of The American Society for Information Science

Vol. 26, No. 3

February/March 2000

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K-12 Collaboratories

by Jennifer Robins

My interest area is infrastructure support for K-12 teachers. I have a master's degree in education, with a specialty in curriculum and instruction. I am interested in the development and distribution of Web-based, public domain, educational materials.

I believe computer networks and the Internet can revolutionize education and that no child needs to "fail" in school. With personalized curricula, children can advance toward mastery at their own pace. Today it is also possible to create curricula that can be tailored to the moral and ethnic values of parents while still presenting the core knowledge necessary for productive citizenship. The work involved in creating individualized curricula is too much for a single teacher; but, if teachers can pool their efforts, a vast treasure of resources can be produced. I believe what is needed is an information structure that teachers can use to pool their efforts and resources. However, it is not enough to build an information structure and hope that teachers will use it. Even before the design phase can begin, it is necessary to observe teachers in the classroom in order to discover how and where such a structure can meet their needs. Also, the structure must be responsive as needs change. The information structure is likely to influence what goes on in the classroom, which in turn can change teachers' needs. Social informatics addresses the phenomenon of the interplay between the social and the technical, and thus plays a crucial role in the problem I am studying.

Teaching Practice and Collaboration Technologies

Even though school networks can enable collaboration among teachers within and across schools, currently such collaboration is a very small part of a teacher's workday. Because of this, my first question is whether teachers feel they need any technological support for sharing resources and information. And, if so, what type of collaboration tools would teachers find useful? Having the technology to link teachers does not guarantee its use. Answering these two questions requires an analysis of the institutional culture and workaday practices of teachers. For this purpose, in 1998 and 1999, I conducted an ethnographic study of teachers at a high school I refer to by the pseudonym, TechCity High. I looked at teachers' goals, how they share information and resources, how they are using educational technology and the constraints of their workplace in order to ascertain if a "collaboratory" might be created that would fit into or enhance existing work practices.

A collaboratory is an information infrastructure that supports collaboration. It is a type of digital library where members can both add and access digitized resources and information. The types of objects that can be stored in a collaboratory are basically anything that can be digitized, such as documents or HTML files, including links to Websites. A collaboratory can contain multimedia files such as PowerPoint presentations, databases, spreadsheets, graphics, movies and sound files, as well as software and simulation materials. In addition, collaboratories can provide project spaces where members can share and store mutually developed products. Members or system administrators can set up Web boards for asynchronous collaboration and chat rooms for synchronous distance communications, and they can offer online workshops and help sessions.

Examples of collaboratories for K-12 include:

      The Global Schoolhouse Network (http://www.gsn.org/), where resources are shared and collaborative inter-class projects are announced and coordinated;

      The Education Object Economy (http://trp.research.apple.com/), where educational Applets are shared;

      The Baltimore Learning Community (http://www.learn.umd.edu/Welcome.html), where teachers share lesson plans designed to take advantage of video clips from the Discovery Channel;

      The LEARN North Carolina project (http://www.learnnc.org/index.nsf), where teachers take virtual trips to museums and laboratories, then share data and lesson plans.

Here in Illinois, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) Enternet project (http://enternet.lth1.k12.il.us/) is being created in order to provide a way for teachers to share lesson plans related to the state learning standards. Some examples from my ethnographic study of TechCity High teachers provide insights related to how the goals of local teachers and ISBE administrators might be negotiated in the Enternet project.

The doors to the classrooms at TechCity High are closed during the school day. This is due to an edict from the principal and is in keeping with the sense of order and discipline the school administration imposes, not only on the students but also, indirectly, on the teachers. The teachers work inside these rooms, behind the closed doors, one teacher per classroom. The teachers at the high school spend five out of seven periods a day in classrooms. An additional hour is spent sitting at a desk in the hall stopping and checking the passes of the students who walk by. Teachers have approximately 20 minutes for lunch and one 55-minute "free" period that is used to prepare for class, grade homework, take care of administrative tasks, meet with students and, in the brief time remaining, talk with other teachers.

Teachers at TechCity High work under extreme time constraints that, in particular, affect their ability to collaborate. With only one 55-minute free period per day, there is little time for social exchange. The teachers I observed usually spent their free periods in their department offices or their classrooms. The collaboration that occurred during this time was often between department members who had the same free period. Occasionally, two teachers held discussions in the hall, if one had a hall supervision period and the other had a free period. Except at lunch time, the teachers' lounge was usually empty. The teachers' lounge is small, accommodating about a dozen people. I did not notice any teachers using the lounge regularly. Teachers visit the school's main office at least once a day to turn in attendance and check their mailboxes. They take advantage of this activity to exchange greetings and hold short conversations.

One of the teachers I observed was in contact with a peer at another local high school. During the process of placing a textbook order, she took advantage of their relationship to share information about the purchasing procedures. To do so, she traveled to the other high school on her own time, after classes were dismissed for the school day. Many of the teachers I observed at TechCity High also attended national conferences in their discipline. At these conferences teachers have opportunities to share new ideas and methods for teaching with technology. TechCity High is fortunate because the district makes funds available for teachers who wish to attend conferences. These funds come from the Illinois Department of Education, through the local district office, to the high school.

The ISBE, like the boards of education in many other states, is looking for ways to encourage teachers to follow state curriculum standards. The state school board has the leadership role in public education. It is the responsibility of the ISBE to transform education based on theories developed through research at the university level, converting theories into the practice of teachers in the public schools. One way the ISBE hopes to do this is to create a collaboratory where teachers could store and search for lesson plans that are linked to state standards. The Enternet project was created for this purpose. The state of Illinois has been divided into eight technology hubs, each working independently to explore potential ways to reach the ISBE's goals.

The problem the ISBE faces is that experienced teachers make very little use of lesson plans, except in a general, "back of the napkin" way. Teachers look at lesson plans in order to get ideas, but not for a prescription on how to teach their subjects. For most of the teachers I observed, a lesson plan is an informal, personal outline, rather than a public communication of practice suitable for publishing in the Enternet collaboratory.

Teachers at TechCity High view teaching and learning as situated activities. What occurs in the classroom is a social exchange where meaning is constructed jointly in the communication between the teacher and students in the classroom. The teacher attempts to create a receptive frame of mind in students and then to take advantage of these "teachable moments" to pass on relevant information. The way this is done varies from class to class. It is dependent on the personalities of the students as well as the personality and teaching style of the instructor. It is also dependent on the dynamics created by the class as a group. Because of this, even a well thought-out lesson plan might not be flexible enough to take advantage of the learning opportunities that might arise in a given class period.

Applying Social Informatics

Viewed through the lens of social informatics, the conflict between ISBE's technology goals and the teachers' needs does not have to be viewed as a problem to be solved, but rather as an opportunity to develop a better communication system between state administrators and teachers. The articulation work needed to develop the Enternet collaboratory can provide each group with a deeper understanding of the work of the other. In the process, common goals can be uncovered which can lead to a more effective collaboratory design.

One example of a common goal the Enternet collaboratory could address is to provide recognition to teachers. In a collaboratory recognition can work three ways:

    1. The collaboratory can provide a mechanism to introduce teachers with similar interests. Teachers can be introduced to each other through their contributions. Where the teachers I observed at TechCity High had to travel on their own time to exchange information, resources and ideas with others in similar disciplines, the collaboratory can provide a means whereby communication among teachers at different schools can be done at a distance and asynchronously.

    2. The collaboratory can provide recognition by showcasing exemplar member contributions. Currently there is no path of recognition for teachers who do exemplary work, particularly in regard to finding innovative uses for new technologies. Teachers look to the school principal as the primary source of recognition. In a large high school like TechCity High, it is difficult for the principal to be aware of what is going on in over 100 classrooms. Moreover, there is a sense of "family" at the school. If the principal gives recognition to one teacher, it is equivalent to a parent praising one child over another in a way that appears arbitrary if other teachers likewise deserve commendation.

    3. The collaboratory could also support the rise of leadership within the state by promoting the rise of local heroes. Visionary members of the collaboratory community can gain a forum through their contributions, by leading discussions and by conducting workshops.

Providing recognition is only one example of how a collaboratory can both serve teachers and help state administrators. Teachers like the ones at TechCity High who are finding effective ways to use technology in teaching would appreciate administration approval, while administrators need to create a system that can identify teaching practices that exemplify state learning goals. The lesson plans in the Enternet collaboratory can help administrators and teachers learn about each other's goals and needs. Thus, thinking of the issues surrounding the collaboratory in terms of social informatics enriches both the technology and the community that it serves. It is not only through successful technology that progress is effected, but also through the strengthening of the social networks of those who use that technology and thus discover new ways to improve their work.

Jennifer Robins is a doctoral student in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She can be reached by e-mail at jrobins@alexia.lis.uiuc.edu

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