Results of a telecollaborative activity involving geographically disparate preservice teachers
Kara M. Dawson
Cheryl L. Mason
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.
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.
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).
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
Three primary inferences related to knowledge, reflection and interaction were formulated from the data. The following inferences will be discussed in the following section:
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:
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.
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:
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,
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
Others felt computer-mediated interactions with their local peers was the only valuable experience in the project:
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:
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,
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.
Table 1. Summary of Findings
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.
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.
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.