Building on foundations: creating an online community.
The education community has taken up the possibilities of electronic communication in various ways. One of these is to use the Web to create and support online communities of educational professionals. The use of computer-mediated communication and associated website locations is seen as a valid form of professional learning through dialogue, support, and exchange. Promoting electronically mediated professional exchange is often part of a wider effort to make the use of information and communications technology (ICT) part of day to day practice in schools. However, the suggestion is that much "hyperbole" surrounds innovations such as online communities (Selwyn, 2000, p.751) and there is a need for research to examine more closely the contexts within which they are likely to be well functioning.
The project discussed here is an example of an effort to establish a linking of teachers in 10 schools, all located in a relatively isolated region, through the use of the Web. The project, Learning Communities in the Far North or FarNet, was one of the Digital Opportunities pilot projects funded by the New Zealand Ministry of Education in partnership with business. Schools received hardware, broadband access, plus software, with on-call support. The website associated with FarNet was designed and maintained with professional assistance. The 10 schools also formed a cluster as part of another related project, which focused on teacher professional development in ICT. A major goal of FarNet was "to support changes in access and attitudes to learning as well as a culture of collaboration across schools," the latter particularly in terms of "curriculum planning and delivery" (Ministry of Education, Partnership Protocal: "Learning Communities in the Far North," 2001, p. 1). Collaboration in the far north area was seen as important, as schools in isolated regions often do not have specialist teachers even for core subjects, especially at the senior level of schooling and so teachers who have little content knowledge in a curriculum area have to assume responsibility for students studying that subject. The aim was to provide the means by which teachers could produce and then share electronic resources related to their teaching areas and engage with one another in communication around the resources. The act of sharing or changes in connectivity and sharing were cited as success indicators by schools during the scoping phase of the project.
The implication in FarNet was that successful posting and sharing of resources and e-mail communication by teachers would be a significant factor in the success of the introduction of internet technology and, as a corollary, promote the wider use of ICT in schools. Such outcomes were seen to relate to another aim of the FarNet project, namely, to bring about a change in teacher pedagogy and to enhance student learning outcomes. In the research literature, networking for teacher learning is viewed within an array of strategies for achieving school reform (McDonald & Klein, 2003). Similarly, Hargreaves (1994) noted that collaboration and collegiality are widely seen as means of ensuring effective implementation of change introduced from outside. The possibility of change through the creation and operation of such communities has been mooted, largely at a theoretical level (Little, 2000). It is not proposed here to enter into a debate about whether ICT is a successful change agent or, as is more likely, a lever in terms of pedagogical change (Venezky & Davis, 2002), nor address the fraught question of whether ICT has been shown to enhance student learning outcomes or to tackle the issue of different pedagogies leading to differential outcomes (see Becker, 2001; Cox et al., 2004 (a), (b); Niemic & Walberg, 1987; Shakeshaft, 1999). Suffice to say that assumptions that ICT use would both effect a change in pedagogy and lead to enhanced achievement on the part of students were held by the proponents of FarNet, the Government and the private agencies involved.
The Notion of Community
The word community (and, to some extent, online community) "has become an obligatory appendage to every educational innovation" (Grossman, Wineburg, & Woolworth, 2001, p. 942). It is used in various ways in relation to teachers and their professional work, as in teacher community, school community, and community of practice. It is far from clear if there are common features across such use. In terms of how, theoretically, a community might function, Westheimer (1998) identified from the literature, common themes such as interdependence, interaction/participation, meaningful relationships, shared interests, and concern for all views but noted that research had yet to establish, empirically, the dimensions of the concept of community. This does not prevent, in research, the liberal use of the term, almost to the point that a community is brought into being largely by "linguistic fiat" (Grossman, Wineburg, & Woolworth, 2001, p. 943).
The rationale for community stems from Wenger's (1998) social theory of learning that he calls communities of practice, whereby participants mutually engage in the task at hand; negotiate the boundaries and focus of joint enterprise and develop shared ways of working. With respect to teachers, the notion is to provide an ongoing, sustainable vehicle for teacher learning (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999; Darling-Hammond & Sykes, 2000). Professional learning communities have distinctive features that include: (a) shared norms and values; (b) collective learning through collaboration; (c) the application of that learning in a focus on student learning; (d) shared personal practice; and (e) reflective dialogue (Kruse, Louis, & Bryk, 1995). "Comfortable collaboration" where the privacy of the teacher's classroom is protected and there is no deep probing of issues of teaching and learning (Fullan & Hargreaves, 1996), is a "weak" form of community (Little, 1990). Research suggests that strong professional learning communities are those focused on school change and improvement, engaged in what Little (1990) termed "joint work." Such work involves not only acquiring new knowledge (this centrally includes increasing teachers' content or pedagogical content knowledge), as a significant part of enhancing practice but also challenging and critiquing basic assumptions about teaching and learning. A professional community of teachers has, as its central aim, school-wide or even beyond the school efforts to improve practice and, as a consequence, student learning. Such communities are not only focused on common practice and/or mutual enterprise but are seen as being persistent and sustained (Barab, Kling, & Gray, 2004).
Individual teachers vary in their degree of interaction both within and between schools and, given the large measure of autonomy associated with the profession, "make individual choices on the basis of individual considerations within the context of the school organization"; teachers make decisions about the merit of interaction with colleagues by weighing up whether it detracts from their opportunities and time to work with their students (Bakkenes, de Brabander, & Imants, 1999, p. 167). There is, generally, no established culture of a collective responsibility for teacher learning (or for student learning). Traditionally, teachers' responsibility is to their own students rather than to other teachers or the students of those other teachers (Grossman, Wineburg, & Woolworth, 2001).
The notion of what makes an online community successful is complicated but may be determined by what de Souza and Preece (2004) called the sociability and usability factors. Human activity is shaped by the software and systems and affected by sociability and usability factors. The sociability factor includes people, purposes, and policies, encompassing, significantly with respect to the FarNet community, the needs of the users. The main research question in this article concerns the extent to which the development of an online community of teachers, with a common curriculum interest who share resources and expertise through posting, accessing and using resources and interacting online was achieved. A secondary question concerns identifying issues that could potentially assit with or detracrt from achieving a functioning community. The article aims to illustrate some of the issues and challenges surrounding virtual professional interaction and learning, and also to suggest the likely nature of the interlocking pieces in the development of a functioning online community.
DESCRIPTION OF THE PROJECT AND THE RESEARCH
Description of the Project
The FarNet project attempted to forge a community of groups of teachers of particular subjects across 10 schools, largely high schools but including schools which span K-12. The community was to be formed through the development of a website with associated pages for each curriculum area and a listserv of which all teachers who taught in that area were members. Curriculum leaders were appointed from across the schools and were responsible for obtaining and posting resources on the pages for their subject area. The curriculum leaders received some specialized training with respect to the software used to post to the site and they also had available professional expertise to assist them to post, principally through the full-time FarNet coordinator. Professional development for all staff in ICT was funded and mainly occurred at a school level organized by the school's ICT coordinator with assistance provided largely on an individual needs basis.
Multiple methods were used to collect data to evaluate the outcomes of this project over the course of the three years of the project. Initial site visits were made to all schools part way through the first year to establish where each was in terms of hardware set-up and facilitating teacher development and use of ICT. Discussions were held with principals and ICT coordinators. However, given the time lag before there was traction in terms of operation of the hardware, software and the FarNet site, the majority of the data were collected in the latter half of the project. Three schools, several of whose staff appeared to be significant contributors to FarNet, were visited on two occasions after the initial site visits, around the midpoint and towards the end of the project. At this latter time, a second visit was made to two additional, remote schools.
Interviews were conducted with teachers who had taken up roles as "leaders" of their curriculum area within FarNet (N = 16) and with most of the ICT professional development coordinators in schools (N = 8) during the third year of the project. These interviews were either face to face during site visits or by telephone. Curriculum leaders were asked about their view of the function of the groups, their role, the activities and achievements of the group, their criteria for success of both their group and the project as a whole and their understandings of a professional community. ICT coordinators were asked largely about the nature and type of professional development in their respective school and the systems in place for teacher development, together with their role in this. However, they were also asked about classroom use in their school and for any specific examples of the use of the FarNet site or the Web for resources or classroom teaching. During the third round of site visits to the five schools, school principals (N = 5) and some classroom teachers (N = 12) were also interviewed. There were ongoing discussion-type interviews with the FarNet coordinator-manager, face-to-face, and by phone and e-mail.
In addition, self-report data were obtained from all teacherst by two questionnaires associated with the ICT professional development. These were administered at the commencement of professional development and of FarNet and about two years later; data were obtained from 284 and 199 teachers, respectively, from the 10 schools. These data concerned, for example, their level of skill and confidence in using ICT and their level and type of use. A further questionnaire, targeted internet and FarNet site use. After the project had been running for over two years, teachers (N = 221) were asked specifically about ways in which they had used the material available and how useful it had been, and about their patterns of communication with colleagues.
The FarNet site itself was monitored regularly from inception. Detailed data were collected over a year long period (May in Year 2 to July in Year 3) at a time when teething problems had been ironed out, all schools were connected and resources had begun to be posted. A data base was set up to record the number and the nature of the resources posted there over time. Additionally, statistics were obtained on the use of the site including number, loction and length of visits. Traffic on the associated listservs was also monitored over a similar period as one of the authors was on all listservs, so received all communication that went to any of the curriculum groups. Finally, documentation was consulted including official documents such as the original confidential cabinet (ministerial) briefing papers and the contracts the schools signed; milestone reports submitted by the schools to the funding agency, the Ministry of Education, and the FarNet newsletter, which was published about every three to four months.
The semi-structured interviews with principals, curriculum leaders, and ICT coordinators were audio-taped and subsequently transcribed. Comments of individuals were then grouped under major themes or categories, largely derived from the interview questions. When the interview data had been analyzed, the write-up of findings was taken back to a sample of participants for checking and comment.
The ratings data from the three questionnaires were analyzed using SPPSS to yield descriptive statistics. The data from the monitoring of the site were treated similarly.
MAJOR FINDINGS AND DISCUSSION OF THEIR IMPLICATIONS
If a simple definition of a functioning online community is employed, namely, that members of the community participate by posting resources, accessing resources, and communicating around those resources and related curriculum issues, and that they find the experience relevant and useful, then the attempts to form a FarNet community could be viewed as unsuccessful. Broadly, the data that led to this conclusion include: the extent and nature of resources posted, including who was posting; the use made of the resources among group members as a further indicator of the existence of a professional community. Explanations for the patterns observed, including teacher's readiness to produce and use resources are considered and implications in terms of establishing a functioning online community discussed.
Posting of Resources
In brief, curriculum groups were differentially successful in the number of resources posted; one group was clearly ahead in this regard with 30% of all the resources at the data collection point where the highest number of resources were available. Overall, only three curriculum pages had significant amounts of material (the other two were science-related). The most common type of resource was word documents for teachers to use such as lesson plans, teacher notes or unit plans (over a third of all resources). Links to other national education sites and external sites relevant to the curriculum area accounted for a similar proportion of resources. Very little material posted was developed for student use, and what material was available was in the form of handouts such as worksheets and quizzes. The pages were like a distribution point for lesson material already developed, rather than for newly created web-based or student centered resources. Moreover, there was little contribution to the pages from other than the curriculum leader. Only six pages (out of 16) had additional contributions and, generally, this was a one-of contribution. Similarly, almost no one other than the FarNet coordinator-managers or curriculum leaders posted to the lists.
Accessing and Using the FarNet Site
Using visits to the site as an indicator of use is somewhat problematic as the method of counting items within a page exaggerates the number of hits. However, what is important is that only around 10% of visitors visited more than once a month and each spent relatively short periods of time on the site as a median length visit was around two to three minutes. More relevant, perhaps, is the teacher report data. Just over 80% of teachers in the FarNet schools reported that they had visited the site sometime in the course of a year (97% had accessed the internet). Most (59%) had gone to their own school home page while 54% reported visiting the curriculum pages. Around half of the latter group visited one to five times with only a small proportion reporting regular visits. Of those who reported any visit to the FarNet site, about a third said they had not used any material from it, compared to only 3% who responded similarly to material accessed from the internet. It appears as if, unlike findings reported by Renninger and Shumar (2004) with respect to The Math Forum site, where participants similarly had resource-related goals, the visits may not have added value to their experiences. Of those who did use FarNet site material, the most common use was for their own professional development, followed by lesson preparation and planning. Ratings of the usefulness of this material approached moderately useful. Around 20% of teachers had used material with students or directed students to the site.
Interacting and Participating
It was not common for teachers in the region to communicate across schools and the FarNet project, with e-mail and broadband, altered this trend to a modest degree. At the beginning 45% of teachers had never communicated with someone in another school and this dropped to 28% after the project had been instigated. The percentage of teachers reporting that such contact occurred, either once or several times a school term, increased by 5-10%. This communication was by e-mail and examples given at interview said communication involved locating copies of texts or sheet music. The listservs did not function as a discussion forum; instead they were used for posting of notices announcing meetings or resources posted. It appears that the availability of electronic communication channels did not markedly support a central pillar of a community of practice, namely, that learning as a social process involves building connections between what is learned and how it is applied and between the learner and others with similar goals (Barab, MaKinster & Scheckler, 2004).
Potential Explanations for Lack of Development of a Community
The potential of electronic communication is not necessarily realized for a variety of reasons. It appears that FarNet, as an instance opf creating an online network, might qualify as a case of putting the cart before the horse (Schlager & Fusco, 2003). The analogy refers to the idea that such use, where networks are created for a specific purpose, may be precipitous (and not necessarily viable!). It may also ignore vital precursors such as level of skill and, importantly, understanding of community in terms of roles and how a community might function to meet member needs, factors related to potential by in by teachers. Such possibilities are examined in the light of the FarNet experience.
Supporting and Extending Familiar, Within Schools Communities
In the FarNet project, along with being on a list with others who taught a subject, teachers were asked to post resources for others to access. This deceptively simple request of the teachers required a major shift in terms of deprivatizing practice. Elmore (2000) pointed out that the traditional model of schooling does not allow readily for communication between the individual classrooms and the wider context within which teachers work. There is an emphasis on professional autonomy and the right of teachers to make detailed decisions about how and when the curriculum will be delivered and the methods by which their students will learn. Under this model, known as loose-coupling (Weick, 1976), teaching is seen as requiring high levels of individual judgment. This right of individual judgment, or professional autonomy, is closely guarded in many instances.
The model of loose-coupling has serious implications for the implementation and sustainability of learning communities within schools. Elmore (2000) suggested that it explains why most innovation in schools occurs in the structures around the school rather than within the classroom and why, where innovation does occur, it tends to be in isolated pockets and as the result of volunteerism. Volunteerism leads to innovations that are in tune with the personal values and dispositions of individual teachers rather than being connected to any collective goal or purpose such as that of the FarNet community as a whole.
This concept of volunteerism can be seen among the curriculum leaders in FarNet who, without a strong guiding purpose and shared understanding of their role or of broader outcomes, focused on their own ideas and visions. One of the curriculum leaders felt his site had been successful because he "had made the resource .... [he] had his vision and liked what [he] was doing" (CL 1). In reality, he would have created the resources regardless of FarNet; it was just a convenient vehicle.
While several curriculum leaders personally drove the innovation, the issue for FarNet, and other such learning communities is that teachers are often unwilling to share resources. As one curriculum leader stated "one of the biggest things you battle with is a [lack of] willingness to share" (CL 4). Only six of the 16 curriculum pages on FarNet had resources supplied by other than the curriculum leader. Similarly, almost no one other than the FarNet coordinator-managers or curriculum leaders posted to the lists. This reluctance can be attributed to at least two concerns. The first is that teachers feel protective of what they create because of the work involved and could "feel ripped off if someone just comes in and whips that from under their nose" (CL 7). This feeling is exacerbated between schools where teachers may feel they are helping out another school with no subsequent benefit to them or their students. As one interviewee explained "Teachers were saying, 'This is the resource I made. I am not going to share it with X school. What have they done?'" (T 5).
The second is a concern by some teachers that their work might not be good enough. Laying one's work open to scrutiny by colleagues requires a fairly high degree of self-efficacy and an ability to take risks and to accept criticism. One curriculum leader reported that when asked for resources to post, teachers responded, "Oh, it is not really good enough and I don't want people to think that it is really bad" (CL 10). Another mentioned the fact that "teachers want their resources to be perfect" (CL 2).
For teachers to be willing to share and to reveal elements of their practice, requires a climate conducive to the operation of a professional community. Teachers are more willing to deprivatize their practice when they know the environment is safe, supportive and constructive (Grossman, Wineburg, & Woolworth, 2001). There is no simple checklist but there are central notions in building the "set of obligations, opportunities and resources for teacher learning" (Little, 2000, p. 257). These include system thinking or collective responsibility, forms of ongoing collegial interaction and environmental conditions such as a supportive principal and social trust (Toole, 2002, cited in Toole & Louis, 2002).
Within one of the schools in FarNet, there was a strong focus on teaching and learning led by the principal who was passionate about pedagogical change and meeting the needs of all students. As a result, a professional learning community was beginning to form within the school. Staff had in-school or job-embedded professional development related to the integration of ICT and pedagogical change. As part of this, teachers were encouraged but also assisted to create resources and place them on the school intranet for students and colleagues. As part of their appraisal process, they formed goals that involved the creation of ICT resources. The result was a gradual, greater willingness on the part of teachers in this school to put the same resources onto FarNet for a wider audience. They were willing to do so because they "felt safe in our little community first" (P 3). This appears to be an example of Lave and Wenger's (1991) notion of peripheral participation where participants develop a view of what the enterprise of practice is about through opportunities to observe, discuss and participate; where they become clear about goals; become enculturated, as it were, before moving to full or central participation. The conclusion that emerges from data from the FarNet project is that experience of a well-functioning professional learning community within a school, including harnessing volunteerism, may predispose teachers to connect beyond the school.
Building Foundations by Strengthening Existing Across-School Communities
Although FarNet attempted to use the idea of linking teachers who shared a common interest, in that they taught the same curriculum area, such could hardly be said to constitute an existing community. Some had loose ties through traditional curriculum-based associations with regional wings like the English Teachers' Association or the Science Teachers' Association. These, however, could not claim to involve more than a minority of teachers in the region. A curriculum leader interviewed felt that the FarNet structure should "work in with our professional association- [although] the association has disintegrated" (CL 6) but this teacher thought that FarNet might help in reviving the association! In this curriculum leader's mind, it would have been appropriate for FarNet to work through existing associations and build from there by strengthening them.
The chosen organizational structure within FarNet of curriculum groups with leaders whose primary role was to facilitate the development and sharing of resources and also information and views about using technology in a particular subject area, implied a collective responsibility for teacher learning and, ultimately for student learning. But curriculum leaders did not conceive of their role as more than a conduit; they had little sense of what a professional learning community was or how it might function, and teacher development (and the learning of their students) was not seen as their responsibility. In reality, the member schools were often in competition with one another for students, as numbers are important in funding and retaining staff. So, such use of technology highlighted border politics issues (Achinstein, 2002). These two factors, namely, the notion of creation of web-based resources and electronic communication fitting more successfully within an existing community and the idea of collective responsibility not sitting easily with the reality of competition, perhaps explain the differential success of groups. This idea that electronic communication might best build on existing communities arises, in part, from the functioning of at least one group within FarNet.
The most successful group in terms of the extent of resources posted and the level of reported use was the Maori curriculum group. The Maori curriculum site, at one data collection point, had 120 separate documents on it with 13 links to other sites. This equates to about a third of the total resources and links posted within the 16 curriculum group pages on the FarNet site at that point in time. Admittedly, there was a Maori Resources coordinator, appointed in the second year of the project, who collected and posted resources. However, the point is that he still had to find people willing to produce and make available resources for others to use. The explanation for relative success may lie partly in the fact that taking collective responsibility, for children and their growth and development, is a feature of Maori culture. So, Maori teachers felt responsibility for all Maori students, regardless of the school they attended, or the subjects they took. They also felt collective responsibility for each other as Maori teachers in general and as teachers of Maori. "Maori teachers as teaching anything.... I have got a Maori teacher who teaches science.... And after the first year I found him helping with Te Reo Maori and that was neat ..." (CL11). In addition, Maori teachers in the region tended to have strong associations through tribal affiliations or family ties to one another and to many other Maori in the wider community beyond the school. These associations, together with the sense of community that characterizes Maori culture, clearly helped Maori curriculum leaders and the Maori coordinator to locate resources and persuade teachers to share them more widely by posting them.
There were, in addition to existing communities like the Maori community that operated across schools, other possible foundations for an online community that could have been used and strengthened. Collectively, such action may have facilitated the development of a functioning community.
Building Foundations: Skills and Dispositions
The argument here is not that teachers lacked skill in the use of ICT but, rather, that they may have lacked specific skills or knowledge as well as held certain dispositions about online learning that predisposed them to be less positive about it.
Teachers reported, over the course of the FarNet project and the associated ICTPD, significant improvement in skills and confidence in using ICT, particularly in terms of basic computer operation and the use of the internet and telecommunications. Notably, though, individual goals in terms of ICT learning that were met were limited, remaining throughout the project primarily skills and application based. They were not aligned with the goals of FarNet, except insofar as a basic level of skill may be a prerequisite to further use.
Towards the close of the FarNet project, it was clear that teachers were prepared to use the Internet to find resources. Around 97% reported accessing the Internet in relation to professional work while a slightly lesser percentage reported accessing the FarNet site (81%). These results, along with those obtained from the ICT Professional Development data (1) suggest that the majority of teachers are relatively comfortable with accessing material online to use in their professional work. They were also moderately confident with e-mail. In terms of the use of e-mail, 41% used e-mail regularly and 37% described themselves as confident users.
The inference, however, is that they were not as comfortable with the Internet or e-mail lists as a tool for collaboration, as an online learning tool. Unfortunately, the baseline ICT Professional Development (ICTPD) survey (Ham, 2001) did not ask teachers about the level of use of computers for professional communication and collaboration although it did ask about preferred professional development activities in relation to ICT. About a third of participants were ambivalent about the use of listservs, with no feelings either way. Small percentages had strong views: 10% said they would hate it and 13% believed it had considerable appeal. However, overall, of the 11 types of professional development suggested, listservs were ranked tenth, with only professional reading having a lower mean level of preference. Release time to discuss and translate new ideas and strategies into unit plans with the help of a mentor was clearly the most preferred PD, followed by on the spot support (both, it is interesting to note, likely to be best sourced from within the school community).
A further inference is that many teachers may not have been ready for the resources posted, particularly the small number designed as electronic resources (many were simply worksheet type resources). About a third of respondents reported that they had not yet blended ICT into their student learning activities with only 6% stating that all, or almost all, of their units of work had an ICT component. Few respondents to the baseline survey felt they were able to create web pages using either HTML or an editing program, while a third reported they were able to access information and follow links and a quarter that they understood advanced search techniques.
The limiting factor in terms of resource production and e-mail communication appeared to be teachers' lack of experience in the use of ICT generally, and web-based resources in particular, within the classroom. Their likely limited knowledge of what might constitute an adequate electronic resource for the classroom may have contributed to their reluctance to attempt to produce such for sharing. This may also partially explain the feeling that what they were able to produce may not be adequate. In terms of professional learning in ICT, there is some evidence that teachers were not favorably disposed to the use of the Internet as a tool for professional development.
Building Foundations by Establishing Need
The motivation to engage in professional learning, like any learning, is demand driven (Brown & Duguid, 2000). In the case of electronic communities, there is a tension between providing sufficient in terms of design to support the development of the community while, at the same time, allowing it to evolve: one of the core dualities posited by Barab, MaKinster & Schecker (2004). This duality was played out in the views curriculum leaders held with respect to their role and to the function of the curriculum groups. Their role was initially conceived of as involving not only gathering and posting resources but providing feedback, debate and direction on the resources posted on-line in their area. However, the teachers who took up these positions held a limited view of their role. They did not see themselves as leading a professional community who would share and build expertise but, rather, saw themselves simply as a conduit for the obtaining and posting of resources.
However, some did view what FarNet offered as a way of meeting their needs. In the FarNet project, the curriculum resources were, in part, envisaged as a supplement to teacher pedagogical content knowledge. In isolated areas with small numbers of senior students, teachers may "teach" several subjects that are not part of their disciplinary background and training or, alternatively, may provide face-to-face support for students who take subjects by correspondence. For example, in one school a senior teacher was responsible for seven different curriculum subjects at years 12 and 13, the final years of schooling. This teacher reported that he certainly accessed resources. Another example came from a teacher who had only taught primary school English and was now teaching senior English. FarNet enabled this teacher to be mentored by an experienced teacher in a nearby school. Some smaller schools reported such "little linkages" (P 2) amongst themselves for support and the sharing of resources and ideas.
Maori teachers expressed the real need for them to be part of an electronically supported community "I think if we weren't sharing we would be lost, the Maori teachers if we don't share and get in touch with one another.... Maori teachers used to feel isolated but with this, with FarNet, you don't" (CL 12).
The bottom line in terms of building an electronic community such as FarNet was that teachers had to not only perceive the need but recognize that internet resources, exchange, and collaboration through FarNet was a viable solution to that need. Teachers had to perceive a need to change or enhance their practice. As one curriculum leader noted,
It [FarNet] will go some way to being a catalyst to it [to change]. That is all it will ever do; it will make the job easier. But what has really got to come is the want to change to constructivism, [to be] experimental, where you have different layers inside your classroom-where you will have different activities inside your classroom, where it is differentiated between levels. If you want that to happen, FarNet is going to enable that to happen really big time.... If you believe that you get better learning with a piece of chalk and a blackboard and you are going to give notes then don't get involved with FarNet. (CL 1)
The experience of FarNet suggests that there are a number of interrelated issues to address to maximize the likelihood of developing a functioning online professional learning community. Considerable groundwork may be needed. As Fullan and Hargreaves (1996) noted "Some contrivance is necessary in the establishment of virtually all collaborative cultures. They don't happen by themselves" (p. 58). First, a clear need has to be identified for the electronic community. Further, there has to be a shared understanding of the value of the online community in terms of meeting that need. FarNet, conceivably, could be a powerful tool to address several needs of teachers and their students in the region; however, the introduction and implementation did not ensure that ordinary teachers shared, let alone drove, the vision.
There are preconditions that enable or facilitate the development of professional communities and these include openness to improvement (part of recognizing the need for it), trust, mutual respect, availability of expertise, supportive leadership, and socialization into the community (Kruse, Louis, & Bryk, 1995). The notion of collective learning and open consideration of practice should be developed at some level, as exemplified by one of the schools in FarNet, before expecting teachers to be willing to share aspects of their practice with a virtually unknown audience. As Supovitz (2002) noted, for teacher communities to focus on improving instruction, a culture of exploration needs to be developed along with ongoing professional learning opportunities that nurture ongoing enquiry into teaching and learning. In FarNet, much of the professional learning centered around technical skills in working with technology rather than in understanding and experimenting with pedagogy in an electronic environment. The expertise available needed to be applied to the development of particular knowledge and skills required in the envisaged community, namely, those of constructing electronic resources. However, to create such resources, arguably, knowledge and experience of their use in the classroom is required, and this was demonstrably lacking.
Building a professional learning community is difficult to achieve within a school, let alone across schools, let alone virtually. As this research demonstrates, building on or strengthening an existing community is one way to approach this while supporting and guiding the building of communities within schools is another. Pursuing both of these avenues would enhance the impact of initiatives like the vision of building a FarNet learning community.
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1. The authors were provided with an electronic copy of the raw data for the FarNet schools from the baseline and follow-up ICTPD surveys which they analysed as part of their evaluation of FarNet.
JUDY PARR AND LORRAE WARD
University of Auckland
Auckland, New Zealand
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|Publication:||Journal of Technology and Teacher Education|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2006|
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