LEARN North Carolina: Connecting Educators with Cables and Curriculum
Many recent reports and news articles have focused on the great progress in connecting our nations schools to the Internet. At present, most of them concur that about eighty per cent of schools are connected. The level of connectivity varies significantly, from school systems with one dedicated phone line housed in a central location to school systems where every classroom contains two or more computers connected to a high speed Local Area Network (LAN). But connectivity is only one piece of the puzzle. Beyond the wires, routers, hubs and computers, technology staff development is the critical component, one given little attention during the birth of Net Day, the program first modeled on the west coast for wiring schools for Internet connectivity.
North Carolinas 117 public school systems have for several years been establishing technology staff development programs to accommodate the needs of its more than 80,000 educators. In fact, North Carolina is a national leader in integrating technology into the public schools. In the Spring of 1998, the Milken Exchange on Education Technology documented North Carolinas progress in its report, Progress of Technology in the Schools: Report on 21 States. Tar Heel teachers are required to demonstrate certain essential skills which are a part of the North Carolina Technology Competencies for Educators. These competencies were developed as the result of a School Technology Users Task Force Report (October 1995) in order to promote the use of technology as a tool for instruction and productivity. The majority of offerings in most systems address skills development and thus satisfy to a great extent the Basic Technology Competencies of the aforementioned curriculum. These programs include workshops on topics ranging from Mastering Microsoft Office to Getting Online with Email and the Internet. Integration of technology is addressed to a greater extent in the Advanced Technology Competencies. Locating workshops and opportunities that address this second set of competencies is more challenging for teachers and staff development personnel as teachers scurry to obtain the 30 hours of technology staff development (Continuing Education Units or CEUs) required for recertification every five years. Teachers must attend workshops on Saturday or at the end of the school day and may have to pay for the courses themselves. The pressure is even greater for those teachers whose certification expires at the end of this year.
Fortunately, teachers and staff development personnel now have access to an Internet-based resource created from among their ranks to facilitate this training. The Learners and Educators Assistance and Resource Network of North Carolina (LEARN NC) is a statewide network of educators using Internet technologies to deliver professional development opportunities and learning resources that increase student achievement, enhance teacher proficiencies, and foster community participation in the educational process. Created in 1996, this "electronic performance support system" for teachers is a partnership of the School of Education of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with the North Carolina public schools. Public school teachers and administrators were more than just the programs market; they were made full partners in its development. Educators from six pilot school systems, representing a broad range of technological resources, were surveyed to learn what they would want from an instructional support system. These discussions among educators produced a consensus as to the kind of Internet-based service that would most benefit the states teachers and students.
LEARN North Carolina, these educators decided, would consist of a package of resources for teachers and students, available via the World Wide Web. In order for these resources to reach the greatest number of classrooms, the system must be built on a "least common denominator" standard, a level of technology accessible from hardware and software available in every school system; otherwise, information technology would only widen the gap between haves and have-nots. All resources should relate to the North Carolina Standard Course of Study, the states prescribed curriculum, and the quality of the resources must be assured, so that the material on the website would be appropriate for North Carolina classrooms. Lastly, the system should not simply create extra work for teachers; it should be easy to use and should facilitate more effective teaching rather than simply providing a technological distraction in the classroom.
LEARN NC Participants
All North Carolina school systems and educational programs are eligible to participate in LEARN North Carolina at no cost. Systems must, however, demonstrate a minimum level of technology necessary to use the website effectively. Each participating system sends teachers as representatives to be trained in the use of the site. These representatives become the LEARN NC coordinators for their system, training teachers, managing registrations, and serving as a front-line help desk. They integrate this training module into their existing staff development program as a strategy for achieving both the Basic and the Advanced Technology Comptencies for educators. Although technology is the vehicle to access LEARNs resources, it is not the explicit focus of the training module used by LEARN coordinators. This approach supports the philosophy of the competencies, that technology should be a means to an end. With its system of local management, LEARN can reach tens of thousands of teachers without needing a large staff and top-heavy central office. Local training and control also promotes ownership of the organization as a grass-roots approach to technology staff development. As of February 1999, LEARN had received memoranda of agreement from 116 of the 117 public school systems and all of North Carolina's Catholic schools. Each school system has a coordinator who handles training and registration in his or her system. In addition, there are 29 regional trainers who assist coordinators in training teachers all over the state. An online Milestones sheet highlights the current status of the program.
The most important piece of LEARNs package of resources is a Lesson Plan Database, a library of lesson plans submitted by teachers around the state. A significant part of the required training focuses on the submission of a lesson plan and any accompanying resources via the World Wide Web. Teachers seeking ideas for their own classrooms can search this database by grade level and subject area to find a plan that meets their needs. Although some plans are designed to bring technology into the classroom, most simply find new and creative ways to teach traditional subjects like science and writing. To ensure quality, each lesson must pass a triple peer review. First-year teachers and veterans alike can then use the plans to infuse their teaching with new ideas. In addition, the process provides them a rare opportunity for professional publishing. While other professions encourage inventive and experienced people to share their knowledge and ideas with colleagues, the K-12 teaching profession provides few formal opportunities for practicing teachers to publish their ideas and learn from one another. LEARNs Lesson Plan Database allows teachers to share their best work with their colleagues across the state. Each participating school system is asked to contribute at least one lesson plan for each teacher registered with LEARN.
Encouraging collegial interaction is also the primary goal of a second piece of LEARNs package, the online Discussion Forums. Through these forums, educators can post news, questions, or topics for discussion to a kind of electronic bulletin board. Contributors to a forum can exchange classroom ideas, notify colleagues of professional development opportunities, and discuss important issues in education. A third online resource is a library of links to other websites relating to K-12 education. Unlike other online search engines, LEARNs web link library helps Internet users to find only educational websites that match their interests. Each entry is accompanied by an annotated note of the site so that the teacher can decide if it would be appropriate for use prior to actually going there. The final major piece of the package includes a series of multimedia curriculum resourcesdatabases of images, sound, and sometimes videoand links classrooms across the state to museums, exhibits, historic sites, and other educational facilities.
Each of these four resources was designed to address the concerns of the educators in LEARNs pilot teams and the lack of "connectedness" among the states K-12 education community. LEARNs resources are collaborative; they are designed and created by the educators who will use them. All resources are correlated to the North Carolina Standard Course of Study; an online "map" of the curriculum is provided on the website, with links from each goal and objective to relevant instructional plans, and both instructional plans and weblinks can be searched by grade level and curriculum area. All resources are reviewed by experienced educators to ensure quality and appropriateness of content. The website itself is designed to be as user-friendly as possible, with a simple design that allows pages to be read quickly with even a relatively slow Internet connection.
In the coming months, LEARN NC will add a Test Item Bank and a series of online courses for professional development. LEARN will also continue its Professional Development Awards Program by offering free enrollment in a seminar at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching to five teachers each month whose plans have been approved. In March 1999, every teacher in the state will receive a copy of The LEARN North Carolina Beacon, a color newspaper introducing the organization and offering resources to teachers to entice them to begin using LEARN North Carolina if they are not already doing so. The Beacon will, after this first issue, be published four times each school year. As LEARN North Carolina grows, students, parents, business, government, and the community will be directly involved in order to foster cooperation in the education of North Carolina's children. Such issues as interdisciplinary education and distance learning, and other possibilities have yet to be considered. In the coming years, LEARN will find new ways to enhance the learning experience of students across the state by increasing the technological proficiency of North Carolinas teachers.
This is an impressive overall plan and implementation process. The model is highly adaptable to other school systems, is a scaleable model, and is doing what we'd like to see being done -- focusing on pedagogical goals (although the sentences which articulate that point do come very late in the paper from my perspective). I didn't poke everywhere on the site, so I may have overlooked an evaluation component which I would suspect is there somewhere and also deserves mention.
In short, I'd recommend that we publish.
Most of the writing is clear. I would suspect that some of the background information (now in pages 1 & 2) and then ongoing as they introduce each new part of the program is accessible from their Web site in the "more information" and "about Learn NC links". I would think that the authors could easily do this sort of cutting/shifting based on their intimate knowledge of the Web site. Perhaps they could move some of the intro stuff to the Web site and then link to it, which would let them get much more out of the effort they've invested in writing this article.
I think the title could be tweaked to strengthen their point. For example, "LEARN North Carolina: Connecting Educators with Curriculum (and Cables)" or "Connecting Educators with Cables AND Curriculum" or "Connecting Educators with Cables PLUS Curriculum" ... you get the point.
I think the article is clear, well-written, and provides a good picture of a particular program. Given the need to provide our readers with opportunities to address issues of faculty development, I think this article will be sufficient for that purpose. I would encourage the author, however, to consider recasting it to surface with greater emphasis some of the overarching principles of faculty development as the focus rather than the particular components of the program.
The article is clean, clear, and addresses a significant issue in the integration of technology into the K-12 system: teachers' access to professional development opportunities in educational technology required for license renewal in NC. Other states face similar issues, so a one-state case study has more general interest. I think the article could be published as is, but I think it would have more interest and impact with some revisions--but these would add some length to it.
The questions the article left me with had to do with assessing the project. What are the important measures of the program's success--e.g., number of teachers who have participated (as in the Milestones report), or transformations in student engagement and learning (as in the Milken report)? Does the program have a formal assessment plan of its outcomes? Are those outcomes cast in terms of student learning? Are they cast in terms of effectiveness of the website versus effectiveness of face-to-face workshops? Cost of professional development? What are the preliminary results?
Because assessment/accountability is such a pervasive issue in both K-12 and higher education in most states, and because technology discussions generally seem to veer in the same direction, a brief discussion of the project's assessment issues and status would increase its pertinence, I think. We all do really want to know what difference technology _facilitated by a teacher_ makes in students' learning, and any progress in describing/measuring that would be welcome.