September/October 2000 // Commentary
Technology Needs Teamwork
by Peshe C. Kuriloff
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Peshe C. Kuriloff "Technology Needs Teamwork" The Technology Source, September/October 2000. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

After 20 years of teaching, I recently have found myself at loose ends in the classroom. My confidence is diminished, and I suddenly feel vulnerable again. What accounts for this setback? In a word: technology. In the last five years, the teaching field has changed dramatically, and the need to master new technologies has made beginners of us all.

Technology has affected teaching in many ways: it has expanded classroom resources to include the entire world of the Internet and electronic communication; it has de-centralized the classroom and focused increased attention on the individual learner and learning outcomes; it has threatened the privacy of instruction and redefined the nature of teacher-student interaction. Used as the exclusive medium for delivery, technology has brought the need for the classroom into question; it has permitted an entirely new model for teaching and learning to emerge, one that threatens the conventional strategies of individual instructors and heightens the value of teamwork. No wonder experienced teachers feel the earth moving under their feet.

Developing Pedagogy: The Work of Two Minds

For the past year and a half, I have been working on a project to develop cost-effective uses for technology in teaching at the University of Pennsylvania (UP). In those 18 months I have had enough negative experiences with computers and those who maintain them to recognize that good technical support is priceless. I envision new teaching methods using technology that I would like to employ, but my knowledge of hardware and software is limited. All the vision in the world is worthless without the skills to implement it. And effective implementation, I have found, requires two perspectives operating simultaneously: the teacher's and the technologist's.

The development of new pedagogy, traditionally the teacher's job, has passed nearly beyond the reach of the average instructor working alone. I may imagine, for example, my students working in small groups on a Web site but not know whether such activity is technically feasible. My technical consultant, on the other hand, knows not only that creating groups is feasible but also that we can set up chat rooms for each group so that the group members can meet synchronously. But the technician may not mention that possibility to me unless I specifically ask.

Miscommunication—or a lack of communication—can lead to missed opportunities. If my technical consultant and I do not work hard to communicate effectively, I may never fully integrate the power of technology into my teaching. If we do communicate, however, the possibilities for identifying new teaching methods expand dramatically. Our new course might feature not only small groups exchanging papers and discussing them in chat rooms, but also a voiceover offering instructions for peer review. By pooling our knowledge and experience, we can accomplish much more than either of us could separately.

The Need for Technologist-Teacher Collaboration

After years of isolation in their disciplines and classrooms, teachers are finding themselves challenged to reinvent their pedagogies and alter their goals. If we start with the assumption that the teacher governs the curriculum and the technologist translates that content into electronic form, which is often the case, we are headed in the wrong direction. Anecdotal evidence indicates that the most successful technology-intensive courses employ new pedagogy rather than try to recreate the traditional classroom in a new setting. It is not hard to use new media to facilitate delivery of the same old course; it is much more challenging to use media to change how we teach. For many, the initial challenge involves working with others as a team, often for the first time. Generations of technology may be wasted if teachers do not influence its development; and technology's potential to enrich teaching and learning may be lost (as was television's) or greatly weakened if technologists do not empower teachers to expand what they do.

Nothing illustrates the validity of that claim more clearly than the recently announced $25 million collaboration between Microsoft and MIT. However higher education professionals may feel about industry investment and control, the partnership illustrates that both sides perceive potential gains from working together. Each side holds precious knowledge that it cannot make full use of as an independent entity. Good models for collaboration are scarce. Still, we need to resist vigorously any temptation to allow either technical experts or teachers to work in isolation. Even though collaboration necessitates the development of a new, shared language, both sides must be forced out of their cocoons.

In a recent discussion on the Teaching, Learning, and Technology (TLT) listserv, certain people who work with teachers and technology emphasized the importance of encouraging teachers to take a hands-on approach to new tools; in theory, teachers cannot own the new media if they do not understand how it works. Although it is certainly true, this position fails to recognize the potentially increased rewards of collaboration. No amount of faculty entrepreneurship will achieve the results that a team approach can produce.

Teachers and technologists need to sit down together and establish a common understanding of desired learning outcomes. Technologists can empower faculty by gathering models and showing them how to use available resources, such as course management programs, conferencing software, and audio and video tools. Faculty (and students who have experienced the electronic learning environment) can guide technologists by describing fruitful teaching and learning experiences and demonstrating desirable faculty-student interactions. Together, these professionals can learn by doing and also draw conclusions about needed innovations in both pedagogy and technology. As a team, teachers and technologists are more likely to acquire both the credibility and the clout to move the whole field of instructional technology forward.

Collaboration Among Instructors: A Case Study

The need for teamwork in managing technology has highlighted the value of employing technology to facilitate teamwork in many different fields and contexts. In the science and business communities, collaboration traditionally has played an important role both in the discovery process and in problem solving. Teamwork is common, and its benefits are widely acknowledged. Only in the light of new technologies, however, have professionals in fields as far apart as architecture and education recognized collaboration as an opportunity likely to shape the future of their practices. The ease of technology-mediated communication makes collaboration a simple process, and many specialists are starting to take advantage of it. Professional organizations are facilitating communication among their members, and colleagues from around the world are sharing their expertise via e-mail. It is becoming not only likely that professionals will collaborate, but also inexcusable if they don't.

In the field of writing instruction, my specialty, the writing-across-the-curriculum movement has brought faculty from disparate fields together for a single purpose. The interdepartmental cooperation on which this movement depends, however, initially proved too difficult for many institutions to facilitate. Certain objectives—teaming a writing professional with a faculty member in a discipline, organizing training across multiple departments, and enabling faculty in different schools to visit each other's classrooms—remained unrealized because of seemingly insurmountable barriers.

By using technology to facilitate our interactions, four UP colleagues and I have overcome such barriers. In a project designed to create technology-enhanced pedagogy, we formed an interdisciplinary team to create a writing curriculum and teach it jointly. Drawing on all of the fields we represented—English, philosophy, political science, classics, and education—we created the curriculum collaboratively through listserv conversations; a Web site, which enables us to see all the work of student groups; frequent (almost daily) e-mail about the course and our students' work; and regular virtual staff meetings. In short, technology allows us to pool our field-specific knowledge to enhance the learning opportunities we offer students.

Strengthened by the involvement of both humanists and social scientists, the team has developed teaching strategies that no one member envisioned separately. For example, when our social scientist created a unit on argumentation, the team enriched the unit by linking it to a classical studies Web site. The site features models for writing a variety of persuasive genres, including eulogies and other forms of praise as well as deliberative and logical arguments. By collaborating, we offer our students multiple contexts for writing, multiple perspectives, and multiple points of reference. We learn from each other, and the students learn from all of us.

Our experience gives new definition to the term "team teaching" and offers a model that is both cost-effective and efficient. Instead of two teachers teaching a single group of students, we have a team of four teachers teaching four groups collaboratively. Students can access the expertise of any one of their instructors; for example, should a question about the conventions of writing in philosophy arise, the instructor from philosophy can respond. The curriculum is rich and varied, integrating methods of analysis along with material from four fields rather than just one or two. Add to this mix a technical expert who facilitates the integration of technology into the course design by, for example, enabling us to present material not just as text, but also in the form of audio and video, and a completely new learning environment emerges.

A Mandate for Collaboration

Taking full advantage of the learning opportunity that technology offers demands that we approach teaching as a collaborative venture. We have too much to lose if we don't. Collaboration may take more time initially, which runs against the grain of technologists who are eager to provide more capacity but are less thoughtful about how to use it. In the end, however, the results will prove well worth the wait, as teachers like myself become increasingly empowered. At this stage, it is already clear that technology will transform teaching and learning. Technology needs teamwork to ensure that it not only changes education, but also improves it.

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