This article describes lessons learned from an online, professional development opportunity for teachers to learn and improve their practice by conducting action research projects in their classrooms or schools (Noffke & Somekh, 2009). We also share what we learned about meeting the needs of adult learners (Merriam, 1993) and how to create viable online learning communities for teachers (Palloff & Pratt, 2005).
This article describes the Teacher Action Research Academy project, or TARA Online, which used an online course management system hosted by the University of North Carolina at Greensboro to support teacher action research projects (Hubbard & Power, 1999). In the United States, becoming a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT) means earning the right to be called an "accomplished" teacher based on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) certification process (http://www.nbpts.org/). This highly-regarded status, earned through a year-long portfolio development and assessment process, is valid for 10 years and must then be renewed. All the participants in this project were NBCTs considering the renewal of their NBPTS certification. However, for those NBCTs teaching in small, rural school districts, or in schools where there are not many other like-minded teachers, or teaching too far from a college or university where they might take classes, we wondered: How can teachers connect with other teachers, learn to do action research, and actually carry out and share action research projects online at no cost - except for time and effort? What would make this completely voluntary, professional development project valuable to the participants?
First, we developed TARA Online to provide NBCTs with self-paced instruction about how to conduct action research in classrooms or schools (Noffke & Somekh, 2009), and then recruited accomplished teachers from several rural counties in North Carolina who wanted to participate. The goal was for TARA Online to offer a scaffolded and mentored community of fellow NBCTs with whom they could share ideas for action research projects, post questions and plans for their action research projects, and share final results. During the first year of TARA online, two university faculty members mentored a dozen NBCTs through the action research process, but in the second year we sought out an experienced NBCT who participated in TARA Online during the first year to serve as an online mentor to new participants. During both years we gathered data with the participants' permission that included all their online postings, including discussions with fellow participants and several opportunities for guided reflection, and results from their final project presentations. What follows is a description of how we used TARA Online to meet the needs of accomplished teachers for meaningful professional development and discussion of ways teachers can learn to improve their practice by conducting action research projects.
One Teacher's Experience with TARA Online -Angela's Story
As a teacher of academically and intellectually gifted students in my school district, I was enticed to try TARA Online because I wanted to participate in meaningful professional development. I wanted to interact with other NBCTs who were excited about trying innovative projects in their classrooms. I also wanted to develop an action research project around the notion of developing critical thinking with my students. By participating in TARA Online and discussing my ideas with colleagues, I narrowed my focus to studying the effects of implementing the game of chess with students in my gifted classroom. After gaining district and parent permission, and through the advice of my online peers, I administered a primary critical thinking test, implemented a playing log with reflections, taught the children how to keep track of the number of moves needed to win the games, and pre and post tested related terminology. …