The ability to be connected “anywhere, anytime” is recent enough that most professions are still figuring out how make best use of this connectivity, and teaching is no exception. Online communities offer great potential for teachers, in helping them to create and sustain networks of mutual support. However I believe current online networks are still a long way from reaching their potential to help the profession.
Teacher educators emphasise the importance of having a network of colleagues to draw upon in the challenging early years of the profession, yet many beginning teachers find themselves without adequate access to such support. When asked to name their most useful form of support, many simply say that they have none. Preliminary results from further research show teachers in rural locations, on short-term contracts, and supply teachers, are more likely than other teachers to lack support.
A strong online community of teachers is no panacea for the problem of early career teacher support. But improvements in online communities have the potential to make a significant difference, particularly for those teachers currently missing out on support.
The potential for improving online communities of teachers
There are already a wide range of online communities that aim to help teachers to support one another. These range from groups within large corporate providers (e.g. Facebook, EdModo) and government sites (e.g. Scootle) to institutional (e.g. individual university-provided sites) and researcher-led platforms. Yet there are still significant areas for improvement.
What teachers can do to support other teachers online
Following existing research, six roles can be identified that experienced teachers take on to support other teachers online:
- Advocates the practical. Teachers help one another with day-to-day pragmatic aspects of the profession, such as finding resources for a lesson or navigating the bureaucracy.
- Conveners of relations. Teachers instigate relationships with other teachers, and can make introductions to other useful contacts.
- Agents of socialisation. Teaching as a profession has cultural norms. Experienced teachers induct other teachers into these norms, such as in the way that they share stories and the ‘memes’ that they promulgate.
- Modelers of practice. Teachers give a rich description of what they are doing in the classroom, providing a model of teaching practice.
- Supporters of reflection. Collaborative reflection is often considered the most important kind of knowledge for beginning teachers, to make sense of confusing situations and learn from their experiences.
- Providers of feedback. Teachers provide a constructive source of feedback, such as pedagogical and curriculum advice or in reconstructing an event that has occurred.
In a review of existing online communities, it appears that certain conditions are needed for teachers to be willing to engage in the most important of these roles: modelling practice, supporting reflection and providing feedback. Such a connection appears to have preconditions of a trusted environment with stable relationships and a sense of privacy.
What a good online community might look like
There is a design challenge that is yet to be overcome for online communities of teachers. Teachers have a need for the privacy and trust of smaller communities. Yet at the same time there is much value in having massive communities involving many thousands of members.
The reason for this is that, in general, the amount of experience held within an online community grows with its size. The more teachers there are in an online community, the more likely it is that someone in that community can help with whatever support it is that you are looking for. Massive communities can have enormous utility in professions where all members of that profession know that there is a single community in which re-usable knowledge is shared.
For example, currently teaching resources are stored in many different sites on the web and it can be confusing for a teacher trying to find a quality resource. Over time it is likely that, as with other professions, there will be some form of convergence on a single massive community where resources are curated and can be re-used.
Teaching knowledge can be talked about as being both situational (knowledge from experience) and declarative (separable from experience). The design challenge is that private, trusted communities are needed for developing situational knowledge (such as through collaborative reflection). Yet massive, open communities are more appropriate for developing large stores of re-usable declarative knowledge. How can this tension be resolved?
Learning by doing
In Queensland a large collaboration is underway, attempting to create an online community that addresses this design challenge. All universities within the state, around 50 academics involved in teacher education and the accreditation body (the Queensland College of Teachers) have all come together to create TeachConnect, with the support of the Office of Learning and Teaching through the Step Up project.
TeachConnect is an altruistic online network to support teachers in the transition from pre-service into early career teaching. Currently the platform is only available for secondary mathematics and science teachers, but it will eventually be available for all teachers. This is the third year of an ongoing design-based research study.
TeachConnect is an attempt to integrate the need for private, trusted spaces for reflection into massive open spaces for re-using knowledge. In the network, the two halves are implemented as: a group mentorship program, where pre-service teachers in private groups of around 30 are mentored by two experienced teacher mentors; and an open area for question and answer and re-usable community knowledge. The network is still being developed, but offers a space in which to explore ways that these two halves can be better integrated to create something authentically useful for teachers. Currently, TeachConnect has 500 users, and as it grows the research team is further developing the platform in response to the design needs of the users.
The future for online teacher communities
As a profession, we are a long way from realising the potential of online communities.
There are certainly limits to the potential for online communities to support teachers. For example, the affective and cognitive engagement that we as humans obtain from face-to-face contact cannot be fully replaced by online connectivity. Having quality mentors and induction programs within schools is as important as ever – online communities in no way replace this.
Yet given the potential value of online communities to augment this current support (and given the capacity for online communities to scale well) it seems valuable that researchers explore ways to achieve the potential of these communities.
Every profession is different, and developing online networks for teachers requires teacher-specific solutions. Design-based research, with a grounding in the theory of teacher support needs and expanded through real-world exploration, offers one way that we can move towards online networks that are more useful for teachers.
Dr Nick Kelly is a Research Fellow at the Australian Digital Futures Institute at the University of Southern Queensland, Springfield. He is a Research Fellow on the Step Up project at the Queensland University of Technology and one of two leaders of the TeachConnect project in this role. His research focuses on the development of online communities, the support needs of beginning teachers and the cognition of creativity. Further details on some of the research in progress that is touched upon here can be found on the website www.nickkellyresearch.com.
Nick is presenting his paper The Potential and Limits of Online Communities for Rural Teachers at the #AARE2015 conference in Fremantle, Western Australia, this week.