Here is the first attempt at my Literature Review on the reform of professional development and the move towards professional online communities… I think it’s time for a vacation now!!!!!
The Reform of Professional Development using an
Online Learning Community
Bachelor of Education, 2015
A Project Submitted in Partial Fulfillment Of the Requirements for the Degree of MASTER OF EDUCATION In the area of
© Tracey Thorne, 2015
University of Victoria
All rights reserved. This project may not be reproduced in whole or in part, by photocopy or other means, without the permission of the author.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
TABLE Of CONTENTS…………………………………………………………………………………….
CHAPTER ONE: INTRODUCTION OF THE PROJECT
CHAPTER TWO: LITERATURE REVIEW AND CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK
Principles of Community of Practice and Social Capital Theories…………
Traditional Professional Development………………………………………….
Continuance of Teacher Isolation…………………………………………………
PLC’s and the Integration of Technology………………………………………..
Social and Collaborative Aspects of Online Communities…………………
Continuous Learning and Reflection……………………………………………
Role of the Facilitator………………………………………………………………
Issues with Online Community Integration ……………………………………
CHAPTER TWO: LITERATURE REVIEW AND CONCEPTUAL
In the 21st century, as becoming a digital citizen is necessary in the workplace and, therefore in education, professional learning communities are continuing to become integral in teacher training, as the curriculum and needs of the students is becoming more diverse. Schools must change as the technological demands are becoming more intense, and as our culture continues to evolve based around that technology. With that technology availability, there is more emphasis on creating social networks, and educators are becoming more reliant on that technology to build their PLN’s (Personal learning networks), gain ideas and insight on teaching practices, and access resources for the classroom based on individual needs and interests. However, teachers need to get past that technology in order to gain insightful and deep learning opportunities. Professional development for educators has started to shift from traditional, and out-dated face to face, top down approaches to online, self-initiated, bottom-up, specified learning, and teachers are beginning to focus on continual learning through online, professional networks and communities in order to gain the support and knowledge needed to teach effectively in the 21st century. With these communities, the importance of social ties, and trust comes to the forefront, as educators need to feel comfortable in investing their time into a productive atmosphere and leaders emerge as the means of the facilitation and guidance of the community, as they will need to help guide and redirect concerns as they emerge.
Principles of Communities of Practice and Social Capital Theory
Situated Learning (Community of Practice)
Situated Learning (Community of Practice) is a theory that addresses this shift in professional development in education. The Situated learning theory, which coined “Community of Practice”, emerged with the efforts of Wenger and Lave. Community of practice is described as “an activity system about which participants share understandings concerning what they are doing and what that means in their lives and for the community. Thus they are united in both action and in the meaning that that action has, both for themselves and the larger collective. (Lave and Wenger, 1991, p. 98) As the theory continued to develop, Wenger expanded on the original definition to “include groups of people who share a work setting, a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic and who deepen their knowledge and expertise by interacting with each other over time.” (Coutts, 2010 as cited in Wenger 2002). With regards to education, this theory supports the emerging need of teachers to share in a collective atmosphere in order to build their PLN, expand on resources, and gain ideas from others in the same profession on an ongoing basis. There is emphasis on “the importance of a shared repertoire of practices that is emergent from mutual engagement in reflective dialogues.” (Daphnee & Shaari, 2012) Reflecting, and sharing learning will continue to build on the initial Community of Practice created within a professional atmosphere. Teachers are starting to shift their mentalities in order to create an ‘open door’ network to continually improve teaching practices.
As far back as 1929, John Dewey argued that social moulding and community were integral in education. He believed in experience through living. He stated that education “is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” (Dewey, 1929) Learning should take place in the ‘real world’ with actual organic experiences, relationships and communication. In education, teachers are beginning to embrace this way of learning, as there is a vested interest in learning from knowledgeable teachers in the field. Participation, sharing in a ‘best practice’ situation, reflecting, improving and learning from teachers’ actual experiences is becoming more common, as teachers are beginning to embrace the positive outcomes of collaboration, and in turn, the betterment of learning for their students.
‘Community of Practice’, coined by Wenger and Lave in 1998. suggests that communities of practice “are the basic building blocks of a social learning system because they are social ‘containers’ of the competences that make up such a system.” (Wenger, 2000) Those competences are based on three elements. The first one is joint enterprise where participants maintain the community with an understanding of its direction and holding each other accountable for its development. The second is based on ‘mutual engagement’ where participants build on trust and create relationships through engagement. The third is that the community has a ‘shared repertoire of communal resources’, and that participants can share resources and be responsible with accessed resources. (Wenger, 2000; Seo, 2014) Humans have a need to belong, and in an educational sense, it is a need to “make a contribution to a community, and to understand that experience and knowledge are part of community property.” (Lieberman & Mace, 2010) By joining and participating in a community of practice, educators can gain expertise, share their own ideas, promote collaboration and give support, and learn from each other based on material that will specifically help their needs in their situation. (Wang, 2012; Tsai, 2012) While the term ‘community’ can be an overused expression, Communities of Practice are very specific in that over a period of time, educators are sharing their learnings, discussing problems and solutions, and building on their knowledge base. (Seo, 2014) In brief, Communities of Practice are a group who “learn together by focusing on problems that are directly related to their work.” (Wenger & Snyder, 2000)
Social Capital Theory
Social capital theory, which focuses more on the desire for social connections within a community, was modernly analysed by Pierre Bourdieu. He defined social capital theory as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance or recognition.” (Bourdieu, 1985, p. 248) Bourdieu focused on not just the participation within a group, but the deliberate social connections created with the developed community. There are 2 integral elements to this theory: the social relationship between those connecting to share resources, and the actual quality and volume of those resources. (Portes, 1998). Tie strength is “a combination of reciprocal relationships, collective identification, trustworthiness, and expectations inherent in a closed social network. Such a sense of belonging and reciprocity increases the awareness of others’ expertise as well as the opportunity for peer appraisal of work quality, which serve to enhance work performance.” (Cross & Borgatti, 2004; Michaeilova & Hutchings, 2006) However, the manifestation, and development of social capital within a community is very much dependent on those who are part of the actual network. (Hofman, 2010) Wenger (1998) echoes this statement in saying that the success of a community of practice is determined by its own members. Each individual must be willing to contribute to the group, and in turn, their actions will be supported. Strong connections, support, acceptance and open sharing can help members in a community grow, trust, and reciprocate what they have received. However, unwillingness to share, participate, or positively contribute to a community can cause negativity within a community, and eventually cause non-productivity. Facilitators need to be aware of ‘shadow issues’, which can be developed when mutual trust has not been created. Starting with supportive social ties, however, can limit the ‘wayward’ behaviours and allow members to continue to be privy to shared resources and support. (Portes,1998)
Traditional Professional Development
According to Darling-Hammond (1994), the professional development of teachers “is a process of enhancing teachers’ status through increased awareness and an expanding knowledge base.” (Lindberg, 2009). Yet, professional development has been stagnant for so many years. Teachers continue to go through the paces of choosing from a limited selection of workshops on the professional development Fridays, a day where many part-time teachers do not work, when the development session may not have any significant impact on their own classroom needs. The ‘one-shot’ workshops, usually lead by an external source, have little connection to classrooms, with minimal, if any coaching or follow-up, and therefore minimal impact on educators, and the ‘one-size fits all’ does not account for different teaching styles, needs, or contexts. (Hofman & Dijkstra, 2010; Lieberman & Mace, 2010; Beach, 2012; Liu, 2012; Holmes 2013; Seo, 2014) There are often gaps between what has been taught and the actual practice in the classrooms. (So & Kim, 2013) Preparing quality teachers is considered to be one of the most important factors affecting the performance of our students. (Rivkin, Hanushek & Kain, 2005). However, teachers are unable to focus on specific learning for the specific needs of teachers, and professional workshops are then seen as a ‘waste of time.’ (Lieberman & Mace, 2010; Beach, 2012; Liu, 2012; Holmes 2013; Seo, 2014) which does not provide the desired quality development. In additions to the problems with ‘top-down’ professional development approaches, segregated and separated classrooms also make it challenging for teachers to share and interact professionally with colleagues. The focus on the ‘one way transmission of information’ has only reinforced the individual teacher focus, “eschewing the familiar attitude of every teacher for himself or herself within the sanctuary of his or her classroom.” (Allen, 2013) Time and cost are also major issues, as there is limited time dedicated to collaboration, there is no budget to pay for necessary expenses, and teachers find it difficult to fit in additional time to connect during their busy work schedules. (Seo, 2013; Keown, 2009) Teachers are reluctant to travel, and the cost, both monetary and for travel, discourages teachers from wanting to engage and participate in professional development. (McConnel, 2012;2013) Furthermore, when teachers are mandated to connect with others, collaborate, or even participate in what might be beneficial professional development, they often feel that it is obligatory, and that it is keeping them from their ‘real work’, which is imminent and pressing. (Adamson, 2011) If educators are aware of the reform needed for professional development to be more effective, why are they not the ones to make more of the decisions based on the direction of PD? Too often, educators’ voices are missing when it comes to professional development. (Twining et al., 2013)
Continuance of Teacher Isolation
With the current state of professional development, educators find themselves attending workshops on their own, and working in a closed-door, individual effort, classroom environment. It has been the expectation that teachers work in isolation from other educators. (Liu, 2012) With limited access to colleagues for advice, problem solving, and sharing strategies, many teachers begin to feel discouraged, defeated, and spent. (Dodor, Sira, & Hausafus, 2010) Time during school hours, is a precious commodity, and teachers do not often have hours built into their schedules for collaboration with colleagues. There just isn’t the time to have meaningful conversations. (Hadar & Brody, 2010; Hur & Brush, 2009) Educators’ schedules are filled with trying to “engage students, use time with students effectively, and address the issues students bring to the classroom from their lives beyond the school walls.” (Rodesiler et al., 2014). Unfortunately, with a closed classroom, teachers often do not reach out for help or for the direction needed to address much needed change in their teaching practice. (Trust, 2012)
From as early as the 1980’s, there has been a push for collaboration from policy makers, but also from educators themselves. (Lindberg & Olafsson, 2009) Researchers have questioned the efficiency of professional isolation, and they started to look at collegiality and collaboration. (Little, 1982, 1986) Educators who were able to build a professional relationship over time showed a stronger commitment to one another and to the further development of their learning. (Little, 1982, 1986) By learning together, and building connections, teachers can “become less isolated and more inclined to discuss new ideas… solve problems that arise… and form a support system to foster new ideas.” (Vavasseur & MacGregor, 2008)
PLC’s and the integration of Technology
One way to address the problem of teacher isolation has been the development of professional learning communities. In definition, a professional learning community (PLC) is “ a group of people sharing and critically interrogating their practice in an ongoing, reflective, collaborative, inclusive, learning-oriented growth promoting way; operating as a collective enterprise.” (Stoll et al. 2006, p. 223) Coutts and McArdle (2010) suggest that there are eight major characteristics to an effective professional learning community: shared vision and values, group responsibility for the learning of students, collaboration, collective and individual contributions, a sense of openness, reflection, an inclusive atmosphere, and trust, support and mutual respect. For shared vision and values in the field of education, veteran teachers, and teachers wanting to share and learn new strategies are able to share experiences and strategies for classroom changes over many years with one another. (So, 2013) Shared interests and desired classroom needs are often a driving force for a professional community. This is the driving force that encourages teachers to continually return to and share with the community. (Holmes, 2013) As individuals begin to join the community and contribute their ideas, collaboration and collective creation starts to occur. Collaboration, including sourcing out specific problems or ideas, and then implementing those ideas into practice, evaluating the progress, and then reflecting on the positives and negatives of teaching and learning through reflection is instrumental in building on a community (So, 2013; Seo, 2014; Trust, 2012) With collaborative advice or suggestions, teachers learn how to become more effective, and educators begin to critique and improve their own delivery of instruction, which, in turn, benefits the students. (So, 2013)
It is important to keep in mind, however, that being part of the community is not a competition as to whose lesson is better, or one teacher being superior to another. It is about starting the conversation about professional reform in teaching. It is about recreating the lunchroom conversations, where teachers can ask each other their opinions, suggestions, or access feedback and praise. (Lieberman & Mace, 2010) It’s about building the trust and respect between members so that they will continue to invest in the community, which will be talked about more in detail later on in the paper. Unfortunately, while face-to-face professional learning communities can be beneficial and effective as PD, teachers continue to be faced with the problem of time and place. (Cifuentes, 2011)
The emergence of technology and the easy access to that technology has been one way to create a solution to this problem. With the integration of technology, those learning communities are customized for particular groups, created online and they can be accessed from anyplace at anytime, and while educators may not have time during ‘school hours’ to discuss, share and reflect with colleagues, they can access the same supportive community and resources from the comfort of their own homes. (El-Hani & Greca, 2013) Technology has allowed for ease of access and for infinite sources of knowledge in a rapidly changing learning environment. (Seo, 2012) It provides convenience. Collaboration is still the focus, but the convenience of the Internet allows for that collaboration to spread quickly among educators. (Seo & Han, 2013)
The top-down professional workshop approach is slowly shifting to a more bottom-up, wholesome, teacher-created system, where teachers address the real needs that they are facing in their real-life classroom experiences. (Holmes, 2013) It is important to keep in mind though that technology, unless it is the focus of the discussion, is simply a vehicle for learning to happen. These “technological innovations are not the destination but the means by which the leap is made.” (Lieberman & Mace, 2010) In other words, the focus of online professional development should not be solely on the technology used, but the learning that can take place with the technology as the platform. (Twining, 2013) While it may take some time for there to be comfort in using the tech to access information, once those barriers are overcome, teachers can truly invest and collaborate with one another in an asynchronous, time-friendly environment. (Cifuentes, 2011; Liu, 2012; Ryman et al. 2009) As a result, the learning becomes authentic, as teachers are able to participate in actual meaningful conversations. (Ryman et al. 2009)
Social and collaborative aspects of online communities
What makes a successful online learning community? It’s human nature to want to be part of a community. We want to avoid isolation, but there must be mutual trust in order to avoid the fear of rejection (Ryman et al. 2009) A learning community builds on mutual feelings, hopes and vision. In particular, teacher learning communities build on respect, understanding, and creating a dependence on trust and reliability. The focus needs to be on “we-ness” (Roseler, 2013) However, this ‘we-ness” takes time to develop. There must be an emphasis at the beginning of the online community creation to allow for interpersonal professional relationships to build. Teachers will not take risks if they don’t trust, and therefore they will not engage in the contribution of the community. The commitment to the group will stay strong, as long as the participants feel valued. (Borg, 2012;2011; McConnell et al. 2013;2012) Emotional support, whether it is given or received, creates online friendships, which in turn builds on the trust between members, (Seo & Han, 2013) and furthermore adds to the desired welcoming and relaxed environment crucial to engagement. (Vavasseur, 2008)
Interdependence, the reliance on one another, in an online community helps to create a constructive, yet supportive environment. Yet, this interdependence “can only be established once members have a sense of one another through social presence, and an established learning purpose created through authentic learning experiences.” (Ryman et al., 2009, p. 33) The magnitude of social presence will predict how well participants connect with one another. Network ties provide a ‘sense of responsibility’ amongst members. The greater those ties are, the more positively the beliefs are about the community, and the more the members want to contribute. (So, 2013) As trust continues to build, and relationships continue to take shape over time, those who may have stayed in the shadows as ‘lurkers’, “participants who read and observe, getting often involved in legitimate peripheral participation, but do not contribute much in an explicit manner” (El-Hani & Greca, 2013, p. 1345) may start to feel comfortable enough to truly invest and share their own thoughts and resources. In this case, “social capital represents the affective attributes of relationships that endure beyond an individual interaction and accumulate to support greater levels of trust, respect, intimacy and ultimately group effectiveness.” (Ryman et al. 2009) Without trust, the community will struggle as educators will not invest their time or energy into a hub where they do not feel connected. With time and trust, constructive criticism may even begin to take place. This can then lead “to the further development of social capital because the group becomes more confident [and] it can use all of its resources to meet challenges of constructive controversy within the interdependent context. (Ryman et al. 2009) Constructive criticism can lead to reflection, and the continual betterment of lessons. As teachers begin to see positive results in and out of their classrooms with positive relationships, connections, and support, they will continue to invest in the community.
With developing trust, educators are more keen to support other members by contributing and sharing resources with peers of common interests. There are 4 major reasons and motivators for educators to share openly in their online communities (Hew & Hara, 2007):
- Collectivism – educators contribute for the overall success of the group
- Reciprocity – educators want to share and contribute because they have received help and support and they want to reciprocate
- Personal gain – Sharing with others helps them, in turn, gain new knowledge for themselves
- Altruism – Educators can empathize with one another as they have similar demands, struggles and stories to share
By sharing, and contributing both emotionally and with the sharing of resources, educators continue to build on their PLN’s (Personal Learning Networks) (Beach, 2012) and improve upon their skills, knowledge and practice in the classroom, as a result of implementing new ideas. (Hofman, 2010; Seo & Han, 2013) Members will continue to share when they can be assured of the mutual benefits emotionally and with resources. (Tseng & Kuo, 2014) Over time, the primary goal will not be merely sharing with the community. What began as simply sharing knowledge and resources will turn into more of a ‘collective creation’ where teachers can exchange ideas, and create and collaborate on lessons. (So, 2013) Having a peer, professional perspective or co-creator of a lesson can bring in new, fresh ideas and perspectives to an individual’s original concept.
Continuous learning and reflection
Historically, professional development has been time and date specific. Often, if teachers do not work on the specific PD days, there is limited, designated opportunity for professional development. Educators need to become ‘lifelong learners’ where they can gain knowledge and share at their own convenience. As the implementation of technology is quickly changing, and the curriculum in order to prepare our students for their future learning is evolving, the standards of both teaching and learning are continually being redefined. (Liu, 2012; Wang & Lu, 2012) Online professional communities of practice allow for teachers to find answers and share knowledge for everyday situations. (Tseng & Kuo, 2014) With sustained support over time, continuous education allows the focus to be on specific, sought after ideas, and social support, that will help teachers refine and improve their everyday lessons. (Holmes, 2013; McConnel et al., 2013; 2012) With the ongoing support of a community, educators gain confidence to try out new, cutting edge ideas in their classrooms and then ask for feedback for further improvement. (Cifuentes et al. 2011) Teachers will continue to invest in their communities and in continuous professional development if they see positive results from their actions. As teachers continue to build on their learning communities, they start to create a ‘learning habit’ of wanting to increase their knowledge from other members. This results in the investment of learning improvement and the desire to gain more insight on a regular, continual basis. (So & Kim, 2013) If educators believe it will improve their effectiveness, that they can focus on specific classroom needs and that their students will learn more effectively and show significant improvements in their learning, the investment of time and energy to PD will continue. (Holmes, 2013) Furthermore, with continuous learning, the opportunity presents itself for veteran teachers to help guide newcomers, for the collective brainstorming and solutions to what was once believed an insurmountable task, and “to consider teaching not as a magical calling but as a complex profession that can be refined over time.” (Lieberman & Mace, 2010, p. 85)
Part of this lifelong journey is also the ability and willingness to reflect on both successes and failures. Reflecting on practice is not a new concept. In 1910, Dewey talked about the importance of reflection.
Active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which is tends, constitutes reflective thought. (Dewey, 1910)
Sense making and personal reflection allows for educators to be aware of their own strengths and weaknesses. Lindberg expands on this by suggesting that “a reflective attitude is necessary for ongoing professional self-development. Professional development cannot be forced. The teacher has to be open to engage in reflective dialogues, to take personal responsibility and not to leave it to others.” (Lindberg & Olafsson, 2009, p. 9 ) Self-reflection, however, is only the first step to continuous teacher improvement. Once teachers are comfortable with inward analysis, they need to extend beyond the walls of their own classroom and reach out for advice from others, particularly from others within their communities. Ng and Tan (2009) delve into the impact of communities of practice and reflection for teachers. They argue that “communities of practice should move from sense-making that is too technical and narrow to enable and empower teachers to become creators of new knowledge and teacher practices, to critical reflective learning.” (Ng & Tan, 2009) Communities of practice can be the perfect setting for providing outside perspectives and suggestions. They allow for educators to look back on their progress, and develop a heightened sense of professional confidence by reflecting on their growth from their original teaching designs, to those done collaboratively and with tweaks and changes. (Coutts & McArdle, 2010) Equally, however, reflection needs to be shared with others, and that by challenging others thinking, in a respectful manner, continuous learning and improvements will only grow further, and in turn, lessons can become more memorable, which can help students succeed. (Beach, 2012) Educators need to stay on the cutting edge of their practice, while both reflecting and experimenting with new ideas, and then sharing those insights with others. This will not only promote personal growth, but improvements to the teaching practices of others in the community. (Frick et al. 2009)
Building social ties and connections in a community helps to build trust, as previously discussed, “but without the opportunity for learning to occur through critique, there is no point in membership” (Prestridge, 2010) and that both critical feedback as well as support are absolutely integral in order to grow professionally, in a social manner, and personally. (Lindberg & Olafsson, 2009) Reflection, however, must have a purpose. ‘Priority, relevance and insight’ need to be present when it comes to professional development and reflection must have purposeful action to remain of importance, and to encourage continuous investment in these methods. (Coutts & McArdle, 2010)
Role of the Facilitator
If online learning communities can decrease isolation, expand on learning networks, create social ties, and aid in continuous education and reflection, then why are there so many that fail, or seem to start strong and fizzle out quickly? Communities require a lot of work and maintenance. They are shared resources and a lot of the responsibilities will fall on the community members. (Tseng & Kuo, 2014) The teachers need to feel that they are equal as far as shared leadership in the community. If they do not feel valued, they may opt out of investing their time and energy into helping others. However, at first, there needs to be a strong leader/coordinator/facilitator to help organize the community and promote discussions. (So & Kim, 2013)
A strong facilitator is integral to the start-up of the community. Teachers need to feel welcomed, particularly new teachers, and social ties need to be encouraged and given time to develop. (McCluskey et al., 2011) It is “essential for managers of CoP’s to develop mechanisms to help members to strengthen their ties with peers without fear of criticism from their supervisors or other professionals.” (Tseng & Kuo, 2014, p. 44 ) Mak and Pun (2015) also refer to the need to address frustrations and to help encourage team spirit.
The responsibility of defining community expectations and norms also falls on the facilitator. These expectations may include guiding appropriate resources and effective collaboration skills and roles (Beach, 2012) guiding possible content, yet at the same time not taking full control over the direction of the group, but not leaving too much of the responsibility to the members. (Hofman & Dijkstra, 2010) It is a fine balance between shared and directive leadership. Facilitators need to also be aware of ‘lurkers’, or as Lave and Wenger refer to them as ‘silent participators’ or ‘legitimate peripheral participators.’ (Lave & Wenger, 1991) ‘Lurkers’, while still participating in the community, will do so from the outside until they feel comfortable enough to engage and contribute. (El Hani & Greca, 2013; Kreijns et al. 2013; Seo & Han, 2013) With the continual encouragement of social connections and trust, as mentioned before, these ‘lurkers’ will hopefully become all-in, invested participants. ‘Shadow’ issues must also be at the forefront of the facilitator’s mind. Shadow issues are “psychological issues which inform negative behaviours that can inhibit interaction and individual expression.” (Ryman et al. 2009, p. 40 ) If confidence and trust wavers, and participants are no longer willing to contribute to a community due to ‘shadow’ issues, the community will slowly fall apart.
Communities, over time, need to survive without the continuous direction from those who launched it… leadership can change. This can cause some discomfort with the members, as it does take awhile to ‘change old habits’ and teachers have been so used to the ‘top-down’ professional development approaches, that learning to take on joint responsibility for a community can be uncomfortable at first. (El-Hani & Greca, 2013) Ryman et al. (2009) talks about transformative learning “where individuals are critically aware of their own assumptions and are able to assess their relevance to the community. Deep transformative learning can occur within a community when the right environmental factors are present to establish a strong sense of community.” In other words, members, once aware of their roles in the community, will be able to take over responsibilities and the community will then become more of a joint effort. Ryman et al. also talks about interdependency, and that there is still a focus on individuals, but it is what they gain as a group by coming together, and that goals become centered around a ‘common purpose.’ Goal and task interdependence are both crucial when designing an online learning community. Goal interdependence is the “extent to which group members believe they are assigned group goals or given group feedback” and task interdependence is the “extent to which an individual team member needs information, materials and support from other team members to be able to carry out his or her job.” (Somech, 2008, p. 365) Community members need to know their place within the group as individuals, but also as collective membership within that group.
Issues with online community integration
As with many platforms, there are always stumbling blocks that need to be overcome in order to create a successful environment. First and foremost, in an online community, the actual technology can be a burden and is often a ‘hoop to jump through’ in order to invest in the community. For some teachers, they feel like the tech is such an overbearing obstacle that they couldn’t bother investing the time and energy, often which will be on their own, after-school hours. (Holmes, 2013; Khalid et al. 2014) From personal experience, without the aid of a tech coach, who has more time to troubleshoot and provide suggestions, many teachers feel overwhelmed with trying to learn new technologies whether it is for an online community, or for lessons themselves.
As previously mentioned, a strong coordinator/facilitator is integral to the start-up of the community. The coordinator must help to organize the community and foster the development and creation of professional relationships in an inviting atmosphere. (McCluskey et al. 2011; Khalid et al. 2014) Without strong guidance, which eventually can transform into shared leadership, the community will struggle with direction and a sense of purpose.
Extending from a strong coordinator, trust must be encouraged and established. Without mutual trust, participants will not feel comfortable sharing or engaging in the online community (Khalid et al. 2014) Without trust, acceptance and reliance on one another will be extremely challenging.
There is always the concern of the creation of ‘niches’ within the community and not complete acceptance of all members. At times, there is reluctance to share with new members, as participants have made connections with others, and are unwilling to let new members into their ‘circle’. (Khalid et al. 2014) These ‘cliques can make educators feel like they are not wanted or valued. Teachers tend to connect with like-minded individuals, or with those with similar grade content, and therefore there may be some members who feel like they are outsiders, like they don’t fit into the community, and that they cannot find a common thread with anyone else. (Cifuentes et al. 2011; McCluskey et al. 2011)
Many teachers take such pride in their ability to teach and in their students, that they will often become defensive when given suggestions for improvement. They do not want to seem inadequate at their job. There is often the fear of ‘nothing to add’ or ‘limited experience’ which leads to limited confidence. (Khalid et al. 2014) Participants in an online learning community need to be open to these suggestions, and have the desire to improve. (So & Kim, 2013) Often, teachers are reluctant to provide advice or possible tweaks to a lesson because they don’t want to scrutinize other teachers, and they don’t want to be scrutinized themselves. (Coutts & McArdle, 2010) Therefore, “reflection on practice often fails to get started, or lacks any depth or substance, or quickly falters and stalls altogether.” (Coutts & McArdle, 2010, p. 205) Many members will share materials online, but those materials are rarely revised and reposted, which limits the amount of continual growth as professionals and in actual resource development. (Seo & Han, 2013) Educators need to realize that the benefits of sharing, reflection and revising far outweigh the fear of doing so. Teachers, and as a result students, will both benefit from the confident and ‘put your pride aside’ investment in an online community.
Continued investment in the community, however, depends on the usefulness of the community. If teachers feel like they are not gaining any useful information, or developing strong connections with other members, they will most likely choose to opt out. Traditional professional development has been critiqued because the material is often not targeted for specific needs to specific teachers in their specific classroom situations. Therefore, if the online community is not providing this, members will not invest their time and energy into the community’s maintenance and continuation. (So & Kim, 2013; Twining et al. 2013; Khalid et al. 2014)
Lastly, sustainability can also be an issue within a community. Members come and go, and when certain members are integral to the flow and success of the group, their departure can create a large void that may be difficult to recover from. Often, conversations within a group will be initiated by a small group of participants, and others do not feel quite as comfortable stepping up to the positions necessary to maintain the flow.
In conclusion, top-down professional development approaches actually deprofessionalize teachers, and a model to address their concerns, the ones who are actually teaching, would be more effective for professional development. (Roseler & Dentzau, 2013) With technology at our fingertips, online professional learning communities have emerged as a way to provide the development of social ties and support and resource sharing, which reduces isolation, and eliminates the time and space barriers as it can be accessed at anytime, anywhere. (Seo & Han, 2013; Khalid et al. 2014) From “ a teacher professional development point of view, the finding imply that creating an environment where teachers freely share issues and emotions and receive appropriate advice and support is critical.” (Hur & Brush, 2009 p. 298) Based on Social Capital Theory within the Community of Practice, social ties and social connections are integral to the success of the community, as trust is a major factor to the initial participation, sharing, and reflection of lessons and ideas. As these communities thrive, professional development becomes a continual process, rather than a ‘one-shot workshop’ and educators can address issues, or insights as they arise. There is no fear of ‘disturbing others’ during busy schedules, as online communities are asynchronous. However, educators need to continue to adjust their beliefs that critique is purely negative, as professional critical reflection is absolutely essential to the improvement of thought and of lessons, and in the end, the students and teachers will be the ones who gain the benefits of this reflection and revision. Online professional communities do not just create themselves, however, and they cannot simply be left to run on their own once they have been created. There is a strong need for a facilitator at the start, and while that leadership can change overtime, the boundaries and expectations need to be set and issues such as cliques, ‘shadow psychological’ issues, promoting trust and acceptance, and encouraging thoughtful and deep reflection. Are there personal risks that one may take when joining an online community, such as personal pride, acceptance and concern of criticism, yes. But by not taking these risks, professional development lacks growth, and in a world changing as quickly as ours is, and with a crucial need to educate our students for what they may face in the future, our students depend on these changes.
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