E-learning: Why, When, How for Teacher Preparation?

September 16, 2009 at 8:12 pm 1 comment

posted by Andrea Penny Spencer, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Bank Street

BStOnlneThe idea of on-line learning gets mixed reviews, even as on-line certificates, coursework and degrees proliferate. Key questions revolve around the effectiveness of e-learning in mastery of complex ideas and concepts as well as concerns that the intuitive and intangible elements of face-to-face relationships among teachers and learners will be lost.  Both of these are legitimate concerns – particularly in the field of teacher education and especially in the context of constructivist philosophy, which emphasizes learner-centered curriculum, real-life contexts for learning and collaborative construction of meaning based on authentic experiences.

Can these pedagogical tenets be translated to an on-line learning environment? Let’s start with learner-centered curriculum. A learner-centered curriculum assumes some awareness of the individuality of children within any given group or classroom. One of the most challenging aspects of education in the 21st century, especially for those of us who work in urban schools, is diversity. Students in nearly every classroom represent diverse races, cultures, languages, and socioeconomic backgrounds. In addition, with the advent of inclusive educational mandates, students represent varied behavioral and cognitive profiles and abilities.  How does e-learning help aspiring teachers to prepare for such variability among learners?

The field has addressed this potential problem in several ways – through personnel arrangements such as Collaborative Team Teaching (CTT), through instructional strategies like differentiated instruction, and through a set of general principles articulated in Universal Design for Learning (UDL). It is this last set of principles of instructional design that provide strong support for e-learning as a practical and effective approach both in teacher preparation programs and in the eventual classrooms where our graduates teach.  Universal Design principles can be summarized as: (1) Multiple options for learners to take in new information; (2) Multiple ways in which learners can express or share their own learning and ideas; and, (3) Varied ways of engaging learners in the learning process.

The term Web 2.0 may be unfamiliar to many. It refers to an Internet that has become highly interactive, much more than an expanded on-line library.  Information is available to learners in visual, auditory and multimedia formats from on-line databases of all kinds to YouTube – providing the varied input options essential in designing instruction for diverse learners.  Learners also have at hand an increasingly rich array of tools with which to express ideas – from Powerpoint to podcasts. All together, the Web provides many opportunities to incorporate principles of Universal Design, making on-line learning accessible to learners with a variety of cognitive preferences and profiles.

Technology resources for the 21st century offer exhilarating opportunities for engagement in a global, real-world context. Hal Melnick recently described the excitement of his New York City-based mathematics leadership class this summer. The group had spoken (via Skype video) directly with Jim Barta, an ethno-mathematician at his home in Utah, who had just returned from doing professional development work in Santa Avelina, a village in Guatemala.  The class learned about the “Bishops’ Six” universal activities (counting, locating, measuring, designing, playing and explaining), a set of elements upon which ethno-mathematics research is based. A collaborative paper may be forthcoming with one of Hal’s students co-authoring a paper on ethno-mathematics in collaboration with Dr. Barta.

From the other side of the world, Roberta Altman shared her experiences teaching child laborers in India with her conference group during the mid-winter college break, and has continued to maintain web-based contact with four Indian teacher preparation institutions in northern India since her return to the US.  Bernadette Anand, following her recent experience as a Fulbright Scholar at Alagappa University in Southern India, is working with Roberta and Indian educators Dr. Kiran Gera of Doraha College and Sonya Philip, Founder and Director of the Learning Matters Foundation, as well as Preeti Vasudevan, a classical Indian dancer (see www.dancingforthegods.org). Together, this group is exploring ways to link progressive education with the Indian national curriculum and culture.

On still another continent, Virginia Casper, working with practitioners of the “under 3’s” in rural South Africa, kept colleagues apprised of her work helping them understand and apply principles of early development. Through Google Earth, Bank Street students, graduates and teachers can share digital photos and videos of their experiences embedded via GPS technology on a map that allows learners not only to share the perspectives of these travelers, but to see the context in which they work. They can see a picture Virginia has uploaded from a child care center in Limpopo, South Africa. They can also see photos uploaded by others that allow them to experience parts of Limpopo itself, in one town, the nearby countryside and the mountains in the distance. Each of these experiences provides a real-life context that not only helps to integrate theory and practice, but also provides a critical window into the perspectives and priorities of other educators around the world.

But what about collaborative construction of meaning? What happens to the relationship between teacher and learner and between learners within an on-line course? Again, the potential is increasing daily for interactive learning experiences that build on shared life experiences and education. Social learning networks like Ning, provide an important framework for shared learning experiences and development of on-line communities of learners in a format similar to the wildly popular MySpace and Facebook environments. Students and faculty can co-create and share research, proposals and projects through the wiki (as in Wikipedia) or Googledocs, tools that allow for shared authorship on-line without the inconvenience of e-mail documents back and forth.

Students in a course on emotional and behavioral problems review anonymous information about a child whose behaviors are challenging, research and share strategies for increasing that child’s success in the classroom. Other students collaborate in creating dynamic social studies curriculum, sharing on-line, digital and video resources from neighborhoods and communities that are diverse in every way. Still other students work together to create multimedia resources for training paraprofessionals and peers to better understand the children on the autism spectrum and others with special needs. Students in museum education share reflections on a museum exhibit via Voicethread, which allows both video and audio on-line collaboration. New applications continue to emerge as technology advances, each with possibilities for new, more exciting, more immediate and creative collaborative experiences.

Is e-learning the learning experience of choice in all situations? Not at all. Both faculty and students need to be ready. For faculty, this means a change of mind-set from being the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side.” Designing learning experiences that are as deep and rich as those provided in a traditional face-to-face course session takes extensive research, preparation, evaluation and revision. For students, on-line learning means a readiness to be a problem-solver when the occasional technological glitch proves frustrating. It means a tolerance for doing things differently, taking a risk in an unfamiliar teaching-learning relationship, and being committed to establishing communicative, collaborative relationships with peers that could involve an on-line chat or Skype conversation with someone across the continent at midnight.

What do students and faculty who’ve tried it say about on-line learning? Lots of different things – “It was great!” “It was frustrating, but I learned a lot,” “I had a terrific partner,” “I like face-to-face courses better,” “I loved it – I could work on my course after I had my kids in bed.” Like any course or educational program, there has been variability in the feedback, although on the whole, Bank Street students have been enthusiastic.

So how does on-line learning fit within the context of teacher preparation? Based on our current experiments and experiences, on-line learning has tremendous potential to meet the needs of individual learners, to provide a global context for learning, and to enhance the ability of our graduates to work collaboratively with colleagues anytime, anywhere. As technologies continue to evolve, educators must be ready not only to access their potential, but to transform it into 21st century instruction for children that makes it ever more likely that each child will learn in ways that meet his individual needs and be prepared for a future as a citizen in a global community.

Penny Spencer collaborates with instructors and graduate students as Associate Dean of the Graduate School at Bank Street College in New York City. During her time at Bank Street, she has worked with students in their supervised fieldwork placements, taught on-line and traditional special education courses, and provided professional development to general education and special education teachers in elementary and middle schools in New York City school districts.

Entry filed under: bank street history, curriculum, dialogue, our teachers, philosophy, professional development, technology.

Welcome Back to School! Alumni News from India: Touching Hearts and Still Seeking

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. abdi  |  September 24, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    nice article, thanks

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