Innovative Technology System Revitalizes Classroom Teaching
By Jina Moore (Intern, U.S. Department of Education, FIPSE) Washington, DC, USA; October 16, 2002
When computers started sprouting up in every classroom, Tom Duffy and his colleagues didn't envision students and teachers surfing the Web or simply posting lab results online. They envisioned a virtual revolution, teacher by teacher.
The Learning to Teach with Technology Studio (LTTS), an Indiana University effort that Duffy spearheads, makes that revolution a reality. The three-year-old project offers in-service teachers as well as pre-service students in schools of education online modules to do just what the name implies: learn how better to incorporate that much-lauded computer into the classroom.
"We're not teaching technology skills. Instead, we're looking at the next phase," Duffy says. "We're concerned with how we can help teachers use technology as a pedagogical tool, supporting student inquiry."
27 Modules Already Available
To bring teachers into that new pedagogical phase, LTTS has created 27 online modules with curriculum-specific goals, from using authors' websites in literature classes, to teaching students to organize scientific data using computer-generated charts and graphs, to creating electronic field trips.
Most of the 27 courses debuted in February 2002, though LTTS has been in development under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) since 1999. FIPSE funding through the Learn Anytime, Anywhere Program (LAAP), continues through 2004.
The Studio's modules, which can be taken for graduate credit at Indiana University, last an average of 15 to 16 hours and can be completed over twelve weeks, at a schedule set by the student and compatible with professional and personal demands on time. The modules utilize the problem-based learning (PBL) approach, an innovative teaching strategy growing in popularity. Students begin with a real-life problem and work toward its resolution in steps small enough to be completed in short amounts of time.
Meeting Teachers' Needs
"Because our approach is problem-centered, we're not just giving [teachers] a lesson plan. They're developing something that is tailored to their classrooms and that they can use when they've finished the module," Duffy says.
This content-centered method of teaching technology skills is also necessarily teacher-centered. Current teachers create the modules, which ensures that courses reflect practical needs and pressing issues common to classrooms. The teachers act as freelancers and receive royalties for each module that LTTS decides to offer. Teachers are not only LTTS customers; they are professional experts and course designers, and are treated as such.
"One woman who developed some courseware for us had taught for twenty years and described this as the best professional experience she had ever had," Duffy says. "For many teachers, this is the first time they are called to actually teach other teachers and use their expertise. They are really the authors, and are shown as the authors in our catalog of courses."
Though each of the programs is developed individually, all modules follow the same layout: teachers engaged in a curricular challenge are provided guidance and resources for working on the problem as they personalize the challenge to their school environments. At the end, they have a project with lesson ideas that they can take to the class. Each participant has a virtual desk that lists all ongoing modules. Participants can use a discussion forum, an internal email exchange, and a notepad for use while progressing through each of the steps in the course. Each exercise submitted is stored in "my workbook," where participants can review their past work and progress with just the click of a button. The desk also links to online tools and other resources.
Using technology to focus on pedagogical innovation and curricular integration represents a shift in the way most technology related instruction is implemented. Seventy percent of programs directed at incorporating technology into secondary school classrooms focus on stand-alone technology, such as the Internet or various software programs, Duffy observes. In these cases, teachers learn how to use a resource, but not how to integrate that resource into the curriculum.
"An awful lot of what happens in technology instruction involves a focus on teaching technology skills without distinguishing those skills from their pedagogical application," Duffy notes. "We met with about twenty technology coordinators in local schools, and their consistent response was, 'we can help the teachers with the tech skills, but we can't help them think about how to use technology wisely, how to integrate it into the curriculum.'"
Providing Personal Mentors
LTTS staff members think about the needs of teachers as individual learners as much as they consider the demands of the teaching profession. This holistic approach has resulted in a meticulous attention to mentoring uncommon to most online learning programs, Duffy notes. Mentors oversee each of the five to seven tasks within each module, reviewing submitted work, offering feedback, and creating discussion with each teacher enrolled.
"All the mentors have teaching experience, so they really can engage teachers in terms of questioning what they're thinking about, expanding on concepts, and suggesting other resources," Duffy says.
The LTTS Consortium
In order to disseminate its work without sacrificing this interpersonal interaction with mentors, LTTS has recently unveiled a consortium project. Consortium partner institutions in effect replicate the work of Indiana University: with their own local developers, they are able to offer the courses for a minimal fee, to add graduate credit at the university's credit-hour rate, and to conduct facilitation and outreach programs. The revenue-sharing agreement makes it possible for the institution to generate some revenue and for its local developers to collect royalties. Based on experience with one of its FIPSE grantee partners, LTTS expects to implement consortium agreements with minimal difficulty.
"Our first test was giving the course development system to the University of Georgia," Duffy says. "We spent a day training them, and Chandra Orrill, the Project Lead at Georgia, was able to implement it with her team and local teachers. We were able to export the system and implement the whole course development process very effectively."
In fact, the University of Georgia's LTTS has already secured its first consortium partner, Alliant International University. A leader in the social and behavioral sciences, Alliant serves nearly 6,500 students on campuses in the United States, Mexico, and Kenya. Karen Schuster Webb, Dean of Alliant's School of Education, sees the partnership as diversifying Alliant's online offerings and reinforcing its global network of students. She also sees the value of LTTS as an important professional development tool.
The consortium plan takes large strides toward making LTTS self-sufficient after its FIPSE funding expires, Duffy says. The project from its inception has been concerned with sustainability, and setting up partnerships such as the consortium will allow LTTS to continue to attract new teacher-developers, he adds.
Plans for expansion are also on the table, Duffy notes. The problem-based inquiry model is applicable in numerous learning situations. Even when the content of the problem is not technology-oriented, having the Internet as a resource makes it possible for developers to tackle a range of issues.
"We now have a system for designing problem-centered learning environments that we can export to other people," Duffy says. "We're now talking about doing modules to help school administrators in administrative planning and to work with teachers on math skills and on how to apply them."