Community of practice

Borrowing ideas from Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Chris Lehmann, I would like to strengthen the connection between progressive education and instructional technology next year.

Lehmann deconstructs the Learning to Change video to propose several practical, potentially unpopular ideas: 1) fully adopting social web technologies in education implies committment to progressive educational principles; 2) doing this right requires a lot of effort.

Nussbaum-Beach proposes that educators may, through virtual professional communities, better understand how to teach students 21st century technology literacies.

In our school, teachers normally meet in face-to-face faculty meetings, departmental discussions, and informal conversations around campus. These provide limited opportunities to engage practitioners in thoughtful conversations about using technology to support teaching and learning. I have before experimented with a blog-like format for communicating new resources and ideas to my colleagues, but this became far too one-sided. Teachers rarely replied.

Teachers at our school are innovating uses of educational technologies in remarkable ways but mostly in isolation from each other and based on very different learning objectives. What if we were able to increase the extent to which innovators worked from shared principles and practices?

Could we attempt to create a virtual community of practice within our single school? We have several factors working in our favor. Most of our teachers already know each other. A virtual community could provide more frequent opportunities for discussion than faculty and department meetings. It would overcome obstacles of time and space keeping apart teachers from different divisions (e.g., lower and middle schools).

Challenges are also numerous: the competition for teachers’ free time is just as fierce as it is for face-to-face meetings. Email has so dominated in our school for the last decade that it is difficult to get teachers to hold meaningful discussion in another format. So many initiatives have a history of strong starts and then fizzle out.

One idea (from Nussbaum-Beach): to increase the potential success of this initiative, gain the agreement of a big enough core to actively participate in the online community from the start and take responsibility for its success. Others who show up will find an active discussion taking place, and the burden won’t fall on a tiny group of people (or perhaps just one) to keep the discussion going. Another idea: use occasional face-to-face opportunities to build synergy with the online discussions. A third: create one online space in which to conduct all discussions schoolwide, so that users will have multiple discussions in which to consider participating.

We had success this year building momentum around discussion of social network sites within our “technology advisory group,” a committee that meets monthly face-to-face. We produced two carefully thought-out emails that we sent out to the community, but these on their own did not generate actual discussion, though they did accomplish other objectives.

I field tested the idea of a virtual discussion group for instructional technologies with one teacher the other day and received an overwhelmingly positive response. This encourages me to keep trying with others.

To what extent will we discuss pedagogical theory? I don’t know. For one, many of our teachers already practice progressive education. Yet, it is so difficult to disengage many from the traditional emphasis on the technology itself.

Have you tried to generate online discussions among your teachers? Tell us about it.