and university faculty can become full participants in shared pedagogical dialogue and activities. In this community of learners, we have multi-level, multi-skill membership. Experienced educators collaborate with new teachers, enabling their induction into teaching in a non-threatening atmosphere. Dialogue among participants creates a community where all members learn as they participate in practice.[3]

Members of the university and public schools created a Learning and Technology Laboratory to serve as the focal point for the application of technologies. A local telecommunications network was established between the university site and five local schools in the Watauga County School District:

  1. Blowing Rock Elementary School;
  2. Green Valley Elementary School;
  3. Hardin Park Elementary School;
  4. Parkway Elementary School; and
  5. Watauga High School.

After establishment of the network, university and public school faculty designed a series of activities. A major activity was applying telecommunications to preparing our elementary school teachers. Several electronic discussion lists were developed to facilitate ongoing discussions among university faculty, teachers, university students and students in public schools. For example:

  • XMODEL was designed for university discussions;
  • XBLOCK was created for faculty and student discussions;
  • XTEACHER promoted a dialogue between university faculty and cooperating teachers;
  • XSTUDENT was limited to university students and afforded the unique opportunity to exchange ideas on a more personal basis; and
  • XSTORY provided a place for university students and third graders to discuss the novels they were reading.

Others lists were created for members of university methods courses to discuss issues related to literacy, social studies and mathematics. Throughout courses, the faculty structured telecommunications activities to help students connect abstract university classroom knowledge to their public school experiences.

At the secondary education level, ASU faculty developed Read-L, an electronic discussion network among members of a multi-university consortium of content-area reading courses.[4] Currently, ten universities are involved. At each university, students and teachers from one or more content-area reading classes discuss pedagogical issues related to literacy instruction in different content disciplines. Focused lists, such as, Eng-L a list for English teachers, Math-L for math, Science-L for science, and MusArt-L for music and art facilitate the discussions specific to each content area.

As an extension of Read-L, a Content Literacy Information Consortium (CLIC) home page was put on the World Wide Web. The page contains links to information resources for various content areas such as English, languages, mathematics, music, social studies --20 topics in all. Other links include electronic journals, lesson plans, education-focused chat groups, electronic libraries, selected education articles, research reports, and information about professional education organizations. Preservice teachers may also publish their own lesson plans, reviews of teaching strategies and books, and even home pages.

Videoconferencing provides another vehicle for linking the university setting to public schools and for stimulating creative teaching and learning. It is a viable tool for exploring current topics, issues and trends in education.

As an illustration, on one occasion, university faculty and an educational consultant representing a major textbook company participated in a session via teleconferencing that involved cooperating teachers reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of a new published reading program. On another occasion, university students were linked to a 5th-grade social studies classroom via teleconferencing and engaged in a discussion on key figures in American history. A follow-up session included public school students participating in a wax museum performance.

TEAM Project
Powerful links such as these do not happen spontaneously. In-service education is a necessary component that we have built into our community. The TEAM Project, for example, works with the seven school systems that comprise the Appalachian State University/Public School Partnership to promote the effective use of computer technology as a tool for instruction.

It delivers staff development on telecommunications, databases, and spreadsheets; provides toll-free access to the ASU computer system; maintains a Web site with links to lesson plans, educational sites on the Internet, and announcements about computer technology events; offers model teaching in the classroom; and uses an electronic list for discussion about the integration of computer technology into instruction.

We also sponsor the Fifth Dimension, a distributed international literacy consortium comprised of a collective of after-school programs located in public schools, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs and YWCAs, and recreation centers. At present, there are Fifth Dimension sites in California, North Carolina, Mexico and Russia. This provides opportunities for children to use educational software, access the Internet and communicate with peers.

What Are Some of the Benefits?
From our point of view, we have found that our electronic community provides clear advantages for both public schools and our teacher education programs. For the first time we have linked teachers with teachers, so that individual teachers in western North Carolina are no longer isolated. A community of teachers and educators participate in a network to share cultural experiences; write to an audience; and discuss issues about teaching, learning and schools. Moreover, teachers are able to communicate with each other about issues that affect all of them. Recently, one of the teachers participating in this community sent an E-mail message to XTEACHER calling for action:


Dear Fellow Teachers,
The leadership in the House of Representatives in Raleigh is QUICKLY coming up with a budget that once again leaves our salaries FAR behind the national average. The leadership is proposing a 3% salary increase at a time that the Governor has pledged to raise NC teacher salaries to the national average by the year 2000 and has included a 7% salary increase in his budget.

When questioned about this disappointing disparity, one of our representatives said NC is already at the national average if fringe benefits are included. Of course this is a comparison of apples and oranges since other states have benefits in addition to salaries. This seems to be the story of our lives since the '94 election. Last year we got a 2% raise, but lost our 1% differentiated pay for a net gain of only 1%. If we only receive a 3% raise next year, our buying power would be in serious trouble.

WHAT DO WE DO??? We need to contact our legislators and other leaders IMMEDIATELY to voice our concern and to ask them to support the Governor's budget proposal Please contact some of these individuals today or tomorrow. Things are moving very quickly and this is the time to have an influence on the outcome.

As we see it, participants have time to read messages, gather their thoughts about a particular topic and generate their responses.

Further, the ongoing community of discourse in teacher education provides opportunities for novice teachers to apply, critique, and reflect on their teaching knowledge and clinical experiences. As a result, students are able to structure their knowledge base for making decisions about a critical teaching task.[5] Below we see a student reformulate her opinions about a strategy in classroom management: Something my teacher d'es is ignore misbehaviors. When I first learned about this strategy at the university, I thought it was ridiculous, but I have now seen how well it can work.

Another example demonstrates the same kind of growth in a different student: After this writing lesson, I have officially changed my view on correcting children as they speak and write. (NO gloating, please, Dr. S and Dr. T!) I feel that if the children misspell something that they have learned [been taught], it should be corrected (gently). For example, their spelling words (pot, hot, dog, etc.). But to correct a second grader's spelling of "marvelous" made me feel like an ogre!! I was thrilled the little fellow used such a word! I am so afraid I am going to discourage their use of words they can't spell, while at the same time making them hate writing.[6]

These examples demonstrate how telecommunications reveal the transformation from prospective teacher to beginning teacher. We see student teachers reexamining issues based on direct observation. They come to reject their earlier beliefs after having seen the value of instructional strategies in practice.

In Conclusion
To summarize, with easy access to a network and a true social and instructional community for support, we have created an environment for teachers, students and university faculty to grow and explore. Factors essential for success -- such as support, leadership and funds -- have been included in our plan. The application of technology has not replaced the special teacher student relationship, but has helped redefine and strengthen it.

Neither a community of learners nor technologies alone can effortlessly transform education. A combination of both is necessary to create a powerful opportunity to change the structures of public school education and teacher preparation.

For more on our electronic community & projects, visit our home page:

The authors have taught in the year-long block and work extensively with this technologically rich community of public schools and universities. Zimmerman teaches in and leads the teacher preparation program. Greene teaches social studies methods and helps coordinate field experiences. Schlagal and Trathen teach reading and language arts methods' courses and maintain Read-L and CLIC. Blanton created the original concept of this community and is a consultant to these projects along with the Fifth Dimension project.

Sara Olin Zimmerman is an Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction, College of Education, Appalachian State University, Boone, N.C. E-mail: [email protected]
Melanie Greene is also an Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Appalachian State University. E-mail: [email protected]
Bob Schlagal is an Associate Professor of Language, Reading and Exceptionalities at Appalachian State University. E-mail: [email protected]
Woodrow Trathen is also an Assistant Professor of Language, Reading and Exceptionalities at Appalachian State University. E-mail: [email protected]
William Blanton is a Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Appalachian State University. E-mail: [email protected]


  1. Grabe, M. & C. Grabe (1996), Integrating Technology, Boston, MA:Houghton Mifflin Co.
  2. Rogoff, B. (1994), "Developing Understanding of the Ideas of Communities of Learners," Mind, Culture, and Activity, 1(4), pp.209-229.
  3. Lave, J. & E. Wenger (1990), "Situated Learning" Legitimate Peripheral Participation," Palo Alto, CA: Institute for Research on Learning.
  4. Trathen, W. & G. Moorman (1996), "Using E-Mail to Create Pedagogical Dialogue Among Teachers and Students," paper presented at annual meeting of American Educational Research Association, New York, NY.
  5. Greene, M. & S. Zimmerman (1996) "Conceptually Speaking: Using Telecommunications to Link Preservice Teachers With the University Setting," in The Thirteenth International Conference on Technology and Education (ICTE) Proceedings, Grand Prairie, TX: ICTE, Inc., pp.472-474.

Schlagal, B., W. Trathen & W. Blanton (1996), "Structuring Telecommunications to Create Instructional Conversations About Student Teaching," Journal of Teacher Education, 47(3), pp.175-183.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.