I received some useful feedback on the abstract that I submitted to BERA for their annual conference in September in London (http://beraconference.co.uk/) - it was accepted by the way and I shall be presenting in the afternoon of Tuesday 6 September.
One of the reviewers indicated that they missed the benefits of participation for teachers in the online community and that it looked 'like a project designed by and for researchers rather than relevant to teachers'. I guess the good news implicit in the comment is that what I wrote clearly reads like a research paper. The useful thing I need to note, however, is the need to reinforce the benefits of online communities for continuous professional development (CPD) of teachers.
As luck had it, I came across a paper recently that reviewed the impact of professional learning communities (PLCs) on teaching practice and student learning (Vescio et al, 2008). It looks at the results of 11 studies that attempted to correlate participation in PLCs with improved practice and student achievements. They describe the move away from more traditional CPD, which mainly consists of knowledge acquired in training colleges or universities - what they describe as 'Knowledge for practice' (referring to work by Cochran-Smith and Little, 1999), to 'knowledge of practice' acquired by teachers applying ideas in their own classrooms through collaborative inquiry.
The paper cites Newmann et al (1996) in describing PLCs as having five essential characteristics: shared values and norms; clear and consistent focus on student learning; reflective dialogue; sharing teaching practice and a focus on collaboration. When I think about each of these characteristics, I see them as being present in the online learning community (the Learning Event, LE) that we held last year. Indeed, the changes that we put in place, based upon an earlier LE, were to offer the teachers the possibility to try out what they had learned in their own teaching practice, to reflect with their peers on the results and to collaborate in terms of sharing good practice. The focus of the LE was clearly on student learning, the teachers making their motivation to improve their teaching practice and student achievements quite explicit in their discussions. Moreover, as Vescio et al posit, teachers see a clearer connection to their own teaching practice if they experience the opportunities themselves as learners.
Vescio et al's paper is mainly about PLCs within schools, aimed at reforming teaching. Our LE was an online community for teachers from across schools, in different countries. Whereas this may not lead directly to a change in the culture within a school and a reform of teaching practice, it does provide a valuable source of inspiration for pioneering teachers. Indeed, it emerged from my interviews that for some of the teachers this was the only form of cooperation they had with peers; as one teacher remarked 'I have much more contact with my colleagues in eTwinning than with my colleagues at school'. Such a cross school community can be an advantage, as Vescio et al note: 'learning communities also cannot be insular, focused only on making explicit the practical wisdom teachers already possess about teaching' and ' it is important that we seek external perspectives from other constituents (e.g. families, citizens, educators working outside our immediate environment, educational research, sociological research) so that all aspects of our practice be can be interrogated as an integral part of our efforts' (Vescio et al, 2008, p89)
In conclusion, the paper notes that 'participation in learning communities impacts teaching practice as teachers become more student centered' and 'when teachers participate in a learning community, students beneﬁt as well' (p.88). They note that working collaboratively is the process that underpins a learning community, rather than the goal which remains improving student learning.
The paper calls for more research in which the teachers 'develop collaborative relationships with researchers to help document the impact of their efforts' (p.89) and more empirical evidence of the impact of learning communities on teaching practice. My analysis of the results of the LE will hopefully yield some evidence of impact in terms of the improved competence of the teachers involved, changes to their teaching practice and impact on student learning.
Cochran-Smith, M. & Lytle, S. L. (1999) 'Relationships of Knowledge and Practice: Teacher Learning in Communities'. Review of Research in Education, 24, pp.249-305
Newmann, F. M., Wehlage, G., Secada, W. & Marks, H. (1996) Authentic achievement: Restructuring schools for intellectual quality, Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Vescio, V., Ross, D. & Adams, A. (2008) 'A review of research on the impact of professional learning communities on teaching practice and student learning'. Teaching and Teacher Education, 24 (1), pp.80-91