Electronically mediated professional exchange is viewed as a valid form of professional dialogue and support. This study examines an effort to link teachers in 10 isolated schools to collaborate in curriculum planning and delivery, focused on a site for resource sharing and communication. Viewed in terms of data concerning extent, nature, and source of postings of resources; teacher readiness to produce material; the accessing and use of material from the site; related professional communication, and the dispositions of teachers and curriculum leaders regarding their role and notion of a professional learning community, the project did not develop a functioning online community. The data point to the need to harness volunteerism and to work to build communities first within safe, known, and supportive environments where teachers are able to participate and develop a view of what the practice of sharing online involves. The curriculum group that functioned well, used an existing community and the online site served to strengthen that community. The data also reinforce the idea that, to participate, teachers should perceive a need and recognize that the online community is a viable solution to that need.
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 …