Expected Graduation: Spring 2011
Degree Objective: Ph.D. in Learning, Design and Technology
Other Degrees: M.Phil. in Oriental Studies; B.A. in Near Eastern Studies
David Porcaro always has had a passion for studying about the Middle East. However, he had difficulty finding a way to earn a living while doing so.
“I love studying the Near East, but I’ve seen many of the brightest people I knew struggling to find jobs,” said Porcaro.
After taking a job at a language learning resource center at the University of Washington, Porcaro became intrigued by how technology can be used to teach language.
“I decided this was a much more exciting and marketable field, which would allow me to explore deeply how people learn,” he said.
Motivated to pursue additional graduate education at UGA, Porcaro has been able to fuse his passion for the Middle East with his newly acquired interest in education and technology.
Last year Porcaro received the perfect opportunity to conduct his doctoral research in the Middle East when the U.S. Department of State awarded him a Fulbright grant to study in Oman. The Fulbright Program is the largest international exchange program in the country and promotes mutual understanding across cultures.
The Fulbright grant meant Porcaro was able to live abroad for 10 months with his family while learning about Oman’s culture and social nuances. For his research, Porcaro collected data first-hand on designing and introducing modern classroom activities into a higher education setting unaccustomed to online learning and student collaboration.
“I am interested in what happens when you introduce a collaborative, problem-solving class into a system that is accustomed to memorization, lecture and high-stakes exams,” he said.
Porcaro is working toward balancing the international education playing field. According to him, developing nations often trail in using modern education practices in their classrooms.
“In many developing countries, the education system was built to supply the needs of colonial powers, and placed a lot of emphasis on memorization and simple, repetitive tasks,” he said.
“However, to be a world player on the stage today, nations need to build knowledgeable societies, where creativity, problem-solving, knowledge building and collaboration are necessary.”
Once abroad, Porcaro worked with Omani teachers and education practitioners to design a course for university students who would become English teachers in K-12 schools throughout Oman. Their intention was to develop a replicable learning environment suited to equip students with the necessary skills for a global economy.
As such, one of Porcaro’s main goals was to incorporate technology into the classroom.
“For many of my students, they had never used a computer before entering the university,” he said. “This presented quite a challenge.”
Porcaro regularly evaluated and reviewed the educational developments to ensure their long-term sustainability. Using a diverse methodology that included interviews, focus groups, and questionnaires, Porcaro was able to alter the course as necessary.
For example, he had to find ways to overcome social norms in the classroom.
“Local custom dictates that men and women can’t work with each other in class – the women usually sit on the last two rows and the men sit on the first two rows in class,” said Porcaro. “The two groups don’t talk to each other at all.”
Regardless, Porcaro and the Omani practitioners identified methods to create an inclusive and interactive learning environment.
“We had some success in collaborating online, since most students considered this a safe space to exchange ideas without breaking local social norms,” he said.
Porcaro ultimately wants to use his research and educational developments in other countries.
“My work has direct application in international development projects, since education is often designed in Western nations and thrown at developing countries,” said Porcaro. “I hope my research will help people begin to question how useful their design is in other cultures and how they can work with local practitioners to create sustainable learning environments.”
Porcaro’s research could have implications for improving education practices for any setting, particularly those with students from different cultures who hold diverse educational expectations and speak their own language.
“I would love five years from now to be leading grant-funded projects in international education development,” said Porcaro. “I could do that from an academic position, but right now I’m much more excited about working for non-profits.”
After receiving his doctoral degree from UGA, Porcaro hopes to work for a non-governmental organization such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Photography by Dawnell Porcaro.