Integrating Distance Learning Technologies into

Community Organizing Education

 

 

 

Report on an HCSSW Distance Learning Program Grant Award

 

Prepared by Kallen Tsikalas, Educational Technology Consultant

 

April 1, 2000

 

 

 

Distance Learning Project was sponsored by the Education Center for Community Organizing (ECCO) and the Community Organizing and Planning Sequence of the Hunter College School of Social Work

 

Terry Mizrahi, Ph.D. Professor and ECCO Director

 

For more information on ECCO see web site www.hunter.cuny.edu/socwork

 

Tel. 452-7112

Fax (212) 452-7154

Email: tmizrahi@hunter.cuny.edu

 

 

 

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

 

Integrating Distance Learning Technologies into

Education in Community Organizing

 

            The purpose of this pilot project was to explore and demonstrate how distance learning technologies, specifically two-way videoconferencing, might be employed to support and enhance higher education in community organizing and practice.  Our key challenges in this endeavor were to find ways that videoconferencing could:

  • Support collaboration among students, between students and organizers in the field, and with expert or policy-level organizers; and
  • Enhance students’ understandings of the nuances (social, political, attitudinal, etc.) of the communities in which they were working or could potentially be working.

 

            During the period from 1998-1999, we implemented two pilot videoconferences in community organizing courses at Hunter College School of Social Work (HCSSW).  These were: An Organizers’ Exchange between HCSSW students and staff at LEAP, a Connecticut-based youth and community leadership organization; and a Case Study Roundtable with HCSSW students, organizers from New Settlement Apartments in the Bronx, and Professor Melvin Delgado from Boston University.

 

            We learned that distance learning experiences can indeed enhance education in community organizing.  They make possible conversations and sharing that might otherwise be difficult or impossible because of the distances between participants.  They require faculty and student presenters to be more cognizant of and strategic in their use of time and media (camera angles as well as information displayed).  They result in production of artifacts (videotapes) that are themselves valuable educational and archival resources.

 

            To increase the effectiveness of distance learning experiences for education in community organizing, we recommend that:

  • Videoconferencing events be structured in such a way as to alternate relatively long (15-25 minute) presentation periods with shorter (5-10 minute) comment/question periods.  This chunking strategy allows time for technical glitches as well as unplanned (tangential) conversations which are often especially relevant to participants.
  • Participants be prepared in advance for each other and the live video medium.  Such preparation might include background readings, prior class discussions and e-mail exchanges.  This enables “air-time” to be used more effectively--focused on the discussion of deeper issues (strategies, successes, challenges, and conflicts).
  • Additional technologies (most likely Internet technologies) be investigated and acquired to enable a more facile connection between low-tech and high-tech environments.  This is particularly important if we want to involve authentic community sites that may not have access to high-end, two-way videoconferencing facilities.  These groups are likely to have Internet access in the future.
  • Multiple media (photos, data graphs, notes taken on the whiteboard) be used in presentations.

·        Video artifacts, recorded during these events, be made available in the library or on the web as resources for students enrolled in CO classes and as continuing education opportunities for alumni working in the field.


Integrating Distance Learning Technologies into

Community Organizing Education

(Report on an HCSSW Distance Learning Program Grant Award)

 

Prepared by Kallen Tsikalas, Educational Technology Consultant

April 1, 2000

 

 

Introduction

            The purpose of this pilot project was to explore and demonstrate how distance learning technologies, specifically two-way videoconferencing, might be employed to support and enhance undergraduate and graduate education in community organizing and practice.

 

            Community organizing and practice education at Hunter College School of Social Work (HCSSW) differs from more traditional courses of academic study in some noteworthy ways.  Most importantly, it privileges situated and social learning.  Situated learning theory, pioneered by John Dewey in the early 1900s, maintains that “learning is a necessary incident of dealing with real situations.”  (Dewey, 1915, p. 4)  Social learning theory asserts that people learn by directly interacting with others (teachers, peers, mentors) in whom they observe certain skills and strategies being modeled and with whom they may practice these behaviors themselves (Bandura, 1977).

 

            Graduate students are required to do a field practicum for 400 hours per year.  Here, they are encouraged to critically examine and evaluate the theories of community and models of community organizing to which they have been introduced in class.  They are also expected to learn from seasoned organizers in developing and refining their own skills and strategies, including:  Identifying and assessing problems in the context of the political interests and commitments of community stakeholders; developing goals and objectives that are clear, appropriate, and actionable for a particular community; conceptualizing and implementing plans within the constraints of institutional policies and regulations; handling diverse viewpoints and conflict/confrontation; and establishing and working within group structures such as collaborations and coalitions.

 

            Experiential (situated) and collaborative (social) learning are central to community organizing education.  In such, our key challenge in trying to meaningfully integrate distance learning technologies was to find ways in which videoconferencing could:

  • Support collaboration among students, between students and organizers in the field, and with expert or policy-level organizers; and
  • Enhance students’ understandings of the nuances (social, political, attitudinal, etc.) of the communities in which they were working or could potentially be working.

 

            Keeping this in mind, Professor Terry Mizrahi and I proposed to investigate three different models/scenarios of technology integration.  These included:

 

  1. Case Study Roundtables.  This model was based upon the very established practice of Grand Rounds, in which medical doctors present patient cases (complete with evidence of the problem, diagnoses and treatment) to students.  For our purposes, we envisioned that one CO student and his/her field supervisor would present a case at the Hunter facility.  Advertised in advance and open to interested community organizers in the area, this presentation would be broadcast to node sites.  Participants at these sites would be able to raise questions and enter into dialogue with the presenters.  Role of technology:  In this model, we hypothesized that the videoconferencing technology would increase the number and diversity of organizers able to participate, and hence the richness of the discussion, by offering numerous locations (the node sites) from which they could join the conversation.
  1. Distributed Panel Presentations - Debates.  Somewhat similar to the Case Study Roundtable, this model involved discussions of contemporary topics in community organizing rather than case presentations.  In the model, we envisioned that participants at both the hub and node sites (on the I-Net backbone) would make presentations, taking different positions on important and controversial issues in the field.  Expert organizers would be placed at each site to moderate questions and facilitate local conversations off-line.  Role of technology:  We hypothesized that the primary role of videoconferencing technology in this model would be psychological.  By creating an atmosphere similar to a televised political debate, we expected the forum to be more engaging (charged) and more accurate than otherwise.  We also felt that the products of these distributive panels (videotapes of the debates) would be useful educative tools.
  1. Organizers Exchanges.  In this model, we envisioned that organizers on the ground level (at community-based organizations) would initiate and participate in exchanges.  The occasion of such events would be gatherings of constituents, activist teach-ins, etc., and students at HCSSW would essentially be observers of these processes, able to pose questions indirectly of the events’ leaders/facilitators.  Technology in this model was to be decidedly low-end, as is typical of most organizing environments.  At most, we expected the CBOs to have T1 Internet access and low-end videoconferencing software such as CUSeeMe through which they would connect to the Hunter facility.  Role of technology:  In the Organizers Exchanges, we believed that videoconferencing could help students better understand the authentic and varied contexts of organizing in which they might find themselves practicing.  It would do this by making visible elements of these contexts (the physical environment, constituents, nature of conversations, etc.) that otherwise would not be seen.

 

 

Documentation of Activities

            While we planned to implement each of these models/scenarios at least once during a semester-long CO seminar, constraints imposed by scheduling, required preparatory work, and the technology itself prevented us from doing so.  Instead, we conducted a total of two videoconferencing events in two separate community organizing courses.  One occurred during the fall of 1998; the second during the fall of 1999.  Neither of these events followed the model templates described above.  Rather, they each combined elements of Models 1 and 3.

 

Event #1:  Organizers Exchange

on Youth Development & Community Development

 

Planning.  Considerable effort went into planning this Organizers Exchange.  Because a prior relationship had not existed between Professor Mizrahi and the staff at LEAP, some time was required to establish common goals and agree on what each group would be gaining from the interaction.  In this regard, it was determined that the LEAP activists, most of whom were recent college graduates with little formal training in community organizing (CO) or social work, were most interested in learning just what students in a formal CO course of study acquired from the experience.  They were also interested in new developments related to welfare policy.  Prof. Mizrahi indicated that she felt her CO students might be most interested in and best served by a joint problem solving session in which very concrete strategies were discussed.  She indicated that they wanted “desperately to talk about things that are happening in the field.”

 

            In addition to “getting acquainted,” it was important to establish among participants why we were attempting the event:  What would the videoconference enable that otherwise would not occur?  Because LEAP is not locally based, it was easy to justify the videoconference on the grounds that a physical meeting between the CO students and LEAP staff would not be likely to occur.

 

            Time was also required to discuss the videoconferencing medium itself and idiosyncrasies that it might introduce to forum. It was acknowledged, for instance, that the sequence of presenters was important and that we must alternate from site to site to keep audiences at both sites fully engaged.  Similarly, speakers had to learn to look at the camera, rather than directing their eyes to the people they were addressing--a behavior which required practice and caused some to feel disingenuous.

 

            Finally, a number of phone calls and contacts were required to secure logistics for the event.  Most importantly, it was necessary to find a videoconferencing facility in Connecticut from which LEAP could participate.

 

Implementation.  This event took place on December 8, 1998.  It involved approximately 20 students in Professor Terry Mizrahi’s graduate course on Community Organizing and Planning and five staff/youth organizers from Leadership, Education, & Athletics in Partnership (LEAP).  LEAP is a youth development and leadership initiative based in four cities in Connecticut.  It has received national attention for its innovative residential and multi-tier mentoring program which trains college students to work as counselors and then places them in communities (mostly housing projects) to mentor high school students (junior counselors) and counsel inner city children and families.  The program has been uniquely successful in providing opportunities for young people to serve as teachers and role models while themselves being mentored by college students.  Many of LEAP’s junior counselors have become senior counselors and staffmembers, creating a positive community and continuity of commitment that is rare in such high-poverty, urban neighborhoods.

 

            This event was structured to allow CO students who were working with youth to share experiences, successes, challenges and strategies with the youth organizers from LEAP.  Following this exchange, the CO students and LEAP staff were to reflect upon and discuss the relationship between youth development and community development.

The program plan for this event was as follows:

 

 

15 minutes

(B4 LEAP is connected)

·    Prof. Mizrahi introduces the event and outlines its format to CO students.  Students view videotape of LEAP that was produced by Good Morning America and formulate their questions for LEAP.

05 minutes

·    AV connection established with LEAP.

25 minutes

·    Welcome and introductions.  Prof. Mizrahi leads and moderates.

 

 

30 minutes

·    Summary of CO questions.  Prof. Mizrahi presents questions raised by CO students that are to be addressed by LEAP staff during their presentation.

·    Mini-presentations:  2 presentations by CO students; 2 presentations by LEAP staff.  Alternating in sequence.

10 minutes

·    Q&A about presentations.  Facilitated by Prof. Mizrahi; questions may be asked by any student in class.

15 minutes

·    Discussion around focus question:  How do we move from individual leadership development to community mobilization and activism?  (How do we get people involved in something that not only helps their own situation but also helps their community?)

05 minutes

·    Wrap-up and Good-byes.

 

Total Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

 

 

Program evaluation.  In reality, more time was required for technical aspects of the event (to connect LEAP and to establish sound contact) and much less time was available for discussion of the focal question.

 

            Despite these issues, the event was deemed very successful by both the event’s planners and participants.  Both CO students and LEAP staff indicated that they enjoyed and learned from the presentations and discussion.  Most interestingly, participants also felt they learned from (not about) the videoconferencing technology itself.  For instance, one CO student indicated that her work involved organizing with people in different states, and she could see potent applications of videoconferencing for their meetings and campaigns.  Another student commented that this experience had made her acutely aware of media’s power in framing issues for the public.  She explained that during the videoconference, she noticed that the camera seemed to manifest a particular point-of-view:  It focused on certain people, lingered on certain faces, and zoomed in on certain occasions.  All of these visual effects, she noted, conveyed meaning to her about what was important and legitimate.  They also suggested that she would need to be cognizant of the role of the recorder (camera, videotape, audiotape) in her own political organizing work.

 

Technology evaluation.  Some issues arose specifically in relation to the technology.  For instance, when planning for the event with LEAP, we initially thought that this organization could connect through a CUSeeMe/Internet connection at one of their community computer facilities.  However, as logistical negotiations progressed, it became evident that high technology and low technology were not so easily integrated.  This seemed to be due to both technical and psychological factors.

 

            In terms of transmission speed and audiovisual quality, the Hunter videoconferencing technology far exceeds simple CUSeeMe/Internet videoconferencing technologies.  Consequently, any live video from the community-based, CUSeeMe site projected at the Hunter facility would appear sub-standard, with relatively poor resolution, broken-up sound and little editorial polish afforded by camera angles and effects .  Similarly, in order for live video from the Hunter facility to be transmitted to one of LEAP’s community computer facilities, it would need to be digitized and then to travel through the Internet along with all the other Internet traffic.  The Hunter videoconferencing facility was not set up to transmit live video via the Internet.  Additionally, for this demonstration pilot project, the staff there did not feel that it was the best use of their technical capacity to scale down to meet the lowest common denominator of low tech community organizations.

 

            Additionally, questions were raised about the accessibility of the videoconferencing facility.  Specifically, participants inquired about the lack of subtitling features in the system.  One student in the class was hearing impaired and expressed surprise that these features were not included.  He indicated that voice-to-text translation options were widely available.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Event #2: Case Study Roundtable

 

Planning.  Planning for this Case Study Roundtable occurred primarily through telephone conversations.  Professor Mizrahi spoke individually with the lead participants (Professor Delgado and Ms. Nolan), and she initiated a teleconference with both parties to agree upon a theme and structure for the event and to exchange resources and references.  Additionally, background materials, including a bibliography for Delgado, were collected and shared with Hunter students prior to the event.  Finally, the lead presenters were also asked to prepare a presentation that included visuals to be projected at the event.

 

Implementation.  This event took place on November 19, 1999, and included:

  • Professor Terry Mizrahi;
  • approximately 10 students from Dr. Mizrahi’s Seminar on Community and Labor Organizing;
  • a professional community organizer (and alumnus of the HCSSW program) from New Settlement Apartments--Megan Nolan;
  • a parent activist from New Settlement Apartments (NSA)--Cynthia Cummer;
  • five youth activists from NSA; and
  • Professor Melvin Delgado from Boston University.  Delgado is recognized as a leader in the field.  His work involves identifying and building upon community assets and capacities, particularly those related to young people.

 

The topic for this event was community building.  Its structure was as follows:

 

 

~10 minutes

·    Introductions by Professor Mizrahi and CO students.  The students also indicated their questions and interests at this time.

 

~20 minutes

·    Presentation by Megan Nolan and Cynthia Cummer about the history and philosophy of the New Settlement Apartments and an overview of the community building efforts there.

 

~20 minutes

·    Presentation by youth organizers about their service and advocacy projects with the Bronx Helpers and Bronx Leaders.

 

~5 minutes

·    Commentary and questions from Melvin Delgado on these youth initiatives and the general work of the NSA community organizing wing.

~10 minutes

·    Presentation by Cynthia Cummer about parent organizing at NSA.

 

~20 minutes

·    Presentation by Professor Delgado about his own work in community capacity enhancement.  Description of projects involving community murals, playgrounds, and sculptures.

~15 minutes

·    Q&A for both groups of presenters.

~5 minutes

·    Closing comments and Good-byes.

 

Total Time:  ~1 hour, 45 minutes

 

            Professor Delgado, appearing from Boston University, was conferenced in prior to the start of this roundtable event.  Megan Nolan and other organizers from NSA were present at the HCSSW facility.

 

Program Evaluation.  This videoconference proceeded smoothly and seemed extremely effective.  Energy was high throughout the entire event, and participants asked a number of questions which indicated that they were building bridges from the information presented to their own placements and practices.  One student, for instance, asked the presenters to talk about instances in the projects when collaborating agencies were not responsive and to discuss their strategies for dealing with these situations.  Additionally, the presentations were substantive and quite relevant to the topic.

 

            Factors contributing to the success of this case study roundtable included:

1.      The event’s structure of combining relatively long blocks of presentation time with shorter periods of commentary and questions enabled deep coverage of the topic.  Planning for greater amounts of presentation time also reduced the chance that technical problems, if encountered, would significantly upset the flow of activities.

2.      Enlisting Professor Delgado (an author and activist whose work the students had read) as an “expert” panelist from afar enhanced the conversation by placing the work of the NSA in the context of a much broader movement.

3.      Both groups of presenters and Professor Mizrahi as facilitator used multiple media (photos and the whiteboard) in making their cases and identifying themes and issues.  These additional visuals added meaning to the presentations.

 

            Beyond these factors, it is also possible that having an alumnus of the CO program at HCSSW (Ms. Nolan), one who was familiar with the needs of the students as well as the structure of the program, as a key presenter and information funnel increased the event’s relevance to students and it minimized the time required for getting acquainted.

 

 

General Observations and Reflections

            From these two events, we learned a great deal about using distance education technologies to support and enhance education in community organizing.  Our observations and reflections clustered around four general themes--technical issues; preparation and structural issues; mediation issues (including media issues); and surprises.

 

Technical Issues.  We encountered three main technical issues during our pilot research.

  • Initially, we had hoped to include Professor Delgado as an expert panelist for our first organizers exchange event in 1998.  However, we quickly found that logistical difficulties of doing so, as well as the expense of involving more than one remote site, were prohibitive.  In short, at the time we implemented this event, it was not feasible to conference in more than one external site.  While the point may seem trivial, this technical bottleneck did prevent us from exploring other models of using videoconferences to support social and situated learning in community organizing.

.          The lack of suitable interfaces to connect high-tech systems (like Hunter’s) with low-tech systems (like the CUSeeMe Internet options more readily available to community organizations) limited our capacity to involve these sites as partners.  It also hindered our ability explore how videoconferencing might be used as an effective tool for showing students the authentic and varied contexts of organizing (the physical environment, constituents, nature of conversations, etc.) that otherwise they might not see.

.          One of the CO students present at these events was hearing impaired. Because the videoconferencing technology did not have subtitling features, it was not inclusive for this student or others like him.

 

 

 

Preparation and Structural Issues.  Much of the feedback we obtained from participants about these distance learning events related to time and its effective use.  We classified these comments as issues of preparation, structure, and mediation, because ultimately time is managed through such processes.

 

            Particularly during the first videoconference, we became aware that time was a costly and ration-able commodity.  Unlike traditional classes where students might linger to ask more questions or talk individually with presenters, in the videoconference, this was not possible.  Here, the time was bounded: the videoconferencing facilities were scheduled for other events following ours, and every minute on the airwaves cost money.  As a consequence, students indicated that they felt a certain “loss of intimacy.”  They commented that the event seemed “scripted” and did not allow for time to stray from the agenda or pursue tangential topics that might in fact greatly enhance the discussion.  Additionally, individual interests and questions could not be addressed in this public medium.

 

            The students also suggested that they felt the exchanges did not always go as deep as they would have liked.  By the time certain basic situations were clarified, there was no time remaining to explore common issues, dilemmas, strategies, etc.  One student volunteered:  “It might have helped if we had talked more about this before-hand.” Another student noted that she would have liked to have known more what the other sites hoped to gain from the event.

 

            Finally, an issue did arise that seemed unrelated to time.  Some participants questioned the value of such videoconferences.  One student commented, “I’m confused about how this profession will be able to implement these kinds of things.”

 

            In conclusion, we needed to spend a greater amount of time acquainting participants with each other and orienting them to the live video medium itself--through readings, class discussions, and perhaps e-mail exchanges.  These introductions done in advance might allow us to optimize time spent together in the more costly and time-constrained videoconferencing environment.  We also determined such events needed to be structured so as to provide a little more “wiggle room” in the case that activities did not go quite as planned or that participants wished to pursue different lines of inquiry.

 

Mediation Issues.  In this analysis, we have defined mediation liberally to include both media effects and human facilitation.

 

            Regarding media effects, participants in the first event commented that they felt the camera itself did manifest a point of view, and that they were unprepared for the effect of having someone else determine what was to be seen.  Given the political nature of much organizing work, it was not surprising that this issue emerged.  We recommend that participants explicitly consider the role of the medium in shaping what is perceived.  Media literacy materials are increasingly available on the web, but it might also be expedient to invite personnel from the distance education facility to make a short presentation about these issues.

 

            We also observed that the use of many types of documents and visual aids during the presentations helped participants understand and stay engaged in the experience.  Additionally, we found that human facilitation primarily involved insuring that all sites were active participants, for example alternating questions among sites.

 

Products.  In the course of planning and implementing these events, we discovered that the videotapes, recorded during each of these sessions, were in themselves very valuable educative tools.  We imagined that these tapes might be placed on reserve in the library as topical resources for community organizing courses in the future.  Additionally, segments might be edited and placed on the Internet as continuing education resources for organizers (alumni) working in the field.  And finally, because the videos arrest a moment in time in political and social culture of NYC and perhaps the country, we envisioned that at some point, they might be of some historical value in understanding the nature of community/civic change and growth.

 

 

Conclusions

            During the period from 1998-1999, we implemented two pilot videoconferences in community organizing courses at HCSSW.  These were:

 

  • An Organizers’ Exchange between HCSSW students and staff at LEAP, a Connecticut-based youth and community leadership organization.
  • A Case Study Roundtable with organizers from New Settlement Apartments in the Bronx and Professor Melvin Delgado from Boston University.

 

Through these events, we investigated the merits of and issues related to using distance education technologies to support situated and social learning--particularly as they related to CO education.

 

            We learned that distance learning events can indeed enhance CO education.  They make possible conversations and sharing that might otherwise be difficult or impossible because of the distances between participants.  They require faculty and student presenters to be more cognizant of and strategic in their use of time and media (camera angles as well as information displayed)--skills which will serve them well as they communicate publicly and in broader contexts.  They result in production of artifacts (videotapes) that are themselves valuable educational and archival resources.

 

 

Recommendations

            To increase the effectiveness of distance learning technologies for community organizing education, we recommend that:

 

  • Videoconferencing events be structured in such a way as to alternate relatively long (15-25 minute) presentation periods with shorter (5-10 minute) comment/question periods.  This chunking strategy allows time for technical glitches as well as unplanned (tangential) conversations which are often especially relevant to participants.
  • Participants be prepared in advance for each other and the live video medium.  Such preparation might include background readings, prior class discussions and e-mail exchanges.  It most likely would enable “air-time” to be used more effectively--focused on the discussion of deeper issues (strategies, successes, challenges, and conflicts).
  • Additional technologies (most likely Internet technologies) be investigated and acquired to enable a more facile connection between low-tech and high-tech environments.  This is particularly important if we want to involve authentic community sites that may not have easy access to high-end, two-way videoconferencing facilities.  These groups are likely to have Internet access in the future.
  • Multiple media (photos, data graphs, notes taken on the whiteboard) be used in presentations.
  • Video artifacts, recorded during these events, be made available in the library or on the web as resources for students enrolled in CO classes and as continuing education opportunities for alumni working in the field.

 

 

References

Bandura, A. (1977).  Self-efficacy:  Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change.  Psychological Review, 84, 191-215.

Dewey, J., & Dewey, E. (1915).  Schools of To-Morrow.  New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc.