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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Teaching & Telecommunications: An Excellent Fit

Telecommunications can help teachers feel less isolated.
By Jan Hawkins, Margaret Honey
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There is now widespread agreement that key qualities of successful schooling are quite different from those that have long characterized traditional education. Educational content and methods courses for teachers generally predate the highly engaged, interactive, and individualized classrooms now desired and the ways new technologies can be enlisted to support this kind of learning.

Because these classrooms are increasingly resource intensive -- relying on substantially more information sources, more discussion and argument, more guidance, and more cooperation with people -- we believe that this form of schooling can not be achieved without the creative integration of computational, visual, and communications technologies. It has also become clear over the past decade that simple motivational and short-workshop schemes are vastly insufficient to enable veteran (and even new, computer-generation) teachers to teach differently, and to teach well with technologies.

Telecommunications technologies have a vital role to play in realizing new circumstances in classrooms, and for the professional development of teachers. Considerable attention and investment are now being directed to bringing classrooms "online." By providing schools pipelines that enable students to draw in distant information and to interact with experts and students around the world, the problem of resource-intensity in these new classrooms might be solved. But access to pipelines is only one, albeit very challenging, component of the problem. What happens at each end of the pipeline is also crucial, and far less attention and investment have been devoted to end-of-pipeline issues thus far.

The organization of remote databases to be actually usable by novices and the design of tools that support inquiry into them are key parts of a successful education resource system. For instance, even if students have access to real scientific databases or to archives of visual materials, unless the resources are organized so that novices can easily browse and search, inquire into, and understand limits of the databases, they are not well used in classrooms. Likewise, if the access to connectivity is not well incorporated in classroom curriculum and activities, it will have little important impact.

In a nationwide survey conducted by the Center for Technology in Education, teachers report a number of benefits from using telecommunications technology with their students. These include expanding students' awareness about the world in general, accessing information that would otherwise be difficult to obtain, and increasing students' inquiry-based and analytical skills.

Teachers also report a number of factors that influence the success of student-based telecommunications activities. When teachers are using networks to carry out classroom exchange projects, advanced planning and full cooperation of all participating teachers is viewed as important to the project's success. The scope and content of the activity need to be well defined, as do project goals and objectives. And, as with any technology project that is designed to support and enhance student learning, the relevance of the telecommunications activity to the teacher's ongoing curriculum is important.

To be well used, these resources, like new approaches to learning in general, require new designs for professional development. The national teaching force is being asked to do its job in substantially different ways.

Telecommunications has a key role to play here as well. To support, sustain, and continue to critique teaching and learning vigorously, there needs to be an entirely new professional development culture in this country. In 1993, teachers are still isolated in their classrooms, telephones remain rare, and opportunities for significant professional exchange and growth are very limited and often ill-designed. Professional development seldom goes beyond single workshops or stand-alone summer institutes. A true professional teaching culture requires sustained and regular conversation among practitioners and other experts throughout the year and ready access to remote resources. It appears vital that teachers communicate with other practitioners and experts before, during, and after they have tried new techniques in their classrooms.

The traditional conditions of the teaching profession have bound practitioners to professionally isolating days and careers. Now is a moment when this can change and change quickly.

Telecommunications is a natural medium for the development of a basic communications structure that must undergird a professional culture. It offers a promising way to overcome the barriers of time, space, and resource access that have kept teachers in severe isolation from one another, and from the conditions necessary to support experimentation and critique. It is only when teachers can look at others' practices, discuss successes and problems in local situations, and get advice from more seasoned professionals that they can adapt and become generative with new practices.

Jan Hawkins was the director of the Center for Children and Technology at the Education Development Center, Inc., in New York when she wrote this article for GLEF in 1993 and “The World at Your Fingertips” in GLEF’s Learn & Live book. She died in March 1999, but her work continues at the center. Margaret Honey is the director of the Center for Children and Technology at the New York office of the Education Development Center, Inc.

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