Common sense dictates that students won't fully experience the benefits of technology for learning until their teachers are sufficiently confident and capable to model its use. Yet, far too many educators lack the familiarity, the time to learn, the required technical support, or even the basic materials to begin weaving these new ways of teaching and learning into the fabric of daily classroom life.
The recent promotion of professional development to the top of our nation's educational agenda reinforces the importance of meeting this challenge before yet another graduating class is sacrificed to our collective inertia.
Common sense also suggests that the technology itself can provide an answer to the chronic and debilitating effects of teacher isolation and time constraints. The impulse is to put everything online that any teacher needs to know and let them drink deeply of this well of virtual knowledge.
Our work at the Online Internet Institute began from similar inspiration five years ago. OII is a nonprofit, standards-based organization that provides educators with a learning environment to support integrating the Internet into their individual teaching styles. OII offers a combination of online and onsite collaborations in which participants develop projects to use in their classrooms. Participants extend what they already know about teaching and learning by gaining skills required to participate productively in a networked world of knowledge building.
While we continue to tackle the challenge of effective professional development, I wish to share the hard lessons and point to potentials forming the horizon.
What is needed is uncommon sense. There is no set of workshops, exercises, books, CD-ROMs, or Web sites that will take us where we need to go, simply because the goal keeps moving. However, there are a host of options with which we can pursue our goals of lifelong improvement.
The AT&T Learning Network's Virtual Academy offers a diverse range of online professional development experiences (of which OII is just one), from informal forums to degree programs. Stories of exemplary educators can be seen online at ED's Oasis, bringing to life the research and policy gems found at the Milken Exchange on Education Technology.
In print, MultiMedia Schools magazine strives to provide a place where the real-life benefits of technology for learning can be shared, along with what it takes to overcome the challenges. As you chart your course, here are three observations from our work that may guide you.
Update Pedagogy and Assessment
If the love of learning isn't at the center of professional development efforts, don't even bother.
As Howard Pitler, principal of Toussaint L'Overture elementary school told his staff, "Every time we climb another technology mountain, we see an even higher mountain in the distance." We need to adopt an attitude that will become our own trusty companion on the journey.
Once we realize that we will never "arrive," our pursuit of the skills and techniques that will make our students more effective learners becomes an adventure worthy of a lifetime commitment. This powerful attraction can both rejuvenate seasoned professionals, as well as inspire the incoming educators who will replace the 50 percent of our profession who will retire over the next few years.
Professional development offerings must serve lifetime needs. User-directed and just-in-time learning are guiding principles we've embraced in building OII's curriculum, "Four Directions for Lifelong Learning." Skills of communication and collaboration, exploration and evaluation, navigation and research, synthesis and presentation -- the Four Directions -- have a place in each professional's toolkit. The techniques available to us will continue to evolve, and establishing a structure which permits us to revisit these skills as the need arises is uncommon sense in motion.
How much better it would be to approach the Web as a way of opening a window into student performance by sharing student work internally over the network so that each student can get timely feedback on their efforts, allowing educators to adjust for the needs of each student. Once this window is opened, it can become a bridge for partnership between parents, teachers, students, and the wider community. Seen this way, the need to gain skills in web page building can drive the content of professional development, instead of how it's usually done now (teach the skill and then look for ways to practice so it's not forgotten).
Authentic, Challenging Tasks
We are entering a time of convergence, but we may have to work around customary boundaries.
The skills our students will need to draw upon as they take their place in the world that's now being transformed are distributed in ways that don't reflect how our profession is organized. For example, information literacy encompasses a core skillset that usually resides outside the schools of education that prepare teachers. How can we expect teachers to model effective use of the Internet when the concepts and tools that provide a foundation for this use seem like a foreign language with respect to pedagogy?
Other vital information concerns bringing instruction into alignment with what three decades of brain research has to tell us about how human beings learn. What educator wouldn't rather design learning experiences that harness the internal workings of the brain, instead of striving to succeed in spite of them (as we do now, too much of the time)?
End the Holy Wars
There is so much we need to learn. Luckily, we can learn from each other.
Today's debate around public education involves three competing approaches: traditional, progressive, and transformative. In the traditional approach, we focus on fundamentals, asking only questions to which the answers are already known. In the progressive, process is as important as product, so we stress how we arrive at any answers, rather than the answers themselves. In the transformative, the context within which we seek the answers to authentic challenging tasks provides a route to the deepest, most meaningful learning.
The holy wars between "whole language vs. phonics" or "traditional vs. technology-based classrooms" or "text-based vs. project-based learning" all reflect this schism. As Robert Sylwester, noted brain researcher says about nurture vs. nature, such debates are "about as meaningful as arguing whether length or width is more important in calculating area."
In OII we've come to realize that all three approaches are needed at developmentally appropriate times. As we continue over time to revisit the four directions, there will be times when we build upon our foundations, upgrade our processes, and enter new contexts for applying what we learn.
As a jazz musician, I treasure the freedom that improvisation confers on my investigations and expression. I also realize that this freedom came through thousands of hours of rote practice on rudiments, scales, chords, and studies. There's a time and place for each of these approaches, and by focusing on the needs of the learner (rather than the preferences of the teacher) we may just arrive at a harmonious way of blending the strengths of each.