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Effective Inservice: Ask Dr. Dave

The materials in this section are from the following book:

Moursund, D.G. (1989). Effective Inservice for Integrating Computer-As-Tool Into the Curriculum. Eugene, OR: ISTE.

This book focuses on Computer Integrated Instruction (CII)--the full integration of information technology (IT) into the regular classroom. While much of the book is out of date, most of the ideas presented in Chapter 2.3 have stood the test of time.


Chapter 2.3
Questions and Answers: Ask Dr. Dave

This chapter contains a number of questions that are frequently raised by computer-integrated instruction inservice providers. For each question I give a discussion of the underlying ideas and an analysis designed to help you formulate an answer appropriate to your inservice situation. You should be aware that there is a substantial difference between the "theoretical best" way to design and present an inservice, and the reality of what most inservice providers face. Generally speaking, an actual inservice in a carefully orchestrated collection of compromises. As with all teaching, you take advantage of your strengths and you do your best under the circumstances.

Q1. What are your major goals when you organize and run a workshop?

I always hold three goals in mind.

  1. (For Myself) I expect to learn, to grow, and to have fun from the workshop.
  2. (For Participants) I expect participants will learn and grow from the experience of being in the workshop. They will be facilitated in making changes to their knowledge, attitudes, and skills that are relevant to improving their teaching.
  3. (For Students) I expect that our educational system will be better, and that students will get a better education, as a consequence of my organizing and facilitating a workshop. That is, I expect that participants will make changes in what they teach and how they teach it.

Notice that I have considerable control over the first goal, less control over the second goal, and even less control over the third goal. With this set of goals, there is always room for improvement.

Q2. In your opinion, what is the most effective type of inservice?

I like to think of two general categories of inservice. First, there is the traditional large group inservice. Here a group of teachers come together in a class-like setting, and they receive instruction from an inservice facilitator. This can be successful if it is carefully done and if adequate follow-up support is available. There is a substantial body of research literature on how to design and conduct an effective large group inservice.

A second approach, which I believe is far more effective on average, is one-on-one inservice conducted in the participant's school--indeed, in his or her classroom. Most often in this case the inservice facilitator is a fellow teacher within the school building or school district. The overall activity may consist of the following sequence of events:

  1. A teacher approaches the inservice facilitator and indicates a desire to learn.
  2. The teacher and inservice facilitator discuss the general area of desirable knowledge, attitude, and skills, that might be expected as an outcome of working in this area, why it is important, how long it might take, what each might contribute to the process, etc.
  3. The inservice facilitator models the desired behavior, either in the teacher's classroom or with some other set of students. The teacher participates as a student.
  4. The teacher spends time learning the skills through study and practice, and receives the needed help from the inservice facilitator.
  5. The teacher practices the desired behavior in his or her classroom, with the inservice facilitator serving as an assistant and as a source of feedback.
  6. The teacher spends additional time studying the new material and lesson plans provided by the inservice facilitator, and may work on modifying these lesson plans. Help is available as needed from the inservice facilitator.
  7. The teacher tries out the new lessons in his or her classroom.
  8. Additional help is available from the inservice facilitator as needed.

At first glance, this approach to inservice education appears to be much more expensive than the large group, traditional approach. However, it is much more likely to produce the desired change in a teacher. Moreover, it is possible to organize a school's faculty so that this type of inservice is commonplace and may have very little cost. The idea is that every teacher in a school building should have some inservice responsibilities. That is, every teacher should have one or more areas of inservice expertise. As part of their professional responsibility, they are to remain current in their inservice specialty areas and to provide one-on-one inservice to their fellow teachers. School and district inservice funds are provided to help each individual teacher develop and maintain their areas of inservice expertise.

Some schools use this approach to inservice. It builds a high level of professionalism and collegiality. However, this approach to inservice is by far the exception, rather than the rule. Thus, the remainder of this chapter focuses on traditional, large group inservice.

Q3. What are some of the major failings in traditional large group inservice for integrating computer as a tool into the curriculum?

There are many flaws in the design of most such inservices. Her are a few of them:

  1. The inservice is not based on an adequate needs assessment, with the needs assessment firmly rooted in long-range planning for computer use in schools.
  2. Often a "one shot" approach is used, or there is only a very limited amount of inservice available. Research suggests that one shot inservices are rarely effective. Change literature suggests that educational change takes a long time and substantial effort. Generally it takes a great deal more inservice than is provided, and it needs to be spread out over a period of years.
  3. Most CII inservice does not provide adequate follow-up support.
  4. Most CII inservice focuses almost entirely on helping teachers learn to use the particular computer tool under consideration. Little or no time is provided to study needed changes in the curriculum, learn to deal with new classroom organization and management situations, develop and critique lesson plans, etc.
  5. Most CII inservices focus on single individuals (one person per school, or one per school district) rather than concentrating attention on a critical mass of teachers in a single school. It is essential to define the educational unit of change (large department, a grade level, a school) and have a critical mass of inservice participants from that unit.
  6. Most CII inservice does not have realistic expectations for desired outcomes. For example, an elementary school teacher is taught how to do process writing in a word processing environment. But there are only four computers in that teacher's school. Or, a secondary school math teacher is taught how to use a spreadsheet to present a variety of math topics and solve a variety of problems. But the computer lab in the teacher's school is at the other end of the building and is heavily scheduled for computer programming and computer literacy classes. Also, the school's mathematics instructional focus is dominated by the state mandated standardized tests, and computers cannot be used on these tests.
  7. The nature and extent of the handout material is inadequate. The actual inservice time is quite short. Handout materials should be designed to help make maximum use of that time. Inservice participants are expected to carry what they are learning back to their own classrooms. Thus, sample lesson plans are important. Inservice participants are expected to continue to learn on their own after the inservice ends. The handout materials should facilitate further, independent learning.
  8. There is little or no direct support from the school administration or school district administration. (Research strongly supports the contention that little classroom change is apt to occur without such explicit support.)

This list could easily be extended. The major point is that there is a lot of room for improvement. We should not be surprised by the fact that previous CII inservice has not been particularly effective in producing change in our schools.

Q4. In light of the previous question and answers, might we be better off if we just quite offering computer inservices? Perhaps they are doing more harm than good. Perhaps the CII inservice effort would better be spent addressing some other school issue.

This is a hard question to respond to. I suspect every computer inservice facilitator can point to both successes and failures. Sometimes a failure has long term consequence--a teacher is turned off from computers for many years.

Moreover, many of the successes may be the early adopters--the small percentage of teachers who are very quick to learn new ideas and to integrate their use into the classroom. Thus, there is some basis for asking whether we should discontinue the major push on CII inservice.

However, I feel this would be a major mistake. The key issue is that the computer as a tool is of growing importance in our society, and for educated people who make use of their education. Computers are at the heart of the technological change that is driving our society. Our schools have just barely scratched the surface of the educational problem of tool uses of computers. All of the inservice that has been done so far is a tiny percentage of what needs to be done. We know how to do effective CII inservice. There are many teachers who are qualified to be effective CII inservice providers. I am confident that carefully designed and appropriately facilitated CII inservices will do far more good than harm, and they will help to improve our educational system.

Q5. How can I get to be an inservice provider?

Here are three answers. I am sure that you can think of others.

  1. Find someone who is a very good inservice provider who does the types of inservices you want to learn to do. Participate in that person's workshop. Then participate a second time, but as a volunteer assistant. (You may need to participate still a third time, as an assistant who is taking on a substantial amount of the responsibility of facilitating the inservice.) Then you are ready to try it on your own.
  2. Take a course on how to organize and run an effective inservice. As part of the homework for that course, organize and run a short inservice under the supervision of course participants and the course instructor.
  3. Get yourself put into a position where you are committed to doing an inservice. For example, when you see that teachers in your school or district would benefit from an inservice covering topics that you know quite well, volunteer to organize and facilitate such an inservice. (Typically you should not expect to be paid for this work. The first couple of times you do an inservice you will probably learn more than the participants.)

Q6. How much time should I expect to spend to prepare for an inservice presentation?

I assume that you are highly knowledgeable and experienced in the topic area of the inservice. How much time it takes to be adequately prepared varies substantially with the nature of the content to be presented, the nature and quantity of handouts, and so on. Roughly speaking, you should plan on spending 10-20 hours preparing for each hour of inservice the first time you do a particular inservice. The second time you do the same inservice plan on spending about 5-10 hours of preparation time for each hour of inservice. Subsequent presentations of the same inservice may require 2-4 hours of preparation for each hour of inservice.

Of course, there are some professionals who do the same inservice over and over again. Indeed, some make a living from offering a small repertoire of inservices. The preparation time in this case gradually decreases. Even here, however, it is highly desirable to spend a reasonable amount of time examining new ideas, new materials, and ways to improve the inservice.

Q7. What are necessary or desirable qualifications to be a good computer-integrated instruction (CII) inservice facilitator?

This question is too broad to give a really good answer. However, a good answer would address several major areas:

  1. Teaching and inservice facilitation skills. The inservice facilitator should be a good teacher and should be especially skilled in working with his or her peers. "People" skills, good interpersonal skills, are essential. For CII inservice, a good balance between "high-tech" and "high-touch" characteristics is highly desirable.
  2. Knowledge of the inservice topic. The inservice facilitator should be highly knowledgeable and experienced in the topic of the inservice. A broad based background, much broader than just the topic to be covered, is highly desirable.
  3. Leadership for educational change. The inservice facilitator should be an experienced educator and an educational leader with a vision of how CII will lead to better and more appropriate education for students.

Q8. What is an appropriate balance between hands-on and off machine activities in a CII inservice?

Any inservice should be designed to accomplish specific educational objectives. If the goal is to change the classroom teaching behavior of the participants, then the inservice should be carefully designed to help participants learn the behavior that is expected of them and to practice the desired behavior.

For a CII inservice, the underlying goal is for participants to return to their classrooms and integrate tool uses of computers. This requires a change in course content and philosophy, as well as having students actually learn to use computers. Surveys of CII inservice participants suggest that they most prefer that approximately 2/3 to 3/4 of an inservice be spent in a hands-on mode. However, chances are that this is far too much time to spend in that mode. It leaves too little time for working on the changes in course content and underlying philosophy that are essential parts of the desirable classroom change.

Remember, a good inservice session includes most or all of the following:

  1. An overview presentation of the general topic and underlying theory.
  2. Demonstration of desired performance.
  3. Participants learn to use the materials and practice using them.
  4. Participants discuss potential applications in their classrooms, how the CII tool being studied fits in with their curriculum, and how it leads to changes of their curriculum.
  5. Participants practice working with materials that the will use as they implement their new knowledge and skills in the classroom.
  6. (Of course, a good inservice also has follow-up activities, but that is not pertinent to this particular discussion.)

A careful analysis of the above considerations suggests that there will often be a conflict between the desires of participants and the best judgment of the facilitator. The inservice facilitator should be aware that the actually inservice meeting time is quite limited and should strongly encourage participants to do some of the needed computer practice on their own, outside of the formal inservice meetings times. However, the inservice facilitator should also be aware that teachers are very busy and many have difficulty finding the necessary time to practice what is being covered in the inservice.

Q9. How important is it that inservice participants develop collegiality and a peer support system?

Collegiality and peer support are very important. Research suggests that inservice is more effective if it focuses on a specific educational unit such as a large department, a school, or a school district as a unit of change. Once a unit of change has been determined, it is very important to get the educators in that unit to work together to accomplish the change.

We also know that teachers very much like to observe other teachers performing the desired behavior with students in their regular classrooms (visit other teachers' classrooms, or have other teachers come to their classroom and demonstrate). This is facilitated by having a number of teachers from a school be involved in an inservice.

Q10. I notice that you emphasize discovery-based methods of instruction in your workshops. Why, and how does this relate to effective CII inservice?

The computer is a very powerful aid to problem solving. Problem solving is a higher-order skill, one that involves careful thinking, persistence, taking the initiative, being independent, etc. These are all characteristics that are fostered through discovery-based learning. In my inservice facilitation, I attempt to model the behavior that I want inservice participants to learn.

The CII inservice facilitator is a key educational change agent. Many of the changes that would make education better are not centered around computers. Discovery-based learning provides a good example. Whether or not computers are available to students, discovery-based learning is very important. The CII facilitator then has the opportunity to simultaneously focus on two key topics--discovery-based learning and computer tools.

This illustrates why it is important that the CII facilitator be an experienced and highly knowledgeable educator. The CII inservice is a vehicle for simultaneously addressing computer issues and a number of other topics related to school improvement.

Q11. Can you give me another example of how you use the time in a CII inservice to teach a non-computer topic?

I think my favorite example is WAIT TIME. The research on wait time strongly suggests that most teachers don't give students enough time to think before calling on a students. Indeed, the typical teacher asks a question to the class and then waits for less than a second before calling on a student volunteer. That isn't enough time for a student to formulate a deep answer. Rather, this type of teacher behavior fosters rote learning of lower-order skills.

Thus, in my CII inservices I deliberately provide a long wait time whenever I have the opportunity to do so. Also, I openly discuss the need for such a long wait time, and how it contributes to developing higher-order skills.

Incidentally, there is good evidence that most teachers call on volunteers far too often. More and better learning occurs if the teacher calls on volunteers only a small percentage of the time. The CII inservice facilitator should model such appropriate behavior.

Still another example is provided by cooperative learning. The research literature in support of cooperative learning is very solid. Thus, cooperative learning techniques should be used in CII inservices. Their use and value should be made explicit to CII inservice participants.

Q12. Is it all right to mix elementary school and secondary school teachers in a CII inservice? What about mixing teachers from a broad range of secondary school disciplines?

While this is frequently done, it is most often a mistake. Think for a minute about the basic goal in a CII inservice. It is to have the participant learn to integrate tool use of computers into their classrooms. The classrooms and teaching situations of elementary school teachers are quite different from those of secondary school teachers. The elementary school teacher has a self contained classroom and deals with the same set of students all day, for the entire school year. The secondary school teacher deals with five or six times as many students in a single day, and may see new sets of students at the start of each new semester or trimester.

The inservice facilitator needs to establish close rapport with participants. The facilitator needs to understand the teaching situations faced by participants and to directly address these teaching situations. A substantial amount of the instruction needs to focus on lesson plans suited to the needs of participants, as well as classroom management, changes in the curriculum, etc. that CII brings about. For these and other reasons it is highly desirable to have homogeneous groups of inservice participants.

Q13. Should the inservice sessions be held in the participants' schools?

The general inservice research literature suggests that it is desirable to conduct inservice sessions in the schools of the participants. This increases the credibility of the inservice and makes it easier for participants to transfer their new knowledge and skills from the inservice setting to their classroom settings. This is particularly true if the school computer lab is similar to that which most of the participants have in their own schools -- which would certainly be true if all participants are from one school and the inservice is done in that school.

However, there are many reasons why computer-integrated inservice is often conducted at other sites. For example, the nature and amount of computer facility available at school sites may be inadequate and inappropriate for the nature and number of participants. The location of school computer labs might not be as convenient as the location of a district inservice center computer lab. The participants may come from widely varying schools with widely varying computer facilities, so that no school computer lab is representative of the facilities that most of the participants face in their particular schools.

In any event, site selection is important. An inservice should be held in a facility that is conducive to learning. It is easy to give examples of poor facilities. These include facilities that are too cold or too hot, too noisy, have poor seating arrangements, are difficult for teachers to get to, and so on. Most inservice facilitators have themselves participated in a large number of inservices. The inservice facilitator should ask "Would I be happy participating in an inservice in these facilities?"

Q14. How important is it that participants in a CII inservice be volunteers?

At first glance it seems evident that more learning will occur, and that there is increased chance that participants will make use of what they learn, if they are volunteers.

However, I am not aware of any solid research literature that backs up this position. Moreover, it is difficult to define what one might mean by a "volunteer." For example, suppose that an inservice coordinator for a large school district has just enough resources to offer a particular inservice to teachers in three schools. The inservice coordinator may ask for schools to volunteer. If a principal volunteers a school, does that make the teachers volunteers? Suppose that the requirement is that at least 10 teachers participate from a school. If five teachers initially volunteer and manage to coerce five of their colleagues to volunteer, are the latter five actually volunteers?

The literature on volunteer participation is also mixed because a good inservice can easily change a participant from an unwilling to a willing participant status. Many (most) teachers feel uncomfortable when they are placed in a position of being expected to learn a lot of new material and ideas, and then implement it in their classrooms. But once they make some progress in doing so, most teachers feel quite good about themselves and are motivated to continue their progress.

Q15. What can you tell me about when to hold an inservice, how long the sessions should be, when to have breaks, how long breaks should be, and so on. Also, what about refreshments, and who provides them?

To a large extent the answer is "Use common sense." Most inservice facilitators have themselves participated in a large number of inservices. They know what they like, so they know what their fellow teachers like. However, her are a few specific suggestions.

  1. No matter what time you schedule an inservice, it will not be the most convenient time for many of the participants. In the needs assessment phase before the inservice begins, you can gather information about times that will be absolutely impossible for potential participants and times that have historically proven acceptable. Don't make the mistake of scheduling an inservice at a very bad time such as the afternoon or evening of the day before end of term grades are due.
  2. An inservice session might be as short as an hour or as long as a full day plus evening. To the extent possible, the length of a session should be appropriate to the nature of the content. For example, a one hour session is probably too short for most hands-on inservices. Sessions longer than three hours are too long if the material is vertically structures--that is, if the material builds on material covered earlier in the session.
  3. Provide three distinct types of breaks:
    1. Change of pace and change of topic breaks. As a rough rule of thumb, these might occur every 15-25 minutes. This type of break may be as short as a few seconds.
    2. Refreshment and rest room breaks. As a rough rule of thumb, these might occur every 1 1/2 -2 hours and be 15-20 minutes long. They provide time for collegiality, and that is very important.
    3. Lunch/dinner breaks. Time can be saved by bring lunch or dinner into an inservice session. But it is important that the break be long enough to provide a major change of pace (let the brain cells rest a bit) and time for collegiality.
  4. Refreshments are very important. Perhaps ideally, a good range of appropriate refreshments would be available as participants arrive, and would continue to be available throughout the inservice session. The nature of appropriate refreshments seems to vary in different parts of the country. However, in addition to coffee with and without caffeine, tea, juices, and soda pop are usually welcome. Fruit, cheese, and crackers are often much to be preferred over donuts and cookies.

If an inservice is to have a sequence of sessions, participants can be organized to provide their own refreshments. Indeed, if the inservice facilitator is cleaver enough, a competition can be started between various groups of participants, so that refreshments will get better and better as the sequence of inservice sessions progresses.

Q16. Is it necessary to have an assistant when doing a hands-on inservice?

Hands-on inservices are difficult to do. The reason is simple. It is nearly impossible (and probably not desirable) to lockstep a number of participants, keeping all of them exactly in the same place as they examine a piece of software. Even with carefully written directions, in just a few minutes participants will be doing a wide range of different things, many totally unrelated to the set of directions they are supposed to be following. As they run into trouble, they will begin to ask questions. Many of the questions will not easily or appropriately be answered by the statement "Just read and follow your handout." Instead, individual attention must be paid to a number of participants.

Thus, the need for one or more assistants is evident. But these do not necessarily have to be paid assistants who are officially serving as assistant facilitators. For example, in most inservices there are some participants who know a great deal about the topics being covered. The thing to do is to learn to make effective use of these people. Since they are experienced teachers, they are generally well qualified to serve as assistants.

Still another important idea is having participants work in pairs or small groups. Cooperative learning is effective, and a hands-on inservice is a good place to model this type of teaching behavior.

Q17. What is the most desirable number of participants per machine in a typical hands-on inservice?

Two people per machine is generally better than one person per machine. However, if there are enough machines and some participants want to work alone, generally you should allow them to do so. (In some cases you may be emphasizing paired learning and what it is like to learn in that environment. Then you will insist that all participants work in pairs.)

Try to pair up more experienced users with less experienced users. Let the more experienced users know that they are functioning in a dual role of inservice assistant and participant.

Q18. How important is it to have school and district administrative support and participation?

There is substantial need for support from the school and district administration. The research on this is solid. The goal in a CII inservice is change in the participants' classrooms. But such change seldom occurs without the explicit backing of the school administration.

The other side of the coin is that the school administration can play a strong role in fostering change. If a principal participates in an inservice, the principal will be thoroughly familiar with the classroom changes that are being advocated. The principal can then work with teachers to provide needed encouragement, support, and feedback to help them implement the desired change. Some of this may well be built into the evaluation of the teachers.

Q19. Are there major differences between teaching teachers and teaching other students?

Yes. Many successful precollege and college teachers are quite unsuccessful in teaching teachers. It could well be that teachers are the most critical of all potential audiences.

It's not just that teachers are adults, and that teaching adults is different than teaching children. Teachers know a great deal about teaching and learning. They have done a lot of introspection, so they know what will help them learn and what is relevant to their needs. They are busy people, often quite over worked.

Perhaps the key thing that an inservice provider needs to keep in mind is that the goal is to help the participants make changes in their classrooms. Making such changes is both threatening and difficult. The inservice facilitator must do what ever possible to make it "reasonable" that the participants make the desired changes in their classrooms.

Q20. Have you ever heard of "power dressing?" Is this important for an inservice facilitator?

As far as I can tell, the idea of "power dressing" comes from the business world. It has to do with dressing appropriately to fit various business meeting situations. For an inservice facilitator, it is generally desirable to dress as well or a little better than the participants.

The main thing is that one's dressing habits should not distract from the learning process. Of course, there are exceptions. Some inservice facilitators have eccentricities (perhaps carefully cultivated) that are part of the show they put on.

Q21. How should one attempt to deal with obnoxious inservice participants?

Almost every inservice contains one or more participants who seem to have an agenda of showing the facilitator and the other participants how much they know--indeed, that it is only through some mistake that they are not facilitating the inservice. There are many other types of inappropriate behavior that you will encounter. Some inservice participants insist on talking to each other during presentations, spending their time grading papers or writing letters, wandering in and out of the inservice, etc.

Such behaviors on the parts of the participants are particularly trying to a relatively inexperienced facilitator. Overall, the situation is not too much different from what a new teacher experiences as they begin their teaching careers. There are a few coping strategies that can be taught, and there are many that one acquires through trial and error. What works for one facilitator might not work for another.

One characteristic of the "know it all" is raising detailed questions that are clearly beyond the scope of the materials being covered. The inservice facilitator can acknowledge the question and set a time later during the day when a private meeting will be held to discuss the answer. There should be a clear implication that the question is beyond the scope of the inservice and a strong hint that no further questions of this sort should be raised. However, it is easy to make the mistake of discouraging questions that would be appropriate. Thus, use care in discouraging questions.

An overall lack of professionalism on the part of participants (such as talking, not paying attention, not participating) can be directly addressed. "I notice that some of you are spending your time talking to each other rather than participating in the inservice. I believe this is disturbing other participants, and it disturbs me. I'd be happy to spend some time discussing what is going on. Would one of you be willing to help us work our way through this difficulty?"

Another approach is to say "I notice that some of you are not paying attention, and that are keyboarding when I have asked you to stop and to pay attention to what I am saying. Each of you knows how you deal with your own students in this type of situation. Please be aware that I don't allow such inappropriate behavior with my students. Don't force me to write your name on the board, keep you in after school, or send you to the principal's office."

Q22. Are there particular difficulties associated with doing an inservice for one's fellow teachers as distinguished from doing an inservice outside of one's own district?

There is a major advantage in doing inservice with your fellow teachers. You know them, the problems they face, and the nature of their work situations. You can design the inservice to pay particular attention to their specific needs. However, you know that you will have to continue to associate with the participants--they are your colleagues. Thus, you need to be very careful to make the inservice quite useful and appropriate to their needs. They will tend to tolerate your inexperience (if your are inexperienced). You can take advantage of your personal contacts and the fact that you are available on a formal or informal basis for follow-up support.

When you do an inservice outside of your own school district, you automatically become an outside expert. You are not expected to have detailed knowledge of the district and its teachers. Instead, you are expected to be more knowledgeable and/or skillful than the participants. You are expected to bring to the inservice ideas and materials that are not readily available within the district.

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