Creating Learning Cultures
with Just-in-Time Support

© 1998, Jamie McKenzie,
All Rights Reserved
A version of this article first appeared in
eSchool News, April, 1998


 Just-in-Time Support  


The best way to win widespread use of new technologies is to provide just-in-time support . . . assistance and encouragement when needed. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Now!

If schools expect to see a solid return on technology investments, they must foster (and fund) cultures intent on continuous learning and change. But good intentions are not enough. High expectations must be accompanied by substantial resources, most of them human, many of them costly. Help lines, coaches, mentors, partners, study groups and TIME!

Integrating new technologies into the daily life of the classroom requires such skill and courage that it simply will not happen across the board in all classrooms unless safety nets are constantly and conveniently available. The integration challenge is more about attitude and spirit than skill.

This article suggests a dozen ways to foster growth while whetting appetites for change.

   A journey of change from here to there.



Photo of Harbor Bridge in Sydney

Less Training and More Learning

We need less training and more learning. Many schools are finding success when professional growth and development occurs daily . . . just in time! Real learning takes place (or stops) when actually trying the new skills. Just as the teacher is apt to experience surprise, frustration and disillusionment, support must be close at hand.

The old approach of after school technology training sessions does not work. Such sessions demonstrated the features of software applications but rarely showed how to use them in classrooms.

The best thinkers about change in schools (Lieberman, Joyce, Loucks-Horsley, Fullan and Deal) emphasize the importance of informal support structures and the cultivation of a learning culture.

In the 1990 ASCD Yearbook, Changing School Culture through Staff Development, Fullan states, "The ultimate goal is changing the culture of learning for both adults and students so that engagement and betterment is a way of life in schools."

No more excuses.

If we spend millions on a network, we expect to see it used vigorously and meaningfully. No matter what classroom we visit, we should observe students and teachers leaning intently toward the rich information on the computer screens . . . pointing, questioning, divining meaning, building answers, making choices, solving problems.

A Culture Promoting Adult Learning

Fullan sums up the challenge . . .

"The agenda then is to work continuously on the spirit and practice of lifelong learning for all teachers."

School cultures have not traditionally honored the principles of adult learning. These principles are fully outlined at Adult Learning Theory: A Resource Guide (Teresa Kirkpatrick) URL:

The clearest way to contrast adult learning (often called "andragogy") with pedagogy (instructor directed learing) is to note that adult learning usually involves the learner in activities which match that person's interests, needs, style and developmental readiness.

Fundamental beliefs:

1) The learner may make choices from a rich and varied menu of learning experiences and possibilities.

2) Learners must take responsibility for planning, acting and growing.

If we shift school cultures to support adult learning, professional development is experienced as a personal journey of growth and discovery which engages the learner on a daily and perhaps hourly basis. In the best cases, andragogy includes an emphasis upon self-direction, transformation and experience. One learns by doing and exploring . . . by trying, by failing, by changing and adapting strategies and by overcoming obstacles after many trials.

Strategy One: Outlining the Journey

Every teacher and administrator creates a technology TRIP-TIK - a written PGP (professional growth plan) outlining the best route to powerful practice.

The process begins with assessment. Where am I now? Perhaps each person completes a survey like the Mankato Scale This activity helps them identify areas deserving the most attention. The teacher then selects from a rich and varied menu of opportunities to help them meet their goals.

Each person commits to try new skills and tools with students in classrooms. The building administrator commits resources and support. They meet regularly to discuss progress.

"How's it going? Anything I can do to help? Any barriers I can remove?"

Strategy Two: Study Groups

Every teacher joins a study group. Three or more in a group. Common interests. Common goals. Self-selected partners with trust and compatibility.

Weekly get-togethers. Like a book group. Exploring new and better ways of teaching. The group poses questions and tries to build answers. They share tricks and tips and resources and stories.

"Anybody find any good biology Web sites since we last talked?"

Learning continues between sessions. Research. Reflection. Questioning. Experimentation. Trial and error. Struggle. Accomplishment. Ongoing.

Strategy Three: Technology Coaches

Every teacher becomes a technology coach. Good at something. Prepared to help others accomplish what they desire. The staff agrees upon 30-100 "talents" and carves them up so that everybody can make a contribution.

The best strategy is to share responsibility broadly. One person specializes in crunching numbers with spreadsheets to understand relationships. Another teacher becomes skillful with search engines and information problem-solving. Yet another concentrates on publishing student work on the Web.

"The more the merrier!"

In the past we have put too much stock in technology specialists and staff developers whose main job was to "train" others in how to use various software programs. They were the experts. The rest of us were "users." This strategy often backfired and caused resistance as well as resentment.

Strategy Four: Technology Mentors

Mentor programs are more structured than coaching . . . a short term pairing of a teacher highly skilled in some practice with one less skilled.

As a result of the self-assessment conducted in Strategy One, a teacher selects a mentor for those areas deserving attention, preferably a trusted colleague, one who will make the mentored teacher feel comfortable.

For these programs to work, there must be a considerable pool of mentors from which teachers may make a choice. A broad pool increases the likelihood of good matches, without which learning is likely to crawl.

Prima Donnas and stars rarely make good mentors. They can be intimidating and off-putting. Knowledge and skill are less important than empathy and nurturing qualities.

Strategy Five: Workplace Visits

"Seeing is believing!"

Trite but true. Information is what fuels the economy and the society. For teachers to grasp the dramatic impact of information technologies in the workplace and society, they must spend time visiting as participant observers.

Telling doesn't work. They must see it for themselves.

Organize visits to information rich work places (factories, shipping companies, newspapers, farms, etc.). Teachers spend the first half of the day exploring, watching, questioning, interviewing and recording the role of information technologies and skills in the organization they are visiting. The second half of the day is devoted to reflection.

"So what? What did we learn? What are the implications for schools and our students? What do we need to do to prepare students for this kind of work?"

Strategy Six: Tutorials

Short bursts of learning onsite are perfect for busy teachers. Fifteen minutes here. Ten minutes there. Brief lessons on discrete skills and maneuvers offered by a trusted colleague in a comfortable, small group setting.

Two or three days a week there are early morning lessons on simple tasks like organizing bookmarks files or printing form letters or labels. In the spirit of "just in time learning," the agenda for these quick tutorials would be based upon frequent surveys of staff.

"Given the following list of tasks which can be performed with our technologies, which three are highest on your wish list for a brief tutorial session this month?"

Tutorials offer comfort, convenience, usefulness and immediate results.

Strategy Seven: Student Aides

Many teachers worry about technology breakdowns, disappointments, embarrassments and jams of various kinds. They hear horror stories and don't want to experience them.

"What if the printers don't work?"

"What if the system goes down?"

"What if the Internet connection is slow?"

"What if they start looking at dirty pictures?"

No one wants to be left hanging with 30 adolescents wondering why nothing is working the way it's "spozed to be."

No one wants to end up as what one author called "Roadkill on the Information Highway."

We know that many students of our students are quite capable when it comes to making technologies perform the way they are intended. They may not be especially skilled at promoting the curriculum (the teacher's role), but they can provide troubleshooting and support to get us past the many day-to-day breakdowns, bumps and pot-holes. Talk about "Just in time learning!"

Develop a (gender balanced) cadre of technology savvy student aides and make sure the teachers know who they are, but make sure you select students who have empathy, tact and warmth as well as skill. This is no time for the "Revenge of the Nerds!"

Strategy Eight: Help Lines

Teachers should be able to call for HELP when they need it. More "just in time learning."

When you get stuck, you pick up the phone, dial a number and ask . . .

"What do I do now?"

How many teachers have telephones in their classrooms, let alone Internet-connected computers?

Many districts wisely install phone systems at the same time they install data networking. They then make sure a techno-savvy educator is "on call" at all times to make sure teachers can keep moving forward with their lessons.

"But where do we find the money?"

So many districts spend a fortune on the infrastructure and hardware while nickle-and-diming the human side of the technology initiative. Failure to staff the human support and infrastructure side will lead to the "Screensavers' Disease" mentioned previously.

Strategy Nine: Invention Sessions

Many teachers hunger for the time to translate new ideas and strategies into practical classroom lessons and unit plans. Invention is the time when teachers take ownership. They make the innovation real. Theory into practice.

If we want to see robust integration, we must provide each teacher with a week or more of invention time each year - whole days away from the pressures of classroom teaching to create worthwhile, technology enhanced learning experiences for students.

Strategy Ten: At-Home Alone (Access)

Many teachers want to stumble privately. They don't want to appear foolish or incompetent in front of their peers. They want to retire into their own classroom or take a computer home to see what they can do. There is so little time in a teacher's life to explore new possibilities. Those who are committed and industrious stay late into the afternoon or evening preparing for the next day or the next week. Some districts have made a swap of time for equipment. The teacher agrees to 60 hours of professional development activities outside the normal schedule as a way of acquiring a new, Internet capable laptop.

Strategy Eleven: Summer/Weekend Reading

"If you buy, they will read . . . "

Simple but true. Offer teachers a choice of three or four books from a list of 10-20, and they are likely to devour those books on their own time. If you want to inspire teachers to integrate new technologies into their classrooms, buy them books which tell the stories and the secrets of successful integrators. If you want them to learn the ins and outs of Web publishing, buy them books like "Killer Web Sites."

Strategy Twelve: Distance Learning

Some teachers are more apt to let down their hair, talk honestly and share their anxieties with strangers. They may never confess true feelings to someone down the hall, but they might share deep feelings with someone on the other side of the country.

The incredible lightness of strangers! People will tell a "perfect stranger" their deepest secrets at a bar. Listservs, bulletin boards and chat rooms seem to provide some of the same freedom.


Transformation of schools to make robust and fully integrated use of new technologies represents a major shift in practice. We will not get there by offering training sessions. We must reconceptualize professional development so that we create learning cultures which make change and growth a daily reality.

Online Resources

Research You Can Use. Close-Up #12. Staff Development. J.S. Chick


Copyright 1998, JMcKenzie, all rights reserved. Teachers may make hard printed copies for their colleagues. All other duplication or distribution is prohibited unless permission is granted expressly by the author.

This article was first published in eSchool News, April, 1998


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