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A Wider Audience:  A Merger of Writing, Technology and Service Learning

Jane Carol Manner, EdD

 

Theoretical Perspectives

 

Considerable interest has been generated regarding the concept of self-efficacy and its influences on a panoply of human behaviors since Bandura's seminal work in the eighties (Bandura, 1986).  Research efforts have elucidated the role of perceived self-efficacy as a powerful influence on self-regulatory behavior, both in academic and organizational settings, as well as on goal setting and academic performance.  Perceptions of self-efficacy have been shown to influence the levels of challenge people set for themselves, the level of effort they expend in pursuit of goals, and the level of persistence demonstrated when difficulties in goal achievement are encountered (Zimmerman, Bandura, & Martinez-Pons, 1992).  Since the behavioral characteristics examined in this research have particular application to the teaching profession in contemporary times, the concept of perceived self-efficacy among educators is an important one.

           

As the teaching profession enters an era replete with high teacher attrition and national shortages of instructional personnel, the behavioral attributes attendant to an improved sense of self-efficacy are more than simply attractive. They are essential.  National legislation known as "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) mandates a highly qualified teacher for every public school classroom (Mathis, 2003).  A primary emphasis of NCLB relates to required general technological acumen, and the need for current professionals to be competent in the technologies which support both communication and academic performance. The looming dearth of the highly qualified makes it critically important that training effectively prepare preservice teachers as academicians with content knowledge and the technological/pedagogical skills essential to their future role in schools. Additionally, however, preservice programs must support teacher candidates in the development of the behavioral characteristics which will improve their chances of functioning with creativity, perseverance, and resilience in their professional roles.  Without the latter, the former will have little chance of serving the educational needs of American youth, and teacher attrition could well expand beyond the current alarming proportions.

           

While some teachers will seek to hone their skills and become nationally board certified over a period of time, the qualities to be demonstrated by teaching professionals do not represent a collective goal toward which candidates must aim in the future.  A set of competencies which represent the baseline for beginning teachers is provided nationally by INTASC, the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium.  Among the ten standards provided by INTASC, communication and technology are conjoined as standard six, requiring that even novice teachers use knowledge of effective verbal and media communication techniques to support active inquiry and interaction in the classroom (The INTASC Standards, 1992).  Standard six represents the central focus of the present study.

           

Still more circumstances impacting public education exacerbate the need to focus on self-efficacy in teacher education.  Contemporary classroom teachers are expected to function effectively with respect to the provision of comprehensible instruction to an increasingly divergent circle of learners.  The effort to mainstream students with special needs to inclusive classrooms is a national trend (Simeonsson, Carlson, Huntington, McMillen & Brent, 2001). Multicultural considerations in classroom planning are receiving increased attention in most school districts (Banks & Banks, 2001), and the needs of a burgeoning population of second language learners have required a whole new look at teacher training as well as inservice performance (Reid, J., 1995).  Many teachers, from the ranks of the novice and the veteran, report feeling overwhelmed.  Attrition is a major concern nationwide.

           

School districts report the costly effects of teacher attrition, both in terms of finance and human staffing needs.  Research is being undertaken to examine teacher attrition in hopes of reversing the trend both with proactive and reactive measures (Croasmun, Hampton, & Herrmann, 2006). Studies of exit interviews from those leaving the profession cite a number of identifiable causes, including pay, paperwork demands, lack of parental support, and the overwhelming challenges of accountability for meeting the needs of diverse learners. Many teachers leaving the profession express a sense of failure on the part of their preparation programs for failing to prepare them for the actual challenges they would face in the field (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2005).

           

The present study is supported by the theoretical perspective of Bandura et al in identifying perceived self-efficacy as a critical mediator in goal setting, expenditure of effort, persistence in the face of difficulty, and performance accomplishments.  It extends the line of research in the direction of examining whether or not we can impact perceptions of self efficacy in pre-service teachers as the result of the kinds of experiences we provide during the preparation period.  In this case, the experience was participation in a service-learning project within a writing intensive course which, in addition to writing, required development of skills in an emerging technology (podcasting).  Upon completion of the project, subjects completed a survey regarding perceived beliefs related to their abilities with writing, technology, and teaching in general.  These perceptions were aligned with the requirements of INTASC standard six.  Responses were analyzed with a mixed methodology design including Chi Square and qualitative examination. While these lines of inquiry align clearly with INTASC standard six for communication and technology, an overarching question about general efficacy beliefs about teaching was also included.  Although self-efficacy has been examined in numerous ways, this particular avenue with preservice teachers has not been addressed, and, thus, the present work advances research on the subject by entering an additional venue.

 

Method

 

Subjects: 

The participants in this study were 20 students from an intact group representing a section of an undergraduate, writing-intensive course in the methods of teaching social studies.  Ages ranged from 19 to 37.  There were 19 females and 1 male.  All subjects were majoring in elementary education.  Subjects were grouped according to the elementary school grade level of their field experience placement for the course.

 

Each group was presented with a service-learning project as the capstone experience of the semester. In partnership with a small museum that showcases the work of rural medical practitioners in the late 19th and early 20th century, subject groups were given one of five thematic assignments and asked to elaborate an electronic presentation template, following examination of the primary sources of the museum and additional research regarding museum exhibits and the historical context of the periods represented. Subjects were responsible for providing the content appropriate to the theme and the specific audience (by grade level) for each presentation, in alignment with curriculum standards developed by the state department of public instruction.  Subjects were subsequently required to write, edit, and record interpretive, expository scripts for each thematic presentation, and to accompany them with original digital images of the museum holdings. Subjects were finally required to convert their presentations to downloadable podcasts using Audacity software,so that the final projects could be shared with a potentially worldwide audience. 

 

The Research Questions:

Will participation in a service-learning project requiring skill development in an emerging technology (podcasting) result in improved perceptions of self-efficacy in teaching for preservice educators?  Will participation in a service-learning project requiring development of podcasts result in improved perceptions of self-efficacy in technological acumen for preservice educators? Will writing for a potentially global audience result in perceptions of improvement in the quality of personal writing by the students who participate in the project?

 

Objectives and Planned Analysis:

There were multiple objectives for the project including the provision of a service to the museum and to teachers and children in their learning about the rural healthcare of a bygone era.  The service aspect of the project was the umbrella under which the research inquiries were conceived in a mixed-methodology design. The first of those inquiries regarded whether or not subject perceptions of self-efficacy as teachers would be enhanced as the result of the experiences in skill development with an emerging technology.  The second line of inquiry related to whether or not subject perceptions of self-efficacy in technology acumen would be enhanced as a result of experiences in producing podcasts.  Each of these lines of inquiry was assessed by survey and subjected to a non-parametric Chi Square analysis relating to the intact group of subjects.  The third inquiry, relating to the perceived effect of writing for a potentially wide audience, was examined qualitatively.

           

The subject of writing for an audience in this final inquiry bears additional explication, as the sense of audience relates to more than a single layer of meaning.  The primary audience, of course, is that for which the expository writing was intended.  In

this case, it was the grade level of elementary school children for which the podcast presentation was developed.  The charge for subjects was to conceive the content represented in the presentation, and to convey it through expository writing in such a way that the developmental level of the readers would be accommodated.  Yet this was not the single sense of audience which guided their efforts.  Additionally, subjects had to consider the audience represented by the teachers who might select and employ their educational podcasts.  This professional level of audience operated as an unseen editor who might support or criticize, depending on their perception of the quality of the writing.  Finally, subjects were aware of the even wider audience of those who might access their writing from any computer on the globe with the ability to download the podcasts.  As we will see reported in qualitative examination, it was this final audience, though not the primary focus of the writer, which appears to have exerted the most significant influence on subject perceptions of the quality of the writing they contributed to the project.

           

A survey was given to each of the subjects at the conclusion of the project. All subjects participated voluntarily.  Three survey items related to the research questions of the study.  Two were quantitative in nature and provided a choice of three statements about self-efficacy from which subjects were asked to choose the one most closely aligned with their perceptions. The first quantitative item asked subjects to select a statement which indicated if their perception of self-efficacy in teaching had been enhanced, unaffected, or reduced as a result of completing assignments related to technology.  The second quantitative item asked subjects to select the statement which indicated if their perception of self-efficacy in technological acumen had been enhanced, unaffected, or reduced as a result of participation in the podcasting project.  Finally, an open-ended question invited subjects to indicate whether or not the quality of their writing had improved as the result of writing for a wide audience, and to explain why they answered as they did.  Quantitative items were analyzed with Chi Square for significance.  Responses to the final item were examined for commonalities in theme.

 

Results

 

Table 1 presents the means and standard deviations for the quantitative survey items where statements which represented enhancement were assigned a value of 3, statements which represented no effect were assigned a value of 2, and statements which represented a reduction in self-efficacy were assigned a value of 1.  Perceptions in self-efficacy related to teaching in the first question appear to be highly related to experiences requiring technology usage, with a mean of 2.75.  In addition, perceptions of self-efficacy with technology were similarly enhanced, with a mean of 2.80.


Table 1
Self-efficacy Item Means and Standard Deviations

Items M SD
1. Self-efficacy as a Teacher
My skills as a teacher have been enhanced by
completing assignments requiring addition of
technology enhancements.

2.75 1.93
2. Self-efficacy in Technology Skills
My technology skills are improved as a result of
requirements in instructional material development
with podcasting.

2.8 1.61

 

Table 2 provides the X2 values for the quantitative survey items, both of which were constructed to evaluate the perceived effect of technology requirements in the project on efficacy beliefs.  The first of these survey items questioned the effect of technology requirements on perceptions of general efficacy in teaching.  The second item questioned the effect of technology requirements on perceptions of efficacy on technological skill levels.  In both cases, results were highly significant, indicating that subject perceptions of self-efficacy related both to teaching skills and to technology skills were palpably

enhanced by participating in the project which required work with the new technology.  As might be expected, no subject indicated a diminution of self-efficacy perceptions on either measure related to the project experience, however, a reiteration of the analysis, eliminating the potential choice of having reduced efficacy beliefs (with one degree of freedom), provides similarly significant results.





Table 2
Self-efficacy Item X² Values

Items df
1. Self-efficacy as Teacher
My skills as a teacher have been enhanced by
completing assignments requiring addition of
technology enhancements.

10.71* 2
2. Self-efficacy in Technology Skills
My technology skills are improved as a result of
requirements in instructional material development
with podcasting.

17.84** 2
*p < .005
**p < .001

 

Qualitative Considerations:   

Qualitative examination of student responses to the question of whether or not the quality of their writing had improved as a result of writing for a wide audience produced surprisingly uniform results.  With few exceptions, subjects reported that the quality of their writing was affected positively by the knowledge that it would be available and potentially read by any user with Internet access and interest.  Many subjects indicated the power of this knowledge, as opposed to the influence a similar assignment might wield that would not be shared beyond the confines of the college classroom.  Most subjects did not mention the primary audience (elementary students), but focused, instead, on the sense of accountability they felt for producing quality writing which would be globally available and associated with their identities.  Several indicated the wish to link the electronic projects to electronic portfolios, which identified an additional element of "the wider audience" not previously considered. 

           

However, most subjects seemed to interpret the question relating to writing quality in a narrow sense, relating the impact of their sense of accountability primarily to effort expended on the mechanics of writing.  Because they wished to appear educated and competent, they made particular efforts to proofread, edit and revise to avoid the criticism which could be attendant to errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation and usage.  The theme of mechanics in writing was most commonly interpreted as the major quality issue in writing, which they apparently perceived to be the most likely area of potential criticism.  It appears, therefore, that undergraduate subjects may perceive that the quality of their writing is judged more in terms of correct or flawed mechanics than by other issues of quality in expository writing, such as clarity, comprehensibility of instructional features, and appropriate content.  Whether this perception is the result of writing experiences in situations where feedback related most often to those mechanical issues, and not to others, is not known, but future research might elucidate this issue with greater specificity in questioning techniques.

 

Discussion

 

The findings of the present study suggest that Bandura's concept of self-efficacy, when applied to teaching skills and the technology skills required of contemporary teachers, may be enhanced by carefully crafted preservice experiences in teacher education programs.  While the present research related primarily to improving perceptions of self-efficacy related to INTASC standard six (communication and technology), it might be argued that similarly designed course assignments, related to the competencies identified in additional INTASC standards, could reap aligned results.  Since efficacy beliefs have been shown to exert important influences on academics, goal setting, persistence, and other self-regulatory behaviors, the elevation of those beliefs would seem to be of major importance to the performance and potentially to the retention of classroom teachers.  The present results support the concept that active learning, in which preservice teachers are required to develop their own content knowledge and technology skills, results in improved efficacy beliefs.  It must be recognized, however, that the non-parametric Chi Square analysis of this intact group may have produced results which are not generalizable to the wider population.

           

In this case, it appears that the authentic nature of the assignment provided an appropriate foundation for the outcome.  In honing their writing and technology skills, subjects were developing and elaborating areas of important personal functioning related to actual job performance, as identified in INTASC standard six.  The charge to create original instructional materials for a particular audience was also in keeping with the authentic requirements of the teacher's profession in a climate where the ability to differentiate instruction, based on the characteristics and needs of an increasingly divergent pool of learners, must be a central focus.

           

With respect to writing, it is not surprising to discover that subjects, with near unanimity, perceived that the quality of their writing improved as a result of participating in the project.   The reasons given for these perceptions, and the disclosure of what the term "quality" seem to denote and connote for the subjects, however, was somewhat unexpected.  In the case of the quantitative inquiries, it appeared that the technology requirements of the assignment, per se, provided a forced situation of having to learn to use the new format of podcasting in order to reach completion.  Successful completion of the process resulted in improved efficacy beliefs. The writing aspect of the study's inquiry, however appeared to result in improved efficacy beliefs related to something

other than completion of the process itself.  Elevated efficacy beliefs with respect to writing seemed to emerge in response to an awareness of what a social psychologist might call a "generalized external audience/editor".  Subjects repeatedly cited the impact of their knowledge that the project would be examined, and perhaps selected for instructional purposes, by professional educators.  Such examination might be invited, as in the case of including the work in electronic portfolios, or simply the result of the completed project's accessibility via the Internet.  In either case, a motivating factor in taking responsibility to produce quality writing was frequently related to the ability of that "generalized audience/editor" to link the product personally with the writer.

           

This was an interesting finding inasmuch as it superseded subjects' apparent concern with the primary audience, namely the elementary schoolchildren for whom the podcasts were intended.  Since professional teachers would be the most likely "filter" for deciding the utility of the project for children, this may be a natural and anticipated observation.  The subjects' perception of quality writing, however, seemed very bound to mechanics rather than more expansive issues of quality for expository writing.  While a few listed the need to take vocabulary which was often esoteric and archaic and convert it to comprehensible instruction for second graders, the need to provide a good language model with respect to spelling, grammar, punctuation and usage was clearly a more heeded consideration.  This may again be a function of the sense of the "generalized external audience/editor" and may relate to experiences of many students whose writing has been evaluated more for mechanics than for other qualities throughout their own educational experiences.  It may also relate to the notion that the greater the number of faults with mechanics, the less likely it is that the editor/audience will take the content seriously.

           

Recommended directions for related research would include expanded examination of the types of preservice experiences in teacher education programs which would result in improved efficacy beliefs aligned with additional INTASC standards.  Efficacy beliefs among those leaving the profession versus those who persevere would be an additional avenue of essential inquiry, along with identifying perceptions among those who persevere of the elements in their training that produced elevated self-efficacy.  Elucidating these elements might result in successful replications and important outcomes for teacher retention.

           

Additional research regarding perceptions of writing quality among preservice teachers would also help professional understanding of how to support students in developing a more expanded view of writing beyond the need to get the mechanics right.  This study supports the strategy that widening the audience seems to result in subject perceptions of better quality in writing produced, and that is an important finding.  Since this strategy appears to improve motivation to produce a higher quality of writing, it should be employed frequently.  However, the common view of what "quality writing" appears to mean to subjects reveals the need to widen not only audience, but the definition of quality writing in general.  The narrow concept may be the result of the fact that attention is paid first to poor mechanics in the evaluation of writing samples in most educational settings.  In addition, students may have a justifiably stricter view of the need for error-free written products that are intended to be primarily expository in nature, and which are intended to provide good language models for children.  Emphasizing these issues alone, however, is too parochial.  It is important for teachers to recognize the need for more than observing the conventions of language in the writing process, and to convey that need to the children they teach.  Additional inquiry regarding specifics of writing beyond the conventions will be welcome.   


 

References

 

Bandura, A. (1986).  Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory.      

Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

 

Banks, J., & Banks C. (2001).  Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education.  San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.

 

Croasmun, J., Hampton, D., & Herrmann, S.  (1997). Issues challenging education:  Teacher attrition: Is time running out time? http://horizon.unc.edu/projects/issues/ papers/Hampton.asp, retrieved October 31, 2006.

 

The INTASC Standards. (1992).  http://www.dpi.state.nc.us/pbl/pblintasc.htm retrieved October 31, 2006.

 

Mathis, W.  (2003). No child left behind: Costs and benefits.  Phi Delta Kappan, 84, 32.

 

Reid, J.  (1995). Learning styles in the ESL/EFL classroom.  Florence, KY: Heinle & Heinle.

 

Simeonsson, R., Carlson, D., Huntington, G., McMillen, J., & Brent, J.  (2001). Students with disabilities: A national survey of participation in school activities.  Disability &

Rehabilitation, 23(2), 49-63.

 

Teacher Attrition:  A costly loss

 

Zimmerman, B.J., Bandura, A., & Martinez-Pons, M. (1992). Self-motivation for academic attainment: The role of self-efficacy beliefs and personal goal setting.  American Educational Research Journal, 29, 663-676.

 

 

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