My husband and I moved to Texas in the summer of 1999 just after I finished my Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and Business Administration at The University of North Alabama. He had been teaching band for two years at a small school in North Mississippi but did not feel as though he had been prepared adequately to be a teacher. He applied for graduate school at The University of North Texas for three reasons: UNT’s world-renowned music school, the high-level band programs in Texas (the move was not just for school but also for a career), and the hospitality we received on campus visits. The plan had always been for me to attend graduate school when he finished, but several moves and two children postponed those plans numerous times. Plus the issue of just exactly what to study had always been unresolved . . . at least, until now. Allow me to explain.
I have been a certified public school teacher for eight years, but prior to becoming a teacher I mainly worked as a childcare center director and a caseworker and also held positions in the hospitality industry. I was actually looking closely at a Master’s in Educational Psychology at The University of North Texas, but then I experienced some decision-changing revelations last spring as I was applying for an Instructional Technologist position that had become available in my school district. The Director of Technology was retiring, and her position was being restructured into two positions, one of them being an Instructional Technologist. She encouraged me to apply for this position because I appeared to enjoy using technology in my teaching, and I seemed to be a logical candidate for the position. As I considered whether or not to apply, I realized that with ALL the positions I have held, one aspect has been a constant – technology. As a business manager, I primarily used technology to operate the business and communicate with staff. Once I became a teacher, my technology use switched to presenting information and managing student data. With each new position I held, I adapted quickly to the technology usage required for the job then sought more efficient and more effective ways to use technology. Then through the process of applying for the position, I began to reflect upon my personal use of technology in my adult years and realized that has also increased exponentially just as in my professional life. Applying for the position really challenged me to understand how the technological advancements I have witnessed these past twenty years are affecting every aspect of human existence from business and education to even our culture. As the school year finished, I was told I had not been selected for the position, but this allowed me time to revisit the idea of graduate school. Because of my husband’s experiences at The University of North Texas, it had always been an obvious choice, and because an online degree is the ideal choice for our family, I revisited UNT’s programs again but this time with a fresh perspective . . . then something wonderful happened. When I read the description about the Computer Education and Cognitive Systems program, it was as if I had been hit with a brick with the words, “THIS IS IT!” etched into it.
Why do I feel the CECS Master’s program is for me? During my public school teaching career, I have been introduced to and discovered on my own such a vast variety of educational technology, both hardware and software. Innovations have been taking place in educational technology for years, and I foresee the trend increasing exponentially as time passes allowing classroom technology to surpass its ancillary usage to a more primary method of instruction. I also believe that the education system as we know it is on the cusp of a paradigm shift from learning for all to a highly individualized, almost prescriptive form. It seems that these two paradigm shifts MUST converge, and what forward-thinking educator would NOT want to be a leader in the technological education reformation? My diverse teaching experience has shown me that every student is different: motivation level, preparedness to learn, prior knowledge, technology skills, learning style, etc. Unfortunately, our students are grouped together based upon an age and a birthday cutoff date. This appears to be such an arbitrary way to group students considering all the other ways students can be grouped. As technology becomes utilized the majority of the class day, student grouping could be more flexible according to the students’ needs and not the schools’ needs because of technology’s ability to handle more flexible instruction with the teacher acting as a facilitator. I envision a system in which each student is placed at instructional levels they are prepared for rather than what age they are; for example, a ten-year-old student placed in a 4th grade level reading class but a 5th grade level math class and a 6th grade level science class all based upon his aforementioned levels but another ten-year-old student placed in a 3rd grade level reading class, a 4th grade level math class, and a 2nd grade level science class because his needs and readiness for instruction are much different. Students could achieve more than a year’s learning in subjects they are more prepared to handle but complete the necessary instruction in a shorter period of time because of motivation and readiness levels, but in a subject he is less prepared for, more time could be devoted to filling in the gaps keeping him from being successful with grade level material and subsequently helping him achieve the minimum standards necessary to move on to the next grade. I see the future of education as individualized instruction, and technology is the way to achieve it; it will reform and redefine education.
When pondering possible research topics, I find myself reflecting upon my undergraduate psychology classes in learning theory, cognitive systems, and behavioral psychology as well as my teaching career. I am particularly interested in how student motivation can be modified with the use of technology and how this affects instructional software design. I have seen very few programs incorporate a reward system in the instruction – something akin to the leveling and experience point systems in popular video and computer games, but I believe research is already being done in this field and I want in! I also believe user interface design is going to become more important as students who have been handling their parents’ smart phones since birth increases. Children are so adept at learning ANYTHING new, but they need instant gratification and an obvious WYSIWYG interface design requiring minimal parental or teacher intervention. But students will be required to be more technology savvy at earlier and earlier ages as the technology increases; those who are not prepared will be left behind. I also believe another paradigm shift in education will be to focus less on what you know and more on the how to find and utilize information. Educators are already seeing this as we turn to project- and product-based activities. Some skills are necessary givens – the ability to read and write, mathematical facts – and these will continue to be used throughout education, but understanding overriding concepts such as “what factors contribute to war” rather than “what dates did these battles take place” will become the norm because a well-constructed internet search can instantly answer the second question. I foresee more focus on teaching students technology skills such as information processing and data management – how to create and define precise searches, how to store information in files and folders making it easy to locate later, and basic technology operation such as keyboarding, 10-key by touch, and data entry (all skills I did not acquire until adolescence and adulthood but are now necessary even in elementary school) – and this as another possible research direction. As for how I plan to use the degree, I envision several career possibilities. The obvious is in an administration position with the technology department of a school district. I also feel that my psychology background gives me the tools necessary to conduct research in using technology in educational settings. Working for a company that designs educational hardware and software and conducting research and product development sounds hugely appealing.
Written expression is necessary to any job, but at varying degrees. Teachers find themselves talking more than writing, so practice with writing is rare other than notes home to parents. I spend my summers seeking out and writing grants for my schools. I have written four grants during the last six years, and I have been awarded ALL of them. My mathematical skills are relevant to my needs; math is just one of those subjects that if you do not use you it, you lose it. However, I do learn quickly, and anything I would need to know would be a review. Critical thinking is also a necessary part of teaching. I find myself always looking forward to the next units to see if what I have been told I must teach is really the best method as well as reflecting back to how my students scored on the last unit to see if I did not teach something well. As a teacher, my ability to work independently is a necessity – in fact, I strive to instill this concept in my students by having them complete a warm-up activity as soon as they enter my classroom – something they do without my having to tell them other than instructions displayed on the board. The real issue is prioritizing life which has been the main dilemma holding me back from graduate school. Now that my children are older and more independent, not to mention capable of helping with household chores, and my teaching career is stabilized allowing me to not have to “reinvent the wheel” each school year, all the conditions are right to make a Master’s degree a priority.