EdNet@UMass: Providing Quality Professional Development via the Internet


Educators have historically been an isolated community in many ways. They have been isolated even from each other by the classroom walls of their own buildings. Educators are "islands of excellence with no ferry service" to connect them with each other or to groups of their peers. Outstanding practices that have been developed by educators who have been unable to travel to conferences or contact special interest groups have, until now, been lost to others in education.

However, with the advent of the Internet, this "Berlin Wall of isolation" has quickly eroded. Since 1991, EdNet@UMass was an early innovator in providing online collegiality among educators who desired to share ideas, philosophies, pedagogues and promising practices. EdNet@UMass is a sterling example of a virtual professional convention &emdash; and it occurs each and every day of the year in a way that can be accessed when one's busy schedule allows.

Mechanically speaking, EdNet@UMass is an online mailing list supported by Web-based resources (see www.umass.edu/ednet), which is financially supported and managed by the School of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Community Lab located in the Psychology Department of University of Massachusetts Lowell. The EdNet@UMass has evolved into a premier educational Internet and Web resource with a subscriber base of several thousand educators scattered throughout the world. Dot Snesrud, an elementary school teacher in Nebraska, notes that "[EdNet] is a great place to read a variety of ideas and opinions about education."

There are three distinct operational facets of EdNet@UMass. The first consists of the "Ol' Soap Box" in Anderson Hall (named for G. Ernest Anderson, the UMass faculty member who sponsored EdNet@UMass). Members of the EdNet@UMass community post messages of all sorts here. These postings are, in turn, sent to all those who have subscribed. The second facet consists of the "Conference Center," which hosts rotating monthly activities such as the Guest Speaker series, Discussion Group seminars, Field Trips and Food for Thought seminars. The third facet is the "Administration Center." The Administration Center primarily deals with the management of the Listproc and WebBoard software. 

EdNet's Virtual Community

EdNet@UMass is composed of educators from the United States and 29 other countries such as Australia, Belgium, Canada, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Uruguay.

EdNet@UMass is not just about K-12 education or just about higher education &emdash; it is about Education. It's about providing a forum for promising practices in all curricular areas and assisting pre-service and in-service educators. It's about exploring the educational possibilities the 'Net has to offer.

Amazingly, EdNetters from around the world use EdNet for many of the same reasons. Miguel Sim'es, a Math teacher in Lisbon, Portugal relies on EdNet@UMass to learn what "teachers in other countries are doing in their schools ... as we all have the same issues" and "together we can help each other address them." Jacqui Sharp, an instructional technology consultant in Auckland, New Zealand can "keep up with the latest trends of information and instruction technology." It was, and remains to this day, a place to come, be with, and hear the opinions of one's colleagues and interact with them. Margarita Aste, an educational technology integration specialist in Mexico, finds EdNet@UMass "very useful, as many teachers in the US and Canada are interested in participating with us in group projects." Marina Lukovnikova, a computer education teacher in Siberia, Russia, utilizes EdNet@UMass "to familiarize [herself] with the methodology of using a computer and especially Internet in the world and USA. Also to find potential associates among the teachers in the world who could support our initiatives and inter-school projects." Jamie Marchand, an Education major at the University of Regina in Canada is able to form her "own ideas and perspectives on teaching ... through the viewpoints and opinions expressed" by EdNetters. 

EdNet@UMass as a Useful Tool

There have been a number of successful attempts to establish online professional development for educators; there have been just as many unsuccessful attempts. EdNet@UMass, K12Net, EDTECH and KidsNet have been successful examples of quality educational programs/services available via the Internet.

For example, Debbie Jilson, chairperson of the computer science department at a high school in Maryland, states that she is "taking a sabbatical next year to put together Internet units for each academic department ... using much of the information I have gleaned from EdNet@UMass." A graduate student in Education at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Elynne Boudreau is assisted by "aid from various teachers. It is a tremendous help to get assistance from in-service teachers ... I get all kinds of interesting suggestions and ideas to aid in my teaching and projects for my classes." 

Anderson Hall &emdash; The 'Ol Soap Box

This is what EdNet@UMass has been doing since its inception &emdash; allowing educators to converse with and among each other. Any EdNetter can post a comment, question and suggestion about the field of education. This posting will be sent to the Listproc software at UMass where it is re-posted to several thousand educators throughout the world. Chantal Capet, an English teacher in France appreciates EdNet@UMass' ability to facilitate "hearing about my contemporaries' experiences in teaching." Chantal also reads EdNet to stay abreast of the "new technologies in teaching."

Postings range from: a high school history educator asking for assistance in preparing an appropriate unit regarding The Rise of New Nations from the Former Soviet Union, to a Kindergarten teacher searching for information about building an igloo from one-gallon plastic milk containers to support her unit about the Arctic, to general discussions about discipline in the classroom. This feature is available via a traditional e-mail based mailing list or via pull technology through the Web site.

The Virtual Conference Center

In addition to the general discussions in Anderson Hall, there are several symposium-like activities. These are offered in a rotating order so that members of the EdNet@UMass community can devote their full attention to the activity at hand, and so that they will not have their electronic mailboxes deluged by traffic. The activities in this area are designed to focus attention on a specific topic of interest to educators. There are five types of activities in this area: Discussion Groups, Guest Speakers, Field Trips, Food for Thought and Random Thoughts by Louis Schmier. 

Discussion Groups

One of the EdNet@UMass Management Team will select a publication or article of interest that is available on the Web. The EdNet@UMass community will be referred to this online document, asked to read it and to be prepared to discuss it when the session begins. Discussions have included both mild and well mannered but heated debates regarding, for example, teacher tenure, merit raises, teacher's unions, home schooling and prayer in the classroom. In addition to the perspectives offered by American educators, the comments of educators in other parts of the world have provided very thoughtful and compelling points of view. For instance, the next session will involve "filtering" software and its possible mandate as part of the E-Rate funding. This session will likely include the activities of the Congress in regard to their past, present and future attempts to control the Internet. 

Food For Thought

Food For Thought is a more spontaneous activity than is the Discussion Group. Here EdNetters do not necessarily need to prepare by reading an online document. The conversation deals with issues that are more experiential. For example, the current discussion involves the nature of a Technology Coordinator position. A number of responses to this issue have shown that this new position in education &emdash; the Technology Coordinator &emdash; appears to begin life as a source of knowledge of technology and its implementation, but soon degenerates to a Cinderella role.

There are usually a number of Discussion Groups that evolve on their own. An EdNetter will pose a question or make a statement, and a discussion thread will be born. A recent such thread involved vouchers for attending private schools and how that may impact public education. 

Guest Speakers

This activity brings experts in their field to our forum. Given the technology of EdNet@UMass, experts in various areas of education are invited to subscribe for a week to ten days, make their presentation and answer questions posed by EdNetters.

Recently, UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh spoke regarding many newly developing issues that may likely impact educators. Professor Volokh offered his insight and prediction for the future on many contentious education-specific legal issues concerning the development of the Internet and the Web.

Former AT&T Bell Lab scientist Dr. Barry Kort (now a BBN Labs scientist) spoke on the development of online informal science education. Other Guest Speakers have offered their insights regarding the Acceptable Use Policy and Classroom Discipline. UMass Professor Masha Rudman, a noted authority in the area of children's literature, has also been a Guest Speaker. 

Field Trips

EdNet@UMass organizes Field Trips to various Web sites that may be of interest to educators. Some of the "Field Trips" are accomplished en masse, some are conducted as "here's the information, go to the site when you can" trips.

These virtual Web travels are a new feature of EdNet@UMass. As the Web has evolved, there have been many new developments. EdNetters and the EdNet@UMass Management Team search out exemplary Web creations, explore them and offer a group tour or provide EdNetters with the knowledge needed to explore the site on their own.

Visiting the MicroMuse, our next Field Trip, is an example of one that is best done in a group. Navigating about this multi-user simulation of life in the 24th century in outer space can be a daunting task for the first-time user. The MicroMuse staff will provide a guided tour. The tour group will be well informed due to the unique communication mechanism of the MicroMuse that allows for chatting among those on the Field Trip. 

Random Thoughts by Louis Schmier

Since its inception, EdNet@UMass has been graced by the presence of an uplifting and encouraging educator. Louis Schmier, a professor of history at Georgia State University, posts his "Random Thoughts" every so often. As Internet denizen Mark Ahlness, the Director of the Earth Day Groceries Project puts it, Louis has "encouraged and sparked many thoughtful and difficult online educational dialogues." Professor Schmier's writings are more than educational, they spark the human spirit and cause educators to become better educators. 

The Virtual Administration Center

There are a number of continuous activities on EdNet@UMass. These are needed to support the activities here as well as to keep the Listproc software and the server functioning properly. 

The Transcript Office

Many states now require professional educators to become re-certified every few years. Some educators choose to attain an advanced degree, but many others define their re-certification program in terms of "educational activities" they will be engaged in.

The "Convention Center" activities offered qualify as legitimate educational activities for recertification credit. Given that the vast majority of EdNetters are not local to UMass' Amherst campus but desire their participation to be validated, EdNet@UMass offers certificates of completion. Anyone wishing validation will send the Management Team a stamped, self-addressed envelope and, upon verification of participation, the EdNetter is sent a certificate of participation.

Graduate Credit at EdNet@Umass

Graduate credit for participation in EdNet@UMass can be arranged through the School of Education at the University of Massachusetts. Arrangements must be made, in advance, with the EdNet Management Team (e.g., a written "learning contract" between the individual and appropriate EdNet staff and registration at the University). 

Administration Building

The Administration Building is a separate virtual space where the administrative team develops and refines our mission and goals, and defines the various tasks that need to be accomplished in the days and months ahead.

The issue of becoming a "moderated" list (all postings are read before being released to the server) as opposed to leaving EdNet@ UMass as an "unmoderated" list (all postings go immediately to the server and are posted to the entire list) is an example of a typical discussion in the Administration Building. Essentially the issue at hand then was that the type of traffic (as opposed to the content) was becoming redundant. For example, one person would ask a question or make a statement and several people would reply with the exact same information. Although this was a minor nuisance to the individual EdNetter, it created needless and very time-consuming activity on the server, as each message, redundant as it was, would be sent to several thousand EdNetters. The result of deliberations was that the EdNet@UMass Management Team decided that the list should become "moderated" in hopes of reducing needless traffic and directing other traffic to a more appropriate destination.

Other policy decisions have been made here. For example, the Administration Team has decided such issues as: whether or not to accept commercial support for EdNet@ UMass's activities and what the policy should or should not be regarding commercial advertising. 

Help Desk

Since its inception, EdNet@UMass has been an online source of help for educators in search of curricular or technical support. The Help Desk has historically been composed of everyone (literally everyone on the mailing list) and the Management Team. In the first days of EdNet@UMass, typical Help Desk questions were about the basic operations of the computer, the modem, printers, etc. Today, the questions to the Help Desk include a higher order of problem (e.g., how d'es mIRC work and where can I download it from?). 

Physical Plant

This is the mechanical "heart" of EdNet@UMass. Each day the management team deals with "bounced" messages (people who abandon their accounts and don't unsubscribe first), releasing all postings, rebuilding the list file after it has been corrupted, backing up essential files, handling the returned postings when a major continental Internet gateway crashes, etc. 

Becoming an EdNetter

There has been a moderate amount of research into the question of: "what is the nature of an ideal program by which to deliver professional development and support to educators over the Internet?" Most agree that several qualities must be present in order for a venture such as EdNet@UMass to be successful. These include: a fairly well defined notion of what is a "good service to offer" to educators; maintaining a consistent flow of the service/product; enlisting knowledgeable people to manage and facilitate the content of the service/product; having the technical resources to handle routine as well as disaster management; and having policy in place so that all users are aware of their rights and responsibilities.

Dr. Rob Reilly is a Post Doctoral Research Associate in the Office of Information Technologies at Umass Amherst. He is also a computer education teacher in the Lanesborough, Massachusetts public school system. Dr. Reilly received his bachelor and doctoral degrees from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

E-mail: [email protected]

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.