Teachers train in new classroom: cyberspace

States experiment with web-based tools for educators to pick up 'best practices.'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In a room of blinking computers, about 30 prospective teaching "coaches" are getting a peek into the future of teacher training in America.

"I would never have thought five-year-olds could count like that," says one participant, peering at an online video of a kindergarten math class. The filmed five-year-olds, with a combination of their teacher's creativity and coercion, are counting by 10s using numbers in the millions, or even billions - and apparently even enjoying it.

Noting the exact spot in the video where the counting takes place, one video watcher types words into an online forum bulletin board: "Hey, anyone, what's the secret here? How did she pull this off?"

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The interactive and web-based video - which is accessible to thousands of teachers both at home and at school here in California and several other states - is still in its early stages of development. But, already some observers are saying that the software is proving a crucial tool for teachers to learn more effective ways of instructing. It may be the most affordable way yet for school districts to overcome a long list of hurdles - shortages of time, staff, money, coordination - that has hindered teacher training for decades.

"One of the biggest missing links in American education is seeing how our best teachers achieve results, and then passing that knowledge on to others," says James Stigler, author of two books on why and how America lags behind Japan, Taiwan, China and elsewhere in school achievement.

"The US debate on education has been so obsessed with performance and standards that we have largely overlooked the actual ways teachers and students do what they need to do in real-life classrooms."

The web-videos, now offered in various incarnations by more than a half-dozen firms, are a far cry from the current practice of watching "best practices" videos produced by self-styled experts from afar. Nor is the new technology just a means for teachers to watch more, better, or different teaching videos.

"Instead of showing teachers 'exemplary' lessons and then expecting them to copy what they see, we allow them to analyze many different demonstrations to incorporate what they want into their own classroom," says Lisle Staley, vice president of teacher learning for LessonLab Inc., a Santa Monica firm at the forefront of the new technology.

At a center for Los Angeles Unified School District, facilitators who will later train other teachers with the new software, are getting their first taste of what that means.

Logging on to a secure access website created by LessonLab, the teachers-in-training are moving their computer cursors between a split screen that has a video window on the left, and conventional text with other options on the right.

Clicking on control buttons beneath the video, the trainees peer closely at actual classroom encounters, sometimes tapping on keys to fast-forward the video or pause it so they can stop to make notes. At other times they take a minute to lob a comment into a real-time chat room with other online students. Even the teachers featured in the video can get involved. They'll be able to post permanent questions or remarks as well, as can experts around the world.

"They eliminate the old, one-stop shopping idea where you put a bunch of teachers in the cafeteria for 90 minutes after school and they don't have a chance to get to any depth," says Tim Stroud, director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers, of the online technology.

Besides the LAUSD, where hundreds of teachers are using LessonLab technology to improve math teaching, LessonLab technology is also being used by a number of school districts, and universities for mentoring, principal training, coaching, social studies and English language development. The percentage of schools hooked to the Internet in the United States is very high - 98 percent of all schools and 75 percent of individual classrooms. That multiplies the promise of numerous new ideas now being hatched here and in other states such as Connecticut, Florida.

"These applications are coming at a time when there is lots of foment in teacher training, partly because our institutions are not producing enough teachers and partly because the political arena has become more open to alternate ideas in training teachers," says Katy Haycock, director of Education Trust, a Washington D.C.-based education think tank.

Sensing an opportunity, a number of companies are racing to capture the burgeoning market in teacher training. With names like TeachScape, Scholastic Inc., or Classroom Connect, the corporations are quick to tout their competitive features. Some boast of better-quality video or different models of teacher-learning as their strengths. Others play up flexibility for partnering within companies or districts. Pearson Education, the world's largest textbook publisher, is using Lessonlab technology to build digital libraries of demonstration lessons linked to their own textbooks.

But it is the execution of these various strengths upon which the future of web-based video education rests, say observers. Just like any other technology, it is not necessarily the ability of the gadgetry that makes for needed advancement, but how such advances are used.

"Unless other things change as well, such as the organization of schools, the way curriculum is constructed, just these kinds of practical solutions are not going to change a whole lot by themselves," says Rachel Lotan, of Stanford University's teacher-education program.

There are other limitations too, including how ready, able, and willing end users are to fully understand and utilize the new technology. Some will need faster modems and Internet access, and some systems still get overloaded with too many users at once.

But those offering the new ideas say such problems pale in comparison to what can already be achieved.

"This is a new era," says Roy Pea, co-founder of TeachScape. "We've finally made the leap in understanding that teachers don't learn well from reading journal articles or workbooks, they need to see new strategies put into action with real kids that look like their own."

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