Vol. 11, No. 1
ISSN: 1546-2676

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Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM,
Vol. 11, No. 1. 
1546-2676. Editor: Dorothy I. Mitstifer. Official publication of Kappa Omicron Nu National Honor Society. Member, Association of College Honor Societies. Copyright © 1999. Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM is a refereed, semi-annual publication serving the profession of family and consumer sciences. The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the society. Further information: Kappa Omicron Nu, PO Box 798, Okemos, MI 48805-0798. Telephone: (727) 940-2658 ext. 2003

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Kappa Omicron Nu


Choreographing Teaching in the 21st Century

Elizabeth Larson

Ms. Larson is a doctoral student in Curriculum and Instruction, College of Education, Kansas State University.


Emerging instructional technologies have raised studentís expectations for access to and quality of higher education programs. As faculty respond to the opportunities presented by increasing technological capacity and increasing student demands for its full implementation, they are confronted with the need to learn new skills, teach in new ways, and create a different cultural milieu. Choreographing these changes requires that teachers and administrators reconceptualize teaching and eliminate barriers to implementation of technology-based instruction while creating opportunities to use it effectively. Peer coaching enables faculty members to maximize the use of technology to add richness and depth to the quality of course delivery.

Choreograph: to arrange or direct the movements, progress, or details of

—(Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary)

Emerging technology has the potential to be both a blessing and a curse for institutions of higher education. The present system of higher education is being challenged by increased pressures to not only utilize emerging technology but to change its intrinsic culture (Duguet, 1995) in order to respond to student demands for increased access. The pressure to adapt to new and emerging technologies in instruction will not abate; if anything, it will increase with dramatic speed (Cornell and Martin, 1997). Students like the tempo of the new technology and will learn the choreography as the music develops. They are well aware of advancing technologies and are becoming more insistent that they be allowed to benefit from the technology. For faculty, the tempo is unfamiliar and the steps are awkward. Although audiovisuals have come a long way from overheads and filmstrip projectors, teaching faculty are frustrated by the demands of using technology and underprepared to utilize it. The changes that will be required as teaching evolves from a relatively linear lecture format to a spider web process of leading learning may frustrate, alienate, and confuse faculty.

Choreographing teaching in the 21st century will be a complex task. Administrators would be wise to recognize the complexity of implementing technology into mainstream academic programs. Like a dance team, the steps must be learned and time must be given to practice and polish presentations. Anything less, as any performer could attest, results in a poor quality, amateurish production. Improvement of teaching and implementing emerging technology must be evaluated simultaneously to reconceptualize why we teach, how we teach, and what we teach.

Universities Are Conservative

Although students are quick to embrace new technologies and alternative delivery systems, institutions of higher education are much more reluctant to change. James & Beattie (1997) observed that universities are typically conservative organizations in which change can be a lengthy process and where academic staff carefully scrutinize new developments. Although faculty does not necessarily fear change, fear is a factor. Tried and true teaching methods, particularly the university lecture tradition, are much more comfortable. A fundamental tension identified by both Cornell & Martin (1997) and James & Beattie (1997) was that faculty were being pressured to provide flexible access for students, to maintain high quality academic standards, and to do both well. Striking equilibrium between these is at the heart of any decision to adopt a new delivery method (James & Beattie, 1997).

One of several challenges to higher education identified by Duguet (1995) is the need to provide good-quality instruction adapted to the 21st century. Quality issues dominate the literature, and it is evident that advantages in terms of access should not be won at the expense of poor quality instruction. James & Beattie (1997) assert that whether mainstream academics will be convinced that alternative delivery methods will be of comparable quality to face-to-face instruction is at the heart of the speed of adoption issue. Dede (1996), however, suggests that institutions cannot afford to wait to develop a plan for implementing emerging technology in a time when the technologies, economics, and public policies underlying all forms of schooling are rapidly shifting. Some standardized plan for innovation can be constructed, Dede (1997) insists, before the access versus quality debate is completed.

Reconceptualizing Teaching

A hidden benefit, as technology is incorporated into courses, is the opportunity for faculty to reconceptualize teaching. “The true innovation in emerging technology,” offers Dede (1996), “is the opportunity to redefine how we communicate and educate by effectively using new types of messages and experiences, in addition to exploring technological innovations.” The literature emphasizes that educators have choices in both instructional strategy and techniques, and that technology is only one path to effective teaching. Chickering & Ehrmann (1996) reflect that technology is a major resource in higher education and should be used as a tool in effective teaching strategies. Sherry (1996) adds that “although technology is an integral part of distance education, any successful program must focus on the instructional needs of the students, rather than on the technology itself.” Chickering & Ehrmann (1996), Cornell & Martin (1997) and Sherry (1996) all stress the imperative that as academic faculty adopt technology in their courses, that course objectives, content, and activities be carefully analyzed. When a course is designed for distance delivery, it should be considered as an opportunity to rethink the entire course from beginning to end, addressing not only the methods to be employed but also the content (Cornell & Martin, 1997). Williams and Peters (1997) recognize that rethinking and redesigning instruction takes time and careful contemplation. Reconceptualizing teaching in this manner provides faculty an opportunity to use the technology as a valuable tool in promoting discovery learning and enhancing learning experiences for students.

“Sage on the Stage” or “Guide on the Side”?

The possibilities and constraints of teaching with advanced technology are quite different from those used in traditional classroom delivery (Cornell & Martin, 1997). In Closing the Loop: Distance Education and the College Professor, Toombs (1990) challenges the university lecture tradition, where professors are seen as the chief dispensers of knowledge and suggests that, in order to provide optimum learning experiences for students, the instructor role should be to facilitate rather than orchestrate what and how information is acquired. Willis and Dickinson (1997) go so far as to suggest that the more comfortable the instructor is in teaching in a traditional setting, the more difficult it is to face the reality that significant re-thinking and adaptation will be required for effective distant course delivery. Talab and Newhouse (1993) found that many teachers were slow to incorporate new technologies into their classrooms because they perceived their positions as instructional leaders to be threatened. Toombs (1990) states that the authority of the professor has not diminished, but the clarity of the role has become confused and blurred by the transition into information networks. No longer is the teacher “the sage on the stage;” the teacher must facilitate discovery learning for students. Dissatisfaction may arise because personal preferences or assumptions about the role of the teacher are thrown into question. Sherry (1996) adds that for technological innovations to be successfully implemented, the social and political climate of the school must be considered. The climate must reinforce the authority of the teacher rather than undermine it.

Easing the Tension

How can institutions of higher education ease the tension created by a push for a new educational paradigm which reconceptualizes teaching and incorporates technology? Even a well-practiced teacher, who is at ease with the equipment in the classroom, will require training in order to integrate new teaching strategies with the technology (Sherry, 1996). Administrators cannot expect teachers to feel comfortable with the technology, to use it effectively, and to maintain it as well, without providing them extra resources and time. Holloway & Ohler (1991 ) found that for technology to be widely accepted it must be of value to the user—the student first and the faculty second. There is an ongoing tension between the demands made on faculty by new delivery methods and the benefits that accrue to students. If technology and its related demands do not make the performance of a task rewarding, there is little motivation to accept the technology.

Barriers to Implementing Technology in the Classroom

Additional factors influence faculty motivation to implement technology. Beyond change issues that reflect the sentiment, “this is the way it’s always been done, and it’s never been challenged before,” Cornell & Martin (1997) identified several reasons why instructors lack the motivation to implement technology in their classroom: administrative mandate, inadequate time, and lack of incentive. Faculty and administrators alike have identified a number of barriers or “disincentives” (Williams and Peters, 1997) that have these three common themes, which are likely to interfere with the successful implementation of technology.

Promotion and Tenure

With stringent guidelines for the university tenure process, many faculty found it increasingly difficult to control the proportion of their time devoted to teaching duties (James & Beattie, 1997). Williams & Peters (1997) suggest that the promotion and tenure process is a strong disincentive for instructional innovation. “If lecture and transparencies produce even moderate success in the classroom, they are the weapon of choice, since they leave more time for publishing and committee meetings” (Williams & Peters, 1997, p. 107). James & Beattie (1997) also found that faculty resented the “research and writing” time lost to them while designing and creating learning materials. Many of the initiatives to incorporate technology into the classroom studied by James & Beattie (1997) were sustained only by the substantial professional commitment of the faculty. When academic staff are well aware of the need to advance their careers on other fronts, such goodwill has limited duration. Although non-tenured faculty are enthusiastic about instructional innovation, full professors are likely to have the luxury of time to redesign courses as well as risk peer criticism (Williams & Peters (1997). Williams & Peters (1997) also found that preferred incentives such as travel funds, release time, development funds, and encouragement from senior faculty or department heads were rarely offered to untenured faculty.


The extensive time needed to produce high quality learning materials, whether printed, broadcast, taped, or computer based, is well known. Williams and Peters (1997) estimate that it is not uncommon for one hour of web instruction to have an investment of 200 hours of design and development.

Because distance education is still fairly experimental, a significant barrier is time to prepare thoroughly. Minimal preparation is a prescription for failure. The medium will fail because instructors and students have failed to do their jobs. Chickering and Ehrmann (1996) challenge students to know the principles of effective teaching and learning and to use them to be more assertive with respect to their own learning. Schrum (cited in Hill, 1997) recommends at least one semester of reduced load to prepare to teach with technology, not only because it is a “prep” for a new course but to gain a comfort level with the equipment and how it works.

Lack of Training and Support

Faculty, who often work with limited instructional design and technical support, may not possess the skills necessary to produce high quality instructional materials. Marginal administrative commitment to training, which may include lack of release time or insufficient funds designated for training, sends a message to faculty that the institution does not place a priority on implementing technology with the goal of improving instruction. “Expecting faculty members and staff to be trained on their own time will mean that only those who are truly devoted and already have an interest will pursue training. This approach also fosters a certain resentment on the part of faculty members toward the administration” (Gray, 1997, p. 330).

Although institutions may adequately fund short-term inservice training and resident campus experts to assist, faculty continue to struggle with appropriately timed assistance as they navigate their way through the new technology. Although campus resources may exist at some level, they may not be available when faculty members need them, or faculty may become frustrated with the bureaucracy of a system that provides increased stress, rather than relief. Harisim, Hiltz, Teles, & Turoff (1996) recognize the lack of timely training and suggest that faculty use a mentor system in order to gain comfort with the technology.

Comfort Level

“The most important factor for successful distance learning is a caring, concerned teacher who is confident, is experienced, is at ease with the equipment, uses the media creatively, and maintains a high level of interactivity with the students” (Sherry, 1996, p. 350). Apple Computer (Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow, 1992) found that it may take up to two years for instructors to change their focus from being anxious about themselves, their new physical environment, equipment malfunctions, and student misbehavior to anticipating problems and developing alternate strategies, exploring software more aggressively, sharing ideas more freely, increasing student motivation and interest, and using technology to their advantage. Sherry (1996) also found that the more familiar teachers are with the instructional design and delivery process, the more effective their presentations will be.

Another barrier to implementation is the heavy workloads which are less tolerable if faculty perceive that the intrinsic rewards of teaching are declining or no longer present. Teaching in new ways is generally less satisfying than the old, familiar way.

Faculty who have become skilled in using face-to-face interaction to guide their teaching may become frustrated by differences in student feedback and may even find that teaching performance is undermined (James & Beattie, 1997). Distance delivery deprives faculty of non-verbal cues that allow immediate intervention or expansion of course content. With the use of electronic mail, advocates of distance delivery suggest that the amount of student feedback may actually be greater. Cornell & Martin (1997) suggest that the time necessary for communicating with students will increase disproportionately as compared with time spent in the traditional classroom. And it may take some time to gain mastery in setting a positive tone in written communication without the benefit of non-verbal cues to assist interpretation.

Keys to Successful Implementation

With so many barriers to implementing technology in institutions of higher education, how, then, can the administration encourage its use? If faculty are expected to incorporate technology into their teaching, institutional policies must reward entrepreneurship and innovation. The challenge to teach in new ways, especially using new electronic technologies, brings added pressures (James & Beattie, 1997). Creating an institutional climate that is conducive to innovations in instruction is difficult, particularly in institutions that embrace long-held beliefs and quality assertions about how learning should be structured. Closer examination of the promotion and tenure policies alone may unveil inherent systematic problems that may do more to discourage than encourage innovative teaching, including incorporating technology into the classroom.

The Office of Technology Assessment has found many powerful examples of creative teachers using learning technologies to enhance and enrich their teaching; adoption of innovation depends on the following:

  1. Training in the skills needed to work with technology.
  2. Vision and an understanding of state-of-the-art technology and applications.
  3. Support for experimentation and innovation.
  4. Sufficient time for learning and practice (U.S. Congress, 1988, p. 16).

These components are reflected throughout the distance education literature (e.g., Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow, 1992; Dede, 1996; Harasim, et al., 1996; Holloway & Ohler, 1991; Sherry, 1996). The question remains: What is the best way for institutions to facilitate change?

An overriding faculty concern is the lack of training to compensate for their perceived lack of skill and discomfort in utilizing the new technology, and current inservice training models do little to reinforce institutional commitment to technology. Administrators need to carefully evaluate the financial commitment that the institution has budgeted for incorporating technology into the classroom. If the desired outcome of staff development activities is simply increased awareness of a subject, funding might legitimately support the occasional two-hour speaker. However, if the expected outcome of a staff development project is fundamental change in instruction, funding will probably have to be increased to support the amount of training necessary to bring about and sustain the change (Showers & Joyce, 1996). Institutions of higher education will continue to wrestle with provision of timely, relevant inservices that fulfill documented needs of faculty. Perhaps it is time to consider a different method of training. In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge (1990) writes:

Generally, I would counsel against pushing. Usually it is more effective to look for the source of the resistance, either in perceived lack of relevance, fear of failure (remember, we were all schoolchildren once), or perceived threat to the status quo… Many of the best intentioned efforts to foster new learning disciplines founder because those leading the charge forget the first rule of learning: people learn what they need to learn, not what someone else thinks they need to learn. (p. 345)

Peer Coaching: The Path to Successful Implementation

Showers (1985) has done exhaustive research related to the improvement of pedagogical practice. Introduced as a teaching improvement tool in the K-12 system, peer coaching has been warmly received in the public schools. Peer coaching has a number of elements that make its application a possibility at the post-secondary level; however, its use may be discouraged by the institutional culture itself. Harasim, et al (1996) recommend “the buddy system” to support teachers new to technology in addition to using observation as a tool to supplement inservice training. Also in favor of collaboration, Cornell & Martin (1997) offer the recommendation to faculty to join with others as they learn techniques or to ask for colleague’s insights if they have prior teaching experience utilizing emerging technology.

The techniques employed in peer coaching are, in essence, the same as those recommended for the successful implementation of technology. The purposes of peer coaching (Showers, 1985) are to

  1. Build communities of teachers who continuously engage in their craft;
  2. Develop shared language and common understandings necessary for the collegial study of new knowledge and skills, including the agreement that quality instruction requires constant improvement and that expansion of teaching skills requires hard work;
  3. Provide a structure for the follow-up to training that is essential for acquiring new teaching skills and strategies.

Harisim, et al (1996) strongly support the philosophy of peer coaching. “The ability to form peer groups of teachers… who can exchange the lore and wisdom they have acquired from dealing with the subject holds tremendous opportunity for improvement of the educational process” (p. 242). Coaching appears to be most appropriate when teachers wish to master strategies that require new ways of thinking about learning objectives and the processes by which students achieve them. Showers & Joyce (1996) also found that members of peer-coaching groups exhibited greater long-term retention of new strategies and more appropriate use of new teaching models over time.

Peer coaching may have some merit in assisting university faculty in preparing for their changing roles in the information infrastructure. Results of Showers (1985) and Showers & Joyce (1996) studies reveal that K-12 teachers who had a coaching relationship—that is, shared aspects of teaching, planned together, and pooled their experiences—practiced new skills and strategies more frequently and applied them more appropriately than did their counterparts who worked alone to expand their repertoires. Although simple in theory, peer coaching is a complex innovation because it requires a radical change in relationships among teachers as well as between teachers and administrative personnel (Showers & Joyce, 1996). Because of the competitive, rather than collaborative, nature of most post-secondary institutions, a fundamental shift toward the use of peer coaching for faculty development is radical.

Organizing Peer Coaching Teams

In most settings coaching teams are organized during training programs designed to enhance the understanding and use of a teaching innovation. The teams study the rationale of new skills, see them demonstrated, practice them, and learn to provide feedback to one another as they experiment with the skills. Coaching is a cyclical process designed to reinforce and extend training. The first steps are structured to increase skills with a new teaching strategy through observation and feedback. As comfort level and skill develop, coaching moves into a more complex stage: mutual examination of appropriate use of a new teaching strategy (Showers & Joyce, 1996).

Transferring new behaviors into effective classroom practice is more difficult than the teaching process itself. Although all teachers can develop skill in performing a new teaching strategy fairly readily, more complex tasks are mastered only as the skill is applied in the classroom. Learning new teaching and technology techniques is a complex matter that should be provided as faculty need it, and peer coaching has the capacity to be more timely than formal staff development projects.

Using Peer Coaching to Reconceptualize Teaching

The greatest hurdle in utilizing peer coaching at the university level may well be overcoming the “prima donna” complex.

One solution would be for faculty members with similar subject course responsibilities to collaborate and pool their expertise and resources. Unfortunately, many faculty members are uncomfortable working with colleagues and are more accustomed to working alone. The current atmosphere in major research universities is still competitive, not collaborative, because promotion and tenure reviews still looks at individual productivity. (Williams and Peters, 1997)

Hill (1997) stresses the importance of planning and preparation, but insists that without continued technological and human-based support throughout the course, it is difficult to maintain momentum and achieve success. Many teachers have difficulty selecting concepts to teach, reorganizing materials, teaching their students to respond to the new strategies, and creating lessons in areas that they have not seen demonstrated directly. It should be clarified that coaching relationships do not involve making judgments about the adequacy of a colleague. Coaching implies assistance and reinforcement in a learning process and is used for the improvement of teaching and mastery of new concepts. In the case of incorporating emerging technology, it is an opportunity for faculty to try out new teaching strategies with the added benefit of having another colleague as both a sounding board and a source for different strategies.


Peer coaching has the potential to add not only just-in-time training for technology, but the capacity to add richness and depth to the quality of course delivery, regardless of delivery method. New technology can be choreographed into familiar teaching strategies. The old familiar dance steps of the university lecture tradition need not be discarded, but paced and organized somewhat differently to reflect the different tempos of emerging technology. Excellent teaching is at the core of effective distance education, just as it is in a traditional classroom. The time has come for higher education faculty to take a dance partner, as well as for administrators to recognize the beauty of form that comes from collaborative efforts to improve teaching. At the heart of the matter is the necessity to re-think promotion and tenure policies that encourage solo achievements and undermine an institution’s ability to implement technology.


This paper was developed as part of a study of instructional applications of computer technology conducted under the supervision of Dr. Virginia Moxley.


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