Like many states across the country, Minnesota has implemented strategies to improve mathematics education that include higher standards, greater accountability, and increased access to challenging curricula. Still, the teacher’s role remains central to mathematics reform, particularly for elementary teachers who set the stage for students’ future success in math. Content-specific, practical professional development for these teachers is therefore crucial to the success of these reforms.
Unfortunately, as financial resources shrink, providing professional development to these teachers has become alarmingly cost-prohibitive. Time, funding, and logistics pose significant barriers to all schools, but particularly to those in rural areas where wide disbursement of faculty makes regular face-to-face meetings expensive and inefficient. Even if financial and technical resources were available, often there simply are not enough qualified trainers to reach every teacher in need.
In 2002, Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) brought its digital video expertise into partnership with the Rational Numbers Project (RNP) in an effort to provide teachers and districts with wider, easier, and more cost-effective access to high-quality professional development. The RNP had in its repertory a five-day, face-to-face workshop for mathematics teachers that gave our collaborative project ideal source material on several levels: the workshop’s effectiveness was backed by 20 years of research; its content (focused on increasing student understanding of fractions through the use of hands-on manipulatives) lent itself to online adaptation; and the RNP staff people trained to lead the workshop were few in number but high in demand.
With additional partners in the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Education, TPT and the RNP launched the “Teaching Fractions” project with funding from a Ready to Teach grant from the U.S. Department of Education. This project took the shape of an experiment comparing online and face-to-face delivery of professional development content, using resulting student achievement as a measure.
One group of teachers attended the five-day workshop, while another group experienced the workshop online over the course of six weeks with an RNP facilitator and digital video shot by TPT. Ultimately, we aimed to produce an accessible, online professional development resource that improved math teachers’ content knowledge and practical skills and increased fourth and fifth graders’ achievement in mathematics.
Teaching teachers with high-quality video
In describing the Teaching Fractions online course and its focus on high-quality video, we emphasize the distinction between the common professional development video series available on the market and our vision of a discussion-based professional development experience in which short video clips serve as the basis for analysis and debate. Our intent was not to deliver instruction by means of video, but rather to open an observation window on a real classroom; to use video as an important, but not exclusive, tool to introduce or illustrate concepts, support dialogue and reflection, and model the curriculum.
To replicate the modeling experience as vividly as possible, TPT video crews visited the classrooms of several elementary school teachers, all graduates of the RNP’s face-to-face workshop, to capture high-resolution digital footage of unscripted, unrehearsed presentation of concepts, teacher-student call and response, teacher-student one-on-one interactions, and students working alone and with partners.
TPT worked with Kathleen Cramer of the RNP to select video segments, each ranging between three and six minutes in length, to pair with each of the 10 lessons that comprised the RNP workshop. We then focused on building context exercises, discussions, and readings into the coursework, so teachers would be poised to identify, analyze, and reflect on specific skills and strategies as they were applied by the teacher in the video.
The course itself was constructed on a WebCT platform managed by the University of Minnesota, with design elements and some functionality created by TPT. Factoring in the state of many schools’ technology infrastructures and the knowledge that transmission over the web would degrade the quality of our video footage, we opted against online delivery and instead provided each teacher with a CD-ROM of the video clips. Beyond resolving compatibility and video quality issues, CDs offered participants ease of use and availability for repeated, post-course viewing that is a major improvement over online viewing.
In addition to the CD-ROM, we outfitted the course with a number of supporting resources. The Teaching Fractions web site contains streaming versions of the video clips, as well as a short video segment describing the RNP curriculum and the need for the Teaching Fractions study. In 2003, TPT produced a 30-minute program, called “Factoring Families into Math,” that aired eight times between January and May of 2005 on TPT channels 2 and 17. With run times set throughout the week during different parts of the day for maximum exposure, the program reached an average of nearly 6,000 households per broadcast, achieving a .65 rating (or 10,826 households) for its February 27th airing. Promoted by a letter from the president of TPT sent to parents of fourth and fifth graders of teachers participating in Teaching Fractions, the program stressed the importance of math skills and the role of the family in fostering interest and understanding in mathematical concepts. All teachers in the project received PDF versions of the president’s letter translated into three languages, as well as a VHS copy of the program to loan out to interested parents.
This past June, we completed the classroom implementation phase of the project. Our two experimental groups, online and face-to-face, have pre-tested their fourth and fifth graders’ understanding of fractions, have taught the RNP curriculum, and have post-tested their students and submitted their results to our evaluator at Learning Point Associates. An additional group that did not receive training and taught their regular district-mandated fractions curriculum also has provided pre- and post-tests to use as comparison data.
Our evaluator’s analysis of the test score data revealed that the students of teachers who participated in the online and face-to-face professional development outperformed (at a statistically significant level) the students of teachers who received no professional development and taught fractions using their standard curricula.
We examined the extent to which students’ test scores improved from pre-test to post-test (a gain score), and used analysis of variance (ANOVA) and hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) to compare the three groups. Students of teachers in the online group gained an average of 10.3 points on the 25-item fractions test, students of teachers in the face-to-face group gained an average of 9.8 points, and students whose teachers received no professional development gained an average of 6.6 points. These results suggest that the online professional development was at least as effective as the face-to-face professional development–and that both produced significantly better student outcomes than the comparison group. As we’d hoped, the efficacy of the proven RNP face-to-face course remained undiminished after making the transition to a fully online environment.
What we’ve learned
The findings reinforced our decision to select non-master teachers as model teachers in our video clips, as well as our effort to address varied adult learning styles by incorporating reading, reflection, discussion, viewing, and collaborating. After watching the video clips, pilot participants commented frequently that they were more able to identify with the model teachers because they were more closely aligned with them in experience and skill level. The interaction on screen seemed more authentic, and the skill levels of the model teachers seemed more attainable.
One online participant who found the video clips to be the most helpful part commented, “It was good to know the theory and the background behind why these techniques work, but I found the actual seeing somebody teach it the most helpful for me.” Another teacher, a self-described visual learner, was very pleased by the varied engagement devices–from the video and audio elements to the hands-on activities with both virtual and physical manipulatives.
Overall, participants were very pleased with the online course, and all participants expressed that they had experienced substantial learning by their own standards.
Our evaluators made an exciting observation during their visits to classrooms to observe teachers in the study’s implementation phase. After having reviewed the video clips beforehand, our evaluators expected to see some similarities in the teaching style and word choice between the model teacher and the teacher under observation. After their visits, however, the team remarked on a noticeably uniform pattern of behaviors, language, and lesson pacing across all teachers–all retraceable to model-teacher performances in the video clips.
In addition to serving as an effective modeling tool, our classroom footage also captured many instances of students engaged in private speech, a psycholinguistic phenomenon and emerging topic in cognitive science that has been related in some cases to higher achievement among those students who engage in it, by repeating instructions to themselves, for instance, as they work through a problem (Winsler et al., 1997). Both our RNP partners and teachers participating in the study were delighted at the opportunity to listen in on students in conversation with themselves as they worked on a task. Our crews captured many private speech moments and cataloged a wealth of footage that could be a resource for a future project.
Teaching Fractions serves as a model for our future endeavors aligning TPT’s expertise in digital video production with experts in education for the purpose of researching improvements and alternatives to current mechanisms for delivering educational content. During the recent Teaching Fractions project, TPT worked with St. Paul Public Schools to successfully test the use of datacasting technology as a non-web-based mechanism for delivering the video clips to teachers, and we continue to research other educational applications for this technology. In the future, we hope to partner with area colleges or universities to explore the viability of long-distance observation and documentation of student teachers via new video technologies.
William Burns is the education services administrator for Twin Cities Public Television.
Teaching Fractions program and results