October 1994 "Mining the Internet" column, The Computing Teacher

[Electronically reprinted with permission from The Computing Teacher journal, published by the International Society for Technology in Education.]

The information on this page is provided for archival purposes only. Most of the links that it contains have expired. More recent articles on similar topics can be found here: http://ccwf.cc.utexas.edu/~jbharris/Virtual-Architecture/Foundation/index.html .

Teaching Teachers to Use Telecomputing Tools

by Judi Harris

Are you a teacher's teacher? Chances are, if you are travelling the Information Highway at this point in time, then you are either already teaching other teachers to use telecomputing tools (formally or informally), or are planning to do so soon. What you may have already discovered is that this kind of "inservice training" is different. Why? The nature of the tools and their potential uses is different. Whether teachers will choose to use telecomputing innovations for professional development and/or instructional purposes depends more upon other teachers' use of the tools than upon the characteristics of the innovations themselves.

How Telecomputing Tools are Different

The process by which teachers either adopt or reject use of telecomputing tools is one example of the diffusion of innovations. Everett Rogers (1986) has qualified his well-known work on the diffusion of innovations (Rogers, 1983) to address the special nature of the diffusion process that occurs when communications innovations are adopted. His meta-analytic synthesis of communications studies results revealed three ways in which the adoption of interactive communications innovations differs from similar processes with other innovation types.

  1. A critical mass of adopters must be using the innovation to persuade potential adopters to do the same; "the usefulness of a new communication system increases for all adopters with each additional adopter" (p.120). Telecommunications networks will not readily be used by teachers until a noticeable community of educators, and/or information resources designed specifically to support precollege education, are present online.
  2. The degree of use of a communications innovation, rather than the decision to adopt it, is the dependent variable that will indicate the success of the diffusion effort. Teachers will continue to use Internetworked tools and resources, once introduced to their application, only if they use them regularly and frequently now.
  3. New communication technologies are tools, which can be applied in many different ways and for different purposes. Therefore, adoption of these innovations is an active process that involves much re-invention, or "the degree to which an innovation is changed or modified by a user in the process of its adoption and implementation" (Rogers, 1983, pp. 16-17). Teachers will continue to use telecomputing tools in the classroom only if they are successful in designing professional development and instructional activities that employ unique and personalized use of the tools that meet specialized needs.

The importance of re-invention that must not be overlooked by those of us responsible for teaching others how to use telecomputing tools in educational contexts. Innovations that are more flexible, with many possible applications (like telecommunications innovations), and those that are shared via a decentralized diffusion network (like telecomputing tools), are more likely to be re-invented than those that are less flexible or are diffused according to a centralized plan (Rogers, 1986). Also, re-invention appears to be very important psychologically to adopters of such innovations (Rogers, 1983); adopters must take the innovation and "make it their own" if use of the innovation is to continue. When helping teachers to learn to use telecomputing tools, we must anticipate, stimulate, and encourage teachers' re-inventions of telecomputing applications. One approach to supporting re-invention of telecomputing tools is to provide multi-disciplinary and cross-grade activity structures (Harris, 1994a; 1994b; 1994c) as models for activity design. In this way, teachers can function more as instructional designers than lesson planners.

Likely Innovation Adopters

Rogers' review of many communications studies indicates that generally, only 10 percent of the users on any one network contribute approximately 50 percent of all of the online "traffic." The other 90 percent of the users contribute the other 50 percent (Rogers, 1986). This implies that if we want telecommunications innovations to be used in powerful ways in precollege learning environments, we need not attempt to convince every teacher...or even the majority of teachers...to use them. Instead, Rogers suggests, we should target the opinion leaders within the social system of the school or district.

How can you tell which teachers are opinion leaders? According to Rogers, opinion leaders

This implies that access to telecomputing resources and support for their use, in the forms of training, ongoing assistance, funding, and, most importantly, time, should be concentrated upon those opinion leaders within each school who are most willing to explore professional development and instructional use of Internetworked tools. Rogers' work tells us that as these opinion leaders become comfortable and competent on the Information Highway, they will, by their example in daily practice, bring along, by personal influence, those colleagues who were initially reticent to explore new uses of new tools in the classroom. This "grass roots" pattern of innovation diffusion may appear to be slower and less comprehensive than traditional "top down" implementations, but it is, overall, a more effective plan, because it complements the natural ways in which new tools are adopted by members of social systems.

Models for Telecomputing Training

The Internet is a huge decentralized network of networks (of networks...) that currently serves more than 22 million users and encompasses more than 3 million hosts worldwide. It is growing at the rate of approximately 100 percent per year (Quarterman, 1993), changing literally minute to minute. To use the Internet for both professional development and instructional purposes requires constant accommodation to rapid change, successful use of varied interfaces, and, most importantly, tolerance for ambiguity. These problem-solving skills cannot be taught directly; rather their development can be assisted by offering relevant instruction in appropriate formats to willing participants. This instruction usually takes one of eight forms, listed and described below.

Independent Learning

Many Information Highway travellers who are teachers have learned to use telecomputing resources independently, with little assistance. This is probably the most time-consuming and frustrating way to learn, due to the highly ambiguous and changing nature of the Internet, and the cumbersome characteristics of many of the procedures that are presently necessary to navigate in cyberspace.

Independent Learning with Remote Assistance

Most teachers who presently use Internetworked tools have learned to do so by applying patience, persistence, and good problem-solving skills both independently and with assistance from more experienced network enthusiasts. Since there are so few teachers presently with access to the Internet (an estimated 0.5% of all Internet account-holders (Harris, 1994d)), this is the most prevalent, but not necessarily the most efficient, model for learning to use telecomputing tools.

One-to-One "Coaching"

Some teachers are lucky enough to work or live in close proximity to a more experienced "Internaut" who is willing to provide telecomputing training informally on an individualized basis. As communities of telecomputing teachers are formed within existing social systems, this very effective model for learning to use Internetworked tools will become more commonplace.

Large-Group Demonstration with Independent Practice

This model for teaching teachers to use telecomputing tools is often employed in the early stages of a school's or district's adoption of telecomputing innovations. Demonstrations of Internet resources and tools that are useful for professional development and/or instruction are typically made to large groups of (usually) impressed teachers and administrators. Unfortunately, these demonstrations rarely communicate the significant challenge that independently learning to access and use telecomputing resources and tools predicts. Therefore, this model is more effective in marshalling support from decision-makers than helping teachers to truly use Internetworked resources.

Large-Group Demonstration with Assisted Practice

This model improves upon the previously-mentioned idea, in that it can be effective both in convincing decision-makers to provide for the infusion of telecomputing tools into educational contexts, and in helping teachers to make use of the provisions, once they are in place. However, it is generally not as successful overall in terms of the diffusion of telecommunications innovations as are the following three models.

Hands-On Lab, Intensive Schedule

It is probably no surprise to the readers of this article that teaching teachers to use new computer-mediated tools in a hands-on, collaborative context, in which brief demonstrations are followed immediately by assisted exploration of the procedures demonstrated, is, in many situations and for many purposes, the most effective model for telecomputing training. Teachers' schedules make the available time for such hands-on experiences quite limited, though. An intensive schedule (i.e., several half-day or full-day sessions on Saturdays) is most often used for hands-on training, but due to the overwhelming amount of information available for educational use on the Internet, and the multiple skills necessary to master effective access and use of that information, this may not be the most facilitative model for telecomputing training for teachers.

Hands-On Lab, Paced Schedule

Spreading hands-on experiences evenly over several months of Internet work is preferable to planning these labs according to an intensive schedule, mostly because this option allows teachers to practice the skills that they learned in a face-to-face environment both independently and/or with individualized assistance before encountering the next new skill or resource type. It is admittedly difficult, though, to assure that the between-meetings work gets done, given the many professional and personal demands upon teachers' time, without structuring participants' expectations accordingly before they agree to participate in training sessions.

Hands-On Lab, Paced Schedule, with Structured Online Activities

Although this model for teaching teachers to use telecomputing tools is the most effort-intensive option for telecomputing trainers, it is probably the most effective overall. If highly interactive, hands-on sessions offered at regular intervals in lab settings are supplemented by structured, motivating online activities, to the completion of which participants have committed before instruction begins, and for which the participants see themselves as responsible, online communities of networked teachers can emerge. Whether or not these communities continue to function (either intact or in expanded forms) after training activities end depends upon the extent to which individual participants have truly adopted telecomputing innovations. The success of this particular training model, in terms of helping teachers to develop transferable and longitudinal Internetworking skills, attests to the growing popularity of the "online course."

It is important to remember that different conditions of access to, purpose(s) for, and support for use of telecomputing tools and resources will greatly affect the choice of training model(s) most appropriate, time-effective, and cost-efficient for use with potential telecomputing teachers within a particular teaching/learning context. The descriptions above are offered as an array of possibilities, rather than a hierarchy of recommendations. They are also admittedly unfinished, as new models with undoubtedly emerge as increasing numbers of teachers and students learn to use the Internet. New tools require new techniques for training, incorporated into new models of teaching and learning processes, if the tools' most powerful attributes (Clark, 1983) are to be exploited.

Top Ten Tips for Teaching Teachers

In closing, and with apologies to David Letterman, I offer ten "tips" for those of you responsible for teaching teachers to use telecomputing tools. Unlike many of the suggestions offered earlier in this article, these tips are not based upon the results of research; rather, they emerge from several years' of work with teachers from many different states and countries who were learning to use Internetworked tools and resources for professional development and instruction. These "top ten tips on teaching teachers to use telecomputing tools" are listed in no particular order below.

  1. Ensure teachers' access to telecomputing tools and resources before attempting to teach them to use them. If possible, provide easy access both at school and at home.
  2. Access to all types of Internet resources is essential. At present, this should include electronic mail, some sort of computer conferencing (i.e., newsgroups or electronic bulletin boards), direct ("Telnet") connections to remotely located information resources, file transfer capabilities to and from anonymously accessible file archives on the Internet, Gophers and related tools, such as veronica, and, if possible, WorldWide Web tools, such as Mosaic.
  3. Telecomputing trainers should be local, longitudinal, and "lancemen." In other words, these folks should be part of the existing social system of the school or district, they should be available long-term for ongoing support of telecomputing adventures, and they should be seen as "one of the guys/gals," rather than the local computer guru.
  4. Introduce new users to electronic mail (for private or small-group communications) and computer conferencing (for public and larger-group communications) first and together. Although as a trainer, you may be most excited about getting information resources into the hands of your teacher-students, remember that they will feel most comfortable with those tools whose use most closely resembles communication forms with which they are familiar, such as the letter and the bulletin board or committee meeting. Also, it is important that new telecomputing teachers understand the different (and most efficient) uses of differing tools, so that they will use each for the purposes for which it is best designed.
  5. Introduce Gophers, Telnet sites, FTP archives, and WorldWide Web tools later and as interests dictate. Remember that teachers' successful use of telecomputing tools will be highly individualized and, to use Rogers' term, re-invented. There is a much better chance that teachers will use Internetworked tools and resources in powerful and ongoing ways if they are ready for "something new" when you introduce it, and self-motivated to use the new technique for self-determined purposes.
  6. Make clear, friendly, paper-based, user-developed documentation amply available to trainees. There is no better teacher (or document writer!) than another, slighly more experienced, teacher. Be cautious of adopting documentation written by technical specialists, and be willing to coordinate the ongoing revision and updating of participant-created documentation.
  7. Provide structured, enjoyable online activities for practice of skills learned in face-to-face, hands-on sessions. Remember that adults learning new skills are much like children in that they are most receptive to playful learning environments.
  8. After users are comfortable with telecomputing tools, provide activity structures that can be used to design curriculum-based telecomputing applications. Examples of such structures, along with activities created and fieldtested by telecomputing teachers, are presented in the three articles in The Computing Teacher listed in the references at the end of this column.
  9. Encourage teachers to use resource guides,. rather than making them responsible for finding online resources for professional development and instructional use themselves. The Internet Resource Directory for Educators, one example of such a guide, is available for anonymous file transfer at: tcet.unt.edu in the subdirectory: pub/telecomputing-info/IRD.
  10. Fully support "eager beavers," or those teachers most motivated to explore the Internet, allowing use to grow in grass-roots patterns. Simultaneously, make sure that there is "support from above:" from school, district, and/or state decision-makers. Do not mandate participation in telecomputing training sessions!

Sound straightforward and easy to implement? If so, please remember the following:

The difference between theory and practice in practice

Is greater than the difference between theory and practice in theory.

- Anonymous

That said, and despite the usual challenges that confront the creators of the best-laid plans for change, please accept my wishes for success as you continue to teach teachers to use telecomputing tools.


Clark, R. E. (1983). Reconsidering research on learning from media. Review of Educational Research, 53, 445-459.

Harris, J. (1994a). Information collection activities. The Computing Teacher, 21 (6), 32-34, 36.

Harris, J. (1994b). "Opportunities in work clothes": Online problem-solving project structures. The Computing Teacher, 21 (7), 52-55.

Harris, J. (1994c). People-to-people projects on the Internet. 21 (5), 48-52.

Harris, J. (1994d). Way of the Ferret: Finding Educational Resources on the Internet. Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education.

Rogers, E. M. (1986). Communication technology: The new media in society. New York: The Free Press.

Rogers, E. M. (1983). Diffusion of innovations (3rd ed.). New York: The Free Press.

[Judi Harris, jbharris@tenet.edu; Department of Curriculum and Instruction; 406 Education Building; University of Texas at Austin; Austin, TX 78712-1294.]

Other "Mining the Internet" columns are available on the Learning Resource Server at the College of Education, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.