The Empowered Teacher supports professional learning communities in public and private schools with the following core offerings:
We believe a new vision for public schooling can be inspired by communities of practice (Smith, 2009) that adopt the values and practices of the open source community. This community, organized around "projects" (like Linux, Wikipedia, and Drupal) is a global collaborative network of smart people who enjoy making things of value and sharing what they know with others.
We see teaching as a similar values-driven vocation that can benefit from open source tools and collaboration models. This is an evolving idea. This way of thinking about teaching and learning is detailed in the 2010 Horizon Report on Open Content in Education.
In particular, we strive to help secondary schools (grades 5-12) adopt "Learning 2.0" practices and tools to prepare students for today's world. The NYC school district's iZone summarizes two prongs of that effort:
The iZone is an initiative worth watching. The site lists five dimensions of changes required for this mission that seem very apt foci:
It is generally understood that most young people have home access to many more forms of online communication and digital tools than traditional schools can provide, and use them for entertainment, social networking and identify formation. Schools realize that they must change with changing times, not only because of the 2.0 world they must prepare students for, but because of how their students live while they are of school age.
This does not mean catering to student preferences without regard to educational goals, but accommodating and co-opting them in ways that support school purposes. For example, turning online social networking into social learning by directing focus and guiding interactions as a home extension of classwork. This requires teachers to learn the new tools, and be able to design blended learning projects and lessons.
"Professional Development" generally focusses on individual teachers. We, rather, serve and develop learning communities within schools that have chosen to evolve new ways of working in line with what new technologies make possible. The iZones five dimensions can be condensed into three:
We lend our support to helping educators build consensus and models about how to develop Learning 2.0 in their schools. Without new models (like the faciltiation of online professional development communities) schools find this hard to do - see Bridging the Gap Between Standards and Achievement (Ellmore, 2002) cited in Bridging Differences (Meier / Ravitch Blog).
Schools are investments of human capital. We put administrators, teachers, staff and students together in buildings, organized in particular ways, to improve their ability to learn, collaborate, grow, and create artifacts of cultural value. Because the world is a moving target, schools must grow and change with changing times, requiring new organizational practices, new educational theory, and new learning environments.
Individuals naturally want to increase their own potential, follow their inner muse (if they can find it) and feel progress in their lives, alone and together. When schools oppose these drives with old ways that constrain and oppose innovation, there is strife (between boards, administrators, teachers AND students); when they tap into these desires everyone grows, learning is pleasurable, and school is fun.
Organization capital is expressed in terms of work practices that produce gains. As functional organizations, schools define roles all stakeholders (from students to board members). By working smarter, schools build better curricula, effectively implement projects, use tools well, and develop human capital.
Schools that "work smart" create functional teams as needed (from students in classrooms to stakeholders in boardrooms) and tend to decentralize control (because schools are not factories and individual learning is constrained by too much standardization). Such schools move along the continuum to becoming "learning organizations" - but this is a difficult task (see Nussbaum-Beach, Creating Learning Organizations).
Schools know that technology investments alone rarely help schools work smarter. With a willingness to explore changes in how work is done, and with appropriately timed and delivered professional development, new technologies can have profound impacts. Gains result from learning how to use a technology in the process of accomplishing goals, not in the technology itself.
Managing a project requires human, organizational and technological capital. Implementation staff use tools communicate well and follow plans and processes. New technologies enable live and stored ways to communicate and coordinate efforts, from instant messaging to file sharing, that out-perform old ways of project management when effectively used in smart ways.
"Restructuring" is a term used to describe how schools change with changing times. By weighting team coordination over central planning and empowerment over central control, schools become less bureaucratic and more effective at developing human capital. New technologies help schools restructure in many ways. For example, the Internet can bring online exemplars, teachers and learners into the school learning environment to help the process along.
Where We Come In
The Empowered Teacher is dedicated towards helping schools use "Web 2.0" technology to support "Learning 2.0" wherever appropriate. We help students, teachers and administrators learn work and learn together with online environments in ways that textbooks, standardized curricula, and sorting by age, subject and ability level could never support.
At the center of all of this is the teacher, whose vision and ability to respond to initiative and possibility determines the technological, organizational and human capital gains in the classroom and beyond.
Principal, The Empowered Teacher
The Empowered Teacher is dedicated towards helping teachers use Web 2.0 tools to support Learning 2.0 schools. Unpacking the jargon:
As instructional technology and web 2.0 experts, we help teachers "go 2.0" by using collaborative technologies for curriculum development, teaching and learning. In turn, we hope they will empower their students with the same tools. The 2010 Horizon Report on key trends in educational technology reinforces this hope / vision at the university level, but it transfers to secondary education:
The work of students is increasingly seen as collaborative by nature, and there is more cross-campus collaboration between departments. While this trend is not as widespread as the others listed here, where schools have created a climate in which students, their peers, and their teachers are all working towards the same goals, where research is something open even to first year students, the results have shown tantalizing promise.
Approaches to teaching and learning are "Student Centered" or "Curriculum Centered" to degrees. The "Inquiry Model," for example, proposes that student questions drive instruction, while a "Curriculum Standards" model says outcomes should drive it. But there are midde ways, and inviting students to collaborate online prior to the finalization of a lesson plan could be a key innovation.
An Education Week article on Project Based Learning considers the challenge of picking the right core questions for an inquiry project:
Educators at the training session invariably describe this process of crafting units as "frontloaded": The bulk of their work is performed before students are given the assignment. It involves planning, securing the materials needed for the projects, and contacting individuals who will agree to grant interviews to students and serve as resources.
"Basically, if the students are given control over most or at least part of the lesson, you're following their interest," said Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, who studies cognitive psychology in K-12 education. "You really need to know your content to evaluate whether a student idea is likely to be fruitful, or needs to be narrowed down, or they need to try something else."
We suggest that blend of classroom and online collaboration can make best use of both. For example, students can form "online focus groups" to help guide the core questions that will inform the design of a lesson days before it happens. Teachers can then respond to this feedback by designing the lesson around issue the students who responded said they cared about. This would be a radical new way to collaborate with students, empower them, and get more enthusiastic participation as a result.
Introducing the principles of collaborative design to curriculum development is behind our claim that the tools and practices of the Open Source community are relevant to teachers. More succinctly (though without the detailed richness of the model), David Kelley calls this "Design Thinking" - and he proposes "thinking like a designer" as a key objective for students, not just teachers doing curriculum development.
Prisoners of Time (1994) well documents the barriers to meeting and collaborating in person during the school day. As exciting as it would be to spend classtime planning subsequent lessons with each group of students, this would cut down the active learning time around the actual lessons prohibitively, and such a conversation would be beyond the maturity of many students. However, online tools for collaboration can make all the difference.
Today's knowledge workers use software to collaborate at a distance, across time zones, and even across languages to create useful and functional products, whether editing an online article or writing a piece of software. Teachers can do the same - with colleagues, with outside experts, and even with students. By proposing topics and methods well in advance of a unit and responding to comments and feedback, teachers can enlist the support of students who contributed their own ideas in making the lesson work.
We promote and support particular tools to make this work. We help teachers can solve the "no time to meet" problem with Open Atrium, for example, and offer training and lesson design collaboration using Skype and GoToMeeting.
Think of how empowering it was to move from telegrams to phones, from typewriters to word processing, or from postal correspondence to email. These technologies have made so much more possible in life, work, and home - even if they have had side effects. Some technologies are distractions, and some are disappointments, but the RIGHT technologies are profoundly empowering to those who know how to use them and when.
Here is what we do:
Of course there are many ways to teach that don't involve logging in to websites, and meeting face-to-face together in the same place to teach or to collaborate is a primary reason to go to a school building every day. Our position is that this particular kind of technology - Web 2.0 - can complement and extend what can be done in schools to a profound extent, and that teachers who explore these new powers will enjoy their work more, reach more students, and deepen the quality of professional collaboration in their schools and communities.
Open source developers have something to teach schools about collaboration. Like schooling, open source communities are loosely-coupled and non-commercial. However, they create highly-functional products together together -- across continents, time zones, and languages -- using tools and methods that didn't exist five years ago, and replacing top-down (Waterfall) planning with synchronized (Agile) coordination.
PLCs require five readiness conditions (Bray, 2005):
The fifth condition is can be supported by web-based groupware, removing the need for regular in-person, full-group meetings in physical spaces. Online groups are more flexible, able to accommodate changes in membership and participation levels.
An online project manager (Bray calls this role an "eCoach") can help members with new technologies, and set up the collaboration space that meets the project and people needs. For schools, an eCoach should share the commitment to educational mission, understand the values of the community and be sensitive to how schools operate.
Online project collaboration depends upon individual commitment and shared trust. Some "organizational readiness" for this kind of commitment is needed among participants of a proposed online PLC.
Here is one way we worked with a school to form professional learning communities.
Phase One: Initiation - Setting Direction
We started with planning a Superintendents Conference Day to introduce the new tools and goals. This group planning effort involved creating a Planning Intranet, and using that site to propose, define, and assess faculty interest in a range of of conference day sessions.
During the conference, sessions on Web 2.0 technology integration ("blended learning"), project development, technology planning, and other related topics were offered. These topics worked together to prepare teachers who might form a professional learning community and collaborate on shared projects.
Phase Two: Online Community Building
Following the Conference Day, we worked to nurture an online community, providing the following support services:
Making the most of the initial investment, we also worked with school administrators to nurture readiness condiions for an effective online PLC.
Phase Three: Collaborative Projects
Based on the interests and level of commitment of teachers participating in the Intranet, we co-developed a proposal for a set of In-Service / Professional Learning Community projects. These projects required individual teacher commitments to goals and timelines, and included the following interconnected strands:
Phase Four: Evaluation and Sharing
Students completed online project response questionnaires which we co-developed with teachers. Their responses, along with online work, project plans, and other materials, are collected for an "action research report" shared with the rest of the faculty via the Planning Intranet, setting goals for extension and expansion.
We also encourage teachers to join us in sharing versions of these reports in educational technology conferences.
We provide Superintendent Conference Day planning, support and training, followed by online professional developing and project development support to teachers and teams. Our focus is teaching models that integrate in-class and online activities. To help develop the online environments that support this focus, we also offer technology planning development (expert advice, project management and team facilitation) and school intranet support (hosting, design, management and maintenance of file servers running web-based applications).
These services can be engaged separately, or as a comprehensive and complete partnership. Our services are billable hourly, by project, or by term. Each situation requires its own scope of work and associated but, but the following fee schedule is indicative:
The following are technology professional development projects that brought Learning 2.0 to one or more classrooms. Each includes a reference letter.
EXAMPLE 2: The Spanish Cultural Exchange Project began by identifying an international classroom partner, securing mini-grant funding, and connecting via videoconferences and forums. The first activity was teacher driven - creating webquest projects for partner comment. The second was student driven - making videos about life in their respective schools and communities, shared over videoconference for reactions.
REFERENCE: Jennifer Bentivegna-li, lead teacher for the project: jennifer.pdf, attached.
DESCRIPTION: Working with early adopters of instrucitonal technology to design, implement, and evaluate model projects, and seek funding for their replication and expansion.
EXAMPLE: The Oaxaca Project is cultural exchange project between 4th grade students in Poughkeepsie, NY and the residents of San Agustin, a small village near Oaxaca. After local news stories of a San Augustinian community in Poughkeepsie, our project design took advantage of community interest to secure a grant from IBM to send teachers and a computer (with dial-up Internet) to the Mexican town. A bulletin board sustained shared communication, and students collaborated on a website and a move about life in their school.
REFERENCE: Valerie Carlisle, lead teacher for the project: valerie.pdf, attached.
DESCRIPTION: Teachers form project development teams, learn software and collaboratory tools, interact with experts, and create projects they will implement in the coming year.
EXAMPLE: The Design Studio model was developed by the Institute for Learning Technologies (ILT), Teachers College based on the work of the Columbia University School of Architecture. Two funded school/university partnerships - The Living Schoolbook and the Harlem Environmental Access Project - funded stipends, equipment, speakers and staffing to support teachers from different schools in 1-2 week workshops.
REFERENCE: Pat Nicholson, supervisor during development of this model: pat.pdf, attached.
DESCRIPTION: Teachers, students, administrators, parents and other stakeholders form a Technology Planning Committee, learn collaboratory tools, interact with experts, and create technology plans for their teams, grades, or schools. Plans stress focus on commitments to process rather than specific end-results, because this is a moving target.
EXAMPLE: We are currently working with the Springs School District (Long Island, NY) on a new 5-year technology plan. Ostensibly to re-qualify for E-Rate funding, this plan will focus on taking the work of "Pioneers" (teacher who integrate technology without in-school guidance), "Early Adopters" (those who have been working with us this year on Learning 2.0 projects) and moving towards circles of consensus. Disparate projects hosted on various outside sites will be moved to the Collaboratory, depended and shared.
REFERENCE: Michael Hartner, superintendent: see hartner.pdf, attached.
PROJECT EXAMPLE: Civil War Personas
Students took on the personae of Civil War era historical figures to debate the merits of slavery through letters to the editor. We created two online newspapers, one pro-slavery (The Guardian) and one abolitionist (The Liberator) and uploaded articles from the period to inspire comment. Students commented on the newspapers that espoused opposite views, and then responded to letter-to-the-editor comments made to the papers that espoused their own.
The tools and materials schools choose convey values, like the artifacts of any culture. When these choices become traditions that no longer reflect the changing face of technology and those who use it, schools may alienate new teachers and students, and waste money.
Sometimes values cannot help but conflict. No student, and not many teachers, appreciates internet filtering when a search engine lists what looks like a perfect page that eludes access, but few parents would accept students having unblocked access to pornography.
Sometimes relationships with software vendors or school support services may lead to bad choices, made without an appropriate pre-purchase evaluation, or outside expert advice. However, few outside experts come without their own technology values. As educational technology experts, we consult with school districts on technology plans, but with two biases:
This said, every situation is different, and there are many stages along the continuum to empowerment.
Because teachers rarely visit the classrooms of any but their closest colleagues, an online environment for sharing ideas, making project plans, showcasing student work and evaluating what works can bridge communication and diffusion between "pioneers" and "settlers" of the digital world. As more teachers derive a sense of community from their online interactions, man of the constraints of the school schedule and physical spaces on individual, team and school management articulated in "Prisoners of Time" fall away.
The planning, management and support of a school Intranet to support teaching, learning, and administration is therefore a core infrastructure need for 21st century schools.
The Empowered Teacher offers a model of hosted and supported Intranet services to schools we work with. By adopting an intranet (servers controlled by the school), communications and resources can be made public or private on a case-by-case basis, responsive to changing situations. In contract, by promoting the use of cloud computing tools and outside services (like GoogleDocs or WikiSpaces), schools cede control.
In place of commercial software (with notable exceptions like Inspiration, Filemaker Pro, and Adobe products), we value:
This combination of culture (open source), technology (web 2.0) and platform (Drupal) make for a highly functional work environment that can flexibly adapt to the needs and goals of your school. Learn more about the relationship between Technology and Collaboration.
The time, attention, and/or money involved in coordinating the work of people in an organization are termed "transaction costs" (Shirky, 2008). In the "fishbowl" politics of many schools, a fourth cost - political and social capital - may loom larger than the rest. When there is a risk of high cost, collaboration opportunities are not taken; when costs escalate, efforts are abandoned, and closed-door classrooms result.
When collaboration efforts have been abandoned in the past, new ones are that much harder to initiate. It is imiportant to keep costs down while ensuring a positive experience. New technological capital can lower transaction costs by reducing the need for close coordination between colleagues, but organizational capital (effective training and facilitation, trusted administrative support) are equaliiy important.
The Empowered Teacher bring the best tools and practices of the open source community to schools, informed by decades of technology planning and professional development work with diverse districts. Together, we can make your next professional learning community project effective, empowering, and low-stress.
Engaging faculty in the creation of online learning communities, given their busy schedules and the stress of learning new things that will be time-drains, requires clarity around goals and methods. Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations calls these Promises, Tools, and Bargains, and puts the bargain last, because the bargain matters only if there is a promise and a set of tools that are already working together.
Promise. The promise is the reason why we join or contribute to an online group.
Tool. The online group tool determines how the media will work.
Bargain. The bargain sets standards of behavior and norms for and by the group.
The Empowered Teacher supports the formation of online professional learning communities with custom intranet tools designed for the work at hand.
“A collaboratory is more than an elaborate collection of information and communications technologies; it is a new networked organizational form that also includes social processes; collaboration techniques; formal and informal communication; and agreement on norms, principles, values, and rules” (Derrick Cogburn, 2003).
Our Collaboratory is a hosted (or supported, if your school has a LAMP server) solution built with Drupal, an open source project. It is the foundation of our work with schools.
There are two ways to talk about Intranets: as physical computer networks (see left) and as community information.In both cases, a distinction is made between public information (the Internet) and private information (an intranet).
Websites can have public and private content (requiring a log-in to access the private). When the logins are granted based on in a community (like a school), the site is called an "intra-net", just as activities inside a school's walls are called "intra-mural". However, an Intranet does not have to be inside a school's walls. Ideally anyone who has a role to play in a school should be able to log in to the school's Intranet from home to access their school files, communicate and work together.
People who have an interest in what happens in schools are called "stakeholders", and these include administrators (who want to help the school function), teachers (who want to provide educational value), students (who want valuable experiences), parents (who want their children to succeed) and community (experts helping teachers, businesses who help with projects).
The nature of each of these roles can imply differences in access to information, software, and collaborative groups involved in learning and working together. These are not the same from school to school, however, and a "one size fits all" Intranet can stifle creativity, innovation, and effectiveness. On the other hand, having every school build their own Intranet from scratch makes other problems.
From the perspective of classroom learning, the community of an Intranet can be a great audience for student publishing. Schools need to be very careful about what they make public about their students, but with the community students should not be anonymous: administrators may want their students to be celebrated for achievements, teachers may want their students work to be appreciated by parents, and students may want to get help when they have difficulties, and praised when they succeed.
The Empowered Teacher model for Intranets is made up of two different websites. The "sandbox" is a place where all stakeholders figure out what information, software and groups should be created to support student learning and other school functions that do not belong on the public website everyone can see. When a teacher introduces an assignment in class, students go home and work on it, connect with each other to develop projects, and submit their work so that teachers can comment on it, the "sandbox" is what they use.
The other website is like an online teacher center, where projects are developed and teachers study and work together in what are sometimes called "professional learning communities". We call this the "collaboratory" because it is a place teachers collaborate on activities that will then be put on the sandbox for students and other stakeholders to use. The "collaboratory" is also classroom for teachers to learn how to use new technologies and other "in-service" topics that keep their professional skill and knowledge up to date.
Our work with schools begins with the setup, user training, facilitation and management of two customized intranet sites. Taken together, these tools form the key pieces of a "collaborative online laboratory" to create professional learning communities and host learning 2.0 projects.
The Empowered Teacher is a partner company to Game Face Web Design, a Drupal development company that also hosts and supports Moodle. As Drupal experts, our added value is highest in that platform. If your school has already selected a different tool for some of these functions (like Mahara or GoogleDocs), we will adapt. In addition to the two Drupal intranets, we rely on other tools to supplement text-based collaboration:
As your district gains familiarity with Drupal, you may opt to develop in-house ability to build sites. We can then add the following to sites to the package:
But the key to all of this work is the planning site (based on Drupal's Open Atrium distribution) and the Sandbox Site (which is utterly pliable, depending on the scope and depth of blended learning at your school).
|Tool||Our Version||Use Case|
|Wiki||Atrium Notebook||Online documents easily printed to paper or PDF, used to outline project plans, list curricular standards, and develop common assessments.|
|Discuss plans, coordinate implementation, reflect on results. Communication begins with a post, continues in threaded comments.|
|To Do||Atrium Casetracker||Create projects and cases. Each case is assigned to a person, given a category and a priority, and associated with comment threads for clarification and updates.|
|MicroBlog||Atrium Shoutbox||A quick note to the members of project or the entire community; can also be sent to Twitter or Email.|
The Sandbox Site is a structured Drupal site, customized for your school. It is connected to the Planning site by shared Teacher accounts. When teachers implement projects developed through the Planning Site, they determine which students, outside experts, and others will be participants.
Without logging in, it is impossible to see any student work, in accordance with COPA regulations. Once logged in, users can see whichever projects they have been given access to, and participate at whatever level they are invited. The school has complete control over the environment.
We may also employ other Drupal distributions, such as ProsePoint (for online newpapers), or develop custom subdomains (for curriculum mapping), as required by client needs.
At the end of a project, teacher and student work may be edited and prepared for sharing on the schools Public Site. If that site is also a Drupal site, content can be exported and imported easily.
Develop, Implement, and Evaluate a Learning 2.0 project as "Action Research"
Projects are organized around "Inquiry Learning" and "Understanding By Design" principles - using student inquiry as a starting point for learning activities organized around "Core Quesions":
The following model assumes a project collaboration between districts and central coordinating agency ("Coordinator") organizing, coordinating, and providing services.
Design Studios bring together teachers, technologists, content experts, and students for extended, multi-session workshops on the development of curricular applications of networked multimedia. Each Studio includes a series of lecturers to provide substantive content, mixed with time for hands-on work with computers.
Teachers find Studios most successful when content-based development strategies are the primary focus, along with best practices for employing collaborative technologies for researching and designing learning activities together. What participants learn to do in a Design Studio they can then more effectively model and support in a 1:1 environment back at school.
Design Studio activities include:
Beyond the two-week intensive, a Design Studio initiates an annual "action research" cycle of development, implementation, documentation, evaluation and mini-conference sharing, with technical assistance provided throughout as-needed.
Design Studios are not "standalone events", but the result of a commitment to an annual cycle of project research, development, implementation and evaluation. What happens BEFORE the Design Studio matters almost as much as what happens AFTER.
The capacity of the Design Studio to inspire exploration and experimentation is due to its intense concentration of resources, both human and electronic, and the ease and informality of the work space during the two-week period. To maintain some of this collaborative design culture after the end of the intensive, the activity and energy of Studio work groups are sustained online through collaboration and project management technologies like GoToMeeting, Google Applications and Basecamp. Below is a diagram of the stages of a Studio Cycle.
For more information, consult the attached PDF.
NOTE: The Teachers College Institute for Learning Technologies first developed the Design Studio model to implement, according to constructivist principles, real-world projects using multimedia and network technologies to enable sophisticated learning environments, and to sponsor exploratory development and participatory design efforts to discover and document the potential of emerging technologies to transform public education.