Real Change in Practice Through Online Communities

I have just completed my first few courses for my Doctorate in Educational Technology from Boise State University.  The final project for my Emerging Trends in Educational Technology course was to write a literature review.  To do this I needed to read literature on a topic of my choice and synthesize what I read. The literature needed to be made up of a majority of peer reviewed articles but could also include other sources.


The Internet and access to technologies which allow for connection to the Internet as well as other people are gradually becoming pervasive in society (Holmes, Preston, Shaw, & Buchanan, 2013).  The idea of learning is transforming in correlation with this change.  Richardson & Mancabelli (2011) state, “In fact you could say that at this moment, modern learning is shifting to the web”(p.3).  Easily accessible information, available through the Internet, has affected the role of teachers and raises questions regarding maintaining currency.  In line with shifts mentioned above, many web-based professional development (PD) opportunities now exist for teachers. These online learning environments take multiple forms, including online repositories of information, formal online courses, web-based communities, online learning networks, and online knowledge building networks (Laferrière, Lamon, & Chan, 2006).  These environments can be broken into two categories, formal and informal.  Informal online learning environments have a variety of forms including specially designed communities, self-generated communities (Hur & Brush, 2009), virtual worlds (Derby, 2008), social networking sites (Boyd & Ellison, 2007) and virtual office spaces (Havelock, 2004). These provide opportunities for teachers, to discuss areas of interest and improve their teaching practice.

Formal online learning environments have enabled teachers to obtain Master degrees and Doctorates. These programs are costly and take a considerable amount of time to complete (O’Shaughnessy, 2012).  Not all teachers can afford to participate in programs such as these, due to financial and time limitations.  Professionals attend formal workshops where information is gained but does not impact daily practice (Baker‐Doyle & Yoon, 2011). Schools and districts provide formal PD workshops where topics may not be relevant (Derby, 2008); there has to be a better way. Social media has played a large role in keeping educators connected to others they met at conferences or online.  These connections enhance their knowledge and help educators gain a greater understanding about their professional interests. Being a connected educator is seen as an important step for professional educators of the 21st century (Richardson & Mancabelli, 2011).

Online learning environments are often constructivist in design and form, which influences people who use them to participate in the construction of knowledge (Anderson, 2011).   Other aspects of online learning, specifically in regards to informal learning networks, are supported by communities of practice (CoP) and social learning theory (Hur & Brush, 2009).  CoPs are groups of people who share interests and interact to share knowledge and expertise (Ranieri, Manca, & Fini, 2012). Recent technologies has allowed the creation of CoPs in a virtual environment (Hur & Brush, 2009). CoPs are supported by the social theory of learning.  Social learning theory views cognition in three ways, situated, social and distributed. These three ways support CoPs as the learning is situated in the community, learning is a social activity where the knowledge is spread across all participants.(Hur & Brush, 2009)  Online CoPs are environments where people gain new knowledge through reciprocal participation in a group that shares resources and ideas related to their profession (Hur & Brush, 2009).

This review will look at the different types of online environments which support teacher learning, why online learning environments are needed in this day, what effective PD looks like and ultimately which types of online learning will create most change in teacher practice. A short discussion about existing frameworks which could possibly assist the integration of formal and informal teacher PD will also be discussed.

Types of Online Learning Environments

The Internet provides many environments for learning.  These opportunities are broken into two distinct types based on the various iterations of the World Wide Web.   Technology used in both Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 can be connected to communication and learning (Gunawardena, et al. 2009).  Learning in Web 1.0 is considered formal and structured, top down controlled, content is created in a central location, use is scheduled and planned and created by experts (Gunawardena et al. 2009).  Example environments include online repositories of information, courses and programs, which provide more PD opportunities to teachers, formal online courses offered by universities, which allow for development as well as improved practice (Laferrière, Lamon, & Chan, 2006).

Learning in Web 2.0 is characterized as informal, collaborative, blended and grassroots controlled, content is created by users or experts recognized by the community (Gunawardena et al., 2009).  Example environments include web-based communities and online learning networks, which promote learning by sharing ideas and resources, online knowledge building networks, where teachers, administrators, researchers and students contribute to the community (Laferrière, Lamon, & Chan, 2006).

Both formal and informal online learning environments support teacher learning but why are they needed?  The next section of this paper intends to answer this question.

Why Online Environments?

The foundation to sustainable and transformative change in teacher practice is effective professional development (Holmes, Preston, Shaw, & Buchanan, 2013). This raises issues, especially in this technologically rich, digitally connected world, where most people who are currently teaching, were born before these technologies were available (Robinson, 2012).  The world is changing.  In How is Technology Transforming Education? 2012, Sir Ken Robinson states, “The digital tools available are changing the planet.”  He continues, these “technologies have changed the whole context of education.”  Educators traditional role as the sole source of knowledge has disappeared because of access to the Internet.  Holmes, et al. (2013) state, “The transmission model of teaching, common throughout the 20th century, is rapidly becoming archaic (p 55).” Educators today cannot ignore Web 2.0 (Albion, 2008). In fact,  the development of these essential skills will be an expectation of society (Albion, 2008). With these changes occurring, teacher PD that is continual will be required to maintain currency (Holmes, et al. 2013).  This raises questions regarding best practices in teacher PD in this transformative environment.  In the past, teacher PD consisted of face to face workshops (Holmes, Preston, Shaw, & Buchanan, 2013), which are expensive and require travel to participate (Sherer, Shea, & Kristensen, 2003).  Districts offer PD driven by policy makers, which teachers find do not meet their real needs (Derby, 2008). Research shows that while information regarding the art of teaching is gathered at these workshops, it is not where this information is shared, understood, organized, examined or sustained (Baker‐Doyle & Yoon, 2011). This is where online learning environments play an integral part and are considered viable means for supporting teacher professional development (Havelock, 2004), for they provide an online outlet to support individualized, relevant, professional learning and offer access to resources without limitations of location or monetary constraints (Booth, 2012).

Effective Professional Development

Before discussing which types of online learning environments support teacher PD best and allow for change in actual practice, the question regarding what type of PD is most effective needs to be considered. Teacher PD takes many forms, including face to face workshops, conferences, summer programs (Holmes, et al. 2013) and district initiated development opportunities which may not meet all teachers needs (Derby, 2008). Physical PD opportunities such as these, allow professionals to meet and form connections to one another but are expensive and require travel to participate (Sherer, et al. 2003).  These one off type gatherings may not be enough. Often these forms of PD do not offer enough time to effectively follow up or consolidate learning (Holmes, et al. 2013). Research shows that while teachers gain valuable information about their field at these workshops, it is not where this information is shared, understood, organized, examined or sustained (Baker‐Doyle & Yoon, 2011). In fact Sherer, Shea and Kristensen suggest, “They are not sufficient for today’s faculty, who are faced with massive information overload through the Internet (p. 184)”.   In order for teacher PD to be effective it needs to be continual, intense, related to teacher practice, directed towards learning and teaching of specific content, related to school initiatives and collaborative in nature (Gutierrez & Bryan, 2010). Another study suggests that teacher learning is best administered in a community of practice (Wenger, 1998).  In regards to teachers, the goal of the CoP is to provide continual, sustainable place for teacher learning (Parr, 2006). Online CoPs are environments where people gain new knowledge through reciprocal participation in a group that shares resources and ideas related to their specific professional area (Hur & Brush, 2009).  It is not the intention of this paper to suggest that formal PD options hold no place in teacher development but that they are not enough and more research needs to be conducted to suggest possible ways for the formal and informal learning modes to become integrated in order to support greater change in actual teacher practice.

How to support change in practice

Research has shown successful teacher professional development relies on continual support and interaction between educators (Hur & Brush, 2009). Another study suggests that teacher learning is best administered in a community of practice (Wenger, 1998).  Online CoPs allow for connection without need for travel and can be directly related to specific areas of expertise.  As stated by (Booth, 2012), “ Online communities create a new type of social space in which members can learn together across boundaries of time and place (p.4)”.  Based on these statements, online CoPs are able to offer professional development that can be continual, intense, related to teacher practice, directed towards learning and teaching of specific content, related to school initiatives and collaborative in nature as  (Gutierrez & Bryan, 2010) suggest.  Another study found, online CoPs are viable vehicles for teacher PD because they allow sharing of resources, the ability to reflect on teaching practice, knowledge gain in their subject from peers and improved lessons (Wang & Lu, 2012). This study further stated, the use of these types of online CoPs will, over time, transform the way teachers teach and improve the lessons they plan (Wang & Lu 2012). It appears from current research, that Web 2.0 type online learning communities have the greatest means of affecting actual teacher practice. This, however, is reliant on how successful the community is. Research states that in order for an online community to be successful, two things must exist, trust and knowledge sharing (Booth, 2012).  To do this, the community must establish guidelines which stipulate behavioral expectations, identify clear purpose, and provide opportunities for sharing of expertise (Booth, 2012).  Another aspect of technology-based knowledge sharing relies on how the user views the technology.  According to Hung & Cheng (2013), “however, a user’s subjective acceptance or rejection of the technology becomes the key factor in technology-based knowledge sharing (p.8).”  This raises a possible hurdle for the effectiveness of an online CoP.  If teachers perception of the technology being used for the CoP is in anyway considered too difficult or time consuming, this could affect its usefulness (Derby, 2008).   As a way to improve the amount of sharing occurring in the online CoP, Hung & Cheng, (2013) suggest, if one improves their ability to adapt to technology then the intention to share in a virtual community would also increase (Hung & Cheng, 2013).  Some studies found that one reason teachers did not participate was because the tool used required too much time or was perceived as not useful (Derby, 2008),(Parr, 2006).  Both these studies were based on specifically created teacher communities that did not take place in familiar online environments such a social networking sites.  According to (Brenner, 2013) 72% of online adults use social networking sites.  The use of social networking sites might provide the familiar tool that could improve the success of an online community.  The next section will discuss the use of Web 2.0 tools, including social networks, as a framework to assist the integration of formal and informal learning.

Best of both worlds: combining formal and informal learning

It is clear from the above discussion, one of the most effective means for improving teacher PD is to make use of online CoPs.  However, formal online and face to face learning are also viable means of PD.  There has to be a way to integrate what is learned in formal ways with the informal learning that takes place everyday. While research is slim in the area of integrating teacher formal and informal learning, several other studies have been conducted that could be applied to the area of teacher PD. Gunawardena et al. (2009), present a theoretical framework which depicts a spiral heading upwards beginning at context and ending with socially mediated metacognition as a CoP.  The framework includes these levels, context, discourse, action, reflection, reorganization and finally socially mediated metacognition (Gunawardena, et al. 2009). This theoretical framework is based upon Web 2.0 tools and helps to clarify the collaborative process of learning which takes place in the CoP through interaction of the members using social networking (Gunawardena, et al. 2009).  Zhao & Kemp (2012), offer a “Web 2.0-based workplace learning and training model” (p.240), where Web 2.0 tools are used as a means to integrate formal and informal learning in the workplace. While this model is not directly related to teacher PD, through analogy it could be applied in teacher training programs and professional development.   Dabbagh & Kitsantas, (2012),  present the idea of using Web 2.0 tools to create a personal learning environment (PLE).  The framework presents a PLE where self-regulated learning is supported by social media use (Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2012).  According to this framework, a PLE is managed and modified by the learner to fit their specific needs (Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2012). Learning that takes place at conferences can now be shared with others in their PLE.  Because the teacher is the one in control of their own PLE, the PD obtained from it will be continual, intense, related to teacher practice, directed towards learning and teaching of specific content and collaborative in nature as Gutierrez & Bryan, (2010) suggest is effective PD.  More research in the use of PLEs for teacher PD is needed but it appears as one possible method for providing effective PD that will change teacher practice over time.


Change in the world has caused a shift in teacher PD from just face to face, to web-based opportunities, including formal online university courses, to informal social networks, where individuals connect to learn from each other.   Many professional development opportunities teachers are currently engaged in may not affect actual teaching practice.  Research has shown successful teacher professional development relies on continual support and interaction between the participants of the PD (Hur & Brush, 2009).  Online CoPs have been shown to support teacher learning through resource and knowledge sharing and have been shown to change practice over time.  Most of the studies in this review focus on online CoPs that have been created specifically for teachers and do not include already familiar social networking sites. While research in the area of integrating formal and informal teacher learning is slim, there exist several theoretical frameworks which could provide a foundation for further research in this area. Exploration into how a personal learning environment, using social media tools, to support teacher PD by integrating formal and informal learning would provide teachers more options for maintaining currency in their profession and would support a greater number of subjects.


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