Connecticut Regional Vocational-Technical School System
Table of Contents
When 20-year veteran Peg Sonntag's social studies classroom at the J.M. Wright Regional Vocational-Technical School in Stamford, Conn. underwent a makeover in the fall of 2000, she was thrilled to make the change. It all began when Connecticut Regional Vocational-Technical School System (RVTSS) administrators Ann Sandagata, Mike Suntag, and John Tarnuzzer replaced the rows of desks and chairs in her classroom with computers arranged in a horseshoe and established a Dialogue Center consisting of long work tables in the center of the horseshoe where students could share information and discuss ideas. This created what the RVTSS called "digital classrooms."
"I had previously incorporated several Web-based projects in my classrooms and was itching to do more," says Sonntag. "I was excited by the chance to take my plans to another level. What I really wanted to be able to do was to expose my students to the wealth of historical resources and the variety of information and media that was readily available, and to challenge my students to become modern researchers."
The administrative group was committed to making learning active, constructive, and project based. In order to do that, Sonntag and her fellow teachers took a specially designed training course to learn how to create learning units that incorporate the use of technology, independent research, sharing, discussion, reading, writing, and presentation skills. The teachers also learned how to align their lesson plans with state and national academic standards as they connected the content to real-world concerns that the vocational students would face after graduation.
The Regional Vocational-Technical School System (RVTSS) is organized into 17 regional schools that represent racially and economically diverse populations across Connecticut. Five of the schools are considered urban, priority schools. In the RVTSS, priority schools are those that have the most students in need of intervention on the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT), which is administered to 10th graders; poor attendance; a high percentage of students needing free or reduced lunch; problems with staffing and fiscal resources; and low staff retention rates.
The RVTSS administrators chose to pilot a digital classroom with Peg Sonntag's 10th grade class at Wright Tech in Stamford in part because her school ranked first among the technical schools in the percentage of students needing intervention in all four areas of the CAPT-- math, science, reading across the disciplines, and writing across the disciplines. Overall, for the class of 2003, 75% of 10th graders from the technical schools did not meet the state goal in any of the four areas.
At the same time, the system had also invested time and money to keep up with technology trends related to hardware and software acquisition since the early 1980s. But in a 1999 audit of technology use in the schools, Mike Suntag, consultant for educational technology with the RVTSS, found that most computers were located in computer labs and the trade area workshops. Teachers and students were not integrating the technology with instruction in any of the academic or trade classrooms.
The administrators knew they had to overhaul the system's vision of educational technology with an eye toward the state standards and integrating reading and writing strategies into all the content areas, including the trade clusters, if they hoped to justify technology expenditures and demonstrate the technology's impact on student achievement.
When designing the digital classroom model, the administrators envisioned classrooms with a computer-to-student ratio of 1:1 and an effective integration of the technology into the curriculum. Within a year and a half, this idea took shape in the form of 10 digital classrooms in 8 of the system's 17 schools. This number will rise to 25 classrooms divided among all 17 schools by the end of the 2002 school year.
The new vision for technology use in the Connecticut Regional Vocational-Technical School System (RVTSS) has changed the traditional classroom's physical arrangements and demanded a change in instructional practice. Instruction now centers around the students. Instructors work as facilitators and guides for students who are creating their own meaning within the work they are doing.
Teachers learned how to design learning units that combine the benefits of technology with instruction that supports the students' development of research, writing, and discussion skills. This approach allows students to learn in ways not previously possible. The learning units present students with a question or a real-world problem or concern. Then, instead of giving the students information in a lecture style, the teachers suggest technology tools and resources that will help students find the information, analyze and synthesize the information, and then explain and clarify a solution or concept in the Dialogue Center with their classmates. Each unit offers a rubric that guides student work and sets clear standards for achievement (see samples of learning units at http://www.ctdlc.org/votech. There are rubrics for students' products as well as their Dialogue Center participation. The goal is to gradually shift responsibility for active, constructive learning from the instructors to the students themselves.
"My role as an instructor definitely changed from the first moment my students started to use the digital classroom model," says Wright Tech's Peg Sonntag. "I began to be pushed to the back as my students took over their own learning. The structure of the learning units requires students to work independently, to organize their time, and plan their own solutions. I am now a facilitator, keeping them on track and monitoring their dialogue sessions. I believe my students look on me more as a fellow learner, collaborator, and team member instead of the one with all the answers."
Mike Suntag, consultant for educational technology with the RVTSS explains, "We are attempting to harness the power of technology to provide educational opportunities for our students that were not possible in the past. The changes that technology is fostering in every area of our society compel our school system to parallel those changes with a reflective study of what we teach and how we teach it."
The implementation of a digital classroom model forced the Connecticut Regional Vocational-Technical School System (RVTSS) to make drastic changes to the nature of instruction at the schools. The administrative team sought to make this a system-wide effort rather than a school-by-school one. Mike Suntag, consultant for educational technology with the RVTSS, began by initiating an assessment of technology competency levels for instructors and administrators. The schools' professional development teams or technology committees now update their assessments every year.
The RVTSS then partnered with the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium (CTDLC) and its director, Edward Klonoski, to develop staff training for the new instructional model and a searchable database for the Web-based learning units that the teachers would be creating. These units, available on the CTDLC database at http://www.ctdlc.org/votech, relate learning in the classroom to real-world problems and allow students to research topics independently and use technology to find the necessary information and solutions. They incorporate the resources available through different kinds of media with writing, discussion, analytical skills, student collaboration, and an eye toward state and national standards.
Dr. George Cicchetti, a CTDLC consultant, developed the training course, called "Designing Web-Based Learning Units," using David Jonassen's Good Models of Teaching With Technology (GMOTT) framework. The first round of teachers took the course as part of a year-long professional development initiative in the RVTSS and learned how to create learning units that incorporated these essential elements:
The administrative team also sought to include multiple learning strategies in the development of the units in order to prepare students for the diverse demands they will encounter in higher education and the working world. These strategies included:
(For more information about GMOTT, see http://knowledgeloom.org/gmott and click on the "Investigate" button.)
Each unit also includes constructive reading and process writing strategies with scaffolding resources, and planned Dialogue Center activities, where students discuss the information they discover with the class, share their thoughts on the topic of the unit, and work with the instructor to clear up any misconceptions about the work.
The instructional design of the units follows Gagne's Events of Instruction. First, engage the students, then state the instructional objectives and products, activate background knowledge, set up learning activities with guidance, provide informative feedback, and finally, assess learning.
Through field-testing, the team determined that each learning unit should be completed in approximately a week and should contain three objectives or projects for students to complete. However, some teachers piloting the digital classrooms say the time element is still evolving.
The teachers encountered several issues in the training. Some had trouble building scaffolding for reading and writing strategies into the units. Others had discussed topics in their classrooms but never included that activity in a learning plan or set up a rubric for participation. To enhance the training for the second wave of teachers who are currently going through the program, Dr. Cicchetti wrote lessons addressing each of these challenges and added them to the online professional development course.
Based on the work done in professional development courses with over 250 teachers in the Connecticut Regional Vocational-Technical School System (RVTSS), the administrative team determined that a polished Web-based learning unit for use in the digital classrooms should include these features:
Wright Tech's Peg Sonntag produced one of the first Web-based learning units to follow this format. The unit introduced her class to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in the 1911. Sonntag gave students an array of Web sites and resources where they could find evidence and information about the fire. Students then conducted their own interviews about safety regulations and crisis response in the trade areas at J.M. Wright. After researching the current state of sweatshops, they ordered their information using a technology tool called Spider Map. The project culminated in a written report about where sweatshops still exist today and what individuals can do to fight them.
The unit clearly identifies the core topic of workplace safety, the essential question of how workplace safety regulations changed after the fire, and the activities' alignment with the Connecticut Framework for Social Studies in grades 9-12. It connects students to the real issues they may face when they enter the workplace and it uses reading, interviewing, discussion, and writing to engage all students in the work.
"I find that each student can meet his/her own learning needs because embedded in the process are ways for the students to monitor and assess themselves," says Sonntag. "The Internet allows the use of a variety of mediums for learning, so those who are challenged by reading and writing can learn and express themselves in ways better suited to their learning styles. Those for whom English is a barrier can use the technology to assist them in communicating more clearly."
Sonntag says her toughest job was getting the kids to connect American History to their own lives. But the new strategies for learning included in the units and the increased options the students have in terms of finding and presenting information have inspired her students to dig deeper into a subject.
She cites a PowerPoint presentation by two students in her class about what event from American history they would change and how it would affect modern America:
"They chose Martin Luther King's assassination and made a very cogent argument about how the Civil Rights movement would have changed if King had not died," says Sonntag. "They...proudly pointed out the computer techniques they used in the presentation and proceeded to discuss with other students their arguments regarding the Civil Rights movement. Their joy was contagious... they went beyond the assignment to discuss what Martin Luther King might have cared about if he were alive today."
Wright Tech's Peg Sonntag, Trevor Jones, the math and science department head at Wright, and Ken Anton, head of the electronics department at O'Brien Tech in Ansonia, agree that digital classrooms and Web-based learning units have breathed life into the Regional Vocational-Technical School System (RVTSS) classrooms.
"Students come to the table with diverse background knowledge and ideas," Anton says. "They become eager to exchange their thoughts, and even the most reticent eventually identify a gap to bridge. Eventually, all students have contributed something toward the solution."
Sonntag notes that discipline problems in her classroom have diminished. The only noise coming from her classroom is the sound of students collaborating and helping one another. And, the learning units are easily adaptable. Special education teachers have been able to download the units from the database and modify the objectives to suit the needs of their students.
Jones notes that his math students are learning a problem-solving process using real-world concerns. At the Dialogue Center, reciprocal teaching of the process between teacher and students, and among students, facilitates understanding of the concepts involved. Students find that there is more than one way to solve a problem. There is a shift of responsibility as students take active ownership of their learning.
"The learning units take advantage of the way technology can present information," says Mike Suntag, educational technology consultant for the RVTSS. "In essence, we revised content to take advantage of technology. Many others are attempting to fit technology into the existing instructional framework. That is bound to be a failure."
The RVTSS has scheduled 20 more digital classrooms for implementation during the 2001-2002 school year in the four basic academic areas (English, math, science, and social studies) and three major trade clusters (construction, service, and manufacturing). The success of the initiative lies in the fact that students are gaining technology competencies while pursuing a learning goal. And those competencies allow them to develop as independent learners.
Also, the superintendent of the RVTSS, Dominic Spera, enabled this initiative to succeed through his leadership and willingness to take on the risk of a very visible system-wide change effort.
"My expectations have definitely been exceeded," says Sonntag. "I have been awed by the quality of [my students'] work, their ability to collaborate, and their excitement in learning history. There were times when my passion and excitement for a topic ...was contagious. Now the students get excited by their own research."
Published learning units can be found at http://www.ctdlc.org/votech.