Using The Internet To Deliver Technical Assistance

This article first appeared on the Benton Foundation web site at www.benton.org

As the following interview suggests, I am absolutely delighted by the CADRE web site and the extent to which our utilization of the internet has allowed us to efficiently and effectively deliver information and technical assistance. What I didn’t adequately convey in my remarks was the exceptional contributions of Jim Melamed, Carol Knapp and the other staff at Resorceful Internet Solutions. Our success has been in large part the result of an extraordinarily powerful collaboration that builds on their remarkable vision, design and technical skills; a partnership that continues to evolve and improve.

-Marshall Peter-

Michael Stein: Marshall, what does your agency do, and how
does it fit into CADRE’s mission?

Marshall Peter: Direction Service specializes in facilitation
and advocacy for families who have children with disabilities. We have
people come to us and say “my kid is having a problem.” Maybe parents
have a child with Downs syndrome that they feel isn’t getting proper
attention from teachers in school. We’re often involved in resolving
issues that deal with the extent to which a child with a developmental
disability can be educated alongside typically developing peers. A
classic example would be a child that requires some amount of speech
therapy to help her develop. The parents request one-hour sessions alone
with a speech therapist, three times a week, and the school offers a one
hour session per week in small groups. We come in to try to mediate
these differing approaches to resolving the child’s problem, and to
determine the exact quantity and characteristics of therapy that would
be ideal for the child.

CADRE is a national technical assistance and mediation center for
organizations like ours, as well as for state departments of education
and parent centers. CADRE grew out of the Individuals with Disabilities
Education Act (IDEA), the law that established a broad menu of
entitlements and procedures related to kids needing special education
services.

Michael: How does CADRE use the Internet to deliver this
technical assistance?

Marshall: CADRE delivers technical assistance and information
to a broad array of public and private entities throughout the United
States and its territories. The Internet makes this much more efficient
and cost effective. For example, the CADRE Web site includes a “Professionals Data Base” that
automatically generates Web sites for special education mediators and
related professionals, as well as a searchable database for site
visitors. More than 200 professionals have entered information into this
database.

CADRE also just used their Web site to enroll attendees at a national
conference. In the near future, recordings of session presentations will
be available at the CADRE site in streaming audio, accompanied by copies
of the presenter handouts and photos taken during their session.

Michael: In your role as director of CADRE, what initially led
you to the Internet as a potential tool?

Marshall: It was clear from the start, that CADRE’s original
funding from the U.S. Department of Education would not cover moving
people around the country for meetings, or distributing large numbers of
paper documents. Yet from the start, CADRE was a national program; the
Internet seemed like a medium that could offer us amazing opportunities
and stunning efficiencies for providing high quality information and
assistance at a low cost. In that regard, the Internet has fully lived
up to its promise.

Michael: What kind of challenges did you face in getting
buy-in to develop the “Professionals Data Base”?

Marshall: Learning something new is often difficult, but this
project evolved as the Internet was evolving, so we rode that wave.
Providing each professional with personal, password-protected access to
their own database record set a tone of individual responsibility and
buy-in. In return, those who listed themselves received a free Web site
and inclusion in a database that might lead to referrals and other
opportunities. Also, when we originally designed the database, we had to
resolve whether or not to review the information that people were
entering before it was posted to the site. We chose not to, and instead
opted for individual responsibility. So far, that’s been a good
decision. We’ve not had any complaints about individuals misrepresenting
themselves.

Michael: What impact has the “Professionals Data Base” had on
the community?

Marshall: We know that professionals update their listings and
that site visitors search the database regularly. That much we can see
from the WebTrends access logs that we evaluate on a regular basis.
We’ve received a steady stream of feedback from our network that the
database helps people know who is out there, but it’s not as crystal
clear as we’d like it to be. In an ideal world, we would do some careful
market analysis to better understand it. We feel that the database
influences the field and that it’s worth continuing, especially in light
of there being no real maintenance cost now that it’s set up. In the
meantime, we’re working to reorganize and simplify the overall Web site
to address the growth in content and the productive feedback we’ve
received from people who use it regularly.

Michael: It sounds like some of your impact assessment is
based on anecdotal information, but that you feel pretty strongly that
it ought to influence your future course.

Marshall: I think that kind of outcome measurement happens a
lot in organizations. In the print medium, we’ve published several
influential reports on mediation over the past few years, distributed
them widely. Fundamentally, we don’t know their precise impact on the
field other than what we judge to be their impact based on personal
conversations, email dialogue, and networking with colleagues. And some
of our impact assessment isn’t merely anecdotal. At its peak, the Web
site receives more than 200 visitor sessions a day, with an average of
more than 10 minutes per visit. Those numbers have steadily grown.
That’s mind-boggling to me. At CADRE’s National Symposium last November,
there was palpable excitement about the next generation of what we had
planned for the Internet. Almost everyone who attended the Symposium
logged onto the Web site to sign up for the event, pick a t-shirt size
and get room assignments. We created email address lists in advance of
the sessions to allow presenters to interact with participants. Now that
the Symposium is over, we’re finalizing all the audio, video and handout
content for Web publication, and that continues to generate excitement.

Michael: What were the biggest challenges that your
organization had to go through to adapt to the Internet?

Marshall: We had to make new hardware and software purchases
to be able to use all this new technology, and some of our staff spent
considerable amounts of time learning Web publishing technology.
Probably the bigger challenge was our need to be dependent upon a
technology company to run our Web site. I guess I’m not used to that
kind of dependence. This dependence is not only on a company but on
technology in general. I mean, you just don’t know from day to day how
some of these machines behave. Plus, we had to learn a lot about the
largely unregulated issues around copyrights, intellectual property
rights, the appropriateness of hypertext links, and so forth. Finally,
CADRE’s funding allowed us to make a very significant investment in the
CADRE Web site.

Michael: Let’s delve a little further into your experience
with your technology providers. How much of an impact do you think
they’ve made on your work?

Marshall: It might not have turned out the way it did if we
hadn’t met the vendor that we met and stuck with them. We were able to
find an Internet vendor, Resourceful Internet Solutions, that had actual
experience in the field of mediation. They’ve brought both technical and
content expertise to our project that is rare. It’s more of a
partnership than a vendor contract. I hear about people that switch
Internet companies as often as they switch copy shops. We’ve gotten very
high value from our Internet vendor and placed a lot of trust in them
and been rewarded.

Michael: You had some interesting experience with online Web
forums and Listservs. Describe that effort and its impact.

Marshall: At the beginning of our online effort, we designed
an interactive Web forum for individuals who wished to participate in
online discussions around various topics of shared interest. The forum
contained nine separate areas where participants could engage each
other, including one area devoted to professionals. The effort died for
lack of participation. We were too ambitious and unable to provide the
ongoing facilitation necessary to help them fly. Online discussions
weren’t as commonplace as they are now and people didn’t use them. We
don’t operate them anymore.

One of the major problems that we faced was people who wrote lengthy
and complex questions directed to us, requiring complex responses. It
was awkward for us to respond minimally in front of a large forum
subscriber base. As a result, we were vulnerable to whimsical requests.
The time clearly wasn’t right for us for this type of Web technology.
Maybe it’ll have a future role.

Listservs, on the other hand, are a big hit. People are simply more
comfortable with simple email interaction. We operate a Listserv that is
limited to state mediation coordinators from around the country, and
we’ve been really pleased by the level and quality of participation.
Currently, a network of about 65 participants, who share the same
professional roles, discuss issues, dilemmas, and needs. In one
remarkable interaction, a coordinator from one state asked how others
handle enforceability of agreements. Within 24 hours, 16 different
people responded from around the country. These state people rarely meet
face to face. I think this is one of the most satisfying aspects of what
we do and it gives us some very tangible demonstration of impact.

Michael: What is CADRE doing with email and email newsletters
and what impact do you think it’s made on the project?

Marshall: Email produces remarkable efficiencies in our work.
Whether we’re publishing the CADRE Caucus, an e-zine that goes out to
about 1,000 subscribers around the country, or simply corresponding with
colleagues, I’m continually stunned by the power of email. What do they
call it, the “killer app”? It seems kind of trivial to be raving about
email, but our work is about communicating and building networks, and
email has made a powerful impact. It’s quick, it’s affordable, it works.
It’s not problem-free, though. Its speed and low cost allows people to
make very complex requests without regard to the recipient’s reaction or
availability. We’ve had to adapt to new etiquettes of reply expectation,
and to personal boundaries, since email volume continues to grow and it
arrives 24 hours per day. Email also creates an easy ability to send
communication that’s misunderstood due to lack of intonation and real
time interaction. We’re in the mediation business, where words and
dialogue have high value.

                        author

Michael Stein

Michael Stein is a nationally renowned author and Internet strategist with 15 years of experience working with nonprofits, foundations, labor unions, technology providers and social enterprises. MORE >

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