Technology in the Trenches: Improving the Quality of Instruction


An idea. A tool. A change.Improvement. Educators today are bombarded with new approaches toteaching and learning, but one thing seems clear: nothing will changeunless these ideas are brought to the frontlines of the classroom. Wecan talk about providing students with world-class skills, building21st century campuses, and combining technology and pedagogy, but ifthese efforts are not done in the trenches, human scrapresults.

How can schools todayincorporate varied innovative teaching and learning strategies, setstatewide and schoolwide goals, and implement standards? Moreimportantly, how can they avoid fragmentation in their efforts?Setting goals and standards along with isolated professionaldevelopment activities will not do it alone. A systematic, systemicand consistent framework and high technology tools are needed tobring these ideas into the classroom.


Talk with educators todayand you'll find they're facing challenges to:

  • Determine industry endorsed performance expectations;
  • Assure that teaching and learning focus on intended results;
  • Increase accountability for what is taught and for what students learn;
  • Design instruction that is integrated and applied to real world problems;
  • Teach students knowledge, then teach them how to use knowledge;
  • Develop plans for work-based learning that builds on school-based learning;
  • Provide common philosophy, language and standards for articulation;
  • Infuse standards throughout the curriculum;
  • Document learning results;
  • Provide staff development to prepare teachers and staff; and
  • Move from teaching-centered organizations to learning-centered organizations.

These aren't easyvictories, but one state's community college system has foundpowerful ammunition in its attempt to bring about these changes andshow proof of their attempt. In Wisconsin, the two year communitycollege system is called the Wisconsin Technical College System. Thesystem's search for a software tool to bring about these changesbegan in 1990, but those available were too cumbersome, expensive oruser-unfriendly. So in June 1992, the colleges formed a partnershipwith the Wisconsin Technical College System Foundation and theWisconsin Technical College System Board to develop a high technologyinstructional design software package and video course that would armthem for the challenges ahead. The result was a system - model,software, video course and training - that works for teachers,administrators and, most importantly, learners.

The model behind thesystem integrates current theory and practice in instruction into apractical model that makes sense. Featuring critical elements ofperformance-based design, the model infuses broad, transferableskills (skills like communication, problem-solving and criticalthinking) into occupational and discipline-specific instruction.Flexibility within the model makes it adaptable to variedinstructional intents and missions - both academic and technical.Emphasizing results, the model recognizes three performance levels.Broadest are the transferable skills that all learners needregardless of occupational or life roles. At the next level,competencies describe major discipline or occupationally specificskills. Each competency is clarified by performance standardsspecifying criteria and conditions for assessment. Learningobjectives are the enabling instructional outcomes. They describe thelower level, supporting knowledge, skills and attitudes needed tomaster a given competency.

After setting goals("what") and establishing criteria for determining "when", teachersor designers plan strategies for "how". These questions serve as aguide through a logical process that leads to effective teaching andlearning. In line with strategic planning, the model guides teachersand designers to design from the inside out. In other words, whatthey intend to achieve drives how they approach the task. From thelearner's point of view, however, learning moves from the outside in.The learners begin with the "how" and aim for the "what" like atarget. The model requires teachers to provide learners with preciseinformation about performance expectations at the beginning of alearning experience. As a result, learners set out with a clearvision of the requirements for successful completion.

Software as aWeapon

So you've chosen yourmodel and are set for the challenge. What can you use to bring yourideas into the classroom? There must be a weapon - a tool. With theincreasing number of computers available at both schools and homestoday, teachers have an efficient medium by which to work. TheWisconsin Technical College System Foundation thought of this too.They developed software - designed by teachers, trainers andcurriculum specialists - to plan programs, courses or lessons fromscratch or from broad frameworks at the national, state or districtlevels. The software is compatible with the national DACUM and SCIDcurriculum development systems.

This proven tool createsstudy guides and training manuals that include the components of themodel, analysis of instructional design and infusion of broadtransferable skills into learning plans and assessment. It alsosupports the development of performance assessment tasks,personalized course syllabi and articulation plans, along with DACUMand program task lists. It is performance-based, user friendly andlearner-focused. Mark Durkee, a Mechanical Design Instructor fromMadison Area Technical College in Madison, says the software has beenan important part of his department's curriculum development process.What he likes the most are the "job aids such as action verb,learning activity and core ability libraries."

Not all soldiers are thesame. They come from different backgrounds with different practicesand even different terms for the same idea. How can collegescost-effectively provide instructional design training to hundreds,even thousands, of professionals? And how can those in training getcredit for it? The Wisconsin Technical College System campusesprovide 13 video lessons that lead viewers through a step-by-stepprocess for developing performance-based curricula, study guides,lesson plans and teacher manuals. Interactive study guides makeviewers active learners as they apply what they learn to the designof their curriculum. Effective computer graphics and interviews witheducators and business leaders clarify and enliven the lessons. Thevideo lessons have been thought of so highly in the state thatseveral universities have offered them for two graduatecredits.

Links toIndustry

Education d'esn't takeplace in a vacuum. Community colleges were born out of the need tosupply the globe with a highly skilled workforce - a workforce thatis held accountable for what it has learned. Colleges today wouldlose ground and lose sight of the their true purpose if they ignoredthe demands and expectations of business and industry. GE MedicalSystems, for example, has an enviable track record for usingperformance-based instruction to increase efficiency and customerservice. As leaders in their training department look to the future,they anticipate the need to prepare additional members of theirtraining team to go beyond platform training by applying principlesof adult learning and instructional design to accomplish their goals.The Wisconsin Technical College System Foundation looked to GE forinsight and involved them in the developmental stage of the model,software and video course - extending the application of the productsbeyond education to the workplace.

The designers of theproject are committed to using quality principles, basing the designof the model, software and video course on ideas from frontlineeducators and trainers. A Statewide Advisory Team, composed ofcurriculum specialists and faculty representatives from all 16technical colleges along with representatives from K-12 and GEMedical Systems, spear-headed much of the initial design work. Userteams from partner organizations review all software updates beforerelease, providing constant feedback to the Project DesignTeam.

Educators and trainersoutside this Wisconsin college system are just beginning to recognizethe power and broad applicability of what has been labeled theWisconsin Instructional Design System, or WIDS. WIDS is being used bycommunity colleges, technical colleges, universities, K-12 schoolsand businesses in at least 21 states and five foreign countries. It'sdefinitely something I'd want on my side.

Robin Soine is Educational Communications Manager for theInstructional Design and Planning Division at Wisconsin TechnicalCollege System Foundation in Waunakee, Wisc.

E-mail: [email protected]

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.