November 1997 // Case Studies
Paradigms and Practices:
Creating Different Strategies for Learning
by Jack McKay
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Jack McKay "Paradigms and Practices:
Creating Different Strategies for Learning" The Technology Source, November 1997. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

In preparing a graduate level course in educational administration, I searched for ideas of how to generate student interest and opinion on some important educational issues. I also wanted to create good dialogue between students, have students create a group project that could be of benefit to themselves and others, and at the same time, utilize technology in the delivery of the course. The following is a brief description of what we did and how we did it.

"Paradigms and Practices in Schooling" is one of three graduate seminars for students in the joint doctoral program in educational administration at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The course was for three-semester credit and held over 15 weeks. The students meet six of the 15 weeks on campus. During the other nine weeks, students held class discussions using email. (We had planned on using voice conferencing over the Internet, but differences in hardware made the procedure cumbersome.) I had a basic understanding of email, HyperText Markup Language (HTML), and an interest in conferencing over the Internet. I picked up most of my skills by attending mini-workshops and just seeking out people who could help.

At our first meeting of the semester, the chapters of the two books (A House Divided by Gerzon and The Manufactured Crisis by Berliner and Biddle) were assigned. The reader/discussion leader would review, via email, the chapter using a format that included (a) the author’s main points, (b) the author’s primary motives, (c) the possible implications, and (d) the possible implications for current/future school leaders.

Based on the reader/discussion leader’s initial comments, the other students responded via email, based on their interpretation of the author’s writing. Following an email dialogue, the main points of the chapter were then posted to the course’s Website. The routine of face-to-face discussions alternating with email dialogue was continued throughout the semester. The culminating group project was the spirited, student-led project of designing an integrated matrix of the concepts presented by the authors.

Also, at the first class meeting, I asked the students to keep in mind the questions I had about the structure of the course (i.e., using email for discussions, not meeting weekly, and exposing their ideas). These questions related to (a) the level of quality of the email discussions, (b) the sense of belonging to the group, (c) the degree of flexibility of when to respond via email, and (d) the sense of preparedness for the comprehensive exams. I also had a concern about how colleagues would react to the fact that I was not meeting weekly with students.

While not quite an act of commission before permission, the students and I undertook this new adventure in teaching and learning. None of the students had major problems with gaining access to email, even though some had never used email before. I also had concerns about how in depth the dialogue would be about the author’s writings. During the first month, it appeared that students were trying to write far more than was necessary. I had to frequently encourage them to write more concisely—in perhaps three or paragraphs instead of pages. I also felt compelled to respond to all of the students’ email. I had underestimated the time it took to read all of the dialogue and to write back to each student. I soon learned that a very brief acknowledgement of each student’s comments would suffice.

One of the most visible outcomes of the email was the substance of the dialogue. It may have been the fact that what they wrote would be seen by their peers or they had been more organized in thinking about what the other student wrote and their own interpretation of what the author intended. It was evident by the exchange of email that the students had read the chapters. There was a sense of accountability for what each had written. At times, in a regular class discussion, I wondered if the student had actually read the assignment or was simply a good talker.

When we came together about every other week, I discovered that I was more a participant than a professor. I would facilitate the discussions, but did little, if any, direct instruction. The students took a major role in the leadership of the discussions. We did find that in order to go through the cycle of discussion and response, the assigned leader/writer for the week had to have his or her comments emailed by the weekend. This provided the opportunity for students to work on their responses over the weekend and have the dialogues done by Tuesday. Since we met on Wednesdays, this brought closure to the email dialogue and had us prepared for face-to-face discussions.

During the semester, email dialogues constantly improved. Student comments became more concise. The reactions were more pointed. It seemed that the students were more comfortable in expressing their point of view and in asking questions of each other. Because of the dialogues, I felt I knew the students much better and had a sense of how they felt about the different issues discussed.

Even during the semester students expressed appreciation for the opportunity to work on their reading assignments and to use the email for dialogue when they had the available time. Some did the assignments after their children were in bed. Others did the assignments before they went to work. Each seemed to find a much more convenient time (and access to the computer), while still taking care of their home and work responsibilities.

Near the end of the course, I suggested to the students that we might consider a culminating group project. Could we create something from our readings that would be useful to ourselves and to others interested in American society and public education? We came up with a matrix that conveyed the ideas of the authors of the two books that we had read and discussed. We felt that the matrix could be a good starting place for the next group of students taking the course.

In reflecting on the semester-long experience of using email instead of weekly class meetings, I was particularly impressed with (a) the high quality of the written exchange of ideas, (b) the questions posed, and (c) the high quality of discussion when we met as a group. My slight concern about how other faculty might react to my students not meeting each week was unfounded. In fact, to some degree, I have become the resident "expert" on the use of the Internet as a delivery method.

I certainly haven’t perfected the integration of teaching and technology. I’m thinking of things that I would add or change for next semester. I want to experiment with conferencing software that can provide the synchronous exchange of ideas. Synchronous voice and video conferencing are included in most Web browsers.

Internet technology allows us to focus on learner outcomes instead of teacher contact hours, on providing students a wide range of choices of how to earn a degree, and on providing quality college courses at a convenient time and place. My ability to stretch beyond the traditional paradigm of teaching a course proved to be an exciting and rewarding experience, and I believe, a better course for the students.

The URL for the course, Paradigms and Practices of Schooling, can be seen at ~mckay/97para/parastar.htm.


Gerzon, M. (1995). A House Divided: Six Belief Systems Smuggling for America’s Soul. New York: Putnam Publishing.

Berliner, D. C. and Biddle, B. J. (1995). The Manufactured Crisis: Myth, Fraud, & the Attack on America’s Public Schools. Boston: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.

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