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  September 18, 2000

Literacy and Technology Expert
Assumes Chair in Education

Sometimes you get lucky. For the Neag School of Education this is one of those times.

When the faculty mapped out its strategic plan to become one of the country's top 10 schools of education, the group identified literacy as one of the school's centers of excellence and recommended that an endowed chair combining literacy and technology be created.

Richard Schwab, the school's dean, says to his knowledge there is no other chair like it in the country, yet there is a critical need for it.

"If we are to attack problems of literacy, multiple approaches are needed because students learn in different ways," he says. "Using technology is an approach that can be a powerful tool in building literacy skills."

When the national search for candidates began last December, there were times when Schwab doubted the committee would be able to find someone whose expertise fit both areas. The search was expected to take a year, maybe more.

But just eight months later, Donald Leu, an education professor at Syracuse University and a nationally prominent specialist in reading and Internet technologies, was hired to become the John and Maria Neag Chair in Literacy and Technology. The chair was made possible by the $21 million gift from UConn alumnus Ray Neag and is named in memory of his parents.

Leu was impressed by his first visit to UConn. "I flourish in positive environments," he says. "And I sensed tremendous enthusiasm and a commitment to providing support to schools in this country. There is an incredible array of talent at the Neag School of Education and with each new colleague I meet, the more excited I am at being here."

Schwab is just as thrilled about Leu's decision to join the Neag team: "In Don we found a person who is more than an international leader in his field. He is a good teacher, a caring, committed professional who works well with all the stakeholders in the process, from students and teachers to advanced scientists and lawmakers," Schwab says.

Leu spent his undergraduate years at Michigan State University. After several years in the Peace Corps and then as a classroom teacher, he earned a master's degree in reading and human development at Harvard. He pursued his interest in language and literacy at the University of California-Berkeley, where he earned his doctorate.

Leu spent the next 19 years at Syracuse, where he became director of doctoral programs in reading education at the Reading and Language Arts Center. Among his many accomplishments, he published 16 books and more than 100 articles.

In 1989, Leu became the author of the first multimedia software series to integrate children's literature with digitized speech, animation and color graphics. Several years later, his research began to focus on the Internet because he believed it was "fundamentall y redefining what it means to become literate."

His belief is supported by a recent report by the National Center for Education Statistics. The study shows that in the fall of 1999, 63 percent of K-12 classrooms had at least one Internet connection, yet 80 percent of teachers said they were uncomfortable using technology for instruction.

Those statistics highlight the need for Leu's work, and the offer from the Neag School of Education presented him with exciting opportunities to advance his research. An endowed chair would allow him to focus on his passion and give him freedom to define his work.

Another factor that played into his decision was his belief that change is healthy. Although he has nothing but accolades for his former colleagues at Syracuse, he says he was looking for new vistas and new people to work with because "by meeting new people you gain insights into your own work."

He also was impressed with Schwab's leadership: "Rich is a very special dean. He is encouraging and incredibly supportive. He has a clear vision for the future and that makes the Neag School of Education a special place to work."

Leu, who holds a joint appointment in the departments of curriculum and instruction and educational psychology, has hit the ground running. He has just received a $5.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation for a five-year, large-scale project that will be a collaboration between UConn, Vanderbilt University, the University of Georgia and the University of Illinois.

The project's main goal is to significantly raise the reading ability of young children by improving teacher education. Leu and his fellow researchers hope to achieve this by developing and studying the use of multimedia cases of teachers using best practices in literacy instruction. The cases will be delivered via the Internet and used in pre-service education programs at more than 100 universities around the country.

"Instead of diminishing the need for traditional reading and writing skills, these become even more important with the Internet," he says. "As the John and Maria Neag Chair in Literacy and Technology, it is my hope to provide the leadership needed to better prepare our teachers for the profound changes taking place."

Janice Palmer