Academic Exchange Quarterly     Summer   2005    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume 9, Issue 2

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Enhancing Consensus-Building through Technology

 

Marwin Britto, Central Washington University, WA

Sarah Britto, Central Washington University, WA

Sue Carter Collins, Georgia State University, GA

 

Marwin Britto, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and the director of the Educational Technology Center. Sarah Britto, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Law and Criminal Justice. Sue Carter Collins, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice.

 

Abstract

The authors led two teams who developed Georgia high school standards and curricula for Law Enforcement in 2003 and for Private Security and Protective Services in 2004. Although both projects were similar, the methods used were different. This paper compares two methods of conducting focus group meetings with stakeholders, a low-tech “Post-it” notes method used during 2003 and the use of Smartboard technology to help facilitate the process in 2004. While both methods yielded positive results, the Smartboard technology elicited more interaction between group participants.  

 

Introduction

Developing high school curricula and standards requires involving stakeholders, such as teachers, administrators, and industry representatives, in the process and achieving consensus among diverse groups (National Education Goals Panel, 1991; National Council on Teachers of Mathematics, 1989; U.S. Department of Education, 1994; Georgia Department of Education, 2003). In the spring of 2003, we began developing a High School Public Safety curriculum that focused on Law Enforcement for the state of Georgia. The following year we began developing a second portion of the High School Public Safety Curriculum that focused on Private Security and Protective Services.

 

While the dual goals of developing a curriculum and standards and of achieving broad-based stakeholder participation and consensus were the same in both years, the methods for achieving these goals were significantly different. Several different models of consensus building have been used in developing high school standards and curricula, using techniques such as phone, mail and internet questionnaires such as found in the Delphi model (Pollard & Pollard, 2005), to extended face-to-face meetings, to a combination of multiple methods as found in the National Science Foundation model (1997). The model utilized for the development of both of the curricula in Georgia attempted to foster both individual and collective participation from all stakeholders, while developing a sense of empowerment to make positive change through this participation, and giving individuals a chance to reflect and comment on the work of the group at a later point.  

 

The development of the Law Enforcement Curriculum was decidedly low tech and focused on face-to-face meetings, except for a web-based survey instrument used at the end of the process to validate the curriculum and standards.  With the Private Security and Protective Services project, we used more advanced technology in hopes of enhancing the consensus-building process and compensating for budget cuts and a shortened time frame to host focus group meetings, which limited the number of stakeholder meetings that were feasible. The idea was to incorporate technology that added value to the sessions while not overwhelming or overburdening the facilitators and participants. This paper will compare both approaches and discuss the expected and unanticipated benefits of using technology to develop curricula and to enhance consensus-building among diverse groups.

 

Law Enforcement Curriculum - 2003

When the Public Safety Curriculum project began, the state of Georgia already had 35 teachers in Law Enforcement programs throughout the state; some were previously involved in developing national standards in this area (States’ Career Clusters Initiative, 2002).  In order to capitalize on their knowledge and skills, the curriculum development process began with an intense focus group meeting with the teachers. This was followed by a second focus group meeting with industry and post-secondary education representatives, which built on the framework (course sequence and initial list of standards) developed by the teachers. All stakeholder groups were then involved in a web-based survey to validate the final curricula and standards.

 

Teachers Focus Group

On February 1, 2003, we met with a group of Georgia high school public safety educators for a full day focus group session. The purpose of the meeting was to establish the five core courses in the Law Enforcement Curriculum, to develop a preliminary list of public safety standards, and to build consensus among high school educators. As a group, participants were first tasked with naming the five courses. Following this, participants brainstormed curriculum standards appropriate for each course. To facilitate the brainstorming process, each participant was given a package of colored “Post It” notes and asked to come up with as many ideas as possible. Each “Post It” note contained a single idea, which was then placed on a flip chart under the appropriate skill and knowledge category. The fact that each participant used different colored “Post It” notes made it easy to see who was generating the most ideas. An unexpected benefit of this strategy was that it created an atmosphere of friendly competition and increased productivity. At the conclusion of the session, participants were asked to review each suggestion and arrive at a group consensus regarding whether the standard was “clear and concise”, “relevant”, and “measurable” (Georgia Learning Connections, 2003). After the meeting, a graduate assistant electronically transcribed and compiled these notes to develop a preliminary framework for the Law Enforcement Curriculum.

 

Industry and Post-Secondary Reps Focus Groups

On February 15, 2003, a second focus group session convened with representatives from law enforcement, higher education, and technical schools. The purpose of this meeting was to review and revise the proposed courses and standards developed by high school educators in session one. The second session began with a brief introduction and a discussion of the courses in the curriculum.  Based on participants’ comments, it was clear that industry and post-secondary education representatives had important but different interests they needed to discuss before consensus could be reached on the proposed curriculum. Allowing participants to share their perspectives helped them to come together more quickly as a group and work together more effectively to achieve the session’s goals.

 

Similar to the first session, after reaching consensus on the names of the courses, industry and higher education representatives were given “Post-it” notes to record ideas generated during the brainstorming process. Because a large number of stakeholders were involved in this session, participants were divided into three groups with eight participants per group. Each group reviewed one course and used “Post-it” notes to write down ideas and place them on a flip chart in the appropriate knowledge and skill categories. When the groups completed their first course, they rotated and reviewed and revised a second course. A drawback of this method is that while it allowed for extensive input from individual participants, it failed to encourage group discussion since most participants worked independently. Additionally, the “Post-it” notes that participants used to record their ideas were often hard to read thereby further inhibiting the sharing of information between group members. 

 

At the close of the session the notes were transcribed and used to supplement the preliminary standards developed by the high school teachers. These standards were then enhanced with information from the national standards and various state programs. After further review and refinement, the contents of the proposed standards were converted to a web-based survey. Participants from both focus groups were asked to complete the survey, to rate the importance of the standards, and to suggest additional improvements to the curriculum. As a final step in the process, public safety teachers developed lesson plans for each of the first four courses. The curriculum and standards subsequently were adopted by the Georgia Board of Regents in the spring of 2004.

 

Private Security Curriculum – 2004

In contrast to 2003, budget cuts in 2004 and time constraints limited the meeting time with stakeholders to only one session. Despite this, the expectations of developing a curriculum and standards and achieving broad-based stakeholder participation and consensus remained the same. These limitations made it impossible to replicate the methods used in the previous year. Unlike the process used to develop the Law Enforcement Curriculum, where teachers in the first session generated standards and stakeholders in the second session reviewed them, in developing the Security and Protective Services Curriculum both processes had to occur on the same day. Using “Post-it” notes to record ideas generated by individual participants and placing them on a flip chart would not work due to time constraints. Thus, technology was discussed as a means of achieving these goals. Unfortunately, no additional money was available to fund technology purchases.

 

Needs Assessment

In investigating the possibility of using technology, factors examined included our technology skills and the technology skills of our four graduate students involved with the project as facilitators, and the participants’ technology skills, the venue and its limitations, and the technology options that were available. Although some individuals involved in the process had advanced technology skills, the majority of the potential participants in the focus group session were not technologically-savvy. In fact, many had very little exposure to the use of technology. Although we and our graduate students had a basic familiarity with technology, our knowledge and abilities were limited to applications related to our field. Fortunately, several individuals had personal laptops they were willing to use during the session. Additionally, the host center for the focus group session agreed to provide three data projectors and three whiteboards.

 

Research into technology systems raised several concerns. While it was clear that many expensive high-end commercial collaboration and consensus-building software programs were available, each required extensive technical setup and support. Due to a lack of funds, these systems were not viable options. Other technology systems necessitated the use of a network and/or the Web; however, because of security concerns at the host center use of their network or access to the Web was restricted. Equally important as the expense and security concerns raised by the use of advanced technology was the fact that most software programs required a steep learning curve for all users—facilitators and participants. While we wanted technology that would facilitate the process, we did not want it to stand in the way of participants getting involved in the focus group discussions or to take time away from the purpose of the focus group meeting. Thus, the ideal system would place the responsibility for learning and using the technology on the facilitators, not the participants.

 

Except for cost, Smartboards was the technology that seemed to best meet the project requirements. These forms of technology are interactive whiteboards that can be connected to a computer and are ideal for brainstorming, writing notes, drawing diagrams, controlling applications, and presenting information—all of which is captured and stored electronically. Smartboards come in a variety of types including front projection, rear projection, and plasma displays, which range in cost from $1,000 to $5,000+.

 

While investigating the various types of Smartboards, a portable device called a “Mimio Xi” was discovered.  The “Mimio Xi” can be attached to a non-interactive whiteboard making it an interactive one. Although the cost of the device was only $799, it was still cost-prohibitive based on the project’s limited budget. When we shared our concerns with the local vendor of this product and discussed the project’s needs, the company graciously agreed to loan us three of the devices and to train team members on how to use the equipment. One week before the focus group session, we met with the vendor representative and received training on how to use the system. During this process, it was quickly discovered that the “Mimio Xi” had many features that we would not need. Among these features were the ability to convert print or cursive writing from the whiteboard into document-ready text; to print, e-mail, fax and create web pages directly from the whiteboard; to use Windows NetMeeting for distance or virtual collaboration; to record an entire session to be played later with full video and audio; to capture and share notes immediately; and, to drag and drop material into any Windows application.

 

At this point, we had to make certain decisions about balancing available resources and features, the length of learning curves for mastering features, needs versus wants, and ease of use. Facilitators shared that they were more comfortable and faster at handwriting than typing. The facilitators chose to handwrite ideas generated by participants and use the Mimio Xi technology to convert the writing to text for the following brainstorming sessions. We limited the use of additional features in an attempt to keep the process simple.

 

Combined Stakeholder Focus Group Meeting

On March 19, 2004, we and our graduate student facilitators met with 30 participants representing the private security and protective services industry, high school teachers and administrators, post-secondary institutions, and the Georgia Department of Education. All individuals introduced themselves and worked together to brainstorm names of the three courses that would make up the new Private Security and Protective Services curriculum. Following the course naming session, the 30 participants were divided into three groups of 10 participants each. Each group was initially tasked with generating standards for one unique course. After completing this task, the groups were rotated and asked to review the course standards that another group had developed. At the conclusion of this process, the groups were rotated again and asked to review the third course. Only the use of advanced technology allowed all of these processes to occur in a single day session. 

 

The facilitators used Smartboards attached to laptop computers to help each group verbally brainstorm ideas and standards related to their assigned course. By writing their ideas on these interactive boards, the facilitator encouraged participants to generate more ideas and group feedback than would have been possible using the “Post-it” note method. A primary benefit of using the form of technology was that participants were able to hear the ideas of others and to view their suggestions, which resulted in more discussion and ideas. Additionally, while the groups rotated, the facilitators immediately converted their cursive writing to electronic text in Microsoft Word using Smartboard features. The next group then reviewed the suggested standards in text form, and provided input and feedback. The facilitators used the laptop keyboard to edit the document and make the necessary changes.  After all groups had reviewed the draft curriculum for each course, the three documents were electronically merged into a single document. Each participant was then given a hardcopy of the session’s results prior to leaving the meeting.  

 

Following the session, the draft document was reviewed and revised by incorporating national standards and standards from other states to develop a preliminary Private Security and Protective Services Curriculum. Similar to the process used with the Law Enforcement Curriculum, the Security Curriculum was then used to create a web-based survey, which was administered to relevant stakeholders. The results of the survey were used to further refine the curriculum, which is currently under review by the Georgia Board of Regents. 

 

Conclusion

Developing regional, state or national curriculum for any field can be a challenging endeavor, but extremely important to the goals of education (Cobb, 1994). The successful development, implementation, and acceptance of standards require the support of numerous stakeholders including teachers, parents, practitioners or industry representatives and representatives from higher education (Ravitch, 1995). The value of consensus-building mechanisms among all stakeholder groups throughout the process can not be understated. This process often involves managing different interests and balancing the needs of all participants, while simultaneously ensuring that all participants feel involved in the process and that their concerns are heard. 

 

We found that participation in focus groups, combined with a follow-up web based or mail survey depending on the participants comfort with technology were successful modes for achieving these goals. Based on experiences with the Law Enforcement focus group, we concluded that the use of low-tech “Post-it” notes worked well with smaller more homogenous groups but limited the amount of group communication among participants. The use of Smartboards in the Security and Protective Services focus group allowed facilitators to efficiently manage the work of three diverse groups of stakeholders in a single focus group meeting; it also encouraged the interactive discussion between group participants that is needed to achieve consensus. In addition, our workloads were reduced dramatically because handwritten text was quickly and easily converted to electronic text in Microsoft Word using Smartboard features.

 

This case indicates that when used properly, advanced technology enhances the consensus building process by adding value to facilitated group sessions while not overwhelming or overburdening either the participants or facilitators.

 

References

Cobb, N. (1994). The Future of Education: Perspectives on National Standards in America. New York, NY: The College Board.

Georgia Department of Education. (2003). A World-Class Curriculum for Georgia’s             Schools. Retrieved November 1, 2003 from:

            http://www.doe.k12.ga.us/curriculum/instruction/qcc/index.asp

Georgia Learning Connections – Georgia Department of Education. (2003). Quality Core Curriculum Overview.  Retrieved November 1, 2003 from: http://www.glc.k12.us/ qcc/overview-qcc.htm

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (1989). Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics. Reston, VA.: Author.

National Education Goals Panel. (1991). The National Education Goals Report: Building a Nation of Learners. Washington, DC.: Author.

National Science Foundation. (1997). Building Consensus/Building Models: A Networking Strategy for Change.  Retrieved March 31, 2005 from: http://www.netteach.com/ntn/cf_report.html

Pollard, C., & Pollard, R. (2005).  Research Priorities in Educational Technology:  A Delphi Study.  Journal of Research on Technology in Education,37(2), 145-160.

 

Ravitch, D. (1995). National Standards in American Education. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution.

States’ Career Clusters Initiative. (2002). Law, Public Safety & Security [Pamphlet]. Office of Vocational and Adult Education, U. S. Department of Education.

U. S. Department of Education. (1994). High Standards for all Students. Washington, D.C.: U. S. Government Printing Office.