Studies in Ed Tech
Bridging the Technology Proficiency Gap Through Peer Mentoring
11/1/2004 By: Frank Rudnesky, Ed. D.
To bridge the gap between the most proficient and the least proficient technology-integrating teachers, one school district in southern New Jersey undertook a ten-month research project. This project was a formal peer mentoring relationship strictly for the acquisition of curricular-driven technology integration skills. This form of professional development was an extension of a comprehensive plan that involved all school stakeholders.
Technology as a Change Agent
Once past the security buzzer at the entrance to the Belhaven Middle School you see a well-lit foyer with colorful flags hanging, six on each side, ten feet in the air. Your focal point switches to a “Spotlight on Students” display that proudly describes eight students and their accomplishments in character education for the month. Proudly waving from the center of the ceiling is a boldly colored gold banner portraying a soaring blue eagle. Next to the flying mascot reads the school motto, “Learn Now, Soar For A Lifetime.”
To the left sits one of three computer laboratories located in the Library/Media Center. Often, seventh grade language arts teacher Christina holds her classroom instruction here . Because of her technology peer mentoring relationship with John, Christina now has the necessary skills to use the laboratory. She can update her Web page daily, make it interactive by linking to other Web sites, and show her students how to search and evaluate information on the Internet. She can teach her students skills when they need them to create digital newspapers and multimedia presentations.
In the computer laboratory students were using the Internet to search for information. One twelve-year-old girl was interviewing her seventh-grade partner about searching the Internet while he was accessing a Web site suggested by his teacher. A boy smiled with pride as he gently moved the computer mouse over the foam pad to show his partner the ins and outs of the Web site.
Other students were immersed in research using the Internet and facilitating procedures to other students. One boy talked enthusiastically as he awaited affirmation from his teacher about the information he had just found. Christina responded with praise as she circulated the room to help individually, answer questions, and monitor progress. The students helped each other when Christina was busy helping other students.
The students were actively engaged with the assignment while discovering information about World War I. They had become active learners rather than passive listeners. They were searching and comparing information rather than having the teacher spoonfeed them the data. They were working cooperatively with others students to corroborate their findings.
This traditional curriculum taught in previous years was now enhanced with technology. During this assignment, the students were able to view other students’ works, get information from home, and access a grading rubric connected to Christina’s website. By using the Internet and collaborating with the teacher and other students, they were immersed in the lifestyle during this moment in time. This research project allowed the students to envision the United States as it was during World War I.
Tech Is No Longer An Option
The choice for public schools is not whether they should use digital technology but how they will use it. Previous federal programs have concentrated on every classroom being wired and connected. More recent government spending initiated by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) concentrates more on teacher professional development with this new technology. After spending hundreds of millions to provide children with access to computers and the Internet, many school districts are now faced with the task of training teachers to become competent users of technology as a tool so that they can create better learning opportunities for students.
Because we live in an ever-changing technological and global society, technology plays an important role in the education of our children. Technology can facilitate teaching strategies that promote students’ higher-order thinking skills (NFIE, 2000). By properly training teachers to integrate technology, schools will naturally prepare our students for standardized assessment, academic endeavors, and the workplace. When teachers properly use technology as a tool, they become facilitators rather than lecturers and students will investigate rather than memorize, evaluate rather than copy, communicate rather than stagnate.
At the same time, the administration and staff must remember that this new technology is just one of many tools, albeit a powerful one. It must include local and state standards. Thus there must be training that emphasizes technology integration, that models higher order thinking skills, and that incorporates state and local curriculum.
The Linwood Integration of Technology Training for Teachers (LIT 3)
There is already a body of information showing the positive outcomes of integrating technology into the classroom. Research projects including the Apple Classrooms Of Tomorrow (ACOT), the West Virginia Basic Skills/Computer Education BS/CE program (Mann, Shakeshaft, Becker, & Kottkamp, 1999), the Idaho Technology Initiatives of 1999 and 2001, and the Wenglinsky (1998) study indicate that technology can provide a positive influence on student learning if teachers learn to integrate technology.
In order to fulfill the promise of the technology, the Linwood Public Schools District took a novel approach to technology professional development. After providing training and research opportunities for administration, the school district developed a process called Linwood Integration of Technology Training for Teachers (LIT 3). Committed to flexibility of training, this process uses different means to offer professional development in the area of technology integration.
Since they already had the equipment and the schools’ curricula were already aligned with the New Jersey Department of Education’s Core Curriculum Content Standards (CCCS) and the Cross-Content Workplace Readiness Standards (CCWRS), the administration needed to further address teacher professional development in the area of technology integration. In addition to diversity and flexibility of training, they designed workshops that made the content relevant to what the teachers actually taught.
The schools used their own teachers as trainers to build on their experiences and the experiences of the teachers attending the workshops. To appeal to different types of learners they designed hands-on professional development which promoted discovery by letting the teachers search for information. When possible, workshops connected strategies to curriculum. For example, a workshop that demonstrated a Web quest incorporated actual curriculum units and state curriculum standards. To reinforce concepts, the training included follow-up to previous workshops. Hands-on training engaged teachers and allowed them to discover new applications.
Several research projects have proven that peer mentoring is a successful form of technology professional development for teachers. The Computer Mentor Program (MacArthur & Pilato, 1995), Slobojan’s (1997) case study, and the University of Texas El-Paso (Descamps, 1999) determined that peer mentoring can offer advantages to other forms of technology training that break down barriers, offer support, and transform the classroom. Because research indicated that mentoring can be successful for teachers integrating technology, the Linwood Public Schools District did a ten-month case study to examine the possibilities that peer mentoring brings to the teachers.
The Linwood Integration of Technology Training for Teachers (LIT 3) laid the foundation of training and allowed one-to-one peer mentoring to evolve. Other forms of technology professional development in LIT 3 included small group, large group, self-paced training manuals, Web sites, and out-of-school district workshops.
The overall purpose of the case study was to determine if peer mentoring could accelerate training and bridge the gap between the less proficient and the more proficient technology users. The researchers wanted to use peer mentoring with exclusive relationships as a form of professional development in conjunction with other forms that were already in place. Another purpose was to document successful peer mentoring techniques that would benefit future relationships. They examined, from a wide variety of sources, changes in perception, classroom strategies, and acquisition of skills.
Another unique feature was that the researcher for this case study was the building principal. He was onsite every day, which enabled him to have frequent visits with the participants. It also eased the data-gathering process because all the participants worked in the same middle school. Additionally, LIT 3 has a unique tracking feature which benchmarked teachers in this study and measured their progress with a self-reporting check list.
Not only should professional development be relevant but it should be self-directed. Timely follow-up also plays a key role. It reduces frustration and gives teachers confidence to take creative risks. If properly implemented, peer mentoring can address adult learning needs, including follow-up. The mentee teacher will have someone he or she can go to with a question or a problem. A peer mentoring relationship becomes a vital component of a technology professional development plan.
Formalize the Peer Mentoring Experience
The study staff identified peer mentees and mentors and asked them to participate. The mentees took part in choosing their mentors from a viable pool of eight possibilities. There were two mentoring groups, and each group included one mentor and one mentee. The participants met with the researcher to discuss peer mentoring and for him to explain the process. Teachers had to set goals that would move them along the continuum of the LIT 3 Self-Check List. The mentors and mentees developed their individual goals of integrating technology. They also had to document their meetings in logs and reflective journals.
The data collected in this case study originated from a wide variety of sources. Because no single source holds an advantage over the other in a case study, it is important to triangulate the information to formulate conclusions (Yin, 1994). The researcher used nine sources of evidence in four of six categories of evidence as described by Yin (1994): documentation, direct observation, physical artifacts, and survey/interview.
Documentation included the LIT 3 Self-Checklist, lesson plans, reflective journals, and peer mentoring meeting logs. Direct observations of lessons served as confirmation of the documentation, and allowed the researcher to witness the phenomenon of the case study, which was the acquisition of skills and knowledge that enabled the mentee teachers to integrate technology in the classroom. The physical artifacts, which included student projects and teacher web pages, provided tangible evidence that teachers changed classroom strategies. In this case study, the researcher was able to see the end result of a project and a shift in strategies.
Surveys/interviews focused directly on the case study topics. The Pre and Post Surveys provided questions and answers that described the differences in classroom strategies before and after peer mentoring. Interviews at the end of the formal peer mentoring relationships allowed the researcher to listen to and document the opinions of the participants as they talked about their attitude towards technology and their use of different strategies with technology. The interviews also corroborated other data contained in Peer Mentoring Meeting Logs and reflective journals. Yin (1994) sees the ability to collect a variety of sources as a major advantage of the case study.
In analyzing the data, three themes emerged. One was that peer mentoring promotes collegiality. By having friendly, trusting relationships, the mentee teachers did not hesitate to contact their mentors any time they needed help or had a question.
It was an advantage that the teams could choose partners. Everything was friendly from the beginning and it was easy to establish collegiality. This allowed the mentees to trust the expertise of the mentors, and this in turn contributed to the success of the relationship.
A second theme that emerged was that peer mentoring broke down the normal barriers to technology integration. One such barrier was time: the time to receive training and the time to prepare lessons. Because mentors worked around the busy schedules of the mentee teachers, this barrier was alleviated. Also, as the mentee teachers became more proficient, the time to prepare lessons was reduced.
With barriers down, peer mentoring facilitated changes in the mentee teachers’ perception of technology. Because technology integration became easier, they were able to use it more frequently. As they used technology more, they began to appreciate it more because they saw a positive response from their students.
As the teachers experienced success, a third theme emerged: peer mentoring motivates teachers to use technology in the classroom, facilitating a change in classroom strategies as teachers were motivated to use their new knowledge.
Significant in these peer mentoring relationships was that each of the two teams set short term goals and then they built upon these early successes to take creative risks in the future. Although each team set goals independently, they paralleled each other. Each mentee teacher wanted to make his/her Web page interactive, develop technology-integrated lessons driven by the existing curriculum, and increase their frequency of technology use to at least once per month. Their accomplishments far exceeded their expectations.
For Christina, peer mentoring offered support in the form of one-to-one training, something she had never experienced. In her reflective journal she indicated there had been no follow-up to previous professional development. Mentoring allowed her to have someone to whom she could go when she had a question or a problem. The relationship encouraged her to do her own research, take creative risks, and gave her the confidence to succeed. In an interview she adds:
“I think that I’ve learned more since I started last year with John than I have in my ten years of teaching and going to different professional development workshops. I’ve really learned a lot. I’ve used what I’ve learned in the classroom and I know that I will continue to use what I’ve learned in the classroom. It was a positive, supportive experience. It was something that was ongoing and that I could go to John anytime I had a problem…In this relationship I could ask questions and find support when I needed it.”
Christina’s mentor, John, enjoyed the relationship as much as Christina. He felt comfortable with Christina and saw this mentoring relationship as a way to reflect on his own strategies. He was able to see things from the point of view of new technology adopters, and enjoyed watching Christina grow. John said:
“Sharing ideas with a colleague is always a great way to keep the spark in teaching. I believe that I got as much from the mentoring experience as Christina because as a mentor (teacher) you have to have a better understanding of what you are teaching and you cannot take anything for granted. We came up with new ways to integrate technology in the classroom by taking small steps but having a larger goal. A wonderful benefit is that now I have another person that I can go to create a cross grade level assignment using technology.”
Mark enjoyed and recognized the rewards of his peer mentoring relationship with Frank. He enjoyed the advantages of this type or training compared to other types of training that he received in the past. He acknowledged the value of hands on and follow-up training that peer mentoring offered which cannot be achieved or experienced in many traditional workshop settings.
“I think the biggest difference is normally in workshops that we have with the school or other workshops you just learn something for an hour or two hours and if it’s something you’re not using every day, a month or two later you forget all about it because you haven’t been doing it. Working with Frank it’s a little bit different and better I think because we related what he was teaching me directly to what I was teaching in the classroom. If I had a question about technology, I just asked Frank.”
This peer mentoring case study suggests that tremendous gains are possible with this form of professional development in the area of technology integration. Because the mentee teachers acquired skills and knowledge to diversify their methodology, there began a shift to more project based assessment. The roles of teachers shifted from lecturer to facilitator where more proficient students were able to help other students achieve success. Students became active participants using technology rather than passive listeners.
Not only were teachers able to effectively learn technology integration but both mentee teachers indicated that they learned more from a mentoring relationship than they had with other types of professional development. For these two mentee teachers, one-to-one training broke down barriers that allowed them to successfully integrate technology, thus allowing their students to succeed.
This case study specifies that, with certain conditions in place, peer mentoring will have a positive impact on technology integration professional development for teachers. For this case study, it was an advantage that the mentees were able to choose their mentors. Peer mentoring allowed the training to accommodate the busy schedules of the participants. They felt comfortable contacting each other at any time by Email, telephone, or informal meetings to ask questions or to monitor progress.
The mentors were able to have input in setting goals. By setting goals, the mentees could concentrate on achieving success before moving on. They concentrated on doing a few things well rather than a lot poorly. Because the goals were attainable, the mentees could experience success in a relative short period of time. The short term success continued as long term proficiency.
As the case study progressed, three themes emerged that indicated peer mentoring facilitated changes in perceptions and classroom strategies of the mentee teachers. These themes included: peer mentoring promotes collegiality, breaks down barriers, and motivates teachers to use technology.
Because peer mentoring offered a trusting, supportive relationship, it promoted collegial relationships. As the mentee teachers acquired new skills, gone were the barriers preventing teachers from using technology. This facilitated changes in teachers’ perceptions to appreciate technology as a teaching tool, which in turn motivated teachers to use this tool more frequently. Technology integration became a regular component of classroom strategies.
In this case study, peer mentoring allowed the teachers to achieve remarkable gains while they moved along a technology integration professional development continuum. Unlike many technology professional development plans, LIT 3 has the capability to benchmark teachers and follow their progress. LIT 3 Self-Check Lists showed significant gains in skills and knowledge of the mentee teachers. During this ten-month period, the mentee teachers increased their technology integration skills by over sixty percent. The average gain for all teachers in the same school for the same period of time was around seventeen percent.
This case study provided evidence that teachers who previously did not integrate technology changed their methodology to include this new tool. As they did this, they began to see the value in technology as it brought students to new and higher levels of learning. Teachers can and will change the way they teach when they validate higher student achievement. They can and will create lessons that are infused with technology in a seamless manner. They create an environment in the classroom similar to that of the world around them, which already includes a technological backdrop.
This case study had advantages over other case studies in this area of research because the mentors and mentees had exclusive relationships. The mentors were focused on the success of only one teacher. The participants all knew each other prior to the start of the case study, and the researcher was on site daily because he was the building principal of all participants. Because he was the building principal, he supported the endeavor and offered feedback after observing lessons.
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Email: Frank Rudnesky