Creating Connections:
An Internet Training Program
for Rural K-12 Teachers

Dianna Lawyer-Brook and Lorraine Sherry
RMC Research Corporation, Denver, Colorado

Full Citation:
Lawyer-Brook, D., & Sherry, L. (1996, February 26). Electronic Journal on Virtual Culture, 4 (1). ISSN 1081-3055
[listed as EJVCV4N1 BLACK]


Our purpose is to present a training model which emphasizes innovative teaching strategies, ongoing support and advanced technology, and whose components are easily replicated due to its effective use of peer teachers and existing lab facilities. The project was designed to enable rural teachers to navigate the Internet, communicate with their peers, and enhance their effectiveness in teaching science and math through Internet-based resources.

Creating Connections: An Internet Training Program for Rural K-12 Teachers

With the growth in popularity of the Internet throughout the nation, educators were quick to note its potential to improve education in isolated and geographically remote schools, as well as to facilitate distance education programs. The Internet could be used as a resource for staff development, a medium to improve communication between educators, a research tool for students, and a means to encourage collaborative learning.

However, as attractive as the potential benefits were, the barriers to Internet use often seemed overwhelming. Access alone, at times, appeared to be enough of a problem to inhibit progress. Those who persisted, however, discovered endless possibilities which they could now use to enhance their teaching.

The Boulder Valley School District was one of the first districts to attempt to bring Internet access to every administrator, teacher, and student. The Boulder Valley Internet Project was designed to take advantage of the technology for both administrative and instructional uses. A major component was its emphasis on staff development. Their successes in this arena encouraged its organizers to share what they learned with other educators.

The new project, Creating Connections: Rural Teachers and the Internet, was funded by the Annenberg/CPB Math & Science Project and the US West Foundation. It was designed to increase the participants' expertise in navigating the Internet, to establish communications links among participating rural teachers, and to give them greater access to research, instructional strategies, and educational materials which could enhance their effectiveness in teaching science and math. To accomplish these objectives, a number of strategies were used, including face-to-face training by peer educators, technical support both online and by telephone, and the creation of the SAMI (Science and Math Initiatives) database.


Creating Connections project leaders held weekend Internet training workshops for 471 rural educators during the summer of 1994 in twenty national sites from Alaska to South Carolina. Instructors were part of a core group of experienced Internet users who were instrumental in the Boulder Valley Internet project as peer trainers. The training sites were furnished by host post-secondary institutions.

Since the summer training sessions, ongoing technical support has been available to all workshop participants both online and via a toll-free number and FAX. Response to requests for help is usually immediate or within 24 hours.

The project also supports the SAMI database, which centralizes pointers to useful math and science resources, information about mini-grants and funding, and locations from which to download software and shareware. SAMI includes math and science challenges linked to national and state math and science standards for students and teachers at all levels. [Note: SAMI has been archived.] The objectives of Creating connections were focused on three areas: increasing the participants' expertise in navigating the Internet and locating relevant materials; enabling teachers to connect, communicate and collaborate with each other via E-mail and mailing lists; and aiding teachers in curricular innovation for educational reform by providing access to databases of educational research, instructional strategies, and math/science curriculum resources.

The series of summer workshops in 1994 was the first contact between the participants and the project instructors. Those applicants who met the project's guidelines were selected from a pool of volunteers and accepted into the program. Initial training addressed the first objective of the project, namely, to increase the participants' expertise in navigating the Internet. From the initial questionnaire which was administered to all participants at the close of the workshop, it was apparent that most were beginners who saw the Internet as a professional asset. Most reported that their general level of pre-workshop Internet use was "never" or "I tried it once or twice". The majority of participants agreed with the statement, "Internet proficiency is a professional asset." Specifically, respondents reported that they would like to become proficient in the use of E-mail and Internet tools, to share those skills with other teachers through inservice training, and to begin to introduce their students to the Internet.

With training and experience, we found that the participants grew more comfortable with the Internet. Six months after the initial training workshops, on a Likert scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high), the mean comfort level was 2.92 with a standard deviation of 1.28. Teachers responded that they must first feel comfortable with the new technology in order to bring their peers up to their level of proficiency. The intention of the project was that, with experience, participants' focus would evolve from individual growth, to communication and collaboration, and finally to the integration of Internet-based activities into the classroom, with significant curriculum development and educational reform representing the ultimate goal.

In our evaluation of the project, we analyzed the responses of the post-workshop questionnaire and a follow-up survey administered to all participants six months thereafter. Fifty-six percent considered the training excellent; thirty-four percent good to very good; seven percent adequate, and only three percent inadequate. They reported that the training was effective and met their needs; the content and level of information of the workshops were appropriate; the ancillary notebook of educational resources was valuable; and that they preferred hands-on practice following a live demonstration rather than collaborative learning with peer trainees. A minority felt that group discussions were not particularly valuable, and preferred to spend the bulk of their time working alone on their own computers.

As with most training sessions, we were not without our share of logistic difficulties. We encountered the usual comments, "I can't see the overhead projector", "I can't get my computer to connect", or "our district uses a different system." Some participants wanted to be trained on the same computer platform and software that they had at their schools, and did not like sharing a computer during the training session. We realize that to match each and every participant with a customized Internet system would be a Herculean task. In the future, however, we hope to have a mix of both PC's and Macs, so that we can accommodate individual preferences.

A few participants commented that certain activities were irrelevant to their particular needs: "I can't relate to telnet", "I can't see why I'd want to use FTP", or "Mosaic is over my head". When participants were asked what changes they would like to see in the training activities, twenty-three percent wanted longer workshops; twenty-six percent wanted follow-up training, either on the same topics but in more depth; and fifteen percent wanted advanced uses such as file transfer, use of the WWW, and specific software packages. The remaining twenty-six percent of the responses included requests for on-site training, help with access, more time for practice, monthly idea exchanges, grouping participants by subject area, and more emphasis on curriculum integration.

In response to these requests, the project administrators started a newsletter. Follow-up workshops have been held at the request of project participants in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and upstate New York. And, since some respondents mentioned that curriculum integration was not stressed in their workshops, project trainers are now offering a new series of workshops which specifically deal with curriculum.

The SAMI database has also been expanded. Originally, it was designed to provide rural teachers with an easily accessible database of information on math and science reform initiatives, strategies for delivering more effective math and science instruction, and existing curriculum units that take advantage of new technologies, including the Internet. SAMI now includes information on funding sources, shareware, math and science curriculum, rural resources, libraries, and a listing of relevant educational institutions. Future plans include the expansion of the SAMISM curriculum implementation directory with the addition of new, locally created lesson plans and activities directly tied to standards and assessments.

Technical Support

A project that introduces innovation to a population requires ongoing support until the innovation becomes part of the culture. Especially in technology, where the language and procedures are unique to the field, a large degree of "hand-holding" is necessary in the beginning. Moreover, participants wanted to maintain contact with their instructors and peers from the workshop. Continued communication from experts, their instructors, and other peers could provide informal assistance.

New trainees wished to establish a level of comfort and be supported by mentors before they felt confident using their newly developed skills. They wanted to be able to talk to people on the phone, or to receive a personalized E-mail reply to their specific questions. A typical comment was, "I want a real person on the other end of the line to answer my questions when I get stuck".

The project organizers were sensitive to this need for support, and established an online helpdesk for individual questions. Both the E-mail feature and a toll-free 800 number are now available. The newsletter also helps to maintain contact among participants, and inform them of future developments, especially for trainees who still have not been able to obtain district and administrative support for Internet accounts.

One surprising result of our project evaluation was that, while substantial percentage of participants requested technical support, very few of them actually used it. Three percent of the participants availed themselves of the support services regularly, 31 percent less than five times, and 66 percent never used them at all! Perhaps the support component was not emphasized sufficiently in the training, it may be difficult to reach the helpdesk, or the support may not match the actual needs of the participants. Another possible explanation is the lack of Internet access which still plagues some of our participants.

Although providing access was not targeted as one of the objectives of the project, it is one of the prime difficulties encountered by new telecommunications users. Access must be dealt with, within the classroom itself, the school building, or the district as a whole. This project purposefully did not attempt to address access beyond that of the individual participant. As a result, many participants were forced to use commercial servers because of the unwillingness, inability, or lack of finances of their school districts to pay for district-wide or school- wide Internet access.

Of those who did use the support services, eighty- eight percent found them helpful or very helpful. A full year after the initial training session, the online helpdesk averages more than twenty-five E-mail requests a day. The toll-free 800 number, however, is utilized minimally: an average of two to three times a month. Thus, while most beginners said that they would like to speak with a real person, the helpdesk logs showed that the preferred contact with a real person is via E-mail rather than by phone.

Telecommunications Bridges

With the first objective of the project met, namely, helping trainees gain expertise in navigating the Internet and finding useful resources, we move on to the second objective. This was to have the participants connect, communicate, and collaborate with each other and with non-participants via E-mail and LISTSERVs. Participating teachers would learn how to contact peers and obtain information from the scientific community, colleges and universities, and local, state, and federal agency representatives. The goal was to develop a learning community where participants would build, share, and disseminate knowledge.

Since project participants live in isolated, rural areas, the initial ratings of feelings of isolation paralleled their geographic isolation. In the follow- up survey, when they were asked how the project had affected their relationship with other colleagues, participants reported decreased levels of isolation and increased collaboration. One respondent, however, stated that since he was now able to connect to distant colleagues, he felt the geographic isolation more. Though nearly one hundred participants reported increased collaboration both at school and at distant locations, some participants commented that they felt more of an affinity with the global community than with their immediate, local colleagues.

When asked with whom and for what purpose they were networking, participants reported that nearly half of their time (forty-six percent) was spent connecting with other teachers. Of that time, thirty-nine percent was spent in finding classroom resources, and twenty- six percent in sharing ideas. Participants occasionally connected with experts in math or science (six percent), or with school reform experts for the purpose of getting advice and guidance (fourteen percent). Other purposes for networking were exploring Internet resources, practicing using Internet tools, seeking funding sources, professional development activities, and searching databases for useful classroom activities. A few also mentioned spending time "lost in cyberspace".

Curriculum Innovation

The ultimate goal of Creating Connections is to impact instruction in the classroom. Thus, the third objective is to aid teachers in curriculum innovation for educational reform by providing access to databases of educational research, instructional strategies, and math and science curriculum resources.

Some respondents indicated that they had changed their instruction as a result of their participation in the project. When asked what level of impact their newly-found Internet resources had on their teaching, two- thirds reported a moderate to moderately high impact. The types of changes which occurred in their teaching ranged from having access to more resources, timely materials, lesson plans, new ideas, new teaching strategies, and hands-on student projects, to becoming more in touch with others, sharing ideas with other teachers and students, and developing an increased sense of global involvement on the part of their students. Here are some comments from participants who indicated that telecommunications did, in fact, impact their teaching:

"The emphasis is now changing from edutainment to telecommunication projects."

"I bring Internet information to my classroom every day."

"Children are more interested in current events when the information is timely."

"Student enthusiasm and global awareness are increasing. Students can exchange information and ideas with others around the world."

"I now have access to science experts to answer unusual science questions."

"I can back up enthusiasm for networking with solid ideas and resources."

"Telecommunications has a high impact on my job as school librarian."

"Students are interested in Internet research."

"More available information encourages students to do more in-depth study."

"Learning is real and relevant, and my students are actively engaged."

"I can now facilitate group activities more efficiently."

"I have learned more strategies. I also feel an increased sense of belonging to a community of professionals."

"I see projects and possibilities for collaboration and a more meaning-centered curriculum."

"I've become the facilitator rather than the dictator".

When teachers and students are more in touch with others, collaborate in joint projects, and are able to link globally, a new learning community comes into being. As mentioned above, the survey data showed that, though participants used the Internet in the role of a provider of resources, new ideas, teaching strategies, and lesson plans, fully one-third of their time was spent networking with other teachers to share ideas or to seek advice from experts.

The resources that these educators acquired from the Internet were numerous and varied. They included national and global pen pals, LISTSERVs, curriculum materials, shareware, expedition sites, current event centers, reference materials, tutorials, graphic files, and many, many more.

The SAMI Database

One of the greatest difficulties for educators in using the Internet for classroom purposes is the overwhelming amount of available information. With this in mind, the project organizers began to develop the SAMI database at about the same time as the training workshops were started. Thus, SAMI was demonstrated, but not used very much at the initial summer training sessions. This lack of emphasis was reflected in participants' initial responses to the utility of SAMI. In the follow-up survey, forty-seven percent had never used it, forty-two percent had used it less than five times, and only eleven percent used it regularly.

Besides the fact that SAMI was just being developed, other contributing factors for its underutilization may be that the database was oriented toward math and science, and that almost one-third of the project's participants did not consider math or science as their main subjects. Also, many of the participants did no have access to the WWW during the beginning of the project.

In examining the SAMI usage logs, we have found that the utilization of this database has grown substantially over time. The number of connects are now about one thousand per week, with around two hundred connects on a heavy usage day. Moreover, it is not just project participants who access SAMI; people connect from California to New York, from Australia to Sweden. University servers with the "edu" domain designation have the highest number of connections relative to users of commercial servers with the domain designations "net" or "com". The most popular pages are mini-grants and software, followed by math and science resources, and the SAMISM curriculum innovation resources.


Overall, Creating Connections has been very successful in meeting its objectives for those participants who have access to the Internet. The greatest barrier has been the difficulty and length of time necessary for the participants to get online. When working with a new technology, the technology itself can present challenges to an innovative project. Obstacles can run from equipment problems to materials becoming outdated. Regardless of quality of training or support, if the participants cannot use the technology, the objectives of the project cannot be met. In spite of the project's guideline that participants needed to have Internet access, today, more than a year later, only 320 of the original 471 trainees are online.

When looking at the evaluation data, we found that the training was perceived to be of high quality, exceeded expectations, covered the necessary information, and used good instructional strategies. Written materials were considered helpful, though participants still preferred a live demonstration followed by individual, hands-on practice. Participants would like follow-up training sessions, either more in-depth, or covering additional topics. Moreover, because of the newness of some of the information, training and materials need to be exceptionally well organized in order to lower the anxiety level of the trainees.

The success of the training may have been impacted by the type of individuals who participated. The 471 educators who were initially trained not only chose the project, but invested their own time and effort to do so. The majority of survey responses were from those individuals who had managed to get online. Both of these characteristics would indicate that the respondents were most likely innovators or early adopters of technology. Had participants been randomly selected, different responses may have resulted.

Project participants wanted technical support; however, the support services are still underutilized, especially the toll-free 800 number. Though participants do not avail themselves of technical support very often, they find it quite helpful when they do so. Perhaps a few critical questions answered at the appropriate time make a difference in participants' use of the system.

The participants who do have Internet acccess have used it to establish communications bridges, and therefore feel less isolated. They use their time for finding resources and sharing ideas with their peers, as well as occasionally asking experts for assistance.

To advance curriculum reform, a strong resource knowledge base and a network of collaborators needs to be developed. Despite the slow start, progress has been made with the creation of a network of trained teachers, peers, and experts, and access to resources through databases and other Internet tools. Participants feel that there has been a positive impact on their teaching, primarily in increased collaboration and the availability of new materials.

This finding is in line with the goal of the project, namely, to move teachers from staff development, to collaboration, to creating new curricula and instructional strategies. And, because the use of SAMI has increased so dramatically since its inception, the SAMISM curriculum implementation database may serve as a future catalyst for greater impact in curriculum reform, not only within the bounds of this project, but also among members of the global community who are now beginning to discover its potential.