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Teachers and Internet: Charting a Course for Success

Teachers and Internet:
Charting a Course for Success

April, 4, 1995

Phil Buchanan


Abstract

As the interest in Internet intensifies, and more schools begin to consider establishing connections, it becomes essential that we evaluate the impact such a connection has on the educational program, and especially its impact on teachers. This paper discusses the results of a project in which teachers were given personal Internet accounts. While there were difficulties, the teachers were overwhelmingly positive about the value of the Internet as a professional resource.


Contents

1 Introduction

2 Why explore?

3 Teachers as explorers

4 Preparing for the journey

5 New lands, New people

6 Where are the dragons?

7 Navigation beacons

8 Continuing the exploration

References

Author Information


1 Introduction

Early navigators had maps which were largely a series of vaguely drawn coastlines punctuated by large areas of the unknown. As exploration--often driven by commerce and trade--increased, these holes were slowly filled in. Although, for those early explorers the thought of venturing into the unknown must have been daunting, the siren call of new lands, conquest and potential treasure urged them on. Some areas of the unknown were often associated with mystic enchantments and carried such ominous warnings as 'Here Be Dragons'. How many of those early explorers were lost to the dragons?

Today the Internet is being presented as the new frontier, the new world for exploration. For those venturing into this virtual world, the charts are as incomplete as those of previous generations but, again, the thought of possible treasure lures newcomers. This world of cyberspace is a land where sirens call and dragons abound.

Teachers are among the first to explore this new world. Those exploring now are preparing the charts for those who will come after. Each new skill learned, each new resource located, fills in another of those holes in the map.

2 Why explore?

Access to the global network can bring an extra dimension to the classroom:

Access to these resources is gradually reshaping the image of a classroom from the standard four-wall self-contained structure to a global classroom, and expanding 'educational practice from didactic, classroom-based instruction to problem-solving based student generated learning in open classrooms across the world'. [1]

In 1993, the Bank Street College of Education conducted a survey of 550 educators who were actively involved in using telecommunications. The survey looked at a wide variety of ways telecommunications technology is used in K-12 education. Their findings on Internet usage are summarised below . [2]

The Internet provides access to a vast range of information sources. In addition it enables the development of 'communities of interest' which can exchange thoughts and views on a range of topics. This development is still constrained by connection capacities and service providers. Increasing interest in the 'Information Superhighway' of which Internet might be seen as the prototype, makes it imperative that options be considered which would provide all schools with fast, efficient access to information services. A national survey conducted in 1992 of 362 Australian teachers showed that although 51% had access to a modem in their schools, only 39% had made use of computer communications as a learning and teaching resource. [3]

Although, at the time, it might be considered the resource was under utilised, there was a high degree of interest to use the area in the future. Two impediments seen by these teachers were the difficulty of using dial-up services and the lack of suitable services for P-12.

In their summary, Honey and Henriquez state that

In order for telecommunications to become a widely utilized educational resource, administrators and policy makers must implement the following: teacher training and support; school and district planning for the use of telecommunications in instruction and administration; time for professional and student learning activities; effective assessment measures; financial support; and phone lines or local area networks.[4]

3 Teachers as explorers

While there is considerable discussion on the use of telecommunications by students, it is teachers who need to be encouraged to be the explorers, the pathfinders. Research on the user of computer and communications technologies often fails to take account of the needs and the role of the teacher--the most important element in instituting classroom change. [5]

If it is axiomatic to say that changes will occur if and when teachers themselves make changes happen, then the training of the teacher in both the theory and the practical (technical) aspects of integrating telecommunications into the curriculum is the critical ingredient in the recipe. [6]

As the interest in Internet intensifies, and more schools begin to consider establishing connections, it becomes essential that we evaluate the impact such a connection has on the educational program, and especially its impact on teachers. If teachers are to successfully explore this world and incorporate its benefits into their classrooms, then they--and those who influence teacher professional development and classroom reform activities--need to have a firm grasp of what is meant by 'being connected to the Internet'.

At the very minimum, teachers need to learn and understand how an Internet connection can become a part of their classrooms; they will need support in identifying and locating sources of information that contain resources of interest to them and relevant to their academic discipline; and they will need to learn how to acquire this information and incorporate it into their teaching.

4 Preparing for the journey

Open Access Support Centre, in the Department of Education, Queensland, embarked on a project in 1994 to examine and describe the professional and educational interactions of a small group of primary teachers who have access from their classrooms (and homes) to the Internet. This project seeks to explore the barriers these teachers encounter when using the Internet; how and when they elect to use the Internet; the factors that influenced their continued use of the Internet; the resources they found most useful and the professional growth they experience from using the Internet.

One of the first difficulties encountered was to locate a source of Internet accounts. Commercial providers were not considered appropriate since all had a timed charging structure. It was felt that this would impose a significant limitation on the teacher's free exploration. Universities were approached but they were not willing (in early 1994) to provide accounts to teachers. Finally five accounts were purchased from Griffith University. Later, University of Queensland relaxed its policy and an additional account was purchased from there.

Educational regions were asked to nominate participants. Constraints on nominations were

A one day training session was conducted to activate accounts and to introduce participants to each other and to the Internet. Additional follow-up and on-going support was (and is) being provided to participants on an individual basis. This involved regular meetings with project participants to discuss problems and to provide additional training. Regular electronic mail contact was maintained between the participants and the project leader. Each participant kept a diary of their experiences exploring the Internet. This diary included a record of failures and successes, frustration levels and valuable resources located and how they may be used in the classroom and as professional support. Participants were to update these diary entries each time Internet access was established.

In addition to informal contacts with participants through visits and electronic mail, a formal interview was conducted at the end of the 1994 school year. At that time the participants had been using their Internet accounts for six months.

5 New lands, New people

Exploring the Internet was, generally, a positive experience. In particular the teachers commented on the wealth of professional resources and the value of rapid and easy communication with their peers.

5.1 Professional resources

Teachers commented on the ready availability of learning and teaching resources. Some of the resources located and used by these teachers have included:

In addition, Internet has been used by these teachers to pursue their own personal interests in astronomy, science fiction and patchwork quilts.

I've used it as a store of teaching material. For example, when we did space I pulled down a heap of images and some lesson plans from NASA. We're doing fables at the moment and I found a HyperCard stack on Aesop's fables.

A lot of the projects and the descriptions of the projects and project reports make you think in different ways and give you lots of ideas that you can model.

It's affected my perception which in turn affects how I go about teaching. It's also probably extended my idea that teaching is now more preparing for the skills of dealing with information rather than the old content-driven approach.

Initially there was a tendency to feel overwhelmed with information--mailboxes flooded by subscribing to too many mailing lists, too many choices--but this was resolved fairly quickly as the participants established their own systems and followed their own interest pathways. It should also be pointed out here the importance of the pilot (in this case the project leader from Open Access) who was able to steer the participants to safe harbours and profitable locations.

The Internet is much, much bigger than you ever realised and you're never going to master whatever's there . . . you have to change your mindset about how you learn and what you learn ... you have to find some specific things you want and follow them through.

5.2. Removal of isolation

The value of electronic mail for contact with other teachers and classes both in Australia and overseas was a primary motivating factor for the continued use of Internet. The ease with which they could communicate with their peers both within and outside Australia was continually highlighted as the number one factor in their use of Internet.

Use of networks can create new groups and new forms of social interaction, thus reducing the isolation many teachers experience. Computer networking allows teachers to reach beyond their classroom.[7]

Networking activities play a critical role in combating the isolation that is a familiar experience for many teaching professionals. Our respondents view the opportunity to communicate with other educators and share ideas as one of the major benefits of the technology.[8]

A number of teachers commented on this 'isolation' which can be felt in a classroom and how they used Internet to develop personal and professional links with other teachers who had similar interests.

I found that camaraderie at a professional level really supportive. You didn't have to have someone in the staffroom to talk to because you could talk to anywhere in the world and those barriers of distance just disappeared.

It gave me access to my colleagues and people with the same interests.

It's looking at how other people teach and then saying I can do that . . . but the nice thing is it's not like looking it up in a textbook or a journal article because you can actually write back to that individual and say . . . how did you do it, what were the benefits, what were the spin-offs, what would you do differently. You've got that contact with the primary source of information.

At times in a primary school you feel very isolated . . . the primary school environment can be restrictive and narrow but the Internet gives you the knowledge that it doesn't have to be like that. You can keep your vision, you can keep your big picture and there are plenty of people out there who share it.

People are more inclined to discuss things intelligently than what they would in the staffroom. You ask intelligent questions and get intelligent answers without all the usual social constraints.

. . . the increased awareness and more immediate access to what's occurring around the place. A change of ideas . . . to get the opinion of a Canadian educator who is going to have a very different perspective to someone from here or from the United States or the UK. You see education as far more global. You see the uniqueness of yourself also.

6 Where are the dragons?

Issues relating to the technology, time and access continued to cause problems throughout the project.

6.1 Technical

A major problem encountered by the group dealt with equipment and establishing reliable connections. Griffith University did not provide SLIP or PPP access and, as most of the participants only had access to 2400 baud modems, access was limited to terminal connections to a UNIX host. Also Griffith instituted a dialback security system which caused a high level of frustration in establishing reliable connections.

Technical problems no doubt influenced the attitude of the participants to the Internet, although it did not deter them form exploring. A number, however, were pessimistic about the widespread use of Internet amongst their peers if such problems could not be overcome.

At the present time with the methods you have to use . . . the basic mechanics of getting in to the Internet and knowing the level of computer expertise of my colleagues . . . I would say the Internet won't be used by more teachers generally.

6.2 Time

A significant issue is the amount of time required to explore and feel comfortable with the Internet. Teachers in the project spent between 5 and 20 hours online per week, with an average of 5-7 hours. This is an important consideration for those schools faced with the option of an Internet provider with time charges.

Professional commitments, both in the classroom and in meetings, meant that teachers were unable to find this time during school hours. The teachers also found it was necessary to reserve significant blocks of time for their Internet connection in order to accomplish anything meaningful.

Full time work, plus all the committee meetings and all the extra stuff we have to do and . . . you have to be able to actually set aside a couple of hours for this. This is not something you sit down for five minutes and knock over because you just don't get far enough. You don't delve far enough into it to get anything meaningful from it in five minutes.

The result was major access was, and is, from teacher's homes. This is supported in the findings of Honey and Henriquez [9] and Russett [10]. The teachers on this project have willingly given this time. Interaction with the Internet, their peers and locating resources, has provided sufficient motivation for these teachers. It is likely however, that many teachers would be unwilling or unable (due to other commitments) to allocate this time. These teacher would require immediate and tangible rewards for their efforts.

While it was originally envisaged that usage would drop after an initial familiarisation period, this has, so far, not been the case. In fact, as these teachers now act as 'pilots' for other teachers in their schools, usage, in some cases, has actually increased.

Teacher-librarians in the project have commented on the greater flexibility in their work time which enables them to make greater use of the Internet during the day and to provide support to other teachers. The role of the pilot will be critical for developing awareness and a knowledge base in teachers. This would seem to be a potential role for teacher librarians.

Being a teacher-librarian, Internet's an extension of my job. So it's perfect for me because it can help me with my cooperative planning and teaching.

6.3 Access

Coupled with finding the time, actually getting access to telephone lines and modems. Initially, only one teacher was in a school which had a second telephone line which could be dedicated to a modem. This resulted in tensions arising due to the school' primary telephone or fax line being used for Internet access point. This was another reason why teachers chose to access their accounts from home. Due to the success these teachers experienced with the Internet use and the enthusiasm they engendered in their schools, all schools have now installed an extra telephone line dedicated to modem use. This has to be seen as a significant success for the project.

7 Navigation beacons

The success of the project may be gauged by the following outcomes

The project provided evidence for the effectiveness of electronic mail as a professional support and professional development mechanism. This support must, as far as practicable, be immediate. The immediacy of communication and problem resolution is one of the greatest strengths of electronic mail.

The project also highlighted the need for increased access to communications infrastructure. The ulitmate goal would be for all schools to have continuous network access. While planning for this goal has commenced in the Queensland Education Department, immediate access for most schools will be via dial up and modem. Increased access to dedicated and reliable telephone lines and high-speed modems, at the classroom level, should be a priority for all schools wishing to access the global networks.

Teachers require time to become comfortable with the Internet at a personal and professional level before they will be comfortable integrating it into classroom activities. It is likely that teaching schedules and professional commitments will always make it difficult for teachers to find this time at school. It will be important for administrations to provide flexibility and support to teachers who wish to borrow equipment to use at home. It may even be possible for schools to provide financial assistance for phone calls and to those teachers wishing to purchase equipment.

References

[1] C. Morton, C. Mojkowski, M. Roland and P. Copen, "The global education model (GEM) and the New York State US/Soviet school program," ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. 328233, 1989, p. 126.

[2] M. Honey and A. Henriquez, Telecommunications and K-12 educators: Findings from a national survey, (Bank Street College of Education, 1993).

[3] C. Sherwood and P. A. Buchanan, "Changing classrooms - a national perspective: A national survey on the integration of computers into schools," Australian Educational Computing, vol 8, 1993.

[4] Honey and Henriquez, op. cit., p32.

[5] International Society for Technology in Education, Vision: TEST (Technologically Enriched Schools of Tomorrow), (International Society for Technology in Education, 1990).

[6] B. Theisen, "Integrating telecommunications into the K-12 classroom," Tel-Ed '93, Global Connections. Conference Proceedings, ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. 366334, 1993,p. 21.

[7] O. E. Benavides and A. E. Benavides, "Internet and curriculum delivery: Training of teachers and administrators," Tel-Ed '93, Global Connections. Conference Proceedings, ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. 366334, 1993, p. 35.

[8] Honey and Henriquez, op. cit., p. 16.

[9] Honey and Henriquez, op. cit., p. 32.

[10] J. Russett, "Telecommunications and pre-service science teachers: the effects of using electronic mail and a directed exploration of Internet on attitudes," ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. 368571, 1994, p. 10.

[11] L. Cuban, Teachers and machines: The classroom use of technology since 1920, Teachers College Press, 1986.

[12] C. Bigum, Coming to terms with computers in schools: Report to the Commonwealth Schools Commission, (Deakin Institute for Studies in Education, 1987), p. 14.

[13] International Society for Technology in Education, op. cit., p. 26.


Author Information

Phil Buchanan is a former primary teacher, educational consultant and Lecturer in Education. He is currently a Senior Project Officer with the Open Access Support Centre, Department of Education, Queensland, Australia. The Centre provides curriculum support through the development of a range of programs, materials and services. His major roles involves conducting research and development projects addressing current and emerging technologies and their relationship to open learning strategies. He has a particular interest in interactive technologies, information and delivery systems and how they may be used for professional development.

Open Access Support Centre
P.O. Box E7
WOOLOONGABBA
AUSTRALIA 4102

email: p.buchanan@mailbox.uq.oz.au
phone: 61-7-8962404
fax: 61-7-8962409

Acknowledgment is given to the project teachers, their fellow teachers and their school administration. Their perseverance, foresight and good humour kept the project on course.

Alie Blackwell
Chris Lawler
Lindy McKeown
Chris Piper
Romina Proctor
Leigh Urqhart


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