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Epistemic Beliefs of Teachers in Technolo L-Rich

Communihl College Technical Education Programs

John M. Dirkx
Gloria Kielbaso
Regina 0. Smith

Recent changes in the workplace and the nature of work are having
profound effects on what workers need to know and produce. A critical
aspect of this change within the United States and other industrialized
countries is the rapid growth of and reliance on information technologies
(IT) to enhance performance and productivity. These changes are associ-
ated with a profound shift in our fundamental assumptions about the na-
ture of working knowledge-of what it is that needs to be known and how
workers come to know (Berryman, 1993). These shifts in knowledge
have profound implications for education-for-work and workplace learn-
ing programs. It is within these programs that workers acquire the dispo-
sitions, knowledge, and skills required in their work and how these can
be used to address the tasks and problems they confront in their work.
Assumptions about the nature of knowledge and how it is acquired and
used are reflected in the curricula, teaching and training strategies, and
assessment methods of these programs (Pratt & Associates, 1998). In
particular, beliefs of the teachers and trainers responsible for designing,
implementing, and assessing these programs influence what counts as
knowledge and how that knowledge is acquired (Clarebout & Elsen, 2001;
Clark & Peterson, 1986; Fang, 1996; Hofer & Pintrich, 1997; Pajares,
This study focuses on community college education-for-work pro-
grams (technical education) in which the use of computer technologies is
considered integral to the knowledge and skills being fostered. We refer
to this context as technology-rich environments. Community colleges have
a history of adapting and responding to societal needs and nontraditional

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learners (Cohen & Brawer, 2002). Furthermore, there is considerable
rhetoric that characterizes these institutions as having an emphasis on the
learner and learning-centered methods of pedagogy (Barr & Tagg, 1995;
Grubb & Associates, 1999; O'Banion, 1997). Therefore, these institutions
represent an ideal context for the study of the adoption and use of emerging
technologies and pedagogical methods related to the use of technology.
The purpose of this study was to determine the beliefs that teachers in
these programs hold about the nature of knowledge, how learners come to
know, and the role of computer-assisted instruction in the learning process.
Background and Rationale
Many of the jobs affected by recent technological innovations in-
volve what Grubb (1996) refers to as midlevel or technical skills. In the
United States, community colleges and technical institutes have tradition-
ally trained people in these midlevel skills. Heavily influenced by behav-
ioral and information-processing views of learning, many technical edu-
cation programs reflect structured, mechanistic, and repetitive concep-
tions of pre-IT era organizations (Doolittle & Camp, 1999). The pro-
grams use job and task analyses to create traditional curricular and in-
structional structures, such as behavioral objectives and skills standards.
In these traditional approaches to training, teachers and learners assume
that the knowledge required for particular forms of practice is fixed, is
able to be specified apart from the practice itself, and is capable of being
transmitted to workers in training. Training is viewed as a kind of "plug
and play," where trainers package the knowledge needed in particular
work contexts, as well as design and use effective methods of addressing
gaps in the worker's knowledge. Once trained, the worker simply applies
learned information to the appropriate work tasks or problems as they
The rapid growth of computer technologies and other changes in the
workplace challenge these traditional conceptions of working knowledge
and their associated means to prepare workers. Many believe that heavy
reliance on skills and drills approaches in technical education is simplis-
tic, rigid, and fundamentally out of step with the requirements of the new
economy and the workplace. As Grubb, Kalman, Castellan, Brown, and
Bradby (1991) observe, "The programs that have been enacted to en-
hance occupational literacy often follow the conventional approach to

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teaching that I call 'skills and drills': fragmented, didactic, teacher-cen-
tered, and quite often different in their content from the higher order
skills associated with the new vocationalism" (p. 161).
In the views of learning emerging from the new workplace, individu-
als learn as they work and effectively apply what they learn in an ongo-
ing, continuous manner. This form of learning reflects more complex
beliefs about knowledge in which there are multiple solutions within a
range of possibilities and a reliance on constructivist approaches to learn-
ing (Putnam & Borko, 2000). A dynamic interaction exists between the
experience and knowledge-base that one brings to a situation and the
evolving nature of what one needs to know to proceed effectively. The
knowledge one needs to perform a given task is situated within specific
contexts of the work itself and cannot be separated from it. For example,
machinists possess specific knowledge about how to turn a piece of metal
tubing into a complex part that articulates with other parts to within an
accuracy of a fraction of a millimeter. Yet, what these machinists need to
know and be able to do on a particular assembly line, producing parts for
a particular vehicle, can only be acquired within the particular organiza-
tional situation in which that vehicle is produced. While they bring gen-
eral knowledge to bear on the process, ongoing adjustments that are needed
and problems that occur within that process require knowledge that is
derived only from working within that particular situation. To perform at
this level, workers need a greater tolerance for ambiguity and cognitive
complexity and higher order problem-solving skills. To develop appro-
priate knowledge that is useful in the production process from these situ-
ations of ambiguity and uncertainty requires the workers' ability to learn
how to learn. They must learn to move from the expectation that they can
apply previously acquired principles and rules to complex and ambiguous
situations to being able to learn from these situations by effectively ad-
dressing the problems they present.
This form of learning is more consistent with Schon's (1983) notions
of the reflective practitioner and reflection-in-action. In reflection-in-ac-
tion, the problems of practice are messy, uncertain, and ill-structured,
and the practitioner needs to be skilled in processes of problem-posing as
well as problem-solving. To paraphrase Schdn, workers need to be able
to talk with and learn from the particular practice settings or situations in
which they find themselves. For example, novice automotive technicians

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will immediately hook up an automobile to an impressive and expensive
electronic diagnostic machine and proceed with a step-by-step approach
to identifying the problem. Skilled technicians, however, listen to the
sound of the engine at different speeds and often quickly frame the nature
of the problem from the nature of the sounds they hear. Rather than
employing the machinery to find the problem, they will often use it, if at
all, to simply confirm their preliminary hypotheses derived from listen-
ing and observing the car's engine. This skill cannot be taught through
textbooks but can only be acquired by learning to learn within the con-
texts of fixing messy, ill-defined automotive problems.
When grounded in a constructivist epistemology (Duffy & Jonassen,
1992), technology-based instructional strategies provide educators with
opportunities to create instructional environments capable of fostering
this skill in learning to learn (Jacobson, Maouri, Mishra, & Kolar, 1996;
Jonassen, 1991, 1996; Paolucci, 1998). That is, computer-mediated learn-
ing experiences can foster an appreciation for the ill-structured nature of
workplace problems, an appreciation for their cognitive complexity, and
an increased capacity for reflective and higher-order thinking and prob-
lem-solving. The design and implementation of learning environments
that foster reflective, higher-order thinking and problem-solving, how-
ever, depend in part on the beliefs and assumptions with which teachers
frame the learning tasks and the contexts in which these strategies are
being used. Beliefs about learners, good teaching practices within the
context of the institutional culture, and the role of technology in learners'
lives influence the ways in which teachers integrate computer technolo-
gies into classroom instruction (Windschitl & Sahl, 2002).
Research suggests that computer technology, properly designed and
used within an instructional context, can induce change in the ways learn-
ers think about a domain of knowledge (Jonassen, 1996). Among the
possible changes are increased flexibility in thinking, higher order think-
ing, and learning to learn from the situations with which learners may be
confronted in their work contexts (Jacobson et al., 1996; Paolucci, 1998).
This change in belief can be characterized as a personal "paradigm shift,"
from relatively simple to more cognitively complex ways of thinking.
Appropriate use of constructivist technology-rich environments creates
the potential for the spiral-like development of flexible and complex un-
derstandings among learners and workers that can begin from very simple

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and rigid preconceptions. These understandings are consistent with the
forms of working knowledge emerging from current technology-rich work
environments. Even when technology-rich environments are properly
designed, however, how students think about knowledge and learning
reflects the assumptions implicit in the implementation of training (Elen
& Clarebout, 2001). That is, the epistemic beliefs held by teachers and
trainers are a significance influence on what students come to believe
about the nature of knowledge and what it means to learn. While technol-
ogy-rich environments offer the potential to foster higher-order thinking
skills, it is possible that these technologies are being used within more
traditional epistemological frameworks that have guided technical educa-
tion workforce learning programs for so many years (Berryman, 1993;
Doolittle & Camp, 1999; Grubb, 1996).
More research is clearly needed on how teachers and trainers think
about and use computer technologies within their education-for-work and
workplace learning programs. Such research is clearly needed to guide
curriculum work and professional development effectively in education-
for-work programs and workplace learning.
Learners' beliefs about knowledge are shaped and influenced through
multiple sources, including teachers, curriculum designers, and the stu-
dents themselves (Hofer & Pintrich, 1997). In this study, we report on
one aspect of this complex relationship, the epistemic beliefs of teachers
responsible for particular courses in community college technical educa-
tion. The purpose of this study was to identify and describe the epistemo-
logical beliefs of teachers within community college technical education
programs that are computer technology-rich and determine how these
beliefs are reflected in the pedagogical uses of technology within these
programs. The questions guiding this research are the following: (a) What
are the epistemological beliefs of teachers who work in computer technol-
ogy-rich community college technical education programs? (b) How are
the teachers' epistemic beliefs reflected in the use of computer-mediated
instructional strategies? and (c) What contextual factors (social, cultural,
organizational, political) influence the kinds of epistemological beliefs
held by teachers?

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This study utilized a multi-case, qualitative design. A case was de-
fined as a community college technical education class that makes signifi-
cant use of information technology within the instructional process. The
programs selected represented areas of technical education of relative
high priority within the state, including manufacturing, business, and ser-
vice. We selected courses within five different programs that prepare
individuals for midlevel, high-skilled jobs. Each case is comprised of
college-level (e.g., Dean of Workforce Education) or program-level (e.g.,
Departmental Chair) administrators, teachers, and advanced students, as
well as the curriculum and related materials (such as computer programs
and software used) and instructional processes. For purposes of this study,
we focused on the epistemic beliefs of teachers.
Selection of Research Participants
Cases were selected purposively to represent technical education pro-
grams in which computer technology was considered integral to the over-
all program, encompassing programs providing service to urban, subur-
ban, and rural areas. Furthermore, we also selected cases that maximized
representation of programs across the three technical education areas of
manufacturing, business, and service. Through several different strate-
gies, we developed a preliminary pool of candidate institutions and pro-
grams. An administrator from the state's Office of Career and Technical
Education was asked to identify community college programs that were
perceived to be making significant use of computer technologies. In addi-
tion, professional networks were utilized to help identify a candidate pool
from which the three cases were selected.
We selected a midwestern manufacturing-intensive state, with nu-
merous opportunities for training and employment across all three of the
categories of programs of interest to the study. The programs selected
represented computer-aided design, electronics, business software, den-
tal hygienists, and respiratory therapy. Midlevel to advanced courses in
each of these program areas were selected because they were most likely
to demonstrate more sophisticated uses of computer-mediated instruction.
Data Collection Procedures
The teachers for each of the programs represented our primary data
source. In addition, for each program we observed at least one full in-
structional session and, when possible, examined curricular and instruc-

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tional materials used. Sources of data included depth interviews with teach-
ers, classroom observations, and curricular and instructional materials
and equipment.
Teacher interviews and classroom observations. In each case, par-
ticipating teachers were interviewed and one instructional session for each
teacher was observed and videotape recorded. Semi-structured, in-depth
interview protocols were developed, based on the work of Pratt & Asso-
ciates (1998), Schommer (1990), and our own previous work in this area
(Dirkx & Spurgin, 1992; Dirkx, Amey, & Haston, 1999). These proto-
cols elicited descriptions of the teachers' backgrounds, their primary aims
of teaching, and how they think about knowledge, learners, how learners
come to know, and the context of learning. Segments of the videotaped
session were selected for use in follow-up interviews with teachers. Stimu-
lated process recall (Bloom, 1953) was used to guide the use of these
videotaped segments. In some instances, where use of the videotape was
not possible, the interviewer recalled segments of the instructional ses-
sion for the teacher. In these recall sessions, teachers were shown short
segments of their teaching and were asked to describe what they were
doing in these segments and the beliefs and assumptions underlying these
actions. Typically, three to four different segments were reviewed with
each teacher, representing moments of transition within the instructional
process. The total time required for both the initial and follow-up inter-
views ranged from 90 minutes to over 3 hours.
Program materials, software, and other documents. We also re-
quested to see program materials, curriculum guides, software, and teach-
ing aides that were used in the program. When appropriate, we asked
teachers to describe their thinking in using or selecting these materials.
We also examined these materials for assumptions about knowing and
learning implicit in their content or use.
Data Analysis
Each interview was tape recorded and transcribed verbatim. The tran-
scripts were subjected to thematic content analysis, using standard quali-
tative procedures. Follow-up face-to-face or telephone interviews were
conducted when appropriate to clarify or elaborate material in the first
interview. The analysis of the protocols was both bottom up (i.e., from
their actual actions and comments) and top down (i.e., guided by what we
were looking for, such as conceptual coherence, changes in epistemic

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beliefs and so on). This bidirectional approach to the data allows the
investigation of important issues while maintaining the primacy of the
actual data.
Curricular and instructional materials were examined to determine
assumptions about knowledge, teaching, and learning implicitly reflected
in these materials. For example, computer-based instructional programs
were analyzed in terms of the kinds of questions being asked, forms of
feedback given, and movements possible within the program. Teaching
aides, such as computerized patient mannequins, were observed to deter-
mine assumptions about knowledge reflected in their use. For the most
part, results from analysis of curricular and instructional materials, as
well as classroom observations, were used to triangulate findings emerg-
ing from the analysis of the teacher interviews.
Results of our analysis are organized and presented as themes within
the major research questions guiding the study.
What are the epistemological beliefs and theories of teachers who
work in IT-rich community college technical education programs?
The educators' epistemic beliefs are reflected in their perceptions of
their adult learners, of knowledge, and of the role of technology in foster-
ing this knowledge.
Beliefs About Leamers
Students who attend community colleges represent a diversity of age,
socioeconomic backgrounds, academic preparation, race, and ethnicity
(Cohen & Brawer, 2002). For many students, life is economically chal-
lenging and they often deal with a variety of psychosocial issues as well
(Cohen & Brawer, 2002). Students in technical education programs are
no exception to this general observation, and the teachers in this study
reflected a deep awareness of their students' backgrounds and the com-
plexities of their lives. For example, Patricia compares her students to
her son who attends college. She comments, "He is totally on his own. "
Her students, however, are "not only dealing with school work, but have
families... .kids with problems, and parents with problems, and husbands with
problems, and people losing jobs. " Donna, a teacher of respiratory therapy,
describes her students as all sharing "the same characteristics... in terms of
at risk." Joyce, who teaches computer applications for business, says:

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Some come.. .maybe the older student, because they can't go
anywhere else. I mean, they have a family or they have a job and
they're coming here to update their skills, or to get the degree
they always wished they had or the children are now in school all
day so they have the opportunity to come.
Others talked about the external baggage that learners bring with
them to class, such as personal issues or concerns with work, relation-
ships, or their families. Wynetta comments,
We may take a few minutes, and you know, let the student vent
a little bit. It's like, okay, do you feel better now?.... Because
sometimes, that kind of helps the student focus better. So
sometimes it may be taking five to ten minutes away from class
to kind of find out, okay, how's everybody doing today.
For the most part, however, teachers recognize these various life
contexts and issues as barriers to learning. For example, Michael, an
electronics teacher, characterizes these contexts as "life" that can impede
learning. The teachers believe that these issues need to be recognized and
given some attention during the instructional experience, but they do not
see these issues as integral to the learning process. When students come
to class with personal issues, Wynetta says she is able to help her students
through extra curricular activities. For example, she recalls a conversa-
tion with a student whose high school counselor "pretty much wrote [her]
off." This student competed and took third place in a national animation
competition. She recalls this student saying, "wait til I tell that counselor;
they told me I would never amount to anything." Patricia describes her-
self as a "counselor to her students. " Wynetta discusses the need to "build
a relationship" with her students. Anita finds that being an educator is
like being a "pastor" because you have the ability to help "shape
lives.. negatively or positively." Absent from the teachers' characteriza-
tions of their relationships with learners, however, is any reference to the
technology rich-environments in which these relationships are embedded.
The learners' life contexts and prior experiences are generally con-
sidered either potentially detrimental to learning or, at best, irrelevant to
it. For example Michael claims, "no one has taught them how to learn."
He suggests that some students have "natural skills," so they do better in
class but there is little recognition that all students have "natural skills" to

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learn. In describing their students, the teachers rarely refer to the techno-
logical background or skills of their students, which many students in our
background questionnaires reported to have. If they do, these skills are
not perceived as something on which to build the students' further learn-
ing. For example, Anita, a teacher of computer aided design (CAD),
describes the mechanical engineers who come into her classroom as very
proficient at "paper and pencil drawings." Yet, they experience difficulty
"making the transfer from drawing it on the board.. .to drawing it on a
computer." For the most part, the teachers believe the students in the
program lack the appropriate knowledge and skills and are there to re-
ceive such knowledge and skills necessary for them to work within that
particular technical area. Donna comments, "I don't expect for the stu-
dents that have no medical background at all to be able to be self-directed
learners because it is not going to's a gradual process.. .but
there is some instruction that has to be taking place." For even what she
refers to as "advanced students," Donna says she must "walk them through
the steps" so that they can develop problem-solving skills.
These observations reflect what many educators hold to be the pur-
poses of education and training programs and what they are designed to
do. From an epistemic perspective, however, it is important to recognize
that these observations characterize a rather passive learner whose task it
is to largely receive information and skills from experts. The teachers do
not talk about the prior knowledge and skill in the use of computer tech-
nology that the students bring to the classroom or how they can build
instructional experiences on that knowledge and skill.
Beliefs About Knowledge
As Pratt and Associates demonstrate (1998), a teacher's commitment
may rest, depending on one's particular perspective on teaching, prima-
rily with the content, the learners, or the teacher's role. In general, a
given perspective reflects an overarching commitment to one of the ele-
ments of the teaching process. All six teachers in this study demonstrate a
strong commitment to the content of their teaching. Virtually all of the
teachers described the importance of "covering" or "getting through" the
assigned material. Knowledge is considered external to the learner. It is
bounded, often residing in text "out there," apart from the learners' life
contexts, to be discovered and imparted to the students by the teacher.

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Anita says, "We teach them how to draw a line on paper so that it is crisp
and clean. It is either right or wrong, right?" In teaching computer soft-
ware, Janine stays close to the text in both the content and her approach to
teaching it: "The book is kind of laid out also in a nice fashion, where
there's step-by-step assignments that present whatever the objectives of
that particular chapter are. And in class, we will walk through that to-
gether." Even when professional development activities have provided
alternative constructivist orientations to knowledge or when the profes-
sional field is attempting to incorporate more case-based learning in their
training programs, the teachers tend to adhere to external conceptions of
knowledge. Despite exposure to these professional development activi-
ties, Patricia, a dental hygiene instructor, admits to being uncomfortable
with these approaches, suggesting that "there is still that fear that there
are some basics that they may not necessarily pick up."
External guidelines or standards from many occupational programs
reinforce and drive beliefs about knowledge as external to the learners'
life contexts or the sociocultural context of the college. Wynetta says,
"There are specific guidelines. This much material needs to be covered
within the fifteen weeks.. you've got this booklet with a whole lot of
information." Others, such as Janine, see current curricular approaches
as driven too much by the text being used in the class and are seeking to
augment these approaches with their own materials. In these explora-
tions, however, she may not be able to stray too far from the text, sug-
gesting a continuing tension between text-based approaches that are
grounded in certification requirements and the need to develop higher-
order thinking and problem-solving skills among her learners.
Role of Technology in Fostering Knowledge
The teachers perceive technology as a means for fostering the trans-
fer of knowledge, rather than a means of constructing or producing knowl-
edge. Michael comments, "Technology is influencing how students
learn ... [but] not what they learn. " In describing her approach to teaching
computer software, Janine says,
[Technology] helps me organize, I think, the material in a fun
way and a creative way.... For example, we just covered a chapter
on the Internet in this beginning class, and as part of that Power
Point presentation, I included links to web sites that I wanted to

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show them... inclusion of multimedia effects on a web site. So, I
mean, it allows me to launch right from the presentation to go to
the web and come immediately back to the presentation again. I
can use classical elements in the presentation. And I think that
helps keep students' interest instead of just, you know, sitting
and listening.
While Anita readily admits that the technology changes "the very
foundation of design" which requires a "different mindset in terms of
how things are constructed," she focuses on how the CAD environment
will enable the mechanical engineers relax and enjoy an "error free envi-
ronment, because it's easy to make the changes."
Thus, the teachers in this study view learners as recipients of knowl-
edge and skills that they, as experts, are charged with transmitting to
them. The technology employed in the classroom is understood instru-
mentally as a means of acquiring the "right" knowledge. In most cases,
the teachers are heavily influenced by perceptions of what is required by
professional or occupational guidelines or certifications. While several
appear to be thinking about alternative approaches to teaching and learn-
ing, their perceptions and practices continue to reflect a heavy reliance on
these externally-defined bodies of knowledge.
How are the teachers' epistemic beliefs reflected in the use of com-
puter-mediated instructional strategies?
The teachers' epistemic beliefs are reflected in the use of technology
as classroom technique and in the influence of the technology on the
teachers' locations within the classroom.
Technology as Classroom Technique
As we pointed out earlier, computer technologies can be used to pro-
mote constructivist approaches to learning and knowing, allowing stu-
dents to be producers rather than just consumers of knowledge. In this
sense, technology is used to foster increasing levels of cognitive com-
plexity, reflective and higher-order thinking, and problem solving. For
the most part, however, the teachers in this study viewed technology as a
technique for transmitting content they wanted the students to learn, or as
a means for facilitating that transfer process by making learning easier,
faster, or more interesting. For example, Anita, a CAD instructor, states
that "with the electronic data it's quicker; it's more accurate.. .The speed

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and accuracy is increased incredibly... [And it is] just a different tool.
That's the only difference [between manual drawing and CAD]." Some
of the teachers seem clearly aware of the constructivist potential inherent
in computer technology. For example, Anita states that the CAD technol-
ogy "requires a different mind set.. to think about problem solving. " New
releases in her field usually contain a couple of hundred enhancements
which provide "four or five ways to do any one thing." Anita admits it is
her job "to teach them to go about doing it as efficiently and accurately as
they can in a way that's comfortable for them."
Computer technologies seem to reinforce the job of teaching, making
some things easier and more efficient. Michael states: "It's kind of like
rote work.. like flash cards." Janine describes her use of technology as
helping her "organize the material in a fun and creative way." In most
cases, the teachers perceive computer-mediated instruction as replacing
procedures that can be done manually. For example, Janine admits that
she could manually do the things she does on the computer. But computer
technology adds versatility and enhances the teacher's ability to demon-
strate the right approaches or skills. When a student has a work-related
problem, Janine says:
I'll do it right up there.... so they watch as I, you know, check in
different menus or I'll go to the HELP or what have you until we
can figure it out. If it's something that's going to be too time-
consuming or we're not figuring it out right away, I'll say well
I'll check into it, and come back and then I'll demo it.
The use of technology organizes the material better for the students,
as well as increasing speed, accuracy, and reproducibility. It is a strategy
for fostering the transmission of content to the learners. None of the
teachers mentioned the use of technology as opening opportunities for
alternative ways of knowing or learning in more complex ways.
Influence of Technology on Teacher Location
The use of technology in these classrooms serves to reinforce two
major forms of teacher location relative to the student: (a) standing in
front of the class providing direct instruction, and (b) walking around as
the students work at their computers. Most teachers interacted with the
class as a whole by using a computer located in front of the room. That is,
they either used a computer to demonstrate particular skills or processes

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they intended their students to master, or they electronically monitored
and occasionally intervened in their students' work through the classroom
network. In teaching electronics, Michael uses a computer to select and
then project problems for students to work:
The computer projection-I like the software that we have and
basically it generates the random problems and I don't have to do
it...if they don't get it after the first example, I can get another
example up like that.
Even teachers who do not rely on a computer per se tend to rely on
the technology to position themselves relative to the students. The respi-
ratory therapist teacher confesses that she does not use technology much
in her teaching. She would like to use Power-point more but still does not
know that much about it. Yet, she employs highly sophisticated comput-
erized ventilators and a child mannequin to simulate clinical scenarios.
Wynetta explains:
With the technology, I do scenarios trying to bring the information,
correlating it with the patient, and then blending that with the
actual unit itself [the baby hooked up to a ventilator], where
before I'd just give them the information and correlate it with the
patient, and that was kind of the extent of it...We just got the baby
ventilator recently so if I'm going to be teaching this course again,
I can now institute that earlier on as opposed to at the very end.
Teachers also checked on students' work and kept them on task by
walking around, sometimes standing behind them as they worked on com-
puters within the classroom. Janine says:
We have finally gotten some remote mice in the classroom, which
means I can wander around the room. Before we had those, I
was pretty stuck up at that instructor's station, to be able to advance
my slides.. .I hate standing in one spot... So now I can wander
around the room while I'm discussing this material and it tends
to discourage them from doing that playing because they know
now I can see what they're doing.
Most of her teaching time is spent walking around the room, observ-
ing students as they work on their spreadsheet assignments on computers,
answering questions that students may have, and occasionally showing
students how to execute or negotiate certain tasks within the software.

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Anita, who teaches computer-aided design (CAD), describes her learning
environment as a lecture lab. "After [the lecture] it's mostly lab where
they're doing their projects and I'm kind of floating through the aisles
helping students, answering questions." Like Anita, Michael's electron-
ics class is divided into lecture and lab portions. Unlike Anita, however,
during the lecture the students have no access to computers but must
listen to their instructor's lecture and watch as he demonstrates certain
tasks on his computer at the front of the room. During this time, Michael
puts structured questions to the class and asks for individual volunteers.
For the lab portion of their class, students move to another room and
work individually or in pairs on computer terminals. As they work, Michael
occasionally walks around to observe the students' work or to answer
questions that may arise within the assignment. Students in Wynetta's
respiratory therapy class work alone or in pairs on computer simulations
and she walks from computer to computer to check on their work, ad-
dresses questions or problems they are having, and offers additional in-
formation related to the cases on which they are working. Virtually all the
technology education teachers who were observed demonstrated this pat-
tern of classroom behavior, varying only in the amount of time spent
lecturing and walking around.
What contextual factors (social, cultural, organizational, political)
influence the kinds of epistemological beliefs held by teachers?
For a few teachers we observed, the ability to teach is considered an
innate gift. For example, Janine asserts, "I just feel like this is what I was
born to do." Wynetta describes it as a talent: "I believe God gives every-
one a talent, and that's the talent that was revealed to me because I actu-
ally get joy out of teaching." Yet, it is clear that most are significantly
influenced by the social and institutional contexts in which they work.
These revolve around professional standards and accreditation, profes-
sional development activities, and institutional initiatives and relationships.
Professional Standards
Professional competencies and certification and accreditation stan-
dards have a significant influence on what is taught and how it is taught in
several of the programs. Wynetta is quite conscious of the specific com-
petencies and standards to which her students will be held through profes-
sional certifying exams. Despite her creative approaches to teaching and
responsiveness to her learners, this reality serves to form and shape her

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overall approach to teaching. Patricia also feels heavily influenced by the
need to address the specific competencies associated with dental hygiene
certification. Patricia comments that she decides what to teach "based on
a lot of accreditation standards. What they tell us that they have to learn.
They are very clear in a lot of areas. It's kind of cut and dry." Neverthe-
less, Patricia admits the dental hygiene board is trying to shift to "to these
case studies."
Enculturation into education. In other program areas, teachers
seemed less influenced by professional standards than by organizational
processes, but the social and cultural contexts are nonetheless reflected in
their overall perceptions of teaching. One of these sources is socialization
within the field of education, through professional development and other
activities. In describing a training session she attended, Patricia observes,
"This woman was trying to introduce us to Dewey's theories.. it was just
eye awakening for me and you know how to structure learning activities
that are more hands on, and are more realistic." Others describe how
their early socialization influenced their teaching practice. Janine, the
computer applications teacher, finds that while students like "hands on
classes," it is very challenging for her because you must cover "the con-
tent, the theory part of the computer."
Institutional Influences
Janine was well aware of her college's effort to move toward a more
learning-centered educational approach. She spoke about how this effort
was influencing her thinking about her own teaching, causing her to ques-
tion the way she has taught and causing her to explore alternative ways of
classroom practice she perceived as more consistent with a learning-cen-
tered approach. Despite this awareness, however, Janine's perceptions of
what is knowledge, how one comes to know, and the role of technology
in that process all reflected fairly traditional assumptions of teaching and
learning. Although she was very responsive to individual students within her
classroom, there was little evidence that her practice behaviors suggest the
epistemic shift implicit in moving towards a learning-centered approach.
In addition to broad organizational initiatives, some teachers were
influenced by their relationships with peers. Michael, an electronics teacher,
describes his collaborative relationships with other members of the fac-
ulty who are teaching in similar areas. For the most part, however, these
relationships serve as examples of what not to do as a teacher, suggesting

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to Michael forms of practice and attitudes towards teaching that he feels
are not helpful to students or that are not to be emulated. He indicates that
teachers simply do not care about their teaching or whether they are reach-
ing students. Yet, Michael's own beliefs towards what counts as knowl-
edge and how one comes to know reflect a fairly traditional, skills and
drills approach to technical education.
Discussion and Implications
The findings of this study represent the results of an exploratory
study of the epistemic assumptions that guide and structure teaching within
community college technical education programs. These education-for-
work programs represent a significant source for business and industry of
mid-level skilled workers (Grubb, 1996). The implications of this study,
however, raise questions regarding the extent to which these programs
may be preparing workers to address effectively the levels of uncertainty
and cognitive complexity inherent in the emerging workplaces of the 21st
century. Scholars have argued that constructivist perspectives of teaching
and learning are more compatible than are more traditional perspectives
with achieving learning outcomes appropriate to the complex needs of the
modern-day workplace. Furthermore, computer technologies used in in-
structional programs are capable of addressing these needs. Yet, the find-
ings presented here suggest that teachers in technology-rich instructional
environments use the technology within prevailing classroom traditions
and perspectives. Similar to other studies of computer use in schools, we
found that teachers' use of computer technologies in these postsecondary
classrooms are largely shaped by their beliefs about learners, about knowl-
edge and how that knowledge is best acquired, and the sociocultural con-
texts in which they work. While all the teachers participating in this study
enthusiastically embraced the use of computers in their teaching, their use
of technology in the classroom largely reflects preexisting purposes and
approaches to knowledge. Despite emerging awareness of constructivist
orientations to teaching and learning, teachers tended to frame their use
of computer technologies within more foundational definitions of knowl-
edge and their role in helping learners acquire it. Behind most of the
educators' conceptions of the technology lurk manual analogs or meta-
phors of the technology, such as hand drawing in the CAD class, manual
computations of values in the spreadsheet class, or flashcards in the elec-
tronics class.

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Thus, the presence of computer technologies in these classrooms has
done little to disrupt reliance on a skills-and-drills approach decried by
Grubb and others (Grubb et al., 1991) as inappropriate to the higher
order skills of the new vocationalism. We want to be quite clear, how-
ever, about what these findings do not say about the teachers who gra-
ciously agreed to participate in this study. These teachers are all good
people with the best interests of the students at heart. They care deeply
for their students and for their work. Our point here is that this care is
filtered and expressed through a particular epistemic perspective. Despite
the rhetoric surrounding the community college for a more learning and
learner-centered focus (O'Banion, 1997; Grubb, 1999), this perspective
seems out of step with the current epistemological demands of the tech-
nology-rich workplace.
It is not hard to understand the difficulties that many teachers face in
addressing the demands of a more learner-centered perspective. These
are teaching institutions, staffed by faculty with heavy teaching loads
(Cohen & Brawer, 2002; Grubb & Associates, 1999). There remains
precious little time or institutional space for fostering the kind of innova-
tion suggested by constructivist orientations to the use of technology. But
we cannot account for teachers' adherence to a traditional epistemology
solely on the basis of the nature of the institution. The foundational per-
spective to knowledge represented by the teachers is also pervasive in
many workplace learning programs and other institutions of higher edu-
cation. Recent texts (Gilley, Eggland, & Maycunich, 2002; Gilley &
Maycunich, 1998) suggest a continued allegiance to foundational concep-
tions of working knowledge and the behavioral positivist epistemologies
supporting them.
This study raises questions as to how workplace educators with such
a perspective on teaching and learning are incorporating or exploiting the
use of computer technologies in the training of midlevel workers. Within
the workplace, these technologies may not take the form of a desktop or
laptop computer but are deeply embedded in the machines and processes
that midlevel workers operate. Within traditional approaches to teaching
and learning, however, it is unlikely that these workers will develop or
enhance higher-order skills and problem-solving abilities desperately
needed in the modern workplace.

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This study strongly suggests a need for such research on workplace
learning programs. Lessons from experience in the field as reported by
the ASTD State of the Industry Report suggest that training is most suc-
cessful when training settings and expectations replicate and reinforce
real work settings and expectations and when it takes the whole person
into account (Thompson, Koon, Woodwell, & Beauvis, 2001). It is clear
throughout the literature that midlevel workers are increasingly expected
to be today's operational problem solvers and decision makers and that "a
literate, educated, inquisitive, problem solving workforce is essential to
the survival and competitiveness of business and industry" (Rowden, 1996,
p. 3).
How, then, might we understand this assimilation of what, by all
accounts, represents a potentially powerful tool for constructivist instruc-
tion? What might be the implications of such an explanation for integrat-
ing computer technologies into the preparation of workers so as to foster
cognitive flexibility, higher-order thinking skills, reflective learning, and
learning to learn? What needs to be done to foster teachers' and trainers'
constructivist uses of these technologies in their teaching?
The teachers' awareness of being held accountable by external influ-
ences, such as certifying boards or other social forces, seems to play an
important role in what they understand knowledge to be and how best to
foster that knowledge. Regardless of the presence or absence of specific
certification requirements, however, teachers reflected similar epistemic
beliefs. Thus, these external influences seem to explain only partially this
commitment to foundationalist perspectives. The strength of this commit-
ment is further reflected in the limited effect of professional development
activities aimed at helping teachers develop a more constructivist approach
to their teaching. Indeed, studies suggest that traditional approaches to
professional development are relatively ineffective in bringing about para-
digm shifts among teachers' beliefs (Windschitl & Sahl, 2002).
It is quite possible that movement toward more constructivist,
epistemically complex forms of teaching evokes issues around teachers'
professional identity (Windschitl & Andre, 1998; Windschitl & Sahl, 2002).
That is, teachers' adherence to content may be intimately bound up with
their sense of who they are as persons. They define themselves through
the processes of socialization and enculturation characteristics of their
disciplinary areas. Asking teachers and trainers to integrate technology

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into their teaching and to stress constructivist aims for learning is asking
them to deauthorize themselves as knowledge experts and to authorize
learners as potential producers of knowledge. Computer-mediated instruc-
tion provides a hypertext quality to the learning process, a capability that
would challenge the learners' prior assumptions, allowing them to criss-
cross the intellectual terrain (Jacobson et al., 1997) of a given work-
related task or problem and encouraging more complex ways of thinking
about such problems. To use the technology in this manner, however,
requires that this connection or relationship between the student and the
technology be more porous and integrative of the actions of the teacher or
trainer. That is, the teacher needs to be able to build on and work from
the particular ways of seeing the problem that the student brings to the
classroom. Instead of starting with specific ways they want the students to
address assigned problems, the teachers should stress more the need to
first frame the problem, to emphasize problem-posing and not just prob-
lem-solving. They need to help the students use what they already know
in employing the technology as a tool to test and push the limits of their
knowledge and to explore and construct new ways of seeing and under-
standing the problem. Rather than hovering over or being set apart from
the technology, teachers need to be able to enter more fully into this
relationship as well.
Transformation of beliefs and perspectives among teachers and train-
ers involves a complex reflection on epistemic beliefs and assumptions,
recognition of and working through emotional issues associated with a
new role, and reworking of one's sense of identity as an educator. We
need to consider professional development activities grounded in
constructivist principles and organized around dialogue and conversation
(Clark, 2001). When educators have an opportunity to reflect on and
discuss their teaching within safe environments and with each other, over
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John M. Dirkx is a professor of Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education

and Co-Director of the Michigan Center for Career and Technical Educa-
tion at Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI.

Gloria Kielbaso is an associate professor of Higher, Adult, and Lifelong

Education and Co-Director of the Michigan Center for Career and Tech-
nical Education at Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI.
Kielbaso @ msu. edu

Regina 0. Smith is an assistant professor of Postsecondary, Adult and

Continuing Education at Portland State University in Portland, OR.

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