What happens when teachers use mobile devices to connect to peers and mentors? This question is the driving force behind the Teachers Learning in Networked Communities 2.0 project that the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) launched this school year as an extension of the Teachers Learning in Networked Communities (TLINC) project.
For more than six years, TLINC has supported partnerships with universities and school districts across the country that focus on teacher preparation. TLINC recognizes that teachers entering the workforce today are used to being part of networked communities outside of school and works to bring that connectedness inside schools. TLINC provides a real-time, 24-hours-a-day/7-days-a-week support network of peers, mentors, higher education faculty, and accomplished classroom veterans. New teachers experience a strong start because they are inducted into professional learning communities that blend face-to-face and online collaboration. This school year, with the support of Qualcomm’s Wireless Reach initiative and partnerships with Kajeet for Education, edWeb.net, and HTC, NCTAF has distributed 200 mobile devices (HTC smartphones and tablets) to teacher candidates at five partner universities, enabling TLINC to “go mobile.”
As with any innovation, our “going mobile” implementation has been exciting, but the process has not been without bumps along the way. Some of the bumps have been great learning moments about the ways schools are organized and what needs to be changed so that professional learning communities of networked teachers can be supported.
There have been some successes in terms of how teacher candidates can use tablets and smartphones to improve their clinical teaching experiences, including having access to e-mail and edWeb.net, the social learning network for TLINC’s online communities; capturing video footage of lessons that are then sent to their clinical faculty at the university; and communicating with peers, mentors, and cooperating teachers. One student teacher at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) described how she was able to record her students (all English language learners [ELLs]) reading aloud. She played the recording back for one of her university professors, who was then able to help her plan some lessons that addressed the sounds that the students were having trouble pronouncing. Another student teacher, also at UTEP, called her tablet her “teacher toolkit,” talking energetically about how she’d been able to download several of the textbooks she needed. She added that she’d made digital flashcards that she used to quiz herself and the other student teachers at her school as they prepared for exams.
During the pilot, three sets of challenges have emerged. The first is the lack of access that school districts provide to nondistrict personnel. A principal goal of both TLINC 1.0 and TLINC 2.0 is to build closer connections between teacher preparation programs and the districts they serve to create seamless preparation and practice. The importance of this goal was underscored when our partner universities told us that districts’ Wi-Fi networks weren’t accessible to student teachers. This is important because the data-heavy work, such as sending video files, needs to be done by means of Wi-Fi because it’s much faster and cheaper than using a mobile network. NCTAF sees this challenge as an area ripe for targeted policy development between colleges of education and their partnering school districts. The conventional understanding of the teaching profession as a solo, artisan practice will change only when both teacher preparation institutions and districts can manage the logistics necessary for teachers to leverage technology’s connective power.
The second set of challenges pertains to engaging college of education faculty members in this networked community supported by advanced mobile technologies. TLINC strives to create a collaborative culture in teacher preparation programs by facilitating collaboration among preservice and novice teachers, supervising teachers, and university faculty in blended face-to-face and online communities of support. We have built a community of site directors who meet online (synchronously and asynchronously). This online forum provides a productive space for faculty to discuss successes and challenges in implementing TLINC. After a slow start, this cross-site collaboration has blossomed, and there is evidence of similar growth within cohorts of teacher candidates who are doing their clinical internships in the same school. Now, however, we need to expand this community forum and engagement to all college of education faculty members who will then be able to collaborate with their students in the use of mobile devices.
The third set of challenges relates to a feeling of “device fatigue” among teacher candidates. Many student teachers already have mobile devices. Why would they use another one? This question is valid. On a practical level, we felt that, for the purposes of evaluating how student teachers used advanced mobile technologies, it would be better if the devices had the same functionality. Our initial thinking was that the shift toward the more collaborative approach that NCTAF is trying to facilitate would be strengthened considerably if participants had devices dedicated to professional learning.
This leads back to one of TLINC’s goals: to develop educators who are ready to enter a networked profession. Think about a businesswoman who works as part of a team and is expected to be in contact with colleagues through a variety of methods. By providing her with professional tools, her company sends a clear message. NCTAF asserts that the same should hold true for teachers and teacher candidates. Achieving this expectation is, in fact, a TLINC 2.0 project goal. We are working to determine which devices and strategies are most useful to student teachers—our preliminary conversations indicate that students find that tablets are useful for staying organized and keeping in touch with colleagues and, unlike phones, do not duplicate functionality.
Professional learning communities are designed to tap into teachers’ desire for professional development targeted to their needs. Mobile devices have the potential to extend that vision, and they will do so when teachers are supported in learning and working as members of a team. We all need to put our heads together to empower our newest teachers in the connective practice that strengthens and benefits professionals working in other sectors.
Sofia Rivkin-Haas is a program manager at the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.