CHANGING METHODS, TOOLS AND resources have long been part of the educational scene. Classroom writing, for example, has progressed from slates to paper to computer monitors, and from quill pens to chalk, ballpoint pens, keyboards, mice and interactive whiteboards.
Now, another new resource, virtual communities of practice (VCP), promises to help educators in different locations work together and overcome the limitations of being confined to 30-by-40-foot boxes called classrooms.
The VCP technology enables people to collaborate and interact with colleagues; access specific educational knowledge and solutions; get help from peers, experts and mentors; and share experiences. Anyone in the world can be just a mouse-click away.
The technology provides nearly infinite opportunities to set up social networks to meet and collaborate with people. “Social networking will start weaving teachers and students, parents, administrators and other stakeholders together inside a community fabric of interaction and communication,” says Bill Washburn, executive vice president of business development of CrossIntegration, an IT service and consulting organization based in Canton, Mass.
Washburn, a former IT director and associate provost at Stanford University, notes that “social networking will [result in] teachers, administrators, parents and school boards intermingling and cross-fertilizing in all sorts of contexts. … This massive cross-fertilization may trespass on all, or virtually all, of the most sacred cows and traditions of schools as we have known them, especially the tendency of schools and districts to make decisions locally and internally.”
Special Education District 75 in New York City, which has pioneered the development of virtual communities for educator collaboration, serves 23,000 moderately to severely challenged students through 56 school organizations, home and hospital instruction, and vision and hearing services.
Bonnie Brown, district superintendent, says, “To bring staff together to look at issues, share best practices and problem solve, we had to find a venue for professional development, but did not [want to] pull [our staff] out of their schools. It’s difficult to get substitute teachers for students with severe needs, and we had to find an [alternative] method of offering professional development. In addition, the district office needed a ... system to get important, timely messages and alerts to the field, located in over 330 sites.”
Brown says that having a virtual meeting place has resulted in “sharing educational best practices from school to school; [forming] study groups and think tanks; letting teachers look at authentic student work that can be imported via the community; providing the staff with answers via frequently asked questions posted in content area offices; giving the staff quick access to needed information; saving money on travel and parking; better use of school administrators’ time; and encouraging teacher collegiality and collaboration.”
By tapping the discussion board function of the citywide school e-mail system, Carol Franken, instructional technologist specialist in Region 10 of the New York City school system, made it possible for focused collaboration to take place in her region.
“This discussion board is open to all teachers in the region,” Franken says. “However, the 65 participants are mostly instructional tech liaisons from the region’s schools. They ask questions, share ideas about how to integrate technology into the curriculum and find out how colleagues are handling similar issues. For example, there are suggestions of favorite Web sites and available conferences and opportunities.”
ONE EDUCATOR’S STORY
Dan Balzer, an online professional development specialist with the 21st Century Information Fluency Project (http://21cif.imsa.edu/) at the Illinois Math and Science Academy, based in Aurora, Ill., has been an active participant in the LearningTimes.org virtual community of practice. LearningTimes.org is a free, online community of more than 13,000 educators and training professionals from around the world. “This virtual community is a member of the Learning Times Network of 88 online communities with more than 175,000 members worldwide,” says Learning Times’ CEO John Walber.
“After several months of actively listening and making a few small contributions, I began to meet people,” Balzer says. “Soon, the VCP wasn’t a mass of user names in discussion threads.
“Three years ago, I didn’t know what a VCP was. Today, I have a global community of colleagues who inspire me, challenge me and graciously allow me to share what I’m learning in my corner of the world. . . . Virtually anything is possible.”
RESOURCES AND TOOLS
Similar emerging resources can bring the power of virtual communities to teachers who might otherwise not have the time or expertise to find and access specialized technologies.
Located in Cambridge, Mass., TeachAde.com is a Web-based interactive meeting place that lets teachers collaborate, and create and share materials. It features a searchable database of resources and the tools to create and schedule those resources.
“We understand that teachers don’t have the time to invest in mastering complicated Web sites,” says TeachAde President and CEO Wade Dyke. “We further understand that teachers often don’t have access to the latest computer technology in their classrooms.”
Dyke, a former Ohio State assistant professor of public administration, says TeachAde is the “first site of its kind for the teaching community” and adds that VCPs are “useful for experienced teachers, as well as new teachers. Teachers who enjoy sharing with their colleagues, particularly those in a mentoring role, will use the site as a storehouse for materials.”
Virtual communities of practice and the resulting professional networking will make possible — often for the first time — frequent and meaningful collaboration among teachers who are isolated by distance and time.
In fact, educator VCPs may prove to be the killer application of social networking. At the very least, they should make time and distance seem like barriers from a bygone period in the history of teaching.
CREATE A VIRTUAL COMMUNITY
CrossIntegration’s “Ten Principles of a Successful Social Network for Business” spells out some factors to consider before entering into the realm of social networking technology. Here are five of them:
Identify your constituents. Who’s likely to be involved? Classroom teachers, curriculum coordinators, supervisors, principals and other administrators?
Define value propositions. What will your constituents want and need from the virtual community?
Choose appropriate technologies. Ask your constituents which technologies they’re already using, what they have considered using and why, and what they wish they could try.
Start with high-impact and easy-to-implement solutions. Begin with solutions that are highly visible and that may already be under way.
Elicit feedback. Network with your users and their communities so you’ll know what is working and what isn’t.
Mark Gura and Bernard Percy are co-authors of the book Recapturing Technology for Education: Keeping Tomorrow in Today’s Classrooms.