Using Study Groups to Disseminate Technology Best Practices

"The success or failure of technology is more dependent on human and contextual factors than on hardware or software." (Valdez et al., 2000)

In other words, when it comes to technology, the teacher is the most important piece of equipment. Not that this is any great revelation, but it is important to acknowledge that effective technology use begins and ends with the classroom teacher.

While in some ways this is a comforting thought — good teaching is still good teaching and computers are no longer seen as the teacher-proof answer to education — it is also a sobering thought. No matter how much money a district puts into its technology budget, no matter how high-tech the new WAN, no matter how sleek the new hand held computers, the success of technology use still comes down to the classroom teacher. So, if we're not doing what we can to support the classroom teacher's knowledge of effective technology use, how can we ever expect students to benefit from the promise of enhanced learning that technology offers?

The answer is targeted and effective professional development that will have a lasting and positive impact on teachers' classroom behaviors. Offering this kind of professional development at the school or district level, however, is easier said than done. One professional development model that has gained in popularity, and for good reason, is that of teacher study groups.

Meeting the criteria of effective professional development

In 2000, the US Department of Education released the results of a three-year longitudinal study on professional development (Porter et. al, 2000). The study found that effective professional development had a positive impact on teachers' classroom strategies and behaviors, and that the common elements of effective professional development were relatively straightforward. They included:

  • A focus on higher-order teaching strategies
  • Use of a reform type (e.g., teacher study groups or networks) as opposed to isolated workshops
  • Inclusion of opportunities for active learning
  • Direct connections between teachers' goals and the focus of the professional development
  • Grouping of teachers from the same subject area, grade level, or school

While the characteristics of effective professional development may be identifiable, they are unfortunately not present in many programs. The same study found that "teachers experience professional development that varies in quality from one year to the next" and that there was "little change in overall teaching practice from 1996 to 1999" in the teachers from the study. In other words, while good professional development really works, most teachers do not get good professional development. And, within the realm of professional development focused on the effective use of technology, the picture becomes even more complicated as the need for training in technical expertise is added to the need for training in classroom application.

The study group model represents one possible solution, addressing the characteristics of effective professional development outlined above.

Study groups emphasize a collaborative, incremental approach

In the study group model, a small group of teachers works collaboratively over the course of several weeks, months, or even years to focus on a pedagogical issue of common concern or interest. Because teachers are working with each other, study groups provide opportunities for teachers to learn from each other and to receive collegial support. Given that one of the main barriers of classroom technology use is teachers' own technical inexperience or lack of expertise, the study group is particularly effective in terms of technology training: it provides the opportunity to group less technically savvy teachers with colleagues with more advanced technical training or skills, and it provides the ongoing opportunity for teachers to receive targeted feedback and support to answer their immediate implementation questions and concerns.

Study groups are a logical structure for technology integration training because study groups emphasize the incremental and collaborative nature of effective professional growth that is vitally important in learning new approaches towards teaching. A study group format works in addressing the classroom implementation of any technology tool, application, or concept. One especially successful topic of study is WebQuests, highlighted in the Wake County and Miami-Dade examples. Using the following format, however, one can address just about any topic.

A progression from introduction to analysis
Study group meetings typically last anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half — anything less does not usually allow enough time for real conversations and engagement with information to develop, and anything longer tends to lose participants' interest. Groups can meet as often as twice a week and as infrequently as monthly, but less frequent meetings typically do not lead to actual classroom changes.

When addressing a new topic, or new take on an old topic, the first meeting or set of meetings should serve as an introduction for participants. If the topic is WebQuests, the focus is defining the characteristics of a WebQuest and allowing for hands-on opportunities to examine WebQuests. If the topic is Microsoft Excel, the focus is introducing examples of Excel use in the classroom and building the requisite technical skills.

While an initial framework of understanding is important, the focus of the study group should quickly move to analysis, such that participants are evaluating new resources or ideas with a critical eye and beginning to make connections to their own classroom objectives and curricula. Analysis should allow for collegial conversations focusing around questions like "How might this look in your classroom?", "How could you take this activity and improve it?", or "What student needs would this tool help you to address?" As participants engage with the information, the focus and deliverable should always be some possible application to the classroom.

Moving from implementation to reflection
The two most important pieces of the study group process are application and reflection. Whether it's a WebQuest, a new digital camera, or the latest literacy software, classroom application is where the real learning begins. And the key components to making application work are clear expectations and timely support.

First and foremost, study group members should understand that certain expectations go along with their participation in the group, and the most important expectation is that they will participate fully. This means that if everyone is expected to implement a lesson one month into the process, then everyone needs to implement a lesson. Coupled with expectations, however, is support. Some teachers will have no problem trying out a new approach or strategy, but other teachers may need more hand holding. Part of the facilitator's job is to provide that support, whether it comes in the form of a co-taught lesson, providing technical back-up, or just sitting in when a new strategy is implemented.

After teachers have implemented a new lesson or strategy, the final piece to the cycle is reflection, structured both individually and collectively. Probably the most important aspect of the study group model is its ability to develop and strengthen professional culture, which increases a school's capacity for long-term improvement. At the heart of this process is teacher reflection and collegial feedback.

While teachers should be encouraged to reflect individually on the successes and challenges of classroom implementation, the opportunity to reflect collaboratively with colleagues is even more powerful. Structuring a productive reflective activity, however, presents its own challenges. Few people like to hear others criticize their work, and the focus of any collegial feedback discussion must therefore be positive in tone. The following model is a possible example:

  • In a circle of four or five, each participant describes his/her implementation, focusing on the educational objectives and student outcomes (which include providing samples of student work)
  • Next, colleagues have the opportunity to ask questions about the implementation
  • Each participant then provides two examples of aspects of the implementation that they found effective, using the statement, "I thought that 'x' was effective because 'y'" (for example: "I thought that the student grouping was effective because each student had a particular role within the group so everyone was held accountable for doing work.")
  • Finally, each participant provides one example of a possible enhancement, using the statement, "If you were to do this activity again, you might consider 'z'" (for example: "If you were to do this again, you might consider giving students a set number of possible activity topics, because you mentioned that some students picked topics that you didn't think were particularly appropriate.")
  • Throughout the feedback process, the original participant simply listens to the feedback from colleagues

As in any new approach, this feedback process benefits from modeling. It is recommended that the facilitator begin the process by providing an example of his or her own classroom implementation, and guide the participants through the questioning and feedback steps before moving on to other members of the group.

Repeating the process with modifications
After the first cycle of introduction, analysis, implementation, and reflection, any study group can benefit from tweaks and modifications. The model should be adapted to the needs and circumstances of the participants and school, and therefore the model introduced here is only a starting point. The intended benefit of the study group should also not be limited to the implementation of a specific technology tool, application, or concept: as study groups evolve, they provide an avenue for addressing multiple classroom and school issues in a context of collegiality.

Addressing the challenges of successful implementation

The study group model can be an attractive one for schools and districts to implement: study groups are research-based, they are inexpensive to run, and the development of technical expertise can be supported both within the context of study group activities and through the collegial support relationships that develop as an intentional byproduct of study groups. But study groups are not without their challenges. Simply designating a topic, assigning teachers to a group, and setting up a meeting schedule will likely be unsuccessful. By recognizing and addressing the challenges commonly associated with study groups, however, the model can be highly successful and lead to both near-term and long-term improvements in professional practice and student learning. Four of the most common challenges associated with study groups are:

  • Identifying a topic of true relevance
  • Enlisting the aid of qualified and effective facilitators
  • Ensuring a positive and productive process
  • Integrating study groups into a larger, schoolwide vision of professional growth

Identifying a topic of true relevance
One of the most consistent messages to come out of professional development research is that, for professional development to be successful in changing teaching behaviors, participants must view the topic of study as having relevance to their classroom needs. And, in order to relate to classroom needs, any topic of professional study or training should tie directly to student needs. Prior to implementing any study group, it is important to ensure that the topic:

  1. Addresses an area of student need, as identified by relevant data (e.g., test scores, survey information, classroom observations, etc.); and,
  2. Is perceived by study group participants as directly relating to their own classroom needs and priorities.

Enlisting the aid of qualified and effective facilitators
In the Wake County and Miami-Dade study group examples, the participating teachers had access to outside consultants. Study groups can be just as effective, however, relying on internal resources. One model for choosing effective facilitators from within a school or district relies on the theory of positive deviance.

The idea of positive deviance is that, in any school setting, there will be teachers doing an outstanding job despite any local challenges. So, for example, if a high school has just recently moved to a block schedule and teachers are struggling with the challenge of adapting their instructional strategies to longer time blocks, there will still be some teachers who easily adapt and achieve success in the new systems. These teachers are the positive deviants.

The idea of positive deviancy comes out of nutrition research in Vietnam — for a more detailed explanation of the theory and its history, visit At its heart, however, the theory of positive deviancy says to find those local individuals who are able to achieve success and use them to spread best practices throughout the organization. So when looking for study group facilitators for a study group on WebQuests, find the teachers who are already using WebQuests successfully and enlist their aid in facilitation.

Ensuring a positive and productive process
Once study group topics have been chosen and study group facilitators have been identified, the process needs to be given structure. The best way to ensure structure is to set clear expectations, provide facilitators with the necessary resources and support training that they need, and monitor and support the process on an ongoing basis.

Especially when trying study groups for the first time, facilitators must be given high-quality resources to use with their groups and supported throughout the study group process. Identifying a site leader (e.g., assistant principal or technology coordinator), and making this leader responsible for supporting facilitators, can help to ensure success.

Integrating study groups into a larger school-wide vision of professional growth If study groups are seen as nothing more than a nice, hands-off way to provide some professional growth opportunities for teachers, then they will never be anything more than a potentially pleasant and possibly rewarding blip on the school-wide radar screen. The real power of study groups is their ability to improve a school or district's professional culture, which creates the opportunity for deeper, long-term improvements in teaching and learning. In his new book "The Moral Imperative of School Leadership", Michael Fullan (2003) outlines seven themes or principles necessary for sustainable systemic improvement, borrowed from Elmore and Burney's description of successful districts (Elmore and Burney, 1999):

  • It is about instruction, and only instruction.
  • Instructional change is a long, multistage process.
  • Shared expertise is the driver of instructional change.
  • Focus on systemwide improvement.
  • Great ideas come from people working together.
  • Set clear expectations, then decentralize.
  • Establish collegiality, caring, and respect. (p.52)

Each of these seven principles echoes the intent of teacher study groups. By building formal professional structures for teacher collaboration, augmented by clear expectations and a vision of improved instruction, study groups can become a model for improvement of not just technology integration, but overall teaching and learning.

Practical Examples

Using WebQuests in Wake County, North Carolina

At a high school in Wake County, five teachers participated in a study group lasting ten weeks, facilitated by an outside consultant. Participants met for an hour and a half at a time, five times over the course of the ten weeks. Some participants were new to WebQuests while others had used them before in their classrooms. By the end of the ten weeks, however, all five teachers indicated a growth in their knowledge of WebQuests and technology integration. According to one participant, "Teachers like activities that engage students and prevent off-task behavior-WebQuests do both if the right one is selected." All five teachers also indicated an increased likelihood that they would continue to use WebQuests in the future. As one self-professed first-time WebQuester put it, "I plan on using these more often."

What did it take to make this process successful?

Specific directions and expectations
All participants were given a ten-week agenda on the first day, and expectations were established early:

  • Attend all five meetings
  • Complete "homework" activities during off weeks
  • Implement a WebQuest over the course of the ten weeks

In addition, the facilitator communicated with participants between sessions, sending out reminders about meeting dates and times and forwarding resources and ideas.

High-quality resources
The group used The WebQuest Page, Bernie Dodge's WebQuest site, for training resources. Participants completed the WebQuest about WebQuests, evaluated example WebQuests using Dodge's WebQuest rubric, and identified high-quality tasks using the WebQuest Taskonomy. In addition, participants used Google to search for additional WebQuests, evaluating any new WebQuests against the high-quality criteria mentioned on Dodge's site.

Flexible structure, clear accountability
Meeting dates and times were built around participants' schedules, and agendas were modified to meet participants' needs. At the same time, however, expectations did not change: each teacher was still held accountable for implementing a WebQuest and participating in all group meetings and activities.

Collegial discussions and feedback
An integral part of each meeting was collegial discussion and feedback so that each participant had the opportunity to both hear what other teachers were trying and also receive constructive feedback on his/her own classroom plans. For the fourth and fifth group meetings, which took place after WebQuest implementation, participants brought in lesson plans and student work samples to share with the group, and each participant had the opportunity to receive positive feedback and ideas for future implementation enhancements. And these discussions affected participants' classroom behaviors; as one participant noted, "(The study group meetings) caused me to think about my instructional strategies. I think I will revamp some of my lessons over the summer when I have more time."

Working with Multiple Schools in Miami-Dade, Florida

In Miami-Dade, onsite facilitators led study groups at an elementary school and two high schools, supported by an external consultant. All facilitators had an instructional technology background and exemplary teaching skills. Over the course of three months, each facilitator worked with between five and ten teachers, meeting as study groups a total of three times. Each participating teacher was responsible for implementing a WebQuest and discussing the results with colleagues.

How did the groups achieve success across multiple sites with so few meeting dates?

Model before implementation
The facilitators first met as a group with the consultant to "walk through" the process that they would facilitate onsite with their colleagues. By living through the process first as participants before leading it themselves, the facilitators had first-hand knowledge of the possible stumbling blocks and areas of confusion before study group implementation began.

Clear communication by whatever means available
The facilitators comprised a natural support group in which all of the members could learn from each other. The challenge was that the facilitators were at separate sites and had few opportunities to meet face-to-face. To address this, the group set up a listserv and each member was responsible for posting comments, questions, and ideas at regular intervals. As the months progressed, the facilitators were able to share best practices and lessons learned, while also reinforcing the practice of effective technology use.

Standardized materials and messages
All of the facilitators used Bernie Dodge's WebQuest training materials (see above) and a common agenda. While it was important that individual facilitators had the ability to amend and adapt their plans to meet the needs of their schools' teachers, the use of standard training materials ensured the necessary level of consistency across schools.

Email: Adam Garry

Email: Parry Graham


Elmore, R., & Burney, D. (1999). Investing in teacher learning. In L. Darling Hammond & G. Sykes (Eds.), Teaching as the learning profession (pp.236-291). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Fullan, M. (2003). The Moral Imperative of School Leadership. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwinn Press, Inc.

Porter, A.C., Garet, M.S., Desimone, L., Yoon, K.S., & Birman, B.F. (2000). Does Professional Development Change Teaching Practice? Results from a Three-Year Study. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research in the Behavioral Sciences. (2003). Positive Deviance and Nutrition in Viet Nam

Sternin J and Choo R. The Power of Positive Deviance. Harvard Business Review, January-February 2000: 14-15.

Valdez, G., McNabb, M., Foertsch, M., Anderson M., Hawkes, M., and Raack, L. (2000). Computer-Based Technology and Learning: Evolving Uses and Expectations. North Central Regional Education Laboratory.