Educational Technology & Society 3(3) 2000
ISSN 1436-4522

Results of a telecollaborative activity involving geographically disparate preservice teachers

Kara M. Dawson
School of Teaching and Learning
UF College of Education, 140 Norman Hall
Gainesville, FL 32611, USA
dawson@coe.ufl.edu

Cheryl L. Mason
Assistant Professor
Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education
Curry School of Education
University Virginia
Charlottesville, VA  22903, USA
Tel: +1 804 924 3121
cmason@virginia.edu

Philip Molebash
PhD Candidate
School of Education
University of Virginia
pem2y@Virginia.EDU


ABSTRACT

This article discusses a telecollaborative activity that combines many strategies of interest in teacher education (i.e., case-based learning, online discussion, cross-university collaboration, and synchronous/asynchronous learning) to create a unique collaborative online learning environment for 36 social studies education students. Findings suggest that this activity fostered the development of knowledge related to general and content-specific teaching issues, helped expand the learning community of geographically disparate educators, provided a bridge between theory and practice, and fostered reflection. Findings also suggest that facilitating interaction in this unique environment requires careful attention to community building, technical preparation, articulation of expectations, and instructor collaboration. Implications for improved practice and further research are discussed.

Keywords: Collaborative education, Cross-university collaboration, Online discussions, Case-based learning


Introduction

A wealth of literature reveals that completion of teacher education courses does not necessarily result in the ability to teach (Cochran-Smith, 1991; Feiman-Nemser & Buchmann, 1987; Knowles, Cole, & Presswood, 1994; Lanier & Little, 1986; National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, 1996). Bridging the gap between theory and practice has been a challenge for teacher education programs for many decades. John Dewey (1965) encouraged teacher education programs to prepare teachers to reflect upon theoretical issues and their relationship to practical classroom application. Nearly twenty years later, Zeichner (Zeichner, 1983) called for development of reflective teachers who critically analyze classroom situations. Recently, Cooper and McNergney (1995,  p. 2) claimed, “…the problem is not that programs are too theoretical, but that theory has not been related to real circumstances to help prospective teachers interpret what is happening and to guide their actions.”

Case-based learning originated in business and law schools (Christensen, 1987) and has recently been used in teacher education in an attempt to bridge the gap between theory and practice (Bliss & Mazur, 1996; Cooper & McNergney, 1995). Benefits of applying cases to teacher education include (1) development of critical analysis and problem solving skills, (2) opportunities for reflective practice, (3) analysis and decision-making in complex situations, (4) active learning, and (5) creation of a community of learners (Merseth, 1991). As we head into the 21st century, technological advances have made it possible to improve traditional case-based learning with multimedia features that enhance authenticity and active learning. For example, technology allows us to go beyond the traditional one-dimensional text-based case study to include features such as audio and video clips.Technological advances have also made it possible to extend the learning community beyond the walls of traditional teacher education courses (Bliss & Mazur, 1996; Schrum, 1991). Preservice teacher education learning communities are being redefined to include participants from geographically disparate locations, experienced classroom teachers, and university instructors. 

As technical capabilities continue to improve, cross-university collaborations receive increased attention. This is particularly true in the teacher education community (Merryfield, 1999; United States Department of Education, 1999). Collaboration among teacher education programs allows students to “share ideas and opinions, jointly develop materials, and gain new perspectives.” (Curry Center for Technology and Teacher Education, 2000).  It also enables students to make scholarly and personal connections that may support them during their induction years. This article discusses the results of a telecollaborative activity (Harris, 1998) that integrated a web-based multimedia case study and online discussion among geographically distant preservice teachers.

 

Purpose of Study

Social studies teacher education programs have a responsibility to “build ongoing and stimulating collaborative links among social studies educators” (Armento, 1996, p. 497). Likewise, teacher education programs have a responsibility to prepare prospective teachers to know and apply educational theory (Cooper & McNergney, 1995) so that professional knowledge is considered when making classroom decisions (Schon, 1987). We expanded the learning community of preservice social studies teachers at two universities by presenting them with a multimedia case study that provided a common frame of reference for online dialogue about teaching and learning. The purpose of this research is to study the knowledge constructed through the collaborative dialogue and the interactions that occurred. We also sought to identify factors that facilitated and constrained the telecollaborative activity.

 

Background of Telecollaborative Project

A team of inservice teachers, teacher educators and doctoral students with expertise in social studies education wrote the case study.  Their goal was to create opportunities for students to analyze and reflect upon real-world classroom issues (Merseth, 1996). Educational technology faculty members and doctoral students worked with the case study team to transform the case into a web-based, multimedia format that includes images, audio and video files, and pop-up text windows. The case features a first year social studies teacher, Julia, who is struggling to design a meaningful Internet-based project that will not only introduce her eighth-grade students to the Bill of Rights, but will also encourage them to investigate the continuing significance of these essential freedoms. The introductory page of the case is shown in Figure 1. The case can be viewed on the Web at URL: http://www.citeforum.org/social/case/casestudies/reflections/home.html.

 


 Figure 1. Introductory screen of case study

 

Initially, the case study was written in a narrative format, requiring the user to read the entire case linearly. The case study design team wished transform the case into an interactive environment that allowed the user to experience the intricacies of the classroom. The designers also wanted users to experience the events, discussions, and thoughts happening behind the scenes of which they would otherwise be unaware. The transformation of the case allows it to be read in countless ways, as opposed to one linear way. The user can decide to experience the conversations and thoughts of characters in a variety of ways; they can be read, viewed via video clips or listened to via audio clips. Figure 2 shows the icon students would click on within the case to view Julia’s thoughts as she is teaching her lessons. Figure 2 also displays Julia’s thoughts as she is teaching one of her lessons. Other icons served as indicators of video clips, audio clips, and email messages that students could choose to view.

 

Text Box:
Figure 2. Julia's thoughts as she is teaching

 

To tie the case together, a timeline was created to allow the user to move throughout the case, from day to day and hour to hour in any way. For example, the user can easily jump from Day 8 to Day 2 of the case, using a calendar that serves as the navigation tool for the entire case (Figure 3).

 


 Figure 3. Navigational tool for the case study

 

Likewise, within each day of the case, students can view various times of the day using a vertical timeline (see Figure 4). Another important technical consideration of the case was creating the opportunity for users to link directly to a case study discussion forum- thereby allowing them to immediately jump to the forum to discuss their reactions to each “day” in the life of Julia.

 


Figure 4. Navigational tool used for each day of the case

 

The case study participants communicated via a Usenet newsgroup. Selection of this information architecture was an important factor in the development of the telecollaborative activity because the architecture greatly influences the nature of collaborative online learning environments. Newsgroups, which utilize Networked News Transport Protocol (NNTP), were selected over other popular asynchronous communication methods such as electronic mail and listservs (Simple Mail Transport Protocol), web-based discussion groups (Hypertext Transport Protocol) for several reasons. The reasons include the ability to organize dialogue around a specific theme or thread, the ability to keep track of the read and unread messages, accessibility from both Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Communicator, avoidance of excessive messages delivered to personal email accounts, and the ability to mirror the newsgroup with remote sites which alleviates excessive connection delays. Newsgroup administrators from the University of Virginia and the University of Florida arranged to exchange the newsgroup between the two universities.

Like many other technology-based activities, participating in newsgroups may be difficult for and intimidating to first time users, so an online users guide was created to assist with technical and etiquette issues usually encountered with threaded discussion groups. Guides were provided for Netscape Collabra and Outlook Express, the two most popular newsgroup readers. Topics such as how to personalize configurations, subscribe to newsgroups, read and reply to messages and create new threads were included in these guides and were accessible to students throughout the project. (http://www.citeforum.org/social/discussion/home.html)

 

The Students

Twenty-five students (14 male and 11 female) enrolled in a class entitled “Using Technology in the Social Studies” participated in this project from one university. Of these students three were practicing teachers, one was a practicing teacher on sabbatical and 21 were graduate students with social studies related undergraduate degrees (i.e. history, economics, government, etc.) who were studying to be social studies teachers. These students were in the first semester of their teaching degree and spent numerous hours each week in field-based practicum experiences. This was the first technology-related course for many of these students and the first educational technology class for all except three of the inservice teachers.

Nine students (4 male and 5 female) enrolled in a required class entitled, “Seminar in Social Studies Education” participated in this project from the other university. Each of these nine students were secondary social studies student teachers with social studies related undergraduate majors. These students were in their last year of the teaching degree program and spent each day in the schools as student teachers. Each of these students had taken at least one educational technology course and had been exposed to the use of technology in at least one methods course.

 

Structure of Telecollaborative Project

Findings from previous studies and relevant articles were considered when developing this telecollaborative activity. (Berge, 1999; Harmon & Jones, 1999; Ravitz, 1997) Specifically, we utilized the four categories of necessary conditions for successful online communication (pedagogical, social, managerial, and technical) identified by Berge (Berge, 1995) to guide our development.

The first week of the semester we introduced our students to the web-based case study and to the newsgroup. Students went through the online tutorial mentioned above and spent the first two weeks of the semester posting to threads that were designed to develop a sense of community and to allow the students practice with the newsgroups. For example, students created threads about which historical figure they would most like to have an opportunity to dine with and why. Considering that our students were social studies education majors, this was a topic of interest to them. During this time, the students also read about the design and development of telecollaborative activities so that they had a sense of how we developed the activity in which they would participate.

Students began participating in the project during the third week of the semester. The following assignment was given by both instructors and was used until about the sixth day of the case. After that requirements were gradually decreased until students had no requirements related to the newsgroup and case study, except to participate in some capacity. We structured the assignment this way because we felt it was simple, facilitated interactivity, and set a minimum expectation for the students.

  • Each student should read every posting related to the assigned scene.
  • For each scene, each student should contribute at least one new idea, question, comment or suggestion and should respond in a thoughtful, facilitative manner to at least two other postings. One of these postings must be to a response made by an individual in a different course. This is a minimum of three postings per scene.
  • These guidelines will be used only long enough for everyone to feel comfortable with regular, active, and meaningful participation in the discussion. We hope that we can then eliminate the tight structure so the on-line communication can become more natural.
  • Posting for the assigned scenes will be due before 5 PM on the Tuesday following the assignment, so that all classes will have a chance to read all postings.
  • We recommend that students look at the online discussion at least every other day to avoid feeling overwhelmed with the number of postings that may accumulate in a week’s time.
  • Students will begin reading the scenes in the case study, discussing them in class and responding to the online discussions as outlined in the syllabus.

 

Through about the sixth day of the case study, instructors posted springboard questions to which the students could respond if they were interested; however, we encouraged students to start new threads if they felt so inclined. While the entire case was available to the students at all times, we encouraged them to only read the assigned scenes so that everyone had the same information regarding the case. We made the conscious decision not to participate in the newsgroup itself but rather to communicate individually with the students as necessary. These communications ended up relating to encouragement and praise, violation of “netiquette,” and miscellaneous personal comments about student postings. We made the decision to not participate because we felt it was more indicative of the situation these students will find themselves in during their first year of teaching. We hope they will use electronic communication both as a support mechanism and as a source for new instructional strategies and resources.

 

Methodology

A variety of data sources were utilized, including postings from the threaded discussion group, student reflections about the telecollaborative activity, and instructor reflective journals. The constant comparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) was used to analyze this data. As each piece of data was collected, it was analyzed and formed a basis for further clarification or expansion.  In order to make sense of the data; coding schemes were applied to fit the data.  The applied codes were organized and reorganized, and the resulting categories were formed and defined by their properties and dimensions found in the data. As the research evolved, new patterns were added to the list and revisions made.  With the completion of data collection, the list of patterns was clustered, yielding the inferences presented in the next section.

 

Inferences

Three primary inferences related to knowledge, reflection and interaction were formulated from the data. The following inferences will be discussed in the following section:

  • Students most frequently discussed knowledge related to generic teaching issues. Discussions of content-specific knowledge were primarily related to searching for and sharing new teaching ideas and strategies.
  • Students used the newsgroup discussion to reflect and share how they identified with Julia and reported that this case study made them critically consider issues related to their current and future teaching. Students also reflected about the telecollaborative activity and computer-mediated communication.
  • Students tended to respond more frequently to students in their own geographic location. Regardless of whether they were responding to geographically disparate or local peers, students tended to agree with each other’s claims by simply rewording ideas that had already been stated.

 

Inference One (knowledge): Students most frequently discussed knowledge related to generic teaching issues. Discussions of content-specific knowledge were primarily related to searching for and sharing new teaching ideas and strategies.

Students discussed a wide range of generic teaching issues throughout this project. Most of these issues were intentionally embedded within the case and included issues related to (1) grouping students, (2) communicating with parents, (3) assessment, (4) organization skills such as note taking, (5) communicating objectives with students, (6) selecting age appropriate content, (7) student motivation, (8) mentoring, (9) school culture and community, (10) noise level in the classroom, (11) technology integration issues, and (12) planning.

Students considered discussions related to these generic teaching issues as a positive part of the experience, as exemplified by the following quote from Jeremy’s reflection about the case:

The layout of the case ensured that we would be exposed to a myriad of problems covering everything from technology issues (including student competency with computers, network outages, computer availability at home, etc.) to planning and logistical difficulties (parental objection, group work problems, colleague opposition, etc.) I never would have considered all these issues in the planning of a single unit! By keeping notes about the different problems that Julia encountered and how she dealt with them, I feel much more prepared to enter the classroom next Fall. I also feel more confident about trying experimental projects and units (especially ones that involve technology) now that I have been alerted to and can avoid some of the major pitfalls that Julia encountered (Jeremy)

Students frequently related elements of the case to what they had learned in their past courses, current courses, and field experiences. Several students said the case study was an effective learning tool for this reason as exemplified in the following quote related to a scene where Julia was dealing with unmotivated students. Notice that the student identifies the problem and shares how he dealt with the situation.

This is an issue [unmotivated students] which has come up in some of my classes recently during a group activity.  My desire is to have my students engaged, actively creating knowledge from the information they take in (to use Judi Harris' terms), and this does not usually happen when students are "doing nothing."  I know that some students are shy, and that forced participation in class can create discomfort or anxiety, but they should still be actively listening, note-taking, or talking in a small group rather than doing nothing.

What I did in my group activity when this happened (one student not participating in the discussion) was visit that group and directly engage that student--ask him or her to give some input to the group.  In a large class, I think a similar technique can be used—directing questions to the student or simply talking directly to him or her—grabbing the student's attention without making him or her feel threatened or on the spot. (Rick)

Other students were able to take suggestions such as this from their peers and integrate them into their teaching. For example, Jerry reported that he “shared one of Julia’s concerns in the area of dividing the students to do group projects.”  Some of the students he was working with did not want to work in the groups they were assigned. Using an “idea that came from another teacher with whom [he] had communicated” via the newsgroup he was able to remedy the problem in his classroom. Discussions revolving around just generic teaching issues were dominant throughout this telecollaborative activity.

Most of the discussions specifically about social studies education revolved around sharing new teaching ideas and strategies, as exemplified in the following two postings:

I have a upcoming unit on the Reformation that I have to teach.  My kids are below average tenth graders who want to do some fun activities.  I don't care about whether or not I use technology, I just want some suggestions that you might have about how to make the Reformation fun.  Please post your responses here. (Michael)

 Does anyone have any hints/advice/tips/etc. about teaching African history?  I'm teaching the ancient kingdoms (Kush, Aksum, Ghana) and I want to teach a little about the commonalities and differences between the major regions/language groups in Africa (pre-Islam)--i.e. North Africa (Berbers, etc.), Ethiopia/Sudan, Nigeria/West Africa, Central/rainforests, and South (Bantu, Khoisan).  Any ideas for comparison, role-playing, primary source, integration of music, etc.?  Anything would be appreciated. (Rick)

Many similar requests for information regarding teaching ideas and strategies appeared throughout the newsgroup; however, higher level discussions about social studies were virtually absent from the postings.

Inference Two (reflection): Students used the newsgroup discussion to reflect and share how they identified with Julia and reported that this case study made them critically consider issues related to their current and future teaching. Students also reflected about the telecollaborative activity and computer-mediated communication.

The reflections shared by the students fell into two general categories: (1) reflections about how they related to Julia in both general and specific terms and (2) reflections about the project.

Reflections related to Julia

The preservice teachers participating in this project were either participating in extensive field experiences or student teaching and will be first year teachers next year at this time. Since Julia is a first year teacher, many students related their personal feelings and general experiences about their practicums to Julia’s experiences in the case study. For example, Anna wrote,

After reading the end of the case study–congrats to Julia.  Although some parts of the case study seem a bit unrealistic—or just difficult for me to relate to—I did find that Julia encountered a lot of the same problems I've been facing in just a couple of months of student teaching.  Working with a large (especially group) project can be really challenging—having students & parents react negatively to the process is a real concern, as is the fairness of groupwork (especially outside of class) and grading.  It's also hard to get to the end of a project and think of things you could havedone differently that would have made it better--its good to reflect, but frustrating because you and your students may have invested a lot of time in a project that didn't succeed.  Also—kudos to Julia for charging ahead with new computer/internet related projects--they are something that although I am very interested in implementing into my lessons—I have yet to attack. One more thought I wanted to add—in response to question about where the powerpoint presentation jumped in. I have already found that one of the big surprises about teaching is when students totally exceed your best expectations for an assignment or project—it is such a good feeling!

Other students reflected on specific aspects of the case study. For example, Ruth reflected that Tom’s mentoring toward Julia  “taught [her] to look for a teacher that would be a mentor to [her] the first year.”  Sean reflected upon this part of the case as it pertained to a similar situation he recently experienced:

Day 8 really touched home with me.  Working together and sharing ideas as Tom and Julia did is the way to go in today's pedagogy. Recently, two of my classmates (Heidi and Rick) gave me some excellent ideas on search engines and media tools to use in my US and World History lessons.  To make a long story short, their suggestions added some much needed spice to what could have been a potentially dry, direct-instruction lesson.  I am thankful for friends and teachers who believe in helping one another for the benefit of our students.  When it comes down to teaching, it is all about making a difference to the children and what better way to make a difference to kids than to involve them in activities and instruction calling on them to work together as the teachers (Julia and Tom & Heidi, Rick, and me & countless others) did when trying to piece together lessons. 

The case discussion coupled with experiences in the field also caused some students to reflect on their decision to become teachers. For example, Paula wrote:

…Plus, I have that same guilty feeling thing [that Julia has] riding over me......What if my lesson is not the best?  What if the kids don't like my activity? She spends her evenings thinking about school and wakes up in the morning thinking about school.  Well, unfortunately, I can relate to that b/c I am making myself sick doing the same thing.  I know that I am putting too much pressure on myself.....but I can't help it.  At least she has time to workout...even if it is just once a week.

Maybe student teaching  can be a 4 day a week thing.  Give us an extra day to catch up.  IT's not real but we are not real teachers yet and WE ARE NOT GETTING PAID.  Instead...we are paying to go through this mess. Something should be done to recognize what we are going through.  For the amount of money teachers get paid.......and for the amount of respect the profession gets .........sometimes I have to wonder why I decided to spend two years getting my masters in Teaching.

Thankfully, not all students were questioning their decision to become teachers. Students reported that participation in the case discussions encouraged them to “think about some issues [they] will face as teacher[s]” (Shauna) and how they “will articulate and deal with the issues” (Jacob). Many students reported sharing the feelings that Bill articulated when he wrote, “ I was apprehensive at first about the whole idea of the study, but after participating in the activity I have learned not only better teaching skills but also things about myself.” (Bill)

Reflections about the project

Many students also reflected on their experiences as a participant in a telecollaborative project. Thomas, for example, wrote:

One of the main concepts I got out of this case study was the fact that people can share ideas readily over the Internet. Since more than one university participated  in this Activity…. , it showed that Internet collaboration is possible. This is something that I was rather skeptical of at the beginning of the assignment. You could even try a totally different collaborative Activity next year, and I think it would have the same effect on non-believers of telecollaborative activities. (Thomas)

For many students, becoming a “believer” in the potential of telecollaborative activities took the better part of the semester. Jerry reflected upon this in the following quote:

At first, I did not realize the importance of what we were doing by participating in a newsgroup with another school. I believed that as a class, we could provide enough of a perspective on a particular event that it wasn’t necessary to participate in the newsgroup. I came to understand that participating in the newsgroup was practical in many ways. It was useful in acquiring many perspectives when it came to problem solving. One way to do this is through telecollaborative problem solving. This form of CMC is more popular than I imagined, as I have become more familiar with the Internet.

Other students gave thought to computer-mediated communication (CMC) as a tool for educators. According to Martha, CMC provides “alternative ways for teachers to communicate, and any communication happening is time well spent.” Likewise, Mary emphasized the “importance of teachers communicating with each other even though they don’t have all the answers.”  Jeremy reflected upon whether CMC really held the potential that many claim by questioning whether “offline tools” may not more realistically hold the key to educational reform:

I strongly believe that CMC has the potential to be an excellent tool for breaking down the “teacher isolation” elements that exist in most schools across the United States. But I also believe that “offline” tools such as team teaching, integrated units, and thematic courses are beginning to disintegrate the intellectual walls of separation found in schools. It we continue to abide by the principle that technology should be used in those circumstances where other forms of learning fail be effective, then perhaps CMC in unnecessary. Thus, while the objective of “becoming familiar with CMC” was easily met by this project, I am not convinced that CMC is the only (or even the best) way to solved the “academic isolation” problem in today’s schools.

Topics of reflection varied from reflecting on Julia’s life, personal teaching and learning philosophies, decisions to become teachers, and the telecollaborative experience itself.

Inference Three (interaction): Students tended to respond more frequently to students in their own geographic location. Regardless of whether they were responding to geographically disparate or local peers, students tended to agree with each other’s claims by simply rewording ideas that had already been stated.

Even though students had an opportunity to communicate with students from another university, they tended to respond more frequently to their local peers. While all students recognized this, reactions to the phenomenon were varied. Some saw the large amount of interaction among their local peers as way to get to know them better:

By reading all the postings I was able to more clearly define the character of my peers; I could see what they really thought about the subject and the assignment besides noting who was a procrastinator, who was a decent writer, who thought similarly to myself and who did not really think at all. (Chuck)

Others felt computer-mediated interactions with their local peers was the only valuable experience in the project:

I personally do not like to talk to people that I don’t know and will never have an opportunity to know. Newgroups are by their very nature impersonal and ours was no exception.  I found myself focusing in on what my classmates were writing and only gleaming over what the other students wrote. Several times I found myself engaged with my classmates discussing the case study and it was only during these times that the case study was beneficial” (Shawn)

Many more students valued the cross-university interactions and wished that more of them occurred. For example, Carolyn wrote that “although [her local peers] serve as wonderful sounding boards for [her] different ideas, it was refreshing to get the perspective of students engaged in another social studies program.” Similarly, Suzie wrote that “communicating with other students in the same field, but at different schools can be a great learning experience and one that is interesting as well.”  Shauna wrote, “Unfortunately, most of the students with whom I shared my ideas were my classmates, whose minds I have access to everyday.” Many, many students concurred with Shauna and wished that there would have been more cross-university interactions and some students voiced a desire to have access to electronic discussions with their peers during their first year of teaching, as exemplified in the following quote by Bryce:

This was a good experience for me because I had never been a part of a newsgroup before. This assignment allowed me to get pretty comfortable with this form of communication and I think that I can see now the potential it holds for greater learning experiences. I feel that it would be great to have this type of forum to talk to my classmates next year and I am sure that you would wish for us to do so.

Regardless of whether students were responding to local or geographically distant peers, postings that simply reiterated previous comments were commonplace in the discussion group. The issues raised within the case never seemed to be discussed to their fullest potential. A large majority of the comments began with something to the effect of “I agree with Jerry that…” The concurrence demonstrated throughout the case may have been the result of peer pressure, as students who questioned the postings of others often felt targeted. For example, William reported that he felt “like some classmates took my well-intentioned criticisms as a personal affront to their professional abilities, that certainly was never my intention.” Likewise Jeremy wrote,

On one occasion when I chose to disagree with one of my classmates about his opinion on a particular matter, other classmates who took time to read my response inquired as to my reasons for presenting an opposing viewpoint! Perhaps some students felt pressure not to disagree with the opinions that were posted to the newsgroup.

 

Summary of Findings

The purpose of the telecollaborative activity was to expand the learning community of geographically disparate preservice social studies students by presenting them with a multimedia case study that provided a common frame of reference for on-line dialogue about teaching and learning. The purpose of this study was to research the knowledge constructed through the collaborative dialogue and the interactions that occurred. The table below summarizes the findings which just been presented and are discusssed in the next section.

 

Inferences

Knowledge

Interaction

Content

Reflection

More frequently interacted with local peers

Generic teaching issues were more frequently discussed than content-specific issues

Identified with Julia’s trial and tribulations as a first year social studies teacher in both general and specific ways

Tended to agree with claims made by others

Connected, and at times integrated, these issues to past and present experiences

Reflected on participation in the telecollaborative activity

Opportunity to respond to geographically disparate peers was viewed positively in most cases

Table 1. Summary of Findings

 

Discussion

The inferences suggest the integration of multimedia case studies with online discussions among geographically disparate students fosters the development of knowledge related to general teaching issues and content-specific teaching issues. While the case study was developed to be content-specific, generic teaching issues were much more prevalent in the online discussions. Since the students were primarily novice teachers, generic issues such as classroom management, planning, and student grouping were probably at the forefront of their thoughts. Likewise, discussions related to social studies specific pedagogy primarily revolved around sharing new teaching ideas and strategies. Once again, this is probably due to the students’ inexperience and need for immediate assistance in their field placements.  We had hoped for more in-depth discussions about social studies issues, such as how the technology can transform social studies teaching and learning. Yet, the students focused more on issues such as grouping and classroom management than they did on using the Internet as a tool for civic participation or for authentic research.We certainly do not want to eliminate the types of discussions that occurred, because we believe they are very beneficial to the students and give them a sense of how electronic communication can help them access solutions from geographically disparate peers. However, those wishing to implement similar projects in content-specific courses should be aware of this phenomenon and make concerted efforts to foster higher level content-specific discussions.

The findings also suggest that participation in this project provided students opportunities for reflection. Many students integrated their professional knowledge and experience with Julia’s experiences to reflect upon their beliefs about teaching and learning, lessons they had learned in the past, and their decision to become a teacher. Students also reflected on their participation in the telecollaborative activity. It is essential that teacher education programs provide students opportunities for reflection so that they will enter the field as reflective practitioners. Zeichner (1983) promoted this paradigm of teacher education, arguing, “the fundamental task of teacher education from this point is to develop prospective teachers’ capacities for reflective action and to help examine the moral, ethical and political issues, as well as the instrumental issues, that are embedded in their everyday thinking and practice” (p. 7).

To further encourage reflective action, we interpreted Armento’s (1996) call for teachers to engage in professional dialogue as one that includes both inservice and preservice teachers.  By expanding the traditional preservice cohort group to include both inservice teachers and geographically remote peers, students were empowered to participate in authentic professional dialogue. While the inclusion of inservice teachers was restricted to those enrolled in one of the participating courses, their influence on the preservice teachers was evident. Other studies have documented that inclusion of inservice teachers in online dialogue with preservice teachers is beneficial (Casey, 1997; DeWert & Jones, 1998), and we believe participation by these inservice teachers was an important component of this project. Students reported that they particularly enjoyed reading the responses from the inservice teachers and that they found the responses extremely valuable. Likewise, most of the inservice teachers valued their participation and reported that the postings from preservice teachers helped them be more supportive of new teachers in their own building. Inservice teachers also reported that they appreciated the opportunity to candidly discuss their feelings via the newsgroups because they often feel they must converse cautiously because of the schoolwide “rumor mill.” In our next attempt at this telecollaborative project, we will actively seek out more inservice teachers and will carefully select them. These inservice teachers just happened to be enrolled in the courses and while three of the four reported enjoying the experience one was extremely negative about his participation and reported that he “got sick of” having to communicate with teachers in training.

Interaction within this telecollaborative project was less than ideal.  Students more frequently communicated with their local peers than with their geographically disparate peers.  This counters many of the goals of cross-university collaboration such as sharing ideas and gaining multiple perspectives. While students reported benefiting from exchanges with both local and geographically disparate peers, we were not satisfied with the interaction that occurred during the project or with the types of interaction, that occurred.  This is not a unique phenomenon, and some claim individuals need to be engaged in a controversial topic to spark dynamic interactions (Nonis, Bronack, & Heaton, 1998; Tannen, 1998). However, we believe other factors unrelated to the lack of controversy contributed to less than ideal patterns of interaction during this telecollaborative activity. 

For example, we believe that some of the conditions we felt we carefully considered during development, such as community building, technical preparation, and clearly articulated expectations, needed to be accentuated when attempting to integrate an asynchronous learning environment with geographically disparate students participating in separate on-campus courses. We believe that students’ collegiality with local peers influenced their decisions to respond to local peers more frequently than distant peers. In effect, this telecollaborative activity requires the development of three learning communities – a community at each individual site and a virtual community among both sites. In this unique situation, we believe that effectively developing a virtual learning community requires more time and explicit effort than we originally conceptualized. The next time we implement this project we will allow more time for community building, discuss research related to on-line learning communities and collaborate with students to develop strategies to facilitate our community.

Technical issues such as lack of confidence in technical abilities also influenced online interaction.  Likewise, technical flaws in the communications software prevented instructors from deleting old messages thus the newsgroup became progressively more disorganized throughout the semester. Technical constraints within one of the university computing environments required students to subscribe to the newsgroup each time they entered the lab. This eliminated the students’ ability to keep track of read and unread messages. The fact that many students did not have access to the newsgroup at home further complicated the technical issues involved in participation. We believe these technical issues, in combination, contributed to the patterns of interaction that occurred. We also believe these technical issues will be less important as software improves and students begin to enter teacher education with more and more knowledge of and access to communication technologies.

Cross-university collaborations, particularly via technology, are considered important to teacher education reform  and we concur. However, our efforts highlight an important aspect of such collaborations that is frequently not discussed. The time required to facilitate geographically disparate collaboration between two different courses taught by two different instructors at two different universities was much more than we anticipated. Even though we knew each other well on both a personal and professional level and had similar philosophies of teaching and learning, collaboration was challenging. Numerous emails and phone conversations occurred each week related to the integration of the project within the curriculum of both courses. While concerted efforts were made to facilitate this integration, students often reported that the project seemed separate from the rest of their course. Likewise, students from the different universities appeared to interpret the assignments differently, which caused some confusion for the students. Judging from the challenges we had as close friends and colleagues, we believe the extra time and effort needed to organize this project is a factor that must be considered as more and more teacher educators develop cross-university online collaborative learning environments.

 

Conclusions

The study is significant in that it combines many strategies of interest in teacher education (i.e. case-based learning, online discussion, cross-university collaboration, and synchronous/asynchronous learning) to create a unique collaborative online learning environment. The findings from this study suggest that integrating multimedia case studies with online discussions as one component of the curriculum in two geographically disparate courses can help expand the learning community of geographically disparate educators, provide a bridge between theory and practice, and foster reflection.

The study is also significant because it provides an example of how instructors can utilize technology to reach students with many different learning styles. Unlike traditional on-line courses, this activity was but one aspect of two distinctive on-campus courses. Consequently, it provided students, particularly those with linguistic, intrapersonal, and interpersonal intelligences (Gardner, 1994) an avenue to utilize their preferred intelligences.

We believe this activity has afforded us many new strategies for improved practice and a platform for continued research relating to (1) the isolationistic tendencies of teacher education programs, (2) discourse analysis within online discussions, and (3) preparation of reflective preservice teachers who are prepared to utilize collaborative technologies for professional development during their induction years and beyond. Another telecollaborative activity that takes into account the lessons learned from this study is currently being developed and will be implemented during the fall of 2000.

 

Acknowledgements

The authors wish to acknowledge the efforts of faculty, students and staff affiliated with the Curry Center for Technology and Teacher Education at the University of Virginia for their efforts in conceptualizing, writing and creating the case study. We wish to extend special thanks to Glen Bull, Philip Molebash, Judy Jordan, Dave Lewis and Ann Etchison. We also wish to extend special thanks to Gina Bull for her assistance with the newsgroups.

 

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