Change comes slowly to Macon Ridge, Louisiana, a rural area spread out over 150 square miles in the northeast corner of the state. The region is home to five of Louisiana’s poorest counties—or “parishes,” as they’re known locally, a term that dates back to the days when Louisiana was still a French Catholic colony. But the slow pace of change in Macon Ridge is evident in more than just its nomenclature: Cotton, corn, and lumber are still the dominant industries in the area, and unemployment rates are upward of 15 percent. With poverty, school drop-out, and teen pregnancy rates among the highest in the country, the benefits of the “new economy” have made few inroads here. “You’re more likely to see an alligator down here in the bayou than a personal computer,” says local resident Leinda Peterman.
Peterman is in a good position to assess the educational challenges in Macon Ridge, having worked as a language arts teacher in Concordia Parish for 23 years before taking on professional development responsibilities as its director of personnel. Today she heads the America 2000 Technology Innovation Challenge Grant for the five parishes that comprise Macon Ridge—a five-year, seven-million-dollar federal education grant that she helped the region secure in 1998. “The grant requires that we focus on professional development in technology for our teachers,” Peterman explains. “Well, that’s like throwing us in the briar patch. We’ve always believed that you don’t give a teacher a new piece of equipment until you can also be sure that she’s getting the training she needs to use it well.”
Peterman’s involvement with educational technologies dates back to 1994, when she won a teacher networking grant for the Concordia and Catahoula parishes. “We got our teachers online for the first time that year and had 80 teachers trained by 1997,” she says. But it wasn’t until the following year, when she enrolled in an online workshop offered by EDC’s Leadership in the New Technologies (LNT) program, that she began to recognize the potential of online learning for her rural schools. “In the spring of 1998, I took my first EDC online workshop and decided that I needed to write online professional development into our new grant proposal,” she explains. “It turned out to be the single best thing we’ve done.”
An Extended Learning Community
That year she worked with Glenn Kleiman, director of LNT and EDC’s Center for Online Professional Education (COPE), to tailor his online program in educational technology for her local districts. “We had five years to develop a real trainer-of-trainers model,” Peterman explains. Toward that end, Kleiman and his associates, Kirsten Johnson and Barbara Treacy, adapted their courses—originally designed for individual technology leaders—for a districtwide, team-based approach. In the first year of the program, a group of educators from Macon Ridge participated in a sequence of online workshops on educational technology. In the second year, that initial group of teachers cofacilitated the courses with the team at COPE for a new set of teachers in the districts.
Now, in the final three years, the original group of teachers are taking over the facilitation of the course altogether, and working with COPE to expand the range of online course offerings. Project Director Kleiman describes the project goals: “Our approach differs from other organizations that offer online professional development in that our focus is local capacity building—we don’t just offer online workshops; we help school district staff become online professional development specialists, and we provide online workshops that these local specialists can run to meet the needs of the teachers in their districts.”
This fall the project began its third year in Macon Ridge, and to date more than 100 teachers and administrators in the region have completed two online courses, “Finding the Best Educational Resources on the Web” and “Approaches and Tools for Developing Web-Enhanced Lessons.” Graduates from the first year are leading a new group of 50 teachers through the courses, with support from the facilitation team at COPE.
Each course is an eight-week, seminar-style workshop that teaches participants how to use the Web effectively in classrooms. Through a series of readings, online discussions, and classroom- and Web-based activities, teachers learn to evaluate Web resources, use the Internet in the curriculum, and develop their own interdisciplinary units that reflect Louisiana’s content standards.
Three years into the project, Peterman is thrilled with the results. “The teachers love it. It improves their technology skills and their knowledge of online resources—but it also improves their communication with one another. Now I have Concordia teachers sharing experiences and activities by e-mail with Morehouse teachers. It makes them part of an extended learning community—and more aware of the value of professional communities for their teaching.”
She is also seeing results in the classroom: “There’s been a real improvement in interdisciplinary teaching. The resources available on the Internet are interdisciplinary in nature, and we’re seeing our teachers make much better use of them. The teachers are able to conduct more focused and effective searches, and they’re using the new resources to create their own units and curriculum.”
A District Model Emerges
At COPE, Kleiman and his team have also been impressed with the quality of the learning and community-building taking place at the local level in Macon Ridge, turning conventional wisdom about online learning on its head. “Ironically, we’re finding that the online work is helping to build strong collaboration at the local level,” explains Treacy, who co-facilitated the courses with Johnson. “We’re seeing new face-to-face collaboration among teachers and administrators from the same district who may not have worked together or even met before.”
At the same time that the COPE staff was collaborating with Macon Ridge, they were also developing online learning opportunities for five urban school districts through the Northeast Regional Technology Consortium, a federally-funded program that supports the use of technology in urban schools. Their experience with the two projects convinced them of the wisdom of working at the district level while simultaneously using the Web to connect local educators with other teachers and national experts. “The district model allows us to develop strong local teams of technology specialists who can also be in touch with other technology teams and specialists around the country,” explains Johnson.
In fact, the need for local technology specialists is growing quickly, as close to 95 percent of the nation’s schools are now online. Yet, according to a recent study by the CEO Forum on Education & Technology, a group of business executives and educators that advocate high-tech schools, only 8 percent of current technology spending is going toward training teachers to use the equipment effectively. Kleiman shares the Forum’s concern: “Unfortunately, the rapid influx of technology into schools often runs ahead of the educational vision and careful planning necessary to put the technology to good use.”
This fall, the COPE team is bringing its model of professional development in technology to a larger audience of school districts and educational organizations with a program called EdTech Leaders™ Online (ETLO), funded in part by the AT&T Foundation. Over the course of two years, the program prepares interdisciplinary teams of teachers and administrators to become online professional development specialists in educational technology. The teams participate in an intensive training program that provides them with the skills and experience necessary for delivering online workshops to their colleagues. Once trained, the teams go on to facilitate online courses selected from the ETLO course catalogue or custom-designed to meet their own local needs. As the district personnel run the workshops, they continue to receive support and mentoring from other online professional development teams and EDC staff and consultants.
Because ETLO grew out of the lessons learned in Macon Ridge, the project emphasizes the importance of integrating online work with ongoing local professional development efforts. “We bring all the advantages of online learning to the districts, but we also encourage them to work face to face,” explains Johnson. “We’ve spent a lot of time with the districts on the phone and in e-mail exchanges—more time than we planned to. But this is important work—helping them determine things like how to pick their teams, how to ensure that team members are supported by their district’s technology and professional development departments, and helping them articulate long-term goals. One of the reasons Macon Ridge has been such a success story is because the online work is integrated into a complete professional development plan that also includes on-site technical assistance, workshops, and training. They have clear expectations about what every teacher has to do to complete the courses. They have money available for technical support and stipends for participating teachers.” Peterman agrees: “The personal, face-to-face work and the incentives are really important. As busy as teachers get, I’m not sure this would be as successful without those components.”
But does a district need a large professional development budget to succeed with a program like ETLO? “We don’t have a lot of prerequisites,” asserts Johnson. “Just Internet and e-mail access, computers, and a goal of bringing professional development in technology to the district. Most districts have all of those things.” For those districts that don’t have money available for such a program, the ETLO website offers guidance for grant-writing, and a number of districts have incorporated the ETLO program into grant proposals for professional development funding.
So far, the cost has not been prohibitive; this fall the program reached its maximum enrollment of 18 districts, along with 3 international auditors, and the waiting list for the January session is filling fast. Among those currently enrolled are several urban school districts in federal empowerment zones, including Los Angeles and Philadelphia. These districts have secured funding for the program from the AT&T Foundation, which supports their participation as part of its agenda to help address the digital divide.
As the first group of teachers from Macon Ridge begins to take over the facilitation of the courses, their mentors at COPE are confident that the teachers are up to the job. “Our goal is to build local capacity,” says Treacy. “But we’ll stay connected with the districts as they take over the reins. We are in regular e-mail contact, and we’re designing an online environment where they can communicate with other facilitators in ETLO, so they’ll be part of an ongoing community.” The COPE team has also designed a series of built-in evaluation tools to study the long-term effectiveness of the courses.
In Concordia Parish, Leinda Peterman is also optimistic as her staff begins to “fly solo” in the new medium. “I think our teachers are ready for this leadership role,” she says. “It has always been our goal to become self-sufficient with the new educational technologies. Sustainability is a big issue when you’re dealing with grants. Well, the online training we’re providing is our guarantee that the work we’re doing today will be sustained long after the grant money is gone.”
Originally published on May 31, 2000