Editor's Note: This interview was conducted nearly 20 years ago as part of a project I completed for the UCLA Educational Leadership program. The goal was to understand how educational leaders use computers in their daily lives and how they manage technology's many challenges in their workplace. I am amazed at how well the issues raised by the twelve K-12 leaders and higher education professionals I interviewed have stood the test of time. The hardware and software has changed, to be sure, but the challenge of using technology as a leadership tool still remains. Enjoy! *extra credit if you answer the questions at the end of each interview!
Tell me a little about your current position at the college, I know you wear many hats here at Mt. Saint Mary’s.
I have two positions at the College, one is as the director of the special education credential program for mild/moderate disabilities. I teach courses, I supervise student teachers, I hire the part time faculty, administer the program, and I’m in charge of all of the initial interviews, exit interviews. That’s one half of my job. The other half is as director of the Center for Cultural Fluency which is run off of grant money. The Center is a resource for teachers that focuses on providing access to supplementary curriculum materials for K-12 teachers to increase the diversity of their program and provide them with materials for multicultural education.
The Center’s foci is to make available to teachers materials that represent the diverse population of the United States. So if you are going to read a story to your class, consider reading a story like Clean Up Your Room Harvey Moon, who happens to be an African American boy. There is nothing unique about the story, its a very typical American scenario, but it represents another face. Another level is bringing to the study of literature other perspectives. So how can we examine the Westward expansion from the viewpoints of the Mexican American or Native American populations, not just the “wagon train west” perspective, but to provide authentic materials that are from different cultures. Another emphasis of the center has been to provide more of the books to include the arts, a wide variety of media: software, visual aids, audio tapes, videotapes, cookbooks, music books, geography materials, maps, puzzles, games, etc.
We quickly realized that a loan collection here at the college would serve the immediate area, and we get phone requests from local area librarians, but basically we are bound by physical geography. The issue then became how can we help teachers who don’t necessarily live in Los Angeles? We have a computerized database that contains annotated bibliography of all of our resources by culture, grade level, media, price, etc. How can we make this available to any teacher, so that he or she could then find these materials wherever. That became a major push for technology. Its absolutely impractical to print the database out, as it contains over 3,000 items and grows by about 400-500 items a year. We have the ability to group the items according to unique categories, such as grade level or culture, or special topics like migration. We feel that this is a unique database.
What is Mt. St. Mary’s Doing in regards to technology? What is the vision for the university and the Center?
Well, there are several issues there. One is the college, where I can speak as a faculty members. I can also speak to what I am doing in my own courses and teachings. And then there is the other piece, which is the Center and the database and the issue of professional development - how do we reach a larger audience.
The first push for doing something with my computer beyond word processing, was the dissemination of the database information. At first, we thought about disseminating it on CD-ROM. The problem with that idea, however, was the difficulty in updating and improving the CD-ROM. The fluidity of the database meant that we needed to look beyond any static products. We didn’t want to turn into a center that was just a Xeroxing center. We have a very small budget which goes primarily towards the acquisition of materials. So we thought about the Internet early on, and our concern was that not enough teachers were on it. We decided to make our entire database collection of materials available in an web format. Our web site is www.culturalfluency.org. It contains over a thousand references to culturally-appropriate instructional materials grouped by grade level and subject category. It turned out that was probably the best decision we could have made.
We really struggled with this issue of dissemination of information. We originally chose a database called “Q and A,” and we just started using it because it was available. That was back in 1992 or before. I understand that database and how it operates. I am pretty fluent with it. But I also realize that it has tremendous limitations. So now is the time to move to a database that is a little more powerful and easier to operate. Its not like the UCLA library where you sit down at Orion and its like “boom, boom, boom” you’ve got the information and there you go. So we need to move to a more user-friendly database. That is the next transition. And there is an example where I have to rely on technical advice. Which database program can we convert to? Which database will be easily accessible through HTML and the Internet. How can we move to a point where information in easily translated to the information needed at a terminal on the Internet.
What about e-mail and the Internet, when did that become part of your knowledge-base?
That’s been within the last few years. I got a modem and an America Online account years ago but rarely used it because I really didn’t have a need for it at the time. Few of us at the college had an account. But I never got around to checking it for a long time. It was good example of buying it because everybody else was buying it but I didn’t need it yet. There wasn’t a critical mass until the institution went that route and made a major commitment to the hardware, the wiring of the two campuses, and making computers and e-mail available to all college faculty.
Initially, the college wasn’t providing computers, modems, or anything. There was one computer on the secretary’s desk. I used to bring my laptop from home. I’m using e-mail now. I am kind of forced to answer it, because that is how people are communicating with me now. I find it very easy to reply to people quickly. I don’t like getting lengthy things, send it to me as a hard copy. I also don’t appreciate junk mail on my e-mail or when people it the “reply all” and I get other people’s messages. Its distracting. I’m not in love with e-mail, but it is a reality.
What about the role of technology for the teacher educators you work with?
I think just as teachers in classrooms, one of the problem has been the technology is in a lab, it’s “over there” and not easily accessible. It’s a big enough deal to request on overhead projector or a slide projector for my room, much less to request this laserdisk player or the computer on a cart. And I’m not convinced I get enough bang for the effort. I don’t need a PowerPoint presentation my overheads work just fine thank you. Of course I use the word processor and PowerPoint to print up really nice overheads, but as far us plugging in my laptop to the classroom, its just not useful yet. I think that is the same issue for K-12 teachers. If its too cumbersome, or too likely to break down, you are not going to use it. So how can it become a tool that is a vital tool that you must have, where the press is so great that it will make your life easier if you use it.
If I am going to have a computer in my classroom, I need to be knowledgeable enough to understand how to fix it, to understand the various software programs and how they work. I know alternate ways to get things done. Its like the VCR’s - every time I ask for one they provide a different model and there is this moment of panic in which I say “Oh my gosh, how do I get this one to work?”
I use the word processor for class material preparation. But if I were a regular classroom teacher, I would think of the computer as a pencil. Teach kids how to type and how to use it as a word processing tool. And there are lots of wonderful programs for that. When they get to the labs and only learn “mouse skills” or “keyboarding” there is no use for it as an instructional tool. The teachers who are incorporating a writing process approach find that their students take turns drafting and correcting and publishing in a variety of ways. Things like Bilingual Timeliner, Story-Book Weaver, are templates for writing and publishing student stories. They are delighted with the results and how professional it looks.
The other aspect is the Internet as an information source. The Internet is a dynamic information source. We have just recently moved into this area. I’m still learning how to use it and search it. I find lists of useful sites to be extremely valuable. Meta-links of different resources. We have collected several hundred and are inputting them into the database.
When we talk about technology, there several important leadership issues. You’ve already mentioned several, e.g. access.
The way the college is moving is towards full access. I think the education department is on the forefront, and we are trying to do some of these new and innovative things. We have purchased laptops for classroom instruction, with LCD panels for projection. We need to model appropriate uses of technology. In my classroom, I use small groups with students rotating through several stages of a project. So you have the computer as just one center in a series of activities the students do. It takes a little time to set that up, but if you don’t do that, you don’t model how they can do it in the classroom. Also, you are encouraging others to use the technology and use the Internet access in the lab.
What are the essential skills or things that educational leaders should understand about technology?
I see three issues. The first is the sense of awareness of the magnitude of the long-term commitment that technology creates. If you are not at least somewhat familiar with the technology and how it works, I think it is very easy to simplify and in an administrative leadership position, to ask of people, to make demands on people that don’t recognize that the initial steps are fraught with problems. The issue of getting our site up live on the Internet took six weeks. When you have an administration who expects or demands that technology integration will go forward rapidly and smoothly, there is often a disconnect between the expectations of the institution and the reality of the difficulty of the technology.
I think another example is expecting all of the departments to create their own web sites. You see sixth graders creating web sites so why can’t the chair of the education department create web sites, right? Well, is our goal to turn everyone into HTML programmers? You have a tremendous investment in technical support folks. All of this activity is predicated on having a staff, a technical support staff, that can trouble shoot the equipment, train you on its use, advise you on what programs the college needs. I think anybody who thinks that technology will reduce costs better think again. First of all, I am getting ready to replace my computer and printer, which has only lasted four years. It has already had several updates, etc. The capital outlay is NOT just getting the initial equipment. It is the long-term commitment for technical support and maintenance. Getting replacements, repairs, and updates. People often overlook that aspect of it.
A second issue is the necessary tolerance for the inevitable messiness of getting started. It has to have enough of a push initially so that there is a critical mass, a momentum that can sustain itself over the long-term. Most grants, by the way, don’t pay for maintenance, typically. They pay only for the initial outlay. And grants aren’t interested in updating or repairing existing equipment. It is not enough just to write grants and get equipment. You need a commitment to maintain them.
Finally, it is the ability of individuals to visualize or conceptualize information in a hierarchical way, how to organize information electronically. How to conduct Boolean searches to broaden or narrow the search field. I don’t know how people learn this necessarily, but you are talking about computer schema’s. You have to be able to conceptualize information. What search terms are you going to use? What about the if and the and the or searches? Its amazing to me. People don’t always think that way. Its a different way of thinking about information. Everybody has a different conceptual schema. That’s why we encourage our teachers to do conceptual maps or schema’s as part of their thinking. Why don’t certain articles show up when you do a search? That ability to kind of think through a knowledge base or a database and problem solve to get the results you are after.
You mentioned before about distance education. What are your thoughts on distance education?
Technology is forcing us to face and clarify some of the basic core values and beliefs that we have about what’s effective. For example, here at the Mount we place a tremendous value on dialogue, authentic interaction, interpersonal relationships, active and full participation, constructive, small group instruction. The minute you start talking about technology, we are immediately hit with an affront to some basic beliefs. Are we back to sage on the stage? So what is the push? If the push is to serve populations that are not reachable, you can’t engage in certain kinds of dialogue. The issue of reaching those populations is probably not an issue for us here. We do have two campuses, so that might be a force to push the college to doing something. So is the push to bring in more students? Then you have to reconceptualize what we are as an institution. Distance education is a good example of technology now raising some very substantive issues about the purpose of higher education. What do we lose and what do we gain by making those changes. I think what happens is that it is a bandwagon. All of a sudden, people are interested in funding distance education, so lets go out and get some of that money. If our intent is to serve underserved populations, and those populations don’t have access to technology, is distance education the answer?
Suggestions for aspiring educational leaders?
Don’t think about technology first. Everybody buys technology first and then tries to apply it to their problems or issues. Think of your issues first, and then search for technology that can play a part in the solution. But do you thinking and visioning first. Set your goals first, then go after the technology. Think about your different options too, and discuss “what are the consequences?” Start with the issues: What is it you need as an institution? What are your visions and goals in terms of preparing your students.
Also, keep a paper trail of your documents. Don’t rely on old diskettes. The whole issue of data storage and data retrieval is a big problem. If you keep everything on your PC, what if somebody steals the computer? Maybe I shouldn’t be leaving the back up disks near the computer. What happens if my cartridges become incompatible with other floppies? In five years, when I do a program review, will I be able to update it or will I have to recreate it and scan it in again all over? How do you store it, where do you store it, for how long? It use to be all on paper, but now it is on all of these different formats. Some of our computers have so many files on them you wouldn’t believe it. As an administrator, ultimately, those types of things will come back to haunt you. To be aware of them and to establish some kinds of procedures to address them, is important.
- How do you think the development of the Center for Cultural Fluency’s web site helped the outreach programs of the university? How might a web site help your organization? How would you promote the fact that your organization has a web site?
- Dr. Wilcoxen mentions that her decision to use e-mail was almost forced because “that is how people are communicating with me now.” Has technology forced you or your organization to do things differently over the last five years? if so, how?
- Dr. Wilcoxen describes the campus as moving towards “full access.” What does that mean in terms of technology access? What are the implications of full access to technology for students with disabilities? Students from low-income families?
- How is the opportunity of distance learning forcing the faculty at Mt. Saint Mary’s College to “reconceptualize what we are as an institution?” How is technology impacting your organization?
- Creating and sustaining adequate technical infrastructures, both in terms of equipment and personnel, is seen as a key ingredient to the success of any organization’s technology goals. How would you go about assessing the needs of an organization? How do different forms of technology create different infrastructure needs?
- Conducting Internet and database searches using Boolean terms (like “and,” “or,” “near”) is an important skill according to Dr. Wilcoxen. Do you find using these techniques to search for information simple or challenging? How might you identify new ways to locate information electronically?
- Dr. Wilcoxen mentioned using word processors, database programs, and presentation software regularly. What software programs are you familiar with? Which programs would you like to learn to use?