EJSE V1 N4 - Lavoie: Use of Telecommunications to Deliver University Science Content/Education Courses To High-School Science Teachers: An Evaluation Editor's Note: Many thanks to the author for submitting this manuscript in HTML format.

Delivering University Science Content/Education Courses To High-School Science Teachers Via Telecommunications: An Evaluation

Derrick R. Lavoie,
Assoc. Prof. of Science Education
College of Education/Applied Science and Technology
Black Hills State University, USB 9034
Spearfish, SD 57799
Email: dlavoie@mystic.bhsu.edu
Homepage: http://www.geocities.com/RainForest/4403/


     National reports have indicated that science education in America is falling short of its goals for achieving scientific literacy for our youth (Weiss, 1989; Mullis & Jenkins, 1988; National Commission for Excellence in Education, 1983; International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, 1988; American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1988). This condition has spawned several national-level recommendations for the improvement of science education (e.g., Aldridge, 1992; American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993). The recent TIMMS report (National Research Center, 1996) has characterized our curriculum as "a mile wide and an inch deep."

     A common agreement in all these reform proposals is that for any significant advancement to occur in the state of science education, the science teacher must become the fundamental change agent. It follows, there is a tremendous national need for quality teacher enhancement efforts (Glass, Aiuto, & Andersen, 1993; National Science Board, 1987). In particular, national survey studies indicate in-service high-school teachers need enhanced content and pedagogical training to maintain an up-to-date-ness within their fields, to improve their teaching effectiveness, and to obtain credit for degree programs (Weiss, 1989; Aldridge, 1986). Additionally, survey studies indicate that in-service teachers want enhancement which will allow them to directly apply new learning in their classrooms (National Research Council, 1989).

     The virtual classroom established by telecommunication technology offers new and exciting ways to deliver quality inservice to our Nation's science and mathematics teachers throughout the school year. Telecommunication networks expand access to resources such as data bases, libraries, and curriculum materials as well as offer a wide-range of opportunities for information exchange. Attempts to use telecommunications for teaching and learning in various education contexts has realized varying degrees of success (Honey & Henriquez, 1993). The use of telecommunications to deliver content/pedagogical courses during the school year to science teachers on a national scale has not been previously attempted.

     Clearly, the effects of using the electronic medium as a tool for science teacher in-service enhancements must be carefully evaluated so that recommendations can be made for improvement and future application. Hunter (1992) lists several objectives for telecommunications, which speak directly to the purpose of this evaluative study.

Identification of the nature of interactions, leadership roles, the organization of learning activities, response obligations to improve the successful functioning of the network community.

Identification of pedagogical, technical, administrative, and curricula factors affecting the design of effective collaborative learning activities.

Development of new organizational arrangements in education, such as those involving collaborations among scientists, educators, teachers, and students in higher education and elementary/secondary schools.

Identification of factors contributing to successful participation of experts in educational network activities.

Development and evaluation and monitoring criteria for network learning activities and network communities.

     This paper reports on the National Science Teachers Network (NSTN) project which utilizes an electronic medium to deliverscience content/education courses to secondary-level science teachers. The NSTN funded the development and dissemination of five graduate-level university telecommunication courses, during the 1993-1994 academic year, designed to: 1) improve science teachers' content background in science, 2) improve teachers' instructional effectiveness in the secondary science classroom, and 3) establish a self-sustaining e-mail telecommunications network between science teachers nation wide. The courses were delivered using a menu-driven conferencing software system (CAUCUS) which allows interactions beyond that of electronic bulletin boards. The system enables both instructors and participants to exchange private messages, initiate and respond as a small group or whole class to questions and problems posed, conduct surveys, and upload and download files. Individual responses are saved in sequence under each discussion item or assignment and can be read by all. On-line conferences may be initiated by course instructors or participants posting a discussion "item" (e.g., an open-ended inquiry question such as "After watching the Olympics last night I became very interested in the physics of the luge. What do you think are the factors that affect success in this event and why?"). Items can be seen by all and responded to by all. All responses are retained following each item and can be viewed as many times as necessary prior to typing in a response.


     The purpose of this study was to: 1) summatively evaluate the effects of the electronic NSTN courses relative to the course instructors, course participants, and the telecommunication medium, per se, 2) identify factors contributing to successful and not so successful teaching/learning experiences, and 3) make recommendations for modifying the present courses and for developing new courses to achieve more effective distance education.


Subjects/Course Development

     Five science content/education courses were developed and taught to high-school science teachers nation-wide during the 1993 -1994 academic school year (Visualizations Tools for Mathematics and Science Teaching, Snow Science, Relativity, Water Quality, and Chemistry Concepts). Currently, some of these courses and others are being offered through the National Science Enhancement Network and can be reviewed by visiting their web site at: http://www.montana.edu/%7Ewwwxs/.

     The five courses of this study were developed during a three-week 1993 summer institute through a team approach involving a university professor/instructor, science educator, and master science teacher. Each team made an effort to include enhancement experiences for improvement of science content as well as science pedagogical practices. This involved a focus on science concepts, group work, inquiry assignments, hands-on assignments, class discussions, and in-the-trenches teaching applications of the material being learned. During the teaching of the semester-long courses, the master science teacher assisted the instructor with various phases such as grading, posting assignments, engaging discussion, and defining teaching applications. The course instructors and teacher participants were provided a CAUCUS user manual and a technical support person to assist with solving hardware, software, and access problems. All participants were restricted to using one communications software package for Macintosh users and one for IBM/DOS users. The on-line conferencing system could be accessed via telnet or using Internet or a 1-800 number 24 hours a day. Participation in the courses for both instructors and science teachers required a working knowledge of E-mail.

Data Collection and Analysis

      A Likert-Scale, short answer response survey (Table 1) was developed to collect feedback from the teacher participants at the end of each course concerning a variety of dimensions (e.g., pre-course expectations, conceptual knowledge gains, transfer of the learning/material to the classroom, attitudes, participant-participant interactions, participant-instructor interactions, and use of the electronic medium). Short answer responses surveyed the amount of time the participants were putting into the course each week relative to particular assignments. Questions also addressed the nature of the electronic medium and the type and degree of teaching and learning taking place as well as the applicability/transfer of the material to the high-school classroom. Further, questions addressed the nature of the on-line interactions between the instructor and the participants and between the participants and other participants. The Likert-Scale data was quantitatively analyzed and categorized as percentages of participants responding to particular Likert-Scale categories (e.g., strongly agree, agree, etc.).


Table 1. Interview questions posed to instructors at the end of each electronic course.

What were your initial feelings or reactions about teaching an electronic telecommunications course... what attracted you?

Was the telecommunication system hard to learn? Why or why not?

Where did you go to use the microcomputer equipment you needed, to interact each week?

Relative to this course, what kind of schedule did you follow each week?

What were your initial feelings or impressions about the on-line class the first week? Can you remember what you particularly liked, what you didn't like, what you found confusing?

What was the nature of the assignments you typically gave to students? How well do you feel they completed these assignments?

Did you have your students work in small groups. How and what did they do?

Do you generally feel your students met the goals and objectives you set for of the course? Why or why not?

How would you characterize the general teaching strategy or strategies you used for your course? Do you feel your teaching strategy worked well? Why or why not?

What methods did you use to grade studentsÕ work? How would you modify your grading method if you were to teach this course again?

As the course was in progress what problems arose and how did you deal with them?

What other modifications became necessary during the course? Why?

Have you developed any particular routines or tricks of the trade that made working with the electronic medium more efficient? Please describe specifically.

What other suggestions can you make to subsequent instructors and students involved with telecommunication courses?

In sum, what were the things you liked best about teaching the course?

In sum, what were things you liked least about teaching the course?

Is there anything else you would like to tell me about your experiences...anything that was especially funny, or memorable, or valuable, or unpleasant about your experience?


     Verbal interviews were used to collect summative response data from the instructors. Each interview was audio taped and transcribed verbatim. Questions addressed the kind of teaching strategies employed, the nature of the on-line discussions, the use of the master teacher coach, teacher's ability to transfer the learning back to the classroom, the course grading scheme, things that worked well, things that didn't work well, and recommendations for course improvement and subsequent development. To obtain a variety of feedback, it was emphasized to the instructors that the interviews were to maintain an "open" format whereby other questions and directions could be addressed. Qualitative analysis of the interview transcripts involved a comparative systematic method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) to initially identify "common" response categories for each question. All responses were categorized and the frequency of responses was determined for each response category. Unique responses were given their own categories with a frequency of one. Finally, a summary of all responses was synthesized.


     A total of 131 science teachers from around the country participated in the electronic NSTN courses during the 1993-94 school year ranging from a low class size of 21 to a high class size of 30. Classes were scheduled over a two to three month period. The science teacher participants and the instructors were overwhelming positive about the teaching/learning experience.

Survey Data Results

Analysis of the participant survey data was subdivided into categories dealing with the telecommunications, course-specific statements, and participant/instructor and participant/participant interactions (Table 2). Relative to telecommunications, a majority felt initial frustration with getting logged onto the system. Encouragingly, the degree of comfort with the electronic medium rose from 50% or so at the beginning of the course to over 90% at its conclusion. Its not surprising that about two-thirds of the teachers would have opted to take advantage of on-line training prior to the course.


Table 2. Results of the teacher participant end-of-the-course survey. Percentages may not add to 100 due to rounding.


The course-specific responses were quite positive. The vast majority felt that the courses were interesting (97%) and would recommend them to their colleagues (87%). Most seemed to understand the requirements and goals of the courses (87%), however, about 40% had problems with how they were to be graded. Less than half felt that the courses demanded more time than they had.

     Relative to participant/instructor and participant/participant interactions, while 64% agreed that interaction with the instructor helped them to understand the material better, 86% agreed that interactions with their peers helped them to understand the material better. While only 47% thought interaction with the instructor helped them apply the material in the classroom, 88% felt that interactions with their peers helped them apply the material better in their classrooms.

     The teachers reported sending an average of 1.6 private messages to the course instructor each week, 1.8 private messages to other participants each week, and participated an average of 2.7 times per week in on-line discussions. Further, the average time spent on the course was 6.4 hours per week (15 hours maximum). About 25% of the teachers spent less than 3 hours per week and 25% spent more that 8 hours per week. Interestingly, the instructors spent an average of 7 hours per week with a minimum of 3 hours to a maximum of 20 hours per week concerning some sort of course-related activity.

Interview Data Results

The individual interviews revealed that about half of the university professor instructors had some initial difficulty using the system at the beginning of their course. This seemed to involve issues of how to upload and download files as well as how to use items and messages most efficiently. It was evident that the instructors encouraged on-line participant-participant interactions to varying degrees. Some instructors used a student-centered approach in which they began on-line discussion and then tried to "get out the way" so participants could set their own directions. Other more teacher-directive instructors tended to use convergent questions and assignments which required that all participants make specific responses.

     All instructors felt they had put much more time into this type of course than they would have for a traditional course. As the course progressed, instructors felt the time burden decreased and the comfort level increased relative to delivering the course material, maintaining active class discussions, and assessing participant work. Interestingly, as each course progressed the instructor role become more of a facilitator of learning rather than a disseminator of information. All instructors felt the asynchronous teaching mode had its advantages and disadvantages.

     On the positive side, the system offered greater flexibility in dealing with instruction and students since the electronic classroom could be accessed at any time of the day or night. Instructors generally felt the electronic medium stimulated higher-level thinking by giving participants and themselves considerable wait-time to compose written questions and problems or answers to posed questions and problems. Several instructors commented that the discussions were of high level and involved everyone in the class to some degree, particularly individuals who would have been too shy or reticent in a traditional classroom. While most agreed that the time spent on student-teacher contacts per week was much greater than a traditional course it was worth the effort to see students that were excited and interacting. Several instructors felt the teacher participants had learned the conceptual content as well as or better than students in a traditional lecture class.

     On the negative side, instructors felt that time delays and electronic information exchange reduced impact, eliminated visual communication cues, and restricted spontaneity. They also felt that questions and directions needed to be extremely clear as misinterpretations were common place. Many recognized the need to establish firm deadlines on discussion items and assignments. Some instructors also felt that an initial face-to-face meeting with all the participants would have increased the success of their course. This issue was magnified for courses that required some kind of technological training beyond the CAUCUS system. An initial meeting with all participants would have allowed face-to-face training with the system, discussion of course logistics, and the establishment of an important link between a name on the computer screen and the real persona.

     Many instructors felt that assigning grades, tracking participant progress, and keeping participants on the task at hand were difficult and recurring problems. Interestingly, all of the instructors changed their grading system at least once during the course. This was attributable to at least three factors: 1) some had never taught in an electronic medium before and had established several unrealistic grading schemes, 2) some realized that the present course did not match the participants needs, and 3) some realized early on that in-service science teachers should not, and could not, be treated as typical undergraduate or graduate students and changed their grades to better reflect science teachers' unique positions and experience. Several instructor strategies, listed below, were found to facilitate course progress and evaluation.

    1). Using fax to exchange problems and assignments involving graphics.

    2). Using on-line multiple choice exams.

    3). Requiring each participant to submit a videotape showing their completed experiment.

    4). Assigning group essay exams.

    5). Providing relevant inquiry questions for discussion.

    6). Stepping back and allowing the science teacher participants to direct the flow of the discussion.

    7). Requiring on-line responses for some assignments and not requiring responses for some.

    8). Setting dates by which a response to an on-line discussion must be made.

     The instructors noted that while participation in the courses for both instructors and science teachers required a working knowledge of E-mail it soon became obvious there were wide variations in technological expertise. The assistance of the technology support person was invaluable and prevented several individuals from dropping out (including some of the instructors).

     This evaluative study examined the effects using telecommunications to provide science content/education courses to in-service high-school science teachers during the school year. The evaluation revealed that the on-line participants received quality inservice education for improving their science content and pedagogy. One of the more striking outcomes of this study was that the teachers seemed to learn more from themselves than from the instructor. This result represents one of the most important aspects that separates the NSTN courses from traditional correspondence and distance education courses. In effect, the electronic medium created a "learning community" which empowered the teacher participants to take more responsibility for their own learning and to facilitate each others' learning. The electronic delivery platform demanded that the instructors abandon traditional lecture dissemination methods and acquire much more facilitative roles centered around cooperative learning methods.

     Another important outcome of this evaluation were several recommendations for teaching electronic inservice courses for science teachers. As we shift toward greater use of distance education applications such guidelines and recommendations will become more readily available. Hirth (1993) lists several good recommendations for educators planning for the training and application of distance education courses such as initial experimentation with the equipment, group planning, making the effort to meet face-to-face at least once during a course, establishing an open questioning environment, and extensive teacher evaluation. Charron and Obbink (1993) discuss criteria for choosing a distance education science course such as access to the instructor, inclusion of hands-on laboratory work, and amount of technical assistance. Klink (1994) has developed a model manual for teaching telecourses. Many of these recommendations are congruent with the recommendations of this study.

     The fact that wide variation in participant response rate occurred between and within the courses re-affirms that interaction over the electronic medium is complex and that further investigation of this phenomenon is needed. Often, the degree of information exchange was most productive when the participants were considering a relevant educational issue. Perhaps future courses could identify important educational themes that center around the content they are also trying to impart. Research must continue to develop and test strategies that facilitate effective collaborative learning between students and between the students and the instructor.

     E-mail via the Internet is becoming widespread in all of our Nation's schools and universities. The potential for daily exchange and productivity is tremendous. Strategies for linking participants involved in distance education courses in projects and collaborations after they finish the course should be a productive area of research.

     It is evident from this evaluative study that electronic courses, while having a bright future, are in need of considerable refinement and research. At a basic level, research must continue to define the qualitative and quantitative differences between distance education courses and traditional classroom instruction relative to student learning and attitudes as well as instructional technique. Future research and development of electronic NSTN courses must continue to develop, test, and modify instructional strategies for dealing with considerable time investment per student and lack of technology expertise which has direct bearing on course success rate. Frustration is a greater problem for first time instructors who must spend two to three times more effort than would be spent for traditional course preparation and delivery. The NSTN project has subsequently developed a pre-course training tutorial for instructors and students that will allow them to develop a working knowledge of the system and E-mail. Other supporting mechanisms might be to add a teachers aide to assist the instructor at various level and to provide continuous on-line assistance for dealing with general administrative problems that arise during a course.

     A new and exciting extension of e-mail electronic delivery courses is the use of video-teleconference distance education technology. Such technology should not be considered replacement for e-mail courses, but combining the two mediums could prove to be very powerful.

     Another area of research effort is to find additional strategies for transferring content and process from the NSTN courses directly into the participant-teacher's high-school classroom. Further, strategies for involving courses with varying levels of hands-on activities need to be developed and tested. This becomes a particularly important issue for many science and science education course which rely heavily on hands--on material approaches. To design courses that stimulate critical thinking Klinger and Connet (1992) recommend assignments that lead to strong interaction between students and the instruction which can be facilitated by the development of non-directive objectives that are viewed as dialogue between student and instructor. Sachs (1991) emphasizes a need for problem-solving oriented assessment which encourages students to look at alternative solutions and develop hypothetical reasoning skills in the process of developing conceptual understanding. If the improvement of problem-solving skills and conceptual understanding in science are sought after goals then this must me reflected in the instructional strategies employed.

     A final area of research centers on evaluation of the teaching and learning occurring in the electronic medium whose strength is collaborative inquiry rather than dissemination of information. Criteria for evaluating student progress, concept and process-skill learning as well as group work and interaction need to be developed and tested. Distance education instructors should look toward alternative forms of assessment such as portfolios and authentic assessment where the process of learning is more important than the product (Lawrenz, 1991).

     In sum, the virtual electronic learning environment was shown to be an effective means of providing useful teaching/learning experiences to in-service high-school science teachers on an on-going basis during the school year. Courses were most successful when a collaborative and constructivist learning environment was established in which the science-teacher participants exercised control over the direction of their learning. New strategies for teaching with distance education must continue to be sought as new technologies emerge and change the nature of the traditional classroom.


This evaluation was supported by the National Science Foundation Grant (Award # = 9253286) in cooperation with Horizon Research. I wish to thank Gerald Wheeler for guidance and support during this effort.


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About the author...
    Dr. Derrick Lavoie is currently Associate Professor of Science Education at Black Hills State University and Lead Teacher for the Center of
Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.    He teaches science methods for elementary and secondary as well as content courses in
science.  His  research has focused on constructivist science teaching strategies including the learning cycle and  concept mapping.  He has also
investigated ways to integrate these strategies with new technologies through distance education and multimedia.   He has published numerous
articles and has edited a NARST monograph dealing problem solving from a cognitive-science perspective.  He is currently editing a book on science
teacher preparation comprised of an international and national authorship.  He enjoys skiing and mountain biking in the beautiful Black Hills with his wife, son, and black lab.

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