Meet Margaret Hennessey

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CIRCL perspectives offer a window into the different worlds of various stakeholders in the cyberlearning community — what drives their work, what they need to be successful, and what they think the community should be doing. Share your perspective.

Margaret Hennessey

Margaret Hennessey works with the Scaling up Digital Design Studies (SUDDS) team in the STEM Department at North Carolina State University’s College of Education. As a former high school mathematics teacher in Durham, North Carolina, she has thought a lot about professional development. When she was in the classroom, she was also a Knowles Science Teaching Foundation Teaching Fellow. Now, she brings a teacher’s perspective to SUDDS’ research and design work. Like most teachers, her school or district often required her to use software “innovations” that had been designed without teacher input, and often made the real work of teaching more difficult instead of less. She believes that if digital technologies are really going to transform classroom teaching and learning, teachers need to be partners in the design of those technologies.

What is the SUDDs project and how did you get started with it?

I began working with SUDDS in the fall of 2014, after a brief stint at an educational technology start-up. The SUDDS project designs and investigates learning environments, involving teachers early in the process (during design) as well as throughout, to continually make sure the project addresses important issues in the classroom. I am currently recruiting teachers to be involved in SUDDS design work and to understand the learning sciences that inform the learning map that is being built as part of the project so that they can give better feedback to the SUDDS team and better integrate the SUDDS project in their classroom.

What challenges are you facing?

One challenge is around getting teachers, who are always very busy, involved in our project. We aim to talk to teachers continuously so that we know that we are solving problems that they actually face. We need more local teachers to help us think about the design and give feedback as we create a middle grades mathematics learning map and integrated assessment and reporting system. The learning map reflects how learners go from a naïve conception to a more sophisticated understanding, to help teachers understand that learning is a trajectory and not just a checklist of items to cover. Early in the design process, it is sometimes hard to get teachers to help, since there isn’t an immediate pay-off and so many other things demand their attention. Teachers like to be able to take new things into their classroom right away; in early design there isn’t something to take back.

Because of this challenge around needing more teachers, one part of our project focuses the creation of the “Teacher Innovation Exchange” at North Carolina State. Teachers from the area come in and meet with us for an hour, they get CEUs, and they learn about our project work. Of course, only having one hour with teachers once a month is not much time. We’re working to build relationships with the teachers who participate in the Teacher Innovation Exchange, and are hopeful that as we build relationships these teachers can become part of our early design work. In addition to working with local teachers, we are building an online community called Teacher Connect, where teachers interested in cyberlearning and digital innovation can connect with each other, and also get a first look at our designs. We’re in the process of implementing a system for web-based usability testing, so that we can get feedback from lots of teachers about how intuitive and helpful our designs are. We are always looking for more teachers to sign up so we can broaden our early user base and get as much wisdom from teachers as we can.

Another problem we see — and why we need good working relationships with teachers on our project — is that some teachers perceive researchers to have all the answers. We need to communicate that researchers don’t have all the answers for teachers, especially early in the design process. Teachers sometimes aren’t comfortable in the role of informing researchers, in part because so much of what’s billed as professional development involves teachers passively receiving information from researchers (or about research) in a Powerpoint. It’s understandable that teachers might expect researchers to just tell them the right way for technology to be designed. But when this happens, we lose out on a lot of great ideas. We need teachers’ good ideas from experience, practice, and real classroom needs so that we can learn and improve the work we’re doing. We don’t want teachers to sit and wait to be told what to do just because a researcher is involved. Building good relationships with teachers can help this important process.

What is unique about your work?

Our work is developing a map of learning, and teachers who are using our project’s work are gaining a better understanding of how students learn. They are also sharing it with their students so they can understand how they are learning. At a conference I went to recently, I saw many maps of math content or math knowledge, but not maps of learning.

What would you like to policy makers to know?

We need to work and talk with teachers continuously so that we know that we are solving problems that they actually face. Teachers benefit from these conversations in that they learn and have the opportunity to think more about how students are learning. However, in a teacher’s day, there’s no time for such conversations. What we ask teachers to do currently is too much—no one can do everything that is asked of teachers and also continue to learn or think about new things. It would be great if the structure of schools allowed for this invigorating kind of work in the normal context of a teacher’s day. We can’t ask teachers to work for free, or to work 24/7, but we often do.

What does the cyberlearning community need?

In terms of new infrastructure, it would be great to have a general “place” that helps teachers learn more about learning and about what cyberlearning projects are doing rather than asking each individual project to take their scarce resources to develop extensive professional development. Such experience would help teachers be more prepared to collaborate on new projects. It’s hard to get money for professional development, but we need to have teachers who are interested in helping us make our work better for use in the classroom. If a project wants to work with teachers, it does take a great effort. But working with teachers is so important if we want to make sure we are solving real problems that are occurring in classrooms. We want our work to be relevant and important to teachers and students.

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