Back in 1999, when the World Wide Web was first being explored as a treasure trove of virtual information, Barbara Treacy was already looking ahead. A former UMass Boston math instructor with a master’s in educational technology, Treacy looked to the Internet as more than a vast online library.
Treacy saw the power and potential of the Web as a medium for educators to exchange information, engage in professional training, develop tools and courses, discuss common problems and possible solutions, and improve the quality of education in their classrooms and districts. She saw the emerging virtual world as not only a source for valuable information, but as a place to foster online learning and collaboration between far-flung educators who wouldn’t otherwise meet in person.
“I’m still energized by how powerful and effective online collaborations can be,” says Treacy, who directs EdTech Leaders Online (ETLO)—a capacity-building online professional development program administered by EDC, which enables states, school districts, and other educational organizations to use online learning to develop and deliver courses.
Treacy first started working with EDC in 1997 as a facilitator for the “Leadership in the New Technologies” summer institutes, a project run jointly with the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She came onboard EDC in 1999 to extend the reach of these face-to-face Institutes with online learning through the initiation of the ETLO program. A lot has changed since then.
The Web continues to evolve at warp speed. How has EdTech Leaders Online changed since it started?
At first, we worked with teachers to help them locate online resources to enhance their classroom curriculum. One of our first online workshops was called “Finding the Best Educational Resources on the Web.” Improvements in search engines like Google have made it easier for educators to find what they need, but we’re still finding teachers need guidance in making sense of the explosion of online information. We’re continuously updating this workshop to keep up with the changes, while adding others focused on specific content areas.
One of the biggest changes is that today, teachers aren’t just getting information online. Teachers are also creators of information. Dynamic new “Web 2.0” tools and resources make it easier for teachers to create and share their own content online, and collaborate with other educators across distance. We’re incorporating these new tools in our training and it’s exciting to use them with teachers and see how useful they are in supporting teacher creativity and collaboration.
Is online learning as viable in rural areas as it is in urban school districts?
We’re finding online learning very popular in rural areas. The computers might not be updated as frequently, and there definitely remains a digital divide, but access to the Internet has reached most schools and school districts (if not all homes). It’s an important way to provide teacher development in rural areas to address local teacher and resource shortages. Teachers can access resources from around the country and around the world or even a nearby district that has the courses or instructors they need. Online courses for students are also growing in popularity in rural areas. In fact, much of our work with virtual schools is in southern states with large rural populations.
What’s the most interesting idea in your field right now?
Online learning is one of the biggest things changing schools today. Virtual education means school is no longer limited to a particular time or place, offering new opportunities for individualized instruction, global learning, collaboration, and technology integration. It’s pushing educators to rethink traditional approaches to things like assessment, curriculum, and the very structure of schools—and these kinds of changes are needed!
What’s next for the ETLO project?
We’re excited about opportunities to scale up our program and to be involved in research on online learning. EDC is the main professional development provider for an eight-state collaboration called E-Learning for Educators—a five-year, $22-million program funded by the U.S. Department of Education in 2005. We worked with Alabama Public Television to craft this project, with the goal of building state-level online professional development programs in eight states—New Hampshire, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Delaware, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Mississippi.
We’ve designed it so over the next five years, these states will learn together and share resources, ideas, problems, and solutions as they build strong programs based on their own state goals. Each state is led by a partnership between the state department of education and a local public television station. We’re also excited about the research component which is looking at the impact of our courses on teachers and students.
The model is based on the ETLO capacity-building approach. They’re all participating in ETLO training, and we’ve also set up several other online environments, such as an online course site and use virtual meetings to support collaboration, ongoing discussion and resource sharing. The eight states cover a large area but using online tools, we’ve managed to have just one or two face-to-face meetings a year. It’s another sign that educators can collaborate intensively and effectively online. We’re excited about what we’re learning through this project that can be shared and replicated with other states.