Connecting Teachers to the Future
Andy GRAY <email@example.com>
This paper discusses a model of professional development for teachers in schools in Queensland that employs information and communication technologies. In the past ten years, significant funding has been provided to schools for integration of information technology in our schools. The majority of this funding has focused on exposing students to the technology. The Connecting Teachers to the Future project changes this focus to the teachers.
Queensland is an Australian state with a relatively small population spread over a large geographic area with large distances between population centers. Using Internet resources, specifically electronic mail and the World Wide Web, the Connecting Teachers to the Future project models an effective means of meeting the challenge of providing professional development and the necessary ongoing support to teachers scattered across the state. The paper identifies several areas of educational, motivational, and cultural change that have occurred during the project so far.
Keywords: Internet, primary, secondary and post-secondary education, teacher professional development, case studies, motivation, cultural change
Queensland is an Australian state with a relatively small population spread over a large geographic area with large distances between population centers. In this context the provision of professional development and the subsequent support is difficult, requiring the participants, presenters, and support personnel to travel long distances for a relatively short period of direct contact.
In recent years teleconferencing has been employed to reduce the isolation felt by teachers at small schools; however, the benefits are problematic. Professional development of teachers in these technology-related areas has, in the main, remained the responsibility of individual commitment and of teacher professional associations' desire to support their members' development.
This paper discusses a model of professional development for teachers in schools in Queensland which employs information and communication technologies. The Connecting Teachers to the Future project seeks to shift the focus, at least to some degree, from the provision of technology to the development of skills which would allow teachers to exploit the potential that computers and telecommunications provide to education.
The project is a partnership between Education Queensland, teacher professional associations, and industry to provide teachers with the confidence and skills to use information technologies to design, develop, and introduce classroom materials suited to their particular needs. To date, 500 teachers have participated in the project.
Selected expert classroom teachers who have had limited opportunity to integrate information technology into their teaching are provided with a laptop computer, modem, and an Internet account for their exclusive use as long as they remain employed by Education Queensland. Teachers, at their own cost, attend an eight-day professional development workshop during a vacation period. They are expected to share their expertise and experiences with other classroom teachers and are required to complete a project integrating information and communication technologies with classroom activities in a twelve-month period. The program's prime objective is to empower teachers with personal skills in the use of information and communication technologies and to help them enhance the curriculum they develop for their students.
Each laptop remains with the teacher on "long-term loan" so that skills developed during the training can be internalized and further developed by the teachers as they gain confidence. According to previous experience, it is firmly believed that the longer the participants have access to the technology upon which they first trained, the greater the likelihood that skill development will continue, and in the long-term these skills and knowledge will be passed on to other teachers and to students. Throughout the training program, skills are closely linked to classroom realities. Equal weighting is given to the use of the Internet as an educational tool and as a communication medium. The underlying theme is one which emphasizes the Internet as a means of developing communication webs rather than using it only as an information resource.
Using Internet resources, the Connecting Teachers to the Future project models an effective means of meeting the challenge of providing professional development and the necessary ongoing support to teachers scattered across a largely rural state which is seven times the size of Great Britain but with a population similar to that of Berlin.
Teachers in the project are supported by electronic mail. An electronic mailing list has been established to deal with a range of technical and educational issues and to build a sense of community among the teachers. In addition, a World Wide Web site has been established to provide an archive for experiences, frequently asked questions, and for the publication of completed projects:
At a district level, a network of local "mentors" is being established so that localized support is directly available to assist participants with further professional development. These mentors are teachers who are experienced technology users and are able to pass on the knowledge they have acquired about using computer technologies and the Internet in a classroom context. While it is not always possible, the program seeks to involve mentors in the training program so that personal contacts established during that period can be built upon after the participants return to their schools.
A total of 130 teachers have now completed their curriculum projects. The participants were also required to identify areas of change which had occurred during the year in which they were undertaking the project.
The paper identifies several areas of educational, motivational, and cultural change which have occurred during the project so far.
The most frequently reported educational change was that of increased motivation on the part of teachers to become involved with the introduction and development of information technologies within the school learning environment. A number of teachers reported that as their perception of the value of the Internet and computer technologies increased, they found themselves becoming more deeply involved in the development of school management policies. Contacts made possible via e-mail and the World Wide Web were also reported as being important in increasing their professionalism and sense of self-worth.
In terms of classroom practice it is evident from their reports that a large number of teachers underwent a process of transformation which resulted in their withdrawal from being the leader of the educational process to that of mentor or resource person for the students.
There were numerous reports of e-mail becoming a key component for classroom activities upon which other aspects of the learning program were built. In many cases the e-mail link provided a real audience which acted to involve teachers, stimulate responses, and encourage students to develop basic literacy skills.
Accessibility to the Internet was also seen as being of importance not only in supporting their own professional development but also in providing a useful conduit to exchange views on issues of mutual concern.
Teachers also found that being able to exchange e-mail messages also assisted in the development of students' awareness of cultural, geographic, and lifestyle differences, particularly among students who were studying Languages Other Than English (LOTE). Similar findings were noted when e-mail was used to link rural and urban schools within Queensland and Australia.
The availability of the Internet also meant for the first time that a "real" program involving groups and resources outside the school could be developed that was both rewarding and meaningful to the students. These real educational activities motivated students, who experienced a real sense of public purpose in classroom activities. Internet access also provided a positive incentive for students to undertake mundane basic tasks such as keyboarding.
The teachers reported that access to the World Wide Web provided sources of information which could complement resources within the school and provide a sense of immediacy on which formal classroom activities and informal learning could occur.
In general terms, student research was carried out offline using local resources from the school's own resource collection, while the Internet was used to support and extend research with up-to-date information. More often than not this method was adopted to reduce the costs related to online searching from rural locations.
Access to the Internet also proved useful in developing community support for classroom programs. Teachers took advantage of Internet access to train teacher aides, usually parents, so that time online could be maximized and younger students could receive as much assistance as was necessary.
Teachers involved in the project have displayed significant shifts in their attitude toward technology and the value they perceive it having in the classroom. The teachers' increase in confidence has been reflected in their willingness to work cooperatively with their students to explore the "new world" of the Internet.
In general, teachers expressed appreciation at the way in which their "world" had been broadened by being involved with Internet projects. Several teachers reported that the provision of Internet access changed their perception of the role of a teacher.
Areas of positive value regarding Internet use repeated numerous times in the teachers' reports included
A number of teachers expressed the view that access to the Internet created a "new" learning environment for both teacher and students. This "new" environment placed both teacher and student on a more equal footing, leading to positive changes in relationships and communication patterns among students and between students and teacher.
The teachers felt that the presence of the Internet and related Internet projects had positively affected student learning outcomes, student roles and relationships, and students' motivation to learn. In general there was a recognition that interest in developing and improving the ways technology can be used for professional and personal purposes was ongoing. At the same time it was also recognized that the path would be not only rewarding but also frustrating.
There was increased awareness of the need for classroom teachers, not just those concerned with the school network or who knew about computers, to ensure that their voice is heard on issues relating to the development of learning technologies and provision of Internet access within the school.
Also of note has been the attitude of their peers to these teachers when they returned to the classroom.
Overall, participants reported favorably on their progress, the rate at which their skills developed, and the degree of satisfaction with the curriculum program they had developed for their students. They particularly expressed satisfaction with the way in which the Internet had opened up their view of the world and in some cases changed the way in which they perceived themselves as teachers.
Collation of information across the participants' reports revealed a number of issues which reflected upon the expectation and attitudes displayed at school level.
Several of the teachers reported a reluctance on the part of others to become involved in professional development programs. In one case it was necessary to use the students' progress as a means to motivate other teachers to develop computer skills.
This situation, however, was not applicable in many schools and seemed to be a function of the degree of management involvement in the area of computer and information technologies. Where school management support, involvement, and commitment to the teacher and the project were high, progress was ensured. In this context, a number of other teachers were also drawn into assisting in the development and integration of the information technologies activities with the school's curriculum program.
In some instances, however, the skills acquired and displayed by project teachers were perceived as a threat to existing power structures within their schools. These teachers experienced a lack of local support and, in some cases, open hostility to their actions.
In one particular case opposition from established personnel within the school prevented a teacher's original project from proceeding and an alternative had to be developed. There was some antagonism towards the "personal access" to a laptop which resulted in participants having limited access to local support.
On other occasions, participation in the Connecting Teachers to the Future training and professional development program was seen to have somehow endowed the participant with miraculous skills. On their return to school the participants were allocated responsibility for a range of issues relating to computer and information technologies. Such situations were apparent at small rural schools where the local skill base was small and where possession of any measure of skills placed the participants in a position of the local "guru." In general, although participants accepted these responsibilities, it did place them under unnecessary pressure and consequently their focus on the classroom activities was reduced.
Significant cultural change has occurred in three areas.
The vast majority of reports identified change in terms of their personal experiences. Comments from teachers noted the high degree of personal involvement and excitement at being able to exploit the potential of the "world" of the Internet.
The increased knowledge and self-confidence which came from ready access to the laptop and access to support and information via e-mail and the World Wide Web also led to an increased assertiveness on educational issues. Many of the teachers noted that they were now more concerned and involved with issues relating to teachers' roles in the integration of information technologies across the school curriculum.
In addition, many reported
E-mail provided emotional support for students and teacher during projects, increased understanding of other cultures and groups, assisted in professional planning, and provided mutual reassurance. It proved particularly useful for teachers in remote and rural areas.
Many teachers saw e-mail not as an Internet technology but as a teaching/learning tool. It provided a motivational link between the students, their projects, and the learning outcomes. In numerous cases participants reported that the very access to the Internet and the resources it provides had led to increased cross-cultural awareness.
Access to the technology also led to a reconsideration of the purposes for which technologies are used in education and led to more appropriate use. Regular access to the comprehensive information sources and a wide spectrum of opinion also served as an impetus to reassess lesson preparation and structure.
Internet access also affected students' attitudes by providing real purpose for learning. The immediacy of reply experienced by many of those teachers conducting e-mail projects also resulted in increased student time on-task. The new learning environment also provided students an opportunity to gain self-esteem by becoming mentors both to other students and, on occasion, to teachers.
The changed learning environment also affected the relationships and communication patterns within the classroom while demonstrating a real purpose for increased student literacy skills.
E-mail became a real factor in the learning and teaching environment, providing a wider audience and range of opinions. A number of teachers noted that learner involvement was high and this in itself propelled further learning, leading to occasions when the students planned and suggested projects that they wanted to do.
Many reports indicated that, as a result of their participation in the Connecting Teachers to the Future program and the subsequent school-based projects, teachers adopted a role as an advocate for the more extensive and integrated use of learning technologies as part of the school's learning program.
In effect the teachers demonstrated to themselves that it was possible to become Internet-competent. They demonstrated to others that an "ordinary" teacher could use the Internet for educationally valid projects which were beneficial to both teachers and students. The consequence of growing expertise was that the participants were seen as being a source of assistance for others and became an advocate for change within the school. It became evident that the psychological importance of achieving progress using the Internet was significant to other teachers because the participants were "ordinary teachers" rather than experts.
The Connecting Teachers to the Future Project has been one of the most successful professional development initiatives of Education Queensland. Teachers have been exposed to the technology and have been able to use it as a personal tool. Teachers were given time to explore the possibilities and an effective support network was built to ensure that a "safety net" was always available. Success in their projects motivated teachers to reevaluate their teaching and their role in the school and classroom. As a result of this reevaluation process, many of the teachers have taken on leadership roles in their school and districts, largely as a consequence of their participation in the project.
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