Technology Needs Teamwork

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After 20 years of teaching, I have recently found myself at loose ends in the classroom. My confidence is diminished, and I suddenly feel vulnerable again.

What accounts for this transformation? In a word—technology. Over the last five years, the field of teaching has changed dramatically, and the need to master new technologies has made beginners of us all.

The Effects of Technology on Teaching

Technology has affected teaching in many ways: it has expanded classroom resources to include the entire world of the Internet and electronic communication; it has de-centralized the classroom and focused increased attention on the individual learner and learning outcomes; it has threatened the privacy of instruction and redefined the nature of the interaction between teachers and students. Used as the exclusive medium for delivery, technology has eliminated the need for the classroom and permitted an entirely new model for teaching and learning. No wonder experienced teachers feel the earth moving under their feet.

When I recently agreed to teach a course online that I have taught for 15 years in a conventional classroom, my first question was about technical support. A year and a half into an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded project to develop "Cost Effective Uses for Technology in Teaching" at the University of Pennsylvania, I've had enough negative experience with computers and those who maintain them to recognize that good tech support is priceless. I have visions of new teaching methods I would like to employ using technology, but my knowledge of hardware and software is limited. All the vision in the world is worthless without the skills to implement it. And effective implementation, I have found, requires two perspectives operating simultaneously: the teacher's and the technologist's.

The development of new pedagogy, traditionally the teacher's job, has suddenly passed nearly beyond the reach of the average instructor working alone. I may imagine, for example, that I would like my students to work in small groups on a Web site but not know whether such activity is technically feasible. My technical consultant, on the other hand, may know not only that creating any number of groupings is feasible but also that we could set up chat rooms for each group so that they could meet synchronously as well. But the technician may not mention that possibility to me unless I specifically ask. If we don't work hard to communicate effectively, I may never fully integrate the power of technology into my teaching. The conclusion to the story of technology and teaching could end up emphasizing miscommunication and missed opportunities. If we do communicate, however, the possibilities for identifying new teaching methods expand dramatically. Our new course might feature not only small groups exchanging papers and discussing them in chat rooms but also a voiceover offering instructions for peer review. By pooling our knowledge and experience, we can accomplish much more than any of us could separately.

The Need for Technologist/Teacher Collaboration

After years of isolation in their disciplines and in their classrooms, teachers are finding themselves challenged to reinvent their pedagogy and alter their goals. If we start with the assumption that the teacher governs the curriculum and the technologist translates that content into electronic form, which is often the case, we start off headed in the wrong direction. Anecdotal evidence already indicates that the most successful technology-intensive courses employ new pedagogy rather than trying to recreate the traditional classroom in a new setting. It is not hard to use new media to facilitate delivery of the same old course; it is much more challenging to use it to change how we teach. For many, the first challenge revolves around working as a team, often for the first time. Generations of technology may be wasted if teachers don't influence its development; and technology's potential to enrich teaching and learning may be lost, as was television's, or greatly weakened if technologists don't empower teachers to expand what they do. 

Nothing illustrates the validity of that claim more clearly than the recently announced $25 million collaboration between Microsoft and MIT. However higher education professionals may feel about industry investment and control, the partnership illustrates that both sides perceive potential gains from working together. It is becoming increasingly obvious that each side holds precious knowledge that neither can use well independently, and as yet good models for collaboration are scarce.

As a start, we need to resist vigorously any temptation to allow either the technical experts or the teachers to work in isolation. Even though it will require developing a new, shared language, both sides must be forced out of their cocoons. In a recent discussion on the Teaching, Learning and Technology (TLT) listserv, some of those who work with teachers and technology emphasized the importance of encouraging teachers to take a hands-on approach to the new tools because, in theory, teachers cannot own the new media if they don't understand how it works. Although certainly true, this position fails to recognize the potentially increased rewards of collaboration. No amount of faculty entrepreneurship will achieve the results a team approach can produce. Both sides need to sit down together and establish a common understanding of desired learning outcomes. Technologists can empower faculty by gathering models and displaying available resources:  course management programs, conferencing software, audio and video capacity. Faculty can guide technologists (and so can students who have experienced the electronic learning environment) by describing fruitful teaching and learning experiences and demonstrating desirable faculty/student interactions. Together they can learn by doing and also draw conclusions about needed innovations in both pedagogy and technology. As a team they are more likely to acquire both the credibility and the clout to move the whole field of instructional technology forward.

Collaboration Among Instructors: A Case Study

In the science and business communities, collaboration has played an important role in both the discovery process and in problem solving. Teamwork is common, and its benefits are widely acknowledged. Only in the light of new technologies, however, have professionals in fields as far apart as architecture and anthropology recognized the opportunity to collaborate as likely to shape the future of professional practice. The ease of technology-mediated communication makes collaboration a simple process, and many professionals are starting to take advantage of it. Professional organizations are facilitating communication among their members, and colleagues from around the world are sharing their expertise via e-mail. It is becoming not only likely that professionals will collaborate but inexcusable if they don't.

In the field of writing instruction, my specialty, the writing across the curriculum movement has brought faculty from disparate fields together for a single purpose. The type of cooperation among departments on which this movement has depended, however, has proven in many cases too difficult for institutions to facilitate. Teaming a writing professional with a faculty member in a discipline or organizing training across multiple departments, or creating a teaching schedule that enabled faculty in different schools to visit each other's classrooms led, in some cases, to insurmountable barriers.

The introduction of new technologies into this scenario has radically altered thinking about methods of writing instruction. In a project designed to create technology-enhanced pedagogy, we formed an interdisciplinary team to create a curriculum and to teach it jointly. Enriched by the involvement of both humanists and social scientists, the team has developed teaching strategies none of us would have envisioned separately. For example, a unit on argumentation designed by our social scientist is enriched by expanding the required activities and linking to a classical studies Web site that features models for writing a variety of arguments, including eulogies and other forms of praise as well as deliberative and logical arguments. By collaborating, we can offer our students multiple contexts for writing, multiple perspectives and multiple points of reference. We learn from each other, and the students learn from all of us.

We accomplish this joint effort by using technology to facilitate our interactions. We created a curriculum collaboratively through listserv conversations; we share a website, which enables us to see all the work going on in all the groups; we communicate frequently, almost daily, about the curriculum and our students' work via email; we have regular virtual staff meetings; and we pool our knowledge about our fields and about writing to enrich the learning opportunities we offer our students.

Our experience gives new definition to the term "team teaching" and offers a model that is both cost-effective and efficient. Instead of two teachers teaching a single group of students, we have a team of four teachers teaching four groups collaboratively. Students can access the expertise of any one of their instructors—should a question about the conventions of writing in philosophy arise, the instructor from philosophy can respond. The curriculum is rich and varied, integrating methods of analysis along with material from four fields rather than just one or two. Add to this mix a technical expert who can facilitate the integration of technology into the course design and a completely new learning environment emerges.

A Mandate for Collaboration

Taking full advantage of the learning opportunity technology offers demands that we approach the task as a collaborative venture. We have too much to lose if we don't. It may take more time initially, which runs against the grain of technologists eager to provide more capacity but less thoughtful about how to use it. In the end, however, the results will prove well worth the wait—as teachers like myself become increasingly empowered. At this stage, it is already clear that technology will transform teaching and learning. Technology needs teamwork to ensure that it not only changes education but improves it.