National Writing Project

Tech Liaisons Discover a Whole New World—and Themselves—Through Technology Matters

By: Paul Oh
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 10, No. 1
Date: 2005

Summary: The coordinator of NWP's technology liaison program describes its origins, its first Technology Matters institute, and some of the exciting projects of its minigrant-funded members.


Cathie English is an optimist. For years, she'd been attempting to infuse technology and discussions about its use into the lifeblood of her site, the Nebraska Writing Project. So when she heard that writing project sites were instituting a new leadership position, a technology liaison, she jumped at the chance to take on the role.

What English was responding to was the National Writing Project's fledgling organizational effort to create the Technology Liaisons Network. The network began in 2001 with a modest but significant goal: to recognize teachers like English, who were helping their sites explore how teaching and site work could be advanced by new technologies. These teachers were the people implementing innovative teaching practices using computers; they were the people to whom site leaders were already turning for answers to hardware and software questions. They were also the people promoting discussions about how technology could be used to further the core mission of a writing project site. Recognizing that new technologies were influencing writing and learning in increasingly dynamic ways, the NWP began offering additional funds ($3,000) to any site interested in adding a technology liaison position to its leadership team. Sites responded enthusiastically, and the network began to grow, eventually leading to the development of exciting new resources, such as a discussion forum for technology liaisons and weblogs for sites.

A key event in the network's history occurred in 2003. That year the Marshall University Writing Project, West Virginia, hosted Technology Matters: An Advanced Institute for Technology Liaisons. The four-day gathering brought together technology liaisons to explore ideas and technologies that shape teaching and learning. In a state-of-the-art computer lab on the Marshall campus, participants examined, manipulated, and created projects with teaching and learning tools such as weblogs, Flash animation, and an online environment known as a MOO. Through it all, the goals of the institute guided every activity. These goals included promoting the Technology Liaisons Network; supporting participants as they considered what it means to teach, write, and learn in the digital world; and strengthening writing project sites by developing the technology liaison as a site leader.

As a participant at the inaugural Technology Matters institute, English discovered a network of national colleagues and was able to plan a technology vision for her site. The retreat offered much-needed support for English, who, early in her work as the Nebraska Writing Project's technology liaison, had sometimes felt she was one of the few to push for the changes inherent in new technologies. She and Robert Brooke, her site director, knew that like-minded teacher-consultants existed; they just needed a way to find them. The Technology Matters institute filled that need.

As a follow-up to the institute, each participant was allowed to apply for a minigrant to advance technology work at his or her site. English and Brooke decided to use their minigrant to recreate the Technology Matters experience locally. Through this experience, they hoped to identify and build a leadership team of teachers adept at, or interested in, employing digital learning and teaching tools. Together English and Brooke organized three all-day sessions last February, inviting specific teacher-consultants and allowing the group to share ideas and plan for the future.

The results of these sessions exceeded the wildest hopes of even an avowed optimist. "These people are so on fire about this," English explained, referring to how the Nebraska teachers reacted to the sessions. "Nothing could have happened until I got other people onboard. I wasn't alone; it just took a while to find the other people. That's the cool thing about it. This has all happened within the last six months because of the grant."

Growth of the Technology Liaisons Network
Since 2001, when the Technology Liaisons Network was launched, the number of sites with technology liaisons has swelled to 159. (See the chart at right for further information.) But the network has expanded not just in numbers; it has also grown in breadth and depth. Technology liaisons now have their own workshops and their own general session at each National Writing Project Annual Meeting. They receive regular bulletins from the NWP and participate in a technology liaison listserv, both of which allow them to act as a conduit through which information can flow between the individual sites and the NWP. They participate in pilot projects (such as the use of weblogs), which have been made available to them for purposes of experimentation and site development; and theirs is one of only a handful of nationally identified leadership positions at a site. Funding for the technology liaisons is part of the NWP Annual Site Application. To learn more about this position, visit the network website.

What has happened is the creation of a technology team, which continues to meet and has come up with ways for teachers to share their practice and discuss pedagogy on the Nebraska Writing Project's website. The group also is planning a three-day technology institute this summer to deepen their initial work and has added two new technology liaisons, Cyndi Dwyer and Dwight Thiemann, to help with the work. "I'm very happy to see this come to fruition and grow even more [so] as we tell other communities in Nebraska about it," English said. "Sometimes you just have to be persistent."

The Nebraska Writing Project was one of 11 sites to receive minigrants in 2003; 17 sites received such funding in 2004. Each of these minigrant projects touches upon a site-specific need—which dovetails nicely with the Technology Matters institute's objectives—and their goals range from the creation of the technology leadership group in Nebraska to the development of digital movies at Red Cedar Writing Project, Michigan, that tell the site's story. A technology liaison at the Northwest Indiana Writing Project is developing a mini-E-Anthology that will allow teacher-consultants to post work and respond to one another in a collaborative, online forum that echoes the national E-Anthology. At the Northern California Writing Project, the technology liaison has established a weblog that will allow teacher-consultants there involved in the NWP Research Initiative to communicate with one another. And the list goes on.

This summer, the Technology Liaisons Network will host the third Technology Matters institute, bringing together another group of eager technology liaisons and funding another round of minigrant proposals. In turn, the list of site-based technology projects will grow, as will the impact of the network. As one technology liaison wrote at the close of the Technology Matters institute, "Next year will be different because of what I've done here this week."

About the Author Paul Oh is the coordinator of the technology liaison program for the National Writing Project.

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