Outside the Walls Part 3

Marlene's Story

Marlene was one of the first teachers in the Nation to use an online course management system to support third-grade students. She began her work in 1999 as part of a National Science Foundation project that was attempting to understand how teachers could use message boards and other online tools to create a collaboration to support their own professional growth. The topic of our project was Telementoring and it focused on content related to inquiry approaches to teaching math and science. This early training was a first entry into the world of technology for Marlene, who had been a long-time teacher of the third grade in Marcellus, NY.

Marlene’s first approaches to technology were very tentative but purposeful. While she was fearful of the computer, she was bound and determined to master its possibilities. Of course this was difficult within our research project since we were trying to focus on inquiry methods of teaching science as a vehicle for professional development “talk” online. Thus, there were two challenges for Marlene: understanding a new approach to math instruction and learning to use online tools to communicate and share that learning.

While we first attempted to use a tool devoted to mentoring online only, we soon found a course management system that had a full suite of online messaging tools and more. It was so full-featured that we were able to assist Marlene and her fellow project participants with less attention to the technology and more attention devoted to the content and communications tasks we had set out for them.

However, the process of shared discussions online was foreign to most of the participants, and Marlene struggled with the discussion features and was hindered by her lack of knowledge of the basic features of the computer. Slowly but surely, she mastered the operating system “desktop” functions, learned about various file types, figured out the telecommunications connections necessary in school and at home, and began to explore some of the coding (HyperText Markup Language - HTML) needed (at that time) to make the system more amenable to young children. It did not take long for her to request a site to use for her students, not just for her own development. We were able to give her such a site with encouragement and training support since we had just been using it for the same purposes with her and her colleagues.

Marlene insisted that we needed many colorful graphics for her young students if we wanted to capture and maintain their attention. However, this was not a priority of the developers of the system we used, which was designed for college-level support. Thus, Marlene pushed us to teach her what COULD be done to provide colorful and even animated graphics within the system.

We pursued the question and found there were logical places deeper into the system’s content areas that were designed for graphics. These were not difficult to use, and we taught Marlene how to place images within these places. However, she pointed out that her kids and parents needed images sooner, at a more “top level”. At that level, our system provided “announcements” and “folders” with descriptive passages allowed. However, graphics were NOT meant to be placed in these areas. HTML code was allowed, and we knew that we could use code to access many online Web pages. The system, deeper in, was creating and posting Web pages with images. So, we figured, if we could find the system’s Web addresses of those images, we could teach Marlene and other elementary teachers how to display images in the announcements and in the folder descriptions. We meanwhile informed the producer of the system (Blackboard.com) that we needed easier and more “top level” access to images in order to appeal to an elementary audience. We discussed our process for using HTML in non-supported areas. Blackboard informed us that this would cause problems if we updated our system in the future, and that for that reason they did not support such internal linkages.

But Marlene still insisted that images were highly motivational and useful and that she wanted to learn to put them in these top level areas. So we devised documentation and a process and proceeded to teach her to do this. This was not easy for us to do, and required hours of time for Marlene to work with us to both learn and advise us of her needs as she learned. With perseverance and repetition, she mastered the use of the “img src=” tag in HTML and learned to capture the image location addresses. With time, Marlene became our key “mentor” for support of other elementary teachers within her building and outside to other districts also.

Here is an example of a picture she placed in her announcements for her September opening of school THREE years ago:

This “greeter” is Tucker, a much-loved pet of Marlene’s.

Since Tucker first appeared, we have upgraded our system three times. Each time, Marlene was surprised to find her image links broken and needing to be re-established. Each time we have stressed that this is a method that is not supported but possible. She has chosen to repair the broken links because she is so sure that the imagery is necessary.

Blackboard, meanwhile, has adjusted slightly to meet the needs of Marlene and other teachers of young children. We can now place images seamlessly, with no HTML coding knowledge, into folder descriptions. Announcements, however, still do not support images, though they will support a direct text-displayed internal link to a folder or “item” that could display an image. But the image does not display automatically on the announcement page of the site. Also, any images linked internally with HTML coding (or, surprisingly, with a new “course link” capability built into the latest systems) must be re-linked every time there is a system upgrade. This can cause a great deal of work for elementary teachers using numerous images in non-supported areas. So there is still work to be done to appeal to Marlene’s sense of what an online system should do for her young students.

Because of her early experiences, and her tentative approach to technology in the beginning, Marlene has become an excellent staff support person in her district and within our region. On numerous occasions she has presented her site and discussed the ease of use and the difficulties adapting it to a very young audience. She understands first-hand the reluctance of some experienced educators to engage in technological change, and has been a stalwart champion of changing how we deliver content to our children and their homes in our communities.

Marlene has called recently regarding broken images that do not display. Reviewing her site showed that an upgrade in July resulted, once again, in those broken images. Soon, we will do another upgrade and have that same issue again. Marlene, however, will persevere. After all, she thinks her kids love to be greeted by “Tucker” and his “Welcome” sign. I know I do!

Email:Dan Lake

Previous articles in this series:

John’s Story
Rob’s Story