Building on Foundations: Creating an Online Community

Article excerpt

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.

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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. …