Applied Technology: Virtual Communities of Practice
Lever-Duffy and McDonald (2011) claimed that “there will be no distinctions among traditional education, alternative education, and distance education” (p. 340). Further, traditional classrooms may be completely reinvented.
A community of practice (CoP) is network of individuals who share a domain of interest (Gannon-Leary & Fontainha, 2007). A virtual community of practice is defined as “a network of individuals who share a domain of interest about which they communicate online” (p. 1). By sharing resources, discussing problems and offering solutions, communication in virtual CoPs improve knowledge and practice. Gannon-Leary and Fontainha (2007) discussed the barriers to the creation of virtual CoPs as well as the critical success factors for CoPs at the public school level. The idea that virtual communities improve performance is based on the notion of synergy, where agents acting together are able to do more than one agent acting alone. This is proven through research in many different fields, where collaboration results in quicker and more effective research (Reid & Gray, 2007). The shift in learning, from abstract bodies of knowledge taught formally to a focus on situated learning that occurs when people engage with real-world problems, further supports the notion of CoPs. In reviewing the barriers to CoPs, the discipline involved may be one source of resistance, with some fields having more academic freedom than others, for example. Collegiality may also be weaker in some fields as opposed to others, and members of a field may be resistant to the idea of sharing their thoughts with colleagues, for various reasons. That said, Reid and Gray (2007) provided some examples of optimal use of social media-based blogging to create vibrant virtual collegiality in various business contexts, including CEO blogging as a community-building activity. Shifting membership in fluidly composed CoPs can also undermine the effectiveness of the virtual CoP. Lack of trust between members, because they have not yet met face-to-face, may also inhibit virtual community building. If the virtual CoP crosses institutional boundaries, that too, can create an added layer of institutional trust issues which can inhibit community formation. A concern for individual intellectual property rights has also hampered the development of some virtual CoPs. Finally, the technology of virtual CoPs may result in user failure to identify non-verbal cues in communication, resulting in misinterpretation of messages. As well as reviewing these barriers, all of which could bring the fact of the field characteristics of being a public school principal, as well as at a rural locale, into the picture in terms of virtual CoPs between rural principals, Gannon-Leary and Fontainha (2007) also determined the critical success factors of a virtual CoP. These include technology and usability. That is, the technology needs to be able to support access and expedite communication without fear of errors and failures. Difficulty of access can derail the development of an effective virtual CoP. Having met previously face-to-face, belonging to an umbrella field organization, having a single sense of purpose, and adhering to communicative etiquette, can all also support the development of a virtual CoP. Overall, Gannon-Leary and Fontainha (2007) found that virtual CoPs bring many benefits, but must adhere to critical success factors in order to overcome barriers to perform in ways that will lead to improved professional practice and student outcomes.
Virtual communities in rural schools
Virtual communities have been created to help rural schools overcome barriers to instruction quality presented by isolation and geography (Steven, 2007). The focus of these electronic networks is on teacher collaboration in internet-based teaching and learning, as well as the actual creation of virtual classes within regional intranets, in order to offer quality classes to rural schools (Stevens, 2007). The overall direction of research into educational virtual community formation strongly suggests that the Internet was first made use of to benefit rural schools through distance learning, with a focus on educating students. Teachers then began to collaborate online to create courses and exchange views with each other, in effect creating virtual professional CoPs. Only after the development of these approaches, did virtual professional learning communities (PLCs) focused on leadership for principals, develop in order to further remedy barriers to effectiveness in leadership grounded in rural isolation and geography. Stevens (2007) focused on the development of virtual classes to improve the quality of instruction in rural schools in the Newfoundland and Labrador provinces in Canada. Stevens (2007) found that simply in establishing virtual classes in the context of distance education, involved a five-stage process leading from technology provision, to blending virtual and real classes, to provision of distance education outright, to the development of virtual learning communities among teachers (this is demonstrated by provision of a short history of the development of distance education in Canada since the early 1980s). The key threshold leading to true collaboration between schools was the creation of a new electronic educational structure on the basis of which community formation as well as class provision could be developed. A major challenge faced at this juncture involved the necessity of teachers and administrators, used to the autonomous learning environments of traditional schools, having to adjust to open structures which enabled collaboration with other schools. The transformation of their positions as teachers from closed to open structures was found to be a significant challenge.
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At the same time, however, the technological changes required by such a development also enabled different ways of sharing information and expertise among teachers and administrators, with Stevens (2007) strongly inferring that the development of virtual learning communities and new virtual classes went hand in hand, possibly through favorable feedback between professionals improving the overall quality of virtual classes. It is only when teachers engage collaboratively with teachers from other sites and establish shared views on appropriate teaching strategies, that a true integrated e-teaching platform is developed. Stevens (2007) found that creating cybercells, or face-to-face groups who extend membership to virtual visitors, greatly expedited this process. Cybercells created opportunities for professionals to share expertise and discuss problems with other professional through virtual means, even on an international level. While primarily focused on teachers, Stevens (2007) nonetheless presented a model of the emergence and development of virtual learning that strongly inferred that virtual professional learning creation is an integral part of the process of establishing best practice in virtual education. Therefore, virtuality used for teaching or for professional development, and even leadership, all converge on a common goal in education—improving student outcomes.
Parrish (2008) tested the usefulness of a virtual community in education by exploring the degree to which iDance Arizona, a videoconferencing effort to extend dance education to rural school settings in the state of Arizona, was successful both in delivering dance education to schools and improving students outcomes. The project was a collaboration between the state university and select K-12 rural schools in the state. The program was initiated because of a chronic shortage of rural instructors in this area, and the fact that the sufficient employment of specialists in the field in urban areas in the state, made it unlikely that they would travel to rural locales to deliver their classes. The measure of the success of the program was whether or not this virtual means of delivery was able to deliver standards-based dance education. The videoconferencing technology used in the project is described, using such technologies such as networked choreography, interactive live performance, web casting rehearsals and workshops, and performance coaching. A number of preexisting virtual dance education formats were reviewed as well (Parrish, 2008). Videoconferencing itself is explored for its educational potential, as are the barriers to videoconferencing use in K-12 education. By and large, the costs involved in videoconferencing continue to hinder its development at the K-12 level. That said, videoconferencing as a way to improve productivity, reduce costs, provide access to experts for remote evaluation, and the benefits of real-time information exchange, have all been found in the business videoconferencing literature (Parrish, 2008). In education, where installed, videoconferencing has been found to improve communication and motivation, improve the learning process, provide rural students with unavailable resources, and break down barriers to the outside world. Videoconferencing, in terms of pedagogy, has also been found to promote multimodal and visual learning, encourage active learning and problem-solving, increase the depth of learning, and help student develop their socialization skills. A general report on e-learning found that “when e-learning instruction is effective it engages learners in the learning process, encourages independent learning skills, develops learner’s skills and knowledge, and motivates further learning” (Parrish, 2008, p. 193). Indeed, e-learning has been found to bring out the most advantages of various pedagogies, including resource-based, problem-based, narrative-based, collaborative, and situated learning. Some researchers have developed the term “telepistemology” to describe the changed way that people learn in collaborative e-learning environments such as those created by videoconferencing. For all these reasons, videoconferencing and the creation of virtual communities of learning have strong support from the pedagogical research in the field of education specifically. Parrish (2008) then provided a case study description of the iDance Arizona project, and then tested the project to determine if it truly provided advantages to learning, what factors limited effectiveness, if younger rural students were able to learn dance through this methodology, and if such activities as improvisations, dance sharing, and making various dance techniques were able to be shared through videoconferencing. Assessment of these issues was determined by interviewing and surveying students, teachers, and principals of schools to which the videoconferencing technology was administered. The program was implemented with a blended model, including both live and videoconferenced elements. According to Parrish (2008), some 90% of the middle school students and 100% of the third graders involved in the project felt that it was beneficial. Most instructors also appreciated the degree to which, in spite of a number of technological limitations placed on learning, the process broke down the isolation of rural schools by providing students with instruction on par with instruction received by all students in urban Arizona. Nonetheless, in terms of forming a learning community through videoconferencing, Parrish (2008) acknowledged that “forming relationships between students and teachers over videoconferencing took time and involved understanding both the expectations of the students and teachers and the comfort within the delivery system” (p. 204). To overcome these continued barriers, Parrish (2008) called for more training for instructors and administrators in the use and exploitation of videoconferencing for the purpose of creating virtual learning communities that will help small rural schools break down the barriers to instruction posed by distance and isolation.
Lewis (2008) placed the development of a virtual learning community to assist rural schools to meet its needs into a school-wide educational reform context. According to Starr & White (2008), a principal of a small rural school in Maine reported on overall efforts to improve the quality of teaching and learning in schools by the creation of partnerships with community organizations and garnering support from the local community. At the same time, Lewis (2008) reported that gaining additional funding for technology simply to equip classrooms was a challenge, and therefore did not address the still more advanced use of technology to fashion virtual learning communities to improve leadership performance in rural schools. While more of a rural principal testimonial as to the value of creating online learning communities to support rural principals, than a case study, Lewis’ (2008) commentary nonetheless indicates a growing rural principal interest in exploiting technology to reduce leadership problems in rural principalships. Moreover, Starr and White (2008) concluded that the trend toward collaboration through online technology is continuing, and may in time completely erase the barriers that currently continue to plague rural principals.
- Gannon-Leary, P. & Fontainha, E. (2007). Communities of practice and virtual learning communities: Benefits, barriers and success factors. Elearning papers, 5, http://www.elearningeuropa.info/files/media/media13563.pdf, 1-14.
- Lever-Duffy, J., & McDonald, J. B. (2011). Teaching and learning with technology (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson. ISBN: 0-13-800796-9
- Lewis, C. (2008, November). Climate, curriculum, community: Bridging the gap in rural Maine. Synergy Learning, 4-9.
- Parrish, M. (2008). Dancing the distance: iDance Arizona videoconferencing reaches rural communities. Research in Dance Education, 9, 187-208. DOI:10.1080/14647890802087811
- Reid, M., & Gray, C. (2007). Online social networks, virtual communities, enterprises and information professionals. Searcher, 15, 1-14.
- Starr, K. & White, S. (2008). The small rural school principalship: Key challenges and cross-school responses. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 23, 1-12.
- Stevens, K. (2007). The development of virtual educational environments to support inter-school collaboration. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education, 8, http://tojde.anadolu.edu.tr/tojde26/pdf/article_2.pdf, 29-38.