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A new image: online communities to facilitate teacher professional development.

Realizing the potential of online or virtual communities to facilitate teacher professional development requires educators to change their current perceptions of professional development. This calls for educators to develop new images of ongoing opportunities for professional development, based on their needs within an online community of learners and their recognition that communities may include individuals from local regions and from around the world who share mutual interests and goals. The realization of online learning communities to facilitate teacher professional development is a matter of carefully and deliberatively designing dynamic learning environments that foster a learning culture. This requires a pedagogical framework that nurtures the establishment of relationships, intimacy, and trust, where people engage in shared learning experiences mediated through technology. Designing an online learning environment that fosters the development of a learning community is not about adding technology on to current professional development practices. Rather, it is about designing, building, and supporting a structure and a process that are purposeful and fluid in nature and in meeting the personal ongoing professional development needs of teachers.


The complexities and demands of this young century have acted as catalysts, fuelling the expansion of network technologies and network-based learning. Information and communication technologies (ICT) and digital networks have altered both learning environments and the diverse roles of people within them. Anytime, anywhere and just-in-time concepts are part of this world. In this new world, greater possibilities and greater opportunities are available for people to work collaboratively in bridging distance and time as they come to together around emerging issues and projects. Further, the expectations of a knowledge era have placed teachers "under significant pressure to create new and different learning environments for their students if they are to realize the potential of a knowledge society, environments that they themselves have not experienced" (Friesen & Clifford, 2003, p. 2). As agents of change in the educational system, teachers need to have the necessary knowledge and skill sets to educate all students to meet increased expectations and performance standards and to be credible competitors in a global economy.

Identified shortcomings in conventional professional development models have sparked a shift toward community-based models for the purpose of providing the ongoing support teachers need to have as they educate students. Further, with advances in ICT and ICT infrastructures in schools, online environments can be created and used in a meaningful way to support teachers' professional practice and routines. These online environments can be designed to nurture the development of online learning communities to facilitate teacher professional development and are a new trend in education. Educational stakeholders who are designing and facilitating these types of environments are exploring new frontiers and are learning as they go.

Developing and sustaining online learning communities to facilitate teacher professional development calls for three important changes. First, there must be a reform of current perceptions of teacher professional development. Second, envisioning new images of professional development using online communities requires ongoing opportunities for professional growth and development based on the needs of teachers within a community of learners. Third, communities may include individuals from the local school region and/or from around the world, who share mutual interests and goals. For online communities to evolve to support teacher professional development, it is critical for key educational stakeholders to consider how communities can be interwoven throughout teachers' professional practices and routines, the curriculum, the institution and globally within professional organizations and professional thinking.


Laferriere, Breuleux, Baker, and Fitzsimons (1999) argued that professional development is both a "personal and an organizational issue." On a personal level, it is a matter of improving teachers' professional practice in ways that will benefit student achievement. Sherer, Shea, and Kristensen (2003) acknowledged that teachers, through their lifelong professional development, seek out peers to help facilitate their own growth and development. This has been achieved mainly in face-to-face environments, such as conferences, workshops, and informal conversations. Moreover, through their years of experience and professional development activities, teachers have worked to refine their craft of teaching.

On the organizational level, educational stakeholders are all involved in decisions and actions that influence the type and nature of teacher professional development. Decisions made and actions taken that impact the when, where, who, and how of professional development opportunities are generally made available to teachers. At the organizational level, decisions through policy and practice gauge the degree to which teachers determine their own professional development as compared to mandated opportunities (e.g., implementation of new curriculum).
 In the bureaucratic view of teaching that has evolved since the late
 19th century, the key to educational improvement is the correct
 definition of procedures for teachers to follow rather than the
 development of teachers' capacities to make complex judgements based
 on deep understandings of students and subjects. (Darling-Hammond,
 2005, p. 4)

This industrial era perspective uses a technical-rational model that is designed to work with problems that are solvable (Lester, 1995). Darling-Hammond (2005) also noted that the focus is on "'inservicing' designed to ensure more exact implementation of prescribed teaching procedures. There is no need and little use for professional knowledge and judgment, or for collegial consultation and planning. Problems of practice do not exist; the only problems are failures of implementation" (p. 5).

In further examination of teacher professional development programs, a number of shortcomings have been identified in the literature (e.g., Sparks & Hirsh, 2000; North West Regional Educational Laboratory, 1998; Barab, Makinster, Moore, & Cunningham, 2001; Reitzug, 2002; Stein, Silver, & Smith, 1999). The following issues have influenced the level of impact PD has had on teachers' changing and improving their practice: (a) one-shot and one-size-fits all workshops; (b) use of the transmission model from experts to teachers; (c) failure to address school-specific differences; (d) just-in-case training; and (e) system-wide presentations that do not provide sufficient time to plan or to learn new strategies to meet the reality of their own classrooms. Professional development has been organized in terms of events or periodic activities, with a focus on training that tends not be context specific and fails to provide opportunities for teachers to reflect on their beliefs and practices.

In contrast, a second view of practice, according to Lester (1995) is that of postindustrial practice. This "creative-interpretive model of professional work" is based on an understanding of the complexity of interconnectedness of values, perspectives, and logic needed in identifying and exploring problems. Within this approach, teachers' learning can be entrenched in their own work that includes "processes of inquiry, discussion, evaluation, consultation, collaboration, and problem solving" (Reitzug, 2002, p. 237). Darling-Hammond (2005) believed what is needed are '"infinitely skilled' teachers: teachers who understand learning as well as teaching, who can address students needs as well as the demands of their disciplines, and who can create bridges between students' experiences and curriculum goals" (p. 5).

From a critical appraisal of what has not worked, a new paradigm for teacher professional development has emerged (Stein, Silver, & Smith, 1999). In a national study examining the question, what makes professional development effective, Garet, Porter, Desimone, Birman, and Yoon, 2001 found:
 ... sustained and intensive professional development is more likely to
 have an impact, as reported by teachers, than is shorter professional
 development. Our results also indicate that professional development
 that focuses on academic subject matter (content), gives teachers
 opportunities for "hands-on" work (active learning), and is integrated
 into the daily life of the school (coherence), is more likely to
 produce enhanced knowledge and skills, (p. 935)

 Peery (2004) argued, "Teachers must invest in their own growth by
 posing their own questions and studying topics of their own choice.
 This personalization is the essence of development" (p. 8). To achieve
 such ends requires thinking differently about professional
 development. It cannot be perceived as being an event or periodic
 activity to address only system-wide training needs and fails to
 provide sufficient time to plan, learn, and reflect on new strategies
 and practices grounded in the context and content of the reality of
 the teachers' classrooms. In an interview by Sparks (2003), Michael
 Fullan argued first, "we need far more intensive professional learning
 within a culture of continuous deliberation. Second, it has to be
 continually tested by external ideas or standards about best
 practices." He advocated a change in the culture of teaching, as well
 as a change in schools.


In exploring a new paradigm of professional development that is centered on a community philosophy, it is important to begin with an examination of the concepts of community, virtual or online community and online or virtual learning community. Wilson and Ryder (1996) stated that "groups become communities when they interact with each other and stay together long enough to form a set of habits or when they come to depend upon each other to accomplish certain ends." A learning community is unified by a "common cause of mutual support and learning, and by shared values and experiences ... Learning communities provide a means for learning within an atmosphere of trust, support, common goals, and respect for diversity" (Jonassen, Peck & Wilson, 1998). There must be a commitment to the learning process by the community members (Garber, 2004).

A virtual or online community involves "a group of people who regularly interact online and share common goals, ideals, or values" (Owston, 1998, p. 60). According to Preece (2000), an online community consists of: (a) people who interact socially as they try to satisfy their own needs or perform special roles; (b) a shared purpose that provides the motive for the community; (c) policies to guide the people's interactions; and (d) computer systems to support and mediate the interactions and facilitate the sense of togetherness.

Conrad (2005) defines community in the online learning environment
 ... as a general sense of connection, belonging, and comfort that
 develops over time among members of a group who share purpose or
 commitment to a common goal. The creation of community simulates for
 online learners the comforts of home, providing a safe climate, an
 atmosphere of trust and respect, an invitation for intellectual
 exchange, and a gathering place for like-minded individuals who are
 sharing a journey that includes similar activities, purposes and
 goals. (p. 2)

It is the partnerships and interactions among people who gather together that define community, and not the digital media, that are used (Riel, 1996). The computer systems provide the online gathering space for connections and interactions that foster the "process of building and rebuilding interpersonal relationships" (Di Petta, 1998, p. 62). Groups of people not only interact, but also "learn from each others' work, and provide knowledge and information resources to the group related to certain agree-upon topics of shared interest" (Hunter, 2002, p. 96). There is to be responsiveness to the contributions of the community members (Hunter, 2002; Garber, 2004), and the interactions are based on the influence among community members, not on power relationships (Di Petta). The participants need to be contributors, not just observers and/or consumers of the group's knowledge.

Why use a community approach with the new professional development paradigm? Cross (1998) believed there are three main reasons for using learning communities: "philosophical (because learning communities fit into a changing philosophy of knowledge), research based (because learning communities fit with what research tells us about learning), and pragmatic (because learning communities work)" (p. 4). From their research of teacher communities, Grossman, Wineburg, and Woolworth (2001) argued community is good for intellectual renewal, a venue for new learning, and a venue for cultivating leadership. This rationale for using community provides a foundation for envisioning how online learning communities can be used in support of teacher professional development.


DuFour and Eaker (1998) claimed "The creation of professional learning communities requires a radical rethinking of the purpose and activities ..." (p. 256). This rethinking process begins with how educational stakeholders approach professional development. To shift away from the transmission model to a community model of professional development requires a focus on "how the teachers learn" and not on "how much the provider can teach" (Burns, 2002, p. 302).

According to Barab et al. (2001), this approach to professional development should be "fostering a culture of sharing, and providing sustained support for teachers (i.e., knowledge networks) as they evaluate both their beliefs and practices" (p. 74). Research through the North West Regional Educational Laboratory (1998) has found professional development needs to be "intensive and sustained; it occurs through collaborative planning and implementation; and it engages teachers in opportunities that promote continuous inquiry and improvement that is relevant and appropriate to local sites." It should be "communities where inquiry is a stance, not a project or strategy, groups of teachers and students teachers engage in joint construction of knowledge through conversation and other forms of collaborative analysis and interpretation" (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2001, p. 53).

Developing a new image of professional development based on a community model begins with a strong focus on the learning process. Teachers need to be learners who engage in the learning process for themselves, are willing to refine their thinking and practice, to listen to each other as they formulate ideas and understandings, and are open to learn from errors.

A constructivist orientation to the learning process, according to Cochran-Smith and Lytle (2001) provides the foundation for a new approach to professional development. "Social constructivists believe that meaning making is a process of negotiation among the participants through dialogues or conversations" (Jonassen, Peck & Wilson, 1999, p. 5). By using a social constructivist approach, teachers' learning is based on constructing meaning from experience and interpreting the world through the social environment. Further, teachers can articulate their understandings and interpretations of problems, as well as examine these problems from multiple contexts and viewpoints (Murphy & Laferriere, 2003). When teachers develop and work from an inquiry stance and in collaborative inquiry groups, it opens them to questioning, exploring issues they identify as important, making their work public, gaining new ideas on their work and students' work and providing avenues for intellectual growth and renewal as teacher (Weinbaum et al., 2004).

Through community membership, "teachers can engage in collaborative activities of making sense of their practice in the new online environment for learning. An important role of professional development is to provide opportunities for teachers to engage systematically and formally in this very process" (Murphy & Laferriere, 2003, p. 81). For ongoing learning and continuous deliberation to occur, they need to have needed support and time which may currently not be available given the conventional school professional development frameworks (e.g., set hours or a number of days).

Further, with the development of community online consideration needs to be given to purposeful selection and use of technology. According to the E-Learning for Educators: Implementing the Standards for Staff Development, technology as a medium for professional development:

* alters the learning environment;

* provides new structures and media for reflecting, communicating, and acting;

* facilitates modeling and visualization;

* allows for construction and discovery of knowledge;

* expands access to information, networks, people, and ideas;

* increases the flexibility of time and places for learning; and

* provides significant resources (National Staff Development Council, 2001, p. 7).

Therefore, to use the potential of the technology for professional development, purposeful selection of technology along with effective pedagogical and/or andragogical strategies need to be addressed in the design and development of online communities. The selection and use of technology impacts how communities can be fostered within and beyond the scope and structure of the intended learning environment and target audience. Reliability and scalability of technologies must be factored into the equation to accommodate a larger user group within dynamic, collaborative learning environments. Therefore, creating and sustaining online communities that facilitate high quality ongoing professional development needs to be carefully planned and well supported, if it is to provide a forum for teachers to be active and long-term members of" these communities.


Hargreaves (2003) claimed, "A strong professional learning community brings together the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of teachers in a school or across schools to promote shared learning and improvement. A strong professional learning community is a social process for turning information into knowledge" (p. 170).

Further, technical infrastructures and networked technologies provide access to various online learning environments that can be accessed anytime, just-in-time, and anywhere that affords new possibilities and new options for teachers. These network technologies are transforming the insular work environments that teachers have in the past, commonly experienced. The capacity of network technologies along with the use of networked communities of inquiry provide a forum where teachers can work in online collaborative, collegial spaces investigating ideas, engaging in pedagogical conversations, sharing resources and expertise, reflecting on practice, and providing support. It provides a means for them to collaborate with teachers and/or noneducators outside of their schools, local school regions, as well as outside of the teaching community. Di Petta (1998) recommended that for a community of professionals working together across national and international boards, required the development of "appropriate models of community and skills that will enable us to refine our professional lives in relation to these new environments" (p. 64).

With this transformation into online communities, teachers will experience new roles and new responsibilities as their work becomes public, and as they engage and interact with groups of people within larger communities around mutual topics of interest. The challenge according to Sherer et al. (2003) is a matter of "harnessing current technological capabilities and developing avenues for creating connected communities of learners ..." (p. 184).

Schlager, Fusco, and Schank (2002) argued that in fostering community it is a matter of building capacity through a systemic online educational approach that addresses the educator, the provider, and the larger educational community. They recommended doing this using a three-part process. First, is to provide incentives for teachers to develop their capacity using a variety of online professional development services. By doing this, they develop their proficiency and their confidence in using technology and begin to develop a network of colleagues. Second, is to build the capacity of professional developers to provide professional development experiences that are grounded in research and that transform theory into practice in designing and implementing projects for a community. Third, by using a systemic model, educational agencies (e.g., provincial or state level) can organize and host online activities. They could provide a public online forum where teachers can work across disciplines, curricula, schools, and districts. This type of forum provides a means to reach larger groups of educators and experts by leveraging the power of technology and can be driven from grassroots initiatives, rather than by top-down directives.


In "Teacher Professional Development, Technology, and Communities of Practice: Are We Putting the Cart before the Horse?" the question posed by Schlager and Fusco (2004) is pertinent to this discussion. The notion of integration of communities, technology and teacher professional development may be somewhat idealistic. There is a need to be cautious with assumptions that are made and factors that need to be taken into account to create and sustain online learning communities that positively impact teacher professional development. In the literature (e.g., Hunter, 2002; Schlager et al., 2002; Eib, 2002, Killion, 2000), these four reasons have been identified as to why online communities for professional development have not been successful: technology, learner readiness, school culture, and quality of professional development community.

First, current technology and network infrastructures influence teachers' willingness to use online communities. Network infrastructure instability at the time of online activities become an obstacle to teacher participation (Hunter, 2002). Schlager et al. (2002) noted that conventional Internet applications such as asynchronous discussion forums and websites are inadequate in supporting the desired goals of ongoing discussion within a community. Ebbs and flows in conversations and collaboration using conventional applications also influence the potential of an online community. Further, there ought to be technological infrastructure in place that provides necessary access to the technology, is flexible, and accommodates the needs and desires of the community.

Schlager et al. (2002) advocated that the online community needs to be an integral component of the professional development practice and not perceived as an add-on. At the same time, they found that project managers are inclined not to invest time or resources that provide appropriate online activities, until they see teachers using the online forums. As a result, this action reinforces a negative perception of technology use in professional practice.

Second, it cannot be assumed that working online is a commonplace for teachers. How ready are teachers to work collaboratively in a public online forum? Not all teachers are ready for, nor do they want to be online community participants. For them to work effectively in an online environment, teachers need to be self-motivated and independent learners, along with having a necessary level of technological skill and self-confidence. Salmon (2000) argued, "When participants feel 'at home' with the online culture, and reasonably comfortable with the technology, they move on to contributing" (p. 29). Assessing the needs of teachers will determine what strategies and supports need to be in place to assist them as they develop technological proficiencies and a sense of personal confidence in participating in the online community. Developing confidence and appreciation of ICT in their personal and professional practice will impact how teachers use and interact within the online community for their own professional development.

Third, the school culture can be a barrier to the transition to a community of learners. Current educational structures, teachers' busy schedules and competing educational priorities influence when and how often they access and participate in the online community. Further, when participating in an online community, teachers are expected to share their ideas in a public space and to work in a collaborative forum, leading to the development of collective knowledge. "Learning from colleagues requires both a shift in perspective and the ability to listen hard to other adults, especially as these adults struggle to formulate thoughts in response to challenging intellectual content" (Grossman et al., 2001, p. 973). Therefore, the transition from working in an insular to a collaborative work environment using technology ought to be considered when designing online communities.

Within school organizations, consideration must be given to time and resources to support the use of online communities in facilitating professional development. Hunter (2002) argued that for change to occur, teachers need support and incentives for participating in ongoing professional development. Current time schedules in schools do not facilitate collaborative work by teachers. Online communities ought to remain closely attuned to people's needs and goals, if a community is to be sustained. Educational stakeholders who support online communities to facilitate professional development need to monitor and be responsive to the needs of the community to provide necessary support and incentives in nurturing community. Schlager et al. (2002) argued that, in building community, it is a matter of building capacity through a systemic online educational approach that addresses the teacher, the provider, and the larger educational community.

Fourth, failure of online professional development communities is a result of the contrast between the number and the quality of online professional opportunities. The power and direction of the community must come from community members. It cannot be imposed on them, if the community is to be sustained. "As community grows among its members, it becomes intentional and sustainable. It becomes a social fact with a tangible presence that is obvious to its members" (Conrad, 2005, p. 17). The richness and diversity of interactions among the community members are based on the nature and ideology of the community, which attracts members and inspires them to contribute and be active participants. "Community building takes time, commitment, and a willingness to work with others in a community way. Community-building in on-line [sic]environments is a voluntary and participatory process, but it is also a relatively new and unexplored area of on-line [sic] life" (Di Petta, 1998, p. 62).

Online learning communities are complex and multifaceted. Designers have a role in being agents in purposefully fostering the growth of community (Schwier, 2001). They need to find and create ways to support the organic development of community relationships and ongoing social negotiations that include formation of social norms and social interactions (Grossman et al., 2001). Further, there is a need to facilitate and cultivate conditions that will nurture the development of the online community by community members. "The energy fueling community formation" (Conrad, 2005, p. 9), however, needs to come from the members. Conrad (2005) challenged us to consider who has the responsibility for constructing community and is it a matter of giving or taking responsibility? It is through this responsibility that members become owners and directors of their community.


When putting the horse before the cart, four key factors need to be considered in the conceptualizing online communities to facilitate teacher professional development. First, there is a need to develop new images of online learning communities that are not inhibited by current perceptions of professional development and by the use of course-based or training environments (e.g., workshops put online). Being creative and imaginative in designing and facilitating this online communal space is necessary, if it is to be a living, dynamic community where teachers are personally compelled to be active participants.

Second, the goal is to create a dynamic learning environment that involves knowledge construction. The community needs to be well structured, yet flexible, to be responsive to the needs of teachers and to the evolution of the community, based on its members' visions and goals. It cannot be assumed that an online group with common purpose will evolve into community. "For groups to develop to a point where there is interdependence or interinfluence, a conscious, systematic effort must be deployed" (Murphy & Laferriere, 2005). Therefore, designers need to create an online environment where interdependence or interinfluence can evolve as teachers wrestle with issues and collaborate with others in addressing mutual issues and topics.

Third, enthusiasm, commitment, and dedication are required for the development of the community. The creation of a safe and trusting space, the relevancy and currency of content in meeting the needs of learners, the nature and richness of online discussions, and the nature of participation and interaction all impact motivation, commitment, and the engagement of community members. In the design and the development of the community, specific strategies and techniques need to exist to inspire and attract people to become members of the community. However, members of the community have a serious role and responsibility in fostering enthusiasm and commitment to the community.

Fourth, purposeful selection of digital technology is a critical component of the design. "Without proper planning, technology can become a disconnected add-on, creating a sense of frustration and loss of time rather than learning opportunities for participants within an FLC [Faculty Learning Community]" (Vaughan, 2004, p. 106). The reliability and flexibility of technology to meet the needs of the community, the potential for scalability of applications to provide service to a larger user group, and the longevity of the technology all need to be considered. In addition, resources and supports need to be in place to nurture an understanding of how to use online technologies to attain goals and to cultivate community in meeting the professional development needs of the community members.


Creating and supporting online communities to facilitate teacher professional development is not about layering technology on to conventional professional development routines and practices. Rather, it is about thinking differently about professional development using a community model approach where technology provides new spaces to facilitate learning and collaborative inquiry, designed to enhance teaching and learning. In comparison, Negroponte (1995) argued that we are no longer waiting for the invention of computers and learning how to use them. Digital technology is here and now. The focus must be on the way we learn to live with it. Consequently, advocates of communities to be used to facilitate high-quality, ongoing professional development need to carefully plan and provide needed support and frameworks (e.g., policy) to make this part of the living practice and routines of teachers.

A culture shift is required, when conceptualizing professional development using online communities. The transition to online communities alters current beliefs, practices, and routines and transforms current notions of professional development. Online communities can function outside conventional practices and timeframes (e.g., workshops). This gives teachers a new appreciation of how and when they can engage in community and provides new possibilities for how the community can evolve over time to support their just-in-time needs and to foster ongoing opportunities for teacher renewal. The breadth and depth of the nature of the work conducted within communities are influenced by technology, the level of trust and comfort working in the online learning environment, the building of relationships and the nature of the collaborative inquiry. Further, developing an online learning culture requires a shared understanding by all educational stakeholders involved in conceptualizing, developing, implementing, and sustaining a community model of professional development. The learning environment should be structured to support and nurture teachers in taking greater ownership of their learning, honouring learners and learning in the community, and nurturing the lifelong learning of teachers. Shifting a culture and developing a learning community takes vision, dedication, perseverance, and time.


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Author:Lock, Jennifer V.
Publication:Journal of Technology and Teacher Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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